Professional Base Ball Debuts in Minnesota: The St. Paul Red Caps, Minneapolis Brown Stockings, And Winona Clippers Of 1875–1877

This article was written by Rich Arpi

This article was published in The National Pastime: Baseball in the North Star State (Minnesota, 2012)

Base ball clubs from various Minnesota cities began playing match games with each other in the mid-1860s. The first games were rather cordial events between clubs of gentlemen; within a few years they became spirited games for the silver ball, awarded to the base ball champions of Minnesota.

Base ball clubs from various Minnesota cities began playing match games with each other in the mid-1860s. The first games were rather cordial events between clubs of gentlemen; within a few years they became spirited games for the silver ball, awarded to the base ball champions of Minnesota. The North Star Base Ball Club of St. Paul won the silver ball at the first state tournament, which it hosted in 1867. By 1870 the Silver Stars of Northfield were acclaimed the state champion. Under the rules at the time a nine needed to beat the Silver Stars twice to capture the state championship. It is unclear whether any team accomplished this feat and the possession of the silver ball remains unknown.[fn]Stew Thornley, Baseball in Minnesota: The Definitive History, (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2006), 10–11. Northfield Standard, various issues 1873–1874.[/fn]

In the early 1870s, St. Paul’s dominant team was the Metropolitan Base Ball Club. In June 1875, four prominent members of the Metropolitans, unhappy with practice policies and playing time, quit the team and joined the newly formed Red Caps. The weakened Metropolitans then promptly lost several games to the Red Caps, who became St. Paul’s preeminent team. On July 5, the Red Caps beat the Minneapolis White Shirts 35–13, before 2,000 fans at the Lyndale grounds in south Minneapolis. Several weeks later, the St. Paul Dispatch, sensing a public demand for higher quality baseball, remarked on a mistake-prone game involving the White Shirts, “from this point each seemed to strive to outdo the other in muffing, overthrowing and general lack of skill in ball tossing. We trust that both nines will practice more before they attempt to play in public again.”[fn]St. Paul Dispatch, July 6, 1875 and July 24, 1875.[/fn]

Six weeks later, on August 20, the White Shirts (now renamed as the Minneapolis Westerns) traveled to St. Paul for a rematch with the Red Caps. They acquitted themselves much better, falling only by two runs, 18–16. By this time, however, another club, the Minneapolis Unions, had cornered many of Minneapolis’s best players and challenged the Red Caps for state honors. At the first game between the two squads, played on the Lyndale grounds in Minneapolis before 500 fans on August 30, the Red Caps won and took home a purse of $50. At a second game, played in St. Paul on September 11, the Red Caps again prevailed, 25–9. On September 3 the Unions traveled to Northfield to help the Silver Stars inaugurate their new ballpark before a crowd of 400. They fell 34–10 to the host club but gushed over the hospitality of the Northfield club, which furnished them with dinner at Northfield’s finest hotel and escorted them to and from the ballpark in fine carriages. Later in the month the Unions beat the St. Croix club of Stillwater 45-39 and the Crescent club of Hastings 21–15 at the state fair baseball tournament. A formal dance, featuring all the baseball players, was the featured evening entertainment at the tournament. To conclude the event, the Unions were scheduled to meet the Red Caps in the final game of the tournament, but rain prevented the match. For the rescheduled game in early October, the Unions did not show up, apparently having disbanded for the season.[fn]Minneapolis Daily Tribune, various issues between June and October 1875;particularly August 26 and September 5.[/fn]

Meanwhile, another Minnesota club, the Winona Clippers, was playing solid baseball and supporters began clamoring for a match with the Red Caps. As proof of their prowess, on September 8 the Clippers defeated the Silver Stars, 8–1, in a game the St. Paul Dispatch wrote would rival professional games played out east. For their victory the Clippers earned a silver bat and a $100 purse, but were charged with playing two professional players. One, W.W. Fisher, a black second baseman and pitcher, apparently recruited from the Chicago Uniques, was subjected to racial taunting by some of the Northfield players. They pinned some “n…” badges on their shirts in hopes of provoking Fisher. Negotiations for a game between St. Paul and Winona apparently stalled because the Red Caps refused to play if Winona used Fisher. The Red Caps claimed its objection was not racial but based on Fisher’s being a professional. St. Paul eventually dropped their objection and a game was scheduled as a “bonanza” game to be played at the state fair (i.e. not part of the regular baseball tournament) for $100 and bragging rights as the state’s strongest baseball club. The game turned out to be quite a remarkable affair with plenty of money changing hands on bets of all kinds. The score was tied after nine innings at 17. When the Red Caps scored five runs in the tenth inning, victory seemed assured, but the Clippers stormed back with seven runs of their own, winning the match, 24–22.

