1883 – Getting Serious

Billy Crutchfield, Providence

Going into 1883, the Century League got serious about its new competition. When the Cleveland Cuyahogas pulled the plug, CL President William Whitney took the opportunity to go for the jugular by placing a replacement club in New York. This set up a direct head-to-head battle in the nation’s largest metropolis between the Century League and Border Association. The new club would be called the New York Gothams and they would play at a newly-rebuilt Bigsby Oval – which just happened to be across the street from the home of the Association’s New York Stars homefield, Riverside Stadium.

In theory it would be an interesting battle – the teams shared a handful of home dates, meaning the base ball fans in New York would have to choose one or the other. The Stars were probably the better team and did perform better in their pennant race than the Gothams did in the inaugural Century League campaign. The Gothams finished 40-58, not terrible, but still a seventh-place finish in an eight-team league. Only the truly dismal Baltimore Bannermen (15-83) were worse. The Stars managed a third-place finish with a 53-45 season. They also had the Association’s batting champion in Daniel Brown (.381). But the New York battle, expected to be a decisive one, was more of a sideshow.

The real excitement was in the pennant races and both leagues had good ones. The Association’s battle was a Missouri affair as the St. Louis Brewers battled their new in-state rivals, the Kansas City Westerns, all summer long. In the end the St. Louis club won out, finishing two games ahead of the Westerns. KC rode a stellar pitching staff headlined by Pete Hood (31-18, 2.29) and Sidney Horace (30-19, 1.86). But St. Louis had an ace of its own in Frank Maroney (24-9, 1.65) who led the league in ERA and a strong lineup centered on emerging star Jimmie Thomas (.329-17-82) who led the Association in home runs and RBIs. NY was third, Pittsburgh, with the league’s best offense, was fourth at 52-45. Montreal (49-48), Cincinnati (43-53), Toronto (42-56) and the other new club – Washington, rounded out the rest of the standings table. Those Washington Capitals, though their own club history would prove to be relatively short, did have a third baseman who would play a prominent role in baseball history on their roster, though his .262 average was relatively inauspicious. His name, which will come up again later, was George Theobald.

The Century League pennant race was – in modern terms – a tie. Boston posted a 62-36 record while Chicago, by virtue of a couple of extra games, was 63-37. By the rules employed by the Century League at the time, Whitney was forced to give the championship trophy to the Boston club. This was unprecedented and the League would amend its rule book, but at the time, Boston was named champion. Brooklyn, which had been in the mix nearly to the end, was third with a 57-41 record. Detroit, recovering a bit from its financial struggles, was fourth at 58-43. Providence (50-48), Philadelphia (50-49), the Gothams (40-58) and Baltimore (terrible as mentioned earlier) rounded out the rest of the league. Brooklyn’s Jim Jones cemented a reputation as perhaps the best hitter in all the sport, hitting .396 and winning his second batting title in three seasons – his averages across those three seasons were .388, .377 and .396 and his lifetime mark was a robust .387 – and he was just 25 years old. He had spent his 21 and 22 year-old seasons with Cleveland, and garnered one at-bat in each of those seasons, without a hit. Things had certainly changed for him. Providence’s Billy Crutchfield was ERA champ with a 20-11, 1.55 season and Chicago had the league’s only 30-game winners in Charles Williams (32-19, 2.30) and George (31-16, 2.06).

Across the country, the popularity of baseball continued to rise. And this in turn, gave rise to more professional teams. With Whitney’s concept of a centralized league now proven to be not only workable, but profitable, it was not surprising that others – beyond the Border Association – were looking for ways to get in on the action.