Referred to by some baseball historians as “the Babe Ruth of his era,” Big Dan Brouthers is recognized as the first great slugger in baseball history. Perhaps the finest all-around hitter of the 19th century, Brouthers led his league in virtually every major offensive statistical category at some point during his Hall of Fame career that began with the Troy Trojans in 1879 and ended with a brief appearance with the New York Giants in 1904. A five-time batting champion, Brouthers also finished first in his league in on-base percentage five times, and he topped his circuit in slugging percentage on seven separate occasions, including six consecutive times from 1881 to 1886.
Born in Sylvan Lake, New York on May 8, 1858, Dennis Joseph Brouthers played organized baseball throughout his youth, starting off playing on the local sandlots before graduating to the semipro Wappingers Falls Actives in New York. Brouthers’ professional playing career almost ended before it began when he was involved in a tragic accident while playing for the Actives on July 7, 1877. While running the bases, the 19-year-old Brouthers collided at home plate with Harlem Clippers catcher Johnny Quigley. Knocked unconscious from the collision with the 6’2″, 207-pound Brouthers, Quigley suffered a traumatic head injury and died a little over a month later. The incident was subsequently investigated by local authorities, who ended up clearing Brouthers of any wrongdoing.
Brouthers made his major league debut with the National League’s Troy Trojans almost two years later, on June 23, 1879. However, the team returned him to the minor leagues shortly thereafter, after the first baseman committed 34 errors in his first 39 games. Brouthers briefly resurfaced with the Trojans the following year, appearing in only three games before being released by the team for good.
Signed by the Buffalo Bisons prior to the start of the 1881 campaign, Brouthers quickly became a member of Buffalo’s “Big Four,” joining fellow standouts James “Deacon” White, Hardy “Old True Blue” Richardson, and Jack Rowe in the Bison starting lineup. In his first full season, Brouthers batted .319 and led the National League with eight home runs and a .541 slugging percentage. The big first baseman topped the circuit in slugging percentage for the second of six consecutive times the following year, while also leading the league with a .368 batting average and a .403 on-base percentage. He finished first in six different offensive categories in 1883, winning his second straight batting title with a mark of .374, while also driving in a league-leading 97 runs.
After having solid seasons in both 1884 and 1885, Brouthers was sold to the Detroit Wolverines, with whom he spent the next three years. The lefthanded hitting slugger performed exceptionally well his first year in Detroit, batting .370, scoring 139 runs, and leading the league with 11 home runs and 40 doubles. On September 10th of that year, he established a new National League record by accumulating 15 total bases in one game. Brouthers hit three home runs, doubled, and singled during his record-setting performance. During that off-season, The Executive Council of the Brotherhood of Professional Baseball Players, formed one year earlier as the first organized players’ union, met and re-elected John Montgomery Ward as president. Brouthers was elected vice president.
Brouthers teamed up with fellow Future Hall of Famer Sam Thompson in 1887 to lead
the Wolverines to their first pennant. While Thompson led the league in batting average, runs batted in, triples, and hits, Brouthers topped the circuit with 153 runs scored, 36 doubles, and a .426 on-base percentage. Although Brouthers had something of an off-season the following year, he still managed to bat .307, steal 34 bases, and lead the league with 118 runs scored and 33 doubles.
When the Wolverines disbanded at the end of 1888, Brouthers’ services were awarded to the Boston Beaneaters, with whom he batted a league-leading .373 in 1889. The slugging first baseman also knocked in 118 runs, scored 105 others, and struck out only six times in 565 plate appearances.
The 1889 campaign turned out to be Brouthers’ only one with the Beaneaters. He joined many other major league players in jumping to the rival Players League at season’s end, signing on with the Boston Reds. However, the Players League lasted only one year, and Brouthers subsequently joined Boston of the American Association in 1891, topping that circuit in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage in his only year with the team.
Brouthers returned to the National League in 1892 and, as a member of the Brooklyn Superba, captured his fifth and final batting title with a mark of .335. He also scored 121 runs and led the league with 124 runs batted in and 197 hits. After one more year in Brooklyn, Brouthers was traded to the Baltimore Orioles prior to the start of the 1894 campaign, along with Willie Keeler. Brouthers had his last big year with the Orioles in 1894, batting .347, driving in 128 runs, and scoring 137 others, to help lead Baltimore to its first pennant. Serving primarily as a back-up, the first baseman split the next two years between Baltimore, Louisville, and Philadelphia, before embarking on a long minor league career that saw him win the 1904 Class C Hudson River League batting title at the age of 46. Later that year, New York Giants manager John McGraw – a teammate of Brouthers in Baltimore – did his old friend a favor by inviting him to join his team. Brouthers returned to the National Leagu for two games, going hitless in five at-bats, before announcing his retirement at season’s end. He ended his career with a .342 batting average, 1,296 runs batted in, 1,523 runs scored, 2,296 hits, a .423 on-base percentage, and a .519 slugging percentage. Brouthers struck out a total of only 238 times in almost 7,770 plate appearances over the course of his career.
After his playing days were over, Brouthers worked for John McGraw, who placed his old friend in charge of the Polo Grounds press gate. Brouthers remained with the Giants for nearly 20 years before passing away at the age of 74 from a heart attack. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame 13 years later, in 1945, by the Veterans Committee.
Although Dan Brouthers hit only 106 home runs during his career, he was considered to be one of his era’s greatest sluggers. John McGraw claimed, “When I first went with Baltimore, there were little flags stuck on the fences of the different parks to show where Brouthers had driven balls out.”
McGraw also stated, “Brouthers really was a great hitter, one of the most powerful batters of all time…I don’t think I ever saw a stronger hitter.”