In the return match at Winona on October 16 the Red Caps gained some revenge, edging the Clippers, 8–7. Winona completed its season 13–5 and St. Paul finished 9–3. Since each team won one game against the other, no clear champion was crowned. After the game, rumors spread that Frank Smith and Fisher had sold out to gamblers and performed at less than their best against the Red Caps. Smith coerced Fisher into signing a confession, and Fisher was run out of town, never to be heard from again. Smith left town as well, although he appeared several times in Minnesota as a player with the Janesville [Wisconsin] Mutuals.[fn]Steve Hoffbeck, editor, Swinging for the Fences: Black Baseball in Minnesota, (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2005), 3–10 and Winona Daily Republican, June–October 1875.[/fn]

In addition to some fine matches between St. Paul, Minneapolis, Winona, and Northfield, the 1875 season should be remembered for the establishment of the Minnesota Association of Base Ball Players. Representatives from the Red Caps, Clippers, Silver Stars, and Waseca Champions ball clubs met in Northfield in late August to establish this organization, which despite its name, was an organization of the state’s baseball clubs. To be admitted, clubs needed to have at least 18 members and after they paid their $10 dues were entitled to send two delegates to the annual convention. Money raised via dues would fund the organization and pay for a championship pennant, inscribed with the words “Champions, the club’s name and year,” which the club could fly permanently. The season would run from March 1 to November 1 and each member was required to play at least two games against every other member to be eligible for the pennant.[fn]Northfield Standard, September 9, 1875.[/fn]

The April 24, 1876, issue of the St. Paul Dispatch complained that a man named Harry Arundel from Philadelphia, slated to spend the summer in Winona, ostensibly for his health, was in reality a ringer brought to town to strengthen the ballclub. The Clippers also recruited several other professional players from Chicago and Milwaukee in hopes of becoming Minnesota’s top baseball team. Knowing Winona’s preference for professionals, the paper concluded that the Winona management must believe, “it’s as well to be hung for stealing a sheep as a lamb.” The Dispatch maintained that the Red Caps, on the other hand, were comprised entirely of residents of St. Paul who play for the “love of it and not for the almighty dollar.” Nonetheless, the paper maintained the Red Caps would try their best against the “invalid ball tossers” of Winona.

Like most clubs at the time, the Red Caps scheduled their games from week to week as the season progressed, and thus had long stretches of inactivity between games early in the season followed by a flurry of games in August and September as interest grew. For the season Winona won 14 of 20 games and split its four games with the Red Caps. Since the Clippers outscored the Red Caps 33 to 27 in their four matches, the Clippers declared themselves the champions of Minnesota.

Testifying to baseball’s growing popularity, on June 21, the Red Caps christened their new grounds, named Red Cap Park, with a game against the St. Croix Base Ball Club of Stillwater. The park, located across the river and south of downtown, cost $800 to construct and featured a ten-foot-high fence enclosing a field 500 feet long by 360 feet wide. It had an amphitheater which seated 1,000 persons, a ticket office, and dressing rooms. The diamond had its sod removed and was scraped and rolled until it was hard and smooth. Room was also reserved for those who wished to view the games from their carriages along the foul lines and outfield. Concession stands sold cigars, fruit, and liquid refreshments. No liquor or pool selling (betting) was allowed. Game days were announced with a large flag flying from the center field pole.[fn]St. Paul Dispatch, June 20, 1876.[/fn] For the season the Red Caps had a record of 21–14–1. Against the strongest Midwest competition, however, including teams from Detroit, Chicago, and Milwaukee, the Red Caps lost all six games.

