Wilmington Quicksteps Glory to Oblivion

This article was written by J. Scott Gross

This article was published in the 1986 Baseball Research Journal


After clinching the 1884 Eastern League pennant in mid-August, the team replaced Philadelphia in the Union Association and compiled the majors’ worst record – a dismal . 111 won-lost percentage.

 

The year 1884 marked the Eastern League’s inaugural season, and the circuit had a less than auspicious start. A number of teams folded or bolted, and one club made a shambles of the race. In fact, the Wilmington Quicksteps wrapped up the championship on August 15. Their 51-12 record rendered the season’s remaining six weeks meaningless. The Delaware team remedied this awkward situation three days after clinching the title by jumping to Harry Lucas’ Union Association, which operated that year as a major league.

Wilmington’s dominance proved disastrous at the gate, and the team lost $1,000 while winning the Eastern League championship. The ownership felt that a shift to the Union Association would induce fans to come to see big leaguers play the locals. In addition, the Union Association, which was in some disarray itself and would last only one season, had offered direct financial inducements for the Quicksteps to change leagues. The U.A. promised to pay the Quicksteps’ travel expenses, and besides the customary $65 that was paid to the visiting team Wilmington would, in some cases, split gate receipts 50-50 with the home club.

This arrangement sounded fine to the Quicksteps. Picking up the schedule of the disbanded Philadelphia Keystones, the Quicksteps played 18 games and lost all but two of them. This represented a won-lost percentage of .111, a sharp contrast to their Eastern League winning percentage of .810.

The 2-16 record put them at the bottom of the Union Association, and their .111 percentage also provides the answer to the trivia question of “Which major league team had the worst record in history?” (Not the 1899 Cleveland Spiders with their .130 record, but the 1884 Wilmington Quicksteps.)

The Quicksteps’ pitching fared pretty well in the new league, posting a 3.04 earned-run average. This was only five points above the league average. However, the team’s batting average of .175 dashed any hopes of competing with other U.A. teams. Wilmington pitchers also received little help from their defense.

The Quicksteps’ poor showing in the shaky Union Association would seem to be an indication that the level of play in the Eastern League was pathetic, but this was probably not so. The Quicksteps fielded a solid and stable lineup throughout the Eastern League season, but lost several key players after the transfer to the U.A.

Unlike Newark, which had eight third basemen, and Trenton, which cut its roster severely in midseason, the Wilmington club had carried just eight regulars, three pitchers and a utility man while building up its insurmountable lead over the first three and one-half months of the Eastern League race. The Quicksteps’ roster included Emanuel “Redleg” Snyder, 1b; Charles Bastian, 2b; James Say, 3b; Thomas “Oyster” Burns, ss; Thomas Lynch, Dennis Casey and William McCloskey, of; Tony Cusick, c; Edward “The Only” Nolan and Daniel Casey (Dennis’ brother), pitchers. Burns also did some pitching and Lynch some catching. Late in May the Quicksteps picked up John Munce of the Baltimore Monumentals as an extra outfielder.

At one point Bastian went ten consecutive games without an error, handling 76 chances, an incredible feat in that era before the introduction of outsized gloves. He was considered one of the best second basemen in the country and compiled a .932 fielding average in the Eastern League. For comparison, the best mark in the majors for second basemen that season was .937 by player-manager George Creamer of the Pittsburgh Alleghenys.

It was the end of June before Wilmington signed its third full-time pitcher. He was 17-year-old John Murphy of the disbanded Altoona Unions. (The Baseball Encyclopedia shows the Altoona player as Con Murphy, but this was impossible because the great Con pitched for Trenton from April to August. The Wilmington Morning News noted the Quicksteps’ new pitcher as “John Murphy of Altoona.”) Murphy had posted a 5-6 record for the ill-fated Altoona team, which had a dismal 6-19 record when it dropped out of the Union Association on June 2. With Wilmington Murphy was 0-6 after the Quicksteps switched to the Union Association.

Seeking extra offense, Wilmington picked up catcher-outfielder John Cullen from the disbanded Reading team early in August. He had led Reading in batting with .314. Also acquired was Ike Benners, who was dropped by the Brooklyn American Association team after batting only .201. With the arrival of Cullen and Benners, the Quicksteps released Munce.

When the Quicksteps joined the Union Association, they had their largest roster – 12 players, including all those who had put the team beyond reach in the Eastern League. As a consequence, the U.A. had reason to be optimistic that its newest team would make a good showing. In fact, Wilmington got off to a good start by beating the tough National team of Washington, 4-3, in its first game behind the pitching of Dan Casey.

Two days later, on August 21, the Wilmington team’s hopes came crashing down. Outfielder Dennis Casey and captain-shortstop “Oyster” Burns, known as the “Wilmington Growler,” jumped to the Baltimore Orioles of the American Association for much more money than they were making with the Quicksteps. Both were superior hitters (Casey finished second in the E.L. with a .370 average and Bums was third at .337). Casey was paid $900 a month by the Orioles (only the top players received as much), but managed to hit just .248. Baltimore’s $700-per-month investment in Burns paid higher dividends with a .290 batting average.

Wilmington missed Burns’ power. He had led the Eastern League in home runs with 11 and triples with 15. His home-run total was remarkable in the age of the deadball. The entire Trenton team produced only 14 roundtrippers that season. Burns’ total of 11 was average for the major league homer leaders of the period, but more impressive because of the much lower number of games in which he participated.

