This article was written by Paul Browne
This article was published in The National Pastime: From Swampoodle to South Philly (Philadelphia, 2013)
In Philadelphia, Mundell’s Solar Tips moved back and forth among the various levels of baseball during the 1880s and 1890s. Their history is illustrative of the more open and entrepreneurial baseball world that ended long ago.
John Mundell Jr. founded the Solar Tips baseball team in 1879. The first players were workers in the factory of John Mundell & Company, a shoe company founded by John Mundell, Sr. The Solar Tips were a company team established to promote the company’s line of children’s shoes with a patented tip to protect the shoes from the hard wear of children. One of the earliest mentions of Mundell’s Solar Tips regards a game scheduled for Saturday August 11, 1883, at Recreation Park (a site also used by Philadelphia’s new team in the National League) against a picked nine of striking telegraphers during a national telegraph operators strike. That a company team would play a strike team might seem unusual but John Mundell Sr. was a progressive business owner.
John Mundell Sr. was born in Ireland in 1829 of Scotch-Irish stock. He traveled from Belfast to New York as a stowaway at the age of 14 but became a cabin boy before the journey was over. He stayed at sea and became an able seaman, working at that job until 1847, when he arrived in Philadelphia. While working in the Quaker City fisheries he met a former apprentice of his father’s who was a shoemaker, and learned that trade from him and opened his own shoe shop in 1848. In 1870 he opened the larger firm of John Mundell & Company, where he developed his patented shoe tip and became wealthy.
Mundell and his employees were exceptionally loyal to one another. He is quoted as saying, “(L)et all who employ people look into the grievances of his employees, for in a great many instances, to my knowledge, the employees are right, but instead of listening to their workmen’s complaints many employers give them the cold shoulder, which they are apt to resent, and thus bring about strikes and lockouts.”[fn]“John Mundell Has Passed Away,” Philadelphia Inquirer, September 2, 1894.[/fn] Mundell’s company was home to strikes and labor unrest from time to time despite his attitude towards labor. In most cases, however, the problems occurred after Mundell and his employees had reached a frequently novel solution to a problem only to have the union’s regional officers outside the company reject it.
In 1884, Mundell’s employees formed the Solar Tip Mutual Improvement Land Association. Their plan was to purchase farmland a half-hour’s trip by rail from the city, build affordable homes, and sell them to the members, who made periodic contributions to pay them off.[fn]Philadelphia Inquirer, July 23, 1884.[/fn] Mundell was an active member of the Republican Party when it was the party of “Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men” and was a member of the Electoral College that elected Benjamin Harrison in the 1888 presidential election.
John Mundell Jr. apparently did not have as good a relationship with labor. He was once arrested, tried, and convicted, along with an associate, for beating up a former employee after an argument ensued while the ex-employee was picking up his last check. He became a member of the joint arbitrators’ board of the Philadelphia Shoe Manufacturers Association in 1885. This body’s purpose was to arbitrate between management and labor.
The company team that promoted Mundell’s “Solar Tip” children’s shoes played two games on July 4, 1884, before crowds of over 2,000 people. The morning game was against Wanamaker’s Grand Depot team and the afternoon against Hood, Bonbright & Co. The Solar Tips won both games.
Another important game that season occurred in September against the American Association Athletics. The American Association was the major league rival of the NL at that time and the Athletics had won the AA championship in 1883. The Athletics won the game 8–2 with both Tip runs coming in the fifth inning. The Athletics had most of their regulars on the field with their second regular battery of pitcher Billy Taylor and catcher Jack O’Brien. Harry Stovey led the victors with a double and shortstop Kelly led the Solar Tips with a triple.
Young Mundell and his friends had ambitious plans for 1885. Meeting “at the base ball headquarters, 139 North Eighth Street,” Mundell, Fulmer of the Quaker City team, and Doyle of the Somerset team agreed to play nine games apiece against each other.[fn]Philadelphia Inquirer, June 15, 1885.[/fn] The winner would receive $250 plus the local championship of Philadelphia and would be expected to challenge the Athletics and Philadelphia National League club at the end of the season.
