While the Detroit Tigers hold the record as the oldest continuous one-name, one-city franchise in the American League (debuting as one of the league’s “Classic Eight” charter clubs in 1901), they were not the first team to play major league baseball in the Motor City. That distinction actually goes to the Detroit Wolverines of the late 19th-century National League, which took to the field for the first time against the visiting Buffalo Bisons on May 2, 1881 in front of a curious crowd of 1,286 at Recreation Park – land now occupied by today’s Detroit Medical Center in the city’s Midtown.
Playing in what was then one of the best professional ballparks in America – and during a pre-automotive era when Detroit was known more sumptuously as the "Paris of the West" – the Wolverines traipsed through eight seasons of big league ball, including its final three under the brash and ambitious ownership of pharmaceutical baron Frederick Stearns that produced 1887 National League and “World Championship” titles, boasted a gaggle of the sport’s best players (including four eventual Hall of Famers), and rankled competing owners with unprecedentedly aggressive approaches to raiding talent and splitting gate receipts.
The Wolverines were also a product of their time: an era when baseball’s formative transition to professionalism was still rough and uncharted, players were rowdy and roguish, and owners were eager to profit by whatever means necessary – including collusively restricting player movement, a mechanism that would continue to haunt the sport well into the next millennium.
Author/journalist Brian “Chip” Martin (The Detroit Wolverines: The Rise and Wreck of a National League Champion) regales host Tim Hanlon with the curious tale of Detroit’s first and oft-forgotten major league baseball franchise. Plus: the immortal "Pretzels" Getzein!
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