Worcester Nationals ownership history

By Charlie Bevis

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Lee RichmondAs one of the early small-market franchises in the National League, the Worcester ballclub had a short tenure in the league, but it has retained a solid place in National League history for how the club entered the league in 1880 and how it was forced to exit in 1882.

The Worcester Base Ball Club was a stock company organized in September 1879 after the conclusion of the team’s 1879 season in the minor-league National Association. The club raised $1,725 in capital through the sale of 69 shares of stock at $25 each, and received a corporate charter from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in November 1879.1 A diversified group of about two dozen stockholders financed the club during its National League tenure.

Worcester was admitted to the National League for the 1880 season to replace the expelled Syracuse club. However, the league’s club owners needed to devise a creative interpretation (a four-mile radius) to circumvent the league’s constitutional requirement for a city to have a population of at least 75,000 people.2 In the 1880 federal census, Worcester was the 28th largest city in the country with a population of 58,291 people.

League President William Hulbert lobbied to add Worcester to the league, ostensibly because the Worcester ownership supported his conservative agenda (prohibiting alcohol and Sunday games at the ballpark), but more covertly because Worcester advanced “Hulbert’s strategy of preempting the formation of competing leagues by absorbing their potentially strongest members.”3 The Worcester club had shown in 1879 that it could make some money in the fractured baseball market on the East Coast.

The Worcester club carried over its bare-bones management team from 1879 into the 1880 season. Charles B. Pratt was the president, Freeman Brown was the treasurer, Frank Bancroft was the secretary and manager, and the board of directors consisted of Pratt and four local businessmen (T.S. Johnson, C.M. Dyer, W.H. Crawford, and W.S. Jourdan).4

Pratt, who had served as mayor of Worcester from 1877 through 1879, was the president of a local fire-insurance company, a director on the board of several Worcester businesses, and the president of the Worcester County Agricultural Society.5 Since the Agricultural Society owned the Worcester Agricultural Fairgrounds, Pratt likely arranged for a club-friendly lease of its trotting-horse driving park (with grandstand) where the ballclub played its home games. Given his extensive commercial and civic connections, Pratt was the public face of the Worcester club.

Besides handling the cash and accounting ledgers as treasurer, Brown was the usual Worcester representative at league meetings and used his day job as a newspaper reporter for the Worcester Spy to help publicize the baseball team.6 Bancroft ran the day-to-day operations of the ballclub (both business and baseball in that era) and he was largely responsible for the profitability of the Worcester club during the 1880 season.

The club began 1880 with $1,558 in the treasury and finished the year with a $2,883 balance, but the $1,325 profit was derived from the $2,942 in new funds from stockholders that offset the $1,617 operating loss ($15,522 in gate receipts less $17,139 in expenses).7 While the stockholders technically kept the ballclub afloat, the New York Clipper reported that “the Worcesters have been singularly successful in a financial point of view thanks to Bancroft’s able management.”8

Bancroft minimized the operating loss in 1880, not just through parsimony in player salaries and travel expenses to road games, but also by generating revenue through numerous exhibition games played outside the club’s league schedule. Because player salaries were a fixed cost, he increased the bottom line by staging as many games as possible on Monday through Saturday between April and October. (Sunday games were then prohibited by law in all Eastern states.) Bancroft squeezed in nearly 40 extra games beyond the club’s 85 league contests.

“Mr. Bancroft has reason to feel proud of his career at Worcester the past season, as under his management the club closes the season the best financially of any club in the league, excepting Chicago,” the Boston Globe reported. “For the third consecutive year Manager Bancroft’s nine has played more games than any other in the country,” with 123 games played in 1880, down slightly from the 125 games played in 1879.9

The club’s board of directors, however, didn’t appreciate Bancroft’s efforts to stem the red ink while piloting the team to a fifth-place finish. “The directors came to the conclusion that a professional manager was not warranted for the expense involved in his re-engagement,” the St. Louis Globe-Democrat reported, “so Manager Bancroft was allowed to go to Detroit,” a new club in the National League for the 1881 season.10

All five directors were unanimously re-elected by the stockholders at a meeting in January 1881.11 Convinced that jettisoning the job of a full-time manager would increase profits, the directors allocated the business affairs aspect of the job to Brown, the treasurer, and the on-field baseball matters to Mike Dorgan, an outfielder who now doubled as team captain (and considered today to have been the field manager).12

During the 1881 season, the club lost many games on the field and money at the box office as the team stumbled to a last-place finish. In August Dorgan was fired and replaced as captain by Harry Stovey.13 In September the board of directors was revamped: Pratt and Crawford stayed on as the other three directors resigned and were replaced by Brown, Joseph Mason, and Fred Simester.14

Brown was rewarded with a board seat for keeping the overall loss for 1881 at just a few hundred dollars. New stock subscriptions were reportedly infused into the club, to enable an estimated $2,700 cash balance at year end (down from $2,883 at year-end 1880), but the club lost about $200 in 1881.15 The directors doubled down on tightly managing expenses for the 1882 season. “Professional base ball is now reduced to a business problem,” the directors told the Worcester Evening Gazette, “and to be successful the same principles must be applied to its management as are applied to any well managed and successful corporation, woolen mill, or machine shop.”16

The 1882 season was as bleak for the Worcester club as was 1881, both in the cash box and on the field. Brown saved some money by serving as both business manager and field manager, replicating the old job as performed by Bancroft in 1880. Only Brown was not as competent an overall manager as Bancroft. By July, when the cash balance was down to about $1,000 and the projected loss was in the thousands of dollars, Brown resigned as both treasurer and manager (but remained a director).

