He was the first true superstar of professional baseball in Detroit, a slugger who came along and led the city to its first (and only) National League championship ever (yes, National League). At six feet two inches tall, and tipping the scales at nearly 210 pounds, he was a hulking physical specimen compared to his contemporaries. “He was a great hitter,” noted his former teammate John McGraw, the legendary manager of the New York Giants. “One of the most powerful batters of all time.”
We’re talking about Big Dan Brouthers, the Hall of Fame first baseman who played three years for the National League’s Detroit Wolverines from 1886 to 1888.
He was born in Sylvan Lake, New York, on May 8, 1858, little more than a month after the first pencil with an attached eraser was patented, and a few days before Minnesota was admitted as the 32nd state. Brouthers (pronounced BREW-thurz) began his baseball playing career with the National League’s Troy Trojans as a 21 year-old in 1879. Two years later, he had his breakout season as a member of the Buffalo Bisons, hitting .319. He twice led the league in hitting playing in the Queen City, as part of Buffalo’s “Big Four” of Brouthers, Jack Rowe, Hardy Richardson, and Deacon White.
But the Bisons were struggling to survive financially, and after the 1885 season, the “Big Four” were all sold to the Detroit Wolverines for the bargain-basement price of $7,000. It was the most sensational sporting news of the offseason, and instantly put Detroit, the “Paris of the West,” on the baseball map. The Wolverines, who had finished over .500 only once in their five years of existence, were suddenly considered contenders.
The predictions held true. The 1886 National League pennant race was a neck-and-neck battle between Detroit and Cap Anson’s Chicago White Stockings. The Sox, with a record of 90-34, barely edged out the Wolverines, who improved to 87-36. Brouthers topped the circuit in doubles (40) and home runs (11) while batting .370 and striking out only 16 times.
The 1887 season was an unusual one in baseball. That year, the rules were changed so that bases on balls were counted as hits. When the dust settled, Brouthers’s batting average was originally tabulated at .419. By the next summer, however, the new rule was done away with. Walks were no longer counted as hits, and statistics for 1887 were retroactively changed. Still, Brouthers’s season was a monster one: He scored 153 runs in 123 games, again led the league in doubles with 36, to go with 20 triples and a dozen home runs. He knocked in 101, while hitting .338. The Wolverines paced the National League in both batting average (.299) and runs scored (969) in 1887.
The Wolverines went all the way that year, finishing atop the N.L. at 79-45, 3.5 games in front of the runner-up Philadelphia Quakers. The 115,000 residents of the city of Detroit reveled in their first taste of baseball success.
The St. Louis Browns, the champions of the American Association (considered the “other” major league) formally challenged Detroit to a best-of-fifteen postseason tournament, called “The World’s Series.” Detroit pulled out the upset to win the city’s first-ever championship.
The party did not last long. The 1888 Wolverines were decimated by injuries. The salary demands of key players, including Brouthers, were a distraction all summer long. Brouthers had another fine season, hitting .307 and again leading the N.L. in doubles, but Detroit finished a disappointing 68-63, sixteen games off the pace. Attendance fell, plunging the club deep in the red. By the end of the season, the team was forced to close up shop for good. One year removed from a World’s Series championship, the Wolverines were relegated to the dustbin of Detroit sports history.
As for Brouthers, he went on to play another nine seasons of big-league baseball (for eight teams in three different leagues). He won three more batting titles, giving him five for his career, to go along with a lifetime average of .342.
After his tenure in the majors, Brouthers played for several more years in the bush leagues, including a .415 season at age 39 for the Springfield Ponies in 1897. At the ripe age of 46 in 1904, he batted .373 for the Poughkeepsie Colts in the Hudson River League.
Brouthers died in 1932, and was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1945. In 1999, the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) voted him the sixth-greatest player of the 19th Century. He was all of that, but he was also the first superstar ballplayer to earn the adoration from the sports fans of Detroit.