Dodgers Celebrate 122nd National League Anniversary

A few weeks ago, the Dodgers became the most expensive sports franchise in the history of the world. Just today, they celebrate their 122nd anniversary in the National League. And it’s a storied history. On this date in 1890, the Brooklyn Bridegrooms made their debut in the National League by playing the Boston Beaneaters (the future Braves). Boston won the game 15-9, but the Brooklyns had the last laugh, winning the pennant by three games over Cap Anson’s Chicago Colts (later known as the Cubs) and 12 games ahead of the fifth-place Beaneaters. Their first National League season yielded their first National League pennant and the first of 19 20 overall for the franchise. That’s the second-highest total in National League history, behind tied with the Giants’ 20. (The Cardinals are in third place with 18.)

The Bridegrooms were playing in their second league and under their third name: the franchise had begun in 1884 as the Brooklyn Atlantics of the American Association. Then they played three years as the Grays, eleven as the Bridegrooms or just Grooms, and then thirteen as the “Superbas,” a nickname coined to describe the superteam that resulted from a mixture of the best Bridegrooms and the best players from Ned Hanlon’s legendary 1890’s Baltimore Orioles — they finished in first place their first two years under that name, 1899 and 1900. The name “Dodgers,” a contraction of “Trolley Dodgers,” was first used in 1911-1912, but the team then spent 18 years as the Robins before the present name stuck for good.

The Bridegrooms were not the only team in Brooklyn. There were actually three major leagues in operation for the 1890 season: the National League, the American Association, and the Players’ League, which folded after that one season. And Brooklyn was represented in each. After the Bridegrooms left the AA — they were the reigning champions of the league, having won the pennant in 1889 — the Brooklyn Gladiators were formed to replace them, but they finished in last place, 26-72, and folded after the season. The Gladiators’ best pitcher was also one of their starting outfielders, Ed Daily; tragically, he died of tuberculosis the next year at the age of 29.

The Brooklyn Wonders finished in second place in the Players’ League: also known as Ward’s Wonders, they were led by John Montgomery “Monte” Ward, the main who masterminded the Players’ League, a pitcher, shortstop, manager, and lawyer who played a major role in forming the first players’ union. He took over the Grooms as manager in 1891. Ward was a remarkable man. As Bill James has written, Ward was essentially comparable to Addie Joss as a pitcher and to Maury Wills as a hitter. Moreover, as a labor lawyer and activist, he was basically an early progenitor to Marvin Miller.*

*By the way, the word “bridegroom,” meaning the man who’s getting married, and the word “groom,” meaning someone who takes care of a horse, are linguistically distinct. “Bridegroom” is actually a corruption of the original term “bridegoom”; the word “bride” had basically the same meaning back in the 14th century, but “goom” meant “man” or “hero.” Meanwhile, “Groom” comes from the root “grom,” which apparently meant “boy.” If you ask me, it’s a shame no one uses the word “goom” any more. But it’s even more of a shame that Marvin Miller still isn’t in the Hall of Fame.

The 1890 Bridegrooms didn’t have any Hall of Famers. Their best player was Parisian Bob Caruthers, whom Bill James called the best starting pitcher not currently in the Hall of Fame, in his 1995 book “Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame?” (It was originally published in 1994 as “The Politics of Glory.”) Caruthers went 218-99 with a 2.83 ERA (a 78 ERA-) as a pitcher, and he had a 126 wRC+ as a hitter. Pitcher fWAR aren’t available back then, but if you add his 18.8 hitting rWAR to his 52.6 pitching rWAR, you get a guy who probably deserves to be enshrined.

The problem is that he really only played nine seasons, and his last season came in 1892, when he was just 28. Moreover, he compiled most of his stats in the American Association, which was markedly inferior to the National League. As a 21-year old with the St. Louis Browns in 1885, he went 40-13 with a league-leading 2.07 ERA, and earned his nickname that offseason by conducting contract negotiations with Browns owner Chris von der Ahe via telegram from Paris, France.

The Bridegrooms had a lot more great nicknames — Lady Baldwin, Dave “Scissors” Foutz, Adonis Terry, Oyster Burns, not to mention manager Gunner McGunnigle — but really only one other notable personality. Rookie George Stallings caught four games for the Brooklyns that year, and he’d only make it into three other games in the majors. But he played 13 years in the minors, managed for 13 years in the majors, and managed in the minors for another 21 years. And most importantly of all, he later became “The Miracle Man,” manager of the 1914 Miracle Braves.

The Bridegrooms didn’t win the 1890 World’s Series. In fact, no one did. The Series ended in a 3-3-1 tie with the Louisville Colonels; the same result occurred in the 1885 World’s Series between the Chicago White Stockings and Caruthers’s St. Louis Browns. And after 1890, Brooklyn fans had to learn to live with a lot more misery than success. Ward’s Wonders and the Gladiators both folded, and the Brooklyn Atlantics and Brooklyn Eckfords of the National Association of the 1870s were long gone. There was now just one baseball team in Brooklyn. Their fans quickly learned that one team was composed of a bunch of bums, and they learned to mutter “Wait ’til next year.”

The first championship came more than halfway into their history in the National League. For their first 65 seasons in the NL, the team went 0-7-1 in eight World Series appearances. Indeed, following the 1890 tie, Brooklyn wouldn’t make it back to the postseason until 1916, when the Robins were stomped 4-1 by the mighty Red Sox. They lost the 1920 World Series to the Indians, and then burrowed deep into the second division for the next two decades. They lost the 1941 World Series in heartbreaking fashion (Mickey Owen’s famous dropped third strike).

Then, of course, they broke baseball’s color line by bringing up Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe and Junior Gilliam and Sam Jethroe and won seven of 13 league championships from 1947 to 1959. In 1955, they did what no other team in the history of the borough — neither the Atlantics, nor the Eckfords, nor Ward’s Wonders, nor the Gladiators, nor the Tip-Tops of the 1914-1915 Federal League — had ever done before. They won the World Series.

Welcome to the National League, Dodgers!

Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times, and is an enterprise account executive for The Washington Post.

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Once his time with the Bridegooms expired, Oyster Burns has made his legend known by turning up on the undersides of a unfortunate buffalo.