Not surprisingly the Red Caps concluded, as did the St. Paul Dispatch, that they too needed professional talent to compete. Consequently, near the end of the season the Red Caps picked up several professional players, including Charles Wilson “Dory” Dean, of the Cincinnati National League club. Dean was available because during the 1876 season, his only one in the major leagues, he recorded one of the lowest winning percentages in history, .133 (4–26). A stellar all-around athlete, after his baseball career, Dean became a fine tennis player.[fn]David Nemec, The Great Encyclopedia of Nineteenth Century Major League Baseball. Second Edition, (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2006), 113.[/fn]

For 1876, Minneapolis was late assembling its premier squad, now known as  the Blue Stockings, finally opening at home against the Northfield Silver Stars on July 18. For the opener they inaugurated a new ball grounds at the corner of Twentieth Avenue South and Eighth Street, thereafter known as Blue Stocking Park. A board fence enclosed a lot of 500 feet by 475 feet and a roofed grandstand held seats for 300 people.[fn]St. Paul Dispatch, July 22, 1876.[/fn] Later in the season, after losing a game 9–0 to the Aetna Baseball Club of Detroit that featured a battery of pitcher William Bohn and catcher William “Sunny” Hoffman, Minneapolis’s management realized that they needed to acquire better players (and pay them) to compete at the level to which they aspired. Accordingly, they entered immediate negotiations with the Detroit battery and lured them both in time for a game against the Marshalltown, Iowa club on September 15. To further bolster their club, in early October the Blue Stockings acquired Harry Arundel, James O’Day, and William Phillips from the recently disbanded Winona Clippers. The Blue Stockings finished the season with ten wins, ten losses, and one tie.

Just how far Minnesota’s best still had to improve to join the nation’s elite became apparent when the National League’s Chicago White Stockings (today known as the Cubs) featuring early baseball legends Al Spalding and Cap Anson and fresh off winning the National League’s inaugural pennant toured Minnesota in mid-October. In two games Chicago toyed with Minneapolis,  beating the locals 26–1 and 26–2. That same week the White Stockings also played the Red Caps in St. Paul, beating the St. Paul nine 19–1 and 11–4. St. Paul took particular pleasure in the latter game, maintaining that limiting the White Stockings to only 11 runs proved St. Paul was the strongest team in the state. Enticed by a guaranteed purse of $100, the White Stockings finished their Minnesota trip on October 19 with a game against the St. Croix club in Stillwater. The result, not unexpectedly, was an 18–3 victory for the Windy City nine.[fn]Stillwater Lumberman, October 20, 1876.[/fn]

St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Winona all entered the 1877 season with designs on competing with the best professional teams in the country, excepting only the National League. St. Paul and Minneapolis joined the League Alliance, a loose confederation of 13 clubs allied with the National League (meaning they would respect each other’s contracts). The League Alliance featured clubs from Syracuse, Memphis, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Chicago, Fall River and Lowell, Massachusetts, but should not be considered a league as we understand the concept today. Clubs were independent entities that scheduled their own games, both within the Alliance and with other clubs. In fact, getting ahead of our story a little, in 1878 two strong Alliance clubs, Milwaukee and Indianapolis, defected to the National League as the Alliance collapsed.

For that first Alliance season, both St. Paul and Minneapolis scheduled as many games as possible. Though not quite arranging as many games as they hoped for, St. Paul doubled its matches to 72. On June 19 the Red Caps embarked on a 13-game road trip that lasted until July 4, taking the team to Winona, Milwaukee, Janesville, Chicago, Indianapolis, Evansville, and Memphis. Upon returning, the Red Caps again faced the Chicago White Stockings at Red Cap Park on July 9 and 11. The first game was a close 2–0 loss, but the second turned into an 18–1 blowout in favor of the National Leaguers. The season wound up with 22 consecutive games against Minneapolis because Winona had folded in late August and the other League Alliance teams could not be induced to travel to Minnesota.

