During the 1885 season, Lewis Henke of the Southern League’s Atlanta Atlantas was killed during a game; the death was attributed to on-field rowdyism by the Southern press who hoped the death of the popular player would help end brawling behavior in the league.
In January of 1886, the Atlantas hired a new manager, William Aloysius “Blondie” “Billy” Purcell. Purcell had split the 1885 season between the Philadelphia Athletics in the American Association and the Boston Beaneaters in the National League, hitting .279 in 87 games. The Sporting Life said:
“Billy will make a good manager, and is capable of securing a team—even at this late date—to win the championship. “
Purcell came to Atlanta with an excellent reputation, The Philadelphia Inquirer described him as being “Of a genial, happy disposition,” who was very popular when playing for the Athletics, and in 1883 and ’84 as a member of the Quakers.
That changed quickly, just two weeks into the season The Macon Telegraph said under the headline “An Alleged Conspiracy against Purcell,” that the new manager had incurred the wrath of his players by “ruling the team with an iron hand.”
After the rough start, the team appears to have turned their wrath towards their opponents and became the most hated team in the league.
Over the course of the next four months, Southern papers chronicled the bad behavior of the Atlanta squad.
It started with a game against the Charleston Seagulls when Purcell was accused of cheating, The Charleston News and Courier said:
“Manager Purcell was playing in the left field and the Charleston team was at the bat. During the inning one of the Charleston team batted a ball to left field. It went over the fielder’s head and, after striking the fence, rebounded and then went into the ditch. The fielder started for it, but after running only a short distance took a ball from his shirt pocket and through it to the diamond. The remarkable rapidity with which the ball was fielded was loudly applauded at the time…The fielder subsequently went to the ditch, picked up the ball and tossed it in the diamond…The incident was witnessed by several people, and the statement can be substantiated if the proof is demanded.”
Cheating turned to “bullying” as the season progressed.
The Savannah Times dubbed the team “Purcell’s Plug-Uglies,” and said of them after a July game:
“From the start of the game yesterday the Atlantas began their rowdyism, (Tom) Lynch was running to first in the first inning, the ball got there just ahead of him, Lynch deliberately struck (Jim) Field with his fist…from then on the whole team began to kick and try to hack the umpire. In this Purcell was ably assisted by (John “Monk”) Cline and (John “Cub”) Stricker, two of the rowdiest ball players that have been seen on our field…The conduct of the Atlanta club was most reprehensible, and has placed them in an exceedingly unenviable light.”
Earlier that month after a couple of close wins over the Seagulls, The News and Courier again criticized the Atlantas saying the team “ought to be kicked out of the league,” and said:
“(T)here was an immense crowd present to witness the game, but their afternoon’s pleasure was completely spoiled by the disgusting behavior of the visitors, whose kicking and sharp practices are sufficient to drive any respectable audience from a ball field.”
After another game in Charleston, The News and Courier said Purcell’s team used “blasphemous and obscene language,” and:
“Those who attended the game this afternoon are outspoken in their condemnation of the disgraceful behavior of the Atlanta team, and declare that either they should not be allowed to continue in the league, or that they should be made to behave themselves at least decently in the presence of the communities where they have to play.”
The Macon Telegraph called the team “Atlanta’s Baseball Bullies,” and said after a game in which Purcell was fined $10 “for his ungentlemanly remarks,” that Atlanta played “good ball,” but that it was “marred” by their conduct. The paper also said:
“The Atlanta team is evidently akin to the bulldozing idea. The bullies and braggarts who compose the team have evidently been taught that an umpire is a very insignificant personage and to be influenced by blackguardism.”
Similar charges of “rowdyism” and “bullying” were made throughout the season.
The Atlanta Constitution saw nothing wrong with the team and blamed the criticisms from the papers in other Southern Association on “jealousy” over the team’s success.
With Atlanta holding on to a small lead for the league championship, the most serious charges would wait until the final weeks of the season, and include two of Atlanta’s most prominent citizens …tomorrow.