Quick-stepping Into History

Rob Kalesse

Rob Kalesse

, Community

A new book chronicles the quick rise and precipitous fall of Delaware’s only Major League team

Freelance journalists are always on the lookout for the next great story, just as Major League hitters look for a 3-0 fast ball down the middle. For writer Jon Springer, 1989 University of Delaware grad and assistant editor at Out & About in the 1990s, that fast pitch was delivered in 2003. It came in the form of the Wilmington Quicksteps, the lone big-league baseball team in the history of the First State.

Springer wrote an in-depth story about the Quicksteps for the March 2003 issue of O&A, and now, 15 years later, that story has spawned a book: Once Upon a Team: The Historic Rise and Epic Fall of the Wilmington Quicksteps. Released last month by Sports Publishing, its 200-and-change pages chronicle Wilmington’s storied squad, its players and its place in local lore.

Springer, who has lived in New York since 2003, says he randomly came across the Quicksteps in a Manhattan book store when he picked up a copy of A Clever Base-Ballist: The Life and Times of John Montgomery Ward. The book included a passage in which Ward, a baseball player and manager from the late 19th century, spoke of his minor league team from Lock Haven, Pa., playing the Wilmington team. In the story, the Quicksteps were referred to as the “U.S. Amateur Champions of Baseball,” which Springer later found to be true of the 1883 squad, rather than the 1884 team that eventually went pro.

Playing .800 Ball

“Having lived in Wilmington for four years prior to that point, I was fascinated by the idea of a professional baseball team in the city back then, or ever, for that matter,” says Springer. “I knew how much effort it took to get the Blue Rocks franchise here in 1993, so I had a feeling that Wilmington’s pro baseball history was spotty at best. When I found out that the Quicksteps only lasted one year at the pro level after finishing with a record over .800 as a minor league team, I knew there was more to the story.”

In Once Upon a Team, Springer explains how clubs changed year after year, cobbling together players of all skill levels, and sometimes changing leagues or even folding due to low attendance and financial struggles. In the fledgling days of amateur and professional sports, a functioning team only survived if it was properly funded and could find a viable place to play. 

“Each season was different,” Springer says. “You had a mix of aspiring pro players and guys whose only alternative was a low-paying factory job. Players were drinkers and carousers looking for any way out of working a ‘real’ job. But the ’83 team had an excellent manager named Joe Simmons, who knew how to select good players. He brought in guys like Oyster Burns and Dan Casey, who would go on to eventually play in the majors.” (Casey, by the way, would later serve as the inspiration for Ernest Thayer’s legendary poem, “Casey at the Bat.”)

That ’83 squad would win 50 of 62 games, constituting the “epic rise” of the club that played its games at Wilmington Ball Grounds (also known as the Union Grounds Ball Park at what today is the corner of Banning Parkway and Lancaster Avenue, just off South Union Street). The Quicksteps even held their own against Major Leagues teams who passed through the northeast corridor.

“Because of the city’s geographical advantage, being so close to Philly and Baltimore, and on the way to New York and D.C., they had scrimmages with some pretty good big-league teams,” says Springer. “They even beat the mighty Brooklyn Atlantics (before they became the Dodgers), so they proved they were capable of playing with the best.”

A .111 ‘Winning’ Percentage

The following season, however, that taste of success turned sour when the franchise moved up to the Union League, a professional rival to the early National League. That precipitated the “historic fall” described in Springer’s book. The team became embroiled in a player war between the two leagues, which included contract disputes, teams stealing players, crooked umpires, and even one player falling down an elevator shaft (some teammates believed he was drunk at the time). They posted a .111 “winning” percentage—the lowest ever recorded at the professional level—were quickly replaced by another team and died of financial ruin shortly thereafter.

Despite the unfortunate ending to the Quicksteps story, Springer paints a romantic picture of Wilmington before the turn of the century. Older city residents and Delaware historians alike will recognize plenty of familiar names and places, including Delaware Chief Justice Edward W. Gilpin and socialite Henry Tatnall, as well as companies like Repauno Chemical (a precursor to du Pont) and Harlan & Hollingsworth (an old railroad and trolley car manufacturer).

For Springer, a lifelong New York Mets fan who has written a book about that team, it’s the game’s nuance and the quirky stories and characters that he always found captivating while growing up on Long Island.

“The rules of the game, the uniforms and corresponding numbers, and even the stadiums where the teams played were always things that piqued my interest growing up,” he says. “Even the Civil War’s influence on the game fascinated me, and is reflected in the Quicksteps name, which refers to a double-time march that soldiers used on the battle field.”

The hardcover book is available on Amazon for $24.99, while a Kindle version goes for just under $15. Springer says it is also available at bookshops in the Wilmington area, including Barnes & Noble.

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