Michigan is known for its minor league baseball. Fans pack the stands each summer to watch teams like the West Michigan White Caps, the Great Lakes Loons, the Lansing Lugnuts, and the Traverse City Beach Bums as the players battle for a minor league championship—but most importantly a chance to play on a major league club.
The history of minor league baseball does not start with these clubs. It goes back to the late 19th century with clubs like the Bay City Independents, the Saginaw Old Golds, and the Grand Rapids Shamrocks. The Independents and the Old Golds played in the Northwest League in 1883 and 1884 with a good fan base and some major league hope of their own.
John G. Clarkson was an up and coming pitcher with the Worcester Red Legs of the National League in 1882. When the Red Legs were forced out of the National League at the end of that season, Clarkson was without a job. Clarkson was known as an intelligent and good-looking player but not without a sense of humor. During one game, he pitched a lemon across the plate to see if the umpire had noticed it was too dark to pitch. Arthur Whitney—Saginaw’s new manager and third baseman—had seen Clarkson play the previous season when Whitney was playing with Detroit and was impressed. He offered Clarkson a spot on the Saginaw club and Clarkson agreed to play.
The Old Golds would go on to finish with 54 wins and 30 losses in 1883—second place in the Northwest League. Clarkson would play in 64 of those games with a .295 batting average. He would stay on for another season in 1884 and accumulated 54 wins between the two seasons as a pitcher. The Saginaw club would fold at the end of the 1884 season.
Clarkson would move on to play for the Chicago White Stockings (now the Cubs) of the National League in 1885 where he won 53 games during that season alone and led them to a World Championship. He would later play for the Boston Beaneaters and the Cleveland Spiders. Clarkson retired when the rule changed in the spring of 1895 that brought the pitchers plate from 50 feet to 60 feet from home plate. By this time he had accumulated 328 wins as a pitcher in his 12 years of major league pitching—not including his 54 wins with Saginaw. He was only 32 years old.
Clarkson would go on own a cigar and snack shop at Center and Washington in Bay City and played local baseball. He was elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in 1963.
The current Saginaw Old Golds and Bay City Independents bring the spirit of John Clarkson and other 19th century minor leaguers with them to Mackinac Island’s Woodfill Park on Saturday, July 7 as they play two other 19th century Michigan teams: the Kent Base Ball Club of Grand Rapids and the Regular Base Ball Club of Mount Clemens. Admission is free but spectators are encouraged to bring a picnic blanket.
10 am – Bay City (MI) Independents vs. Regular BBC of Mount Clemens (MI)
12 pm – Kent BBC of Grand Rapids (MI) vs. Saginaw (MI) Old Golds
2 pm – Loser of Game 1 vs. Loser of Game 2
4 pm – Winner of Game 1 vs Winner of Game 2