Today in 1899, The Brooklyn Superbas Were Born

Today in the 1898-1899 offseason, a remarkable thing happened: as the ownership groups in Baltimore and Brooklyn swapped part shares in each other’s clubs, the Orioles effectively merged with the Dodgers, with the class of the two ballclubs going to Brooklyn and the dregs staying in Baltimore — with the exception of star Baltimore third baseman John McGraw, who refused to leave. (Imagine if Jeffrey Loria traded a stake in the Marlins to Rogers Communications to obtain a stake in the Blue Jays, and you begin to get the idea.) The super-team in Brooklyn, formerly called the Trolley Dodgers, became known as the “Superbas.”

Up to that point, the Orioles had been arguably the best team in the National League for much of the decade, which is to say, the best team in baseball, because the National League was the only major league at the time. The Orioles finished first out of 12 teams from 1894-1896, and second in 1897-1898. The majority of their starting lineup — catcher Wilbert Robinson, shortstop Hughie Jennings, third baseman John McGraw, and outfielders Joe Kelley and Wee Willie Keeler, not to mention manager Ned Hanlon — went to the Hall of Fame. (Hanlon, Robinson, and McGraw largely made the Hall on their reputations as managers, though McGraw was also a superb player.) Then their team was eviscerated, and the Orioles disappeared through contraction the following year.

Ned Hanlon, known as “Foxy Ned,” managed the Orioles and then the Dodgers, but most importantly, he had an ownership share. So he was involved in the deal that brought the two clubs together, and when he went to Brooklyn he had his virtual pick of the Baltimore roster. The Orioles retained a few of their players — specifically McGraw, who immediately became the manager, and Robinson, later a longtime manager in Brooklyn. And they came up with Joe McGinnity, a Hall of Fame pitcher who debuted for the squad. (McGinnity was 28, old for a rookie, but as Burt Solomon writes in “Where They Ain’t,” he had previously “left baseball to open a saloon in Illinois because his wife was an invalid.”) Still, all in all it was a disspiriting year for the Baltimore club, which finished in fourth place.

The 1899 National League season was a year of haves and have-nots. Brooklyn finished first, 101-47, eight games ahead of Frank Selee’s 95-win Boston Beaneaters, and nine ahead of the Phillies. Baltimore was fourth with 86, but was closer to the ninth-place Louisville Colonels, who had 75 wins, than to the top of the division. At the bottom came the soon-to-be-extinct Senators, with 54 wins, and the infamous Spiders, who went 20-134 in the worst season of professional baseball ever played. The Senators, Spiders, Colonels, and Orioles were all contracted at the end of the season, as the National League shrank from 12 teams to eight. The shrinking of the league paved the way for Cleveland, Washington, and Baltimore to be reborn in two years as American League cities.

Hanlon may not have been a brilliant clubhouse man, according to Sam Crawford, who was a rookie on the Reds in 1899:

He was a bench manager in civilian clothes. When things would get a little tough in a game, Hanlon would sit there on the bench and wring his hands and start telling some of those old-timers what to do. They’d look at him and say, “For Christ’s sake, just keep quiet and leave us alone. We’ll win this ball game if you only shut up.”

But Foxy Ned was still a towering figure in pre-1900 baseball. His teams were built around fundamentals and smallball. It was his Baltimore Orioles that originated the “Baltimore Chop.” The Superbas were even named after him. Brooklyn’s team had been called the Trolley Dodgers for fairly obvious reasons, as trolley lines crisscrossed the borough. But there was a popular vaudeville troupe in Brooklyn called Hanlon’s Superbas, and when Ned Hanlon came from Baltimore to Brooklyn, sportswriters jokingly began to call the baseball team the Superbas too. The name stuck, and that’s how they were known for years afterwards, even after Ned had left the club.

The shady business deal that consolidated the clubs was actually not uncommon for the time, though the practice was banned after 1899. It was sneeringly referred to as “syndicate baseball,” as a similar thing happened in Cleveland and Louisville and led to the demise of those clubs as well. As Benjamin Rader writes in “Baseball: A History of America’s Game”:

In the late 1890s three NL franchises became virtually the farm clubs of three other league franchises. When Cleveland Spiders owner Frank Robison obtained control of the St. Louis Browns in 1899, he transferred stars Jesse Burkett and Cy Young from the Spiders to the Browns, and when Barney Dreyfus, owner of Louisville, purchased control of Pittsburgh, he moved Honus Wagner and Fred Clarke to the Pirates. [But] Perhaps no interlocking ownership reflected a more cynical disregard for hometown fans than the Baltimore-Brooklyn nexus.

