SABR

The Fightingest Pennant Race: Brockton versus Lawrence in the Eastern New England League, 1885

By Justin Murphy

This article was published in the Fall 2010 Baseball Research Journal.

It has been noted time and time again that the search for the good old days of baseball is bound to come up dry. In every period of the national pastime, there has been greed, poor sportsmanship, lying, and cheating, to name a few of the lesser offenses. The subject of this article is further evidence of the same—a hotly disputed pennant race that was contested in the newspapers, the league offices, and, reluctantly, on the diamond. 

For twenty-eight days after the end of the regular season, and fourteen days after the last playoff game, Brockton and Lawrence bickered publicly about a confusing welter of complaints: whether and when postponed games should be made up, who should schedule them, and which of three teams Lawrence’s star pitcher was actually under contract with. These disputes, and the heat generated by each team’s loyal newspaper, required neat diplomacy and legal tact on the part of the league’s board of directors. 

Lawrence baseball team, 19th century: The first recorded game in Lawrence was shortly after the Civil War. After a complicated, protracted dispute, Lawrence was ultimately declared champion of the short-lived Eastern New England League in 1885.Lawrence baseball team, 19th century: The first recorded game in Lawrence was shortly after the Civil War. After a complicated, protracted dispute, Lawrence was ultimately declared champion of the short-lived Eastern New England League in 1885.

In 1885 the Eastern New England League was in its inaugural season and comprised five teams: Lawrence, Brockton, Haverhill, and Newburyport, all in Massachusetts, and Portland, in Maine. The league schedule consisted of 80 games, with each team playing 20 games against each of the other four. Newburyport and Portland both played their way out of contention early in the season, and Haverhill ultimately faltered as well, leaving the way clear for the two powerhouses and bitter rivals, Brockton and Lawrence. 

Brockton ended its regular season with a record of 48–31. Lawrence, with a record of 45–31, had three games remaining at the end of September: one against Portland and two against Newburyport. They needed to win all three to match Brockton. 

On September 29, Lawrence defeated Portland, 9–1, on the strength of a four-hitter by John A. Flynn. After the game, Portland manager Chick Fulmer filed a protest. He claimed that the game should not count because the teams had already played each other the allotted 20 times. In response, Lawrence pointed out that one of the games, in Portland, had been agreed on as an exhibition, since it would have been the eleventh match between them in that city. For the first time, but certainly not the last, the Lawrence Daily American entered the fray: 

This [protest] was undoubtedly due to the fact that Portland accidentally defeated Brockton Monday [September 28], and McGunnigle, who is a much better wire puller than ball player, laid a plan with Portland to win another game to make him safe. This seems to be the whole thing in a nutshell, the Brockton management being as brazen receivers of stolen goods as McGunnigle is a purloiner of the same. They evidently expect no difficulty in getting whatever they want in the board of directors. In this way only has Brockton gained a sight of the pennant, by fraud and downright theft, which no honest man would uphold.1 

The primary object of the paper’s scorn was Bill “Gunner” McGunnigle, the 30-year-old right-hander in his first season as Brockton manager. Born and raised near Boston, he’d made his playing debut with a junior team in Brockton and had several years of experience in and around New England, as well as 54 games, 19 of which he pitched, with Buffalo of the National League in 1879–80. The “stolen goods” referred to were the championship laurels that both clubs hoped to wear. 

With this issue looming in the background, Lawrence still had two games left against Newburyport. These were played the next two days, and Lawrence came away with two clutch victories. In the first game, on September 30, they beat the hosts 11–6. They then returned to Lawrence on October 1 and beat them there, 8–3. Flynn started the second match on one day of rest but struck out seven, allowed only four singles, and hit a pair of doubles himself. 

The two front-runners, Lawrence and Brockton, were tied atop the leaderboard. As luck would have it, though, a pair of games between them had been called off earlier in the season. 

