This article was written by John P. Kelly
This article was published in the 1981 Baseball Research Journal
Wichita, Kansas, home of the 32-team national semi-professional baseball tournament for 50 years and one of today’s most successful minor league franchises, has had a checkered professional baseball history with long periods of no representation. However, they did start early.
It was only 24 years after the establishment of a trading post at the confluence of the Arkansas and Little Arkansas Rivers that the first serious attempt at organizing and promoting professional baseball in Wichita was made in 1887. It turned out to be a year in which the city would win a championship, proclaim itself the fourth best team in America and then end up as doormats in another league.
It was reported in the spring of 1887 that “an effort is again being made to form a baseball club in the City”. “Mr. Walden (sic) says that he will see with what encouragement the project meets and if the people want a baseball club, he will give his attention to the matter and believes that, even this late, a strong club with expert players can be organized.”
The following day it was reported that Mr. A. D. Jones and Mr. A. G. Waldron had decided to put up a stock company for the purpose of organizing a baseball team. It was also reported that a site with street car facilities had been chosen and correspondence with available players had begun.
On April 30, 1887, the Topeka Capital reported that the stock sale would guarantee Wichita the best team in the Kansas State League. (Other teams were Emporia, Wellington, and Arkansas City.) Topeka, Wichita’s major rival as the most influential city in the state, had already entered a team in the faster Western League.
Team officials and shareholders met and chose A. G. Waldron as chairman and F. K. Gillespie as president. Street car service was promised by the city and league games were expected to begin May 10 or 11. George J. Mold, manager the previous year of the Alton, Illinois, team, was chosen manager. Agreement was reached to carry 12 players and the league schedule was revised to begin May 16 with, hopefully, six or eight teams. Plans for the grandstand were revealed with a 2,500 seating capacity and a ten-foot-high fence surrounding the playing area.
A roster of 11 players was completed on May 13 with L. A. Rose the only hometown product. Manager Mold had loaded the team with players whose talents he already knew from his Illinois experience including two players, “Ducky” Hemp and Louis Whistler, from his 1886 Alton team. Both would later go on to major league careers.
On May 14 the team played an exhibition game against a team of local talent, winning 19-0. The new field was not going to be ready on the 16th so the first league games were moved to Emporia, where, on May 17, before a crowd in excess of 1000, Wichita defeated Emporia 2-1. The following day, they again defeated Emporia but by the more decisive margin of 15-3. The Wichita and Emporia newspapers now began an exchange with regard to the integrity of the officiating at the first two games. The method of umpire selection at that time was a coin flip, with the winner choosing the arbiter. Despite an Emporia-chosen umpire in the third game, Wichita won again.
The two teams moved to Wichita, and with the uncompleted stands full, the locals swept another series from Emporia. This extended their opening string of league victories to six, and encouraged local fans to proclaim their team the best west of Kansas City. The uncompleted grandstand resulted in the team losing $150 per game with admission for the games priced at a quarter.
The bubble burst on May 30 as Wichita, at home and leading Arkansas City 8-2 in the fourth inning, gave up ten runs and eventually lost 18-13, despite 23 base hits. Wichita returned to the winning track the following day with a 10-5 victory and got a new streak going with a 7-1 victory on the first day of June. Lou Whistler and shortstop Gus “Scharry” Scharinghausen were the big hitters during the early going. Defeating Ark City again, the locals (now called the “Braves” by their supporters) showed a 10-1 record on June 3, including their exhibition victory (which was included in the team standings).
The Wellington Monitor reported on June 3 that the Wichitans were too much for the league and that they should attempt to gain a place in the Western League. Heeding this advice, the locals began to schedule exhibition games with Western and Southwestern League teams. The first two of these games were played in Wichita June 12 and 13 with Springfield of the Southwestern League, at which time the local grandstand was completed.
In this first test against real competition, the “Braves” split the two game series, losing the opener but winning the second game 8-1. Supplied with new uniforms by local clothier Cole and Jones, the team now began to believe its press clippings and journeyed to Wellington for a three game league series.
In the opener, the team fell apart and was bombed 23-4 and split the remaining two games of the series, resulting in their first series loss. The two losses to Wellington also resulted in the release of three players and the signing of replacement players including pitcher Walter Baldwin, brother of the famous Kid Baldwin.
Playing more exhibitions, Wichita lost the opener of a three game series at Fort Smith, Arkansas (Southwestern League), but rebounded to win the next two, the last by 15-0 as Baldwin had a no-hitter through eight innings.