The Red Caps used 20 players during the 1877 season, mostly imported professionals. Several local players, with experience on the 1875 and 1876 Red Caps, filled in for a few games. The core of the team was nine imported players: Joe Ellick from Cincinnati, Ed Gault from Milwaukee, catcher Emil Gross from Chicago, William Henry “Little Mack” McClellan from Chicago, Sumner Ely from Girard, Pennsylvania, Art Allison from Philadelphia, Harry Salisbury of Providence, Rhode Island, field captain Joseph W. Miller from Cincinnati, who had experience with three clubs in the National Association and spent 1876 with Indianapolis, and William Bohn, pilfered from the Minneapolis club. All except Gault, Ely, and Bohn had or would in the future play at the highest level of base ball in the country (The National Association, National League, or American Association). The Red Caps dressed entirely in white, including their shoes; a red cap with a white band and a narrow belt with a red edging added color.[fn]St. Paul Dispatch, March 14, 1877.[/fn]

When the Memphis team disbanded in mid-July, the Red Caps telegraphed star outfielder Oscar Walker, asking for his terms. “Seventy-five dollars per month and a train ticket to St. Paul,” he replied. Later that month after a series with the Manchester, New Hampshire club the Manchesters induced Walker to jump to their squad. The Red Caps cried foul and spread the word that teams should not play Manchester if Walker appeared in their lineup. This became the first and most celebrated case of contract jumping, or a “levanting base ballist,” as Walker was dubbed, faced by the League Alliance. At the National League meeting in December, the league upheld the Red Caps contract with Walker and his subsequent expulsion for jumping his contract. Walker claimed he had never signed a contract with St. Paul and was thus free to go to Manchester, but the league ruled his acceptance via telegrams was evidence of a contract. Walker served a year suspension, but later played a few years in the major leagues.[fn]New York Clipper, August 25 and September 8, 1877; St. Paul Dispatch, August 7, 1877 and December 7, 1877; St. Paul Pioneer Press, August 3, 1877 and September 23, 1877.[/fn]

The pitching matchups between star hurlers William Bohn and Harry Salisbury provided one of the more interesting features of the 1877 season. Unfor­tunately the Minneapolis and St. Paul papers didn’t provide full coverage with box scores for games at the end of the season, so pitching lines for the season are incomplete and may never be known. The two faced each other at least 16 times in 1877 and it could have been as many as 29 (my guess is around 24–25). Moreover, they switched teams in August, Salisbury going to Minneapolis and Bohn to St. Paul.

In League Alliance games the St. Paul Red Caps finished 29–21–3, winning the most games against league competition.[fn]The Spalding Guide and the Minor League Encyclopedia show St. Paul’s record in the League Alliance as 28–21. My research indicated that St. Paul finished the with a record of 39–30–3; this total of 72 games ties to the highest games played listed for several of the Red Caps players as listed in the Spalding Guide. In my game by game account I determined that 10 wins and 9 losses were against clubs outside the League Alliance; subtracting these games results in a League Alliance record of 29–21–3, a discrepancy of one win and three ties. I believe that the extra win was against Janesville, Wisconsin. The game in question occurred on May 25, when Janesville left the field in the seventh inning with the score tied 0–0, and the game was forfeited to St. Paul. The ties were all against Minneapolis and do not count in the standings.[/fn] Although Indianapolis had a better winning percentage at 23–11, the Spalding Guide for 1878 awarded St. Paul the League Alliance pennant. Versus the other Minnesota clubs, the Red Caps won six of ten games; splitting eight with Winona, and beating the St. Croix club and a picked nine of former Red Caps players in an alumni game. Against Minneapolis, the Red Caps most common opponent, St. Paul won 19 of 36 (three games ended in ties). Overall, they finished 39–30–3.[fn]Spalding’s Official Baseball Guide for 1878, (Chicago: A.G. Spalding & Bro., 1878), 22–39. Several papers including the St. Paul Dispatch have been used to compile the record for the St. Paul Red Caps.[/fn]