The first disputed game was played on August 14, when the two teams met in Manchester, New Hampshire.2 The umpire did not show up, so Brockton catcher George Bignell arbitrated from behind the plate. Predictably enough, Bignell was accused of favoritism, but Lawrence managed to rack up a 6–0 lead through seven and a half innings. Brockton rallied for four runs in both the eighth and ninth innings, but three more runs for Lawrence in the top of the ninth decided the game in its favor, 9–8. The exact cause of the protest is not recorded. Presumably, Brockton claimed that the game shouldn’t have counted without the umpire. After all, they’d been deprived of their starting catcher. 

The second contested outcome came on August 26, in Brockton. The Boston Globe captured what must have been the prevailing sentiment, noting that “nearly every time the Brockton and the Lawrence teams meet upon the ball field there is more or less ‘kicking’ about the decisions of the umpires.” The paper continued: 

The newly appointed umpire, Mr. A. W. Stewart of Ayer, was assigned to duty here today and administered the worst “roasting” ever accorded the home team. It was evident from the beginning of the game that Mr. Stewart was not a good judge of balls and strikes and his fatal misjudgments were principally bestowed upon the home team.3

Facing a three-run deficit in the bottom of the sixth inning, Brockton’s George Tanner stepped to the plate and “knocked a ball clear over the right-field fence for a home run, but the umpire decided it was only for two bases.”4 Then, instead of returning the ball to the pitcher, Lawrence second baseman Timothy Brosnan tagged Tanner, who was not standing on the bag. Stewart promptly declared him out. “The audience protested against such a decision, and the umpire, thinking himself insulted, left the field and would not return until 35 minutes had passed. The game was then continued under protest.”5 Lawrence ended up winning, 9–3. 

The validity of these two games was debated at a league meeting in September. Apparently, they were both stricken from the record and ordered to be replayed. The way the standings stood, their outcome would determine the championship. 

The actions of the two clubs after the end of the officially scheduled season are, as reported by their respective mouthpiece newspapers, muddled. First, even before Lawrence’s second game with Newburyport, the Brockton Gazette reported: 

No longer ago than this week, Secretary [H. S.] Bicknell of this city wrote to Manager [Walter] Burnham of Lawrence, inquiring if the games could not be arranged, but up to the present time no reply whatever has been received, a fact which Manager Burnham cannot deny. . . . To sum up, Lawrence cannot tie us, and knows it well, but apparently would rather resort to chicanery than to lose the pennant. We would not.6

In response, the Lawrence Daily American claimed the exact opposite, that Burnham had contacted Bicknell and received no reply. “They [Brockton] refuse to play, knowing defeat to be inevitable. They crowed over the pennant too soon and now dread having to eat their words.”7 

Despite the posturing, a directive came that same day, October 1, from league secretary Charles J. Wiggin, mandating the teams to play off the two remaining games, on October 3 in Lawrence and the following day in Brockton. The Brockton Gazette protested this arrangement: 

All fair-minded people are convinced that Brockton has won the championship, and nothing can shake this conviction. Brockton has a postponed game with Newburyport, why doesn’t Wiggin order that to be played? Because he has nothing to say but what is in Lawrence’s favor. Brockton will not play these games which have been ordered by the secretary.8 

It is not clear why baseball men in Brockton believed they’d already won the pennant, unless it was in hopes of having the Portland protest upheld. Also, a report in the Newburyport Germ on October 4 indicated that the Brockton team had indeed agreed to play the games, contrary to the indication in the Brockton Gazette that they would defy Wiggin’s order.9 Sure enough, though, when Lawrence arrived at its field on October 3, no Brockton players were there. 

Once the home team stepped onto the field, the umpire waited a specified amount of time and then declared Lawrence the winner by forfeit, 9–0. “The greatest indignation was felt by the audience,” wrote the Lawrence Daily American, “at the shabby treatment [by] the Brockton management . . . [who know] full well that if Lawrence had been given her just dues she would now hold the pennant, which Brockton is attempting by the most bare-faced methods to steal.”10 

Several minutes after the forfeit was declared, however, a telegram arrived. It read: “Manager W. W. Burnham—I cannot play, as several players refuse to go [to Lawrence], as their contracts expired yesterday. W. H. McGunnigle.” The crowd soon dispersed, “thoroughly disgusted.”11

In the following day’s Gazette, McGunningle elaborated, saying that “no one more than he desired to play the three postponed games [including the one against Newburyport]” but that league secretary Wiggin had overstepped his bounds in ordering the games played on October 3 and 4.12 First, McGunnigle argued, the two teams must be given the chance to arrange the dates themselves, according to the league constitution. For his part, the Brockton manager submitted that they play on October 8 and 9. That would give him time to reassemble his team. 