Baltimore fans may have been more cruelly served at the time, but Louisville fans assuredly had it worse in the long run, as 1899 was the last season that there was a major league team in their city. The other three cities, Washington, Baltimore, and Cleveland, all gained a new team in 1901, the year that the American League was founded to compete with the NL. Cleveland’s team is the only one that actually stayed in place, one of just four of the original eight American League clubs to do so, along with the Chicago White Sox, Detroit Tigers, and the Boston Red Sox.

(The Baltimore Orioles of 1901 moved to New York in 1903 to become the Highlanders, now known as the Yankees, while the Washington Senators of 1901 moved to Minnesota in 1961 to become the Twins. Baltimore finally got a new team in 1954, the former St. Louis Browns. They were not Frank Robison’s Browns, though. That team, which took Cy Young from the Cleveland Spiders, is now known as the St. Louis Cardinals. The Browns team that became the Orioles had begun life in 1901 as the Milwaukee Brewers, and moved to St. Louis in 1902.)

So take heart, Miami fans. Giancarlo Stanton, the one good player who stayed in Miami, may become one of the greatest managers of all time. Jake Marisnick could open a very successful saloon. And in a hundred years, you may draft Manny Machado and make the playoffs.




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Alex is a writer for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times, and is a product manager for The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @alexremington.

12 Responses to “Today in 1899, The Brooklyn Superbas Were Born”

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  1. This is hardly your fault, but I can’t see that team name without having a Nicki Minaj song stuck in my head for several hours.

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  2. Wil says:

    Boston Beaneaters now known as the Atlanta Braves.

    Also, what exactly is a Superbas?

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    • Pirates Hurdles says:

      superba is an adjective meaning superb.

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    • Candlestick Parker says:

      Great article – love baseball history.

      A very minor quibble: While it is true that the original AL Washington franchise (known for most of its history as the Nationals rather than the Senators) is generally considered to have “moved” to Minnesota, technically it did not. Calvin Griffith was allowed to take most of the assets with him to the AL expansion franchise in Minnesota, but the team’s name, history, records, etc. were left behind in Washington. The stripped down Senators were rightly viewed as an expansion team, but at least as a legal fiction they were still the original 1901 franchise. The American League office confirmed this in 1965, after the Griffith family kept marketing the Twins as a continuation of the Walter Johnson Senators franchise. Then in 1971 the Senators moved to Texas, where ownership had zero interest in the Washington franchise history. So the Griffiths went back to claiming that history for the Twins. Elias went along with it, and the history was rewritten.

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  3. Kiss my Go Nats says:

    ok I first read this as the Brooklin Super BRAS. I had no expectations as I read, but was hoping to see some cleavage.

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  4. TKDC says:

    The St. Louis Browns changed their name to the Perfectos, but couldn’t one-up the Superbas on the field.

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  5. Table says:

    loved this piece!

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  6. There are several Superbas clubs in PureBaseball as I
    have always liked the name and use it for vacant teams quite often. Also manage the Brooklyn Bridegrooms in 98 RT3 (a real time league using current stats in a simulation league). There are also many X negro league teams dotting the 37 PB leagues.

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  7. Candlestick Parker says:

    Great article – love baseball history.

    A very minor quibble: While it is true that the original AL Washington franchise (known for most of its history as the Nationals rather than the Senators) is generally considered to have “moved” to Minnesota, technically it did not. Calvin Griffith was allowed to take most of the assets with him to the AL expansion franchise in Minnesota, but the team’s name, history, records, etc. were left behind in Washington. The stripped down Senators were rightly viewed as an expansion team, but at least as a legal fiction they were still the original 1901 franchise. The American League office confirmed this in 1965, after the Griffith family kept marketing the Twins as a continuation of the Walter Johnson Senators franchise. Then in 1971 the Senators moved to Texas, where ownership had zero interest in the Washington franchise history. So the Griffiths went back to claiming that history for the Twins. Elias went along with it, and the history was rewritten.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

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