The 1889 Athletic Club
Following the Athletics’ third place finish in the American Association in 1888, manager Bill Sharsig purchased the release of catcher Lave Cross from Louisville and signed free agent catcher Jack Brennan, adding them to the corps of returning catchers, Wilbert (Billy) Robinson, George Townsend, and Tom Gunning. Otherwise, he did nothing over the winter to improve the team. The club did upgrade its grounds at 26th and Jefferson Streets in Philadelphia, however, adding a bandstand. Bands would play at nearly every game there during the season.
Benjamin Harrison had begun his term as 23rd President just a few weeks earlier when the Athletics began spring training in Philadelphia on March 20. Free agent pitcher Ed Knouff was signed just before camp opened, his arm supposedly healthy again after two years of injuries. The players came straggling into town, with Harry Stovey not reporting until April 1. Bill Gleason was a holdout. He refused to sign for a pay cut and insisted that his contract state that he would be a starting player. But his arm had gone back on him, and Sharsig preferred Frank Fennelly, acquired late in the 1888 season, at shortstop. Sharsig’s plan was to use Gleason as a backup. Gleason stayed home in St. Louis until late May, when the Athletics released him. (Gleason signed with Louisville, and his brief stay there coincided with their record 26-game losing streak.) Sharsig named Stovey captain, with Fennelly as his assistant. Ted Larkin was glad to be replaced as captain, saying the Philadelphia fans booed him when he argued with the umpire and razzed him if he didn’t.
The Athletics made short work of the amateur teams they faced in spring training and held their own against National League clubs, splitting four-game series against both Boston and Philadelphia. Despite the typically cold and rainy weather, they got in 14 exhibition games against organized clubs, and five more against picked nines. Brennan made a good impression on his new teammates in the game against Yale when, despite suffering a split finger, he threw out five runners attempting to steal. Meanwhile, the Athletics’ financial well-being was threatened when a bill was introduced in the New Jersey state legislature which would ban Sunday baseball in the state, as it was in Pennsylvania. That would prevent the Athletics from playing games at Gloucester on what was typically the biggest drawing day of the week. Luckily, the bill was defeated in mid-April.
Not as fortuitous, however, was Ed Seward‘s condition. The club’s best pitcher in 1888, he developed a sore arm in April. Despite his stated intention of not using Seward in spring training games, Sharsig let him pitch a full game against Boston when his arm not in shape. Seward started the regular season 2-9. Sharsig was criticized a couple of times during the season for overworking his ace while his pitching wing was hurt. Seward came to Bill’s defense at one point, saying he volunteered to pitch two straight games in Columbus because Phenomenal Smith had a sore arm. Ed and the other pitchers weren’t helped any by two new rules passed over the winter. One gave the batter a base on four balls, in place of the previous five, and the other declared the batter would no longer be out when the catcher caught a foul tip. These changes were the main reasons the league ERA rose from 3.06 in 1888 to 3.85 in 1889.
The Athletics’ opening game against Brooklyn was rained out on April 17, but they won the next day, and got off to an 8 and 1 start. Their usual lineup during the season was Curt Welch, the center fielder, leading off, followed by Stovey in left, Denny Lyons at third, Larkin at first, Louis Bierbauer at second, Blondie Purcell in right, Fennelly at shortstop, the catcher hitting eighth, followed by the pitcher. The club was strong in the field, with Curt Welch regarded as the best outfielder in the league, if not the world. Charles Comiskey called Welch and Stovey the best center and left fielders in the country. Bierbauer was regarded as the equal of any second baseman in the league, and Robinson and Cross were two of the best catchers around. Cross was generally paired with Gus Weyhing, who responded with his first 30-win season, while Robinson usually caught Seward.
