Showdown at the Polo Grounds: The Story of the First World Series

The Polo Grounds host the first World Series in baseball. (via Library of Congress)

“As there is long any doubt but that the Metropolitans will carry off the American Association championship pennant, Manager Mutrie has issued a challenge to the Providence club, the champion League team, to play a series of five games for the championship of the United States,” declared the October 1, 1884 issue of the Trenton Times.

Jim Mutrie, manager of the New York Metropolitans, proposed a five game exhibition series against Frank Bancroft and the National League champions, the Providence Grays. The teams would play two games in New York City and two in Providence. Half would be played under American Association rules and half under NL rules—Mutrie promised they would figure out the details of the fifth game later. Each team would put up $1,000. The winning team would take home $1,000 with the other $1,000 being donated to benefit the poor.

Bancroft, however, rejected the offer. The Grays manager, as the Boston Evening Journal reported, “will not notice Manager Mutrie’s challenge to play the Metropolitans, as does not care to replenish their empty treasury and has nothing to gain by meeting them.”

Undaunted, Mutrie continued to press for a championship series between the two clubs. On October 13, the New York Tribune reported that Multrie had lowered his demand to one game in each city with both teams dividing the gate receipts. The Tribune goaded Bancroft, writing “This is a fair offer to Manager Bancroft and will show the players that their hard work has been appreciated.” Any mention of helping the poor had vanished from the deal.

By October 17, Bancroft and Mutrie reached an agreement. The teams would play three games at the Polo Grounds in New York City to maximize ticket revenue. Bancroft wanted the largest payoff possible for the series. The series would be governed by American Association rules, which banned throwing overhand. The Grays had preferred NL rules permitting overhand pitching that favored their ace starter, Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn. With the negotiations complete, the New York Tribune triumphantly declared that Mutrie “has at last succeeded in arranging a series of games for the championship of the country.”

This first, unofficial World Series was emblematic of professional baseball in the 1880s. The Metropolitans and Grays had endured their own struggles as they won their respective pennants. The Mets were a 19th century version of Major League and Providence had nearly disbanded in July. Umpiring controversies, bad weather, and complaints about the poor quality of play plagued the hastily organized series. By the final game, Providence refused to take the field at all.

None of these issues, however, were anything new to baseball fans. Teams and even entire leagues came and went every year. In 1884, the Union Association — consisting of teams in major urban centers like Philadelphia, Washington, Boston, Chicago, and Baltimore — lasted all of one season. The Altoona Mountain Grays of the Union Association played only 25 games before disbanding. The Chicago franchise moved to Pittsburgh midseason and then failed to finish out the year. The American Association runner-up Columbus Colts dissolved and sold their roster of players to the Pittsburgh Alleghenys. Outfielder Harry Wheeler played for five different teams, four in the Union Association and one in the AA. In the 1880s, the hometown team might be there one night and gone the next.

The Providence Grays had fended off their own challenges in fielding a championship team. Star pitcher Radbourn had tried to sign with the St. Louis Browns of the newly formed American Association in 1882. He, and other players who attempted to leave the NL, returned to the fold only after the threat of being permanently blackballed. By 1884, Radbourn had grown increasingly dissatisfied because Charlie Sweeney, the other Grays starting pitcher, received extra pay for pitching. Radbourn received no such consideration. By mid-July, the tensions between Radbourn and the Grays reached a boiling point. The team suspended him on July 16 after a poor pitching performance.

Providence, however, soon realized that they could not survive the season without Radbourn. Less a week after Radbourn’s suspension, Sweeney, who was drunk on the mound, refused to come out of a game. While arguing with manager Frank Bancroft, he, “used vile and insulting language.” Providence promptly kicked Sweeney off the team; he signed with the St. Louis Maroons of the Union Association.

The expulsion of Sweeney left the Grays without either of their starting pitchers. The Trenton Times reported, “As the management have no hope of winning the pennant with one pitcher laid off and the other expelled, and as they have $17,000 in the treasury, they talked last night about considering the advisability of disbandment.” With the possibility of disbandment in the air, the baseball vultures began circling. The Maroons and other Union Association teams tried to poach the Grays’ best players. St. Louis even offered Radbourn $5,000 for the rest of the season.

Instead of disbanding, Bancroft and Grays management reached out to Radbourn and cut a deal with their former star player. They exempted Radbourn from the reserve clause, making him a free agent at the end of the year. Bancroft also paid him a significant bonus to serve as the team’s primary pitcher. It’s unclear how much extra money Radbourn received, but in total he made over $5,000 (approximately $138,000 in today’s money) for his efforts.

