Due to circumstances outside the white lines of the baseball diamond, the Detroit Wolverines, the professional precursor to the Tigers, became the first major league team to use a four-man pitching rotation for any stretch if time, mostly in response to a terrible season. It all happened in 1885 when Detroit was going through a renaissance that resulted in the city being dubbed “The Paris of the West.”
The Wolverines were members of the National League, a circuit of eight ballclubs still loosely connected through a tenuous sporting agreement. Professional “base ball” (as it was then known), was still very much an east coast endeavor: only Detroit, Chicago, and St. Louis had teams west of Buffalo, New York. Fans in the midwest loved baseball too, but in Detroit it was a relatively knew professional diversion, and somewhat of a novelty.
The Wolverines were a dreadful team in ’85, managed by a fellow named Charlie Morton, an Ohio native who made his name in Toledo. Morton and his club were overmatched in the National League, with powerhouses like the Chicago White Stockings and New York Giants dominating the loop. After somehow manging to win their first three games, the Wolverines lost 13 straight, and 28 of their next 30. They were foundering, not only on the field, but at the box office and financially. Detroit’s population was still quite modest, and many felt the city could not support a major league team.
But in June, team owner Frederick Kimball Stearns took bold action. Stearns was the second generation of the Frederick Stearns & Co., a leading pharmaceutical manufacturer in Detroit. He had a keen interest in architecture and baseball, and he spent lavishly on both. In June, with his team languishing, Stearns negotiated a deal to purchase Bill Watkins, the manager of Indianapolis in the rival Western League, to replace Morton. But Stearns didn’t stop there – he also purchased the contract of several Indianapolis players, most notably pitchers Charles “Lady” Baldwin and Dan Casey. The transaction was approved by the National League owners because most of them saw Stearns as a maverick who could help them deflate the Western League. Few were really concerned that Detroit would be a serious threat.
When Watkins arrived in Detroit with Casey, Baldwin and company, he found he had more than enough players on his hands. He also found that he had a natural field leader in outfielder Ned Hanlon, a future Hall of Fame skipper who would make his name as the leader of the great Baltimore teams a decade later. But in Detroit, Stearns wanted Watkins to manage the front office, leaving Hanlon to serve as the unofficial player/manager of the Wolverines. With the infusion of the players from Indy, Detroit had two starting pitchers already on their roster: Charles Getzien and George Wiedman. Over the next few weeks, Hanlon shuttled the quartet in and out of his lineup in a fairly steady pattern. Though no one really knew it at the time, it was the first instance of a four-man rotation being used in pro ball. For much of the first few decades of baseball, teams had used one, two, or three starters, as pitching was a less stressful act than we know it to be today. Primarily, the job of a pitcher was to get the ball over the plate so they other team would hit it in fair territory and get himself out.
According to research by baseball historian Frank Vacarro, published in 2011 in the Baseball Research Journal, the Wolverines used the four-man rotation for several weeks, the first time it had been used for such a length of time. The four pitchers at Watkins’ disposal were unique in their virtues: southpaw Casey was a tall, muscular pitcher with a great sense of humor; Getzien, also a lefty, was known for his remarkable control and his excellent curveball; Baldwin was regarded as the mosr talented of them all and earned his nickname “Lady” because he didn’t smoke, drink, or curse; stocky “Stump” Wiedman was a remarkable athlete who never seemed to tire of throwing the ball. It should be noted that the four-man rotation was not the result of any radical new strategy or advancement in baseball thinking, it was simply because the Detroit club had an excess of hurlers. In the 19th century most teams carried just enough players to field a team, extra arms were very rare. In the early 20th century most teams would rely on the four-man rotation, not only because they wished to avoid injury to their best pitchers, but because they could carry more good pitchers on their roster.
History aside, Stearns made his big splash in August when he spent more of his money. This time he bought an entire team! The Buffalo Bisons were struggling to stay afloat, and in danger of folding. Stearns swooped in and bought the club, immediately transferring the best players from the Bisons to his Wolverines. This included the “Big Four” of Dan Brouthers, Hardy Richardson, Jack Rowe, and Deacon White. With those stars now in a Detroit uniform, the Wolverines went 16-10 down the stretch, though still finishing in sixth place.
With Watkins in charge, the bevy of starting pitchers, most notably Baldwin and Getzien (known as Pretzels), and the booming bats of Brouthers, White, and Sam Thompson (all future Hall of Famers), Detroit soared to second place in 1886. In 1887 the Wolverines won their only NL pennant, also defeating St. Louis of the American Association in the “World’s Series” of that era.
Unfortunately, Stearns abandoned his baseball efforts in 1888 when the money he was losing piled too high. Detroit wasn’t yet a big enough city to support a professional baseball team, and Stearns had also overextended himself. The Wolverines folded and Detroit didn’t get a “major league’ club again for a dozen years, when Detroit’s entry in the Western League went big time in 1900, eventually joining the American League in 1901.