After playing their first seven games at home, the Athletics played their next 21 on the road. After a series in Baltimore was rained out, Gus Weyhing starred in the first game at Columbus, doubling in the go-ahead runs in the seventh inning, then retiring the last two batters in the ninth with the bases loaded to overcome two Denny Lyons errors. Seward started the next two games as noted above, splitting them. He came out after two innings in his next start with a sore arm. The Athletics couldn’t use Smith in relief as desired since his name wasn’t on the score card as the one permitted substitute under another new rule, so Mike Mattimore went in instead and allowed eight runs as well as striking out twice with the bases loaded.
Despite wins in the first two games, the old, familiar trouble winning away from home soon surfaced. Rumors of drunkenness kept cropping up, with Denny Lyons’ name prominent in most of them. He was charged with nine errors in the first three games in Brooklyn, all losses. A forfeit win in the fourth game there helped a bit, as the fans standing on the field kept encroaching on the playing area until further play was impossible. Brooklyn played its Sunday games in nearby Ridgewood, where the authorities were willing to overlook the law against Sunday baseball. They wouldn’t provide police protection, though, so there was no way to control the crowd.
After the forfeit win, the Athletics went to Cincinnati, where Elmer Smith could only last an inning for the Reds due to his own sore arm, and they picked up a 7-1 win. But they dropped the last three games there, and then two out of three in Louisville to a team that finished 27-111. The one game they won there was a rain-shortened two-hit shutout by Weyhing. They lost another two of three in Kansas City, then headed across the state to play St. Louis. Curt Welch missed the first game with what was reported as malaria, but was more likely a hangover. He was back to help even up the series the next day, as the Athletics pulled out a win in the tenth when Cross tripled in Fennelly. Lou Bierbauer chipped in a homer in the second inning. The Browns won the next day, but the Athletics salvaged a split when they won 9-8 on May 23 behind Weyhing, who completed the game despite taking a line drive to the stomach. Bierbauer hit two homers good for seven runs off St. Louis ace Silver King and he scored the winning run in the bottom of the ninth on Fennelly’s two-out single. When they stopped off at Gloucester for a Sunday game against Baltimore on the 26th, their record stood at 14-14.
The Athletics ended up leading the league in OPS, but only finished third in runs per game, indicating they had an inefficient offense. Poor baserunning may have been part of the problem. They were seventh in the league in stolen bases, and the Philadelphia Press reported that scarcely a game went by with an Athletic runner being picked off, or falling for the hidden ball trick, as Welch did on May 26.
Back in the east, things picked up as they took two out of three from Baltimore. On May 29, the Athletics scored five runs in the eighth to take the lead, but Mike Griffin hit a two-run homer in the ninth to tie it up. However, a double and three walks by Orioles’ hurler Frank Foreman forced across the winning run in the bottom of the tenth. With Knouff and Smith ineffective, the Athletics tried to bolster their pitching by signing John Coleman. Coleman, the holder of the Major League record for most losses in a season with 48 in 1883, had last pitched in the majors with the Athletics back in 1886, but in workouts with Brennan seemed to be fit. He pitched the second game of a twin-bill against Cincinnati on Memorial Day and nearly matched Weyhing’s three-hit shutout in the morning game with a five-hit, 6-1 victory. After a sweep of the four-game Cincinnati series, the Athletics had to sit tight for a couple of days when the Johnstown flood prevented Louisville from getting to Philadelphia. When they arrived, they put up a good fight, but the Athletics swept the four-game set. Ted Larkin saved their bacon in the first game, knocking in the tying run in the ninth and then scoring the winning run on Purcell’s hit. Seward showed he was back in form the next day by allowing the Louisville batters to hit only three balls out of the infield in the first game of a doubleheader. The final game of the series was a benefit game, all the receipts being donated to the flood victims, and the fans certainly got their money’s worth. Pete Browning hit for the cycle for Louisville, adding another single for good measure, and his teammates chipped in another 15 hits, but the Athletics pulled out a 9-7 victory in the 11th when Stovey, Bierbauer, and Fennelly all doubled.
