And the Last Shall Be First: Louisville Club Zooms From Cellar To Pennant in 1890

This article was written by Bob Bailey

This article was published in the Road Trips: SABR Convention Journal Articles


This article was originally published in “A Celebration of Louisville Baseball,” the 1997 SABR convention journal.

 

The baseball season of 1890 was a tumultuous season on and off the field. It was the year of open battled in the Brotherhood War, with the players forming their own league and fielding a full schedule of games in competition with the established National League and American Association. Franchises shifted leagues, cities hosted multiple teams, and new cities joined the ranks of the major leagues. It was great for fans. The surfeit of baseball games gave them many choices in attending games and lower ticket prices as the competing organizations vied for fan support.

On the field, rosters were shuffled as never before. Many major leaguers jumped to the Players League and the National League. In addition to trying to reacquire some of their stars, clubs made raids on Association teams. But one team was relatively immune to all this—the lowly Louisville Colonels.

Louisville had a mixed history in organized baseball going back to 1876 when they were a charter member of the fledgling National League. Some of the luster dimmed two years later when they quietly dropped out of the league in the wake of the gambling scandal that shook the franchise in 1877. But in 1882 the Kentucky city was again a charter member of a new major league, the American Association. For several years Louisville was a respectable club that occasionally contended for the pennant. But by the end of the 1880s they were a perennial second division club, typically out of the race by the Fourth of July.

Until 1890. That crazy year of three major leagues—players jumping from roster to roster and baseball wars being fought on the field and in the press—ended with Louisville’s capturing their first and only big league pennant. The story of Louisville’s rise to the top of the American Association was all the more remarkable since they rose from the cellar in 1889. This is not the story of a bad team catching a few breaks, it is the tale of a woeful squad catching lightning in the bottle for one glorious season.

The opening day roster contained past-their-prime veterans Pete Browning, Guy Heckler, and Dude Esterbrook along with pitchers Red Ehret and Scott Stratton and a cast of unknowns, except for Chicken Wolf, a solid performer in the outfield. Stratton and Browning had contentious dealings with owner Mordecai Davidson before signing their 1889 contracts. Davidson had assumed the club presidency the previous season when he bought out several other club directors over a disagreement about spending money to acquire better ball players to improve the club.

Davidson was against it. His tight-fisted approach toward players and club fiscal management was not merely a reflection of a robber baron mentality. It was well-grounded in the reality that the Louisville club was pitifully undercapitalized and operated by a group of owners that, while individually comfortable financially, did not possess personal wealth sufficient to build a contending squad.

The Colonels opened with six straight losses and ended the first road trip at 3-14. On the ensuing home stand things did improve. The 5-8 record included what would be the season’s longest winning streak, three games. The third win in the streak was also the last the club would experience for close to a month. Louisville was swept in Cincinnati and Columbus before boarding a train for Philadelphia. The Kentucky boys were due in Philly on June 3. However, they were a no-show. Likewise June 4. Nobody knew where they were. The papers derided the squad with a headline of “Lost Again.” Finally, they arrived in Philadelphia on June 5 as victims of the Johnstown Flood. It seems that the train carrying the team was stuck in high water in extreme western New York, and was unable to communicate with the outside world because the telegraph lines were down. Once in Philadelphia they returned to their losing ways, dropping four games in both Philadelphia and Brooklyn.

Back in Louisville, Davidson was busily trying to sell players or the franchise to survive the financial disaster that was building. He was unsuccessful in finding a local buyer for the club in Louisville and had been called on the carpet by the Association president for attempting to dismantle the squad. As part of his effort to save some cash, Davidson instituted a system of fines for various player misdeeds on the diamond. The players naturally rebelled at these measures and demanded the fines to be rescinded. Davidson refused. When threatened with the players’ refusal to take the field in Baltimore, he blithely instituted fines for refusing to play.

On June 14, 1889, the first major league players strike started. Six Louisville players declined to report to the park in Baltimore. They were pitcher Red Ehret, catcher Paul Cook, infielders Guy Hecker, Dan Shannon, and the Old Gladiator himself, Pete Browning. After some cajoling by Association leaders and assurances that the league would investigate the players’ grievances, the Louisville six returned to the field after missing one game.

