Remember the Kekiongas! Escaping down an 1871 Retrosheet Rabbit Hole

Through rain, sleet, snow, gloom of night, and horrific political climates, nothing cheerily drops you down a rabbit hole better than an old Retrosheet boxscore.

The other day, needing a break from the tsunami of Trumpian noise coming from all corners of the Internet, a bookmark and two clicks took me right to the standings for the earliest year Retrosheet has on record: the 1871 National Association season. The “NA” had a decidedly short and lopsided schedule that year which ended with the Washington Olympics having played 32 games and the Ft. Wayne Kekiongas only 19. Other teams in that maiden season were the original Philadelphia Athletics, Boston Red Stockings,  Chicago White Stockings, New York Mutuals, Troy (NY) Haymakers, and a pair of clubs called the Forest Citys, one in Cleveland and the other in Rockford, Illinois.

Intrigued by whatever the hell a kekionga was, I then hit up Wikipedia and found that Kekionga was the name of Chief Little Turtle’s Native American settlement, where the St. Joseph and St. Mary Rivers form the Maumee in Northeastern Indiana. It was the largest village for the Miami tribe until General “Mad” Anthony Wayne constructed Ft. Wayne on the site in 1794 and the city grew out from there. The baseball Kekiongas had been around since 1866, and joined the NA for its initial season in ’71 before the team fell apart after playing its final game on August 29 when a number of “homesick Baltimore players” returned home. The “Grand Dutchess,” as their base ball grounds grandstand was called, burned down in November and the team was quickly forgotten.

A short journey down the team’s 1871 game log, though, unearthed the intriguing and wacky contest I was looking for. On Friday, July 7, the Ft. Wayne Kekiongas battled the Olympics at Olympic Grounds in Washington DC and lost 32-12! Better yet, there was an actual box score! Turns out the Kekiongas made 19 errors in the game, with infielder-outfielder Pete Donnelly committing seven of them, and the Olympics scored 18 times in the sixth.

This was surely a cornucopia of adversity that demanded further study.

The Olympics, who would finish with a .500 mark, played their home games at 16th and S Streets in DC, approximately a mile west-southwest of the future Griffith Stadium. The Retrosheet box does not include an attendance figure, but I imagine an overflow crowd was not on hand for it. On the other hand, the Olympics had scored over ten runs nine times in their first 17 games that season before July 7 and may have been more popular than other teams. On the other other hand, with the lack of gloves and terrible field conditions, a team scoring in double digits was pretty routine that year.

And yet…this game was ridiculous. Retrosheet sadly did not have play-by-play for the blessed event, so your humble excavator will do what he can to piece it together from the box score.

First, it should be noted that the home Olympics batted first, a tradition throughout the National Association’s brief history. The starting lineups:

WASHINGTON

Fred Waterman 3B

Davy Force SS

Everett Mills 1B

Doug Allison C

John Glenn(!) RF

Andy Leonard 2B

Asa Brainard P

George Hall CF

Henry Burroughs LF

 

FT. WAYNE

Frank Sellman 3B

Bobby Mathews P

Jim Foran 1B

Wally Goldsmith SS

Bill Lennon C

Tom Carey 2B

Ed Mincher LF

Robert Armstrong CF

Bill Kelly RF

 

The Olympics were 9-8-1 when the game began, in fourth place and just four games behind the first-place Athletics. The Kekiongas were 5-5, just a half game worse, but Washington took a 3-2 lead into the last of the fourth inning, when Ft. Wayne plated three runs off Asa Brainard for a 5-3 lead. Brainard, who once pitched for Harry Wright’s Cincinnati Red Stockings and whose first name (according to his SABR biography) was the impetus for the baseball term “ace,” came to the Olympics with four other players who had reputations as problem drinkers. At 32 years old and with his best pitching days behind him, Brainard evidently sobered up enough to hold the Kekiongas “at bay” the rest of the game—that is, only allowing seven more runs.

The Olympics scored once in the top of the fifth and tore Ft. Wayne’s Bobby Mathews a very big new one in the sixth. Pete Donnelly, who went into right field for Ed Mincher with Kelly moving to left, also played third base late in the game. Not having a play-by-play account, it’s impossible to say how many of his seven errors occurred in that faithful 18-run top of the sixth, but it’s a fair guess that manager-catcher Bill Lennon kept moving poor Pete around the field trying to find a place where he wouldn’t soil himself. Donnelly, whose baseball career began on May 13 and ended July 8, the day after this game, batted .206 in 34 at-bats and would make a good poster boy for someone who never overcame adversity.

Pitcher Bobby Mathews is another story, though. The Kekiongas played 19 games that season, and Bobby pitched every inning of every game. Forced to rot out on the mound for 29 hits and 32 runs in this one, at least he could say he had a 5-4 lead as late as the sixth. From June 21 to July 1, he had an even more torturous stretch, losing 21-0 to Boston, 13-0 to New York, and 20-3 to Philadelphia, again without anyone to relieve him. That he managed to also win a 5-3 game against New York on June 26 is somewhat of a miracle.

According to Brian McKenna’s player bio of Mathews for SABR, he began his career with the Marylands of Baltimore at the age of 16, was only 19 when he pulled off his astonishing 1871 workload. At just 5’5”, he was one of the first pitchers to master the curveball and the very first to throw a spitball. In the May 4, 1871 opener for the Kekiongas against the Cleveland team, Mathews wowed the home crowd with a dazzling, 2-0 shutout that was called “the lowest-scoring game anyone could ever remember.” The National Association games were played bare-handed, and pitchers threw underhand from 45 feet away, which no doubt helped allow the club to carry only one hurler, but Mathews’ stamina was still something to behold.

He resurfaced on the Baltimore Pastimes at the end of the year after the Kekiongas disbanded, then pitched for them when they became the Lord Baltimores and later the Baltimore Canaries the following season. He spent time with the New York Mutuals, where he again started every one of his team’s games in 1874 (65 of them, for 578 innings) and remained a Mutual after they joined the new National League in 1876. Mathews compiled 297 wins in his career, the most by a pitcher not making the Hall of Fame, but adversity would claim him again 15 years later.

After retiring in 1887  and spending some time as an umpire, he moved from job to job on the East Coast, joining a baseball social group called the Mountain League in Philadelphia. His drinking grew more excessive, race horse gambling increased, and he began suffering from delusions. He died at his parents’ home in Baltimore in 1898 at the age of 46, memories of his teenage days pitching for the Ft. Wayne Kekiongas probably long forgotten.

After the 18-run inning by the Olympics that July afternoon, Mathews allowed ten more runs over the final three innings to put the box score in the proverbial books. He wouldn’t win another game until August 11, when he beat Cleveland 15-3. In the six straight losses he endured after July 7, Ft. Wayne was outscored 100-42. Being a baseball player in the game’s formative years was an endurance test, but no one in that box score—including fumble-handed Pete Donnelly, first-baseman Jim Foran from Los Angeles, who batted .348 for the Kekiongas that year and never played another season, shortstop Davy Force, who hit .335 in five NA seasons but just .211 in his ten NL seasons—would hold a candle to the irrepressible Bobby Mathews.

A box score is somewhere between a treatment for a novel and an archaeological dig, and this midsummer battle in 1871 gave me more than enough historical nourishment. Try any old selection in the Retrosheet juke box some time; you won’t regret it.

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Jeff Polman lives in Los Angeles, writes about baseball and culture, and has had four historical baseball novels published. You should follow him on Twitter.

 

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