Academic journal article Base Ball

The Best Circuit You Never Heard Of: The 1897 Wood County League

Academic journal article Base Ball

The Best Circuit You Never Heard Of: The 1897 Wood County League

Article excerpt

In the late summer and early fall of 1897, there was a minor league that included a number of future major leaguers and featured brief appearances by a pair of future Hall of Famers. One team in this league featured African American players, including a 23-year-old infielder even then recognized as one of the best outside the major leagues. Improbably, this league wasn't represented in large or even medium-sized cities. It was based in a rural county in Ohio. Even more surprising was the small-town league's level of organization: The Wood County League featured a league president, a set schedule, and umpires assigned by the league offce.

Wood County, Ohio, is located in the northwestern part of the state, just south of Toledo. After the last Ice Age retreated, Wood County was covered by what would later be called "the Great Black Swamp." Not surprisingly, the swamp was one of the last areas of the state to be settled. By the end of the Civil War, the swamp was being drained; agriculture became the main economic focus, but that would soon change.

In 1884 and 1885, oil and natural gas were discovered just south of Bowling Green, the county seat. Some of the county's wells produced 10,000 barrels a day, and the area was the nation's leading oil producer into the 20th century. Eventually most of the money wound up in the hands of John D. Rockefeller; but for a few years, the county's economic boom spawned new settlements, funded building projects, and-in a little-known sidebar to these developments-set the stage for regional organized ball.

The first community to have professional baseball in Wood County was Cygnet. Located in the southern part of the county, Cygnet imported professional players including pitcher Jerry Nops and outfielder Charles "Dusty" Miller. Cygnet's main rival was another oil town to the South-Findlay had more and better professionals, including Bud Fowler and a local teenager named Grant "Home Run" Johnson. Cygnet's team folded midway through the 1894 season, while Findlay's team just got better and better. The independent squad held its own with Western League teams. That fall, Fowler and Johnson formed what would become the first great African American team. Originally hoping to stay in Ohio, the pair moved to Adrian, Michigan, after securing sponsorship from the Page Fence Company.

In 1897, only six minor leagues were part of the National Agreement. The Western and the Interstate had teams in Ohio. Twelve cities in those leagues were located within roughly a 200-mile radius of Wood County. Generally those teams consisted of experienced professional players, making it diffcult for talented young players to break into Organized Baseball. Independent teams offered one solution to this problem. Earlier in the summer of 1897, Lima in west-central Ohio had a strong independent team, featuring the Bresnahan battery of Roger (pitching) and James (catching). Lima had acquired the team after Bryan (a town near the Indiana border) failed to support it. At first the new team did well. Roger Bresnahan and James Delahanty were the stars, and nearby Wapakoneta-led by future major leaguers Bob Ewing and Theodore "Whitey" Guese- was a natural rival.

In early August, these two cities combined with St. Mary's and Piqua to form the Northwest Ohio League. But the league foundered soon after its formation. Despite the strong pitching of Nick Altrock, Piqua was unable to field a competitive team. The situation worsened when Roger Bresnahan and several other promising players were signed by major or minor league teams.

Farther north in Wood County, the season started quietly. The teams were mostly amateur with perhaps a paid battery. Tontogany probably had the best aggregation of local players, including 17-year-old pitcher William "Red" Wright. Tontogany generally defeated other area teams, and was even competitive against semipro teams from outside the county. In mid-July, the Togs lost 11-10 in an 11-inning game to a picked nine consisting of players from three Toledo teams. …

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