On the field the team completed the 21-game road trip with a perfect 0-21 record and returned to the bluegrass with a 23-game losing streak intact. After dropping three more to St. Louis they scored an easy 7-3 victory over the Browns to end the horror at 26 games.

Unhappily, the remainder of the season was not any better. The Colonels finished with a 27-111-2 record for a measly .196 percentage. The offense had turned in a middle-of-the-pack record, but the fielding and pitching ranked among some of the worst ever. In July 1889, some of the local stockholders bought out Davidson. They released Hecker and Browning, and hired Jack Chapman as manager. Chapman was making a return trip to Louisville since he had been the manager of Louisville’s original entry in the National League in 1876.

No doubt about it, Chapman had his work cut out for him. Opportunely, help was on its way. Chapman used his extensive knowledge of the baseball world to sign newcomers Harry Taylor, Herb Goodall, Tim Shinnock, and Louisville native Charlie Hamburg. All would play key roles in the Colonels’ 1890 rise. Just as important was what was happening to the competition. The Players League signed over a quarter of the players on the American Association’s reserve lists. Hardest hit were St. Louis, Baltimore, and the Athletic Club of Philadelphia. Stars like Charlie Comiskey, Henry Larkin, and Lave Cross jumped to the new league. Louisville lost five players, but none had hit over .260 the previous season, and they didn’t figure to be much of a loss.

In addition to player movement, Louisville was helped by franchise movement. The National League, trying to shore up its ranks to compete with the Players League, induced Brooklyn and Cincinnati to jump from the AA to the NL. Brooklyn had won the AA pennant in 1889 and Cincinnati was one of the stronger contenders in the Association. So, by opening day 1890, Louisville found itself with a younger squad, new leadership, in a league that had lost its strongest clubs, and its competitors crippled by Players League raids.

Louisville, now nicknamed the Cyclones by the local press due to their fast start and a twister that swept through Louisville that spring, found themselves in first place after the first two weeks of the season. This rarefied atmosphere was so alien to the players that they slipped to 27-25 through June and were in fourth place, nine games behind the Athletics. A 20-game home stand to start July began with 12 straight wins, including three over the Athletics, and saw Louisville vault into first place by percentage points ahead of Philadelphia. Through August Louisville continued to play at .600 clip as teams fell out of the race. By late August they were seven games in front of second-place St. Louis. A 16-8 September led to an early October pennant-clinching victory over Columbus.

They had done it! Louisville became the first team to go from worst to first in a single season. The Cyclones finished with an 88-44 record, a 61-game improvement over the previous season. Certainly the unusual environment in the major leagues was a major contributor to the rise of the team, but they still had to win the games on the field. Louisville did so by improving every aspect of their game. They increased their run production by 28% while the Association as a whole declined 11%. They turned in a league- best batting average of .279, led by Chicken Wolf’s league-leading .363. On defense they cut their opposition runs to 588 from 1,091 the previous season. In 1889 they committed the most errors in the league and had the second-worst fielding percentage. In 1890 they were the best in both categories.

The worst-to-first story continued for the pitching staff, too. In 1890, Louisville won the most games, surrendered the least runs, and dropped their ERA over two runs a game. Walks declined 40%. Scott Stratton turned in a 34-14 season with an ERA of 2.36. He led the league in ERA and winning percentage. Red Ehret chipped in with a 25-14 record and trailed only Stratton with a 2.58 ERA.

By capturing the American Association pennant, Louisville earned a berth in the World Series against NL pennant winner (and 1899 AA pennant winner) Brooklyn.

The series opened in Louisville in wet, cold weather. When they moved on to Brooklyn it was worse. After seven games each team had three wins and a tie. Since the weather forecast called for snow in Brooklyn, the teams postponed the deciding game, with a vague agreement to settle things the next spring. When the Players League collapsed, tensions between the AA and NL heightened and the series was never completed.

In the ensuing season, Louisville quickly settled back into the second division, where they would reside for most of their remaining years in the big leagues. But there was that one shining season when the presence of a baseball war, new ownership, and career years by a group of overachieving players vaulted Louisville to the top of the baseball world.

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