After capturing the league pennant in the first season of professional baseball in Duluth the previous year, Duluth welcomed the return of its Northwestern League club in 1887. The league expanded to eight teams in 1887, with the addition of Des Moines and La Crosse to a league that already consisted of Duluth, Eau Claire, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Oshkosh, and St. Paul.
William Lucas returned for his second season as the club’s manager, and five players played for Duluth in both 1886 and 1887. Sixteen of the 33 players who played for Duluth in 1887 were either former or future major league players.
Duluth opened the season with a 5-2 win at Oshkosh on April 30, but did not play at home until May 28. The roughly 1,300 spectators were enjoying an even battle against Eau Claire in the home opener, as the clubs were knotted with seven runs apiece through six innings. Duluth scored 24 runs in the last three innings—home teams batted first until 1891— to win, 31-13. It was perhaps the brightest point of a season otherwise marred by losses—games, and tragically, the death of one of the players.
On the evening of May 11 after a 16-10 loss at La Crosse, three Duluth players were in a boat in the Mississippi River. They rowed into the wake of the steamboat Silver Crescent, and were capsized. Two of the players, Bill Barnes and Billy Earle, swam to shore to get help for the third player. Unable to swim, John Ake clung to the boat, but then tried to follow his teammates. When they reached the shore, they heard him call, “Save me” before he disappeared into the river. His body was never found. Ake was 25 years old.
A native of Altoona, Pennsylvania, Ake had played in 13 games in the major leagues for the Baltimore Orioles of the American Association in 1884. He had played in just nine games for Duluth.
Bill Barnes, from Shakopee, Minnesota, was also a former major league player, having played eight games for the St. Paul White Caps of the Union Association in 1884. Barnes never forgot the strange look on Earle’s face as he watched their teammate drown.
Billy Earle was called “creepy” and a “weirdo,” and thought to have an “evil eye” by his teammates. A helpless feeling overcame those caught in his piercing gaze. Hailing from Philadelphia, he practiced spiritual healing and once attempted to hypnotize a woman who was not interested in his courtship. He later came to be known as “The Little Globetrotter” because he played for the All-Americas on Albert Goodwill Spalding’s world tour of 1888-1889. (Mark Baldwin, Duluth’s star pitcher in 1886, joined the tour as the ace for Spalding’s Chicago club). Earle played for five major league teams between 1889 and 1894.
The 1887 squad also featured Joe Quinn, who led Duluth with 11 home runs and a .372 batting average. Quinn collected exactly 1,800 hits in his 17 years in the big leagues and remained the only Australian-born major league player until Craig Shipley played for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1986.
Duluth’s ace came from Philadelphia. Tod Brynan won 21 games, but lost 27. Brynan logged unheard-of statistics compared to the modern game: 47 complete games out of 48 games started and 439.1 innings pitched. Brynan’s ERA was just 3.32 despite allowing a whopping 600 hits. He started three games for the Chicago White Stockings of the National League in 1888, and made one appearance in the same league for the 1891 Boston Beaneaters.
On August 18, Lucas resigned as manager in a cost-cutting measure. The Duluth Daily News reported the club’s directors “returned him a hearty vote of thanks.” Quinn replaced Lucas as manager. Lucas, the driving force behind Duluth’s efforts to host professional baseball in 1886, went on to be the president of several minor leagues, including a revived Northwestern League in the Pacific Northwest from 1905 to 1910.
The formation of the Western Association on Sept. 27, 1887, doomed the Northwestern League. The Western Association was Spalding’s brainchild as he envisioned a second Chicago club to play home games while his National League club was away. The Des Moines, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and St. Paul clubs jumped to the new league which began play in 1888. Oshkosh sent an attorney to the meeting in Chicago to protest its exclusion, but he could not find the location of the meeting in time. With half of its clubs gone, the Northwestern League did not survive past the 1887 season.
Although Duluth finished a dismal 42-76—seventh place in a field of of eight teams and 34.5 games behind first place—it almost played a deciding factor in the league championship. Duluth’s business manager, Jay W. Anderson, accused the Oshkosh club of trying to bribe Duluth’s pitchers with liquor in an attempt to secure victories in a late-season series. The league dismissed the accusations and awarded Oshkosh the championship over Milwaukee. Oshkosh was 76-41 and Milwaukee was 78-43. Milwaukee, despite having the most wins in the league, had to settle for second place, at 0.005 games behind Oshkosh. St. Paul (75-45, 2.5 games behind) and Des Moines (73-47, 4.5 games behind) rounded out the tightly-contested upper division. Minneapolis (54-65) was a distant fifth-place, 23 games behind.
In 1888, optimism that professional baseball would continue in Duluth ran high, symbolized by the sale of $5,145 worth of subscriptions the previous October. Unfortunately, those subscribers were sorely disappointed—and would have to wait until 1891 before another professional team called Duluth home. That story next month.
Editor’s Note: Professional Baseball researchers refer to this team as the Duluth Freezers, 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 “Jayhawks” and the “Whalebacks.”
Story by Anthony Bush; originally appeared on Zenith City Online December, 2012.