the detroit wolverines

Reviewed by by Mark Noe, Pennsylvania College of Technology

30 january 2019       archive

A good historical study should rightfully convince a reader of something. I'm convinced, after reading Brian Martin's story of the first Detroit major league baseball team, that Charlie Bennett ought to join several of his teammates in the Hall of Fame. And, though perhaps his play doesn't warrant it, Pretzels Getzien ought to as well, if only so there is a player there named Pretzels. Leaving aside my recommendations to the Old-Timers Committee, let me simply recommend to Sport Lit Association members that a more entertaining book about early baseball than this picture of the Wolverines is going to be hard to find.

A decade and a half after the Civil War, a half decade after the founding of the first major league in 1876, several Detroit businessmen resolved to join this blossoming new field of amusement. Convinced their growing city was ready to support their investment, they took advantage of the troubled situations of two current league entrants, getting a franchise from Cincinnati and a number of players from Cleveland. Securing a site for their games, along with a manager and additional players, the newly christened Wolverines opened league play in May 1881.

Martin provides a concise but clear background to the evolving phenomenon that was professional baseball during the 1880s. There was constant tinkering with rules, both on the field and off. On the field, it was balls and strikes, pitching distance, and accommodating fans or trees (yes, stately old trees) in the outfield. Off the field, it was stealing players from other teams (or their jumping from team to team; it's all in the point of view), the prohibition of beer sales in ballparks (one reason Cincinnati left the league), and a loss of revenue because games were not permitted on Sundays. Overlaid on that broader background were the particular issues involved in Detroit, from establishing an ownership structure to building a playing field. In all areas, Martin shows the difficulties involved in the birth of major league baseball and of this particular team.

The Wolverines were mediocre their first five years, topping .500 only once, and that by just a game. Then, partway into the 1885 season, with their very survival as a team in doubt (they were 7-31 at the time), Bill Watkins, manager of the Western League's Indianapolis Hoosiers, got the idea to buy the Detroit team, merge it with Indianapolis, and dominate the Western League. As tenuous as was Detroit's status in the National League, though, the entire Western League was on yet shakier ground, and when it folded in mid-June Watkins chose another option. He got himself hired as Detroit's new manager, then attempted to abscond with several of the Hoosiers' finest players. One rule teams did generally follow was that any player freed from his old team would have to wait ten days to sign with another. So Watkins and the Detroit management offered the players they were most interested in signing a fishing expedition on Lake Erie. They kept them fishing, out of sight of land, for ten days. Then they signed them to contracts and put them on the field. Team development by kidnapping: unusual, but it worked.

Some weeks later, Detroit management acquired—not by kidnapping, though some other team owners considered it very nearly so—most of an entire team. When the National League's Buffalo franchise neared collapse later in the summer, Detroit signed Buffalo's Big Four—Dan Brouthers, Jack Rowe, Hardy Richardson, and Deacon White. The signing was illegal under current league rules, so the four actually sat out the last twenty-odd games of the 1885 season, but they opened 1886 with Detroit, now expected to compete well against Al Spalding's champion Chicago team. The Wolverines finished second in 1886, then won the championship in 1887, eventually taking the 15-game "world's series," defeating the American Association's winner, St. Louis, 10 games to 5.

One season does not a powerhouse make, however. By the time the 1888 season began, Detroit's ownership board was rife with internal feuding, the players turned against Manager Watkins, injuries and contract squabbles fragmented the team on the field, and many fans decided to look elsewhere for entertainment. (Changes not unfamiliar even in our enlightened century.) They finished fifth, just above .500, in 1888, and before the start of the 1889 season, Detroit was out of the league. By the mid-1890s, another group of owners would form a new Detroit team, the Creams, as part of a new league Ban Johnson was developing. By the time his American League achieved major league status, the Detroits had adopted a new nickname, the Tigers, and a new historical era was in the works.

For the record, I should return to the two players I singled out earlier. Charlie Bennett caught over 500 games for Detroit, its regular catcher all eight years the team existed. He played a total of fifteen years, his career ending after he lost both legs in a train accident in 1894. When Detroit entered the American League in 1896, he caught the ceremonial first pitch, and he continued to do so until 1926, shortly before his death. As for Pretzels Getzien, he was 30-11 in 1886 and 29-13 the championship year. Over his nine-year career, the first five with Detroit, he won 145 games. Okay, neither had HOF numbers, but how they were loved by the fans.

As Brian Martin writes, "There was a time when Detroit flourished, but baseball struggled." For the Detroit Wolverines, getting established took a few years, and the success they finally enjoyed was brief. Martin turns the story of the city, of the league, and especially of the team, into an absorbing tale, a roller coaster ride—quick, with all the exciting, sometimes frightful, ups and downs anyone could imagine or desire. His suggestion, later in the book, that one of the Wolverines' major investors bears significant resemblance to a New York Yankee owner of recent memory holds up reasonably well, considering the century of change, in baseball and in the world, between their heydays. The book's few flaws, mostly involving repetition of certain factoids about a player or a rule or the times, are the only weaknesses worthy of note. They do nothing to dim a robust recommendation for this exceptional book.

Martin, Brian. The Detroit Wolverines: The Rise and Wreck of a National League Champion, 1881-1888. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2018. 215 pp, illus.

Copyright © 2019 by Mark Noe

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