Before the Brooklyn Dodgers relocated to Los Angeles, before Ebbets Field, before Jackie Robinson and Al Lopez and Babe Herman and Casey Stengel, there were the Superbas, the first superteam in baseball. Formed out of a syndicate with the old Baltimore Orioles, - who in turn became the hated New York Yankees of today - the Superbas were the dominant team entering the 20th century. Slowly, though, the team slipped into mediocrity until their name was rubbed out from the league in 1913. Here is the story of a great team and how they fell apart.
The Best Of Both Worlds
In 1898, as baseball edged closer and closer to a unified league combining the American Association and National League, certain owners expressed interesting in exiting the league. One such owner was Henry Von der Horst, a brewer and proprietor of the Baltimore Orioles. Although the Orioles were in the thick of the pennant race in both 1897 and 1898, Von der Horst had lost money in both seasons. During the offseason, he agreed to form a syndicate with Brooklyn Bridegrooms owner Ferdinand Abel, giving both teams common ownership. This plan, of course, had the caveat of sending all of the Orioles' star players to Brooklyn for virtually nothing. On February 7, 1899, the deal took place, and the Brooklyn Superbas were born. Several of the Orioles protested, including Wilbert Robinson and Hall of Famer John McGraw, who became the Baltimore manager.
The 1899 Superbas were led by a virtual who's who of baseball greats: Wee Willie Keeler, Hugh Jennings, Joe Kelley, and Brickyard Kennedy all graced the team's lineup, and they were led by former Oriole manager Ned Hanlon. Combined with the best of the old Bridegrooms, the aptly-named Superbas were a shoo-in to win the pennant. Still, they had a formidable challenge, and they worked hard to win their games. Still, a lot of things fell in their favor: they came back from being down 10 runs to defeat the hapless Cleveland Spiders 11-10 in May, and in June they were declared winners over the New York Giants because the umpire was tired of being harangued for his questionable calls. By the end of August, the Superbas held a tight two game lead over their syndicate co-workers, the Baltimore Orioles. McGraw had an axe to grind against his former owners for betraying his team and hometown. He beat Hanlon in every game the two teams had head-to-head all season. Sadly, though, his wife Lucy passed away from appendicitis on August 31 at the young age of 23. Jennings, Hanlon, and Keeler all served as pallbearers at the funeral. McGraw simply wasn't the same, and the Orioles faded into fourth place, while the Superbas won 101 games to capture the pennant. Strangely, however, the National League had devised a 6-game playoff. The Superbas faced off against the Philadelphia Phillies and split the series at 3 games apiece.
In 1900, the core of the Superbas returned, and this time they were aided by yet another former Oriole, Iron Man Joe McGinnity. He proved his worth by going 28-8 and pitching an astounding 343 innings (he later set the major league record with 434 innings pitched in 1903) for the team. Again, the Superbas, led by the scorching .362 batting average of Keeler and their league-leading 816 runs scored, claimed the pennant, and this time with the help of McGinnity defeated Honus Wagner and the Pittsburgh Pirates. McGinnity was given permanent possession of the league trophy for his efforts throughout the season, but by 1901, he was shipped off to the newly reformed Baltimore Orioles of the American League.
Here's Spit In Your Eye
The 1901 Superbas struggled to repeat their success of years past. Flailing in 5th place at 15-17 in June, tempers were wearing thin. When centerfielder Jimmy Sheckard was called out on a close call by umpire Bert Cunningham, he responded by spitting in the umpire's face. The stunt did little to improve the team's performance, and despite Wild Bill Donovan's 25-win season (tops in the league), the team finished third in the rankings behind the Wagner-led Pirates and the dominating Phillies. By now, the nucleus that had shaped the team was aging poorly - catcher Deacon McGuire turned 37, second baseman Tom Daly was 35, and Brickyard Kennedy 33.
The 1902 Superbas released all of these players, and also lost bad news Sheckard to the Orioles. By May, the team was again struggling at 10-16, when Sheckard returned to the team, tired of the razzing by the fans for his infidelity. The team made a solid turnaround, moved slowly up the charts, and by August were in second place. By then, though, it was too late, as the Pirates went on a hot streak, winning 14 in a row to clench the pennant. The Superbas finished squarely in second place, thanks to more stellar starting pitching from Frank Kitson and Jay Hughes.
