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The 1884 Northwestern League

A Tragedy in Three Acts
By William Ryczek, July 15, 2014
1884 Minneapolis Millers of the Northwestern League

Operating a minor league is a daunting prospect, and it was even more so in the nineteenth century. There were no farm systems, nor was there any support from the Major Leagues or revenue from radio or television. Minor league baseball consisted of a group of men each trying to operate a franchise in a city that was too small for the Major Leagues, with players who weren’t good enough for the Majors. The minors weren’t an organized feeder system; they were just teams that played each other, tried to keep their players from jumping contracts, and struggled to generate enough revenue to pay expenses. Leagues came and went with troubling regularity, and even among those that survived, it was the rare circuit that finished the season with the same teams that started it.

Perhaps the most cataclysmic failure of the nineteenth century was that of the 1884 Northwestern League (NWL). During the long history of baseball, many leagues have folded, but most went down all at once. There would be rumors of financial trouble and then an obituary. It usually happened quickly, sometimes with lightning-like rapidity. In 1913, the United States League closed up shop after its teams had played about two games each. That was unusual, but no league expired with the agonizing slowness of the NWL. One by one, its teams melted away, but those that remained slogged resolutely forward, finally mounting a last-gasp attempt at survival in late August, only to go down for the final time a few weeks later.

Eighteen eighty-four was one of nineteenth-century baseball’s most interesting years, and possibly one of the most compelling in the entire history of the game. Baseball had survived the lean years of the late 1870s, and the economy had recovered from the collapse of 1873. The American Association, seeing the growing prosperity of the National League, was formed in 1882, and Henry Lucas’s Union Association (UA) came to life two years later.

The Major Leagues (including the UA) expanded from 16 to 33 teams in 1884 and employed 546 players, compared to 282 the previous year. With the number of minor leagues increasing as well—Sporting Life estimated that 85 professional teams used 1,700 players in 1884—the demand for talent exploded, driving salary levels upward. This was extremely unpropitious for the minor leagues that, with their limited potential for revenue generation, could only survive by keeping salary expense to a minimum.

The Northwestern League had experienced a relatively successful first season in 1883, but at the end of the year its championship team, Toledo, left to join the expanded American Association and NWL President Elias Matter resigned. Matter had been the founder of the league and the man who had forged an alliance with the Major Leagues to protect player contracts. He was well-respected by his colleagues, and his loss would weigh heavily on the fortunes of the NWL in 1884.

The Toledo Blue Stockings won the Northwestern League pennant in 1883 but left the league to join the American Association in 1884, the team’s only season in the major leagues. 

The 12 franchises that began the 1884 season were dispersed throughout the states of Michigan, Minnesota, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Illinois. The high cost of travel between the league’s most distant cities (some were more than 700 miles apart) was a second factor, along with increased salaries, that weighed against the NWL’s prospects of success. A third obstacle was the fact that most of the teams were based in relatively small cities and towns, with only four (Milwaukee, Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Grand Rapids) having populations greater than 30,000.

Some were cognizant of the headwinds facing the league, and before the season, the Milwaukee Sentinel opined, “When baseball players ask salaries equal to ministers, towns like Muskegon, Fort Wayne and Stillwater ought not to meddle with them.” However, oblivious optimism is a requisite for every sporting entrepreneur, and the NWL began the 1884 campaign with high hopes.

By early July, trouble was brewing. Grand Rapids had averaged 911 fans per game in May and realized a profit. In June, attendance dropped to 368 per game, and the team found itself in a hole approximately $2,500 deep. Each visiting team was guaranteed $75 per game, and at 25 cents a head, a crowd of 368 left Grand Rapids just $17 to cover salaries and overhead. When Grand Rapids complained about rowdy fans in Milwaukee, the latter club retorted that Grand Rapids didn’t have enough fans to create a disturbance. There was enough civic pride in the Michigan city, however, to raise $2,700 to allow the team to continue.

Bay City, despite a 41–14 record, was not so lucky and folded in early July, replaced by Evansville. It was widely rumored that other teams would follow Bay City into insolvency, but after meeting on July 25, the NWL declared that the remaining teams were solid and would complete the season.

