April 18, 1890: Amateur John Lyston wins Atlantic League tuneup against Gorhams
A reconvening of the annual baseball meetings was held on March 4, 1890, at the Weddell House Hotel in Cleveland. The talk of the baseball world at this time revolved around a recently formed labor union called the Brotherhood. This organization was created in December of 1889 by a group of disgruntled professional ballplayers who were unhappy with their treatment by major-league owners. A short time later the Brotherhood started its own major league. This new consortium was called the Players League. The Brotherhood’s goal was to put its teams in cities with existing major-league franchises. Promoting better treatment of its players, this coalition would be in direct competition with the two other major circuits, the American Association and the National League.
On March 6 the National League published a 10-team schedule for the coming season. The schedule included two former American Association teams, Brooklyn and Cincinnati. Both of these clubs had switched to the senior circuit the previous November. The 10-team schedule was actually a ruse put out to mislead Brotherhood officials. In reality, National League executives had decided to cull two of the least profitable franchises, Washington and Indianapolis, from the loop. This would cut down on travel expenses, while replacing a pair of weaker teams with stronger ballclubs. But Washington owner Walter Hewitt and his counterpart in Indianapolis, John Brush, were put in the unenviable position of having to sell their teams for the betterment of the league. Their capitulation allowed the National League to compete in the same cities as the Brotherhood, with the exception of Buffalo, while retaining an eight-team schedule.
Working in Hewitt’s favor were stipulations in the National Agreement that gave him rights to any professional baseball team operating in Washington, D.C. Noted baseball ombudsman Ted Sullivan was in Washington at this time working for Hewitt. The intuitive Irishman had a more realistic view of the National League situation. While Hewitt traveled to New York City to finalize the sale of his club, Sullivan was granted an Atlantic Association franchise. This circuit was a high-caliber minor league made up of teams along the Eastern Seaboard. When Hewitt returned to Washington he was initially upset over Sullivan’s unsanctioned application. The two soon reconciled, pooling their resources in order to organize a new minor-league team in Washington called the Senators.
Hewitt authorized the construction of a ballpark at 17th and U Streets in the Northwest section of Washington in early March of 1890. It was completed a month later. Early newspaper accounts referred to the field as Dupont or Stand Pipe Park. These grounds were eventually given the name of Atlantic Park in honor of the Senators’ new league affiliation.
Under the watchful eye of Ted Sullivan and team captain Bill Gleason the Washington team began practicing for the upcoming season. Gleason, a shortstop for most of his career, compiled a .267 lifetime batting average while playing in the majors from 1882-1889 with St. Louis, Philadelphia and Louisville.
Ted Sullivan was an ardent promoter of 19th-century minor-league baseball. A former major-league player, he was a manager as well as a scout. Sullivan founded the Northwestern League in 1879. This loop is considered to be the first organized minor league. Sullivan reportedly signed Hall of Fame players Hoss Radbourn and Charles Comiskey to their first professional contracts. He is credited with coining the term “fan” to describe enthusiasts of the game. The word was short for fanatic. Hall of Famer Clark Griffith said Sullivan was the first person he heard use the term Texas Leaguer to denote a fly ball that fell safely behind the infield.
Sullivan’s Senators undertook a heavy preseason schedule that included triumphs over local nines as well as professional and independent teams. By the middle of April the club was making its final preparations for the start of the 1890 campaign. On April 18, the day before the opener against Hartford, the Senators played their final exhibition game of the spring, against the New York Gorhams in front of nearly 300 fans at Atlantic Park. Washington had defeated the Gorhams 15-1 two days earlier. The Gorhams, a team composed of African-American players, were charter members of the first professional Negro Baseball League in 1887. Gorhams owner Ambrose Davis, considered to be the first African-American baseball magnate, signed the highly touted battery of Sim Simpson and Eben Blue for the rematch against Washington. But due to circumstances unknown to the author the two were unable to report in time for the game.
