“He must either admit that he sold yesterday’s game or acknowledge that he cannot play ball”

20 Aug

Heading into the 1875 season Chicago White Stockings manager Jimmy Wood was confident about his team’s chances.  The Chicago Tribune said:

“(Wood) says the men are strictly temperate, are all first-class ball players, and will enter the field without any of the petty jealousies and ill-feelings that weakened the nine last year.”

The St. Louis Democrat also printed “private” comments Wood made maligning the abilities of the Brown Stockings in comparison to his team.

Jimmy Wood

Jimmy Wood

Unfortunately for Wood the decline of the White Stockings began even before opening day.

The first blow to the team was what became known as “the Davy Force” case.  Force signed a contract to return to the White Stockings for the 1875 season on September 18, 1874; unfortunately for Chicago he also signed a contract to play for the Philadelphia athletics on December 5.  The Sporting News described the adjudication of the Force case:

“(In December) the matter was brought up and the judiciary committee (of the National Association) awarded Force to the Chicago club…At the spring meeting of the Association, held in Philadelphia, the Athletic club got in its political work.  Mr.(Charles) Sperling, of Philadelphia, was elected president of the Association, and he appointed a new judiciary committee which reversed the ruling of the old committee.”

The arbitrary nature of the new ruling—that Chicago did not have the right to sign Force for 1875 before the end of the 1874 season—enraged White Stocking President William Hulbert, and was one of the many complaints about how the National Association operated that led to the organization of the National League the following season.

With Force gone, Wood chose Dick Higham to be the team captain.  The 23-year-old Higham had played for the Baltimore Canaries and New York Mutuals, and Wood described him as “one of the surest and heaviest batters in the country, has experience and is a first-class base-runner. “  That perception of Higham quickly changed in Chicago.

Dick Higham

Dick Higham

Despite starting the season with an 11-2 record, the White Stockings were never going to catch the first place Boston Red Stockings, who won their first 26 games, and as the losing began team morale suffered.

As the team struggled, blame fell to Higham from fans, the press, and management.  The Tribune went so far as to question his integrity:

“It is not a pleasant thing to say of any ballplayer that his being left out of a nine increase interest of a game, but this is true of Higham; and yet he is one of the best players in the country when he wants to be…It may be Higham’s fault, or his misfortune, that he is suspected of purposely losing games.”

By the end of June Scott Hastings had replaced Higham as catcher (he was moved to second base) and he was stripped of his captaincy, which was given to outfielder John Glenn.

The Chicago Inter-Ocean had defended Higham in July declaring that there was “no tangible evidence” for the “charges…bandied about the streets,” but that would change by August after an 8 to 4 loss to the Athletics during which Higham “let balls go by him without attempting to stop them” and made two throwing errors:

“Higham’s play in yesterday’s game has caused some very ugly rumors to be circulated, in which he predominates as the leading character.  His play in the eighth inning was something extraordinary, and it was quite evident he did not want to save the Chicagos from defeat.  Many are fearless in asserting that he sold the game, and base their accusation on a circumstance that seems very plausible.  Probably Higham can explain what he was doing with a Chicago character at Pratt’s billiard hall waiting for the pool selling, and when he found out there was none what point he gave his companion when they both went to Foley’s and there bought pools on the Athletics.  Many persons, who claim to know, boldly assert that Higham was in partnership in the investments. ..He must either admit that he sold yesterday’s game or acknowledge that he cannot play ball.  In either case the Chicago management can easily do without him. “

The Tribune said the directors of the White Stockings had offered a $500 reward for evidence that any player had been “tampered with,” in any way:

“This offer is meant to cover proof that a player has received money to sell a game, or has promised to help lose a game with a view to profit.  The directors will not insist on absolute proof, such as the law would require, but will pay the reward named for evidence that will convince any fair man of the guilt of the accused party.”

It was never reported whether the reward was given to anyone, or if anyone made an effort to claim it.

On August 20 the White Stockings released Higham; as a result The Inter-Ocean said, “(T)he patrons of the game have begun to think more favorably of the nine, and generally remark that now they can witness an honest game.”

Higham finished the season with the New York Mutuals.  His unpleasant months in Chicago were not the first or last time his integrity was questioned.  While with the Mutuals in 1874 there were allegations that he had been involved in throwing a game against Chicago, and In 1882, Higham, while serving as a National League umpire, was dismissed for what The New York Times called, “’crookedness’ in his decisions in games between the Detroit and other clubs.”

During the drama over Higham, The Inter-Ocean also reported that utility infielder Joe Miller, who was slated to replace Higham at second base “had some misunderstanding,” with Wood and his “connection with the Chicago nine was severed.”

With the team mired in sixth place, and the former team captain chased out-of-town under a cloud of suspicion, it wasn’t surprising when the local papers started to predict the end of the line for the manager.

The Inter-Ocean not only said that the White Stockings would likely relieve Wood of his duties at the end of the year “attributable to his leniency to the players, which is truly a part of bad management,” but correctly speculated  “(Boston Red Stockings pitcher Albert)  Spalding will be the manager,” in 1876.

There’s one more chapter in the story of the 1875 White Stockings—tomorrow.

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