1884 – The Big Time

1884 will be remembered as the year that baseball really started to transition from pastime to national industry. Several new leagues cropped up – all of lower caliber than either the Century League or Border Association, and most of them would sooner or later disappear into the mists of time, but what would become minor league baseball really got going in 1884.

Two minor leagues that still exist today began that season. The names – and teams – have changed, but the newly minted Dixie League and Western Federation started in 1884. The Dixie League was, as the name would indicate, a southern-based circuit, which started with eight teams while the Western Federation was what we’d today call an Upper Midwestern-located six team circuit. Both found paying customers in locations as far north as Minnesota’s Twin Cities and as far south as New Orleans. The caliber of play would probably be roughly equal to Double A, or possibly Triple A. Neither was affiliated – yet – with what we now call the Major Leagues.

Speaking of those major leagues… the third season of the Border Association saw a great pennant race and the first playoff game in baseball history. The St. Louis Brewers and Cincinnati Monarchs finished the BA’s 90-game schedule with identical 64-26 records. So a single, winner-takes-all game was set up between the two. The game was played in St. Louis and the home team won a dramatic, walk-off, 10-inning game by the score of 3-2. Winning pitcher Frank Ford went the distance and finished up his season with stellar stat lines of 24 wins, 1.98 ERA and 213 strikeouts. The losing pitcher was even better: Cincy’s Jerry Paris won a pitching Triple Crown with his 35 wins, 1.60 ERA and 273 strikeouts. This fabulous finish gave baseball fans across the country a thrill and had folks on both sides of the still simmering war between Whitney’s Century Leaguers and Tice’s Border Men thinking about some sort of postseason playoff between the two circuit’s champions. 

The Border Association’s newest members, Brooklyn and Indianapolis, finished third and fourth respectively in the standings. Kansas City, despite the league’s highest traveling expenses, finished fifth with a tidy 45-45 mark. Toronto, Montreal, Pittsburgh, Washington and the New York Stars rounded out the bottom half of the standings. Montreal’s Gustav Gray led the league with the BA’s first .400-season, finishing with a .404 mark. Brooklyn’s Samuel Haggins was second with a .374 average and KC’s Joe Johnson was third at .352.

Over in the Century League, the Boston Pilgrims claimed the pennant with a solid 75-40 campaign as the CL’s season continued to lengthen. Boston had a solid, all-around club, finishing third in runs scored and second in runs allowed. Chicago, again, was second and newpaper wags began referring to them as “Bridegrooms” – but that name didn’t stick. Providence finished third and Philadelphia, now being ably managed by star Zebulon Banks, was fourth. Brooklyn, who boasted the batting champ in Jim Jones (.367), finished fifth, followed by Detroit, New York, and the still-terrible Baltimore club.

Boston’s Johnny Thompson led the CL in wins with 32 while Chicago’s George Clark was second in wins and first in ERA (1.42). Team mate Charles Williams was second in ERA (1.56) and won 29 games of his own. Philly’s potent offense featured Frank Sobreville (.351) and Dave Grigsby (.341) who were 2nd and 3rd respectively in the batting race, plus plenty of pop with Scott Wilkies (19 HRs), Zebulon Banks (18) and Ned Clark (18) – Wilkes and Banks also became the first hitters to top 100 RBIs in a season, finishing with 101 and 100 respectively. Brooklyn’s Jones just missed joining them, ending up with 98.

It wasn’t all rosy though – the expansion of the BA from six teams in ’82 to ten in ’84 proved costly, and the Border Men cut back to eight teams with Washington and Indianapolis dropping out. The Century League also suffered some attrition from the ongoing war for players as the Detroit Woodwards finally succumbed after years of trying to stay in the black. Baltimore followed suit – the Bannermen simply could not compete. Whitney entered the winter with a six-team circuit, but wanted to get back to eight before spring rolled around.