Minneapolis started the 1877 season with high hopes, including plans for games in Chicago, Indianapolis, Detroit, and several cities in Canada as well as home games against some of the strongest independent teams in the country. While none of these anticipated road games ever occurred, the team did take a ten-day trip through Wisconsin and increased its schedule to 60 games. Their slightly updated attire consisted of a white uniform, brown stockings and belt, and caps of a different color for each player. Because of their new stockings the team would now be known as the Brown Stockings, though their home field was still referred to as Blue Stocking Park. In early June owner F.W. Chase sold the club to the Minneapolis Base Ball Association, a stock company of at least 72 individuals, for $350. The new owners immediately began raising money by selling shares at $10 each.[fn]Minneapolis Tribune, April 17, 1877 and May 1, 1877.[/fn]

Shortly thereafter the team departed on its long road trip to Winona and four cities in Wisconsin. The Minneapolis club did quite well on this trip, winning seven out of ten games, despite some wet weather. By mid-August, however, the club was running into financial difficulty. When the stock sale failed to bring in sufficient funds, the team paid off its players and disbanded on August 15. Three players found other positions immediately: Charlie Eden signed with the Chicago White Stockings of the National League; Billy Bohn signed with the cross-town St. Paul Red Caps; first baseman William Phillips latched on with Winona. The rest of the players re-formed the club on a co-operative basis and continued playing. The team hardly missed a beat, taking the field on August 17 with replacements for the departed players. The final 22 consecutive games against the St. Paul Red Caps sapped the interest of both fans and newspaper editors alike. Despite the August re-organization, the Brown Stockings finished with a creditable record of 31–26–3.[fn]St. Paul Pioneer Press, August 17, 1877.[/fn]

Initially the Winona Clippers were unsure if they wanted to field a professional team for 1877, but finally decided to do so and compete against St. Paul and Minneapolis. They hired three professional players from the Nameless Club of Brooklyn to start the season and in June brought in George Baker from the St. Louis Alerts. The club struggled to remain competitive; at one point in June they were outscored 35–0 over five games against the Red Caps and Brown Stockings. With their record sitting at 4–11 in mid-July, the Clippers acquired five more professional players from the recently defunct Erie, Pennsylvania club. Thus bolstered, the club finished strong, winning 11 of 15 to end up with a .500 record at 15–15.

Rochester was also represented by a baseball club in 1877. Called the Gopher States Baseball Club, the organizers created a stock company in early June and sold 100 shares at $5.00 each. The club used the proceeds to hire four local men from the St. Paul Red Caps displaced when that team upgraded its roster. Not part of the League Alliance, the 1878 Spalding Guide placed Rochester among the handful of clubs for which no records existed. In fact, Rochester opened the season with a win against the St. Charles White Caps on June 26 and finished its season on August 10 with a 6–4 win over the Winona Clippers. In between those dates, they had trouble scheduling anybody but Winona to whom they dropped six consecutive games.[fn]Rochester Record Union, July 14, 1876, August 11, 1876, September 8, 1876, October 6, 1876.[/fn]

The 1876 and 1877 seasons, while entertaining to many fans of the Twin Cities, Winona, and Rochester, quickly exposed management to the realities of running a professional base ball team. The 1877 season, which opened with high hopes and much promise in the spring, finished with hardly a whimper and little press coverage. Management underestimated how difficult it would be to run a professional base ball club so far from the eastern population centers. It was much more difficult than anticipated to induce strong eastern clubs to travel to Minnesota without financial guarantees. In fact, this problem was not just a minor league issue; two National League clubs, New York and Philadelphia, were expelled after the 1876 season for not completing their schedules with the western clubs.

The losses sustained by Minnesota’s professional clubs in 1877 soured the state’s baseball entrepreneurs on the sport as a profitable enterprise. Not until 1884 when teams from St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Stillwater competed in the Northwestern League did Minnesota have teams in an organized baseball league. Having learned painful lessons in the 1870s, the new magnates established a league that had a defined schedule, a geographical focus, recognized each other’s contracts, and recruited baseball men who would run the clubs as a business and not as a part-time leisure activity.

RICH ARPI is an independent researcher living in suburban St. Paul and has been the editor of the Bibliography Committee’s Current Baseball Publications since 1986. He is an active Halsey Hall Chapter participant and officer and has attended many national conventions since the mid-1980s. Rich is also a vintage base ball player on the Quicksteps and manager of the Great American Fantasy League’s Washington Senators/Minnesota Twins franchise.