Search

Bad Breaker-Uppers The world champion Marlins' fire sale is nothing new to baseball

May 25, 1998
May 25, 1998

Table of Contents
May 25, 1998

Baseball

Bad Breaker-Uppers The world champion Marlins' fire sale is nothing new to baseball

The Marlins' version of the Instant World Champions Exile
Association is not, as widely assumed, the product of a fin de
siecle pattern of economic behavior. The boom-and-bust mentality
that has seen high-priced Florida players like Gary Sheffield
and Charles Johnson trundled off like a pile of overnight
packages is actually an ancient baseball tradition. Building a
championship team only to tear it down is as old as the World
Series itself. Older, in fact.

This is an article from the May 25, 1998 issue

The eeriest of several parallels to the Marlins is the 1887
Detroit Wolverines, the National League champs who upended the
favored St. Louis Browns of the American Association in a
tiresome 15-game championship series that antedated the first
World Series by 16 years. Like Florida, the Wolverines were the
product of free spending by owner Fred K. Stearns, a
pharmaceuticals magnate who was the Wayne Huizenga of the
Gaslight Era.

In September 1885, upon hearing that the Buffalo Bisons were
about to go belly-up, Stearns, whose Wolverines were 41-67 that
year, simply bought all the Bisons' players for $7,000. The deal
was voided by the league, but after the season, Buffalo's Big
Four infield of future Hall of Famer Dan Brouthers, Hardy
Richardson, Jack Rowe and Deacon White visited the hunting lodge
of a Detroit team exec and were signed as "free agents." After
the start of the '86 season Detroit acquired star second baseman
Fred Dunlap from the St. Louis Maroons, and by '87 it was the
best team in baseball.

Despite winning the championship, Stearns didn't make money--or
at least enough of it. Barely two months after the 1887 season
ended, Dunlap was sold to Pittsburgh for $5,000. Hall of Fame
slugger Sam Thompson, the Wolverines' rightfielder, missed much
of the ensuing season with a bum arm, and on July 9, 1888,
Dunlap's replacement, Richardson, sustained a season-ending
broken ankle. Detroit was somehow still in first place at the
end of July, but it lost 16 straight in August. During the '88
championship series the news broke that Detroit planned to
peddle its players. Brouthers, Richardson and catchers Charlie
Bennett and Charlie Ganzel went to the Boston Beaneaters for
cash. Rowe, White, centerfielder Ned Hanlon and 30-game winner
Pete Conway were sold to the Pittsburgh Alleghenys. Thompson
went to the Philadelphia Phillies, for whom he would star
throughout the '90s. On November 21, 392 days after they'd won a
championship, the Wolverines went out of business and returned
their franchise to the National League.

More recent World Series winners have been quickly dismembered
as well. Philadelphia Athletics owner-manager Connie Mack was so
disheartened (and financially strapped) by his defending world
champs' having been swept in the 1914 Series that by June 1915
he had gotten rid of more than half his Series-winning roster.
Mack's sale of second baseman Eddie Collins to the White Sox for
$50,000 set the standard for the kind of deals now being done in
Florida.

The Marlins, of course, have sped up the process impressively.
The stretch between Florida's World Series win and the
announcement of the Sheffield-Bonilla-Johnson exodus was a tidy
200 days. So to complete the Wolverines comparison, all the
Marlins have to do is go out of business this winter. Go out of
business officially, that is.

B/W PHOTO HIT AND RUN Brouthers helped the Wolverines win in 1887 and was sold in '88. [Dan Brouthers]