On the same day that Dennis Casey and Bums jumped to the American Association, both “The Only” Nolan and his batterymate, Cusick, hopped across the state line to play an exhibition game for the Philadelphia National League team. Wilmington had the day off from the U.A., so it was no great catastrophe. A bit of a problem did arise when Phillie manager Harry Wright claimed after the game that the battery was Philadelphia property. Wright promised that if either player returned to Wilmington he would have him blacklisted. This was contested by the Quicksteps, who claimed Wright had no right to make such a claim. Nolan, unintimidated, returned to Wilmington and went on to pitch the Quicksteps’ only other U.A. victory on September 3, again versus Washington. His Union record of 1-4 was not as impressive as might be expected of a pitcher who struck out 52 and walked seven in 40 innings.

This was not the first time during the season that Nolan had passed up a chance to play for a major league team. In June the same Philadelphia club had offered Cusick and Nolan a package deal of $1,000 a month, but both refused. In July the Baltimore Unions offered Nolan $350 a month to help them, but once again he declined. His motives were later brought to light when an article on him in the Wilmington Morning News reported that “no other player has had a more checkered past.” The story pointed out Nolan had three prerequisites for joining a team: 1) It must be a poor club, 2) He must be paid a large amount of money, and 3) He must be the king of the pitching staff.

That explained a lot, including his unique nickname. Both the Philadelphia and Baltimore offers were impressive, but each team had one or more outstanding pitchers and thus Nolan’s third and most important reason for joining a team would not be met.

With Wilmington his pay was moderate and the quality of play was well above his requirements, but much more important, he was admired. Nolan eventually wound up with a disappointing 23-52 major league record, but he was a man who would be invited to the White House to have a catch with President McKinley. Recognition was vital to him. He may not have been the premier pitcher in 1884 that he was back in 1876-77, but with the Quicksteps he still was “The Great and Only” Nolan, and Harry Wright could not offer enough to induce him to leave the Quicksteps.

Cusick, on the other hand, fell victim to mortal urges when it came to Wright’s offer. The Phillies needed a catcher badly. Cusick was offered $375 a month – more than twice his Quickstep salary – to jump to Philadelphia, and he accepted.

With the acquisition of Cusick, Wright released pitcher Jim McElroy and reserve catcher Gene Vadeboncoeur. Interestingly, McElroy had started the `84 season with the E.L.’s Baltimore Monumentals at a reported salary of $50 a month. With Philadelphia he received $300. To make up for the loss of Casey, Bums and Cusick, Wilmington signed on both of the Philadelphia rejects.

The Quicksteps also tried to pick up the slack by adding Harry Fisher, a shortstop-outfielder from Cleveland, and Henry Myers, who had been released by Trenton. Fisher’s background is a bit confusing because The Baseball Encyclopedia lists a “Fisher” with an unknown first name as playing for the Philadelphia and Wilmington Unions in 1884. The Wilmington papers reported the signing of “Harry Fisher of Cleveland.” The Baseball Encyclopedia shows Harry Fisher played for the Kansas City and Chicago-Pittsburgh Unions. As it turned out, Fisher was hardly a satisfactory replacement for Dennis Casey.

Besides the inadequacy of the three replacements, the Quicksteps experienced pitching problems. Dan Casey left the team on August 25. Although he had the best record (1-1) on his U.A. team, he was disgusted with the deteriorating condition of what had once been the most tightly-run baseball organization in the nation.

Wilmington soon signed Fred Tenney from the Washington Unions and picked up Edward “Jersey” Bakely from the disbanded Keystones in hopes of finding a replacement for Dan Casey. Tenney had posted a 3-1 record with the Boston Unions but was released. Bakely had been the Keystones’ No. 1 pitcher with a 14-25 record. His greatest asset was his endurance, and he wound up third in the U.A. behind one-armed Hugh Daily and Bill Sweeney in both complete games and innings pitched.

Tenney pitched one game for Wilmington, lost (of course), became disgusted with the lack of support and cohesiveness on the team and quit. Bakely stayed around long enough to pitch two games (both losses) and then joined the Kansas City Unions. He wound up leading the U.A. in defeats with 30 as compared to 16 victories.

On September 15 all of the Quicksteps’ problems reached a climax. The Wilmington papers reported that no fans showed up that day for a home game with Kansas City. This was understandable for the 2-15 home club was taking on a team that would finish one step above them with a 16-63 record. Manager Joe Simmons called his players off the field, forfeited the game and the team disbanded.

Lack of fan support was given as the reason for the folding of the Quicksteps, but U.A. rivals had other thoughts. It was claimed that on Wilmington’s first western trip the traveling expenses promised the Quicksteps by Harry Lucas, St. Louis manager and U.A. president, had never been paid. What made this accusation worse was the contention that Lucas bilked Wilmington deliberately in order to freeze the team out of the league. It was said that Lucas been been in touch with the Omaha Base Ball Club, which promised large paying crowds for U.A. games played in the Nebraska city.

Since Kansas City was in town when the Quicksteps disbanded, several of the Wilmington players joined the westerners. Besides Bakely, infielders Bastian and Say were signed by Kansas City. Lynch joined the Philadelphia N.L. team and took the catching job away from former teammate Cusick.

While it is true the Wilmington Unions’ .111 winning percentage is the worst in major league history, this record gives a misleading impression about both the team and the Eastern League which it had dominated. The reason Wilmington was so superior in the E. L. was that it had a stable roster of good players. The lack of any contractual regulations in the Union Association put these poorly paid players in the middle of a vicious players’ market, and the team was broken up as the result of raids by teams willing to pay more money to key players. The move that was designed to recoup the Quicksteps’ losses actually resulted in their destruction

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