The 1887 Wolverines were Detroit’s first champs

The 1887 Detroit Wolverines were champions of the National League.

The news of Jim “Deacon” White’s overdue election to the Baseball Hall of Fame calls to mind the championship team the wiry, mustachioed third baseman was an integral part of 125 years ago. That team was the Detroit Wolverines, which in 1887 captured the only pennant of its eight-year stay in the National League and then went on to defeat St. Louis of the American Association in a 15-game, cross-country “world’s series.” The popular Wolverines were the toast of Detroit, and for decades to come they were the standard by which professional baseball was judged in this town.

The Wolverines played home games at Recreation Park in what is now the city’s Medical Center. (A state historical marker marks the location.) With fans cheering from the bleachers, from wildcat stands erected outside the park, and from the roof and windows of nearby Harper Hospital, the Wolverines sat in first place every day from the opening game to the season finale in 1887, the first major-league club ever to do so. (Nearly a century later, the 1984 Tigers would duplicate this feat.)

An unbeaten pre-season barnstorming tour and a torrid regular-season start produced 49 wins in the Wolverines’ first 51 games, creating tremendous public interest. A new reserved grandstand was built for ladies and a box office was opened inside a Woodward Avenue sporting goods store. Season tickets were available at $25 for 63 home dates. General admission seats cost 50 cents while reserved seats were 75 cents. Detroiters could buy lithographs of their heroes at several downtown locations.

The Wolverines scored a league-record 969 runs in 1887, an average of 8 runs a game. Much of the offense centered around future Hall of Famers Dan Brouthers and Sam Thompson. Brouthers (pronounced BROO-thers), the 29-year-old first sacker, was a big man with a keen eye. (He’s credited with coining the phrase, “Keep your eye on the ball.”) Brouthers, who accumulated five batting titles and a .343 lifetime average while starring for several teams, is generally considered the top slugger of the 19th century. In ’87, he led the circuit in doubles and runs and finished third in batting with a .338 mark.

Topping the batting list was Sam Thompson, a bear of a man who once split his pants legging out a double because Detroit couldn’t find a uniform big enough to fit him. The 27-year-old right fielder hit .372 in 1887 and knocked in 166 runs, a staggering 62 more than the runner-up.

Crowds of up to 9,000 people swelled Recreation Park throughout 1887. In these pre-automobile days it was a common sight to see the outfield ringed with carriages, horses, and knots of spectators. Any outfielder chasing a ball into that overflow risked crushing a straw boater or sliding on a horse apple. But that was part of the appeal of 19th-century baseball. It was fiercely competitive and quaint at the same time.

Bare-handed catcher Charlie Bennett was one of only two Wolverines to play for Detroit during its entire eight-year stay (1881-1888) in the National League. (Field captain and center fielder Ned Hanlon was the other.) An outstanding defensive backstop and a solid offensive threat, the popular catcher shrugged off the chronic pain caused by his fractured and bleeding fingers while receiving the tosses of Charlie “Pretzels” Getzien, Charles “Lady” Baldwin, Pete Conway, and Larry Twitchell. Getzien, a German-born curveballer, recorded 29 victories in 1887 and had the loop’s best winning percentage (.690).

The Wolverines finished 79-45, three and a half games ahead of the Philadelphia Phillies, for the National League flag. The modern World Series pitting the winners of the National and American league pennants did not exist (the American League was still years from being organized), but in the late 1800s there often were postseason series between the National and other circuits. Detroit owner Frederick Stearns challenged the St. Louis Browns of the American Association to a championship tournament that has been correctly characterized as “the series that went on forever.”

The 1887 Detroit-St. Louis series lasted from October 10 through October 26 and dragged on through 11 different parks in 10 cities. The Wolverines won the tournament, 10 games to 5. Only two of the matches were played in Detroit. Midway through the last game played at Recreation Park, some sort of commotion behind the grandstand caused the game to be halted.

Fans were always interrupting games for presentations, but this one was special. For weeks fans had been circulating through the community, collecting money for a gift to honor faithful Charlie Bennett’s meritorious service. Now two puffing politicians pushed a wheelbarrow loaded with 520 silver dollars and topped by a floral horseshoe to home plate. The crowd roared for Bennett to leave the bench. “Come out here, Charlie!” they yelled. “Come out here!”

Charlie obliged. Then 4,000 Detroiters roared even louder as their star catcher wheeled his treasure around the bases, followed by several smiling cops and a fife-and-drum corps playing “Yankee Doodle.” Sheer bedlam reigned, reported the next day’s papers, as “everybody got up and shouted themselves into hysterics.”

This golden moment literally served as the Wolverines’ last hurrah of Detroit’s first championship season. The team, whose high payroll caused it to lose money despite its success on the field, played just one more season before Stearns broke it up, selling the players piecemeal. Detroit was left without major league ball for the next several years.

Many generations later, it’s as hard for baseball fans to wrap their heads around the idea of Detroit once being a National League city as it is to envision a time when everyday life revolved around gaslight and horses, not electricity and automobiles. But for the longest time, until the Tigers won the 1935 World Series, the 1887 Wolverines were this town’s only championship nine.

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About Richard Bak

Richard Bak grew up on Detroit's west side doing poor imitations of Dick McAuliffe's batting stance and Denny McLain's leg kick. He is a contributing writer to Hour Detroit magazine and the author of nearly 30 books, including biographies of Ty Cobb and Joe Louis. Bak's most recent books are The Big Jump, the story of Charles Lindbergh and the great New York-to-Paris air race of the 1920s, and Detroitland, a collection of his history pieces. He currently is finishing two more books of history: Soldier of Misfortune: The Execution of Private Eddie Slovik and Its Aftermath (DaCapo) and When Lions Were Kings: The Detroit Lions and the Fabulous Fifties (Wayne State University Press), both of which will be published in 2015.