Arriving in Milwaukee
May 23rd, 1889
Sigurd Olsen had a great career in front of him. At the age of 19, the Philadelphia Quakers offered him cash to play baseball. The great Harry Wright became the manager and heard of a raw diamond somewhere in Wisconsin. This was in 1884.
After the great collapse of 1884, when the National League and the American Association folded, the contract offer was off the table. Olsen returned to his parents’ farm in the middle of nowhere, about 20 miles northeast of Madison, Wisconsin, where he had to hear it all from his father. His father warned him more than once that a game doesn’t secure a living. He and his father never got along, and the comeback only lasted one year. Because in 1886, baseball enthusiasts in Milwaukee announced a semi-professional league and Sigurd Olsen signed up immediately.
The Madison Mad Hats welcomed him with open arms. Because of his boyish appearance, everyone called him Kid. Or Sick, because Sigurd was challenging to pronounce. And a few called him Sick Kid Olsen.
It was time for the first road trip of the season. The Mad Hats suffered six losses. Three against the Oshkosh Farmers and three against the Saint Paul Pigs. The biggest ballclub of the Northern Central League wanted to extend their six-game winning streak. It would be difficult to beat the Milwaukee Sailors this season. Because so far, they were 6-0.
Their team name was more or less a joke, Olsen chuckled. Although the ballpark was next to the Menomonee River, it was more or less sewer for the slaughterhouses on the other side who dumped their waste in the river. This is what his teammates smelled as they approached Fowler Street.
The Ballpark at Fowler Street
“Not bad,” Hershel Hackman, the Mad Hats’ first baseman coughed in a quick moment of amazement. Hackman was a butcher by trade and 44 years old. It’s said that he was in the war as well, but he never talked about it. Often, he was considered the grandfather of the team. He voluntarily took over this role. “A fine ballpark it is. The first season for these grounds.”
The first three seasons of NCL baseball, the Sailors had a few homes. It all started in 1884. The Milwaukee Grays, a Northwestern League team constructed a stadium which drew many people to their games. At the same time, they hoped that the numbers might lead to an offer by the National League or American Association. But the Big Collapse of 1884 ended the dreams. The Northwestern League folded just weeks after the major leagues, and no new league filled the vacuum. A year later, the city demolished the Wright Street Grounds after prospects for a new league continued to look bleak.
City officials regretted their decision when they approved a request to construct a new ballpark only eleven months after flattening the Wright Street Grounds. From 1886 until 1888, the Sailors used old and smaller ballparks, but nothing met the requirements of the front office. Now, the group of players stood with awe in front of the Ballpark at Fowler Street like a school class with their teacher, who would be Hackman in this case.
Finally, someone welcomed the team and pointed to a gate on the northern side of the ballpark. The Kid almost forgot about the disgusting smell, but it was nearly gone when they disappeared in the inside of the ballpark. As they walked through the hallway, the scent of piss tickled his nose hairs.
“The Milwaukeeans placed the away team’s locker room where it’s supposed to be,” he commented on the hospitality. “Right next to an open room with a tiled wall and a drain. An open urinal.”
The same smell penetrated the locker room, too. One more reason for the team to quickly put on the uniforms, maybe have a quick glass of whiskey or other spirits to numb the taste buds.
On the field
Warming up was something different to the tiny ballpark in Madison which theoretically held 1,000 people, but the attendance averaged at 800 in the first games. Milwaukee had a population of way more than 100,000 and about 2,500 can squeeze into the stands, which they might as well did.
One curiosity was the Bulge. On both corners of the outfield, the distance measured 320 feet. Centerfield had a 435 feet distance, left-center field 360 feet, right-center field 350 feet but there was an anomaly in the wooden left-center-center-outfield barrier. One industrial building along the river had some piece of infrastructure sticking out which caused the fence to lose its round appearance for 30 feet before it continued towards the deep center. Outfielders on both teams would have to find a strategy for it.
Rip Johnston stepped up to the plate. Originally from Milwaukee, he found employment in Madison before the NCL came alive. Excellent legs and eyes, but Otto Dell struck him out with four pitches.
“Watch out for his slider, Hersh,” Rip told Hershel Hackman, who would bat after John Dahlem. Johann Dahlem, a young Dakotian and son to German immigrants, knew how to swing a bat. Although his fate was the same as Johnston’s. Two quick strikes, a foul ball, and a nasty slider.
Olsen paid close attention to Otto Dell’s pitches and Hershel’s batting. The old butcher was a smart man. He knew how to play the pitcher.
And he knew how to do it this time. In the Kid’s time with the Mad Hats, he hadn’t seen Hershel swing left-handed often, which was a rarity in the Madison ballclub. Today, Madison’s pitcher Dick Hartmann was the only natural left-handed batter in the lineup. The first pitch was a ball, then two strikes right down the middle, and the curveball was too low for the 2-2 count.
Another low curve and Hershel trotted to first base. The crowd didn’t like the walk, Hershel, or Sigurd. It was tough to understand them, although the stands where relatively close to home plate.
Now it was time for the Sick Kid. Could he send Hershel home? Dell started his motion, and there was a high and inside fastball. Olsen had to dodge the pitch.
“Welcome to Milwaukee, buddy,” the catcher snarled. Thanks, Olsen thought but ignored him otherwise.
The next pitch painted the inside beautifully, the Kid thought, but the umpire ruled it another ball. 2-0. He would bring one in now. Patiently, he waited for the first strike. Another fastball which hit the same spot and, finally, the first strike.
Olsen took a deep breath and glanced at the Milwaukeeans who followed the game. Mostly workers with their kids, he noticed. And most workers had a beer with them. Probably some kids, too. Isn’t it a beautiful game, he thought.
Dell tossed the ball. The Kid could read the ball, and it seemed that everything happened in slow-motion. Olsen swung at the ball and knocked it hard to center. The wind drove it slightly to leftfield. No outfielder would reach it. It bounced once, twice, and it hit the Bulge.
The centerfielder almost got to it, but the ball now sprang back to centerfield. Hershel was already rounding third base, and Olsen just touched second when the centerfielder slipped. The rightfielder, who barely moved in this play, dashed towards the ball. By the time he picked it up, Hershel picked up Olsen’s bat, and Olsen easily beat the throw at the home plate.
As the Kid jogged back towards the bench, he noticed people battling just behind the Mad Hats dugout. “What happened?” John Dahlem looked at him, then at the crowd, and answered, “Minor leagues, man. Someone said something about us, one of our followers said something about them, and then the fight began.” Olsen sat down on the bench. People behind the dugout began hammering on the wooden boards dividing the players and the crowd. Insults over insults. Isn’t it a beautiful game, he thought.