This article was written by John G. Zinn
As game time approached on October 7, 1874, a crowd estimated at 1,000 gathered at Brooklyn’s Union Grounds for a match between the first-place Boston Red Stockings and the sixth-place Brooklyn Atlantics.1 If the immediate past was prologue, it was hard to understand the fans’ motivation for plunking down their hard-earned quarters to gain admission. Less than a week earlier in Boston, the Red Stockings pounded, thrashed, and humiliated the Atlantics, 29-0, in a mismatch in which the “Chicagoed” Atlantics managed only four hits. Boston’s 29 runs were one part Red Stockings hits (26) and one part Atlantics errors (30).
Atlantics fans could, however, draw some optimism from three earlier 1874 triumphs over the defending champions and the perhaps wishful thought that the rout was a onetime aberration. Another factor possibly boosting attendance was that while the Atlantics were playing out the string, Boston was caught up in one of the few pennant races of the National Association’s five-year existence. The Red Stockings’ rival for the flag was another New York club, the Mutuals, who also called the Union Grounds home. After the 29-0 humiliation of the Atlantics on October 1, Boston led the Mutuals by 1½ games, but in the intervening period, the Red Stockings briefly slipped into second before reclaiming the lead, a position they held by 2½ games on October 7.
Although there was no single cause of the 29-run disaster, one factor mentioned by the New York Clipper was an injury suffered by Atlantics catcher Jake Knowdell, for whom no suitable substitute was available. Knowdell was still out on the 7th so the Atlantics turned to the much-traveled Frank Fleet, who played multiple positions, none of them with any apparent success. Although the Atlantics probably had few choices at catcher, much more surprising was Boston’s decision to accept Dick Higham as the umpire for the match. Not only was Higham a player for the Mutuals, his honesty both as a player and an umpire had been questioned for some time. In this case, there was plenty of fire to go with the smoke since Higham would eventually become the only major-league umpire expelled from the game for dishonesty.2
With the preliminaries resolved, the Atlantics lost the bat toss and went to the striker’s line against Boston’s ace pitcher, Albert Spalding, who continued his domination of the Atlantics by setting down the first six batters in order. Spalding was matched by the Atlantics’ young sensation, Tommy Bond, who had kept the weak-hitting Atlantics in many games over the course of the season.3 In its third turn at bat, however, the home team finally ended its 11-inning scoreless streak against Boston pitching. Red Stockings third baseman Harry Schafer gave Brooklyn a helping hand by muffing Herman Dehlman’s groundball. After Pat McGee struck out and Bobby Clack singled, Jack Chapman, back with the Atlantics after starring with the club in the 1860s, hit one “dead on the line between left and centre fields,” giving the crowd incentive, if they needed it, to “cheer themselves hoarse.”4 The Clipper reporter, probably Henry Chadwick, unkindly claimed the hit could have been a home run, but the 31-year-old’s “aldermanic proportions prevented his getting farther than third base.”5 It was not only an unkind, but an unnecessary cut as Chapman shortly thereafter crossed the plate on Bob Ferguson’s single.
