By John H. Duffy
On a muddy abandoned industrial lot in south Wilmington in late October 1992, a small hastily gathered contingent of investors, politicians, contractors and the press gathered to break ground for a $6 Million ballpark. It was the culmination of a five year effort that had endured many setbacks and much opposition. It was the beginning of a breakneck construction project that in less than six months would see the fabulously successful return of professional baseball to Wilmington for the first time in 41 years.
All of those present knew that the new team would take up the name of that last team, the Blue Rocks of the old Interstate League which had given up the ghost in 1952.
Few however would know that when the home opener scheduled for April of 1993 finally came to pass, 110 years had passed since that spring of 1883 when Wilmington had first known professional baseball.
The Wilmington fans cheered that following spring of 1993 as Whiz Kid hall of famer Robin Roberts threw out the first pitch to inaugurate the return of the Blue Rocks before a sell-out crowd. Many knew or had been reminded that Roberts had begun his professional career right here in Wilmington with "the Old Blue Rocks".
Few on that April afternoon knew that others had proceeded the Blue Rocks, that although they were a Phillies affiliate at the end, the Rocks had begun life as an Athletics farm club with a Hall of Fame manager and President.
Many knew of the old Blue Rocks and some had seen them play. How many though knew of the Wilmington Chicks, the Quicksteps, the Powder Monkeys or the Diamonds?
The 'new' Blue Rocks were to play in the class A Carolina League. How many knew that Wilmington once had a Major League team? Or that several records had been established, sure to never be broken? That night baseball was played in Wilmington more than 40 years before it's major league debut?
This is the story of more than a century
of success and more often failure to establish professional baseball in
Wilmington Delaware began to come of age as an industrial city just as baseball took root in the popular culture of America. As millions of Americans were liberated from the from the drudgery of rural life and begin to have free time, baseball became one of the most popular leisure activities.
At the close of the Civil War baseball was still a gentlemen's game. Played by and for the socially elite young men. In Wilmington, local amateur teams began to play in organized leagues in the 1860's.
In 1865, the Diamond State Baseball Team was formed by some of the prominent young men of the city. The team was strictly amateur, playing it's home games at the "playground" at Delaware Ave. and Adams St. Local "nines" were founded by others in the city and in New Castle County towns. In October of 1865, the club challenged the Athletics of Philadelphia, at that time still an amateur club like the Diamond States.
When the Cincinnati Red Stockings became the first openly professional club in 1869, baseball remained an amateur sport in Delaware.
By the 1870's, the dominate team in Wilmington was known as the Quicksteps. The Quicksteps took many tours throughout the east coast and into the mid west. In 1875 they barnstormed to Chicago to play the professional "White Stockings" and to meet the famed "Red Stockings' in Cincinnati. Although the Quicksteps were still classed as amateur, they certainly were seen as a money making operation and included paid players playing next to true amateurs. On several trips star players were lured away for salaries by the professional clubs. During this period, the Quicksteps were on the edge of professionalism while at home in Wilmington true amateur teams such as the "Junior Quicksteps" and the "Wawasets" were still stocked by the young elite of the city.
Local Semi-Pro teams abounded and thrived into the 1880's while professional baseball grew by leaps and bounds in the large and growing industrial cities along the eastern seaboard. The Philadelphia Athletics and the Baltimore Monumentals were just a few of these clubs that claimed major league status. In 1883, the Worcester Mass. franchise of the National League was purchased by sporting goods magnate Albert Spaulding and became the Philadelphia Phillies.
In the growing industrial city of
Wilmington the realization was that this city could support and should have a
professional team of it's own.
THE WILMINGTON QUICKSTEPS "
In 1883, the Inter-State Association of Professional Baseball Clubs was founded and local capital was invested for a franchise in Wilmington.
The "Wilmington Ball Grounds" at the south-west corner of Front and Union Sts. was the venue now for baseball in Wilmington. At the time this was a semi-rural area on the edge of town. This park would be the home of all professional Wilmington teams until World War I.