That same day, however, a report in the Boston Journal said that “Capt. McGunnigle of the Brocktons has definitely decided to play no more games during the present season.” This apparent contradiction was seized on immediately by the Lawrence paper. “The two despatches given above,” it dutifully reported, “settle the whole question. There is now no doubt that McGunnigle does, and does not, want to play off the three games yet to be played.”13

The Boston Journal article contained another piece of news potentially much more damaging for Lawrence. On October 4, Brockton’s Bicknell received a telegram from American Association commissioner Wheeler C. Wickoff. In it, Wheeler claimed that Flynn, Lawrence’s star pitcher, had signed a contract with the AA’s New York Metropolitans on September 15.14 If true, this would invalidate the six games he had played for Lawrence since then, all of them victories. 

With this nineteenth-century media circus in full procession, Lawrence traveled to Brockton the following day, October 5, for the second scheduled game. The Brockton players were indeed present, but the field was soaked through. The next day’s Brockton Gazette wrote, “[Umpire] Bond looked the ground ov’r, poked the earth with his umbrella, and finally announced that he could not call [i.e., officiate] the game, as the grounds were not in fit condition.”15 What followed was bizarre. 

First, both towns’ papers reported that McGunnigle refused to pay Lawrence’s travel expenses on being presented with a bill, as was common practice at the time. Instead, “the men left the grounds in little groups, the Lawrence club taking a barge which was in waiting, and driving . . . to the depot, where they took the 3:20 train for Boston.”16

Neither paper revealed why McGunnigle refused to pay. He may have been miffed, however, by a nifty piece of detective work, related in the Lawrence Daily American: “Some of the Lawrences went under the grand stand [after the game was called] and found a hose covered with mud and water and having every appearance of being used to flood the grounds to prevent a game.”17 The Lawrence paper, loathe to miss out on a comedic opening, deadpanned that “the Brocktons probably intend to use their ball grounds this winter for a skating rink, flooding them with water and letting it freeze over. Saturday was a little early in the season to begin flooding [it], however.”18 

The Lawrence team officially disbanded after this debacle, presumably because their contracts had expired as well. Manager Burnham wrote a terse letter to league secretary Wiggin, requesting “an early opportunity to prove these facts [i.e., McGunnigle’s refusal to pay] to the board of directors and [argue] that the Brockton Base Ball club may be expelled from the Association.”19 

At the same time, Brockton leveled accusations against both Newburyport, of throwing their last two games against Lawrence, and Haverhill, “of a desire to cheat her [Brockton] out of a pennant.”20 Haverhill representatives had been present at the forfeit in Lawrence and had “denounced the trickery and meanness of McGunnigle in the loudest and most emphatic terms,” according to the Lawrence Daily American.21 Haverhill’s William H. Moody also served as league president. A multitalented man, Moody soon abandoned baseball to dedicate himself to the law and politics. In 1906, after having served as secretary of the navy and U.S. attorney general, he was named to the Supreme Court by Theodore Roosevelt. 

If ever a league meeting was needed, it was on October 8, when the team presidents finally got together at the Essex House in Lawrence. The Biddeford Journal, playing the role of impartial observer, had nothing but scorn for both teams involved: 

The Eastern New England League is preparing for a monkey and parrot sort of a time at its next meeting. The leading clubs, more intent upon gaining legal advantages than to meet on the ball field, have exhausted the constitutional provisions in attempts to avoid a meeting. Brockton refuses to play games when not ordered by the secretary; failed to appear at the field after agreeing to play; Lawrence went to Brockton to play when the ground was flooded, and Brockton refused to pay them for so doing; and now Lawrence asks for the expulsion of Brockton, and follows this by disbandment of the club. It seems to be a clear case of one’s afraid and the other “darsn’t”—and still the championship remains unsettled.22

Several important issues were on the docket for the meeting. First, Portland’s protested game against Lawrence on September 29, which it claimed was the twenty-first match between the two teams. Second, the contractual status of Flynn, who had been claimed not only by the Metropolitans of the AA but also by McGunnigle himself on behalf of Brockton. Third, whether or not Secretary Wiggin had overexercised his power in ordering the postponed games between Brockton and Lawrence to be played. How these disputes were resolved would go a long way toward determining the champion. 

