A couple of months ago, we looked at the efforts of Indianapolis’ leaders to bring Major League Baseball to the Circle City in the mid 1980s by luring the Pittsburgh Pirates here and transforming them into the Indianapolis Arrow. It seemed as if Indianapolis baseball fans might finally have a big league team of their own and seeing some Arrow flannel on their their new baseball cards! Alas, that effort ultimately fizzled, and it appears that Indy’s hopes of ever landing a Major League team have all but evaporated. However, a bit of web research shows that Indianapolis once (well, at least thrice, really) had a Major League franchise of their own: the Indianapolis Hoosiers. As we’ll see, understanding their place in city and baseball history is not a straightforward exercise by any means.
Actually, Indianapolis’ first Major League team was the Indianapolis Blues, who lasted but one season in the National League, both rising and falling in 1878. By 1884, Indy was once again the home of a big league team, the Indianapolis Hoosiers of the American Association (AA), though some accounts also label this team as the “Blues”. If the AA sounds familiar, it’s probably because the present-day Indianapolis Indians also play in the American Association, which nowadays is a minor league (AAA), serving up farm teams for a host of Major League clubs. Alas, the first incarnation of the Hoosiers didn’t fare much better than their Blues ancestors, folding after one year.
At the same time, though, a National League team was forming in St. Louis, and must have caught the eye of some folks with Indy ties. The Maroons played near the famous Archway from 1884-1886 and then moved to Indianapolis for the 1887 season, becoming, of course, the Hoosiers. This version of the team was a bit more successful, if not in terms of on-field records, then at least in longevity. While the Hoosiers reeled off fairly abysmal won-loss records each season, they did manage to last for three full summers, through 1889, when they folded.
To muddy the waters a bit more, Indianapolis regularly fielded minor league teams during the years around its Major League entries, and, in a tribute to the city’s creative minds of the day, these minors were also dubbed “Hoosiers”:
The first Western League (WL) featured a Hoosiers team. Both the team and the league sprang up and disappeared during the summer of 1885.
The Indianapolis Hoosiers also helped to found the third Western League in 1894. When the WL eventually became the modern American League, in 1901, the Hoosiers were left behind and snuffed from existence.
In a final bit of head-spinning nomenclature gymnastics, two minor leagues were in operation with the name of “Western Association” in 1901. And yes, of course, a new version of the Indianapolis Hoosiers called one of those leagues home. Once again, the league and the team lasted only one season.
After apparently killing off two minor leagues and helping one major league become a bona fide Major League in the span of 16 years, the Indianapolis baseball wizards evidently decided to take a much-deserved breather. In 1914, though, Indy couldn’t resist one last run at big league baseball, as the reformed Indianapolis Hoosiers became a charter member of the Federal League (FL). The FL was formed with the idea of competing directly with the by-then established American and National Leagues. Arguably the most successful of all Hoosiers big league clubs, the 1914 version won the Federal League championship while fielding a couple of future Hall of Famers in Bill McKecknie and Edd Roush. True to their heritage, though, the Hoosiers packed up and moved to Newark for the 1915 season, playing in Jersey as the Pepper. Fittingly, the Federal League folded after that second season.
The storied and serpentine history of the Indianapolis Hoosiers baseball club is fascinating for hardcore baseball fans and for hardcore Hoosiers alike. It is also probably somewhat instructive in understanding why the city hasn’t made a serious run at fielding a Major League Baseball team in nearly 100 years. The proximity of other big league teams and Indiana’s propensity toward basketball and football point to the Triple A status of the Indians as the ceiling for baseball in the Hoosier State. While we can look back wistfully on the now-hushed pursuit of the Indianapolis Arrows, at least the Indianapolis Hoosiers give us a tangible link to baseball’s storied past: the Circle City was, not once, but at least three times, a Major League town and played a not insignificant role in shaping the big league landscape as we know it today.