First Strike in Baseball History: The More Things Change . . .

October 16, 1994|By JAMES H. BREADY

The outlook wasn't brilliant for the Louisville nine that day -- or that year. Owners and players despised each other. The team wasn't very good, especially at pitching and fielding; the club was undercapitalized and its president, Mordecai Davidson, was lulu.

Few people bought tickets to watch home games as the Colonels quickly took over last place. In a series of vain maneuvers, Davidson tried to sell his best players, then to play out the season on the road, then to sell the franchise.

As May ended, the players entrained for their first eastern trip. Due in Philadelphia, for two days they were unheard from -- marooned en route by the Johnstown Flood. (All this was in 1889, when the junior circuit was the American Association and the senior was the National League. Baltimore, Brooklyn, Cincinnati, Columbus, Kansas City, Louisville, Philadelphia and St. Louis constituted the Association.)

Davidson, traveling with his team, was more than a month behind in meeting the payroll, even though he had pared the squad to 11 men and a playing manager-captain. Now he tried another, more drastic device: fines. For every game error, $25. For an impertinence, more. A typical player salary was $1,400. When Davidson boasted that he had imposed $1,435 in fines, his purpose was clear -- to cut pay, in violation of legal contract. Furious, the players handed him a detailed message of protest.

On Thursday, June 13, the Colonels (8-39 and losers of 19 straight games) arrived in Baltimore for a four-game series. Davidson had yet another idea. If they lost the next day, he announced, every player would be fined $25, no matter how well he had played. Whereupon Davidson took a train for New York, the Association having summoned all its presidents to consider Louisville's plight.

In Baltimore, the Louisville players had their own, different idea:

The first strike in baseball history.

*

When in Baltimore, Louisville's 1889 team was put up at Wilson H. Pepper's Hotel, across Holliday Street from City Hall. There in the heart of downtown, a waiting fan could catch sight of the individual players, even talk with them.

In Louisville's lineup were three of the 19th century's standouts: big Guy Hecker, a Pennsylvanian who in 1884 had pitched 72 complete games, winning 52, still the third highest one-season total ever; Toad Ramsey, a left-hander who won 38 and 37 games in consecutive years; and outfielder Pete Browning, Louisville native and a lifetime .341 batter. What no one said in print was that by now the two pitchers' arms were moribund and Browning -- well, sometimes he got thirsty.

Baltimore (24-21, fifth place) had only one name player: Matt Kilroy, a left-handed fireballer. In 1887, Kilroy won 46 games, which is still the Orioles record. The Orioles, whose park was out Greenmount Avenue at what is now 25th Street, had just staged an exhibition game as a Johnstown Flood benefit.

Meanwhile, Davidson left behind another announcement: for anyone not showing up to play, a $100 fine.

The written protest that was delivered to him bore a circle of signatures, so no one player would be singled out for reprisals. But Hecker emerged as spokesman.

On Friday afternoon (game time 4:15 p.m.), when the ballpark stage left Pepper's Hotel, it carried six players. Not on board, besides Hecker, were Browning, catcher Paul Cook, second baseman Dan Shannon, pitcher Red Ehret and third baseman Harry Raymond. To have nine players, the team's manager-captain, outfielder Chicken Wolf, hired three Baltimore semipros.

After one inning, Baltimore led 5-0. Then a cloudburst sent everyone scurrying.

*

Overnight, the battle lines hardened. In New York, Davidson smoothly won over the doubters among his fellow owners; the Association endorsed his actions. And the Association's president, Wheeler C. Wikoff, accompanied Davidson back to Baltimore. Davidson smoothly deducted $100 from the salary arrears of Friday's six absentees. Wikoff lifted a larger club: "Rebellion," he told the press, "laid [the Louisville players] open to big fines and the blacklist." Earlier, baseball owners had proved their ability to unite in banishing undesirable players from the majors for life.

In Baltimore, the Daily News headlines read: "Grinding Down the Strikers / A Practical Illustration of Baseball Slavery."

"A large crowd [has] congregated around Pepper's Hotel," its reporter wrote, "and sympathized with the players." A late flash: "The players are gathered in front of Pepper's, chewing on toothpicks and refusing to be interviewed."

For Saturday, the papers advertised "Two Games -- One Admission" (the word doubleheader had not yet been invented), "2 p.m. and 4:15 p.m. Tickets, 25 cents. Ladies Admitted to Grand Stand Free." The weather? Still chancy.

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