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Baseball in 1899


Baseball in 1899 was obviously a lot different back then than it is now so I thought I would point out some of those differences using the Pirates team as an example. It will also be a good lead in to next week’s article.

First thing is there was only one major league at the time, the National League. It consisted of 12 teams, eight of which still exist, although only five of those teams are still in the same location. Franchises in Boston, Brooklyn and New York have all moved to Atlanta (with a brief stop in Milwaukee in between), Los Angeles and San Francisco in that order. Cleveland, Washington DC and Baltimore all were dropped from the NL and became American League towns in 1901 although the original AL Baltimore Orioles franchise is the current day New York Yankees and Washington DC is now the Minnesota Twins franchise. The other team was in Louisville, Kentucky and that town never again fielded a major league team after the 1899 season.

The teams played all day games, night games weren’t played until 1935 and the Pirates didn’t play on Sundays, while some teams did, realizing attendance would increase on that day. Attendance for the Pirates in 1899 was just under 252,000 for 83 home games which was the 5th highest total in the league. The reason they played so many home games that year is fewer teams would sometimes give up their home dates because they made more money from the gate receipts playing as the visiting club instead of playing in front of sparse crowds at home. One great example of that is from the 1899 season when the Cleveland Spiders went 20-134, the worst single season record ever. They finished an incredible 84 games out of first place! They would play just 42 home games that year and their attendance for the entire season was just 6,088.

The interesting thing with no Sunday games is it led to a few series that were broken up with four game series being played on Friday, Saturday, Monday, Tuesday. Teams traveled by train which led to some longer road trips and homestands. The field conditions of the day were poor plus they had no tarps or drainage which caused more rainouts than you would normally see now which led to more doubleheaders, especially late in the season. The Pirates for example played seven doubleheaders before August. Once the teams started coming in for the last time of the year or vice versa then they began a stretch of twelve twinbills over the next two months.

One of the crazier schedule quirks was how the season ended, something you would never see now. The Pirates played a Saturday one game series vs Cleveland on October 7th. They then waited a week for a two game series with Louisville to end out their season. Louisville traveled from Pittsburgh to Chicago for one game versus the Cubs, then known by the name of the Orphans because Cap Anson, who had played for them since day one, had retired following the 1898 season. Since he was the team leader they were dubbed the Orphans and the name stuck until they took the Cubs name in 1903. The thing about these long layoffs and odd travel schedules were that these were all second division teams with the Pirates finishing in 7th place, the highest among the four teams. Due to how close the teams were geographically, Cleveland came into Pittsburgh for one day four times during the season, always a Saturday and twice they played doubleheaders.

The teams back then didn’t carry nearly as many players and to save money on train fare they would often leave backup players at home while they went on the road. That would led to one game appearances almost yearly of a minor league or amateur player in the right place at the right time who would get into a game due to injury. The 1899 team had an example of this as the Pirates needed a starting pitcher while in Chicago for a doubleheader. They used a minor leaguer in game two named Jay Parker who in his major league debut was so wild he lasted just 3 batters and his career was done with two earned runs allowed via two walks and a hit batter.

For a homestand in late June-early July 1899  the Pirates used a local pitcher named Rosie Rosebraugh for two games and then released him. The previous season they used Rosie only on a road trip at the end of the year. Even counting Parker and Rosebraugh the Pirates used just 26 total players that 1899 season and nine of them played less than 20 games. That wasn’t the lowest total as one team used just 23 total players but it was a step up from earlier teams such as the 1887 Alleghenys who used just 16 players all year.

Jay Parker

There was obvious differences in the players of that era as compared to now. It was a deadball era, home runs were very rare and most players didn’t try for them, relying more on speed and bat handling skills as opposed to raw power. Pirates hitters had just 29 homers all season but legged out 121 triples to lead the league. Strikeouts were much more rare. Pitchers were expected to finish the games they started. The Pirates for example had 118 complete games that year and they finished last among all twelve teams in that category. Chicago pitchers completed all but 5 of their starts during the year. Fielders had to deal with poor fielding conditions, gloves that were more for just protection that actually help catching the ball, there was no webbing or pocket. They also dealt with much tougher official scorers who deemed if the ball was to you no matter how hard it was hit or if it took a bad hop on the poor field they would still give you an error. A player such as Lave Cross, a star 3B of the day, could make 25 errors at the hot corner and it was considered one of the best fielding seasons at the position up until that point.

Jim Gardner

The umpiring of the day was a huge difference from now yet in 1899 it had just gone through a huge improvement. Prior to 1898 there was just one umpire per game who would either stand behind home plate or behind the pitcher and every single call on the field would be his responsibility. It led to some interesting baserunning as he had his backed turned to watch a flyball to see if it was caught. In 1899 the NL used a two umpire system, one for home plate and one for the bases. The caveat is that NL owners didn’t want to pay the expense of an extra umpire so there wasn’t always a 2nd ump. The other huge difference was that if an umpire was sick or injured (and they got injured more back then due to rowdy play and fans) a player from one of the teams would be chosen as his replacement. Prior to 1898 that would mean a player would be the only umpire but in 1899 they occasionally would use just one umpire if the other was unable to perform his duties. On June 10, 1899 Pirates reserve pitcher Jim Gardner umpired a Pittsburgh vs Louisville game as the base ump.

The biggest difference of that era as it pertains to the Pirates franchise and it’s history was the contraction of teams. The 1899 season would be last time that the league decided to drop teams going with just eight for 1900 before the AL became a recognized major league adding another eight teams which stayed the league norms until expansion in 1961. As you will see in the next article, a decision by the Louisville Colonels owner to purchase stock in the Pittsburgh Pirates before his team could be contracted led to the powerhouse Pittsburgh teams in the first decade of the 20th century. It also led to the one sided trade which brought this franchise it’s greatest player in team history.

John Dreker
John Dreker
John started working at Pirates Prospects in 2009, but his connection to the Pittsburgh Pirates started exactly 100 years earlier when Dots Miller debuted for the 1909 World Series champions. John was born in Kearny, NJ, two blocks from the house where Dots Miller grew up. From that hometown hero connection came a love of Pirates history, as well as the sport of baseball. When he didn't make it as a lefty pitcher with an 80+ MPH fastball and a slider that needed work, John turned to covering the game, eventually focusing in on the prospects side, where his interest was pushed by the big league team being below .500 for so long. John has covered the minors in some form since the 2002 season, and leads the draft and international coverage on Pirates Prospects. He writes daily on Pittsburgh Baseball History, when he's not covering the entire system daily throughout the entire year on Pirates Prospects.

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