by William Bowen
One of the best pitchers in the short-lived American Base Ball Association (ABBA), Leander McNaughton helped ensure the survival of the team that would become the Brooklyn Bluebirds.
Little is known about the stocky right-hander’s origin. The story Brooklyn fans tell goes like this. One of the new owners of the Gothams took his daughter to a carnival one weekend in October 1882. They happened upon a crowd gathered around one of the attractions. In the center of the crowd was a sturdy, mustachioed man, baseball in hand, taking aim at a stack of milk bottles 90 feet away. Here was Leander McNaughton, and though he only hit the bottles on seven of his 10 throws, the owner was so impressed by his speed and movement that McNaughton was under contract before the day was over. No one can verify whether or not this story is true, but what we know for sure is that when the 1883 season opened, McNaughton was on the Gotham roster.
The 1883 season was the second season for the ABBA and the first for the Gothams. Gotham ownership spared no expense and put together a roster that would be competitive on opening day. The 27-year-old McNaughton paired 35-year-old control artist Erwin Morse in the Gotham rotation. Morse taught McNaughton (and a 17-year-old Steven Fry) his changeup, which gave Leander a third pitch to complement his fastball and curveball. Behind these two arms, the Gothams won the Association Championship in their very first season. This kicked off an impressive ten-year run in which the team never finished below .600 and won the Association Championship four times. The 11-year history of the ABBA mostly featured the Brooklynites and the Cincinnati Excellents vying for first place. Cincinnati relied on two Hall of Fame starters—Royal Ricketts and Hiram Ballard—where Brooklyn leaned on the stalwart right arm of McNaughton.
The Gothams won the ABBA Championship in their first year, but they were also competing for fans on Manhattan with the National Base Ball League’s New York Knickerbockers. The Gothams decided to forfeit this competition, and headed across the East River for the 1884 season.
In Brooklyn, McNaughton truly made his mark. From 1884 to 1892, McNaughton finished in the top 10 in wins nine times, strikeouts seven times, ERA eight times, WHIP nine times, and WAR nine times. Even when he wasn’t striking batters out, McNaughton rarely allowed hard contact. Tremendous movement and control allowed him to consistently post low BABIPs and home run rates.
McNaughton and Morse led the Gotham rotation until 1888, when the 40-year-old Morse was released in April after two subpar starts. This left McNaughton the undisputed staff ace at 32. He rose to the challenge. After leading the league in ERA the previous year, McNaughton led the league in games started and strikeouts, and posted a career high 12.1 WAR. Despite their 85-55 record, the Gothams finished third.
In Morse’s absence, McNaughton also took the helm of staff mentor. He helped young lefty Monroe Black simplify his mechanics. By 1890, Brooklyn was back on top, led by McNaughton, Black, and trade acquisition Tug Abraham, who helped the Gothams dominate the heavily-favored New York Knickerbockers for the Junior Circuit’s first World Championship.
The three-headed monster of McNaughton, Black, and Abraham led Brooklyn to another championship over the Knickerbockers in 1892, their first season under the new nickname Bluebirds and their final season with the ABBA. The league folded in the off-season, and the Bluebirds were absorbed into the NBBL.
Now 37, McNaughton was not the pitcher he once was. Abraham’s stuff took a nosedive during spring training, and he pitched only two regular-season innings before the Bluebirds released him. This pushed McNaughton into another 50-start season. Without the stamina he once had, McNaughton posted a below-average ERA and the Bluebirds finished with a .500 record, both firsts in his career. McNaughton retired shortly after the season ended, closing the first chapter in the story of the Brooklyn Bluebirds.
Leander McNaughton finished with a 278-153 career won-lost record. His career .654 winning percentage ranks 15th all-time. His 2.54 ERA was good for a 127 ERA+. He struck out 1,849 hitters and amassed 84.1 WAR. He won Player of the Week nine times and Pitcher of the Month five times. He led the league in ERA twice (1887, 1889) and strikeouts once (1888). He was a three-time championship winner (1883, 1890, 1892).