The 1891 Duluth “Whalebacks”

The newspaper advertisement for the first baseball game played at recreational Park in Duluth’s West End. Minneapolis won, 4–1. (Image: X-comm.)

When Jay W. Anderson purchased half-ownership of the financially strapped St. Paul franchise of the Western Association and moved it to Duluth in the middle of the 1891 season, the Duluth Daily Tribune happily announced the return of professional baseball to the Zenith City after a three-year absence. Duluth that summer would enjoy watching 20 former and future major league players in the West End’s Recreation Park.

The announcement was made on June 8, and plans went into effect immediately to improve the grounds at the western end of the street railway line on Superior Street and 28th Avenue West for an anticipated first home game to be played in early July. “Some 20,000 feet of lumber is needed to fence in the grounds alone,” the newspaper reported. The ball park, dubbed Recreation Park, had a seating capacity of 5,000 and enough room to park 500 carriages.

But long before the field was prepared Anderson had primed the Twin Ports for the return of professional baseball by arranging Western Association teams to play at the head of the lakes. On May 10, over 7,000 people saw Minneapolis defeat Denver, 6–4, at Driving Park in West Superior, Wisconsin. A 10-car special train and two five-car regulars were “crowded full,” and ferries ran passengers and carriages across St. Louis Bay to accommodate the baseball-hungry Duluthians.

Duluth’s first game at Recreation Park was played on July 5 against the Minneapolis Millers. A general admission ticket cost 25 cents, and a grand stand ticket was 25 cents extra. An overflowing crowd witnessed Minneapolis win, 4–1. The following day only 700 people attended the game played in “the raw wind” as Duluth defeated the Sioux City Corn Huskers, 6–5.

Anderson’s co-owner was team manager Bill Watkins from Brantford, Ontario, Canada. A former major-league player, Watkins had played in 34 games for the 1884 Indianapolis Hoosiers of the American Association. He managed for 23 seasons, including nine in the big leagues. In 1887, his Detroit Wolverines won the National League pennant and defeated the American Association’s St. Louis Browns by winning 10 of 15 games in the World Series.

Watkin’s experience in the bigs paid off for his players: only six of the 26 players that played for the St. Paul/Duluth team did not reach the major leagues at some point in their careers.

Duluth’s fans, or “cranks” as they were called then, missed a chance to see future-star pitcher Jouett Meekin, who jumped his contract with St. Paul to join the Louisville Colonels of the American Association. Meekin, who had been with St. Paul since 1889, made his major league debut on June 13. He was formally banned from playing in the organized minor leagues for leaving St. Paul, but it was a moot edict. He became a three-time 20-game winner for the National League’s New York Giants, including a 33–9 record in 1894.

Billy Hart of Palmyra, Missouri, was St. Paul/Duluth’s ace pitcher. Hart—who in 1890 had a 12–8 record and a 3.67 ERA for the American Association’s St. Louis Browns—went 18–18 in his 36 starts for Duluth. He spent one more year as a professional player, splitting the 1892 season between Macon, Memphis, and San Francisco. When the team won its first game in Duluth that July 6, Hart was on the mound.

Catcher Kid Baldwin of Newport, Kentucky, had spent the previous seven years in the majors, primarily with the Cincinnati Red Stockings of the American Association. He batted .261 in 72 games for St. Paul/Duluth, and finished the 1891 season with the Spokane Bunch Grassers of the Pacific Northwestern League. Baldwin died in 1897 at age 32 in a Cincinnati insane asylum after suffering from the physical and mental effects of alcoholism.

First Baseman and team captain Jack O’Brien, whose eight-year tenure in the major leagues ended in 1890, led the club with 118 hits. The Philadelphia native batted .317 at age 31 in 1891, his last season of professional baseball.

Sam LaRocque, a second baseman, was from St. Mathias, Quebec, Canada. He played for four clubs in 1891: Green Bay of the Wisconsin State League, St. Paul/Duluth, the Pittsburgh Pirates, and Louisville. LaRocque spent 22 seasons as a professional player, and retired at age 44 in 1907.

William “Bones” Ely of North Girard, Pennsylvania, was batting .288 in 93 games for St. Paul/Duluth before leaving for the National League’s Brooklyn Grooms. Ely later enjoyed several seasons as the shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates, but he became more famous for being replaced by Honus Wagner, one of the game’s greatest players.

Outfielder William “Rasty” Wright joined the club after playing for Detroit in 1891 after the Detroit team disbanded. His only season in the big leagues was in 1890, with the Syracuse Stars of the American Association and the Cleveland Spiders of the National League. Wright, from Birmingham, Michigan, played professional baseball from 1884 to 1899. He lived in Duluth following his playing days and gained a reputation as a “man about town” due to multiple arrests for gambling. He died in 1922 and is buried at Duluth’s Calvary Cemetery.

Duluth’s club did not last through the season. When Milwaukee left the eight-team Western Association on August 18 to replace Cincinnati in the American Association (a major league also known as the “Beer and Whisky League” that ceased operations that same year), the Western Association reorganized on August 20, dropping Duluth, Lincoln, and Minneapolis from the league. The club posted a record of 17–34 as St. Paul and went 22–27 as Duluth for a total of 39 wins and 61 losses, last place in the standings.

The Western Association was caught in the middle of a trade war between the National League and the American Association in the wake of the fall of a third major league, the Players League. The Players League, which only existed for the 1890 season, was established by the Brotherhood of Professional Baseball Players in an attempt to kill the reserve clause. The reserve clause, which allowed clubs to keep players under contract in perpetuity, remained until 1976 with the dawn of the free agency era.

Following the Western Association’s difficulties of 1891, it was reorganized as the Western League in 1892. St. Paul’s entry in that league faltered again and moved to Fort Wayne, Indiana, in mid-season. The league did not exist in 1893 as the country was experiencing its worst economic depression to date, but was resurrected in 1894 with Ban Johnson as president. Johnson gradually built the league up as a viable competitor of the National League in the vacuum created by the demise of the Players League and the American Association.

The Western League changed its name to the American League in 1900 and was finally recognized as an equal by the National League in 1903, the same year professional baseball returned to Duluth and Superior gained its first professional club.

[Editor’s Note: Although baseball researchers refer to the 1891 Duluth club as the Whalebacks, the writer is unclear whether or not the professional club had a nickname, co-opted the Whalebacks name from a contemporary town ball team, or perhaps even had a different nickname. Also, researchers refer to the St. Paul club as the Apostles, but the June 8, 1891, edition of the Duluth Daily Tribune called St. Paul the Saints.]


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