This corporately sponsored amateur team continued on its usual path into 1888. They started the season as a member of the Philadelphia area trades league, consisting of teams formed by the 12 largest manufacturers in Philadelphia, ostensibly from among each company’s employees. The Tips’ opening game was at Recreation Park against Laird, Schoner & Mitchell’s team on April 28. The Solar Tips continued undefeated in this league into the end of May as did the McNeely Club. These two teams met on May 30 before a crowd of over 7,000 fans at Recreation Park, a site presently being called the Solar Tip grounds; the Philadelphia National League club had abandoned the field at the end of the 1886 season. Unfortunately for the Solar Tips, they lost their undefeated status and first place to McNeeley & Co., 4–3. The defensive play of the McNeeleys was credited for the victory.[fn]Philadelphia Inquirer, May 31, 1888.[/fn] Other members of this league were Gumpert Brothers, Hastings & Co., American Sewing Machine, J.W. Cooper, the Allen Grays, and the Richmonds.
In this same period, John Mundell Jr. was exhibiting leadership in Philadelphia’s amateur baseball world. He was elected president of the Amateur Base Ball Union of Philadelphia at their organizational meeting on May 29, 1888, at Industrial Hall. The organization consisted of 62 amateur clubs (whose players were over 17), and was intended to form leagues from among the clubs, secure and maintain a clubhouse for transaction of business among the clubs, arrange a series of games for the amateur championship of Philadelphia, and establish an annual amateur day at which a baseball parade was to be held.[fn]Philadelphia Inquirer, May 30, 1888.[/fn]
The amateur season moved very quickly and plans for the amateur day parade were finalized at a meeting at Earley’s Hall, Arch Street, above 13th, on June 18. Fifty clubs had paid their dues and 19 more were in the application process. One hundred twenty-five clubs were signed up to participate in the parade, including junior clubs and visiting teams from other parts of Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The parade was to take place on Saturday, June 23. The parade was to begin formation at Industrial Hall at Broad and Vine Streets. The parade was then to proceed down Broad Street to Chestnut, turn on Fifth from Chestnut, up Fifth to Market, Market back to Broad, up Broad to Columbia and from Columbia to 24th, at which point they would enter the old Recreation Park. Here a game for the championship of Philadelphia was to be played between the Solar Tips, champions of the Trades League, and the Young Americas, which had been considered the amateur champions for some years.[fn]Philadelphia Inquirer, June 19, 1888.[/fn] By the date of the parade a large banquet at Industrial Hall had been added as an evening event.[fn]Philadelphia Inquirer, June 23, 1888.[/fn]
The Young Americas held onto their championship, beating the Solar Tips 10–5 (though the two teams would have a rematch on the following Wednesday). The Solar Tips continued to make a strong showing in the Trades League.
On July 5, the Solar Tips played Easton of the Central League. The Central League was one of the top minor leagues in the country that year. The amateur Solar Tips acquitted themselves well in this game against a higher-level club, losing by a single run, 9–8. Attendance was reported at 2,500.[fn]Philadelphia Inquirer, July 6, 1888.[/fn] Four of Easton’s players had brief major league careers. Buck Becannon had played for the AA Metropolitans in 1884 and ’85 and the Giants in 1887. Thomas “Sandy” McDermott played with the AA Baltimore Orioles in 1885. John Deasley, who was also a member of the Solar Tips in 1888, had been with Washington and Kansas City in the 1884 Union Association. Jim McKeever had also played in the Union Association for the Boston Reds. The Solar Tips had future major league players on the field that day. William “Bad Bill” Eagan would play with the AA St. Louis Browns in 1891, Chicago of the NL in 1893 and Pittsburgh in 1898. John Riddle would play with the Washington Nationals of the NL in 1889 and the AA Athletics in 1890.
About this time Camden withdrew from the Inter-State League (now sometimes called the Philadelphia Region League). The Inter-State League, operating in and around Philadelphia, started as a semi-professional league in January 1888. When Harry Wright’s Philadelphia Reserves announced their intention to join this league, the semi-pro status of the league began to look suspicious. The league’s other teams began to make announcements of players signing contracts. The large number of contract signings that continued to be reported with some teams also brings the organization’s status into question. The Philadelphia Reserves were all contract players; Frankford reported 14 players signed by late March, Somerset had 13, and Houston six. Camden and the Quaker City teams had also reported some paid players by this time.
