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The Miraculous History of New York's Most Beloved Baseball Team
By Peter Golenbock
St. Martin's Press
Copyright © 2002 Peter Golenbeck.
All rights reserved.
The Original New York Metropolitans
In the summer of 1880, Jim Mutrie, the founding father of major league baseball in New York City, rode his bicycle on dirt roads, from a small town south of Boston to New York City with the intention of founding a professional baseball franchise in Manhattan. All he lacked was money.
Mutrie, who had played shortstop "of meager reputation" in small Massachusetts fishing towns like Fall River and New Bedford, arrived fashionably attired in gloves, spats, and a black silk top hat. The first potential backer he contacted was robber baron and financier August Belmont. Belmont listened to Mutrie's proposal and passed after deciding that pro baseball wasn't a solid enough investment.
Not long after, Mutrie was watching two amateur teams do battle when John Day, a wholesale tobacco merchant who had pitched that afternoon and gotten clobbered, sat down next to him. They started talking, and when Mutrie told Day what he was trying to do, Day surprised him by agreeing to bankroll such a team. Their team, they decided, would be called the Metropolitans, or Mets. The National League operated with eight franchises, but none played in New York. A New York franchise had operated during the initial 1876 season, but after a 21-35 record the team folded. The void remained.
In the winter of 1881 the American Association was being formed and Day and Mutrie were asked to take the New York franchise. Day listened to the sales pitch made by Oliver Perry "Opie" Caylor, a Cincinnati newspaper reporter and a founder of the upstart league, but in the end decided that the venture was too risky, and he demurred when asked to commit his money to it as did his partners, Mutrie and newspaper publisher W. S. Appleton. For a year the Metropolitans operated as an independent franchise.
Caylor knew the new league needed a strong franchise in New York to succeed, and was frustrated by their reluctance. He told Day and Mutrie the door would be left open for them to join in the future.
Rather than start from scratch, Day and Mutrie decided the best way to enter a competitive franchise was to buy an existing one and move it to New York. In October 1882 they bought the floundering Troy Trojans.
Troy, a town across the Hudson River from Albany, had been a landing point for thousands of Irish immigrants escaping the potato famine of 1846-48. Among these powerful sons of Erin who played for Troy were Hall of Famers Tim Keefe and Mickey Welch, each of whom had pitched for more than 300 wins during their careers; catcher and third baseman Buck Ewing; and Roger Connor, one of the great sluggers of the nineteenth century. The team also had star catcher Bill Holbert and outfielder Pete Gillespie.
The Trojans had competed in the National League for four seasons, but the town was too small a market to support a major-league team. When the franchise closed down in December 1882, Day and Mutrie bought the team, moved them to the American Association, and renamed it the Metropolitans. That year they also bought a second team, the New York Gothams, and entered them into the more established rival National League.
Day, a shrewd businessman, was convinced the National League had a brighter future than the newly organized American Association, and he put fewer of his eggs into the Metropolitan basket than he did in that of the Gothams. When they divvied up the Troy players, Day and Mutrie kept most of their best players in the National League.
Keefe, for example, was moved to the Metropolitans roster, while Welch remained with the Gothams. Holbert and James "Chief" Roseman, good but not great players, went to the Metropolitans, while former Troy standouts Connor, Gillespie, and Ewing were left on the Gothams. Day made Mutrie, who had never managed professionally before, manager of the Metropolitans.
When Day was asked by American Association leaders to serve on the board, to their dismay, he declined. Instead, he spent his time helping to run things in the National League. American Association leaders rightfully were wary of his loyalty.
Since Day was leery of the financial viability of the American Association, he decided to run the Metropolitans on a bareboned budget. The team played at Metropolitan Park, one of the two fields located by the East River at The Polo Grounds, an enormous wooden ballpark boasting two fields. The land on which the Polo Grounds sat was owned by James Gordon Bennett, the publisher of the New York Herald. Bennett had originally held polo matches on the grounds, hence the ballpark's name.
The Southeast Field, where the Gothams played, was fancy with lush green grass and a fine grandstand. A short fence in front of the left-field bleachers was erected and a canvas barrier added to separate the two diamonds once the Metropolitans began playing on the West Field.
The West Field at 108th Street was so bad it was known as "The Dump" by New Yorkers because it sat on the old city dump. Commented pitcher Jack Lynch, you could "go down for a grounder and come up with six months of malaria." The noxious fumes from factories across the river wafted heavily into the nostrils of the players and the few fans.
Day provided the Metropolitans with so little equipment that the players had to resort to stealing bats from opposing clubs after they had emptied their equipment bags onto the playing field. The Mets players particularly enjoyed stealing equipment from Cincinnati, one of the league's richer teams. But despite these difficult conditions and a rookie manager, the Metropolitans surprised everyone when they finished fourth in the eight-team league with a 54-42 record. Their ten wins against Cincinnati in their fourteen meetings was a chief factor in keeping the Reds from winning the pennant.