The optimism carried the league just another week and a half, before Fort Wayne and Stillwater disbanded. Fort Wayne supposedly paid all its bills, while Stillwater departed with red ink trailing behind it. The club had gone through four managers and somewhere between $3,500 and $7,500 (depending on the source) while leaving most of its players unpaid. Among them was Bud Fowler, one of the foremost African-American players of the nineteenth century, Stillwater’s leading hitter, and one of its best pitchers. He remained in town after the team folded, most likely pursuing his barbering trade.

John W. “Bud” Fowler, the earliest known African-American player in organized professional baseball, was a star with the Stillwater, Minnesota NWL team in 1884. When the Stillwater club disbanded following the 1884 season, Fowler joined the Keokuk, Iowa club of the Western League in 1885 and became one of the team’s most popular players.

The loss of Fort Wayne and Stillwater led to another league meeting on August 8, at which President John Rust attempted to re-boot and stabilize the situation. In order to ensure that the remaining teams had the financial wherewithal to complete the season, the league required a $500 bond from each. Muskegon and league-leading Grand Rapids were unable to post the bond and were expelled. Shortly afterward, Peoria and Terre Haute ceased operations, and the first act was over.

Act II commenced with just five teams, spread over a 2,000-mile footprint. It was a nearly impossible situation, but the league expressed its intention to soldier on and finish the season. Rust resigned as president and was replaced by W. D. Whitmore of Quincy.

Whitmore’s tenure was short-lived, for his club believed that the only way it could survive was to join the Union Association, which had experienced franchise problems of its own. Quincy convinced St. Louis, the best team in the UA, to play them in an exhibition game in order to show their wares. Apparently, Henry Lucas, owner of the St. Louis club and the dominant force in the UA, was insufficiently impressed. With its final hope extinguished, Quincy packed its tent and took the league president with it, ending Act II.

Partway through the 1884 season, the St. Paul Apostles left the Northwestern League to join the Union Association.

With just four teams remaining, including late entry Winona, the NWL decided to take a mulligan on the season and start over with Act III. The Minneapolis, St. Paul, Milwaukee, and Winona clubs established a new schedule, and Welcome Kirby of Milwaukee became the league’s third president of 1884. It wasn’t long, however, before Minneapolis folded and the final curtain came down. Milwaukee and St. Paul joined the UA, and Winona ceased to exist.

It was a sorry ending for a league that began the season with high hopes, but 1884 was a very difficult year in which to operate a professional baseball club. There were too many teams, and the demand for players was so great that even mediocre talent commanded a high price. The NWL was too geographically dispersed, and the combination of high travel and salary costs, along with its small cities, made survival almost impossible.

The league’s ignominious end masked the fact that it had some excellent players. The best was pitcher John Clarkson of Saginaw, who at the time his club folded had a 34–9 record and an ERA of 0.64. He joined the Chicago National League club and won 10 more games. Clarkson would eventually post 328 wins and earn a place in the Hall of Fame.

After impressing manager Cap Anson, the Chicago White Stockings purchased John Clarkson’s contract from the Saginaw Greys in August of 1884. 

The NWL, in addition to being an insolvent league, was a pitcher’s league. Seven regular hurlers had an ERA of less than 1.00, and some went on to outstanding Major League careers. Lady Baldwin, later a star with Detroit, pitched for Milwaukee, and future American Association stars Bobby Caruthers and Dave Foutz pitched for Minneapolis and Bay City, respectively. In addition to posting an ERA of less than 1.00, Foutz led the league in batting with a .333 average.

The chaotic season was marked by frenetic change. Whenever a team ceased operations, its players scrambled to find new positions, and teams in other leagues pursued the most talented. Rosters turned over weekly, and groups of players from a defunct team often joined another team en masse. That created a new batch of unemployed players who either displaced those on another team or went home.

Eventually Major League teams created farm systems and learned how to make the minor leagues work. It was more efficient and less stressful for those operating the teams, but chaos is more entertaining to the historian. The perils of 1884 were highly entertaining, but they created a situation that doomed the ill-fated Northwestern League, one of the most spectacular failures in nineteenth-century minor league lore.

 

 

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