Lessons from Lakefront Park, 1884

Every home team seeks a home field advantage. The possibilities, large and small, are limited only by management’s imagination and league rules. Almost every year at least one major league ballpark makes some change in its layout, altering fence distances, fence heights, infield dirt, ground rules—something, it is hoped, to enhance the home team’s fortunes.

One of the most radical ground rule changes ever was made in 1884 by the Chicago White Stockings (forerunners of today’s Cubs, not the White Sox). The White Stox had enjoyed three straight pennants from 1880-1882, but in 1883, they finished second to the Boston Beaneaters. The White Stox record was 59-39, hardly a meltdown season, but three straight pennants engendered great expectations among Chicago rooters. So the team decided that fair balls hit over the fence at Lakefront Park would be home runs, not ground-rule doubles. Yes, the fences were so close that, before 1884, clearing them was worth only two bases, not four!

So how close were those fences?

Way, way too close, by 21st century major league standards, by 20th century major league standings, by 19th century major league standards, by minor league standards, or any standards other than Little League. Try these on for size:
{exp:list_maker}Left field foul pole: 180 feet (ballpark remodeling had rendered the distance six feet shorter than the year before!)
Left field power alley: 280 feet
Center field: 300 feet
Right field power alley: 252 feet
Right field foul pole: 196 feet {/exp:list_maker}The dimensions assured that Lakefront Park was the ultimate in ballpark intimacy, even though it had the largest capacity (10,000, up from 3,000 when the park opened in 1878) in the league. The park even had rooftop luxury boxes (or what passed for same at the time) and a staff of 41 people to attend to the fans. By amenity standards of the day, this was as good as it got.

Power hitters had it almost as good as the fans. If you were a left-handed pull hitter, however, you had to contend with a 37.5′ barrier in right field. But in a park of this size, to say that it favored right-handed hitters more than left-handed hitters is like arguing the merits of Millard Fillmore versus James Buchanan.

The reasons for the diminutive dimensions of Lakefront Park were location, location, location. Then as now in Chicago, lakefront property is the ideal, and downtown on the lakefront is prime real estate (in 1884 the site was worth approximately $1,600,000). With space at a premium, the park could not spread out, as could a facility in a less desirable spot. Located in the heart of what is today Grant Park, the ballpark was centrally located for residents of the north side, the south side, or the west side. The “east side” was Lake Michigan.

Lake Michigan, of course, is still a factor in Chicago baseball. Hometown and visiting players at Wrigley Field have long been amateur meteorologists. Is the wind coming off the lake today? How many miles per hour? In days of old at Lakefront Park, the wind was obviously a factor, but given the aforementioned dimensions, how much difference could it have made? Everyone who stepped up to the plate was a long ball threat!

The league home run totals, while modest by today’s standards, were unprecedented in 1884. With 142 homers, the White Stox’ output had so distorted the statistics that the league average (40) was greater than the total (39) for the Buffalo Bisons, the second most powerful team! No surprise that Chicago was first in slugging percentage at .446 (Buffalo was second again at .361), batting average at .281 (Buffalo, again the runner-up, hit .262), runs scored at 834 (Buffalo again playing second-fiddle at 700), and hits with 1,176 (over—guess who—Buffalo with 1,099). Predictably, the Stox’ league-leading total of 277 doubles in 1883 had plummeted to 162 in 1884. Third baseman Ned Williamson, who led the league with 49 in 1883, hit a mere 16 in 1884.

Shed no tears for Williamson, however. He was still hitting balls into the stands at Lakefront Park, but now he was getting twice as many total bases on those hits. To no one’s surprise, seven of the top 10 home run hitters in 1884 were White Stox, and Williamson was at the top of the heap:

Ned Williamson           27(25 at home)
Fred Pfeiffer            25
Abner Dalrymple          22
Cap Anson                21
Dan Brouthers (Buffalo)  14
King Kelly               13
Silver Flint              9
George Wood (Detroit)     8
Tom Burns                 7
Joe Hornung (Boston)      7

On May 30, Williamson’s three home runs against the lowly (28-84 at season’s end) Detroit Wolverines marked the first time a batter had achieved that total in one game. Manager/first baseman Cap Anson duplicated the feat on August 6 as part of a five-HR/two-game onslaught against the Cleveland Blues. Jack Manning of the Philadelphia Quakers completed the three-homer trifecta on October 9 in a 19-7 loss to the Stox.

