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Colorado baseball history, Part 4: Miner Leaguers

Colorado Rockies news and links for Friday, February 11, 2022

With the lockout holding strong and the start of spring training and possibly the Rockies season opener on March 31 in Los Angeles against the Dodgers in doubt, it’s hard to start previewing 2022 season. So instead of looking ahead, this series will look to the past at the vast and diverse history of baseball in Colorado. Part 1 looked 2022 Hall of Famer Bud Fowler and the shifting color line. Part 2 looked at the Denver Post Tournament and its role in integrating MLB. Part 3 looked at the Colorado Silver Bullets.

When the Rockies played their first game in 1993, the population of the state was 3.56 million.

Twenty-nine seasons later, Colorado’s population has exploded to 5.81 million. Many of those people are fans who fill the seats and the Rooftop at Coors Field to watch baseball or sunsets.

Back in 1860, the population of the western Kansas Territory, which become the Colorado Territory one year later, was 34,277. Rumors of gold had brought many adventurers to the Rocky Mountains, but only small amounts of gold were found around Denver. Things changed in 1859 when the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush (later dubbed the Colorado Gold Rush) hit, inspiring prospectors to hike into the hills in hopes of striking it rich.

Many came from the East Coast and brought baseball with them. It was a perfect game for people who didn’t have much. All you needed was a semi-flat playing field, a ball, and a bat since gloves weren’t yet commonplace.

As mines popped up in Central City, Leadville, Silverton, and beyond, populations went from a few dozen up to 10,000. Miners started to play in their free time as a way to have fun and have a break from their challenging and dangerous jobs. Baseball also built camaraderie.

As hundreds of mines opened with silver, lead, coal, copper, and more hitting big, mining companies began to sponsor teams, buying uniforms and equipment, and even hiring former pro and semi-pro players, according to a 2021 “Miner Leaguers” exhibit by the National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum in Leadville. As the Leadville Herald reported, players who were good ballplayers were given easier jobs in the mine. Some players were so good, they could have gone pro, but instead stayed underground as miners because they could make more money.

Baseball was rising in popularity across the nation with troops playing in downtime in the Civil War. When the war ended, even more people headed west looking for a new start. In 1870, the transcontinental railroad finally made it to Denver, making the journey even easier. By 1880, Colorado had become a state and the population erupted to 194,000.

This all set the stage for the Leadville Blues, one of the top mining teams in Colorado history. In 1882, the team’s first year, they went 34-8-1 (.809 winning percentage) and won the state’s championship thanks in part to players on loan from the eastern leagues. Leadville built a stadium for the team and fans turned out for games. It helped that the Blues averaged 19 runs per game in their first nine games of the season against other Leadville squads.

In a trip to Denver, the Blues beat the Denver Browns four times, including a 30-5 victory that led the Denver Tribune to write “Baseball isn’t very much of a game, anyhow,” according to the Leadville Sports Hall of Fame. Leadville beat the Colorado Springs Reds and walloped previously undefeated Buena Vista 42-1 – in a baseball game! They then traveled out of state, beating teams in Iowa and Nebraska, but did fall to Council Bluffs, who were rumored to have recruited several Chicago White Stockings players for the contest.

One of Leadville’s best players was Dave Foutz, a dominating pitcher who also played center field. After leading the Blues to the state title, Foutz was one of many miners who did make the jump to professional ball. After spending 1883 in the minors in Michigan, he signed with the St. Louis Browns where he played four years and won two pennants. He then played nine more years for the Brooklyn Bridegrooms, finishing his pro career with a 2.84 ERA and .690 winning percentage in 251 appearances.

Foutz’s brother, John, stayed in Leadville, leading the Blues to a Colorado State League Championship in 1889. John later was elected Leadville’s mayor and played host to a presidential visit by Benjamin Harrison in 1892, one year before the silver crash and the beginning of the end of many Colorado mining baseball teams.

The mining teams elevated the game and fostered a lot of baseball fans along the way. Even as many of the mining operations shrunk, lots of players relocated to Denver, Pueblo, and beyond to play on the dozens of semi-pro and professional teams.

Even though it took another 100 years for an MLB team to arrive in Colorado, baseball was a thriving game before Colorado even earned its statehood.

With MLB playing games at Iowa’s Field of Dreams, another novelty game should be hosted in Leadville as a tribute to the Blues and the other mining teams. Just imagine the commentary and home run distances at an elevation of 10,151 feet. Ryan McMahon hit the longest homer for the Rockies in 2021 when he smashed a two-run homer 478 feet to the second level at Coors Field on May 15 vs. the Reds. How far would that fly at 10,000 feet?

In 2018, History Colorado ­­put on the “Left on the Field: Colorado’s Pro and Amateur Baseball Teams” exhibit. Great stories chronicling several Colorado teams and their photos can still be found on its website.

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MLB commissioner Rob Manfred: Losing games to lockout would be ‘disastrous outcome’ | MLB.com

Despite the distance between MLB and the MLBPA feeling as long as Ryan McMahon’s 478-foot homer, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred optimistically spoke on Thursday about not believing there will be a delay to the start of the 2022 regular season. The lockout has already passed 70 days, making it the second-longest work stoppage in MLB history. No games have been canceled yet with the season openers set for March 31. Manfred added that missing games would be “a disastrous outcome.” MLB will be making a proposal to the MLBPA on Saturday when the two sides are set to meet next.

How will universal designated hitter impact the Rockies? | Denver Post ($)

Other news from Rob Manfred’s speech was that he expects the universal DH and the elimination of draft-pick compensation to be part of the new collective bargaining agreement. In light of the unsurprising news, Patrick Saunders asked Rockies GM Bill Schmidt about the Rockies plans for Colorado’s DH. In another unsurprising response, Schmidt said the Rockies will not be bringing in a free agent to serve as DH, but plans instead to rotate C.J. Cron, Charlie Blackmon, and other “guys internally.” On the bright side, Schmidt didn’t rule out bringing in a free agent for other positions.

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