Smith and Knouff were released the next day as Kansas City came to call. There was little excitement in this four-game series as the Athletics extended their winning streak to 13 games, outscoring K.C. 46-8. In the final game, the Athletics were outhit 15 to 14, but Seward held the westerners down to two runs with his squad racked up 12. On June 13 the win streak was snapped as first-place St. Louis managed a 2-2 tie in 11 innings with the second-place Athletics. A huge midweek crowd of more than 9,000 saw their heroes three times keep the Brown Stockings from scoring when they had a runner on third with fewer than two outs. The Athletics picked up a game the next day with a 10-inning victory, but after a rainout, they met their first-ever regular season defeat at Gloucester. They bounced back the next day with an easy 11-2 win in eight innings over St. Louis. Including the rainout, the five games against the Browns drew more than 46,000 fans.
With Columbus in town next, the Athletics maintained their winning ways by taking four out of five to improve their record to 34-17. However, there were ominous signs, as Denny Lyons came out early in the first game, supposedly due to an arm injury, but there were again reports of drinking. They didn’t miss him in that game as they wracked up 19 hits and 10 walks, scoring 22 times (Fennelly crossing the plate five times) with the help of nine wild pitches and passed balls. Despite the absence of both Lyons and Welch the next day, they won 6-0 behind Seward’s four-hitter to pull to within a game and a half of first. Seward would win 19 of his last 25 decisions. The Athletics took an early lead the next game and led 6-2 after seven innings only to allow Columbus to tie the game in the ninth and win it in the tenth, with the help of three errors by Lyons and a fly ball dropped by Coleman, who had replaced Stovey after the latter struck out three times. The Philadelphia crowd, then as now difficult to please, and having read stories of the players carousing, booed the Athletics heartily. They kept it up early in the next game, but another four-hit shutout by Seward won them back. That didn’t appease Harry Stovey, however, who yelled at reporters after the game, and insulted the fans during the first game of the Baltimore series on June 23. The Athletics’ play was sloppy again, with Lave Cross costing the team two runs by trying to tag Mike Griffin on what should have been a force out at the plate and missing him. That 8-0 defeat was the start of a six-game losing streak. The Athletics did manage to win an exhibition game in Reading on the 29th, with Tom Gunning catching Coleman. Gunning was released the next day; Coleman wouldn’t start a championship game between early June and early September. Despite his respectable 3-2 record and 2.91 ERA, Coleman wasn’t especially effective. He made four of his five starts against the two weakest clubs in the league, and wasn’t taken on some of the road trips.
The Athletics finally snapped their losing streak in the second half of a July 4 twin-bill in Louisville, with Larkin supporting Seward with five hits. Larkin was on his way to finishing second in the league with a .428 on base average. During the streak, the Athletics signed a new pitcher, John (Sadie) McMahon. McMahon was on Norristown of the Middle States League, but the American Association and other signers of the National Agreement didn’t recognize the contract rights of non-signing leagues such as the Middle States. He picked up a win in his first game on July 5, but struggled his next several starts, often receiving poor support from his teammates, some of whom were said to be intentionally playing badly. The Athletics next traveled to Cincinnati, where they dropped two out of three. Their only victory came on July 7 when Larkin stole pitcher Elmer Smith‘s signs, helping the Athletics pound out 15 hits. In that game the teams combined for nine double plays, six of them by the Athletics. Trips to St. Louis, Kansas City, and Brooklyn followed, with the Athletics losing two of three in each city, dropping their record to 40-30. Lou Bierbauer had to rush home from Brooklyn due to the sudden death of his wife. Bierbauer, in the midst of his best season (he would finish fourth in the league with 105 RBI), missed almost two weeks as he made arrangements for the care of his three-year-old child. Others who missed games due to death or illness to family members included Weyhing, Welch (twice), and Brennan, as well as Sharsig. Having no spare infielders, the Athletics tried shifting Larkin to second with Mattimore covering first, but after they both made two errors, Larkin was returned to first with Brennan playing second. In Brennan’s first game, he handled ten chances without an error as the Athletics defeated second-place Brooklyn 3-2, but mostly he played like an out-of-position catcher.