In 1884 The Interstate Association re-organized under the name Eastern League", not to be confused with the double A Eastern League of today, this was one of the very first "minor leagues" and was a forerunner by decent of today's AAA International League.
Represented in this league were Allentown, Bridgeport, Harrisburg and several other east coast cities.
The Wilmington Quicksteps quickly began to dominate the league. Crowds began make the streetcar trip to the Front and Union "Wilmington Base Ball Grounds" to watch the Quicksteps walk all over their league competition. So highly regarded was the club that Major League clubs began to call at "Wilmington Grounds" for exhibition games. Both the Washington National and the Baltimore Monumental clubs met defeat at the hands of the Quicksteps. The success of the team was so great that it just about destroyed the Eastern League as other cities lost interest. Even in Wilmington, attendance averaged only about 400 per game.
By August, the Quicksteps had already sewed up the league championship. With a 50-12 record, this was one of the finest baseball teams in America.
In 1884 professional baseball had been challenged by an upstart "Major League": The Union Association. This league was founded by Henry Lucas, a St. Louis businessman who owned the St. Louis Maroons. Stocked with players who had jumped National League contracts for higher pay, the Maroons were far ahead of the pack with a month to go while the Quicksteps were just ending their shorter minor league season. In fact the Maroons were so far ahead that much of the rest of the league had lost interest.
When the Philadelphia Keystones of the Union Association folded due to lack of interest, Lucas convinced Manager Joe Simmons and the Quickstep management to come over to as a team to the Union Association. The wholesale "jumping" of a minor league team to the "majors" is probably without parallel.
In any case, the Quicksteps and Wilmington were now in the "major" leagues!
After winning their first game, 4-3 over Washington, it was all down hill for the Quicksteps. They had jumped to the majors with their championship minor league roster in tact. However, many Wilmington players, no longer felt bound by their contracts and sought employment elsewhere. Shortstop and team Captain Oyster Burns jumped to the Baltimore Monumentals for $900 a month. Outfielder Dennis Casey jumped to Baltimore for $700. Each had been making about $150 a month in Wilmington. Slugging catcher Tony Cusick went to Philadelphia for $375 a month. The only star player to remain in Wilmington was pitcher Ed "The Only" Nolan who went on to beat Washington for Wilmington's second and last victory.
The fans would not pay to see a team that was fighting for nothing. St. Louis had already won the pennant. Wilmington was just being used to fill in the last month of the season.
On September. 21,1884, just before a game against the Kansas City Cowboys, Manager Joe Simmons looked at the empty seats at the "grounds" and realized that Wilmington would not be able to even pay the $60 minimum to the visiting club. He pulled his squad off the field and disbanded the team. The attendance for that game: ZERO. A major league record certain never to be broken. The 2-16 (.111) record is the worst of any team in a recognized "major" league. Wilmington was replaced in the Union Association by the Milwaukee Grays.
Wilmington's "major league" career was over. After a glorious start, that second season of professional baseball in Wilmington was a humiliation. The Union Association was dissolved after the end of it's first and only season. Never again would a Wilmington team play at such a high level.
at southwest corner of Front (Lancaster Ave.) and Union Sts.
In 1885 a new team was fielded by Wilmington in the Eastern League.
This team, nicknamed the Blue Hens never got off the ground. Fans would not forgive the fiasco of 1884 and after compiling a 5-28 record, the team was sold and moved to Atlantic City on June 19th.
Thus began one of many long "dry" periods when Wilmington would be out of professional baseball.
A brief attempt at resurrection in 1889 with a Blue Hens entry in the Middle States league ended when the club disbanded with a 4-16 record on September 13.
In 1890, Wilmington fielded a team in the Atlantic Association. This team was nick-named the Peach Growers as a tribute to that then booming industry in the state. Again, the poor quality of play caused fan indifference and the club was expelled for financial irregularities on August 27after posting a 29-66 record.
In 1896, Wilmington again had an entry in a new Atlantic League. Known as the Peaches, this team was the first to play a full season since the Quicksteps in 1883.