Ned Williamson’s season total of 27 homers was a major league record till Babe Ruth hit 29 for the 1919 Red Sox. The White Stox’ 142 home runs (up from 13 in 1883) marked the first time a major league team had reached three digits in four-baggers. The next occurrence was not until 1920 when the Yankees connected 115 times, including 54 from Babe Ruth (improving on his 1919 record), who was in his first season with the club. The White Stox still held the major league record until 1927 when Ruth, Gehrig, and the rest of the Yankees amassed 158 home runs. It remained as the National League record until 1929 when the Phillies hit 153 home runs, and the Chicago National League franchise record until the following year when the Cubs, led by Hack Wilson with 56 and Gabby Hartnett with 37, went deep 171 times, to cop the Cubs team record and the NL record.

While the White Stox dominated the offensive leader board in 1884, they failed to dominate the league. They tied the New York Gothams for fourth place with a 62-50 record, 22 games out of first. They averaged 7.4 runs per game (first in the league) but gave up 5.7 per game (fifth in the league). The run differential of 1.7 was third in the league. The biggest differential (2.4) was recorded by the pennant-winning Providence Grays (84-28) , who scored just 665 runs (fifth in the league) but achieved the differential largely through outstanding pitching. Although the White Stox had the distinction of the best offensive output of the season against Providence (15 runs in a game played September 27 at Chicago), the Grays beat them 11 out of 16 times.

The Providence pitching staff turned in a staff ERA of 1.61. To a large degree, the Providence pitching staff was Charles Gardner (always referred to as Old Hoss) Radbourn, who started 75 games (and pitched 678.2 innings), finished 73, and went 59-12 with a 1.38 ERA. The Grays must have shuddered at the mere thought of Old Hoss on the DL, or whatever they called it in 1884.

Also contributing, but nowhere near Radbourn, was Charlie Sweeney, who went 17-8. His biggest moment of glory was on June 7, when he struck out 19 Boston Beaneaters. This major league strikeout record stood for more than a century. Roger Clemens finally surpassed it on April 29, 1986 with 20 punch-outs against Seattle.

Radbourn and Sweeney accounted for all but eight of the Providence victories. The Grays allowed just 388 runs, lowest in the league by far (Boston was second with 468).

Offensively, the Grays were mediocre. In fact, their .247 batting average was a match for the league average. The team had but one .300 hitter (outfielder Paul Hines at .302), and the “slugger” of the lineup was third baseman Jerry Denny with six homers and 59 RBIs.

While offense was the strong point of the 1884 White Stox, they also had a “hoss” on their pitching staff, and he just might have been the team’s MVP, despite the gaudy power stats of Williamson, et al. Actually, at 5’3″ and 127 lbs., Larry Corcoran was more of a pony than a horse. Come to think of it, sticking with equine metaphors, he resembled a jockey more than anything with four legs and hooves. Even given the smaller size of American men in the 1880s, he was hardly the image of a major league pitcher, much less one of the best in the league. And if you’re thinking he must have been the original dandy little lefty, don’t! He was right-handed.

Unfortunately, Corcoran’s 1884 season was his last hurrah. He had a highly unusual career trajectory, to put it mildly. He debuted in 1880 at age 20, winning 43 games for Chicago in his rookie year. He followed this up with seasons of 31, 27, and 34. In 1884, despite the ground rule changes at Lakefront Park, he garnered 35 victories (via 516.2 innings pitched). On June 27, he authored his third career no-hitter (all were at Lakefront Park), 6-0 over Providence, who suffered a rude ending to a 10-game win streak. He gave up 35 home runs in 1884, but given the fact that he devoured innings and pitched half his games at Lakefront Park, his .6 HR per nine innings stat is pretty impressive. Thanks largely to Corcoran, the pitching staff ERA was a respectable 3.04 for the season, and fourth in the league. Corcoran proved that an outstanding pitcher can remain effective, even while pitching half his games in a bandbox.

But remember: I said he had an unusual career trajectory. He had been highly successful during his first five seasons at Lakefront Park. But in 1885 he split the season between Chicago and New York, going 7-3 with just 84.1 innings pitched. He pitched just 14 innings for Washington in 1886 and 15 for Indianapolis in 1887, winning no games and losing three. It was a downbeat ending to a career that began with 170 victories in five seasons! Even more tragic, Corcoran was dead of kidney disease a few years after retirement at the age of 32. One wonders if the onset of the disease coincided with his professional decline, or if his arm simply gave out. Since Corcoran was ambidextrous (and once used his left arm after developing a blister on his right hand), he had another option up his sleeve if his right arm was dead.