The next day, the Lawrence Daily American pronounced all problems “amicably arranged.” Concerning Flynn, there proved to have been a miscommunication among Brockton management: 

Mr. Mills stated that he had protested the game because McGunnigle telegraphed him that Flynn and [Lawrence catcher George] Moolic were under contract with him [McGunnigle]. The matter of whether this was so or not was discussed and [Brockton secretary Bicknell] said they based their information on the statement of Manager [Jim] Mutrie,23 of the Metropolitans, and did not claim that Brockton had any hold on Flynn. McGunnigle corrected Bicknell, saying that it was under a belief that they could hold Flynn that they telegraphed Mr. Mills as before stated.24 

In light of this confusing development, Mills dropped his protest, and the men moved on to the question of whether Flynn had signed with the Metropolitans. To answer this, they summoned Flynn himself, who averred that “he had signed with no club but Lawrence, and that he had never told any person that he had.”25 

In the end, and at Mills’s suggestion, all of the problems were bundled into one elegant solution. Lawrence and Brockton agreed to play a three-game series for the championship—on October 10 in Brockton, October 13 in Lawrence, and October 15 in Boston, if necessary. The clubs further agreed to “waive all protests and matters at present except the eligibility of Flynn. In case Flynn was found to have played while ineligible, the Brocktons [were] to take the pennant.”26 Lawrence re-signed its players, and the recalcitrant foes were finally ready to play ball. 

On the field as in the newspapers, Lawrence and Brockton were very well matched. The former team was carried by the 21-year-old Flynn, who had joined the club for the stretch run after playing for Meriden earlier in the year (more on that later). He was the unquestioned ace of the staff and also the best hitter, with a .432 average in 44 at-bats. His batterymate was fellow Lawrence native George H. Moolic, a competent defensive catcher who went by the nickname Prunes. Other standouts included second baseman (and captain) Timothy Brosnan, first baseman Pat O’Connell, and center fielder John Kiley. The team did not hit for much power but was far above average defensively and outscored its opponents by 46 runs over the course of the season. The roster included John Tener, a young Irishman from County Tyrone, who didn’t make much of an impression during his time in Lawrence but did go on to serve as National League president from 1913 to 1918 and as governor of Pennsylvania from 1911 to 1915. 

For Brockton, third baseman James “Jumbo” Davis was the centerpiece of a fearsome offense. He later went on to a fairly lengthy career with various teams in the American Association, and led that league with 19 triples in 1887. Ed Crane was another reliable hitter, and Jim Cudworth patrolled center field with grace. The main starting pitcher for Brockton was John Moriarty, and he faced Flynn in the first game of the series. 

Brockton drew blood in the first inning of the opener, as first baseman Bill Hawes reached first on a muffed third strike by catcher Moolic, advanced to second on a wild throw by the same, and scored on a passed ball. In the second inning, however, Lawrence put up three runs of their own on hits by O’Connell, Brosnan, and Flynn. Also in that inning, Brockton’s Davis got into a heated argument with the umpire and stormed off the field. 

The Lawrence nine continued to add runs incrementally throughout the game. They scored two in the third, one in the fifth on “Flynn’s terrific hit to extreme left field for three bases,”27 two in the sixth, and one in the seventh. Brockton scraped together three more runs, but it was not enough to prevent a 9–4 loss. Flynn allowed five hits, walked five, and struck out nine; Moriarty allowed ten hits, walked three, and struck out seven. 