During an Independence Day home stand versus the Patterson N.J. club, there occurred, as the Wilmington Morning News reported, "the most unique and comical game ever seen here" . On July 2nd electric arc lights were installed and a July 4th "triple header" was announced. After the regulation afternoon games, the lights were switched on for a night exhibition game. Only a few hundred fans showed up for the nightcap. For improved visibility, a softball was used. The News reported that "the ball became lost so many times and so many runs were made that they were not counted." When Honus Wagner batted in the 6th inning, Wilmington pitcher Doc Amole hurled a ball with a fire cracker hidden in it, the future Hall of Famer swung as it exploded. The fans, annoyed with such a farce, rushed the box office for refunds. One of the very first night games ever had been well ahead of it's time. Lights would not come into general use for baseball for forty more years.
There was little fan support and after a
58-79 record and a 5th place finish, the team disbanded. The Front and Union
"Wilmington Grounds" would be empty of professional baseball once again.
In 1904, the Wilmington Athletics
Association Baseball Club began the season in the newly formed Tri-State League.
York, Harrisburg, Altoona, Williamsport and Lebanon Pa. joined Camden, N.J. and
Wilmington in this "outlaw" league that was not a part of the "National
Agreement" that governs professional baseball. The fans came to the Union St.
"Grounds" but the league folded in mid-season.
When the Tri-State League formed for the 1907 season, it was with a stronger financial base and part of the National Agreement. The old Front and Union "Grounds" were used again but a new name was chosen. The Wilmington "Chicks" were the first local club to go south for spring training and when they opened, the local fans again made the trek to the edge of town to see professional baseball. Joe Mc Carthy, who later on would go on to be famous as the manager of the great Yankee clubs of the '30' and '40's played on that team. On the field however, a 43-79 7th place finish cooled fan enthusiasm.
In 1908, the team was known as the "Peaches. After financial problems caused the local ownership to sell the franchise back to the league on July 25, the Peaches finished dead last with a 40-87 record. The city was again without a team the following season.
After being out of professional baseball for 2 seasons, In 1911, local investors bought the failing Williamsport club of the Tri-State League and moved them to Front and Union.
Tom Brown was hired as manager. That first year the "Chicks" finished last with a 34-73 record.
In 1912, the Chicks 5th place finish and 58-54 record was the first team with a winning record in Wilmington since the 1884 Quicksteps.
The next season, when Jimmy Jackson, the aging Cleveland Indians star was lured to Wilmington as player/manager, local interest peaked. That year brought the first cham-pionship season to Wilmington since the ill fated Quicksteps thirty years previously. With a 66-45 record, the 1913 first place Chicks held out hope that professional baseball had at last found a place in Wilmington.
A familiar pattern was at work however.
When the 1914 team did not produce as it had in the previous campaign, the fans
deserted the old park in droves and when the season was over, the Chicks had a
47-62 record. The league folded after the season and no team played in
Wilmington in 1915.
In 1916, an "Atlantic League" was founded with many of the same familiar Pennsylvania and New Jersey cities that had inhabited the earlier leagues. Wilmington was included and again, and again this team used the venerable Front and Union "grounds". The Wilmington club used various nicknames. At times they were called as the "Powder Puffs" later the "Diamonds" and finally, they were known as the "Powder Monkeys". This was a reference to the DuPont Gunpowder Mills just north of Wilmington. On June 22, the league folded and Wilmington, with a 14-16 record up to that point was again without a team.
Again, another period without professional baseball began in Wilmington.
With the onset of America's involvement in World War I, organized baseball virtually came to a halt in 1918. Of the hundreds of minor league teams and dozens of leagues, the International League was the only minor circuit to finish the season. Even the majors closed up shop at the beginning of September.
The young ballplayers were needed for military service and for work in the war industries.
Many of the ballplayers found work in the east coast war industries of which Wilmington with her shipbuilding and Du Pont mills was a leader. The population of the city swelled as the numerous shipbuilding factories that lined the Christiana River turned out all manner of vessels for the European war effort.
A giant among these factories was the Harlan and Hollingsworth plant.