Curiously, as Corcoran’s productive years ended, the White Stox’ fortunes were on the rise. After the National League mandated 210 feet as the minimum foul pole distance for the 1885 season, the White Stox moved to West Side Park, where it was all of 216 feet down the lines. Predictably, the team home run totals went down but the Stox still led the league with 54 dingers (way ahead of second place Detroit with 25), and four of the top six sluggers: league leader Abner Dalrymple had 11, King Kelly had nine, and Cap Anson and Tom Burns had seven each.

Despite the change in venue and the drop-off in home runs, the team responded with a pennant based on a record of 87-25 (pity the New York Giants who finished 85-27 and had to settle for second place). The successful results were also largely due to the fact that pitcher John Clarkson had emerged as an ace (53-16 via 623 innings pitched) after a promising rookie year in 1884. Getting off to a good start always helps, and the Stox started the 1885 season at 18-6 (.750), admittedly less than their season-long winning percentage of .777, but highly impressive considering that their first 24 games were on the road.

The following year the White Stox finished first with a 90-34 record. In both years they played the St. Louis Browns, the American Association champs, in a World Series of sorts, and set the stage for the Cardinals-Cubs rivalry that endures to this day. Whether these pennants would have occurred in Lakefront Park is a matter of speculation, but the one-year experiment in short porches certainly had not helped the team’s fortunes.

Despite the differences in the game over the last 13 decades, there are still lessons to be learned from the 1884 White Stox and their adventures at Lakefront Park:

1. Outscoring the other team is what counts, not the number of runs you score. Over the long haul, run differential is more important than runs scored. A one-run victory counts as much as a 10-run victory. Remember the 1960 World Series when the Yanks outscored the Pirates two to one yet lost the Series? You don’t get extra credit for a blowout. That principle has always held true.

2. When you fabricate a home-field advantage, remember that the opposing team may not necessarily be at a disadvantage. The White Stox had the hitters to take advantage of their park, but the visiting players weren’t entirely stymied. In fact, opposing hitters logged 83 home runs (presumably, the lion’s share was at Lakefront Park) against Chicago pitchers. The Chicago pitching staff was at the bottom of the league in home runs allowed by a wide margin, since the league average was 40.

3. Home field advantage or not, a team still plays half its games on the road. The White Stox were 39-17 within the friendly confines but just 23-33 on the road.

4. Walks count! Providence was not an offensive powerhouse but they led the league with 300 walks. OBP was just as important in 1884 as it is today, even if they didn’t keep stats on it.

5. The home run ball (one hesitates to say “long ball” in reference to Lakefront Park) is not the ultimate weapon. Pitching and defense win pennants. The Providence Grays were second in the league in fielding with a .918 percentage – atrocious today but outstanding at that time. By contrast, the White Stox were tied for worst (with Detroit) at .886. Despite the fact that Lakefront Park provided the outfielders with less ground to cover, the White Stox led the league in errors with 595.

In the lively ball era, it was often said that home run hitters drove Cadillacs and banjo hitters drove Fords. In 1884, there were no lively balls, and no Cadillacs or Fords, so we cannot say what the vehicles of choice were for White Stox sluggers versus banjo hitters.

Perhaps barouches versus buckboards?

References & Resources
The Baseball Timeline by Burt Solomon, DK Publishing (New York, 2001)
Baseball’s Great Dynasties: the Cubs by Thomas G. Aylesworth, Gallery Books (New York, 1990)
Diamonds: The Evolution of the Ballpark by Michael Gersham, Houghton Mifflin (New York, 1993)
Green Cathedrals by Philip J. Lowry, Walker & Company (New York, 2006)
Storied Stadiums: Baseball’s History Through Its Ballparks by Curt Smith, Carroll & Graf (New York, 2001)
Baseball Almanac
Baseball Reference
Wikipedia

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Comments

  1. Cliff Blau said...

    After Corcoran, the next pitcher to allow as many as 30 homers in a season was Fidgety Phil Collins, in 1934!  His record wasn’t broken until 1947, when Murry Dickson allowed 39.  More impressive than Ned Williamson, whose HR record only lasted until 1919.

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