The Metropolitans were led by pitchers Tim Keefe and Jack Lynch. Keefe, who was of the greats of baseball history, finished the 1883 season 41-27, pitching 68 complete games and with an era of 2.41, and 359 strikeouts in 619 innings. This was the first of six straight seasons in which Keefe would win 30 or more games. From 1880 through 1888, he started in 444 games and finished all but eight. His 342 wins is eighth all-time, and he is third all-time in complete games with 554. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1964. Lynch finished the season with a 13-15 record.
As for their hitting, only one Metropolitan, shortstop John "Candy" Nelson, hit over .300 with a .305 batting average. The entire team hit just six home runs all season long.
When the 1884 season began, no one had any reason to think the Metropolitans would be anything special. But, two months into the season, while Day's National League Gothams were struggling, his stepchild Metropolitans were contending for the American Association pennant. The Metropolitans would win the 1884 championship by 61Ú2 games over the Columbus Buckeyes. Three of the higher-rated teams in the thirteen-team league, Louisville, St. Louis, and Cincinnati, finished third, fourth, and fifth.
The individual Metropolitans' may not have had impressive statistics, but Mutrie turned out to be an excellent manager who had a knack for getting the best of his talent. His lifetime winning percentage of .611 is second in baseball history to only the legendary Joe McCarthy.
The wonder was that Mutrie could take a lineup of mediocre hitters and score a lot of runs with them. Left fielder Ed Kennedy hit .190. Catcher Bill Holbert hit .208, finishing his career as the only player ever to come to bat more than two thousand times without hitting a home run. John "Dasher" Troy, whom Day moved after the 1884 season to the Mets from the Gothams when he hit poorly, Candy Nelson, and Steve Brady hit only in the .250s.
The offensive star of the team was 250-pound first baseman, Dave Orr. In 1884 Orr hit nine home runs and led the league in hitting with a .354 batting average. Two years later he was the first player in baseball history to ring up 300 total bases in a single season. (Six years later Orr would suffer a stroke, ending his career at age thirty-one.) The other decent batsman on the team was suave and dapper third baseman Dude Esterbrook, who hit .314. (Esterbrook also met a tragic end when, seventeen years later, he jumped to his death from a moving train en route to a mental hospital.)
The heart of the 1884 champion Metropolitans was the pitching duo of Tim Keefe and Jack Lynch, each of whom won 37 games to tie for second in the league. Keefe was fourth in the league with a 2.26 era. Lynch was ninth at 2.67.
Providence won the 1884 pennant in the National League. The Grays were led by Gardner "Old Hoss" Radbourn, a legendary turn-of-the-century pitching sensation. That year Radbourn had his finest season, winning 59 games and losing only 12 with an era of 1.38. In mid-July Radbourn was suspended in midseason for drunkenness but when the other veteran pitcher, Charlie Sweeney, got drunk and quit the team after being threatened with suspension, manager Frank Bancroft knew he was in trouble, so he reinstated Radbourn and gave him a raise.
No World Series was played in 1883 because the National League's Boston Beaneaters had defeated the American Association's Philadelphia Athletics in seven of eight exhibition games, and A's manager Lew Simmons refused to play for keeps.
When a clamor arose in September for the Metropolitans and the Grays to meet in a World Series in 1884, Mutrie challenged Bancroft to a two-game series. Bancroft declined. Mutrie turned up the heat by going to the New York papers and accusing Bancroft of being chicken-hearted. Bancroft finally agreed to meet in a best two out of three series. The three games would be played at the Polo Grounds. Each club put up $1,000.
The star of the series was Providence's Hoss Radbourn, who dominated the Metropolitans, winning the first two games 6-0 and 3-1. Since the championship already was decided, only three hundred spectators showed up for the third game. Radbourn defeated the Metropolitans easily in a 12-2 win, shortened after only six innings. In all, Radbourne gave up eleven hits and no walks in the three outings. One reporter wrote that "the Metropolitans played like children."
John Day, despite having won a pennant in the American Association, remained firmly convinced that his baseball future lay with his National League Gothams. Even though American Association tickets were cheaper and he could sell beer at American Association games, fans were few. The Metropolitans lost $8,000 in 1884 despite their success.
