The National League Blacklisting of 1881

“Listen, we’re just sort of winging this as we go along.”

~1800s Major League Baseball Commissioners


We’ve been talking a lot about baseball in the past several months, which comes as a bit of a surprise considering that the sport is a topic we have very rarely discussed over the past four years. Yes, it’s America’s Pastime, but it’s also kind of boring from an outside perspective.

But we stumbled upon something when looking up the silliest Major League Baseball team names that we could find during their early years—before baseball was a bankable commodity, they pretty much let anyone pick up a bat and play for (not much) money.  That led to crazy ballplayers, goofy names, and that one time where a guy got paid a full professional baseball salary to show up to an empty stadium every day and play himself in a disbanded league.

Baseball during the 19th, and somewhat during the start of the 20th, century was at times hilariously inept, completely marginalized, and interesting as fuck. So we’re going to look into our high tech time machine (read as: Googling shit while drunk) to bring you another chapter from the early annals of America’s most interesting sport that involves players standing still for the majority of each game.

The National League Blacklisting of 1881

 chicagos 1881

At the top of this article, you saw a picture of William Hulbert. Hulbert was one of the founders of the National League, which was the first official “major league” in the existence of baseball.

He was the president of the Chicago White Stockings, famous for saying shit like, “I’d rather be a lamppost in Chicago than a millionaire in any other city” which just got posted on the Facebook wall by some Rogers Park teenager who’s really into Nelson Algren.

He also was a hard ass who tried to make the league “respectable.” He kicked out teams that would just stop playing before the end of the season because they didn’t feel like it (yes that was a thing that happened fairly often) while limiting the league to eight teams, making it an exclusive professional league, as opposed to the National Association which would let any club, no matter how small the market, compete for the championship by paying a $10 fee.

Oh, also, in 1879, he kicked out Cincinnati’s team because they sold beer and played on Sundays. That was enough of an offense to kick out a whole team.

This was the state of baseball in 1881 when, on August 21st, the National League decided to, for the first time, officially blacklist a group of players, bestowing that inauspicious honor upon Edward Sylvester “The Only” Nolan, Sargent Perry “Sadie” Houck, Lipman Emanuel “Lip” Pike, Lewis Pessano “Buttercup” Dickerson, Mike Drogan, Bill Crowley, John Fox, Lew Brown, Emil Gross, and Ed Caskin.  Officially, they were being punished for “confirmed dissipation and general insubordination.”

Unofficially, it was mainly because they were drunks or were playing suspiciously bad (as this was still during the era where throwing a ballgame was more lucrative than actually earning a salary playing baseball).

babe ruth drinking and fishing

Considering that this is one of the most famous ball players of all time, we’d imagine you must have had to drink a LOT to get kicked out of the league for that.

For some of these players, there isn’t really much to discuss. John Fox, for example, was reinstated for the 1883 season (in fact, every member of the list eventually got reinstated) and was a mediocre bullpen pitcher, and we don’t really know specifically why he got blacklisted (but it was probably because he drank a shitload).

Ed Caskin, Lew Brown, and Bill Crowley similarly were minor players who were reinstated for the 1883 season. However, the rest of the blacklisted players were downright notorious, or at least interesting enough that we can piece together some stories for you so that this article is more interesting than “ten guys couldn’t play baseball for a year because they drank a bunch.”

For example, The Only Nolan, who we have mentioned previously in our article about goofy names, made it very clear that he didn’t really give much of a shit about playing baseball. He was born in Canada, but we suppose he wasn’t Canadian enough because he debuted a full year before Bill Phillips, who is considered “the first Canadian to play in the major leagues.”

We call bullshit on that, internet. The Only Nolan played in 1878 for the Indianapolis Blues as a pitcher, at one point throwing a two-hitter that somehow saw him giving up five runs behind 11 errors and passed balls. He started 38 games that season before getting kicked off the team (and out of the league) in spectacular fashion.

That season, he told his team he couldn’t meet up with them because he had a funeral to go to. Getting permission to take a leave of absence, he then used that time to skip the funeral (which was fake and made up by him) and get absolutely shithouse drunk.  Because this is America, goddamn it, and that’s how we do.

the only nolan

Pretty sure he was drunk for this photo too.

It took him three years to get reinstated by the league, and by the time he got back he wasn’t doing himself many favors, getting fined $100 for showing up late to a game (to be fair, it’s because the train he was on had an accident, but then again that probably was just his excuse for another bender) and generally rabblerousing and carousing and whatever fun old-timey terms they used to describe getting wiggidy-wrecked on the reg, so it came as no surprise when he was included on the National League’s blacklist.  He was also reinstated in 1883, and played three more seasons where he, frankly, kind of sucked.

Another player to find himself out of the league for a year was Mike Dorgan, who doesn’t have the colorful reputation and as best as we can tell, got blacklisted under suspicion of throwing games, since he was the player-manager for the last place Worcester Ruby Legs for a portion of the season, going 24-32 while teammates with fellow blacklistee Buttercup Dickerson.

