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Historic Tigers Baseball # 53 - 1887 World Champion Wolverines

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Before the Tigers, there was the Detroit Wolverines of the National League.

In 1887, they won Detroit's 1st Championship.

This from the Michigan History site:



Tiger Stadium will soon be demolished, and a great Detroit landmark will thus be no more. Its passing denotes the end of an era. It's a natural time, then, to reflect - on that era and on others before it.

Even before Tiger Stadium was built, Detroit was a baseball town. In 1880, Mayor William H. Thompson began pushing for a major league team. Thompson became President of the Detroit Baseball Club, and the team he formed entered the National League the following year. Thompson called his players "the Detroits." Detroit reporters, however, nicknamed them "the Wolverines," a sobriquet by which they became better known. Home field was Recreation Park, located near Brush and Brady (then the far northeast corner of the city.).

The Wolverines fared respectably during their inaugural season. They had about a .500 winning percentage in Season Two, however, and then experienced three consecutive losing seasons. Then, at the end of 1885, the Wolverines acquired four celebrity batting champs: Dan Brouthers, Jack Rowe, Deacon White and Hardy Richardson. These infielders soon became known as "the Big Four." Joining them was new outfielder Sam Thompson and new manager William "Wattie" Watkins. After this, the team's fortunes changed dramatically. At the end of the 1886 season, the Wolverines finished second - at a mere two and a half games from first place!

Then came the remarkable 1887 championship season. Detroit won the National League pennant, finishing three and a half games ahead of second-place Philadelphia! The team led the League in batting, runs scored and slugging. Wolverines Sam Thompson, Dan Brouthers and Hardy Richardson were first, second and third for total bases.

It was a very impressive record, but it didn't end there! Flushed with victory, Wolverines owner Fred Stearns posed a challenge to the American Association champion St. Louis Browns. The Wolverines and the Browns were to play "a series of contests for supremacy" for the baseball world! This early "world series" consisted of fifteen games - played in Pittsburgh, Brooklyn, New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Washington, Baltimore and Chicago, as well as Detroit and St. Louis! The Wolverines claimed their eighth victory - and thus the championship - with game number eleven. Nonetheless, the two teams finished the series, playing all fifteen games, with the Wolverines winning eleven of the fifteen!

Sadly, the next season proved to be the team's last. Key players suffered prolonged injuries that hurt team performance. Meanwhile, veteran stars commanded large salaries and attendance was limited. The Detroit Baseball Club folded at the end of 1888. Detroit was then without a major league team for thirteen long years, until the legendary Tigers joined the American League in 1901!

The following books were consulted while writing this essay. Click on the titles to access the Library of Michigan catalog record.

The Detroit Tigers: A Pictorial Celebration of the Greatest Players and Moments in Tigers' History by William M. Anderson

The Tigers and Their Den: The Official Story of the Detroit Tigers by John McCollister

Baseball in Detroit, 1886-1968 by David Lee Poremba.

Michigan History, Arts and Libraries Director William M. Anderson has authored several other works on Michigan baseball history. His latest, The View from the Dugout: The Journals of Red Rolfe focuses on a legendary Tigers manager. Click View from the Dugout for the Amazon description and ordering information.



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Ganzel Nearly Knocked Off His Feet

1887 Detroit Wolverines World Champion Game by Jodi Purdy-Quinlan (Weymouth, MA)

In 1887, Detroit Wolverines pitcher Charlie Getzien takes a no-hitter into the ninth inning of Game Six against the St. Louis Browns. The issue of who will win the game is no longer in doubt: Detroit has a 9-0 lead. At one point in the game, nineteen straight Browns are retired, so dominating is Getzien on this day. St. Louis has yet to make a safe hit as the Detroit hurler works to Arlie Latham, the leadoff batter in the ninth. Latham grounds to short and Jack Rowe kicks the ball for an error. A moment later, Bill Gleason hits a hard liner to first baseman Charlie Ganzel. Ganzel is nearly knocked off his feet, but holds onto the ball, and Latham is stranded in no-man's-land, doubled off the bag. Two outs. Tip O'Neill steps to the plate. Tip O'Neill, baseball's best hitter in 1887 with a .435 batting average. Charlie Getzien, Detroit's leading pitcher. St. Louis' best against Detroit's finest. This is the way baseball has always been, the way it will always be.

Getzien delivers.

O'Neill swings.

The ball streaks for right field, Getzien's bid for baseball immortality riding on its wings, and drops in for a single, a few feet shy of the outstretched glove of Ned Hanlon. The bid is ended. The no-hitter has vanished.

[introduction from Glory Fades Away: The Nineteenth-Century World Series Rediscovered by Jerry Lansche. Published by Taylor Publishing Company, Dallas, Texas.]

» Jodi Purdy-Quinlan is the Great-Granddaughter of Charlie Ganzel.

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One of the stories I keep in my head about this early Detroit ball team is of Charlie Bennett. He was the star catcher for the team and was considered the best defensive catcher of the pre-modern era. He led the National League 7 times in fielding.

The story that sticks in my head...in 1893 he went on a hunting trip with pitcher John Clarkson...during his attempt to board a moving train, he slipped and fell under its wheels. Both his legs were severed and he had to be fitted for artificial limbs. The Detroit fans never forgot Charlie. When the city opened its new park in 1896, it was named "Bennett Field" in his honor. He was given a wheelbarrel full of silver coins by the fans...and threw out the first pitch of the ball game. He continued to throw out the first pitch of every home opener until 1926. He died in February 1927.

The field remained Bennett Park until owner Frank Navin felt his name was more important.

Bennett remains one of my favorite players from the pre-modern era.

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