Despite his July struggles, Radbourn had a season for the ages. He threw 73 complete games and 678.2 innings. His 59 wins are the most ever in a single season. He struck out 441 batters with a 1.38 ERA and 19.1 bWAR, though his 9.5 fWAR was more modest. Pitching 41 of the Grays last 51 games, Radbourn carried Providence to the NL pennant as they finished 10.5 games in front of Boston. Radbourn threw a variety of pitches, but none more devastating than his curveball. An 1891 newspaper account noted that “Charley Radbourn gets his curves without the use of his body. Having long fingers, he can get a firmer hold than most men, and then he never depends on wide curves, preferring to keep them so a batsman will hit out and get the ball on the end of the stick or close to the handle.”

The Metropolitans, meanwhile, had overcome their own struggles as a result of their owner, John Day. In 1880, a chance meeting between Day, a wealthy merchant and wannabe pitcher, and a mediocre shortstop named Jim Mutrie led to the creation of the club. After witnessing Day’s poor pitching at a New York area game, Mutrie, according to Bill Lamb, “approached the deflated hurler with a proposition: Mutrie would scout, sign and manage a top-flight baseball team for Day if the well-heeled merchant would foot the bill.”

From 1880-1882, the Mutrie-led Metropolitans were a team without a league. Mutrie organized a schedule against National League opponents and mixed in games against local opponents from other leagues. Day rejected an offer from the American Association to join the newly formed league in 1882.

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In 1883, Day launched an ambitious venture. He rejected an offer from the National League for the Metropolitans to join the ranks of the senior circuit. Instead, Day announced that Mets would became a member of the American Association. A new Day-owned team, the New York Gothams, would join the National League. He packed the roster with players from the defunct Troy Trojans and former Providence infielder John Montgomery Ward. The ambitious owner hired veteran player-manager John Clapp to lead the Gothams while Mutrie would continue to manage the Metropolitans.

The teams would share the Polo Grounds. The earliest version of the famed ballpark sat between 110th and 112th Streets and Fifth and Sixth Avenues. Day constructed a second field on the site to accommodate both teams. The 19th century version of Rachel Phelps gave the main field to the Gothams and banished the Metropolitans to the new inferior field.

A funny thing happened on the way to the pennant as the Metropolitans outplayed the Gothams in 1883 and 1884. In 1883, the Mets finished fourth in the AA, while the Gothams ranked sixth in the NL. In 1884, the Gothams fired manager James Price after catching him embezzling team funds for the second time. The Metropolitans, behind the pitching prowess of Jack Lynch and Trojans castoff Tim Keefe, cruised to the American Association championship. Keefe and Lynch started every game except one. Keefe threw 56 complete games, had a 37-17 record, struck out 334 batters in 483 innings with a 2.25 ERA, good for 7.6 bWAR.

When the first game of the series began on the afternoon of October 23, Radbourn took the mound for Providence and Keefe for the Metropolitans. Fans eagerly anticipated the series and Pierre Lorillard, the owner of the Lorrilard Tobacco Company, promised each attendee “a handsome steel engraving of all the prominent players.” The engraving was the only good thing to come out of the endeavor for Metropolitan fans.

As approximately 2,500 fans braved the bitter cold at the Polo Grounds, Keefe began the game by hitting Providence outfielders Paul Hines and Cliff Carroll in consecutive at-bats. A series of wild pitches and passed balls soon allowed both men to score. By the end of the inning, Providence led 2-0. They would not relinquish the lead for the rest of the game. The Grays added another run in the third and three more in the seventh, when Arthur Irwin doubled home second baseman Jack Farrell. Barney Gilligan and Jerry Denny each followed with singles. Radbourn, meanwhile, held the Metropolitans scoreless through nine innings.

Regarding the Mets, the New York Times lamented that “The curves of Radbourne struck terror to their hearts, and they fell easy victims to his skill.” The Times claimed the Mets hitters “were like so many children in the hands of the pitcher of the Providence team. They made ineffectual lunges at balls that would reflect discredit on some of our third rate amateurs.” After the game, the Boston Daily Globe gloated in the failure of the New York team—for the first and not the last time. The paper’s headline declared, “AFRAID OF RADBOURN: Provincial Providence Pummels the Metropolitans.”

The second game went no better for New York as the crowd size dwindled to about a thousand patrons. The Grays, with Radbourn again on the mound, won 3-1. The quality of the game was much improved from the day before, but an umpiring controversy marred the result. The game remained tied 0-0 until the top of the fifth inning. Jack Farrell, who had singled, successfully stole second. The Times, however, reported that “From appearances Holbert threw him out by about five feet, but the umpire declared the runner ‘not out,’ a decision that failed to meet with the approval of the onlookers.” Later in the inning, Gilligan doubled to right scoring Farrell. Denny then hit the ball over the picket fence in center field for a home run. The Times complained that “If the decision rendered by the umpire was unfair it proved very costly, as it defeated the Metropolitans.” The Mets scored a single run in the bottom of the fifth off Radbourn. Darkness forced the teams to call the game after seven innings.

