Misidentified as “Nichols” by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Browns’ George Nicol made his major-league debut by holding the visiting Philadelphia Athletics hitless in a wild 21-2 victory called after seven innings because of darkness, though the real reason might have been general apathy.1 The teenager’s auspicious hurling performance, however, was overshadowed by the turmoil surrounding the Athletics — a hastily culled-together group of holdovers, amateurs, and semipros who threatened to turn the conclusion of their tumultuous final season in the American Association into a farce.
The Browns’ master showman and perpetually meddling owner Chris von der Ahe was on his fifth manager of the season. Nonetheless, skipper Joe Gerhardt, who took the reins on September 1 and also played the infield, hoped to inspire the second-place Browns (70-49), who were eight games behind the Louisville Colonels. Winner of four straight American Association pennants from 1885 to 1888, St. Louis would need to play exceptional ball and have some luck to capture the title in 1890. A three-game set with the intruders from the City of Brotherly Love portended to be a laugher; the A’s had just been outscored 69-15 in their five-game series sweep in Louisville.
The St. Louis Globe-Democrat opined that the Athletics might be “defunct” before they arrived in St. Louis to commence the series on Tuesday afternoon.2 A week earlier, after the club’s loss to the Baltimore Orioles at home, almost the entire Athletics team quit en masse a day before they were to depart on a 16-game road swing.3 The club was bordering on financial insolvency and had trouble meeting payroll and expenses. Baseball was saturated in 1890 with three professional leagues. The NL (founded in 1876) and the AA (founded in 1882) were joined in 1890 by the upshot Players’ League, which pushed up salaries to an unsustainable level. Philadelphia had a team in each league.
Athletics skipper Billy Sharsig had a monumental task of putting a team together in about 24 hours, after “all his ‘stars’ deserted him.”4 Relying on his contacts in semipro and amateur circles, he hired seven locals and three other players who had limited experience in the American Association to join the two rookie holdovers, 30-year-old pitcher Ed Green and 19-year-old shortstop Ben Conroy. The recruits were paid $5 per game and expenses, reported the Philadelphia Times, but were required to purchase their uniform.5 Described as a “patchwork team,” the Athletics’ new roster consisted of just 12 players, including three pitchers, and most players were expected to play multiple positions.6
The squad’s first test, in Louisville, proved to be an utter disaster. “In any other baseball organization,” said the Times in a sternly-worded column, “the club’s charter would be declared forfeited and its record wiped out.”7 The Philadelphia Inquirer took an equally hostile approach to the embarrassing group of players, asserting, “There are many amateur teams in this city that can beat them” and lamenting “the transformation of the old and famous organization in the present wreck of its former self.”8
It was a pleasant weekday afternoon in the Gateway City with temperatures reaching the low 70s by the 3:30 start time.9 The game attracted only 400 spectators to Sportsman’s Park, the wooden structure on Grand Avenue on the city’s north side. The Globe-Democrat quipped that they probably regretted their decision.10
The Browns were not without their drama, especially with der Poss Bresident holding the purse strings. Von der Ahe had just released one of his top pitchers, Toad Ramsey (23-17), ostensibly because of poor fielding, according to the Globe-Democrat.11 His release contributed to the club’s acquisition of Nicol, a semipro pitcher from Mount Sterling, Illinois, about 135 miles north of St. Louis. Joining the team three days before his start, Nicol “never saw a professional game of baseball until he watched the Browns and Rochester” on Saturday, noted the Globe-Democrat.12 Little was known about Nicol, who the paper claimed was 16 years old and weighed 123 pounds. Actually three years older and 30 pounds heavier, the 5-foot-7 Nicol was the youngest Browns player, though not the smallest in stature. That distinction went to Charlie Duffee (5-foot-5, 150 pounds).
“The story of the game is short,” read the Globe Democrat. “The visitors would not play a little bit and the Browns did not have to try.”13 St. Louis and Philadelphia newspapers provided scant information about the game itself. Nicol put zeroes on the board in six of the seven innings, but it was far from a clean game. He whiffed eight and was “extremely wild,” noted the Post-Dispatch, walking eight batters and tossing a wild pitch.14 The Athletics scored two unearned runs in the bottom of the third on what was described as “errors and loose plays.”15 The Browns committed four errors in the game and turned two double plays.
Philadelphia and St. Louis newspapers vehemently expressed their indignation about the Athletics. “About the poorest aggregation in the shape of a professional ball club that ever played a game in St. Louis was the alleged Athletics team,” wrote the Times.16 On the mound for Sharsig’s squad was right-hander Ed Green, who would finish his only season in the big leagues with a 7-15 record and a 5.80 ERA.
The highest-scoring team in the American Association, averaging 6.3 runs per game, the Browns teed off on Green, whose “delivery was gauged in a murderous manner,” said the Times.17 Batting first, the Browns scored a run in the first and never looked back. They exploded for 11 runs in the third. Rookie Ed Cartwright, whose moniker, Jumbo, derived from his 220-pound body, spanked two home runs in that inning.
