The Tigers’ first 4th of July game was in 1894

Boulevard Park was the home to the Detroit baseball nine when they played in the Western League in 1894.

Boulevard Park was the home to the Detroit baseball nine when they played in the Western League in 1894.

It was a typical Independence Day in Detroit. A speech here, a parade there, citizens flocking to the beaches and parks. Flags, bunting, bands, and fireworks. And, of course, baseball. Plenty of baseball.

It was July 4, 1894, a Wednesday so long ago that such ballpark staples as hot dogs and Cracker Jack had yet to be invented and the city’s first automobiles were still a couple of years in the future. The Tigers were the new team in town – so new, they weren’t even known as the Tigers yet. The local press had informally dubbed them the Creams, though that nickname wouldn’t stick. The Detroit team was comprised largely of Californians, brought east by owner George Vanderbeck, who had been associated with baseball on the West Coast for several years. The Detroit franchise was the newest member of the Western League, a minor circuit of eight Midwestern clubs organized by Cincinnati sportswriter Ban Johnson.

Great things were on the horizon for most involved. The Western League would reorganize itself into the American League in 1900, declare itself a major league, and begin a rivalry with the much older National League (the so-called “senior circuit”) that lasts to this day, though with only a fraction of the intensity that characterized their early warfare. Vanderbeck wouldn’t be around to see it – a nasty divorce would force him to sell the team in 1900 – but the franchise itself would. In fact, the Detroit Tigers are the only Western League franchise to stay put in their original city; each of the other seven teams would eventually either fold or move. This makes Detroit the oldest American League team, a fact that organized baseball has never recognized because anything pre-1900 is not considered part of the American League’s “official” past.

But back to the Detroit Creams/Tigers’ first 4th of July. As was common then, the team scheduled a morning-afternoon doubleheader, the twin offerings giving the club the chance to pack the small park twice. In town were the Sioux City Cornhuskers, who were running away with the pennant. The season was only two months old and Detroit was already 21 games behind, mired in seventh place. The Cornhuskers considered them easy holiday pickings, especially since their ace, Bert Cunningham, would be starting the first game. Cunningham was on his way to a 35-win season.

Detroit, two years away from playing at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull, played home games at Boulevard Park. The wooden park was located at Helen and Champlain (later Lafayette) near the Belle Isle bridge. There was a roofed grandstand and open bleacher sections running down each foul line. There were no dugouts; players baked in the sun on uncovered benches and drank from a communal water barrel. The park was narrow and cramped. The short distances down the foul lines caused Vanderbeck to erect a pair of white poles along the right and left field fences. Any ball hit over the fence through the poles was declared a double, not a home run.

The gates opened about 10 o’clock for an 11 a.m. start. Despite the fact that the country was gripped in a economic depression so severe that Mayor Hazen “Potato Patch” Pingree was sponsoring vegetable gardens for the needy, swarms of paying fans arrived via electric streetcars, horse-drawn buggies, and bicycles, and on foot. All told, some 3,000 showed up for what turned out to be “a rattling good game, and one that gave them lots of opportunity to exercise lung power,” observed a reporter. As always, freeloaders peered through knotholes in the fence or watched from nearby trees and rooftops.

Detroit’s lineup and batting order was the same for both games:

SS   Bill Everitt
3B  Harry Raymond
1B  Howard Earl
2B  Bob Glenalvin
CF  Al Mannassau
C    Duke Jantzen
LF  Jerry Hurley
RF  Frank Pears
P     Robert Gayle/George Borchers

As was the custom then, the home team had the option of batting first. Detroit shortstop Bill Everitt led off the morning game with a walk off Cunningham and gradually worked his way around the bases to give the home boys a quick 1-0 lead. Sioux City evened the score in the bottom of the frame, but Detroit went ahead to stay in the third with a pair of runs. Robert Gayle, en route to a 21-victory season, went all the way for Detroit in a 6-3 victory. Lanky first baseman Howard Earl was the big gun with three hits, including a pair of doubles. He drove one ball over the fence in left, but because it sailed inside the poles, it only counted for two bases.

The first game was barely over when a second wave of fans, undoubtedly impressed by word of mouth of the home team’s performance (there was no radio then), started arriving. By the time the gong sounded to announce the beginning of the afternoon contest, there were 4,000 men, women, and children jammed into the grandstand and bleachers and spread out along the sides of the fence.

The second game started off almost exactly as the first. Everitt reached base on an error, moved to second on a walk, then came home for a quick 1-0 Detroit lead when Earl pulled a Bumpus Jones pitch over the fence in left for a ground-rule double. Bob Glenalvin, Detroit’s second baseman and field captain, cleared the bags with a triple, and then he soon crossed the plate on a single by catcher Duke Jantzen. “Four runs and the crowd was wild with joy,” the Free Press reported.

The crowd gave George Borchers a warm ovation when he took the mound in the bottom of the first. The 25-year-old right-hander from Sacramento was making his first start for Detroit since being acquired from Nashville of the Southern League.

There was no such thing as a pitch count in 1894, but Borchers must have easily thrown at least a couple hundred as he went the entire distance. He gave up 7 hits, walked 10 batters, hit two others, and tossed a couple of wild pitches. But time and again he pitched out of jams, stranding 15 Cornhuskers on base as Detroit completed a holiday sweep with a 10-4 victory.

“When the last man went out,” reported the Free Press, “the crowd poured into the field, yelling like fiends. They surrounded Borchers, patted him on the back, and all united as one man in telling him that he was ‘all right.’” Fans threw hundreds of seat cushions into the air in celebration, and with that the Tigers’ first Fourth was history.

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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.