Base Ball Comes to Town; Austin Holds Own Against NY's Best in Fall Brawl
One beautiful autumn day in 1887 found a procession of carriages rolling along Austin’s major streets. Onlookers cheered and waved to the uniformed men in the vehicles. Some of the men had endured dozens of such rides. Visitors from up north, these men politely acknowledged the cheers and exchanged playful gibes with their southern hosts lining the streets. Others displayed the enthusiasm of those unaccustomed to public adulation. They laughed and smiled, whooped and hollered, and eagerly returned the adoring glances of the young ladies in the crowd. The Manning Rifle Band led the procession while entertaining the throng with lively music. To the rear trailed carriages carrying a large portion of Austin’s citizenry, men, women, boys and girls; anyone and everyone interested in witnessing the biggest sporting event ever to hit town. Reporting on the festivities, a writer for the Fort Worth Daily Gazette observed, “The base ball craze has struck Austin.”
The baseball craze of the late 19th century gripped not only Austin but dozens of cities and towns across the country. A Joplin, Missouri, team led by player-manager John McCloskey was eager to extend the baseball season beyond what Joplin’s fall weather allowed. In 1887, McCloskey convinced area businessmen to fund a barnstorming tour of Texas.
John McCloskey (1862-1940), who hailed from Kentucky by way of Joplin, Missouri, is known as "the Father of the Texas League."\
Needing a place to base his team, McCloskey landed in the Texas capital. The Joplin boys became Austin boys and quickly began beating up on teams from around the state. Victories became so routine that an article about a game against the Island City team from Galveston in the November 11, 1887 Austin Daily Statesman bearing the headline “Austin Wins Again” blandly informed readers that “the Austin club had no incentive to work hard, as the game was won very early in the action.” Commenting on the sparse crowd attending that game, the reporter chastised Austin’s fans by writing, “the public who love base ball are given notice that if they expect to have a good club kept in Austin they must turn out to the game in greater numbers.”
The Austin team playing in the inaugural 1888 Texas League season included several players who appeared in the 1887 series against the New York Giants. John McCloskey, Harry Raymond, James Flynn, Charles Bradley, and outfielders Weaver and Tobias all participated. (Courtesy of the Austin History Center.)
But a more exciting opponent loomed on the horizon. The New York Giants hadn’t won the 1887 National League championship, that honor claimed by the Detroit Wolverines, but the Austin Daily Statesman nevertheless unabashedly labeled the team “the greatest club in the United States.” Indeed, the Giants roster included Mike “King” Kelly, on loan from the Boston Beaneaters, a strikingly handsome superstar being paid the unheard-of sum of $10,000 annually “simply to play ball.” Kelly’s popularity inspired the 1889 pop hit “Slide, Kelly, Slide.” He later co-authored what is thought to be the first baseball memoir, "Play Ball: Stories of the Diamond Field." Kelly’s teammates included catcher Buck Ewing, first baseman Roger Connor and pitcher Tim Keefe. All four of these players are now members of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Mike "King" Kelly, pictured at left in his Boston Beaneaters uniform, was widely acknowledged by contemporaries as the best baseball player in the country. At right is the song sheet for the musical hit inspired by the popular baseball star.
The November 13, 1887 edition of the Austin Daily Statesman informed readers that the famed New York Giants would play a two-game series against John McCloskey and the hometown crew. “The Austin Base Ball association has done nothing by halves,” the reporter gushed, “and is entitled to great credit for what they have already accomplished.” As one of the best in the south, Austin’s team was one “of which every citizen of Austin can well feel proud.” At a time when many still thought of baseball as a child’s game the Daily Statesman announced, “The days of amateur base ball have passed. From boy’s play it has been elevated to a profession – a science.” Because of the large fee demanded by the Giants for their appearance in Austin, organizers charged an entrance fee of fifty cents, double the usual twenty-five. Men paid an extra quarter to sit in the grandstand. Ladies got in free.
This photograph of the New York Giants was taken in the spring of 1888, several months after the Giants split a two-game series with John McCloskey's Austin team.
On November 13th the Manning Rifle Band led the players and spectators to the ball field with few expecting anything but a Giants victory. Indeed, the Giants arrived in Austin fresh from beating two different Galveston teams 16-4 and 8-0. The day before that New York had trounced the Houston club 18-6. Anticipating an Austin defeat, the Austin Daily Statesman reporter commented, “While our home nine is perhaps no match for this combination of professionals, at the same time the New Yorkers will have to play hard ball to defeat them.”
Left to right: John McCloskey's Austin team faced a New York Giants club loaded with talent. Along with King Kelly, New York players Buck Ewing, Tim Keefe and Roger Connor are members of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Fifteen hundred people followed the marching band into what the Austin Daily Statesman referred to both as Sportsman’s Park and the Athletic Club. Most likely this was the new Varsity Athletic Field of the University of Texas. Located on the southeast corner of Speedway and 24th Street and later renamed Clark Field, the park lasted until 1928 when the university constructed a new baseball stadium to the east and used the old site for an engineering building.
