When Troy Was A Major-League City

When Troy Was A Major-League City

by Ray Kim


In a quiet neighborhood of Lansingburgh, a bedroom community located in north Troy, New York, is Knickerbacker Park. A stone's throw away from Lansingburgh High School, it is peppered with athletic fields, basketball courts, swimming pools, and a skating rink. During the summer, it is a popular recreation area for the local residents and hosts the annual Lansingburgh Festival, a popular celebration commemorating the community's heritage as a once-independent municipality.

On June 6, 1992, more than a hundred years after the Troy Trojans played their last major-league game, Knickerbacker Park provided the site for professional baseball's return to the city of Troy. Hosted by the Troy Haymakers, a semipro team in the Albany Twilight League which adopted its name from the original National Association ballclub, the celebration of Troy's baseball heritage drew a variety of enthusiasts, including baseball fans and local historians. The event also drew the attention of the San Francisco Giants and the National League who sent letters of support to the event's organizers. The festivities included the dedication of a monument declaring Troy as the birthplace of the Giants and serving as a reminder that Troy is, to this day, an honorary member of the National League. Following the dedication ceremony, a team representing Troy, playing under the 1882 National League rules, defeated Worcester 2-0 to extend a winning streak against their former league rivals which dated back to September of 1882.

Although Troy's stint as a major-league city was brief, it did enjoy an illustrious history. Despite the fact that its teams never won a pennant, Troy provided its share of significant contributions to the annals of major-league baseball.

In the latter half of the nineteenth century, Troy was a thriving industrial city and a major player in the Industrial Revolution. Iron, steel, and textiles were its principle trades. This upstate New York city on the east bank of the Hudson River served as a major shipping port and railroad hub. Despite Troy's small size, its growth denoted its prosperity; between 1865 and 1880, Troy's population grew from 39,000 to 57,000.

Baseball, in its infancy during this time, was also vastly different from the modern game with which we are all familiar. There was no pitcher's mound, and the pitcher stood only forty-five feet from home plate (in contrast to the current distance of 60'6"). Baseball gloves were not yet invented; fielders had to play with their bare hands (not surprisingly, fielding errors were common during games). The batter had to tell the pitcher where he wanted the ball thrown, and the pitcher was prohibited from throwing the ball overhand (although many pitchers developed effective sidearm deliveries which enabled them to circumvent the "underhand" rule). During this period, often referred to as the "dead ball era," home runs were rare. Even the name of the game was different; it was expressed in two words: "Base Ball."

The genesis of Troy's major-league baseball heritage goes back to just before the Civil War. In 1860, the Victorys of Troy were one of sixty-two teams in the country enrolled in the National Association of Base Ball Players, the first organized "league" of baseball clubs. The following year, the Unions of Rensselaer County, which was established and named through the merger of the Priams of Troy and the National club of Lansingburgh, joined the Association. The reign of the Union ballclub was short-lived; the outbreak of the Civil War forced the team to cease operations.

The team was reorganized in 1866 as the Unions of Lansingburgh. The forerunners to Troy's major-league ballclubs, the highly-successful Unions played a majority of their games at Rensselaer Park (part of which is now Knickerbacker Park) for five seasons. During those five seasons, the Unions won around ninety percent of their games and even managed some moments of notoriety.

It was during this time that the team was christened with the popular "Haymaker" moniker. During the summer of 1867, the Unions traveled to New York to play the Mutuals. The Unions defeated the Mutuals, and one of the New York players, venting his frustration about getting beaten by a bunch of upstate hicks, voiced his disbelief in losing to a team of "haymakers." Even though the team was officially called the "Unions" during all five seasons of its existence, the name stuck and would forever be associated with Troy baseball from that point on.

On August 26, 1869, the Unions, having lost only two games, traveled to Cincinnati to play the undefeated Red Stockings. This was the third-ever game between the two powerhouse clubs, with the Unions coming out on the short end of the two previous meetings. Betting on the highly-anticipated game was heavy as the Unions and the Red Stockings took the field in front of a crowd of more than eight-thousand people.

Controversy emerged as the two teams, tied at seventeen runs each, entered the sixth inning. Cincinnati's first batter of the inning, down two strikes, foul-tipped a pitch which was caught by the Union catcher. W.R. Brockway, the partisan Cincinnati umpire who was influenced by the high-stakes betting and whose erroneous calls had been going in the Red Stockings' favor the entire day, refused to declare the batter out. The Unions, fed up with Brockway's calls, engaged in a long argument and stormed off the field in protest. Despite the umpire's proclamation that the Unions had forfeited the game to Cincinnati, all bets were called off, and the game was officially recorded as a five-inning 17-17 tie, the only blemish on the Red Stockings' otherwise-perfect season record.

