There’s a lot of baseball on the 4th of July. Playing baseball on Independence Day is a tradition that goes back more than a century – pretty much as long as baseball has been baseball.
All 30 big league teams will play today (weather permitting). There will be hundreds more playing in the minors, college summer leagues, kids’ leagues, and pick-up games. There will be a lot of baseball.
This is not about any of today’s games. (Except to say, “Good luck, Orioles. Don’t screw this road trip up any worse than you already have.”)
1881 was as good a 4th of July as any for baseball, I figured.
Because there were two games in Buffalo that day, along with two in Detroit, that marked the first-ever major league doubleheaders specifically created to take advantage of a holiday.
Troy Trojans Pitcher Mickey Welch
Because future Hall of Fame pitcher Mickey Welch of the Troy Trojans pitched both of those games against the Buffalo Bisons – complete games, winning both, including a three-hit shut-out in the afternoon.
Because, that 4th of July also was Welch’s 22nd birthday.
Game One: Troy Trojans – 8 Buffalo Bisons – 3
Game Two: Troy Trojans – 12 Buffalo Bisons – 0
There are no box scores from that game.
Well, that’s not exactly right. There are box scores. I just can’t read them …
Game 1 Box Score. Buffalo Morning Express, July 5, 1881
Pitching was different in 1881. Complete games – and two-man pitching rotations – were as normal then as worn-out bullpens and six-inning “quality starts” from your ace are today.
Troy Trojans, early 1880s. Welch may be the player seated at the far left.
Troy was a pretty lousy team with few hometown fans. So, the owners agreed to move a July 5 home game to fill out the Buffalo doubleheader. The teams would make more at the gate in Buffalo on a holiday then they could ever make in Troy on a Tuesday.
The story should end there:
The 4th of July. A Monday, just like today’s.
Mickey Welch – “Smiling Mickey,” the future Hall of Famer with the friendly demeanor and an assortment of quirky underhand curves – pitches 18 innings and wins two complete games in baseball’s first holiday doubleheader.
On his birthday. On America’s birthday.
I love that story.
Except for this.
As in all things, baseball doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
Two days earlier, President James A. Garfield was shot at a train station in Washington, DC.
If you know your high school history, this will all sound vaguely familiar. Just three months into his Administration, a deranged office-seeker shot Garfield twice – once in the arm and once in the belly. And, if you remember your medical science classes, you might recall that Garfield died two months later, not from the actual gunshot wounds, but from infection caused by the virtually nonexistent sanitation practices of the time and all the unwashed, dirty fingers that doctors used to probe the belly wound.
This lets a lot of the air out of an otherwise sweet 4th of July story.
The country was in shock. Citizens clogged city streets near newspaper and telegraph offices to get the latest news on the condition of the President.
His “condition” depended on the newspaper …
Washington Evening Critic, New York Times, and Buffalo Evening News, July 4, 1881
Many cities cancelled their Independence Day fireworks and events out of respect.
Buffalo called off its military parade. The city’s annual boating regatta went on as planned because, organizers agreed, the President seemed to be doing better by Sunday, and the weather was supposed to be perfect.
The Regatta, a Pigeon Shoot, and the Independence Day revelry of people shooting at each other went on as scheduled in Buffalo.
Despite the somberness of the weekend, people tried to get back to normal.
Baseball went on as planned and more than 4,000 fans attended the games against the Trojans at Buffalo’s Riverside Park.
“In the afternoon the stands were filled to sardine compactness and the assemblage was very enthusiastic,” according to the next day’s Buffalo Morning Express.
Troy surprised the Bisons. “It does seem ridiculous that such a motley combination of base-ball talent should be able, when they play in this city, to do such good work as the Troys,” The Express reported. “The [12-0 afternoon game] was a disgrace to the name of the Buffalos. … Welch was too much for the home club.”
The 4th of July wins were rare ones for the Troy Trojans. They finished the season in fifth place in the National League, with a 39-45 record. Twenty-one of those wins belonged to Welch.
President Garfield never recovered. He died on September 19.
The Troy Trojans folded the following season and Welch went on to become a star with the New York Gothams, whom you may know today by the nickname which ultimately stuck with them – the Giants.
After finishing his playing career – amassing 307 wins and a career 2.71 ERA — Welch went on to run a hotel and saloon and then a dairy business, before returning to baseball as a gatekeeper and attendant at both the Polo Grounds and Yankee Stadium.
Mickey Welch died of heart failure, at age 82, on July 30, 1941. On his death certificate his “Usual Occupation” was listed as this: “Baseball player.”