Editor’s note: The following is a story which appeared in The Times Leader 25 years ago, marking the beginning of top-level minor league baseball in the area.
The rain of the past few days had stopped. But a cold wind still swept across West Side Park, chilling the 1,000 spectators as the new Wilkes-Barre baseball team took the field.
It was 4 p.m. on Tuesday, April 30, 1889 — opening day of the minor league season. The local club, nicknamed the Coal Barons, was about to face Hartford.
Wilkes-Barre fans knew the team assembled over the past few months to join the new eight-club Atlantic Association would be strong. After all, it had beaten a Philadelphia team twice in its only two exhibition games.
The fans also believed it was time for an especially big year from third baseman and playing manager/captain John Irwin, one of the league’s genuine stars.
The crowd cheered as Wilkes-Barre jumped off to an early lead when centerfielder Robert Black walked with one out and hard-hitting first baseman Edward Flanagan promptly doubled, driving him home.
As the innings wore on, the two teams battered one another’s pitching. By the Hartford half of the fifth inning, the game was tied at 7-7.
But Wilkes-Barre went ahead for good in the bottom half.
Right fielder John McKee doubled and alertly dashed to third while the Hartford team was busy protesting the umpire’s call.
Then “Kid” Williams knocked McKee in, ending up on third himself. A muffed fly ball let second baseman Jerry O’Brien take second, scoring Williams. Shortstop Robert Petit then hit, and left fielder Edward Beecher doubled, clearing the bases.
Suddenly it was 11-7 for Wilkes-Barre.
Hartford scored twice more in the remaining inning, but the Coal Barons added a run of their own to pad the lead. The game ended 12-10 in favor of Wilkes-Barre.
The miners and railroad workers who had braved the chill would have something to talk about when they got home. It was “baseball fever,” 1889 style.
The coming of the Coal Barons that year was a major public event. Wilkes-Barre had gotten its first minor league team four years earlier. But won/lost records since then had been mediocre, rising a little above .500.
The new owners made it clear they wanted a pennant, and they’d clean house and go for the best players they could find, regardless of salary costs. The approach of the season brought page-one articles in the Wilkes-Barre Record paper. Local merchants, sensing a good thing, bought ads declaring their solidarity with the Coal Barons as well.
Wilkes-Barre was not unique. Baseball was America’s up-and-coming sport in the late 19th century. It’s grace, precision and concept of team spirit were a revelation and a start contrast to the violent and often bloody spectacles with which many people had been amusing themselves.
A spectator at the Wilkes-Barre and Hartford game might have taken the Lehigh Valley train up to Buttermilk Falls in May to watch the vicious Jester-Umlah scrap that ended with two mangled “boxers” rolling around on the ground punching each other.
If he’d been a bettor, he might have put down a month’s pay at Jim Woods’ Hotel, near Pittston, in February as a team of birds from Luzerne County ravaged a team from Lackawanna County in a nine-match cockfight.
True, the local sports scene wasn’t all quite violence and maiming. The baseball fan might also be planning to spend time between homestands watching the trotters, who shared West Side Park with the baseball team. Thirty-three entries were set to open the 1889 meeting, with records galore expected to fall to the likes of Bay Thornwoos and Violin.
Within just a few years basketball would make its appearance in the Valley, and already a few high schools were fielding football teams.
Across the nation, however, baseball was the rage of the day.
The National League, with eight teams in the big cities of the East and Midwest, was the one real “major” league. After that came the near-big-league American Association, followed by a host of leagues made up of teams from smaller cities, such as Wilkes-Barre.
As the season wore on, Wilkes-Barre proved the class of the Atlantic League. The Coal Barons forged into first place.
But a canker appeared – financial problems. The salaries that enabled the team to win put a strain on the owners and their gate receipts.
By June, it was clear that the Wilkes-Barre team would have trouble finishing the season. In the middle of that month, the Board of Trade (precursor of the Chamber of Commerce) met to try to save the team, and the city’s prestige.
Businessmen George Parrish, William Harvey and Issac Hand pledged $50 apiece to help the team over, and the board announced it would send canvassers to other businesspeople.
By July, the team was still winning, but accounts of games were followed by ominous-looking lists of people pledging $5 or $10 to the save-the-Coal-Barons drive. Reluctantly, the owners began to sell off players. When the popular Irwin went, the morale of both players and fans plummeted.
On Aug. 5, the Coal Barons, still leading the Atlantic League with a 32-20 record, played their final game. Newark scored eight runs, largely on errors by dispirited Wilkes-Barre squad.
Wilkes-Barre fought back, sending the game into extra innings. But with a futility that was becoming the team’s trademark, centerfielder Black missed a chance to put the contest away when he flied out, leaving two men on base. Then, in the Newark half of the next inning, Black committed two errors and let the winning run across.
Worcester, with a percentage record worse than Wilkes-Barre, ended up as league champions.
The Coal Barons’ owners finished the season more that $3,700 in debt, an enormous sum of 1889. They got out of the baseball business.
Irwin and Beecher went on to major league careers with the Washington club of the National League. Petit was soon playing for Toronto.