Early Professional Baseball in Erie, Pennsylvania is a 9-part blog written by guest writer and Hagen History Center Volunteer, Barry J. Gray. Barry started volunteering with Erie County Historical Society in the curatorial department, working on our large deaccessioning project.
Barry was born and raised in Erie, PA and grew up rooting for the Pirates when Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell played for them. Barry has always enjoyed watching baseball games with friends and family. Of course, Barry also enjoys history, so he started reading books about the history of baseball.
Please enjoy this reading this 9-part blog, published every Saturday & Sunday.
Early Professional Baseball in Erie, Pennsylvania
The recent near-death experience of the Erie SeaWolves minor league baseball team had many local baseball fans on edge for over a year, after the press leaked a story that the team would be one of over forty minor league clubs to be dropped as an affiliated franchise of the major leagues. Operating a minor league has always been a precarious undertaking, and this was even more the case before they were affiliated with major league teams through farm systems starting in the 1920s. Leagues and their teams were chronically undercapitalized and poorly run. Owners often overpaid players in order to lure them away from other teams, and struggled to draw paying customers. Despite this, Erie fans, or "bugs" as they were called a century ago, came together repeatedly to start, and maintain, professional baseball in their hometown. Erie even briefly had two minor league teams at the same time, in separate leagues. And neither team was able to play their home games in Erie.
The Beginning of Professional Teams
Baseball became very popular after the American Civil War ended in 1865. Several clubs formed in Erie after the war, including the Excelsiors, the Erie City Club and the Mutuals. The Erie "Keystones" were organized in 1874. They were an independent team that played exhibition games with other clubs in the area.
Originally the sport was played entirely by amateurs, but eventually clubs began paying their star players. The first entirely professional team in the country was the Cincinnati Red Stockings of 1869. By 1871, the success of professional teams led to the formation of the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players, the first "major" league. Teams in other leagues resented the designation of "minor league," but lacking the financial resources of the NA, they competed for its castoff players and made money selling their best talent to the major league teams. The National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs replaced the National Association in 1876, placing power in the hands of the owners of the teams instead of the individual players.
The following year, the International Association of Professional Base Ball Players was formed with sixteen clubs in response to the National League's dominance. The NL countered by creating the League Association with thirteen teams. Neither of these groups were leagues in the sense that teams belonging to them competed for a championship, although within each group some teams agreed to do so. They were more like a trade organization that sought to regulate player contracts, umpiring, and standards of play. The League Alliance also sought to arrange games with major league teams on their off days. In 1883, the various leagues and associations signed the "National Agreement" that has governed organized baseball ever since.
Some teams chose to join both associations, and Erie was one of them. The first professional team in Erie, simply called the "Eries," was formed with several players from the Keystones in 1877. It is probably not a coincidence that Erie's first pro team was organized the same year that professional minor league baseball began to become formalized. Few "minor league" teams at this time belonged to leagues with set schedules.
The Eries played at a field at the southwest corner of West 10th and Peach Streets that had been built the year before. They did not belong to any league, so they had to seek out matches with other teams in the region. For example, the Rochester "Flour Cities," another team in the International Association, swept them 5-4 and 7-1 on May 10-11. Unable to draw enough paying customers, the team went bankrupt and folded in July. Some of the players were signed by the Clippers of Winona, Minn. Unfortunately this outcome was to be repeated many more times over the next four decades. No statistics for the team exist.
Accounts in the local press in the following years continued to refer to a local team called the "Eries" who played exhibitions against shop teams and barnstorming teams from organized leagues. It was apparently a semi-pro organization at best, as one account mentions a benefit game to raise funds for equipment.