It was customary to indicate home games by the hanging of a “baseball flag” in downtown Wichita. The flag flew on June 21 as the Braves crushed Wellington 16-1. But Wichita lost the second and third game of the series, after which the Wichita Eagle reported, “a few more of such exhibitions will unquestionably decrease the interest in baseball to a damaging extent……..it was ‘bum’ entertainment.”
It was reported on June 22 that Wichita had scheduled games July 1 and 2 with the Kansas City Cowboys of the Western League. The rivalry between the two cities was intense enough that the Cowboys were reported to have purchased Doons, the great Leavenworth pitcher, for $700, merely to face Wichita. However, the games with Kansas City were cancelled and replaced by games with Topeka, the leaders in the Western League, to be played in Wichita on the same dates. Wichita prepared for these games by dropping two of three games at Emporia, falling to a first place tie with Wellington.
The opener with the Topeka Golden Giants (featuring the big and colorful Perry Werden) ended 10-1 in favor of Topeka. Wichita committed seven errors and their pitchers were unable to contain the seven lefthanded batters in the Topeka lineup. On the 2nd, the locals restored some of their lost prestige by outscoring the Western League leaders 11-8.
Returning to league action on the holiday, Wichita defeated Emporia 7-5 in a morning exhibition game and 12-6 in the afternoon league game. The teams split the last two games of the series leaving the Braves with a 15-9 record and Wellington trailing with 14-10.
Some Western League franchise shifting began at this time between Leavenworth and Hastings, and Wichita was approached about joining the faster league. They turned down the opportunity as the terms suggested by the league officials were not consistent with those given other league cities.
The “Braves” journeyed to Fort Smith again for July 8-9 games. They defeated the Southwestern League team 5-3 in each game extending their record against outside teams to six wins and three losses. Returning from Fort Smith, the locals stopped in Arkansas City where they won two of three games, increasing their league lead. On their return to Wichita, they were informed that Winfield, which entered the league in early July but which Wichita had not yet played, could no longer field a team and was dropping from the league.
Hastings, Nebraska, a strong Western League team, visited Wichita and defeated the home team 10-5, but Western League fever was still high and, on July 17, the stockholders of the team agreed to try to enter the Western League. On the 18th, Western League officials met to request the Wichita team to send a representative to discuss entering the league in place of departed Leavenworth.
Wichita was offered Leavenworth’s schedule and would be permitted to start with a clean percentage. Visiting teams would be paid $100 for each game in Wichita and Wichita would receive $65 for each away game (the Kansas State League terms had been $40 and $40). The stockholders of the Wichita team met again and agreed unanimously to enter the Western League on these terms. They also agreed to make the league a stock payment as an entry fee. League games were to begin in Wichita July 26 against powerful Lincoln which had recently won 17 consecutive games. Reasons given at the time for entering the Western League included proper newspaper coverage, publicity on the Associated Press wire throughout the United States and coverage of all games in the St. Louis newspapers.
The Kansas State League had been dealt a death blow and folded immediately. The final standings (games considered exhibition and non-league games removed) were:
- Wichita, 17-10
- Wellington, 14-11
- Arkansas City, 11-15
- Emporia, 9-17
- Winfield, 4-2
Wichita’s overall record of 27-14, including a 10-4 mark in exhibitions, was given considerable attention locally. It was commonly reported that they had the fourth best team in America, their .658 winning percentage exceeded only by Topeka’s .730, St. Louis’ .712 and Detroit’s .701.
A final exhibition game was played July 23 with Omaha of the Western League defeating the locals 10-8. Wichita’s exhibition record against Western League teams stood at two wins and four losses on the eve of their entry into the league.
Opening their Western League season at home before 2000 fans, Wichita defeated Lincoln 8-2 behind a 13-hit attack, including four by Hemp, one of the few remaining KSL players. In addition, the team played errorless ball in the field — a remarkable fielding performance for the times. The fans were jubilant and visions of two championships in one year began. This vision was quickly dissipated as the locals dropped the next two by 8-6 and 4-3 scores to the Nebraska team. Hopes for a respectable showing, however, were created by the closeness of the two losses and the fact that the team led in the middle innings of both games. At this time the only other players remaining from the original 11 were Scharinghausen and Whistler. Hemp’s acrobatic catches in center field also made him a particular fan favorite.
Following the opening series, Wichita began a long road trip with the first stop in Hastings. There the Wichitans were defeated 9-4 on July 30 due in great part to three Hastings home runs, two by Whitehead. The following day in Omaha, with Hemp making a rare start on the mound, the locals lost 6-3. On the 2nd the Kansans bounced back to win 9-7, despite being outhit 16-8, due to 10 Hastings errors. In six Western League games the team, which would only hit two home runs in the league, had been out homered six to nothing.
