Wednesday, June 08, 2011

A Dodger Book: When the Dodgers Were Bridegrooms

How much do you really know about the Dodgers? Sure, you've heard of Charles Ebbets and his palace called Ebbets Field. And you know of the ballplayers with names like Durocher, Reese, Snider and Robinson who have been spoken and written about in ad nauseam, but how about McGunnigle, Adonis Terry or Charles Byrne.

Well, I have to admit, before finding out about this new book I had no idea who they were either.

Fortunately, these past Dodger characters have not been lost to time. Ronald Shafer, who wrote "When the Dodgers Were Bridegrooms," puts us through a time capsule that explores the birth of the Brooklyn franchise to the early 20th century, and I had an opportunity to asked him a couple of questions about it. Check it out below. Also, go to his website, here, for more information about the book.

1: Please tell me how you came up with the idea of this book?

I got the idea for the book after my wife, Mary, told me that her great-grandfather, Bill McGunnigle managed the Brooklyn Bridegrooms and invented the catcher's mitt. I found out that according to an 1895 baseball guide, Mac was indeed credited with being the first to use in mitt in 1875 (actually, a pair of bricklayer's gloves). I also found that the Bridegrooms were the same team that later became the Dodgers.
2: Considering we are looking at the late 19th Century, how did you do the research to fill out a complete story about the team and cast of characters? Resources must have been limited, and with the passage of time, stories a bit muddled.

The research could be tedious looking through microfilm of old newspapers. Luckily, however, I found much of the 19th century coverage on line. The Brooklyn Eagle newspaper, which covered every game in this period, is on line as is the Sporting News and an old publication called Sporting Life. I also was able to access old editions of the New York Times, the Boston Globe and other papers on line. I was able to obtain some material through my membership in the Society of American Baseball Research, which is holding its annual convention in early July in Long Beach.
3: I understand that your wife is related to McGunnigle, so I imagine her family history and stories were thoroughly explored, were there other distant relatives of other key characters you spoke with?

Tracking down family history was difficult. My wife's niece had done some research and had obtained some material. I found a letter by his son William at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. The town historian in his home town of Brockton, Mass., also had written a lot about Gunner's life. I found articles with good historic footnotes about McGunnigle's father, James, who was a Civil War hero for the Union. Ironically, we discovered that he was injured in a battle right down the road from our new house in Williamsburg.
4: If there is anything else you can add about the experience of writing the book, please pass them along.

For me, one of the best experiences was discovering the story of Brooklyn's first owner, Charles H. Byrne, who most Dodgers fans have never heard of but who is the man most responsible for creating the storied franchise. Byrne was a free-spending owner who built the team with quality players and who was considered the smartest owner of his day. Among other things, he created or was an early promoter of Ladies Day, the rain check, non-smoking sections and coaching boxes (Before he got a rule passed requiring base coaches to be 75 feet from home plate, coaches used to go up on each side of the catcher and yell obscenities in his ear.)
So, go ahead and check out this book, and in case you are wanting a brief synopsis of the book and Dodger history then check out what the writer provided below:
In 1883, Brooklyn was an independent city and the third biggest in the country. There were two major leagues in baseball, the National League and the American Association. Pitchers threw underhand and most players didn’t wear gloves. Neighboring New York city had two major league teams—the future New York Giants and the original New York Mets.

A chain-smoking newspaper editor, George Taylor, wanted to start a professional baseball team in Brooklyn, but he had no money. He hooked up with Charley Byrne, a wealthy real estate investor, who also brought in his brother-in-law, Joe Doyle, who ran a New York casino. When the cost of building a ball park, called Washington Park, got too high, they brought in an even richer partner, Gus Abell, who owned a big casino in Rhode Island.

In 1883, the new team, called simply the Brooklyns, joined the minor league Interstate Association with Taylor as the manager. When the first place team folded at mid-season, Byrne bought that team’s best players and Brooklyn won the championship. Their star player was handsome Adonis Terry, who pitched almost very Ladies Day game.

In 1884, Brooklyn joined the major league American Association. The team, with Taylor again the manager, finished 8th. In 1885, baseball began allowing overhand pitching and infielders had begun wearing gloves, along with catchers and first basemen. That year, owner Byrne also took over as manager in mid-season as Taylor began to fade from the scene. But the team continued to struggle through the 1886 season as its arch-rival, the St. Louis Browns (now the Cardinals) won three straight pennants led by player-manager Charles Comiskey (who later owned the Chicago White Sox and built Comiskey Park).

For 1887, Byrne spent a record $19,000 to buy three of St. Louis’s star players – pitcher “Parisian Bob” Caruthers, outfielder Dave “Needles” Foutz and catcher “Doc” Bushong. Brooklyn paid Caruthers a record $5,500 a season. Byrne also hired a pioneer baseball man, Bill “Gunner” McGunnigle, as the new manager.

Just before the 1888 season, several of the Brooklyn players married, so sportswriters started calling the team the Brooklyn Bridegrooms. Brooklyn finished second to St. Louis, which won its fourth straight pennant. Manager McGunnigle vowed to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge if the Bridegrooms didn’t win in 1889.

The 1889 season went down to the final day when Brooklyn finally won its first major league pennant, edging St. Louis. Caruthers won 40 games to lead the way. The team then played a pre-subway “World’s Series” against the New York Giants, winner of the N.L. flag. After Brooklyn took a 3-1 lead in the 11-game Series, the Giants came back to win 6 games to 3.

In 1890, many top players revolted against the owners and formed their own, third major league, the Players’ League. Brooklyn switched to the National League and was one of the few teams not to lose players due to owner Byrne’s generous treatment of his team. Brooklyn became the first and still the only team to win consecutive pennants in two different major leagues. This time they were led by outfielder “Oyster” Burns’s 128 RBI’s. They played Louisville in the World’s Series, which was stopped with the two teams tied 3 games to 3.

The Players’ League folded after one season. Because of low attendance, all teams had big financial woes. Owners of the failed Brooklyn Players’ League team agreed to invest in the Brooklyn Bridegrooms, but insisted that McGunnigle – despite winning 2 straight pennants – be replaced by star player-manager John Montgomery Ward. The Bridegrooms also had to move to the Players’ League home field, Eastern Park, where fans had to dodge rings of trolley cars around the stadium.

Brooklyn slumped at Eastern Park, where the team sometimes was known as the Trolley Dodgers. Charley Byrne died in 1898 without ever winning another pennant. McGunnigle died at age 44 in 1899 in Brockton, Mass., ironically from injuries resulting from a trolley car accident. Brooklyn finally won its next pennants as the Superbas in 1899 and 1900 after merging with the Baltimore Orioles.

In 1932, Brooklyn owner Charles Ebbets – who had begun working for the club in 1883 – asked sportswriters to give the team an official name. They decided on Dodgers, and it’s been that way ever since. The Dodgers franchise now is in its 127th year, counting its seasons in the old American Association. No man was more responsible for creating this franchise than Charles Byrne. Gunner McGunnigle still has the highest winning percentage of any manager in Dodgers franchise history.

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