The next afternoon, Providence refused to play the final game of the series. The miserable weather and small crowd had pushed Providence to the breaking point. The Times reported that “when the League champions gazed on the empty seats they turned up their noses and said they would not play.” The Metropolitans’ treasurer, Arthur Bell, pointed out that the Grays played in front of small crowds in Providence and he would not turn away paying patrons. As a result of his speech, Bell “brought Bancroft’s pets to their senses” and the game was set to begin. The Grays then tried another trick. They refused to play under any umpire selected by the home team, claiming bias. The Metropolitans allowed the Grays to pick whoever they wanted as umpire, even their own manager. To spite New York, the Grays chose Metropolitans starting pitcher, Tim Keefe.

The Globe and Times agreed that the game was the worst of the series. The Globe reported that “The Metropolitans played most wretchedly both at the bat and in the field, and proved mere children in the hands of the Providence men.” The Times declared, “The Mets played recklessly in the field.” The Grays scored early and often as the cold weather ended the game after the sixth inning. With a final score of 11-2, the Grays won the game and the series. Radbourn had pitched all 22 innings, allowing 11 hits and three runs, and 17 strikeouts.

Despite their poor showing against Providence, the Metropolitans proceeded with a planned parade to celebrate their American Association championship. Just after eight o’clock on the evening of October 26, 1884, the first parade of its kind kicked off from the corner of 59th Street and Eighth Avenue in New York City. At the vanguard, atop a dark horse, sat an unlikely figure, John Clapp, the former manager of the Gothams. Why he led the parade was unclear.

With the remarkably unremarkable Clapp at the head and the Seventh Regiment Band following close behind, the parade snaked its way from 59th Street all the way down to the Bowery and then up to Union Square. Next in line was the parade’s star attraction, the New York Metropolitans, champions of the American Association. Seated atop a tally-ho coach, the Metropolitan players waved to an enthusiastic crowd of thousands who had gathered and “cheered the champions of the American Association most heartily.”

The parade was also a celebration of baseball in all its forms. Behind the Metropolitans marched 42 other baseball teams. Local and semi-professional teams from Brooklyn to New Jersey to Long Island all joined the parade and even clubs from prominent New York businesses like R.H. Macy & Co were present. The New York Times estimated that as many as 2,500 young men marched in the parade. The Herald explained that “There was a large number of amateur clubs in line, each claiming a championship of some sort, if only of the ward or street from which they hailed.” The parade revealed the diversity and disorder that reigned in baseball in the 1880s.

The event was the high water mark of the Metropolitans. Despite the Mets’ success, John Day remained determined to make the Gothams into a championship caliber club. He brought Mutrie over as manager and just before the 1885 season, Day took Mets stars Keefe and third baseman Duke Esterbrook to Day’s onion farm in Bermuda. After the men set sail, the Mets released the two players. As Bill Lamb explained, “While Keefe and Esterbrook were incommunicado somewhere on the Atlantic, the ten-day period that other teams had to sign them as free agents elapsed.” Mutrie then signed them both to contracts with the Gothams. The American Association had little recourse except to fine the Mets $500 for their shenanigans. In 1885, the depleted Mets roster finished seventh in the American Association and was sold to a buyer from Staten Island who moved the team out of Manhattan. During the 1885 season, the Gothams changed their name to the Giants. They finished second before winning the National League title in 1888 and defeating the St. Louis Browns of the American Association in an exhibition series.

The Grays played one more season in Providence before dissolving due to financial difficulties. Radbourn moved on to the Boston Beaneaters before retiring in 1891 and eventually, taking up residence on Twitter.

As the 1890s brought a new era of consolidation and professionalization, the Grays and Metropolitans became footnotes in the story of early baseball. But the story of the first World Series is more than mere footnote. Instead, it is the story of a sport in its infancy, struggling to find its footing with no guarantee that it would capture a lasting spot in the American imagination.

References and Resources


Chris Bouton is a historian and jury researcher. He is currently writing a book on slave violence in antebellum Virginia. He is on Twitter (@ChrisHBouton).

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4 Comments on "Showdown at the Polo Grounds: The Story of the First World Series"

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GoNYGoNYGoGo
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GoNYGoNYGoGo

Loved this article Chris.

Are the NY Metropolitans here the same NY Metropolitans that had started in Tammany Hall days as players were given no-show jobs to play baseball, thereby skirting the “professional” and “paid player” issue of early baseball?

Brewtown_Kev
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Brewtown_Kev

This was a fun article, and the cherry on top was definitely Old Hoss Radbourn’s Twitter account.

Jetsy Extrano
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Jetsy Extrano

I can’t decide what’s the most fun fact here, the incommunicado onion farm cruise or the discovery that leagues allowed overhand pitching at different years.

Also I would love to know what it means when pitchers used their body to generate spin.