The Leadville Blues: Colorado’s best “base ball” team

Article by Duane Smith

Local History – July 1997 – Colorado Central Magazine

What baseball team was Colorado’s best ever? Rockies’ fans would pick one of their favorite nines, while old-time fans would argue for one or another of the Denver Bears’ strongest teams. For the nineteenth century, however, no debate is necessary. The 1882 Leadville Blues sweep all before them, as they did their opponents for one glorious season.

You may never have heard of this team, but they were a team with a purpose–that purpose was to salvage Leadville’s reputation. Two years before the Blues took the field, Leadville had suffered a disastrous year for a mining district. Its two major mines–the Little Pittsburg and the Chrysolite–had failed, and a labor dispute wracked the town and district. The boom, the outgoing days of Leadville’s early years, had disappeared in a twinkling.

Looking for ways to improve their civic image and bring back investors, some Leadville movers and shakers decided to field a baseball club. Not just any nine, but the best they could hire; one that would bring a championship home to the “carbonate camp.” The result became the 1882 Leadville Blues.

After selecting non-playing Harry Keily, a “thorough base ballast in theory,” to manage the squad, Leadville got five future or former major leaguers to booster their team. One opponent’s newspaper wondered “if the Blues can handle the pick and shovel as well as they can the bat?” That was never an issue; they brought the players to Leadville for one reason only.

Following the baseball adage, the Blues were strong up the middle. The nucleus of the team included catcher Jake Knowdell, second baseman Dick Phelan, shortstop Joe Tumalty, and outfielders Art Hull and Gomer Price, all major league veterans or players on professional teams in the East. Third baseman Harry Kessler had played in the National League in 187677. Butch Blake,”one of Denver’s best players,” held down first base.

The best of the group, however, was their pitcher and sometime center fielder, Dave Foutz, “a paralyzer and make no mistake.” Foutz would play/manage in the major leagues for thirteen years, achieving the second highest winning percentage (.690) for pitchers in major league history.

With a few additions and deletions during the season, these were the Leadville Blues, a nine made up of “paid men, most of them old professionals from the crack clubs of the eastern league.” The salaries must have been attractive to lure them to 10,100-foot Leadville! Even back then, “Champions cost money,” as Hall of Famer Connie Mack later observed.

Excited Leadvillites caught a case of baseball fever by late May, despite some late winter weather that dumped snow on the town on June 1. The Leadville Daily Herald (May 27) noted, “Leadville has got the base ball fever so bad at present that one of the nine cannot catch a baby falling out of second story window without yelling ‘Judgment.”‘

To help matters along, a stadium was built especially for the Blues, although it was not completely ready until July. Meanwhile, cold, blustery winds chilled spectator and player alike throughout June. Some Blues must have wondered why they had come to this mountainous town!

The early games were against other Leadville teams, a nineteenth century version of spring training. The Blues won nine games, averaging slightly over nineteen runs per game. To make it more competitive, Foutz sometimes pitched for the “Picked Nine,” including the time they actually won a game.

Finally, in July, all was ready and the Blues took to the road against some of the state’ s best teams. A “terrific” downpour halted their first game against the Colorado Spring Reds with the score tied 77. Because of other commitments, they were unable to play the next day. Those commitments took them on to Denver.

There was no love lost between Colorado’s capital city and its major mining town. After a 305 victory over the Browns, the Denver Tribune moaned, “Base ball isn’t very much of a game, anyhow.” The Browns could never match the Blues, losing a total of four games to them over the season. Leadville could crow and it did.

Coming home, they defeated the Reds — or as the local paper quaintly reported, “The Leadvillians gave the boys from the æsthetic city such a drubbing that they will never forget it as long as they are in existence.” Quite a statement considering the final score stood at 81!

July proved a highly successful month. Among the games, previously undefeated Buena Vista fell 421 and the Blues outmatched Bonanza 470. Then, in August, they took on the Longmont Utes, probably the second best team in Colorado. Despite losing one game 41, the Blues proved the better team by winning five other games, with Foutz’ s pitching and hitting leading the way.

Having gained the “championship” of Colorado, the “carbonate base ballasts” decided on an eastern swing. At least one Denver newspaper jealously commented, “It is sincerely and fondly hoped they will miss their way home.”

At first all went well: they defeated the Hastings (Nebraska) Reds and Omaha’s Burlington and Missouris. Then the Blues moved onto Council Bluffs, Iowa. No worry, or so it seemed; shockingly, they lost three straight games. Leadville papers blamed being “home towned,” “unfair” umpiring, and “damnable robbery.” More to the point, however, the Bluffs had imported some of the National League’s Chicago White Stocking players.

After a few more games, back they came, their season nearly over. The Blues record of thirty-four wins, eight losses, and one tie left them with an outstanding winning percentage of .809. They had not revived, however, Leadville’ s fortunes or reputation.

Never again would Leadville achieve such baseball success. The Blues would be resurrected but never on the 1882 scale. The players themselves, except Foutz, drifted into obscurity as the Blues became just another team, at another time, during their gypsy baseball careers.

Their season faded from memory. Without question, town teams were important to a town’s self-image. None proved more successful in Colorado than the Blues. If, in the words of famous manager John McGraw, “the main idea is to win,” the Blues had a tremendous season.

Duane Smith teaches history at Fort Lewis College in Durango, and has written many books of Colorado and Western history, among them a biography of Horace Tabor and Rocky Mountain Mining: The Urban Frontier. Most recently, he contributed the text for They Came to Play: A Photographic History of Colorado Baseball.