The First Great Minor League Club

This article was written by Joseph Overfield

This article was published in 1977 Baseball Research Journal

   In the modern era of baseball there have been many great minor league clubs. Those that come immediately to mind are the 1937 Newark Bears, the 1934 Los Angeles Angels, the 1925 San Francisco Seals, the 1939-40 Kansas City Blues, the 1933 Columbus Red Birds, the  1928-31 Rochester Red Wings, and those special minor league dynasties, the 19 19-25 Baltimore Orioles of Jack Dunn, and the 1920-25 Fort Worth Panthers of Jake Atz. Which was the greatest? It is hard for me to say, but I understand the merits of some of those great clubs are to be taken up in this Journal.

     Let me stay out of that discussion and concentrate instead on what I feel was the greatest minor league team of baseball’s early years.  The Western League of the 1 890s was a strong circuit, and the American League of 1900, which used many players of the 12-team National League of 1899, and which became a major league in 1901, obviously had to be high caliber. However, going back further, a strong case can be made for a single club, the 1878 Buffalo Bisons of the International Association. First, some background.

     The International Association, the game’s first minor league, was organized in Pittsburgh on February 20, 1877, when officials of various clubs met to formulate rules of operation and to elect officers. William A. (Candy) Cummings, reputedly the first curve ball pitcher, and representing Lynn, Mass., was elected president; Harry Gorman of London, Ontario, was chosen vice president, and James A. Williams of Columbus, Ohio, became secretary-treasurer and chief administrative officer.  The other teams were from Guelph, Ontario, Manchester, N.H., Rochester, N.Y., and Pittsburgh. These were the teams which had paid an extra fee and which would be competing for the championship. They had to play a set schedule of games, very short by modern standards, but there was no limit to the number of outside games that a team could play. Twenty-five cents was the admission rate for championship games, and visiting clubs received a $75 guarantee, or half the gate receipts, whichever were larger.

    The league survived its first season, and it is an oddity of baseball history that the first minor league championship was won by a Canadian city, London. It’s players, however, were American. This included Fred Goldsmith, the leading pitcher with a 14-4 mark. According to averages compiled by SABR member Raymond Nemec, the leading batter was Steve Brady of Rochester with a .358 mark. More famous names were the aforementioned Candy Cummings, who fared poorly for Lynn with a 1-7 record, King Kelly, who caught in three games for Columbus, and Jim Galvin of Pittsburgh, who hurled the minor’s first shutout, 2-0 over Columbus on April 30.

    Over the winter, elaborate plans were made for the 1878 season.  Not only was the league expanded to 11 clubs (four, including the champion London Tecumsehs, were to drop by the wayside during the season), but concerted efforts were made to sign National League players. The New York Clipper, a strong supporter of the Association, offered to donate a silk pennant to the championship club, as well as gold badges to the players with the best fielding averages at each position.

    Buffalo, one of the new cities in the Association, had been represented by a professional nine only since the previous summer. The 1877 Buffalo team was not affiliated with any league, but did play a heavy schedule of games against National League, International Association and independent clubs. While its record was unimpressive (20-30), it did number on its roster three players who were to make a name for themselves in future years-John Montgomery Ward, Larry Corcoran (just 1 6 when he joined the team) and James Roseman.

    The Buffalo management cleaned house completely after the disappointing 1877 season, even dropping the promising Corcoran (“He was a poor team player and showed no sympathy for his catcher”), and then proceeded to round up a group of young and promising players mixed with a sprinkling of experienced hands. There was no reserve clause in those days, and it was possible to negotiate with players as soon as their season was over. The distinction between major and minor was not important, if there was any distinction at all. That the National League was major and the International Association minor was something decided by historians long after the fact. It was therefore possible for the Buffalo club to sign the diminutive Davey Force, a capable shortstop with eight years experience with National Association and National League clubs, as well as second baseman Charley Fulmer, a seven-year veteran.

    But it was in the acquisition of young players that the Buffalo management showed its greatest perspicacity. It signed the young battery of the Pittsburgh Alleghenys, 22-year old Jim Galvin and his 19-year old catcher, husky Tom Dolan. Centerfielder Dave Eggler was recommended by Alfred Wright, sports editor of the Philadelphia Mercury, and agreed to come for “seven months for seven hundred dollars.” Another Philadelphian, Cyrus (Dick) Allen, a dental student-ballplayer, was signed for third base; Steve Libby’, a rangy, hard-hitter from Scarborough, Maine, was the first baseman, and Bill Crowley and Bill McGunnigle were the other two outfielders. McGunnigle was also the “change” pitcher, while John (Trick) McSorley was the substitute on the ten-man squad. During the season, second baseman Denny Mack and outfielder Joe Hornung were added to bring the complement up to 12. George L. Smith was the non-playing manager and Fulmer was the captain, being succeeded in this post during the season by Force and later by Galvin.

    The payroll of the 1878 Bisons was minuscule by today’s standards. Salaries ranged from the $700 paid to Eggler, McGunnigle and McSorley to the $1000 for Allen and $1200 for Force. The year-end financial statement of the club, on record in the Erie County Clerk’s Office, Buffalo, shows a total expenditure of $11,068.33 for salaries of players and employees. From this total $81.77 in “fines imposed on players” can be subtracted.

    Almost as big a job as rounding up a team was the task of getting a new ball park ready for the start of the season. Over the winter months, a block of land on the city’s West Side had been leased, and it was only by dint of the greatest effort, considering Buffalo’s disagreeable winter and spring weather, that the diamond was made ready for practice by mid-April.