His suspension was arguably the most surprising, since at the time he was an extremely well regarded player, considered by some to be one of the best all-around players in the league. It’s just incredible to think of baseball during a time where one of the best players in the game could get kicked out of the league just because there’s some unsubstantiated suspicion that he was somehow gambling on his team.

pete rose

Oh, right.

Emil Gross, as far as we can tell, was probably kicked out for being so bad at fielding it was suspicious.  He was one of the best catchers in the league in 1880, and had a noticeable drop-off (though a higher batting average) the year before his suspension, and he just so happened to be a very good hitter who was incredibly prone to errors.

In his career, he had 291 hits… and 242 errors. That’s…special. While he was reinstated in 1883 and went on to play two more seasons, he was the one blacklisted player who didn’t really need the sport, as he was an established real estate mogul in Chicago, and inherited $100,000 from his mother, which in the 1800s was, by our calculation, all of the money that existed in the Midwest.

Sadie Houck had an extensive career (with a shitload of teams) after his reinstatement in 1883, playing solid defense to make up for his average offensive abilities until 1887.  The reason for his blacklisting, however, is not hard to figure out—he was “addicted to drink” and so found himself kicked out of the league.

The National League actually warned him to cut back on the boozing a bit a few months before handing down the (what ultimately amounted to a) suspension, to which we’d like to imagine that Houck responded, “How about you cut back on being a fucking pussy.”  We’re pretty sure that didn’t happen, but we like to picture it, considering that the man looked like, well, this.

sadie houck

If you stare into his eyes long enough you’ll start slurring your words.

Lip Pike was another famous player who was blacklisted for fairly hilarious reasons.  He was the first Jewish professional player, and one of the first professional players period, having gotten his start in the National Association of Base Ball Players as an amateur.

He was known as one of the best home run hitters in early baseball history—though he only hit 21 as a professional, he lead the lead in homers four times (hitting four home runs in three seasons, and seven home runs in one. That should give you an idea of how much talent was around in the league when it started. Four home runs is enough to be the league leader).

Now, when he first started playing the sport, before major league baseball existed, he at one point did hit six home runs in a game, but the point is that despite his low career total, he was a very famous slugger at the time.

His career was winding down in 1878, and he did not play the following three seasons, instead spending his time as a haberdasher. He made hats until 1881, when he was called up to play five games for the same Worcester team that counted Mike Dorgan and Buttercup Dickerson on their roster, and which finished last place in the league.

He was now 36, and played about as poorly as a 36 year old out of the league for three years would, hitting .111 with no extra base hits. His play was so bad that he got included in the blacklist because they thought that the only explanation would be that he was trying to throw games.

That is both hilarious in terms of “historically bad seasons” and kind of insulting given that the league basically told him, “No way you’re really this bad, cheater, that’s it, you’re banned!” Pike would only play one more game after that, in 1887, making him the oldest player in baseball at 42, though the game was more of a sendoff than anything else.

The Worcester Ruby Legs were so bad in 1881 that they had two players, Lip Pike and Mike Dorgan, suspended over suspicion of throwing games.

But the third member of that squad, Buttercup Dickerson, was not included for those reasons.  In fact, in 1881, Buttercup Dickerson had a strong season, batting a respectable .316.  No, Dickerson was blacklisted because he was rivaled only by The Only Nolan for his debauchery off the field.


Okay, maybe just everyone looked drunk in 1800s photos.

He’s largely credited with being the first Italian-American to play in the majors (though that fact has been disputed), but he was best known for being a lush of historic proportions. He was referred to as the “immortal and ever thirsty Lew Dickerson” and was suspended multiple times for drinking too much.

His reputation was a black mark on the league, and for that they suspended him, though he would also, like everyone except for Pike, return for the 1883 season. Shortly after being blacklisted, it was reported that a writer tried to get him to agree to stop drinking, which Dickerson did, on the condition that such an event would occur “when the breweries stop running.”

Clearly he didn’t really learn anything from his experience, because our favorite story about Dickerson comes from after he was blacklisted for a season. In 1884, Dickerson bounced around a few teams in the American Association and the Union Association, which included one of the best team transfers in the history of sports.

Playing for the St. Louis Maroons, he disappeared in Baltimore during a road trip and began going around, getting shitfaced with friends. Two days later, he appeared to his old team…playing Left Field against them for the Baltimore Orioles.

That’s right, he got so drunk he just straight up joined the opposing team.

At the end of the day, the Blacklisting of 1881 was a strange little blurb in the history of the National League. All the players were eventually reinstated, none went on to be Hall of Fame talents, and a few decades later the sport would still be rocked by a gambling scandal based on far more than, “This team is bad, and some of these players are drunks.”

But it does paint a goofy cast of characters that seems to be right in line with the state of baseball in the 19th century, and we frankly couldn’t be happier to know about it.


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