Over the full season, the Athletics won 46 games at home and only 29 on the road. They had similar disparities in earlier seasons, as well. Secretary/Treasurer Whitaker, said to be the real power in the front office, thought Sharsig was too lenient with the players, and there were rumors that a change of managers would be made, although nothing came of them. A return home on July 23 didn’t rejuvenate the Athletics this time, as they were swept by Cincinnati in a three-game series. This followed a humiliating 23-10 loss in an exhibition game in Jersey City. Welch and Robinson were used in the pitcher’s box during the game, along with Coleman, and Robinson hurt his throwing arm. In his next appearance behind the plate two days later, he made anywhere from four to six throwing errors, depending on the source. Sadie McMahon allowed only five hits in that game, but twelve errors cost the Athletics the game. The Athletics then briefly turned things around, winning five in a row as Bierbauer returned to action on July 31, but they were then shut out in three of their next four games and finished the home stand with only six wins in 13 games, dropping to fifth place.
On August 8, they started another western swing and took advantage of the hapless Louisvilles, winning four in a row there, with Curt Welch scoring six runs in a doubleheader sweep on the 12th. Welch would finish the season with 134 runs scored in just 125 games, which was only good for third on the team; Stovey tied for the league lead with 152, while Denny Lyons was one ahead of Welch. This sweep returned the Athletics to fourth place, and they proceeded to take two out of three in Cincinnati, overcoming a 7-2 deficit in the seventh inning of the last game with eight runs in two innings, thanks in part to two dropped throws by catcher Jim Keenan. They ran into a roadblock in St. Louis, losing all three games to the Brown Stockings and then dropped their first two in Kansas City before Ed Seward almost singlehandedly turned things around. Not only did he pitch, but he also hit the club to a victory on August 24, belting a three-run homer in the third and knocking in the winning runs in the eighth with a two-run double. Their next stop was Columbus, where they overcame Sadie McMahon walking nine batters. He wasn’t the only pitcher having trouble with the four-ball rule; Smith and Weyhing also won games in which they issued nine walks. Bierbauer and Stovey homered in the game, with Stovey’s landing on a roof half a block beyond the left field fence. In contrast to the image we have of home runs from this era, 16 of Stovey’s league-leading 19 homers were hit over the fence. Columbus and the Athletics split the last two games, with Seward allowing 15 runs in the finale.
The Athletics then returned home and swept a three-game series with Cincinnati starting August 30. With Seward’s arm sore again, he was suspended for three weeks until his arm healed, and Mattimore was released. John Coleman took Seward’s place in the starting rotation. Kansas City came to Philadelphia for a five-game series, and the Athletics could win only one of them, settling for a 4-4 tie (one of five they played that year) in the second game. Mattimore had signed up with K.C. on September 3 and got revenge against his former team, pounding out three hits in K.C.’s 10-6 win. Meanwhile, Denny Lyons’ drinking problem came to a head when he failed to show up for the game, and he was suspended by Sharsig. A deal was discussed with Chris Von Der Ahe, owner of the Brown Stockings, that would have sent Lyons and Welch to St. Louis in exchange for Arlie Latham and Charlie Duffee. Whitaker insisted on getting cash in the deal, though, and the two sides couldn’t come to an agreement. Curt Welch would have welcomed the deal, saying he was fed up with the Philadelphia fans. The Athletics gave a tryout to a former Norristown teammate of McMahon’s, James Graham, who took Lyons’ place for four games, but he didn’t hit much, and Denny was reinstated after six days. Louisville was their next opponent, and the Athletics could only split three games with the last-place team, Coleman getting knocked out after two innings in the finale. He was released a few days later. The first game of the series ended in a 4-4 tie, with Louisville tying the game in the ninth and having two men on base when the game was called. The next day was another