The First Giants: How the 1883 Gothams Acquired Four Future Hall of Famers

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On May 1, 1883, 15,000 New Yorkers filled the stands at the Polo Grounds in upper Manhattan to witness baseball history. The newly formed New York Gothams (now the San Francisco Giants) played their very first baseball game, facing National League rivals the Boston Beaneaters (now the Atlanta Braves).

The First Giants: How the 1883 Gothams Acquired Four Future Hall of FamersThe Gothams took this first contest by a score of 7 to 5, largely thanks to the impact of four future Baseball Hall of Famers.

The First Giants: How the 1883 Gothams Acquired Four Future Hall of Famers
“Grasshopper” Jim Whitney, supposedly the ugliest man in baseball. Looks pretty average to me.

Slugging first baseman and future all-time home run leader Roger Connor belted the first hit in franchise history with a triple off Boston starter “Grasshopper” Jim Whitney (who Bill James called the ugliest player of the 1880’s).

Future 300 game winner, “Smiling” Mickey Welch did his finest Jack Morris impression, being staked to a 6 to 0 lead and pitching to the score on his way to the team’s first ever win.

Catcher Buck Ewing, once considered the best all-around player who ever lived, played an errorless game behind the plate. John Ward drove home the first run in the team’s history and played a flawless game in center field.

The First Giants: How the 1883 Gothams Acquired Four Future Hall of Famers
Buck Ewing, baseball’s finest catcher with baseball’s finest mustache.

The Gothams were featuring four future Baseball Hall of Fame players in the starting line-up who were entering their prime on what was essentially an expansion club (as I discussed last week). Now suppose a new expansion team is announced for 2018 and they were able to sign Anthony Rizzo, Madison Bumgarner, Buster Posey, and some weird hybrid of Kenta Maeda and Josh Harrison.

Oh and all of them are 25 or younger. Completely unfathomable, right?

Well, to understand how this happened, we need to look at the demise of the 1882 Troy Trojans. From 1879 to 1882, the bustling metropolis of Troy, New York was home to a National League club. But with a population of just 56,747 in 1880, Troy was too small to support a Major league club.

A game on September 27, 1881 against the Chicago White Stockings drew just 12 fans.

The First Giants: How the 1883 Gothams Acquired Four Future Hall of Famers
Roger Connor, the proto-Babe Ruth.

1882 would see the Trojans finish in seventh place with continued dismal attendance. This in spite of a lineup that included Connor, Ewing, Welch and another future 300 game winner in right-hander Tim Keefe.

Competition from the newly formed American Association put pressure on the National League to find bigger markets. This spelled doom for Troy and with increasing debts and lack of interest, the club would finally fold in October 1882. This created a spot for the New York Gothams to join the National League.

More importantly, the entire Troy roster became free agents.

The First Giants: How the 1883 Gothams Acquired Four Future Hall of Famers
Smiling Mickey Welch, not living up to his nickname.

Ewing, Connor, and Welch were pursued by every team in both the American Association and National League, but millionaire owner John B. Day was able to sign the big three, along with Troy’s steady left fielder Patrick Gillespie. Day also signed Tim Keefe, but placed him on the rival American Association New York Mets, which he also owned.

Another critically important piece to the New York Gothams success was added in 1880.

John Ward had won 47 (!) games as a 19 year old right handed pitcher for the 1879 Providence Grays. The Pre-1900 era of baseball was a totally different game than the one we know today. Not surprisingly, Ward’s time as an ace was short-lived due to overwork and arm problems. So some things never change.

The First Giants: How the 1883 Gothams Acquired Four Future Hall of Famers
John Ward: author, center fielder, pitcher, shortstop, manager, owner, Player’s League founder, union leader.

So at the ripe old age of 22, Ward was an afterthought despite winning 19 games for the Grays and manning right field on his off-days. He had been replaced as the team’s ace by the legendary pitcher and current Twitter star Old Hoss Radbourn.

Perhaps fearing that Ward would never regain his old form, John Ward was sold that offseason to the New York Gothams, where he would go on to become the most interesting man in baseball.

Ward would became one of baseball’s first true superstars.

First as a player/manager, then as author of baseball’s first autobiography, and as the eventual founder of baseball’s first union. He even formed his own major league, the Players League in 1890.

Think Derek Jeter with an opinion.

So when the 1883 season started, Roger Connor, Buck Ewing, John Ward, and Mickey Welch were front and centre. This quartet would form the nucleus of the first great Giant’s team and would win back to back pennants (and World Series) in 1888 and 1889.

The Giants are the winningest franchise in National League history and the city of Troy, New York deserves some of the credit.

Credit to Ray Kim for his helpful article “When Troy Was A Major-League City

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