In November 1884 Day moved to further strengthen the National League Gothams. Impressed with the way Jim Mutrie had led the Metropolitans to the pennant, Day fired Gotham manager Jim Price and replaced him with Mutrie. Day also wanted to move his two best Met players, Keefe and Esterbrook, to the Gothams, but National Association rules forbade him, even though he owned both teams. Under the rules, he first had to release them, and then he had to wait ten days before re-signing them. During those ten days, any team owner could sign them. To prevent that, Day invited Keefe and Esterbrook to vacation with him at his onion farm in Bermuda. He issued their release, took off for Bermuda, and when the ten days were up, they returned to New York and signed their new contracts. With Keefe and Esterbrook onboard, the New York Gothams became contenders for the 1885 National League pennant.
The owners of the American Association were furious with Day. On April 29, 1885, twelve days into the new season, the board of directors met to consider kicking the defending champion Metropolitans out of the league. But, because they knew how important a New York team was to their survival, they backed down. Instead, they fined Day $500 for switching Keefe and Esterbrook, and they made Mutrie the scapegoat by banning him from ever managing in the American Association.
Without their manager and the two stars, the Metropolitans finished the 1885 season a dismal 44-64, seventh in the eight-team league. Jack Orr finished second in the league in hitting with a .342 average and led the league with a .543 slugging percentage, one of the highest in baseball history. But Jack Lynch couldn't handle the pitching load by himself, and he finished the season 23-21.
At the end of the season Day dropped the other shoe when he sold the Metropolitans to Erastus Wiman, the owner of the Staten Island Ferry, for $25,000. Wiman proposed transferring the team to Staten Island, but Association leaders insisted the team remain in Manhattan.
In December 1885 the league voted to oust the Metropolitans and replace it with a Washington franchise. Wiman got an injunction to stop the eviction and won in court to keep the team from being removed. But, the lawsuit only postponed the inevitable. When it appeared the franchise was going to fold, Dave Orr and outfielder Chief Roseman signed with Brooklyn. Brooklyn owner Charlie Byrne at first refused to return them after Wiman won the case for reinstatement, but was forced by the league to relent.
The Metropolitans were even worse in 1886. New manager Jim Gifford was fired after the team began the season 5-12. Their final record was 53-82, and despite Orr's .368 batting average, he lost his home run stroke. Pitcher Al Mays led the league with 28 losses. The Metropolitans suffered one of the worst seasons in the history of the game of baseball.
Some reporters blamed the failure of the Metropolitans on the ballpark, saying the trip was too expensive and too long. Others blamed it on the chancy New York weather. None laid the blame where it belonged, on John Day's machinations.
In 1887 the Metropolitans finished 44-89, seventh once again. They opened the season 1-12. Orr hit .368, and Mays again led the league in losses with 31. The Mets were bolstered by the acquisition of Joe Gerhardt, who had been released by the New York Gothams after the popular but paranoid Gerhardt blamed Buck Ewing and Monte Ward for turning his teammates against him. But almost as soon as he joined the Mets, Gerhardt suffered a bad back and then contracted malaria.
In early June, Jack Orr, who had replaced Bob Ferguson as manager, was hurt chasing a pop up. He decided he no longer wanted to manage, and he named catcher Bill Holbert as his replacement. However, president Walter Wattrous, with the approval of Wiman, vetoed Holbert and hired Oliver Perry Caylor, the cofounder of the league, to be the new manager. At the time Caylor was also working as a reporter for The Sporting Life magazine. When Watrous and Caylor tried to enter the league meetings in December, Caylor was tossed out for being a reporter.
Before the end of the 1887 season Wiman sold the Mets to the owner of the Brooklyn team, Charlie Byrne. Caylor quit, saying he could not work for the hot-tempered, Machiavellian Byrne. The Mets finished seventh amid the turmoil. Once again, the hitting of David Orr (.368) highlighted a dismal season. Al Mays lost 34 games.
Byrne's purchase of the team in September 1887 turned out to be the end for the New York Metropolitans. Byrne's stated intention was to turn it into a farm club for his Brooklyn team, but his real purpose became evident after the season was over when he cavalierly transferred the best Mets playersÑOrr, Paul Radford, and MaysÑfrom New York to Brooklyn. This infamous act was the start of a century of bad blood between teams from New York and Brooklyn. New York fans never forgave Byrne for raping their team and building his Brooklyn franchise at their expense.
After Byrne denuded the New York franchise, he renounced ownership in the decimated team, and announced that he was giving it back to the league. The league transferred the Metropolitans franchise to Missouri, and in 1888 the renamed Kansas City Cowboys finished dead last. For the first time in almost ten years, there would be only one New York team, the Gothams (renicknamed the Giants), playing in the National League.
The loyal New York Metropolitan fans mourned the loss of their team. It would not be the last time New Yorkers would mourn for a lost franchise, and it would take almost seventy-five years for their Metropolitans to return.
Excerpted from Amazin' by Peter Golenbock. Copyright © 2002 by Peter Golenbeck. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.