James Farrington had been managing Camden when the Solar Tips brought him over to manage their team as it moved from an amateur league to—in theory, at least—a semi-pro league.[fn]Philadelphia Inquirer, July 7, 1888.[/fn] Young Mundell’s take on this change is not known. Farrington had been a player/manager for Camden in 1883 and managed the Wilmington/Atlantic City team in the Eastern League for part of 1885. He would manage several Pennsylvania state league teams over the rest of his career.
The Solar Tips continued to play trade league clubs during their time in the Inter-State League. On July 21 they played a doubleheader, facing the non-league Keystones at 1:30pm and the other new ISL team, the Kensingtons, at 4pm. In a quirk of the times, the Solar Tips would be listed in first place in late July with a 2–1 record, followed by Houston at 12–6, Camden at 10–6, Brandywine at 8–5, Frankford at 11–7, Kensington at 1–1, Norristown and Germantown, both at 9–11, Somerset at 8–11 and the Quaker City in last at 7–14. It was not unusual at this time for even recognized minor leagues to have teams with very different totals of league games throughout the season or for new teams to enter a league without being credited or charged with the records of teams they replaced.
On July 23 the Solar Tips played Frankford. Down 2–1 in the ninth, Eagan walked, Graham of Frankford muffed a double play attempt, Clark singled and Deasley, now back with the Tips, hit a triple and drove in the tying and winning runs.[fn]Philadelphia Inquirer, July 24, 1888.[/fn] On July 24 it was announced that the Solar Tips would again be playing the Young America for the amateur championship of Philadelphia. The first game was to be Saturday, July 28.
By August 7, the Solar Tips withdrew from the Inter-State League. They had compiled an impressive record of 10 wins and 2 losses (while their record is now sometimes listed as 8 and 2). They indicated their intention was to play all the leading amateur teams of the region. They also announced their plans to play the Cuban Giants on Thursday and Friday of that week. The teams were said to be evenly matched.[fn]Philadelphia Inquirer, August 7, 1888.[/fn]
This was a strange choice for a team wishing to play with amateurs. The Cuban Giants were the first fully-salaried black professional team. That the Tips were thought to be evenly matched with the Giants, and that they had players on their roster (not just pitchers and catchers) who had played minor league ball before and/or during the 1888 season, makes one wonder how the term “amateur” was being defined in Philadelphia at this time.
The Cuban Giants were a frequent rival of ISL teams in 1888. The Solar Tips met the Cubans on August 9. The “colored champions” opened the scoring, jumping out to a two-run lead in the bottom of the first. The Tips responded with a single run in the top of the second, narrowing the gap. Pitchers Rittenhouse for the Solar Tips and Stovey for the Cuban Giants then held their opponents scoreless for the next three innings. Stovey would go his opponents one better, silencing the Tips bats in the top of the sixth. Rittenhouse then gave up two runs in the bottom of that inning, the final tallies of the game. Clarence Williams and Jack Frye each had doubles to lead the Cuban Giants. Koons led the Solar Tips with a triple. The fielding of both teams was said to be very good and the 4–1 victory was placed in the hands of Stovey’s pitching.[fn]Philadelphia Inquirer, August 10, 1888.[/fn]
The Solar Tips faced a very good team that day. Bob Davids (SABR’s founder) once ranked the best black players of the nineteenth century. The pitcher, Stovey, and seven of the eight other players on the field that day, were on this list.[fn]Sol White Introduction by Jerry Malloy, Sol White’s History of Colored Base Ball with other documents of the early Black game, 1886–1936. (Lincoln, NB & London: University of Nebraska Press, 1995) p 161.[/fn]
On the other hand, the Solar Tips’ two key players that day, pitcher Rittenhouse and catcher Koons, had less auspicious careers. Rittenhouse was a mainstay of Pennsylvania state leagues but would see no major league action. There is no link to this Mr. Koons and any team but the Solar Tips of 1888 at this time.
When the two teams met again the next day, the Solar Tips were minus a manager. Criticized by president Mundell after the loss to the Cuban Giants, Farrington immediately resigned.[fn]Philadelphia Inquirer, August 10, 1888.[/fn] The change in management didn’t help and the Solar Tips fell to the Cuban Giants 6–4 the next day. William Whyte and Clarence Thomas were the Cubans’ battery that day. Whyte had the highest winning percentage of the best black pitchers of the nineteenth century and many feel that Thomas’s exclusion from the Hall of Fame is an injustice.