The second game of the series, in Lawrence, was scheduled for October 13, but rain pushed it back two days. Brockton’s loss had evidently not diminished its healthy swagger; in their Lawrence hotel guestbook, the players signed themselves in as “Champions of New England.” The Lawrence Daily American, noting this, dryly compared them to “lads of tender years, who delight to scribble their names on the walls of every conceivable place they enter.”28

When play finally began, Lawrence jumped out to an early lead, scoring two runs in the first on “an opportune hit by O’Connell.”29 In the fourth inning, Brockton answered with three runs of its own on a double by Ed Crane and a balk by Lawrence’s Flynn. In the next two innings, though, Lawrence reclaimed the lead and extended it considerably, scoring five unanswered runs, then four more in the eighth and ninth innings. O’Connell, Bill Conway, and John Burns each recorded multiple hits, Moolic had an RBI double, and Flynn allowed only five hits. Lawrence took the game by the final score of 11–4, winning the threegame series and the pennant. 

Afterward, a hastily arranged parade carried the players through the town and dropped them off at the Brunswick Hotel, where they were the object of much speechifying by local bigwigs. “There was a feeling of great gratification at the result of the game expressed in the countenance of each one present, and after the repast cigars were circulated among the guests.”30 Pitcher Dick Conway was presented with a winter overcoat, “with the hope that he would accept it and continue to cherish as kindly feelings toward Lawrence people as they did towards him.” The night wore on, “songs were rendered by several present, and at a seasonable hour the party broke up with Auld Lang Syne, much pleased with the celebration in honor of securing the pennant.”31 

As the revelers dined, the scribes at the Lawrence Daily American must have been fairly cackling at their desks. In a swipe at Brockton’s self-styled “Champions of New England,” the next day’s delirious headline read, “HELLO, BROCKTON! What Are You Going to Sign Yourself Now?”32 Along with the recap was a lengthy column of vindictive gloating, aimed primarily at the Brockton Gazette: 

Well, Gazette, take it all back and tell your readers you don’t know a little bit about base ball anyway. It is a bitter pill, but you must take it. . . . It is dreadfully hard, but you were, as usual, just a trifle previous, to say the least, and indiscreet beyond a doubt. We pity you, indeed we do. Ta-ta.33 

In fact, many different New England newspapers chimed in regularly through the dispute. After the final game, the Boston Globe opined that “the Brocktons won the championship and the Lawrences got the pennant,”34 while the Boston Post wrote: 

The managers of the Brockton team may well feel heartily ashamed of themselves. . . . That they lost the pennant is entirely their own fault. Brockton, with the chances greatly in her favor, took just the one course that should have been avoided, disbanded the team and attempted to win the championship by bluff.35 

A third Boston paper, the Herald, believed that “in the opinion of a large majority of the base ball public in New England . . . the Brockton club fairly and squarely won the championship on the ball field.”36 To which the Lawrence Daily American, ever judicious, replied: “In the opinion of a large majority of the base ball public in New England, the Herald base ball man has a big head.”37

Incredibly, though, the affair was not yet decided. In a new tactic, Brockton alleged that Flynn and his batterymate, Moolic, had been under contract not with the Metropolitans but with Meriden of the Southern New England League. Both men had indeed played for Meriden earlier that year and joined Lawrence on September 17, only after Meriden folded. According to the secretary of the SNEL, Meriden had disbanded on September 15. According to Meriden’s own secretary, however, that team never actually disbanded officially. A meeting of the Eastern New England League was called on October 28 to settle the dispute.38

In the meantime, some further digging by the Boston Globe showed that on August 12 the Meriden club released all of its players—with the exception of Flynn and Moolic.39 At the same time, however, Flynn was owed $200 by management, which the Lawrence Daily American believed “released him from all obligations to them long before he signed in Lawrence.”40 The SNEL secretary, however, admitted, “I don’t know any rule in our League by which contracts become invalid when salaries are not paid.” In the same telegram, he counted himself among the befuddled: “Lord only knows when the Meriden club disbanded.”41 

As October turned toward November, the Brockton Gazette commented that “base ball talk is getting rather wearisome at the present time.”42 Though Brockton had a vested interest in the conversation, many New England baseball fans likely agreed. On October 28, four weeks after the last scheduled game of the season, the league board of directors finally awarded the championship—to Lawrence. At that evening’s meeting, Lawrence’s representatives—Flynn among them—provided proof that not just Meriden but the entire SENL had disbanded by August 15, if not before. League secretary Moody concurred.43 The long, hard season was over, on the field and in the boardroom. 