With the Browns leading 13-0, “manager Sharsig sat on the bench with his misfits, the picture of gloom and object of sympathy for the spectators,”18 opined the Inquirer. The Athletics’ two runs in the bottom of the third inning just prolonged the agony. The Browns scored six more in the fifth, another in the sixth, and a pair in the seventh. By that time John Munyan and Duffee had whacked home runs and Nicol doubled for his first big-league hit. Green alone was not responsible for the slaughter. His teammates committed six errors, leading to 14 unearned runs.19 The Browns ran wild on catcher Joe Daly, stealing 10 bases.
Umpire Herm Doscher declared the game official after two hours and seven innings, citing darkness, and awarded the 21-2 victory to the Browns.20 But the pleasant temperatures and partly sunny skies, as reported in local St. Louis newspapers, made it unlikely that darkness at 5:30 P.M. in late September forced a premature ending.21
Notwithstanding the “mistfits” from Philadelphia, Nicol was the star of the game. “[E]vidently a great find,” gushed the Globe-Democrat,” Nicol “has wonderful speed, excellent curves, and considering all circumstances, good control.”22 Good control was a stretch, but Nicol’s debut made for good copy.
Sharsig’s work after the game was probably more intensive than his managing during it. The Inquirer reported that he was “in negotiation” with St. Louis ballplayers to join his club, including third baseman Jumbo Davis, who had played briefly with the Browns in 1890, and first baseman Charlie Levis, who had last played briefly in the American Associational and Union Association in 1884-1885.23
Epilogue: After the mass exodus of their players, the Athletics lost their last 21 games of the season, surrendering at least 10 runs in a game on 16 occasions. It was indeed a “burlesque,” as the Times had predicted.24 The American Association expelled the Athletics at the end of the season and replaced them with the Quakers of the Players’ League.25
Nicol finished the season with a 2-1 record, highlighted by his walk-filled no-hitter and a one-hitter in his next start, in the second game of a doubleheader against the Athletics which lasted just five innings. But there was no fairy-tale ending for the teenager. He had a cup of coffee with the NL Chicago Colts (Cubs) in 1890 and another in 1894 with the Pittsburgh Pirates and Louisville Colonels, posting a 5-7 lifetime record. His control — 84 walks in 91⅓ career innings pitched — was at the core of his struggles on the mound.
For more than 100 years, Nicol had the distinction of throwing a no-hitter, albeit an abbreviated one, in his big-league debut. That changed in September 1991, when the Committee for Statistical Accuracy, chaired by Commissioner Fay Vincent, amended the definition of a no-hitter to include only those games that last at least nine innings and end with no hits. An estimated 36 abbreviated no-hitters were removed from the ranks, including Nicol’s. The only pitcher (as of 2020) with a no-hitter in his first appearance is the Cincinnati Reds’ Bumpus Jones, who held the Pirates hitless in a 7-1 victory on October 15, 1892. The NL St. Louis Browns’ (later called the Cardinals) Ted Breitenstein (October 4, 1891) and Bobo Holloman (May 6, 1953) of the AL Browns are the only other pitchers to have thrown a no-hitter in their first major-league start (both had already pitched in relief).
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author accessed Retrosheet.org, Baseball-Reference.com, SABR.org, and the following newspaper articles:
1 “Sports of All Sorts,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 24, 1890: 12.
2 Trying to Put Life in a Corpse,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat,” September 21, 1890: 10
3 “Sharsig’s Young Stars Make a Good Impression,” (Philadelphia) Times, September 20, 1890: 2.
4 “Sharsig’s Young Stars Make a Good Impression.”
5 “Welch Goes to Baltimore,” (Philadelphia) Times, September 18 1890: 2.
6 “Welch Goes to Baltimore.”
7 “What the Association Must Do,” Philadelphia Times, September 22, 1890: 3.
8 “On the Ball Field,” Philadelphia Inquirer,” September 24, 1890: 3.
9 “Local Report,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, September 24, 1890: 2.
10 “Not a Safe Hit Off Nicol,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, September 24, 1890: 9
11 “Ramsey Released,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, September 20, 1890: 7.
12 “Not a Safe Hit Off Nicol.”
13 “Not a Safe Hit Off Nicol.”
14 “Sports of All Sorts,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch. According to “On the Ball Field,” Philadelphia Inquirer, Nicol fanned 7, walked 9, and had no wild pitches; rather, catcher John Munyan was charged with a passed ball.
15 “Not a Safe Hit Off Nicol.”
16 “Sharsig’s Young Stars Make a Good Impression.”
17 “On the Ball Field.”
18 “On the Ball field.”
19 The Browns had only seven earned runs, according to the Globe-Democrat; the Philadelphia Inquirer scored 9 earned. See “Sports of All Sorts,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and “On the Ball Field,” Philadelphia Inquirer.
20 Box scores give the name of the umpire as Doesher.
21 A cold front passed through St. Louis the following day, forcing the game on Wednesday and Thursday to be rescheduled as a doubleheader on Friday.
22 “Not a Safe Hit Off Nicol.”
23 “On the Ball Field.”
24 “What the Association Must Do.”
25 The Quakers subsequently changed their name to the Athletics.
St. Louis Browns 21
Philadelphia Athletics 2
St. Louis, MO
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