    The practice game against a local amateur nine on April 15 was the first of an ambitious 116-game schedule that was not to end until October 25. In that six-month period, the Bisons not only won the International Association championship, the New York State championship (which was not Organized Baseball), and the bitter inter-city competition between Buffalo and Rochester, but also defeated National League clubs in ten of 17 games. Every one of the six National League clubs, including the famed Boston Sox who were 41-19 in League play, was victimized at least once, as the Bisons were 1-2 with Boston, 2-1 with Cincinnati, 2-2 with Providence, 3-2 with Chicago and 1-0 with both Indianapolis and Milwaukee. Overall the Bisons won 81, lost 32 and tied three. They scored 17 shutouts and were shut out themselves just five times.

     The Buffaloes were not a particularly hard hitting team, relying instead on sharp fielding and the incredible pitching of Jim Galvin. In that era of improved pitching from the 45-foot distance and the dead ball, the home run was a rarity. The Bisons hit but two the entire season. The first, off the bat of Steve Libby, came on June 21 in a game at Buffalo against Binghamton, and was reported as follows in the Buffalo Express: “Libby struck the ball squarely and it went on a beeline to the leftfield corner. For a few seconds the crowd did riot comprehend the magnitude of the hit. Suddenly the fans became frantic and the applause was the loudest ever heard here, lasting several minutes. Several ladies threw bouquets at the blushing Libby.” The Bisons’ other home run was hit by Galvin in a game at Utica. It was a long drive that bounced past the centerfielder and lodged itself in the spring of a carriage that was parked against the fence. Before the ball could be retrieved, the Buffalo pitcher was able to round the bases.

     On June 12 in a game at Buffalo, the Bisons suffered their most humiliating defeat of the year, bowing to bitter rival Rochester by a score of 16-3. Local fans, many of whom had bet heavily on the outcome of the game, gave vent to their frustration by attempting to mob Umpire George Campbell at the end of the game. Only prompt action by two stout policemen prevented serious trouble. A few days later the Buffalo Express reported that the Buffalo club had hired two private detectives to investigate Campbell with shocking results. It was discovered that Campbell had sold out to two gamblers (one from Rochester and one from Syracuse) for $200, with a resultant profit to the gamblers of $1600. Campbell, who lived in Syracuse, denied everything and immediately brought suit for libel against the newspaper. The legal papers for this action, which are in the writer’s possession, are inconclusive, because Campbell never showed up for the trial. Was he the game’s first dishonest umpire? We will never know.

    Two of the team’s most exciting games were played against National League clubs. The first was a 13-inning, 4-2 victory over the Chicago White Stockings, played at Buffalo on August 19. It was a bitterly fought game and at one point Manager Bob Ferguson of Chicago became so incensed at the umpire that he threatened to leave the field. Only the soothing words of Cap Anson (“Of all things, don’t leave the field, Bob,” according to the Buffalo Courier) kept him at his post. In this game Galvin demonstrated his mastery of the pick-off play by knocking off no fewer than five White Stocking runners. The second notable game against a “League” club took place in Boston on October 2, when Buffalo beat the champions in 12 innings, scoring six runs in the bottom of the 12th, after Boston had scored one run in the top half.                                            

    The real story of the 1878 Bisons was Jim Galvin, the stocky, mild-mannered pitcher with a buggy whip for an arm. It is doubtful if any pitcher in baseball history, including Charles Radbourn’s singular role with Providence in 1884, ever had a year to match Galvin’s 1878 iron-man performance. Of the total 116 league and non-league games played by the Bisons, he pitched in 101, of which 96 were complete.  He won 72 games, lost 25 and tied three. Seventeen of his wins were shutouts and he was 10-5 against National League clubs. He started and finished the first 23 games the team played and was finally relieved by McGunnigle in the 24th. The next day he “rested” by starting in right field, but then came on in relief. From September 2 to October 4, the Bisons played 22 games and Galvin started and finished every one of them. On October 2, he beat Boston in the 12-inning game mentioned above; the next day he beat Providence in 13 innings, and then the following day was the loser in another game at Boston, after which it was announced he had a sore arm. McGunnigle pitched the next two games, but Galvin came back on October 8 to beat Utica in the game that clinched the International Association pennant for Buffalo.

    How many innings did Galvin pitch that season? Unfortunately, the box scores of his five incomplete games do not indicate the number of innings he pitched. It can be stated, however, that he pitched a minimum of 895 innings and a maximum of 905.

    Five players on the Buffalo team-Force, Libby, McGunnigle, Hornung and Galvin-were chosen on the New York Clipper all-star team, with the selections being based solely on fielding averages. With the exception of Steve Libby, whose record shows just one game for the 1879 National League Buffalo club, all of the 1878 Bisons went on to major league careers of varying lengths. Galvin, of course, became a Hall-of-Famer. Force continued in the majors until 1886, and Joe Hornung did the same until 1890. The old campaigner returned to Buffalo in 1891 and 1892 to play with the city’s Eastern League club, still disdaining the use of a glove. Bill McGunnigle played and managed off and on in the majors until 1896, and along the way gained the distinction of being one of the first managers to be fired after winning a pennant (Brooklyn 1890). Dick Allen, after a year of major league ball, became a dentist and later a lecturer in dentistry at Buffalo Dental School. Fulmer was in the majors until 1884 and later became a magistrate in Philadelphia.

    Despite the team’s great record, the 1878 season was not a howling financial success for the Buffalo owners. The team’s bank account at the end of the season showed a balance of just $248.94. Apparently, this was a sizeable enough nest egg to permit the team to apply for membership in the National League. The application was granted and the city went on to play “League” ball until the end of the 1885 season. It is interested to note that the Bisons, with much the same team that won the International Association pennant in 1878, finished in a tie for third place in their first year in the National League.

    As for the International Association, it struggled along for another two seasons before fading into oblivion. But it had played its role in the game’s history-it had been the first of the minor leagues, and one of its teams, the 1878 Bisons, was baseball’s first great minor league club.