Since they had already lost three times to the Atlantics that season, the Red Stockings most likely hadn’t developed any false sense of security from the 29-0 victory the week before. In its half of the third, Boston quickly put a run on the scoreboard, but the Red Stockings then tried to give the Atlantics some gift runs by making three errors in the top of the fourth. Unfortunately for the Atlantics, their fans, and the Mutuals, the home team couldn’t take advantage. Given this reprieve, Boston added a second run on a single by Spalding followed by Deacon White’s triple. Continuing to hold the Atlantics at bay, the Red Stockings tied the game in the sixth when Ross Barnes scored on Fleet’s passed ball. Having lost the lead, the Atlantics staged their own rally in the seventh when McGee and Clack reached base with only one out. Ferguson then lifted a fly to left on which three Red Stockings converged, but let drop out of “fear of a collision.”6 Unfortunately for the Atlantics, rather than go halfway to third, McGee was “hugging second base despite Ferguson’s appeals for him to run.”7 The overly cautious Atlantic was forced out at third on atrocious baserunning the New York Herald labeled “a piece of stupidity.” Again reprieved, Boston retired the side and ended the threat.8
Neither team scored in the eighth, but the ninth didn’t lack for drama. The Atlantics threatened to take the lead in the top of the inning, but Boston pulled off a rally-killing double play with George Wright throwing out a runner at the plate. Matching defense for defense, the Atlantics stopped Boston’s attempt to win in the bottom of the ninth, keyed by “a very fine play by the old Red Stocking [Cincinnati] second baseman [Charles Sweasy].”9 The keystone sack had been a major problem for the Atlantics all year with 13 different players, including, of course, Frank Fleet, taking a turn, but on this day at least, Sweasy had one more moment of glory. It was, in fact, a fine day for a number of veterans as the Herald praised not only Sweasy, but longtime Atlantic legends Bob Ferguson and Dickey Pearce.10
The deadlocked game headed to the 10th. The Atlantics threatened after two were out, but Boston escaped without allowing a run. With another chance to close out the game in the bottom of the inning, Boston couldn’t even muster a baserunner, setting the stage for a semicomic ending in the 11th. Bond led off for the Atlantics with an infield hit, but Fleet grounded to Wright, who forced Bond and threw to first “an instant too late”11 to complete the double play. The “instant” became even more important when Sweasy made what would have been the third out and would have given the Red Stockings another chance to close out the game without playing a full inning. Time had become important because it started raining at the beginning of the inning and with Herman Dehlman coming to bat, umpire Higham suspended play even though the Clipper claimed “the necessity was not remarkably urgent.”12 As a Mutual player, Higham had a vested interest in the outcome, since from the Mutuals’ perspective a tie was better than a Boston victory.
The situation became even more suspicious when the rain let up and play was to resume. The Boston players apparently went onto the field without even bothering to put their full uniforms back on, but the Atlantics were “more particular about their personal appearance.”13 This was especially true of Dehlman (one of the two Atlantics needed to resume play), who reportedly “had to tie a double bow-knot in his shoe-string and comb his hair before he felt disposed to appear on the field.”14 Once on the field, the reluctant striker took extra time to find his bat, which equally suspiciously “had been carefully tied up with about twenty others.”15 By the time Dehlman finally arrived at the plate, the rain had resumed and Higham called the game “to the disgust of the Bostons and the crowd, and the delight of the Atlantics.”16
It’s impossible to know if something untoward was going on that day at Union Grounds, but the overall level of play by both teams was highly praised by the Herald. “Rarely indeed,” the paper claimed, “have two nines put forth such efforts to win a (game).” To some degree, the Herald reporter seemed pleased that “neither side could claim the victory.” In the end the final result didn’t impact the pennant race, so the controversial ending didn’t mar one of the National Association’s most exciting games.17
This article was originally published in “Boston’s First Nine: The 1871-75 Boston Red Stockings” (SABR, 2016), edited by Bob LeMoine and Bill Nowlin. To read more articles from this book at the SABR Games Project, click here.
1 New York Sunday Mercury, October 11, 1874.
2 New York Clipper, October 10, 1874: 219, October 17, 1874: 229; William J. Ryczek, Blackguards and Red Stockings: A History of Baseball’s National Association, 1871-1875 (Wallingford, Connecticut: Colebrook Press, 1992), 99, 212-213.
3 Ryczek, 148; New York Clipper, October 17, 1874: 229.
4 New York Clipper, October 17, 1874: 229.
8 New York Herald, October 8, 1874: 4.
9 New York Clipper, October 17, 1874: 229.
10 Ryczek, 148; New York Herald, October 8, 1874: 4.
11 New York Clipper, October 17, 1874: 229.
17 New York Herald, October 8, 1874: 4.
Boston Red Stockings 3
Brooklyn Atlantics 3
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