A Canadian manager had to shut down a Canadian superstar for the city of Detroit to win its first World Series.
That’s one of the many fascinating stories that Brian “Chip” Martin shares in his excellent new book, The Detroit Wolverines: The Rise and Wreck of a National League Champion, 1881-88.
It was in 1887 that Brantford, Ont., native Bill Watkins managed the National League’s Detroit Wolverines to a World Series victory over the American Association’s St. Louis Browns, led by Triple Crown winner and Woodstock, Ont., native Tip O’Neill.
Yes, before there were Tigers in Motown, there were World Champion Wolverines. That’s the little talked about chapter in Detroit’s professional baseball history that Martin adeptly shines the spotlight on in his engrossing new book, which is the first devoted to the Wolverines.
A long-time London, Ont., resident and a top investigative reporter for The London Free Press for more than four decades, Martin was a good fit for this project. Not only is he one of Canada’s best baseball history writers and a tireless researcher, he also lives just two hours from Motown in a city that boasts a passionate legion of Detroit baseball fans.
Martin estimates that he made “six to eight trips” to Detroit for the project, but he was able to purchase a membership to the Detroit Public Library which gave him online access to the Detroit Free Press, which allowed him to do much of the research from home.
His groundbreaking, 215-page book details the launch and demise of the Wolverines which lasted for eight often tumultuous National League seasons in the 1880s. Thanks to his dogged research, Martin is able to precisely document the hurdles (e.g. poor attendance, competition from other circuits, disgruntled opposing owners) the Wolverines had to overcome to win a World Series.
The biggest strength of this book is the information Martin has unearthed about the club’s founders, executives, managers and players. The determined author shares how Detroit mayor William G. Thompson prioritized securing a National League franchise for the city and “formally applied for admission” to the league “under the letterhead of the mayor’s office.”
Martin also introduces us to the bold and brash Frederick Kimball Stearns who was the “George Steinbrenner” of his time. He was a wealthy businessman and major Wolverines shareholder who served as a director for the club before taking over as president. It was largely his business savvy, win-at-any-cost attitude and deep pockets that propelled the Wolverines to the top of the standings, but not without angering the owners of the other National League teams.
Among the coups that Stearns pulled off was acquiring the “Big Four” – Dan Brouthers, Hardy Richardson, Jack Rowe and Deacon White – from the Buffalo Bisons when the Wolverines purchased the floundering National League club in 1885. This star quartet would be a key reason for the team’s success in 1886 and 1887.
Earlier in the same year, Stearns had also orchestrated the purchase of the Western League’s Indianapolis Hoosiers which brought his club a new crop of players, as well as a new manager in the aforementioned Watkins.
But there was a hurdle in completing this transaction. Martin writes that because the Western League had not yet folded that it was still “party to the National Agreement” which “stipulated that players had to wait 10 days after being released before signing with a new club.” In other words, even with the sale agreement in place, the Indianapolis players couldn’t be signed for 10 days. This opened the door for other professional teams to make offers. To ensure that these players would end up with the Wolverines, Stearns had to get creative, if not criminal.
The Indianapolis players were escorted on to a boat cruise and kept out on the water for several days so they could not be reached, a scheme which Martin says amounted to kidnapping. One account has the players being sent to Toronto by train and then taking a Thousand Islands cruise on the St. Lawrence River, but Martin says this is unlikely.
“In later accounts, a couple of players talked about being out of sight of land for long periods of time,” said Martin in a recent phone interview. “If you’re cruising around the Thousand Islands, you’re not out of the site of land. There are islands everywhere you look.”
Other reminiscences had the players cruising Lake Ontario, Lake Michigan or Lake St. Clair.
“When all is said and done, I suspect that it might have been Lake Erie that they were on because it was larger than Lake St. Clair and it was not that far down the river to get out there,” said Martin.
When the players were finally returned to land, Watkins was reportedly waiting for them with their Wolverines’ contracts to sign. It was only later that the players discovered that other teams had been trying to contact them.
One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the insight Martin offers into Watkins, who’s an underrated Canadian baseball legend. The author provides vivid details about Watkins, who was born in Brantford, Ont., and spent some of his early playing days with the semi-pro Guelph Maple Leafs and St. Thomas Atlantics prior to moving south of the border. Watkins, Martin writes, was an infielder/manager with the American Association’s Indianapolis Hoosiers on August 26, 1884 when he was hit in the head with a pitch leaving him “in and out of consciousness for several days.”
When Watkins recovered, he was never the same player and he chose to focus more on managing. After the Hoosiers’ American Association franchise folded, Watkins organized the Western League and resurrected his Indianapolis squad in 1885 prior to it being sold and merged with the Wolverines in the same year.
The Canadian skipper piloted the Wolverines to an 87-36 record in 1886 and a World Series title in 1887. But despite the team’s success, Martin reveals that a lot of players didn’t like Watkins, who was a strict disciplinarian who was not above fining his players for “indifferent play” or “back talk.”
“In the early days, ballplayers were rather poorly behaved. They were drinkers and party animals, so he needed to bring some discipline,” explained Martin. “And I think Watkins became Stearns’s strict schoolmaster manager and the two of them made a pretty successful pair.”
As mentioned in the opening, Watkins had to shut down Woodstock, Ont., native and St. Louis Browns star Tip O’Neill in 1887 to win the World Series. And whatever strategy Watkins employed, it worked. O’Neill, who had topped the American Association with a .435 batting average during the regular season, hit just .200 in the 15-game Fall Classic.
Perhaps the Wolverines had a scouting report on file on O’Neill. In his tenacious research, Martin uncovered that O’Neill had a three-game tryout with the Wolverines back in April 1881. But O’Neill would suit up for just three exhibition games with the Wolverines, two as a pitcher and one as a centre fielder. In that brief showcase, the Canadian prospect demonstrated a lack of control on the mound and was not particularly impressive at the plate, so he was let go. For Frank Bancroft, the Detroit manager at the time and a highly regarded talent evaluator, this turned out to be one of his poorest decisions.
Returning to 1887, the animosity many of the Wolverines players felt towards Watkins didn’t dissipate after he led them to a championship over O’Neill and his St. Louis teammates. Watkins would stay on as manager until the end of August 1888 before resigning. Shortly thereafter, he was hired to manage the American Association’s Kansas City Cowboys.
In his book, Martin also points out some other Canadian players that suited up for the Wolverines over the years, including Chub Collins (Dundas, Ont.), Fred Wood (Dundas, Ont.) and most notably Canadian Baseball Hall of Famer George Wood (Pownal, P.E.I.). An original member of the Wolverines, George Wood had followed manager Frank Bancroft to the club from the National League’s Worcester Ruby Legs and evolved into a steady outfielder in Motown.
In 1882, Wood topped the National League with seven home runs and he registered 10 or more triples in three of his six seasons with the Wolverines. Unfortunately for him, he was shipped to the National League’s Philadelphia Quakers after 1885 season, right when the Wolverines started to become a serious contender.
It’s Martin’s dedication to uncovering stories and details about long-forgotten players or managers like Woods or Watkins that make his books fascinating. This is his fourth baseball book and it’s a strong addition to his already impressive portfolio. And though his subject in this case isn’t Canadian, this offering still features significant original Canadian content and further cements his position as one of his country’s best historical baseball writers.
*You can purchase The Detroit Wolverines: The Rise and Wreck of a National League Champion, 1881-88 from the publisher at www.mcfarlandbooks.com or by calling them at 1-800-253-2187.