1885 – Power Grab

Jason Kirkham

For the first 9 seasons of the Century League, founder William Whitney had essentially ruled by fiat. Unbeknownst to him, this rankled some of the other owners. Charles Bigsby was gone, but his brother Miles, owner of the Brooklyn club, was quietly working behind the scenes to undermine Whitney’s authority. By the time the league’s 10th season had ended, Bigsby’s hidden coup came to light and the Century League was changed forever.

Before we get into the Century League’s revolt and its aftermath, let’s discuss the 1885 season itself. The CL saw a true season of dominance as the New York Gothams absolutely demolished all competition and ran away with the pennant with an 87-18 record. Most of it was due to the sheer brilliance of pitcher Jack Manning. The 26-year-old from Brooklyn had begun his career with the old Cuyahoga club of Cleveland. When that club disbanded, he was quickly signed by the Gothams where he started slowly, but improved constantly. He went from a 15-win, 4-plus ERA season in 1883 to a solid 20-win, 2.57 ERA in 1884 before exploding in 1885 to the tune of a 43-9 record and 1.96 ERA. With Pete Hood (40-8, 2.01) nearly as dominating, the Gothams squashed opposing lineups. The fact that the offense scored more runs than anyone else turned the season into a laugher.

The relocated Baltimore club, now down the road in Washington and dubbed the Eagles, finished a surprising second (albeit 23.5 games back) with a 65-43 season. Providence, guided by wily Edward Wakeham, was third at 61-47. Chicago (59-51) was the only other team over .500 with St. Paul – a new entry who had moved up from the Western Federation, finishing a respectable fifth (48-58), ahead of Philadelphia, Boston, and last-place Brooklyn. The Unions’ first baseman, Jim Jones won his third straight batting title at .359 (it was also his fourth batting crown in five seasons). Washington’s Johnny Wallace led the league in ERA with a 1.87 mark.

In the Border Association, Cincinnati claimed its first pennant with a 78-34 season, 10.5 games better than second-place St. Louis. The Brewers did have the two top hitters in the league with Rob Torry (.328) and Jack Easton (.320) while Cincy ace Jerry Paris won his second straight Triple Crown of pitching with a 28-10, 1.29, 243 strikeout season. Montreal (67-45) was third, followed by Brooklyn (63-47), New York (45-63), Toronto (45-67), Kansas City (41-71) and Pittsburgh (39-74).

While all that was going on, the “Bigsby Clique” of eastern clubs: Brooklyn, Boston, Philadelphia and Providence (only NY was firmly in Whitney’s corner) quietly planned their rebellion for the offseason meetings in New York. Among the grievances they would bring up: failing to either squash or make peace with the Border Association; allowing the Border Men to place direct competition in Brooklyn and New York – they blamed the failure of the Knights on this, and not on Charles Bigsby; purchasing the Baltimore club and moving it to Washington – meaning Whitney owned two teams (considered a personal affront by Miles Bigsby who had wanted his other brother – George – to purchase and run the Baltimore club); and believing a rumor that the Border Association was moving into Minneapolis, which led to the admission of St. Paul over “better and larger” markets in the East (specifically Buffalo, where another Bigsby ally – or possibly George Bigsby – was poised to place a club).

Whitney got wind of the plan before the meeting and quickly sold the Washington club to an old war buddy, Colonel Thomas Brennan. The result was that Whitney had four votes of his own, ensuring a deadlock when the election for President came up. In the end, Whitney decided to step down for the good of the league, with Treasurer (and non-Club owner) Edward “Ned” Wilson, stepping in as League President. Furious at being thwarted and dubbing Wilson “Whitney’s toady and unacceptable as President,” Miles Bigsby dropped out of the Century League, and Boston owner Jason Kirkham went with him.

While rumors abounded during the winter that Bigsby and Kirkham were planning to launch a third league, it was not to be: Miles Bigsby was trampled by a livery horse and killed. Though George Bigsby was now nominally the head of the clan and had been groomed by his brother for ownership, the youngest brother had not exhibited any interest in baseball. As for Jason Kirkham, he sat in his Beacon Hill mansion and tended to his other business interests. Whether either of those situations would remain the same was an open question. In the meantime, the Century League would add new clubs in Buffalo and in another shot of the ongoing war with the Bordermen, Quebec City – the league’s first foray into Canada, which had been the sole domain of the BA.