An owner desperate to win who was willing to pay lots of money to acquire the best players in baseball. A lineup with two of the best hitters in the game. A ballpark in downtown Detroit. If that sounds familiar, it should. The Detroit Tigers current situation is much like that of the Detroit Wolverines in the late 1880s.
On Monday, Deacon White, one of the stars of those Detroit Wolverines was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. It was a long wait for White, but his election is well deserved and it gives us another chance to remember the days of professional “base ball” prior to the Tigers in the American League.
The Wolverines were founded in 1881 as a member of the National League. For several seasons the team was forgettable, finishing no higher than 4th in a league of eight teams. The team was famous for allowing runs in embarrassingly huge amounts, once surrendering 18 runs in a single inning. But in 1885 the club was purchased by Frederick Kimball Stearns, who immediately inked some of the game’s best players to fat contracts. White came to Detroit in 1886, joining first baseman Dan Brouthers, shortstop Jack Rowe, and outfielder Hardy Richardson, all of whom had been his teammates in Buffalo before traveling west to wear the cream and black uniform of the Wolverines. Also on that club was Sam Thompson, a star outfielder in his prime and one of the hardest hitters of his era.
Brouthers and Thompson have long been in the Hall of Fame, but it’s taken more than 120 years since White’s last game for Deacon to earn his plaque. White played 20 seasons in professional baseball, winning pennants with four different teams. He was a two-time batting champion before arriving in Detroit.
In 1887, White was 39 years old, more than a decade older than nearly everyone on the Wolverines. A remarkable athlete, he still managed to play 111 of Detroit’s 124 games and hit .303 with 75 RBI as a third baseman for manager Bill Watkins.
Earlier in his career, White was a star catcher, renowned for his fine defensive skills. He also played the outfield and first base. with a bushy mustache and broad shoulders, White was a striking presence on the diamond. He was also very well respected among his peers. He earned the nickname “Deacon” (he was born James Laurie White in Caton, NY) because of his devotion to his Christian beliefs. He refused to drink, chew tobacco, or cuss: three habits that were as natural as breathing air to ballplayers in the 19th century.
White starred for the Wolverines for three seasons, averaging .297 in Detroit. He batted .312 in a 20-year career, retiring with more than 2,000 hits, nearly 1,000 RBI, and more than 1,100 runs scored. Few players in the early decades of major league baseball surpassed those numbers.
White finished his career in 1890 with Buffalo of the Players League (a circuit he was instrumental in starting) and retired at the age of 43. He died in Aurora, Illinois, on July 7, 1939.
He will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame during ceremonies in Cooperstown, NY, on the last Saturday in July of 2013.