On May 14, 1886, a crowd of 1,200 gathered on Rice’s Point at the brand-new baseball grounds, a 1,000-seat facility complete with dressing rooms built by Superior’s William H. Shun, and watched as Duluth defeated St. Paul 9–7. The team, led by “Professor Brooke’s band,” had paraded to the ball park, located adjacent to Michigan Street near the Graff Lumber Mill at 24th Avenue West. To help pay for construction, on opening day fans paid 50 cents to watch the game—twice the regular price.
Professional baseball had come to the Zenith City, but baseball was nothing new.
Duluth had boasted a semi-pro team prior to the coming of professional ball. The first significant baseball field was built for the town team in 1884 between 15th and 17th Avenues east south of London Road. The team played against “Brainerd, Eau Claire, St. Paul, Chippewa Falls and other places where crack teams were reputed to exist.”
In 1885, the club lured William H. Lucas away from Chippewa Falls. Lucas, a native of Cleveland, Ohio, came to the region in 1877 to play professional baseball for St. Paul in the League Alliance, the first minor league. In Duluth on August 26, 1885, he scored the only run in a 13-1 loss to Eau Claire, but broke his ankle sliding into home plate. It was during his recovery that he gathered support for professional baseball in Duluth.
Thanks to Lucas’s efforts, Duluth was awarded a franchise in the Northwestern League for the 1886 season and the Duluth Base Ball Association was incorporated on December 1, 1885. Its executive board consisted of D. G. Cash (president), Major J. H. Upham (vice president), Alonzo J. Whiteman (secretary), John B. Sutphin (treasurer), Jay W. Anderson, Dr. McComb, Thomas Cullyford, Paul Ray, and L. O. Wile. Lucas was named manager and charged with assembling a roster. He anticipated a player’s contract would cost the club between “$60 to $125 per month” (about $1,500-$3,000 today), so player salary costs for a five-month season “should not exceed $4,500” ($110,000 today).
The Duluth team would play in the Northwestern League, which began in 1883 as an eight-team league spread over Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan. Milwaukee, Minneapolis, St. Paul, Stillwater, and Winona joined the league in 1884. The league had collapsed in September, 1884, due to financial hardship. When the league reestablished in 1886, only Minnesota and Wisconsin cities were represented.
A 7–6 opening day loss at Minneapolis on May 12 was avenged the next day with Duluth’s first league win, a 25–14 “severe drubbing to the Ball Tossers of the Flour City.” Meanwhile, Jay W. Anderson “billed the whole town…with posters and hangers” in preparation for the home opener against St. Paul on May 14.
Eight of Duluth’s 18 players were either former or future major leaguers, including the team’s star, Mark “Fido” Baldwin, a 22-year-old pitcher from Pittsburgh. Baldwin, perhaps the wildest, hardest-throwing pitcher of the Nineteenth Century, won 39 games for Duluth that year. On June 18 he struck out 18 St. Paul batters, including a stretch of 12 in a row, with the help of Llewellyn Legg, the only catcher for Duluth that could handle Baldwin’s fastball. (The two were touted as “the old reliables” in game advertisements.)
That October the National League Champion Chicago White Stockings signed Baldwin to pitch in the fifth game of the 1886 World Series against the St. Louis Browns of the American Association. St. Louis objected, and after an argument delayed the game for 20 minutes, the umpires ruled Baldwin ineligible. He had to wait until the following spring to make his major league debut for Chicago.
When Legg wasn’t catching Baldwin, George Bignell handled duties behind the plate. He had come to Duluth in July after playing for teams in Massachusetts and Maine. Two years earlier had played four games in the majors for the Union Association’s Milwaukee Brewers, setting the major league record for most defensive chances by a catcher in a nine-inning game. On October 3, 1884, he had 17 putouts, six assists, and two errors in the Brewers’ 5–4 loss to the Boston Reds. His battery mate, pitcher Henry Porter, recorded 18 strikeouts, which stood as the major league record for strikeouts by a losing pitcher until Steve Carlton struck out 19 batters in 1969.
Duluth clinched the league pennant with a 9–4 victory over Minneapolis at home on September 30. The final standings listed Duluth with a record of 47–33. Eau Claire finished in second place, at 43–37, and Oshkosh was third at 40–40. St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Milwaukee had losing records, but Milwaukee’s 36–44 last-place finish proved it was a balanced league. The league championship pennant was displayed for many years at Anderson’s saloon on West Superior Street in downtown Duluth.
Duluth again had a club in 1887, but the Northwestern League died when four clubs left the next year for the Western Association. Professional baseball returned to Duluth briefly in 1891 when the St. Paul club of the Western Association was relocated to Duluth in mid-season, but it was not until the Northern League expanded in 1903 that professional baseball had more than a fleeting relationship with the Zenith City.
Editor’s Note: Professional Baseball researcher refer to this team as the Duluth Jayhawks, although the newspaper reports of the day provide no nickname for the team. Two other early Duluth teams were also simply called “Duluth” in period newspapers, but modern researchers refer to them as the “Whalebacks” and the “Freezers.”
Story by Anthony Bush; originally appeared on Zenith City Online November, 2012.