On a rainy March 17, 1871, the first organized professional baseball league, the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players, was founded in New York City. Many baseball historians are in disagreement about whether or not this was the first "major" league. Some acknowledge the birth of the National Association as the origin of major-league baseball, while others state that major-league history began in 1876, the first year of the National League. Nine teams paid the required $10 membership fee to participate in the new league, including the Troy Haymakers.

The Haymakers opened the 1871 season with a non-league game against a local ballclub, the Troy Putnams. Troy's new National Association team made an inauspicious debut, as was reflected in the Daily Times:

"About four-hundred persons wasted three hours and a half yesterday afternoon in watching an uninteresting game between our crack local clubs. There were no extraordinary good plays, and but few even noteworthy. . ." (Troy Daily Times, May 3, 1871)

The Haymakers defeated the Putnams by a score of 29-11; however, only twelve runs were earned between them. With a total of twenty-eight unearned runs compiled by the two teams, it was apparent that, in the days before baseball gloves, errors were highly prevalent.

Among the number of Lansingburgh Union players who joined the National Association's Haymakers was a third baseman named Esteban Enrique "Steve" Bellan, a.k.a. "The Cuban Sylph." More than a half-century before Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier, the Haymakers employed a Latino player in a league which otherwise was entirely lily-white. Steve Bellan, who was born in Havana, Cuba, was the first Latin player in professional baseball. He learned the game as a student at Fordham University and played well enough to join the Unions of Morrisania, one of the prominent organized teams around that time. Bellan played organized baseball in the United States for six seasons, four of them with the Lansingburgh Unions and the Troy Haymakers. During his tenure in the States, he played (primarily) third base and compiled a batting average of around .250. Returning to his homeland around 1873, he helped introduce the game to Cuba and, as a player-manager, led his Havana team to three league championships.

The Haymakers' stint in the National Association would not even last two full seasons. The Haymakers' fifteenth victory of the 1872 season (and the final game of their existence) came on July 23 at Hampden Park, a horse racing track in Springfield, Massachusetts. Bankrupt, unable to pay its players, and unable even to organize a meeting of the stockholders to resolve the issue, the team dissolved the following day, with its players voting to cease play for the remainder of the season. (Many of the Troy players were signed by the Eckfords of Brooklyn.) During their two seasons of existence, the Haymakers compiled a record of thirty wins and twenty-five losses. The National Association, besieged with its own problems due to its organization (or rather, lack of) played its final season in 1875 and disbanded the following year.

The emergence of the newly-founded National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs provided the final nail for the National Association's coffin. Determined to circumvent the problems encountered by the poorly-organized National Association, the National League, the oldest professional league still in existence, was born at the Grand Central Hotel in New York on February 2, 1876. The first game in National League history was played on April 22 of that year, with the Boston Red Stockings defeating the Philadelphia Athletics, 6-5.

Three National League seasons would come and go before major-league baseball returned to Troy. In December of 1878, the Lansingburgh Haymakers, a member of the loosely-organized New York State Association, were granted National League membership and became the Troy Trojans.

The entry into the National League of the Trojans (also known officially as the Troy Cities and unofficially as the Haymakers) was greeted with enthusiasm by its supporters, but it was not without controversy. Part of the Trojans' financial success stemmed from their games against their neighbors across the Hudson River in Albany. Troy requested the inclusion of the Albany ballclub into the National League, a request which was denied because of scheduling problems which would result from a nine-team league. Additionally, the National League's territorial rights rule prevented more than one team per city and no games between cities fewer than five miles apart. (Troy and Albany are separated by 4.75 miles.) This rule prevented Troy and Albany from playing exhibition games against each other. Eventually, the Trojans settled for an amendment of the territory rule, reducing the gap from five miles to four and allowing them to play exhibition games against their Capital District neighbors.

Troy's acquiescence to the territorial rights rule amendment also had an indirect side effect which they had not counted on: it kept Albany from joining the National League. The Syracuse Stars, which had entered the league with Troy, closed shop after the 1879 season. To replace the defunct Syracuse ballclub, the Albany and Worcester teams both applied for National League membership. Because Worcester's population was less than 75,000, a league vote, in accordance with National League rules, had to be unanimous. The league's sentiment favored Worcester, but the Trojans, still wanting Albany's entry into the league, announced that they would veto Worcester. The National League, with the Trojan-influenced territory rule amendment still fresh in their memory, decided to include people living within a city's four-mile radius as part of its population. With the new rule clarification, Worcester had more than 75,000 residents, eliminating the need for the unanimous vote. The league voted to accept Worcester, and the Albany ballclub was relegated to playing non-league exhibition games against their Troy neighbors.

