Rays now chasing a guy named Buttercup and 139 years of history

Buttercup Dickerson and the 1884 St. Louis Maroons are watching

April 14th, 2023
Art by Tom Forget

After finishing off a sweep of the Red Sox on Thursday afternoon, the red-hot Tampa Bay Rays are now 13-0 to start the season. That’s tied for the longest win streak to start a year since the 1982 Braves and the 1987 Brewers. It is, however, not the longest streak to ever begin a Major League season.

That record, at 20-0, belongs to Buttercup Dickerson, Sleeper Sullivan and the 1884 St. Louis Maroons.

Although that last sentence sounds like if the Seven Dwarves had a slow-pitch softball team, the Maroons were very much real: They played in the Union Association – newly formed in 1884 and officially designated a Major League by a ruling of the Special Baseball Records Committee in 1968-69. It existed at the same time as the National League and American Association.

As you might have guessed, the Maroons dominated the competition through those first 20 contests.

They opened up the season with a 7-2 victory, outscored opponents 92-19 during an eight-game stretch, won eight more, and routed the then-second-place Boston team on three consecutive days -- 4-1, 13-3 and 16-4. Boston finally ended the Maroons’ streak with an 8-1 victory in the fourth game. St. Louis went on to win the 12-team league with a preposterous 94-19 record – nearly 40 games up on the second-place team. That translates to a ridiculous 135-27 mark over a 162-game season. Their run differential was a still-Major League record +458.

But was the Union Association even a good league? Well, as MLB official historian John Thorn said in much more polite terms, no.

“The Maroons were indeed a fine club, easily outdistancing the second-place finisher in the Union Association (by 35.5 games),” Thorn said via email. “But some contemporaries estimated that they would have finished at best in the middle of the pack in the National League or American Association. The Union Association was that weak.”

Just take a look at some of the clubs. Pittsburgh and Chicago seemingly shared a franchise? The Brewers finished in second at 8-4? The Wilmington Quicksteps?

Screenshot via baseball-reference

"The quality of play beyond the first-place Maroons was poor," Thorn said. "And students of the game tend to dismiss, or downgrade such accomplishments as the club's record of 94-19."

It didn’t help that the founder of the league -- St. Louis millionaire Henry Lucas -- owned the Maroons and just stacked his own team, not worrying about how the other 11 squads might assemble their rosters. What little talent was available and not already playing in the much more popular American and National Major leagues, Lucas snatched up.

"Sure Shot" Fred Dunlap, who never hit above .276 in any other league, hit .412 with 13 homers in 1884. He led the UA in almost every offensive category. Their starting pitchers, including Old Hoss Radbourn's old "friend" Charlie Sweeney, went a combined 88-17 with only one ERA above 2 (a measly 2.01). Like on any winning team, there were also some great nicknames like Orator Shafer and Sleeper Sullivan. But one of the best -- and maybe one of the best all-time -- was Buttercup Dickerson.

The backup outfielder hit a robust .365 that year, but he also, unfortunately, lived up to his nickname and was not able to see that 1884 season to its historic end.

"Buttercup Dickerson is pretty great, even if [his nickname's] origin is mysterious," Thorn said. "One may infer that it had something to do with his reputation as a lush, perhaps lying in the pasture, inebriated; the club expelled him for drunkenness before the season was out."

The league was so lopsided and disorganized that four teams left before the year was out and, after just two teams showed up to the winter meetings after the '84 campaign, the league disbanded. The Maroons joined the National League in 1885, moved to Indianapolis to become the Hoosiers in '86, and then decided to call it quits after just a handful of losing seasons.

So yes, the Rays -- as they head into Toronto this weekend to face the Blue Jays -- are chasing St. Louis' 20-0 start. But, as Thorn agrees, just tying the Braves and Brewers for the modern-day record in a much more competitive, highly pressurized environment, is equally impressive.

No offense, of course, to Buttercup, Sleeper and the rest of the Maroons.