Thursday, April 9, 2009

Random Thursday: 1876 Louisville Grays

First, The Common Man is sorry to have been away. He’s trying as the new job ramps up to balance everything. Don’t write him off just yet, as he’ll strike a balance yet. But he was bound and determined not to miss his beloved randomness. And for his efforts, The Common Man was rewarded by the new format over at It’s…um…interesting. The sheer volume of information available there has increased dramatically and both that volume and the new look are going to take some getting used to. The Common Man is pretty sure he’s going to like it eventually, but it will be a while before he’s completely comfortable.

Meanwhile, the Random function is still active and available and sent The Common Man hurtling back to the 19th century and the 1876 Louisville Grays team page. Astute baseball historians’ ears just pricked up for three reasons. One, 1876 is of course the first year of the NL’s existence. That year, the Grays finished 30-36, landing in the second division, 22 games behind the NL Champion Chicago White Stockings. Two, the Grays of the 1870s were notorious for throwing ballgames. They actually got started in 1876, as George Bechtel attempted to conspire with Louisville ace Jim Devlin to throw a game for $100. Devlin showed his manager the telegram and Bechtel became the first player permanently banned from the league. And, ironically, three is Devlin himself, who conspired with his teammates in 1877 to throw the pennant race. Devlin and team captain and 1876 home run champ George Hall led the effort in ’77, allegedly inspired by poor pay and harsh mistreatment by their team’s owner.

Jim Baker, in the Bill James New Historical Baseball Abstract, wrote, “with a quarter of the season to go (fifteen games), the Grays needed to win only half their remaining games to clinch the flag…. With the pennant seemingly assured, the Grays began dropping games due to a variety of ‘bonehead’ plays; strikeouts, pick-offs, and costly errors abounded…. At the conclusion of the season a Louisville paper, the Courier Journal, made accusations that the team had gone in the tank. The primary culprit was alleged to be Jim Devlin, who was now, according to some reports, sporting a variety of fancy jewelry.”

At the time he was banned, at age 28, Devlin was considered one of the top pitchers in the league. He had led the NL in games pitched, innings, and complete games (127 out of 129). He also won 30 and 35 games those seasons (though he led the league each year with 35 and 25 losses respectively). By all accounts, he was the Grays. Hall had an excellent OPS+ of 133, but the Louisville nine didn’t feature any other hitters who were significantly above average. In fact, three of their players finished with an OPS+ in the 70s (that said, the team did finish with the highest fielding percentage and fewest errors in the league, a significant accomplishment given that the league averaged almost 11.8 per game).

With Devlin, Hall, SS Bill Craver (71 OPS+, but probably the second or third best defensive SS in the league behind Davy Force and perhaps John Peters), and reserve Al Nichols all banned from the game, the Grays folded after the season. Six of their position players were 25 or under. Hall was only 28. So was Devlin. Assuming Devlin’s arm could have held up for a couple more years, the Grays could have built the league’s first dynasty, before the White Stockings’ great run of the 1880s. It would be another fifteen years before Louisville would get another National League franchise (which would never finish higher than ninth in a twelve team league).

Devlin pleaded his case repeatedly to the National League owners, trying to get reinstated. He wrote to Hall of Famer and league paragon Harry Wright, “I Can assure you Harry that I was not Treated right and if Ever I can see you to tell you the Case you will say I am not to blame I am living from hand to mouth all winter I have not got a Stich of Clothing or has my wife and Child…. The Louisville People have made me what I am to day a Beggar. [sic]” Devlin died in 1884 in Philadelphia, working as a cop but still mostly broke, from consumption complicated by severe alcoholism. From what The Common Man read, it’s not clear whether Devlin’s accusations against his former owner, the league president, and the people of Louisville are at all justified. Ball players tended to make more than average wage-earners at that point, and Devlin was clearly a star. And he likely could have jumped to a minor league club at a much higher salary if he was being underpaid by the Grays. The Common Man hasn’t gotten to it yet, but those wanting more info on 19th century baseball, Devlin, and the 1877 scandal in general should probably check out William A. Cook’s boringly titled, The Louisville Grays Scandal of 1877: The Taint of Gambling at the Dawn of the National League. An exerpt is here.

1 comment:

Ron Rollins said...

Good article. And good work finding the book. I would have never thought of looking for one.

I'll defintely pick it up.

I start work on Tuesday, and between that, my daughter, writing two blogs and a weekly article, I think I need to clone myself.

I'm afraid my beer drinnking time might start to suffer.