A Field Of Broken Dreams
The 1903 Superbas were gutted from the team of old - Keeler, Kitson, Hughes, and outfielder Cozy Dolan all jumped ship to the American League, where the salaries were immense. The team languished throughout the season, finishing in 5th with a 70-66 record and no stars to speak of, and then traded perhaps their best player, long-time veteran Bill Dahlen, to John McGraw's championship team New York Giants. 1904 saw the team even more gutted, and despite stellar pitching by Ned Garvin (traded to Boston in August) and Jack Cronin, the team batted a league-low .232 and finished 6th with a dismal 56-97 record. Finally, in 1905, the team hit rock bottom, as they finished in the cellar with a 48-104 record. Perhaps the only highlight of the season was on June 29, 1905, when the Giants, pounding the Superbas 8-2, put in a rookie leftfielder named Moonlight Graham. Graham never got to bat, but he was later made famous in Field of Dreams. At the end of the season, the Superbas traded their power slugger Sheckard to the Chicago Cubs for four prospects. With the team's luck as it stood, the maybes appropriately did not pan out.
1906 saw a new manager (Patsy Donovan replacing the aging Hanlon) and two new heavy hitters in Harry Lumley and Tim Jordan. The team's poor pitching continued to haunt them, however, and they finished in 6th place. This year was not just important for the Superba's baseball season - it also had part-owner and president Charlie Ebbets flaunting the "blue laws" prohibiting baseball on Sunday in New York City. Ebbetts attempted to get around the rule by having patrons pay after watching the game. This didn't work, as Donovan, Ebbetts, and pitcher Mal Eason were arrested for the stunt. Two months later, Eason threw the club's first no-hitter in their short history. Just two weeks after that, Harry McIntyre threw a no-hitter through nine innings - only to have his team lose in the 12th due to a costly error. By the end of the season, the not so Superbas were 50 games out of first.
In The Cellar
1907 saw tragedy and ineptitude strike the Superbas with equal fury: former Brooklynite Cozy Dolan passed away unexpectedly of a brain aneurysm shortly before the season started. The team struggled early on, going 1-19, and by Independence Day were 23 games out of first. Lumley and Jordan failed to achieve the same levels from 1906, and offseason additions Bill Maloney and Emil Batch proved unable to overcome the team's difficulty in producing runs. 1908 proved even worse for the Superbas, by now firmly locked in the cellar of the National League. Although Jordan led the league in home runs in 12, virtually no other player showed any major effort to not keep the team out of the bottom of the barrel, and they finished 53-101, good enough for 7th place. In one particularly quirky moment, manager Donovan forced outfielder Maloney to play catcher. The visiting Chicago Cubs took advantage, stealing nine bases on the unpracticed battery man. Maloney was so flustered he resigned the next day and never played baseball again.
1909 saw the rise of the rookies in the Brooklyn system. 21 year olds Pembroke Finlayson, Tommy McMillan, Leo Meyer, and future Hall of Famer Zack Wheat all received serious playing time. The Superbas were still awful (their 55 wins managed to earn them 6th place) but they showed an energy they had been lacking for some time. In 1910, former Superba Bill Dahlen returned and took over the managerial reins full time, and Wheat and McMillan earned full-time starting jobs. The Superbas won 64 games on their good pitching, but their hitting still left something to be desired. 1911 saw the team essentially tie their 1910 output, winning 64 games, finishing 7th, and showing average starting pitching and poor hitting. The lone bright spot was Nap Rucker's 22 wins, but even he felt the team was "the pits," as he was venomously quoted in a local paper.
The End Of An Era
In 1912, the team decided a name change would be appropriate and renamed themselves the Brooklyn Dodgers. The name didn't seem to stick with the crowds, and with the arrival of newly built Ebbets Field, the team reverted back to the Superbas in 1913. Neither change helped, as both teams finished with sub-.500 records. Finally, in 1914 the team changed their name to the Brooklyn Robins, and two years later, the Dodgers name was made permanent.
After their initial success due to the syndicalism that dominated early professional baseball leagues, the Superbas showed a surprising knack for ineptitude and disarray. Aided by numerous stars, the teams simply could never climb their way out of the bottom of the pack. By 1916, the Dodgers, led by the former Superba resistor Wilbert Robinson, would reclaim the National League pennant.