Brown’s resignation sparked a disagreement within the board of directors regarding the club’s future direction, as Pratt and Brown teamed up to deadlock with the duo of Mason and Simester (Crawford having earlier resigned).17 At a stockholders meeting to resolve the matter, the Pratt/Brown faction prevailed, resulting in the resignation of Mason and Simester and the appointment of three new directors (F.P. Goulding, G.E. Batchelder, and W.S. Jourdan).18 Jack Chapman, a professional manager like Bancroft, was hired to be the new manager, while director Goulding became the new treasurer.

However, the Worcester club was hopelessly losing money on its way to a dismal 18-66 record and another last-place finish. To try to entice spectators to late-season ballgames, the first-ever two-games-for-the-price-of-one doubleheader in the major leagues was conducted in Worcester on September 25.19 Three days later, on September 28, just six spectators went to the game in Worcester, while only 18 people attended the final game of the season the next day.20

Since Hulbert had died prior to the 1882 season, the Worcester club no longer had a staunch defender in National League politics to retain a franchise in a city that was obviously too small to support major-league baseball. On September 28, at a secret session of a special meeting of the National League club owners, the Worcester club was evicted from the league (as was the Troy, New York, club) as part of a strategy to add large-market clubs in New York City and Philadelphia.21

While $650 remained in the club treasury at the end of the 1882 season, an additional $800 was needed to pay off the ballplayers in full; when no stock subscriptions were forthcoming to cover the deficit, the players received a pro-rata share of the $650 balance.22

Freeman Brown attended the league meeting in December of 1882 when Worcester was officially ousted from the National League; as a parting gift, the league granted Worcester an honorary, albeit worthless, lifetime membership in the league.23

 

CHARLIE BEVIS is the author of seven books on baseball history, most recently "Red Sox vs. Braves in Boston: The Battle for Fans’ Hearts, 1901-1952" (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2017). A member of SABR since 1984, he has contributed more than five dozen biographies to the SABR BioProject as well as several to SABR books. He is an adjunct professor of English at Rivier University in Nashua, New Hampshire.

 

Notes

1 Public Documents of Massachusetts: Being the Annual Reports of Various Public Officers and Institutions for the Year 1879 (Boston: Rand, Avery & Company, 1880), document 10, page 9.

2 Harold Seymour, Baseball: The Early Years (New York: Oxford University Press, 1960), 97.

3 Tom Melville, Early Baseball and the Rise of the National League (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2001), 128.

4 “The Worcester Club,” New York Clipper, March 8, 1879; “Worcester Base Ball Association,” Boston Globe, January 8, 1880; letterhead on letter dated January 7, 1880, from Freeman Brown to Nick Young applying for National League membership (Robert Edward Auctions website, spring 2006 auction, lot #726).

5 Hamilton Hurd, History of Worcester County, Massachusetts (Philadelphia: J.W. Lewis & Company, 1889), 1719-1720.

6 Franklin Rice, The Worcester of Eighteen Hundred and Ninety-Eight (Worcester: Blanchard & Company, 1899), 159-160.

7 “The Worcester Ball Club,” Boston Globe, evening edition, January 7, 1881.

8 “Baseball Notes,” New York Clipper, October 9, 1880.

9 “Base Ball Gossip,” Boston Globe, October 17, 1880.

10 “Gossip from Worcester,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, March 3, 1881.

11 “The Worcester Ball Club,” Boston Globe, evening edition, January 7, 1881.

12 “Baseball Notes,” New York Clipper, March 5, 1881.

13 “Changes in the Worcester Nine,” Boston Globe, August 18, 1881.

14 “Notes,” Buffalo Courier, September 22, 1881.

15 “Sporting Matters,” Boston Globe, September 13, 1881.

16 Charles Goslow, “Fairground Days: When Worcester was a National League City, 1880-1882,” Historical Journal of Massachusetts, Summer 1991, 148.

17 “The Worcester Club,” Boston Globe, July 11, 1882; “The Night Before the Battle,” Boston Globe, July 14, 1882.

18 “Action of the Worcester Base Ball Stockholders,” Boston Globe, July 15, 1882.

19 Charlie Bevis, Doubleheaders: A Major League History (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2011), 5.

20 Goslow, “Fairground Days,” 153.

21 Melville, Early Baseball and the Rise of the National League, 135.

22 “Meeting of the Worcester Stockholders,” Boston Globe, September 29, 1882.

23 “The League Convention,” New York Clipper, December 16, 1882.