Sunday, April 29, 2012

Nomads and Vagabonds

No fewer than 33 different men played for the Fargo team in 1897.

Major league rosters today are made up of 25 men.
Between injuries and call ups from the minors, 33 is probably close to the number of different men who play for any one team in the modern 162 game major league season. (Incidentally, the National League played a 130-132 game season in 1897.)

So what makes Fargo's number 33 notable? Consider this:
1) In 1897, most games featured no substitutions. Pitchers completing their games was expected. It was an anomaly to see 11 or 12 men used on a team in a given game. More than one relief pitcher being used was unheard of.
2) Fargo only played 55 games! Well less than half of the National League at the time, and about a third of what major leaguers play today.
3) The Red River Valley League season was only a little over 2 months long (late May to the beginning of August).

So why so many different players? A few reasons.
The unstable nature of the minor leagues in the late 19th century produced many team changes. A team or league might fold and a player would go to the next city to play for another team. A player might be picked up by another team for a couple of games when his main team had off days. This happened relatively often with Fargo's players, who traveled to small towns on off days to play with local "town" teams. For Fargo, it wasn't uncommon to pick up a local man for a game or two to fill a need - the man did not necessarily need to be a baseball pro in any sense.

Also, contracts in the minor leagues really didn't exist the way they do today. To be paid well, and be paid reliably, players were very dependent on the gate receipts from the day's game. A player might leave his current club if he found a team nearby that drew well in terms of attendance. Their salaries were far from guaranteed.

And finally, with no real scouting system, a manager might bring a player to town to try him out. If the player wasn't a "fast fielder" or a "comer", he might be let go after a very short stint with the team.

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