The Solar Tips would continue to play, and frequently defeat, Philadelphia area teams for the rest of the 1888 season. The Interstate League was expected to fold shortly after the Solar Tips withdrew but certain teams continued to be referred to as members of that league until the end of the season. Frankford and Norristown of the ISL initiated efforts to form a new league for 1889. While Frankford would never play in this league, which became the mostly Pennsylvania-based Middle States League, the Cuban Giants, playing out of Trenton, becoming the first black team to play in a mostly white minor league. Before the 1889 season was over, they would be joined by another black team, the Gorhams, headquartered in Easton.
Many Solar Tip players would also make their way into the MSL. Catcher Rigby, first baseman O’Donnell, shortstop (and captain) Clark, and pitcher Rittenhouse would join Lancaster. Samuel Hoverter, another one-time Solar Tip, would play for York.[fn]Philadelphia Inquirer, April 17, 1889.[/fn] It would also be reported that pitcher Smith of the Philadelphia Giants had played for the Tips the previous year.[fn]Philadelphia Inquirer, May 20, 1889.[/fn]
After the 1888 season the Solar Tips confined their activities to the Philadelphia regional circuit. They made no attempt to enter the MSL but Mundell Jr., along with N.B. Young, were at the head of an effort to form a semi-professional league. Former ISL teams Norristown, Brandywine, and Houston, and future MSL member Wilmington were targeted as potential members.[fn]Philadelphia Inquirer, March 22, 1889.[/fn] Nothing appears to have come of this effort. The Solar Tips ceased play for a period after the 1890 season, a decision that was reportedly based on the Players’ League’s impact on the American Association.[fn]James Hampton Moore, History of the Five O’clock Club of Philadelphia, (published for private circulation, 1891). 268.[/fn]
Coverage of the Solar Tips activities appears again in 1892. There are reports of losses to Camden and Burlington, New Jersey, and a victory over Rowlandville that year. In 1893 the Solar Tips reportedly lost to Trenton, Royersford, and Camden, and Camden would again beat the Solar Tips in 1894. The team lost its patron that year as John Mundell Sr. passed away on September 2. John Mundell Jr. continued to operate the company and sponsor a baseball team. There was a report of the Philadelphia-area Wyoming team defeating the Solar Tips in an 1899 game.
Young Mundell initially experienced success leading his father’s company. In 1900 they won the Franklin Institute ribbon and medal at the Export Exposition. On the day the prize was announced it was also reported that the company was expanding its plant on Market Street.[fn]Philadelphia Inquirer, March 30, 1900.[/fn] In February 1901, Mundell had to make corporate and personal assignments to creditors, Charles F. Walton of England and Bryan & Co. leather merchants of Philadelphia. The cause of the failure was attributed to loss of government work which the company had become dependent on, its children’s shoe business no longer its strength.[fn]Philadelphia Inquirer, February 3, 1901.[/fn]
The Solar Tips team history exemplifies the fluid nature of baseball competition at this time. Major league teams frequently played teams from much lower level organizations. Teams formed as, or proclaiming to be, amateur sometimes included paid players, most often pitchers and catchers but the virus of professionalism often spread to additional position players quickly. Sometimes pay was in cash, other times it was hidden in a company payroll which carried players who supposedly had other jobs but whose real purpose was to promote the company by playing baseball. In the 1880s and 1890s the Solar Tips of Philadelphia began as a team of company employees, appear to have progressed to paying players and then returned to their amateur roots. They played against all levels of competition and showed well against all comers. No such team today could ever hope to test itself against the quality of competition the Solar Tips were able to face.
PAUL BROWNE is Executive Director of the Carbondale Technology Transfer Center. He is a Carbondale City Councilman and President of the Carbondale Community Development Corporation. He researches and writes about nineteenth century base ball. He is a relative of former New York Giants player Pete Gillespie. Family stories led him to SABR and to writing Pete’s biography for the BioProject. In researching that article, he came across another nineteenth century major leaguer, Eddie Kennedy, and the New York Metropolitans.