25 April 2018

Book Review: Once Upon a Team: the Epic Rise and Historic Fall of Baseball's Wilmington Quicksteps

Baseball in the late 1800s is rather foreign to us.  The game was different.  Teams may have had 15 or fewer on the roster, but the club mainly got by with nine players and a second pitcher.  Contracts were largely doled out on a monthly basis and major league level clubs in the 1880s often only lasted a few seasons before disbanding or even falling apart mid-season.  One of the major issues of the time, if you ran a league, was exactly how to backfill teams that dropped out in order to fill out a schedule.  Indeed, baseball as a speculative venture is something that we only get hints of these days with the drawn out process of expansion clubs.

Once Upon a Team is a marvelous book by Jon Springer that explores the primordial ooze from which our current game of baseball emerged. The book investigates the 1880s when the reckless speculative nature of baseball investment was still quite strong.  It is a snapshot of baseball around 1884 with the focal point being the rocket ride that was the Wilmington Quicksteps.  The Quicksteps were a club that lasted for less than a season and were a major investment by John West, who had made his money off a sporting goods store and a gambling house.  His intent was to succeed in Wilmington with baseball where others had failed.  Although his payroll was meager compared to those in the three major league levels (i.e., National League, American Association, Union Association), it was large for the Eastern League, which was a step down from the others.

To give a sense of how unstable the game was, the Eastern League started the season out with eight teams.  By the end of the year, five of those eight had disbanded.  The major leagues fared better in-season with only the American Association and Union Association losing an entry apiece.  This led to the rather amazing fact that the St. Paul Whitecaps (2-6) are the only major league team in history that never played a home game.  Anyway, that is the backdrop.

The story itself follows the trials, tribulations, and success of a Wilmington team consisting of fringe stars like Oyster Burns, the Only Nolan, and Dan Casey.  The team ran roughshod over the Eastern League with those and a mix of colorful players.  However, the fans never really came and West was getting deeper into debt, so when the Union Association's Philadelphia Keystones disbanded, the Quicksteps took up their schedule.  That event resulted in a few players abandoning the club for better deals, such as Oyster Burns signing for a small fortune with the Baltimore Orioles, and the Quicksteps spiraling into terrible play as they entered a league with far more talent.

What really came through in this book though were the personalities and antics of the players.  The behind-the-scenes events that would shape the season and provide great context to the primordial ooze from which our current game emerged.


Once Upon a Team: the Epic Rise and Historic Fall of Baseball's Wilmington Quicksteps
by Jon Springer
240 pages
Sports Publishing


Pip said...

I'll put it on my list.
Did you ever read "seasons in hell"?
Also, although it is football and not baseball, if you are interested in sports history, you should consider reading a book called "the hundred thousand dollar quarterback" which is the story of the AFL. It's very funny.

Pip said...


"The four hundred thousand dollar quarterback and the league that came in from the cold."

Been 30 years. Forgot the title.

Jon Shepherd said...

I did read Seasons in Hell. Solid book.

I have not heard of the other one.

Currently, I am reading about a book on blind baseball.