Many a (field of) Indy dreamers has hoped for a major league franchise to lead off from the Circle City. For one fleeting year, 1878, the Indianapolis Blues were members of the National Baseball League — the same league that exists today with the likes of the Cincinnati Reds, the Chicago Cubs, the Pittsburgh Pirates, the LA Dodgers, and others.
According to W. C. Madden in his book “Baseball in Indianapolis,” the Indianapolis Westerns became Indy’s first professional baseball team in 1876. The following year, 1877, the Westerns won the International Association pennant and changed their name to the Indianapolis Blues, in reference to the blue color on their uniforms.
Then in 1878, the Blues made the jump from the International Association to the National Baseball League — but the team didn’t enjoy the same success they had known from the previous year. That year, the National League consisted of only six teams and the Blues finished fifth among them, with a record of 24 wins and 36 loses. The order of finish was: Boston Red Caps, Cincinnati Reds, Providence Grays, Chicago White Stockings, Indianapolis Blues, and Milwaukee Grays. Unfortunately, the Blues folded after one year, due to insufficient funds to pay the player’s salaries.
The starting lineup for the Blues consisted of: Sliver Flint C, Art Croft 1B, Joe Quest 2B, Ned Williamson 3B, Fred Warner SS, Orator Shafert RF, John Clapp LF, and Russ McKelvy CF. The pitching staff consisted of: Edward “The Only” Nolan, Jim McCornmick, Tom Healey, and rounding out the roster were Candy Nelson and Jimmy Hallinan.
The team played their home games at South Street Park on the northeast corner of Delaware and South Streets. The property was later used by Big Four Railroad. Presently, the site is a parking lot for Banker’s Life Fieldhouse.
In the early years of baseball the rules were slightly different than they are today. For example, players didn’t wear gloves. They “barehanded” grounders, fly balls, and throws to bases to tag runners out. Yes, even the catcher had to “bare hand” the ball.
Sports Reporter Anton Scherrer wrote a column called “Our Town” for the Indianapolis Times. In Scherrer’s March 22, 1940 column, he interviewed an early Indy baseball pioneer, Fred Boardman. In 1876, Boardman umpired a Chicago -vs.- Indianapolis game at South Street Park. Scherrer wrote, “Back in those days, the players handled the ball with their bare hands. They couldn’t ‘block’ the balls the way gloved players do today. To stop the ball, they had to ‘go with the ball’ says Mr. Boardman which is why old-time players had more grace and rhythm than the padded players of today. Outside of that, Mr. Boardman finds no fault with modern baseball.”
Incidentally, Albert G. Spalding was the winning pitcher that day for Chicago. Spalding was the founder of the Spalding sporting goods company.
Even though the ball was softer “back in the day” than in today’s game, there were still plenty of gnarled fingers.
Professional baseball wouldn’t surface in Indianapolis again until 1883 when the Indianapolis Hoosiers were formed as an independent team. In 1884, the Hoosiers joined the American Association.
Over the years the Hoosiers moved in and out of various leagues, reorganizing and regrouping. From 1887 to 1889, the Indianapolis Hoosiers made thier way back to the National League. During this time they played their weekday home games at Tinker Park at Tinker Street (now 16th Street) and Tennessee Street (now Capitol Avenue) where Methodist Hospital is located today.
To avoid Blue Laws (a law that restricts or bans certain activities like shopping in observance of religious worship days), the Hoosiers played their 1887 weekend home games at the Indianapolis Park located at New York Street and Arsenal Avenue, and their 1888-89 weekend home games were played at Bruce Park at Bruce Street (now 23rd Street) and College Avenue.
To muck up more confusion about Indy’s reformations and league changes, there were also many minor league teams coming and going during those years.
It was in 1914 that the Indianapolis Hoosiers joined their last professional league — the Federal League, considered to be the third major league at the time. But the Federal League couldn’t compete with the well-established National and American Leagues, and in 1915 the Federal League folded along with Indianapolis’ last professional major league baseball team.
Of course, baseball continued in Indianapolis. Currently, the Indianapolis Indians (a minor league team) is the triple-A farm team for the major league Pittsburgh Pirates of the National League. The Indians are the second oldest minor league baseball club in U.S. history, established in 1902. The Rochester Red Wings are the oldest.
There was scant information about the Indy Blues in the usual research repositories. If you have photos, baseball cards or stories of the Blues, please share them with us in the comments sections below!
Guest columnist Don Lorentz is an Indy “lifer”… He was born and raised on the south side of Indianapolis in Southport and now resides on the north side of the city in Nora. Don is a graduate of Indiana University, Bloomington and received a Master’s Degree in New Media from the IUPUI Campus.