thriller, with the Athletics winning 7-6 in 13 innings after both teams scoring three times in the 12th. The two teams made only one error, and Larkin made 25 putouts at first. Then St. Louis came to Philadelphia, and the Athletics managed to take two out of three with the fourth game ending in yet another 4-4 tie. Newcomer George Bausewine, a heavy smoker, pitched that one for the Athletics, and lucked out when St. Louis’s two runs in the top of the 10th were wiped out when the game was called for darkness. With the dead ball in use then, outfielders could play shallow, and occasionally take part in infield plays. On the 15th, the Athletics made a double play that was scored 5-2-6-8-7. Brooklyn then arrived to complete the home stand, and the two teams split the three game series, with the tie game being by the score of 11-all this time. Seward was reinstated and pitched the only victory against the Bridegrooms, scoring three times to help his own cause. Harry Stovey was doubtless as anxious as Welch to get out of Philadelphia. He had several run-ins with the fans during the home stand. Once, when Weyhing was booed for striking out with the bases loaded, he told Gus to throw his bat in the stands; another time he encouraged Larkin to punch a fan who had insulted him.
Despite the disappointing 8-6 record at home, the Athletics had climbed to third place, due to Baltimore playing even worse. They headed to Baltimore for a four-game series (the Sunday game played at Gloucester) and won three of them. The last two victories were slugfests which the Athletics pulled out in the last inning, Bierbauer knocking in the winning run in both games. Next the Athletics returned home and split two games against both Columbus and Baltimore. Cross cost the team the last game, again messing up a force play at home. Meanwhile, Stovey continued to let the fans bother him, trying to have some noisy Baltimore rooters ejected.
The Athletics then set out on the road again, and were humiliated in Brooklyn on October 3, losing 17-0. Adding injury to insult, Welch was spiked in the first inning and had to miss the next few games. With the catching corps also in bad shape, Bierbauer started the next game behind the plate, but quit after being hurt by a foul ball on the third pitch. He returned to second base, and Seward, filling in there, shifted to center. Bill Collins, a minor leaguer who had caught a game for the Metropolitans two years earlier, was called out of the stands to catch. The Athletics pulled this one out. It rained all through the next game, and McMahon couldn’t control the ball, giving 12 walks. Meanwhile Brooklyn pitcher Bob Caruthers had no such problem, not yielding a single base on balls in the six-inning game, won by Brooklyn 9-0. Such wide margins were not unusual; 55 of the 138 games the Athletics played were decided by five or more runs. The Athletics next destination was Columbus, but a railroad accident prevented them from arriving for the game scheduled on October 8, and Columbus claimed a forfeit. They relented, though, and agreed to reschedule it to October 11. Little matter, as Columbus swept the three games, knocking the Athletics back to fourth place, half a game behind Cincinnati. With Welch out of action, they used three pitchers in center field in the first game. They settled on Seward in the second game, and he got one of their two hits.
With third place at stake, the Athletics returned home for the final four games of the season against Baltimore while Cincinnati would finish up with three against St. Louis. While Cincinnati was dropping two out of three, the Athletics, with Welch back in action, took the first game against Baltimore 7-3 in six innings. Then, in a remarkable exhibition, they scored in every inning of two straight five-inning games to retake third place. Harry Stovey scored the winning run on the 13th on a popup that dropped untouched between the pitcher and catcher. Finally, on a rainy Tuesday, in front of only 78 fans, they won the final game to clinch third place. They played a postseason series with the Phillies and then disbanded for the winter, unaware of the ups and downs that lay ahead of them in 1890.
Philadelphia North American
Philadelphia Public Ledger
The Sporting News
New York Clipper
The Sporting Life
Private correspondence with Reed Howard
More original baseball research by Cliff and others can be found here.