The Trojans placed a great deal of importance on these games; on May 17, 1880, they risked expulsion from the league by shunning a rescheduled game against Providence to play a game against Albany. The Providence team filed a grievance with the league, and Troy argued, successfully, that the date was originally an off-day on the schedule and that league rules had not been violated. (National League rules stated that teams shunning league games to play non-league exhibitions were subject to expulsion from the league.) After the Troy incident, the rule was clarified to prevent a reoccurrence of this scenario.

The National League version of Troy baseball did not share the same measure of success that the Unions of Lansingburgh did. In fact, they never even came close. Troy's 1879 debut season saw them finish in last place with a 19-56 record, thirty-five-and-a-half games behind the first-place Providence Grays. The 1880 Trojans fared better, finishing in fourth place with a 41-42 record, twenty-five-and-a-half games behind the first-place Chicago White Stockings. However, the 1880 season represented the pinnacle of the Trojan's four years of existence. During their four seasons, the Trojans won 134 games and lost 191, never finishing a season with a winning record and never finishing higher than fourth place.

On September 27, 1881, Troy added yet another entry in the major-league record books by setting an attendance record. In a rain-soaked game against the Chicago White Stockings at Haymakers' Grounds on Center Island, the Trojans drew a major-league-record low of only twelve fans (a record which was later tied). Despite the inclement weather, the Trojan's final game of the 1881 season was played to completion.

In 1882, a rival major league, the American Association, made its debut. Despite the fact that the new league had two fewer teams than the National League, it drew on a metropolitan population base which was significantly greater than that of the National League. In its rookie campaign, the new league outdrew its senior counterpart, with all six of its teams realizing a financial profit. The successful first season of the American Association marked the beginning of the end of major-league baseball in Troy.

Rumors of the team's demise began to circulate during the 1882 season. The National League, wanting to improve its fan base and financial standing against the upstart American Association, suggested eliminating its small-market ballclubs, specifically, Troy and Worcester, in favor of two large-market metropolitan areas, New York and Philadelphia. In late September, the following article appeared in the Troy Daily Times:

"Base ball admirers were surprised this morning by an associated press dispatch from Philadelphia stating that the executive committee of the league had accepted the resignations of the Troys and Worcesters, in accordance with the desire of the league that the membership should consist only of cities large enough to ensure paying patronage. None were more surprised than the directors of the Troys. . ." (Troy Daily Times, September 23, 1882)

The Trojans ended the 1882 season on a victorious note. On September 29, Troy defeated their arch-rivals from Worcester, 10-7, in what would be the city's final National League game. (Their final game, a non-league contest, was played in Philadelphia a few days later.) Despite attempts to keep the team in Troy, including an application for membership in the rival American Association, increasing debt and decreasing attendance had already sealed their fate.

The era of major-league baseball in Troy officially came to an end on December 6, 1882, less than twelve years after the Haymakers played their first professional game. At the National League's annual convention, held in Providence, Rhode Island that year, the Troy Trojans, along with the Worcester Brown Stockings, were dissolved in a 6-2 vote. (Representatives of Troy and Worcester were, needless to say, the only two ballclubs to vote against the measure.) As compensation for the loss of their ballclubs, both cities were granted honorary membership in the National League, a statute which is still recognized to this day.

John B. Day, a New York City tobacco manufacturer who founded both the New York Metropolitans of the American Association and the New York Gothams (later renamed the Giants) of the National League, purchased the rights to the now-defunct Trojans and distributed its players to his two New York teams. Among those players were four of five Trojans who would eventually be enshrined in the Hall of Fame: outfielder Roger Connor, catcher-infielder William "Buck" Ewing, pitcher Timothy Keefe, and pitcher Michael "Smiling Mickey" Welch. (First baseman Dan Brouthers, who played one season with Troy before signing with Buffalo, was the other Trojan Hall of Famer.) These former Trojans were instrumental toward the Giants' pursuit of the National League pennant during the late 1880s, and helped establish the foundation for one of the most successful franchises in the National League.

Although much of Troy's major-league past has disappeared (the plot of land on Center Island where Haymakers' Grounds once stood is now occupied by fuel tanks), remnants of its history still remain. A handsome granite monument, dedicated during Troy's 1992 baseball celebration, resides in Knickerbacker Park in Lansingburgh. Troy's honorary National League membership, granted in 1882, is still effective to this day. But perhaps the most significant of Troy's major-league tributes can be found three-thousand miles to the west where the San Francisco Giants, the direct descendants of the Troy Trojans, play their home games.

Although major-league baseball may never again be played in Troy, this small city on the Hudson River contributed a significant chapter to the Great American Pastime. Professional baseball may not be played here any longer, but its legacy will not be forgotten.