Old habits die hard—the following day, Brockton promised an appeal. “It is ten to one,” the Boston Globe surmised, “that they will never carry out this threat, and a hundred to one that . . . the matter [will not] come before the arbitration committee.”44 Indeed, no appeal was ever filed. 

The weather worsened, and, though the principal parties (or, rather, their supporters in the press) continued to snipe at one another, public interest moved elsewhere. Flynn, who had found himself in the eye of a hurricane on and off the field, signed with Chicago of the National League. Lawrence’s manager, Burnham, went to head the new Meriden franchise and was replaced by former Detroit player Frank Cox

In 1886, the two teams would again battle in the standings, but somewhat farther down the ladder— they both finished over 20 games out of first place. This was in the newly constituted New England League. The Eastern New England League had gone out of business after one season and one of the most heated pennant races in baseball history. 

Acknowledgments

The author would like to thank Tony Yoseloff and the Yoseloff Foundation for the Yoseloff/SABR Baseball Research Grant that helped make this article possible. Thanks also to the staff at the Lawrence History Center and Lawrence Public Library. Baseball-Reference.com was an indispensible resource for statistics.

JUSTIN MURPHY is a reporter for The Citizen newspaper in Auburn, New York. He also contributes to the website Seamheads.

  • 1. Lawrence Daily American, 30 September 1885.
  • 2. Sources disagree on the date of the game and on the identity of the umpires. One source gives the date as August 12. Another source gives the date as August 18 and identifies the umpire as Winslow [Sylvester?]. The Boston Globe of 15 August 1885 refers to the Lawrence–Brockton game of August 14.
  • 3. Boston Globe, 27 August 1885.
  • 4. Ibid.
  • 5. Ibid.
  • 6. Lawrence Daily American, 1 October 1885. Quotes from the Brockton Gazette and other regional newspapers, with the exception of the Boston Globe, come from the Lawrence Daily American, which published lengthy excerpts from competing newspapers throughout the season.
  • 7. Ibid.
  • 8. Lawrence Daily American 2 October 1885.
  • 9. Lawrence Daily American, 5 October 1885.
  • 10. Lawrence Daily American, 3 October 1885.
  • 11. Ibid.
  • 12. Lawrence Daily American, 5 October 1885.
  • 13. Ibid.
  • 14. Ibid.
  • 15. Lawrence Daily American, 6 October 1885.
  • 16. Ibid.
  • 17. Ibid.
  • 18. Ibid.
  • 19. Ibid.
  • 20. Ibid.
  • 21. Lawrence Daily American, 3 October 1885.
  • 22. Lawrence Daily American, 8 October 1885.
  • 23. The manager of the Metropolitans in 1885 was James Gifford. Mutrie, who had managed them in 1883–84, moved to the New York Giants in 1885.
  • 24. Lawrence Daily American, 9 October 1885.
  • 25. Ibid.
  • 26. Ibid.
  • 27. Lawrence Daily American, 10 October 1885.
  • 28. Lawrence Daily American, 14 October 1885.
  • 29. Lawrence Daily American, 16 October 1885.
  • 30. Ibid.
  • 31. Ibid.
  • 32. Ibid.
  • 33. Ibid.
  • 34. Ibid.
  • 35. Ibid.
  • 36. Lawrence Daily American 17 October 1885.
  • 37. Ibid.
  • 38. Lawrence Daily American, 20 October 1885.
  • 39. Lawrence Daily American, 26 October 1885.
  • 40. Lawrence Daily American, 26 October 1885.
  • 41. Lawrence Daily American, 26 October 1885.
  • 42. Lawrence Daily American, 21 October 1885.
  • 43. Lawrence Daily American, 29 October 1885.
  • 44. Lawrence Daily American, 30 October 1885.
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