These war industries soon had their own baseball teams and a large new field was constructed in South Wilmington Park across the Market Street bridge from the Harlan & Hollingsworth plant. Stocked with big leaguers, throughout the summer of 1918 fierce major league quality games were played by industrial teams that formed a league along the east coast. The Wilmington "Shipbuilders" of that league included perhaps the best "natural" hitter of all time: "Shoeless" Joe Jackson later of "Black Sox" infamy. Jackson was wildly popular and huge numbers of fans crossed the bridge to see the Shipbuilders go on to win the championship.
Of course when the war ended, the players left and Wilmington was again without a ball club.
The new "Harlan Field" did become the focus for semi-pro and negro league ball. The old Front and Union "Wilmington Grounds" now was given over to residential development.
A large and growing city was too much
temptation for the baseball magnates of the day and a number of times in the
years just before and after World War I, the Baltimore Orioles of the
International League transferred some home games to Wilmington as a test for the
league, with a mind toward placing an I.L. club in the city.
Nothing ever came of the I.L. initiative, but in 1923, a new "Atlantic League" was formed with teams in Middletown, N.Y., Allentown, Pottsville, Lancaster, and Bethleham Pennsylvania as well as Trenton and Wilmington.
This was another "outlaw" league that began play at Harlan Field and players soon began jumping their contracts. Even though Wilmington was leading the league by a mile, the fans stayed away.
Throughout the 1920's and during the depression Harlan Field saw mostly exhibitions and barnstormers although the Washington Potomacs of the Eastern Colored League transferred briefly to the city in 1923. Playing as the Rosedales, they provided a very high level of play in a league that was the forerunner of the Negro National League.
In 1929, Wilmington fielded a team in the quasi-professional Susquahanna League outside of organized ball. That team took the old "Chicks" name but failed as the others had.
Now and then a rumor of a new league or
the transfer of an existing club, but Wilmington residents seemed content to
follow the A's or the Phillies and back only semi-pro ball in Wilmington. While
much smaller cities were supporting pro ball, Wilmington appeared to be too
close to a major league market.
What was needed was an owner who had the resources and the commitment to the area to be able to build for the future and to excite the populace. R.R.M. (Bob) Carpenter was such an "angel". Independently wealthy, his love of sports knew no bounds. Bob Carpenter moved easily among the sporting elite. He knew what he wanted for Wilmington and that was a first class pro-team and park.
First the new team must have major league support. To that end, Carpenter turned to that living baseball legend to his north, Connie Mack.
On January 12 1939, Mack and Carpenter met and within one hour, a deal was struck. Carpenter would build the park and Mack would provide the team.
The Inter-State League had never included Wilmington in it's checkered past. Active on and off since the early '20's, it included some of the old Atlantic and Tri-State cities that had competed against Wilmington in decades past. In 1939 after a successful season as a "class C" league, the decision was to expand from four to eight teams and move up to "Class B". Carpenter decided that Wilmington should be part of that jump.
Enlisting Connie Mack as Vice President
and his son Roy Mack as Treasurer, Carpenter committed to a tract of land at
30th and Governor Printz Boulevard. This was to be a first class park. Working
people would be able to attend the games, lights would be installed. This was
when night ball was still something of a novelty in the big leagues. At a cost
of $185,000, the Wilmington Park would be one of the finest minor league
facilities in the country.
A complete break with past failure was needed. This new farm club of the nearby A's would not be another incarnation of the "Chicks"or "Blue Hens". A contest was announced and the new team was to be named the "Blue Rocks" after the unique construction granite that was mined at that time just to the north of the city.
Chief Bender the old A's pitching ace and Hall Of Famer was named to be the first Blue Rocks manager. He was recognized as being the one of the best handlers of young players of his time.
As construction crews battled bad weather to get the park ready for the May 1st, 1940 opener, the Blue Rocks were barnstorming their way north from spring training still wearing A's uniforms.
After an opening day parade and speeches by the mayor and a standing ovation for old Connie Mack, the Blue Rocks went on to defeat the Trenton Senators 3-1.