With the regular season starting the next day, Sullivan didn’t want to use any of his league pitchers. With that in mind he called on a 22-year-old pitcher from Baltimore named John M. Lyston to start the game. Lyston had been signed by the American Association Baltimore Orioles in September of 1887. He was a late scratch in his only scheduled start for Baltimore, against Louisville. The following season Lyston pitched for Orioles manager Billie Barnie’s Baltimore Reserves, a forerunner of the modern-day farm club. In 1889 he played for Uniontown in the Western Pennsylvania League until the team folded after the Johnstown flood.
For the Gorhams, pitcher John Vactor took the box in hope of a better outcome than what occurred two days earlier. Vactor, a pitcher/outfielder, played for the Gorhams and Philadelphia Pythons in 1887.
The Gorhams got on the board in their first at-bat. With one out William Wood bashed a triple to the fence. Wood played with the Philadelphia Pythons in 1887. Oscar Jackson followed with a two-bagger that scored Wood. Jackson, a catcher/outfielder/first baseman, was an original member of the Gorhams in 1887. He went over to the Cuban Giants for the next two seasons before rejoining his former club in 1890. The next man, Conover, is credited with knocking in Jackson while being put out at first on a groundball to Gleason at short. These would be the only runs of the game for the New Yorkers. Vactor lasted two innings before being replaced by J. Jackson as Sullivan’s charges went on to defeat the visiting Gorhams, 26-2.
Washington smacked 22 hits while playing its second errorless contest of the spring. The most exciting action of the afternoon took place in the Senators’ half of the second inning. Jerry O’Brien batted a grounder to Gorham second baseman Thompson, who threw past Peterson at first. The errant toss put O’Brien on second. Frank Nicholas followed with a bouncer to Wood at third. O’Brien tried to score from second on the play but was tagged out by catcher Oscar Jackson after a lengthy rundown. Nicholas tried to sneak over to third during the confusion but he was caught in between the bases. The Washington Post described what happened next: “This brought almost the entire team into the infield and there followed a lively passing of the ball until the leftfielder [J. Jackson], who had taken the ball, ran Nicholas down.”1
Lyston went the distance for the Senators, allowing three hits while scattering eight free passes. He stroked a triple in his first trip to the plate. In regard to his work in the box the Washington Evening Star wrote, “Manager Sullivan imported a man from Baltimore to do the pitching for the home team in order to save his own men for the opener today. His name is Lyston, and he is an amateur, who is employed in the Baltimore city post office. He did very well indeed, his delivery being quite swift and certain. Nicholas [catcher] held him well. He is one of the men whom Mr. Sullivan has his eye, and it is not improbable that he may be called upon to do some regular work in the senatorial box before the season is over, if there is an emergency.”2
Lew Whistler paced the Washington attack with four hits. Gleason banged out a pair of two-baggers and he scored four runs. Frank Bird contributed three hits, including two triples, to the Senators’ offensive onslaught.
Washington dropped the league opener the next day to Hartford, 15-13. As the Atlantic Association season progressed, the Senators began experiencing financial difficulties. On August 2, 1890, the Washington club disbanded after posting a record of 38-47. Sullivan attempted to organize a new club to finish out the season but he was unable to find any investors, telling the press, “I can get plenty of backing for next year but the capitalists I have met are timid about putting money in for what must for a time be a losing venture.”3
John M. Lyston is the great-grandfather of the author.
Dreifort, John E. Baseball History From Outside The Lines (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997).
Keenan, Jimmy. The Lystons: A Story of One Baltimore Family and Our National Pastime (Self-published, 2009).
Riley, James A. The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues (New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc., 1994).
Thorn, John, Phil Birnbaum, Bill Deane, et al., eds. Total Baseball: The Ultimate Baseball Encyclopedia. 8th ed. (Toronto: Sport Media Publishing, Inc., 2004).
1891 Reach Official Baseball Guide.
1 Washington Post, April 19, 1890, 6.
2 Washington Evening Star, April 19, 1890, 7.
3 Baltimore Sun, August 9, 1890, 4.