The Detroit baseball championship anniversary everyone is overlooking

Members of the 1887 Detroit Wolverines, who won the National League championship. Back row: Jack Rowe, Peter Conway, Ned Hanlon, Edward Beaton. Middle row: Deacon White, Harold Sutcliffe, Dan Brouthers, Henry Gruber, Sam Thompson, Charles Ganzel, Lady Baldwin. Front row: Charles “Pretzels” Getzein, Larry Twitchell, manager Bill Watkins, Hardy Richardson, Charlie Bennett.

The Detroit Tigers have had some stellar teams over the years, led by dominant players.

There was the Ty Cobb/Sam Crawford led Tigers that won three consecutive American League pennants from 1907-09.

Then there was the Cobb/Harry Heilmann/Heinie Manush 1920s Tygers, as they were called sometimes in local newspapers, when Ty Cobb was manager.

The 1930s brought the G-Men: Greenberg, Gehringer, Goslin; and the 1940s was T-N-T … Trout, Newhouser, Trucks as each group brought at least one pennant during the 1930s and 1940s.

We know plenty about the 1968 and 1984 Tigers, as well as the most recent success beginning in 2006 and culminating with four consecutive division titles and a 2012 pennant.

But the first great team in Detroit was none of these. In fact, it was before there was a team called the Detroit Tigers — and before their league, the American League, was even founded.

The first championship team in Detroit was the 1887 Detroit Wolverines. It was so long ago that this year is the 130th anniversary of the title.

Anyone remember? Of course not. It was too long ago for anyone alive the past forty years to recollect.

But it is a team that should be remembered in history, the team that played at Recreation Park.

The Detroit Wolverines began in the National League in 1881 and finished in fourth place. The Wolverines finished anywhere from fifth to eighth the next few years before a surprising second-place finish in 1886.

It actually wasn’t that surprising because the Wolverines made a huge move prior to the 1886 season … now to put it in perspective, that was the year that the Statue of Liberty was built.

The Wolverines bought the “Big Four” infield from Buffalo, a team that was forced to fold.  Detroit gained the rights to first baseman Dan Brouthers, third baseman Deacon White, second baseman Hardy Richardson and shortstop Jack Rowe.

Brouthers and White would eventually end up in the Baseball Hall of Fame, joining two outfielders already with the Wolverines, Sam Thompson and Ned Hanlon.

The move instantly turned a good team into a great team. But the Wolverines were just getting started.

Detroit surged to the 1887 pennant with a 79-45 record in 1887. The team scored 969 runs behind its potent offense. Sam Thompson had one of the finest seasons in his stellar career. He hit .372 with 203 hits, 118 runs scored, 29 doubles, 23 triples, 10 home runs, 22 stolen bases and 166 RBIs. He led the league in RBIs, triples, hits and at bats (545), while winning the batting title. He had a WAR of 5.3.

Also matching the 5.3 was Brouthers, who batted .338 with 169 hits, 36 doubles, 20 triples, 12 home runs and 101 RBIs. He also swiped 34 bases and had a stunning 153 runs scored.  

White batted .303 with 75 RBIs and Rose hit .318 with 96 RBIs and 135 runs scored. Richardson, who moved from second base to the outfield to make way for Fred Dunlap, batted .328 with 131 runs scored and 94 RBIs.

Meanwhile, Hanlon stole 69 bases and anchored the outfield.

All in all, the entire team batted .399. On the mound, Pretzels Getzien went 29-13 with a 3.73 ERA. Lady Baldwin and Stump Weidman each won 13 games and Larry Twitchell went 11-1.

The Wolverines cruised to the pennant and faced the St. Louis Brownstockings, of the American Association, in the World Series and won 10-5 in a 15-game series.

It looked like the birth of a dynasty in Detroit.

But the Wolverines scored nearly 200 fewer runs in 1888 and finished a stunning and disappointing fifth at 68-63.

The Wolverine pitchers, who all had a 3.37 ERA or higher in the championship season all had a 3.05 ERA or better in 1888. Pete Conway went 30-14 with a 2.26 ERA. But despite the low ERAs, Getzien went 19-25, Henry Gruber was 11-14 and Ed Beatin was 5-7.

Offensively, the biggest difference was Thompson. After one of his best seasons, he was injured for much of the season and played in just 56 games, batting .282.

But it wasn’t just Thompson’s absence. After a dominating offensive performance in 1887, Brouthers was the lone Wolverine to hit .300 in 188 and hit just .307, a more than 20-point drop from the previous season.

Amidst the landslide in play from 1887 to 1888, the Wolverines struggled to get fans out to the park and ended up folding following the 1888 season.

It was a disappointing finish for the first championship team in Detroit. It was a star-studded team with four future Hall of Famers and the legendary “Big Four.” It was where Thompson, an RBI machine, got his start and when Detroit first fell in love with baseball.

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