The most stable and successful period in Wilmington's baseball history had begun.
With strong backing from a nearby major league franchise, quality players were assigned to the Wilmington club. The Blue Rocks stormed to a second place 68-52 finish their first year. In 1941 the "Rocks" dipped to 5th place and a 64-62 finish. From this "low" point, the Blue Rocks were to finish no lower than 3rd for 10 straight seasons.
The Interstate League was one of only eight minor leagues to play right through the war.
In 1944, a 74-64 record put the Blue Rocks in second place. With the war winding down, in 1945, and an 81-57 mark, the Rocks were again runners up.
The long drought finally ended in 1946. Well stocked with ballplayers returning from military service, the Blue Rocks stormed to an 87-53 Inter-State League pennant. Although the Rocks would again fail in the post season, this marked the first league leading team for Wilmington since the 1913 Chicks of the old Tri-State League.
Just as good in 1947, the Blue Rocks were
passed late in the season by streaking Trenton who staged the greatest comeback
in baseball history that year. Rising from last place in July, the Giants
squeaked by the talented Blue Rocks for the flag. None the less, the 79-60
second place Blue Rocks went on to beat Allentown in the play-offs and secured
the league championship.
The ace of the staff was a young Robin Roberts who posted a 9-1 record before being called up to the Phillies. Curt Simmons also enjoyed a banner year before his call to the "bigs".
The '49 team slipped back to second with a 75-62 record. Even though the Blue Rocks were far and away the most successful franchise in Wilmington's history, a cloud was now forming over minor league baseball.
The two factors that would lead to the demise of the Blue Rocks and the Inter-State league were television and suburbanization. As thousands of Wilmingtonians began to leave for larger modern suburban homes, minor league baseball in an old and deteriorating city held less and less charm. The phenomenal increase in television ownership coupled with a large number of televised major league games dramatically cut attendance at Blue Rocks games.
When the Blue Rocks captured the 1950 pennant, attention of local baseball fans was turned 35 miles to the north as the Whiz Kids would bring the first National League title to Philadelphia in 35 years.
The 82-56 record and high quality baseball at 30th and Governor Printz was secondary to the Fightin' Phils of 1950.
Even a tight race in 1951 and an 83-52 3rd place finish did not boost sagging attendance. Tastes were changing and minor league baseball was falling out of fashion. After a 5th place 72-66 finish in 1952, sparse attendance forced the hard decision not to field a team in 1953. The Interstate league folded the next year.
The Blue Rocks, however had not been a "failure" like the teams of the early part of the twentieth century and those of the latter part of the last century.
In 13 seasons, they had been financially stable and on the field they had never finished the season with a losing record. The "Rocks" fell victim to forces beyond their control. The cloud of television, suburbanization and urban decay affected all of minor league baseball. From a peak of 40 million fans in the late '40s, attendance at minor league games declined to a low of 4 million in the early '70s.
Wilmington Park with it's green fences and grandstand was used for midget racing and semi-pro baseball . Rumors of a return of pro-ball never materialized and the park was torn down for a shopping center and community college in the early '60's.
Rapid access to major league baseball in
Philadelphia and Baltimore and an abundance of televised games made it unlikely
that Wilmington would ever see professional baseball again.
In 1949, over 400 minor league teams competed in 59 leagues. By 1963 there were only 12 leagues left in the National Association. Even the venerable AAA American Association had suspended play. Many factors were at work very few of which were the fault of or could be controlled by minor league baseball. Wholesale broadcasting of major league games was assumed to be the culprit that kept fans away from the minor league parks.
The real reason was larger than that.
America itself was changing and so were baseball fans. There were other things
to do now. Universal ownership of automobiles meant that families could travel
at will. Television broadcasts of big league ball games were only a part of the
problem. Television itself was a diversion. For the first time, families could
decide to go to the beach on a whim. Movie theaters also suffered from the same
competition for the disposable time and money of the public. The old and
sometimes decaying ballparks in Americas cities seemed less desirable.
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