Traveling next to Denver, the Wichitans fell before the powerful bats of the season-long Western Leaguers in the first two games 12-5 and 11-8. Their own strong hitting continued in the next game as they slammed out 19 hits (5 by Hemp — now hitting .442) to win 14-9, but Denver prevailed in the finale 22-8 with 28 hits and 16 Wichita errors. The future did not look well for the team as they were committing more errors than their opponents and their pitchers were showing a marked propensity for walking opposing batters. In the Western League in 1887, contrary to major league practice, free passes did not count as hits.
Wichita’s weak pitching resulted in 77 opposition runs in six games, but this still gave no idea of what was coming as the team traveled to Lincoln for their first appearance in Nebraska’s capital city. The Treeplanters proved rude hosts as they blasted the visitors 46-7 in the opening game, gathering 50 hits and taking advantage of 15 Wichita errors. Twenty runs in the sixth inning proved the crushing blow. Each Lincoln player had at least five hits. Lincoln continued their heavy hitting in the last two games, winning both, the second by 24-12. Coming into Lincoln with a 3-7 record, Wichita left 3-10 and embarrassed. Surprisingly, pitcher Baldwin, the only respectable pitcher on the team with a 2-1 record, was released at this time.
At meetings held in Kansas City to discuss the financial problems of the St. Joseph team it was decided that Emporia could enter in place of St. Joseph provided they would guarantee $65 to visiting teams for each game. Reliable sources indicated that if they declined the offer, Wichita would also be dropped from the league.
Despite negative reports like this, the Wichitans moved to Omaha where they split a pair of one-run games, losing the first 5-4 but winning the second 7-6, coming from behind in the eighth and ninth. In the first game, Hemp hit the first Wichita home run after 14 opponent blasts. Co-Managers Griffin and Mold were quoted as saying that Wichita’s entry into the Western League was good for the team even if they continued to lose, because the team would have died with the old Kansas State League.
Leaving Omaha, after losing the third game of the series 7-4, the team had a three-day layoff before traveling to Emporia to face the league’s newest entry. Despite their superior record over Emporia in the Kansas State League, the three-game series August 17-19 was swept by Emporia by scores of 9-4, 8-6, and 6-1 with Wichita committing 29 errors in the series and being outplayed in all facets of the game. Following the third game, the two teams moved to Wichita for three more games. The team had completed its road trip with a 3-13 record for an overall record of 4-15.
The first home game with Emporia was scheduled for a Sunday and drew a good crowd despite significant opposition from local churches and public officials. Violating the Christian conscience of the town had little effect on the players as they began to play the type of ball they had in the KSL and in a complete reversal of form, swept the three games from Emporia with late inning rallies. In the second game, Billy Sunday, picked up in Lincoln and batting .375, was called out in a crucial situation when caught in a common trick of the times, cutting second base by a wide margin.
Following Emporia, the Kansas City Cowboys came to town for their long-awaited confrontation with Wichita. The strong pitching of the Kansas City team held the locals almost helpless, however, as they scored only three runs and lost all three games (the last by 1-0) extending their Western League record to 7-18. The first Kansas City game was played before more than 2,000 fans — the largest attendance in Wichita for a Western League game to that date. The Kansas City pitcher in that game — “Kid” Nichols was reported to be the youngest professional player in the nation at 16. A later check revealed that Nichols, elected to the Hall of Fame in 1949, was actually 17.
The downspin continued as the team visited Topeka where their rivals for state supremacy and the current Western pace-setters swept the three games. The team continued on the road to Kansas City where they stretched their losing string to 13. They lost again to Nichols despite a home run by Lou Whistler, the only Wichita player besides Hemp and Scharinghausen to play the whole season and who later went on to the most distinguished major league career of any pre-1900 Wichita player. This defeat dropped Wichita to the cellar with a 7-24 record. Newspaper coverage of the team fell off as the team became a source of embarrassment rather than pride to the image-conscious city.
With the completion of the road trip, the regular season ended with little serious talk of any plans for re-organization for the following year. In his partial season, Sunday had led the regulars by hitting .392 with Hemp and Whistler following at .352 and.320. Three pitchers tied for the team lead in wins with two, one of them being Baldwin, who was with the team only a short time. Hendricks was 2-8 and Daniels 2-6. Wichita was outhit by 60 points (.344 to .284), the team committed 52 more errors than its opponents and had a fielding average of .885, and they were outhomered 19 to 7.
The team had lost money at home and on the road, and exhibition games were scheduled in September with Wellington in order to pay overdue salaries and bills. Although no one knew it at the time, these games were to be the last professional contests played in the city until 1898. What had begun as a promising, exciting season had ended in dismal failure.