Constructed in 1887, the Varsity Athletic Field at 24th and Speedway, shown here during a 1915 or 1916 football game between Rice and the University of Texas, likely hosted the historic baseball games between Austin and the New York Giants.
Austin’s ace pitcher Harry Dooms took the mound for McCloskey’s club. (Five years later Dooms enjoyed a cup of coffee in the major leagues when he played outfield in a game for the Louisville Colonels, going hitless in five plate appearances.) His opponent that day was a player named Eddington. After a scoreless first inning Austin broke through in the top of the second to take a 2-0 lead. Shortstop James Flynn tripled and scored on a single by the second baseman Sherry. A ground ball out by Dooms moved Sherry to second. He scored after successive hits by right fielder Weaver and catcher Charles Bradley.
New York evened the score in the bottom of the fourth. Austin third baseman Harry Raymond, who later played for five years in the National League, fielded Jerry Denny’s ground ball and threw wildly to the plate as Buck Ewing ran home from third. After stealing second, Denny scored on a single by Danny Richardson.
Giants second baseman Danny Richardson scored two of New York's runs and knocked in a third in a losing effort.
The Giants grabbed the lead in the bottom of the sixth when Denny singled and Richardson knocked an RBI double. Austin tied the score in the seventh after a one-out double by Raymond and base hit by Ukotter. James Flynn then lifted a fly ball to left field, which Mike Tiernan dropped, allowing Ukotter to score the go-ahead run.
Jerry Denny (left) scored the go-ahead run for New York in the bottom of the 6th inning but Mike Tiernan (right) muffed a fly ball in the 7th to hand the lead back to Austin.
Both teams scored a single run in the eighth, Austin on triples by Dooms and Bradley; New York on a sacrifice fly from Denny. Dooms thus took the mound in the bottom of the ninth with Austin clinging to a one-run lead. Austin fans groaned as William Brown and Tim Keefe singled, putting runners at first and third with nobody out. Eddington then hit a screaming line drive but straight at Sherry, who caught the ball and tagged Keefe approaching second base for a double play.
Giants catcher William Brown reached third base in the 9th inning with nobody out but his teammates were unable to bring him home with the tying run.
Harry Dooms and his Austin teammates needed only one more out to pull off the improbable upset. Standing in their way, though, was the 19th century equivalent of Babe Ruth, Mike “King” Kelly. Kelly had batted .322 against National League pitching that season. His eight home runs seem paltry by modern standards but represented 25 percent of his team’s total. In 540 plate appearances he had struck out only 40 times.
Harry Dooms delivered the pitch as the Austin faithful held their breaths. Kelly swung and shot a bullet straight back at the pitcher. Dooms desperately stabbed at the ball and miraculously speared it one with hand. His throw to first base easily beat Kelly. John McCloskey and the Austin boys had whipped the mighty Giants!
Harry Dooms' grab of King Kelly's hit is even more remarkable given the small, fingerless baseball gloves in use in 1887.
New York won the following day’s game 19-13 but it hardly mattered. The Austin Daily Statesman consoled its readers by pointing out that [the loss] “was a game by which [Austin] would have won with any club in the south or southwest, but they were playing the New York Giants.” Furthermore, “Those who know the reputation of the players against whom our boys were pitted expected defeat both days, and now, so far from regret at one defeat, there should be rejoicing for one victory.” The reporter spoke the truth. New York’s 5-4 loss to Austin was the first defeat of its tour through the south.
Box score of Austin's victory over the New York Giants as it appeared in the Austin Daily Statesman.
Austin’s victory over the Giants further fueled the baseball craze sweeping Austin and the rest of Texas. That winter John McCloskey collaborated with several other Texas baseball men to organize the state’s first professional league. Austin’s team folded long ago but the Texas League recently completed its 125th season with the Springfield Cardinals as champions.
In response to Austin’s win over New York, the Fort Worth Daily Gazette reported, “Some fears are felt that the Austin club, formerly Joplins, will sweep everything in the state next year . . . the way they walked away from the Fort Worths three weeks ago has brought terror to the ordinary Texas player.” Such fears proved unfounded. Dallas won the 1888 Texas League championship. Austin didn't top the league standings until nearly 20 years later in 1907.
John McCloskey as manager of the St. Louis Cardinals.
John McCloskey, now known as “the father of the Texas League,” never made it to the major leagues as a player. He did, however, manage the Louisville Colonels for two years in the 1890s and the St. Louis Cardinals for three seasons beginning in 1906. Unable to replicate his minor league success, McCloskey compiled a major league managerial record of 190 wins and 417 losses. But he never lost his love of baseball. The 1930 U. S. census, taken during McCloskey’s 68th year, lists his occupation as “baseball manager.” And on a glorious autumn day in Austin more than a century ago, John McCloskey put Austin on the baseball map by leading his team to victory over “the greatest club in the United States.”