Jim Ernst: Bringing Base Ball Back


I thought I’d start off Season 3 of The Infinite Baseball Card Set Booklet Series with a throwback to a time when “base ball” was two words. This story would not have been possible without the help of three baseball historians with three very different specialties, who I’ll tell you all about at the end of this piece.

THE CINCINNATI REDS are often referred to as “the oldest team in the majors,” but that’s not exactly true. In fact, the only thing the 1869 Red Stockings have in common with the modern day Reds is the color red. After the 1870 season, the original Red Stockings were disbanded, partly due to lack of interest because they always won, and partly because of the player’s high salaries. Several of the Red Stockings’ key players moved to Boston, where they re-branded themselves as the Boston Red Stockings, then the Red Caps, who became the Beaneaters, which morphed into the Braves. So, after a layover in Milwaukee, the Atlanta Braves are technically the direct ancestor of the original Cincinnati Red Stockings.

Anyway, while baseball thrived in Beantown, Cincinnati was left without a professional team. It would take a crowd-funded team across the Ohio River in Kentucky and a former Princeton ballplayer to convince Cincinnati to get their act together and bring pro ball back to town.

KENTUCKY’S HISTORY with the National Pastime stretched back to the Civil War. The famed Cincinnati Red Stockings found many of their early opponents in Kentucky-based teams, and weekend-long tournaments were held pitting local clubs against each other. In 1871, the Red Stockings broke up, leaving Cincinnati without a professional club. When the National Association, essentially the first “major league,” was formed in 1871, the city that fielded the very first professional baseball team was not represented; The Queen City’s interest in professional baseball seemed to have left with the Red Stockings. Across the river in Kentucky, it was a different story.

The river city of Ludlow, just east of Cincinnati on the Kentucky side of the Ohio, was the first team in the area to change their status from “amateur” to “professional.” Not to be outdone, the larger city of Covington, directly across the river from Cincinnati and now easily reachable from downtown via the new Roebling Suspension Bridge, also desired a professional team of their own. As in Eastern cities, Covington had a new generation of white collar clerks and salesmen with recreation time on their hands and disposable income in their pockets. It was these spirited Northern Kentucky professionals who took up the challenge to assemble a professional team in the city.

ONE OF THE COVINGTON’S young movers and shakers was James Catlett Ernst. Born into an affluent banking and railroad family in 1853, Ernst had played the new game of “base ball” with the Copec Club of Covington in the 1860’s before entering Princeton. Besides gaining an Ivy League education, Ernst had been the captain and starting first baseman on Princeton’s baseball team. He led the Orange and Black to victories over both Yale and Harvard to win the college championship, in the process earning a reputation as one of the finest players of his day. Returning to Covington after graduating in 1873, Ernst was not ready to give up on the game he loved. He was the right man in the right place at the right time when it came to bringing professional baseball back to the area. As a successful young banker, Jim Ernst had access to the men in town who had money; as an experienced baseball player and respected team captain, he had the ability to take an existing amateur team and turn it pro.

Among the amateur teams in Northern Kentucky was the Star Base Ball Club. Jim Ernst had taken up with the club when he returned from Princeton, joining former Yale catcher Pearce Barnes and original Cincinnati Red Stocking Moses Grant. As one of the better amateur nines in the area, it made sense to use the Stars team to build a professional club around.

In the spring of 1875, a group of local businessmen congregated at the Felthaus Cigar Store on Madison Avenue, and the Star Base Ball Club of Covington, Kentucky officially joined the professional ranks. S.N. Hawes was named club president, and a board of directors elected, among them Jim Ernst. Stock certificates were issued and, in short order, a ballpark was being erected on a vacant lot at Madison Street between 17th and 18th Streets.

THE STARS played their first game as professionals on June 1, clipping the Eagles of Louisville, 6-4. Beginning with that first game, the Felthaus Cigar Store became the Covington fan’s hangout, and a large scoreboard was built on the sidewalk out front that was updated via telegraph to keep the rapidly growing fan base informed during away games.

On June 14 2,500 fans packed into the new ballpark to watch the St. Louis Red Stockings play the Stars. Though St. Louis came away the victors, their pitcher, Joe Blong, decided to sign with Covington. The Red Stockings were a “co-operative” team, meaning the players received a percentage of the gate receipts in lieu of a regular salary. This was fine if a team attracted stadiums overflowing with fans, not so good if a team drew poorly. St. Louis was experiencing all of the latter. By the time the team arrived in Covington for their game against the Stars, many of the visiting players were disgruntled, none more so than Joe Blong.

The pitcher had come to the Red Stockings from Notre Dame University with high expectations, but thus far had a disappointing 3-12 record. Blong’s win over Covington showed he did possess exceptional talent on the mound, but he had earned a reputation as a difficult personality. While it is generally accepted that Blong simply quit the St. Louis club and joined the Stars, other reports later claim he was thrown off the team for “hippodroming,” an archaic Gilded Age term meaning “staging games to suit gamblers, especially baseball.”

Whatever the reason for Blong’s defection, the addition of his arm instantly made the Stars a better ball club. In his first game with Covington, Blong beat the Washington Nationals at the Star Ground, the first time a National Association league team had been defeated in the tri-state area. Four more disgruntled St. Louis players would jump to the Stars. Outfielder Packy Dillon and third baseman John “Trick” McSorley were former Notre Dame teammates of Joe Blong, and Frank “Silver” Flint was one of the game’s first star backstops. The fourth defector was first baseman Denny Mack.

The influx of the St. Louis talent also meant several of the old Stars players would be pushed out of the lineup, including Jim Ernst. As previously noted, Ernst’s biggest contribution on the field was his superior defensive skills. A professional since 1871, Denny Mack was a serviceable first baseman, but he was much more valuable with a bat. He would now be the Stars regular first sacker and leadoff hitter while Ernst was relegated to the bench. Besides losing his first baseman’s job, Ernst was replaced as the Stars captain by the charismatic Joe Blong.

WHILE JIM ERNST moved into more of a front office position with the Stars, the team began dominating all levels of competition. As they emerged as the leading professional ballclub in the area, thousands flocked to Covington to see their “Shining Stars” take on the big National Association teams like the Boston Red Stockings and Chicago White Stockings. What’s more, the Roebling Suspension Bridge made it easy for baseball-starved fans on the Ohio side of the river to see real professional ball again. When more than 6,000 showed up on Saturday July 10 to watch the Stars beat Ludlow 2-0, envious investors in Cincinnati took notice. Obviously, there was big money still to be made in pro ball, and business-minded Cincinnatians sure weren’t going to let it flow through their hands and across the Ohio River into Kentucky. In mid-July, the Cincinnati Red Stockings were re-formed as a professional team. An instant rivalry was born.

With deep-pocket investors stocking the Reds with the best players money could buy, the only thing standing in the way of Cincinnati regaining the title of the area’s baseball capitol was the Stars performance thus far; by the time the new Reds were up and running, Covington had a record of 25-4. With the summer half over, the only chance the Reds had of an immediate change of circumstances was to beat the Stars on the field, head to head. Negotiations were held, and a series between the two teams was scheduled to begin August 31.

Three thousand streamed into Star Grounds to watch the game. The Reds tied the game 5-5 in the eighth, then the score remained frozen through four more innings till darkness ended the game in a draw. On September 11, the Stars traveled across the river to play a rematch. Again, the game was tight, tied 2-2 through seven innings. Then the Stars bats came alive, scoring four runs and winning the game, 6-2. Additional games in the Stars-Reds grudge match were scheduled for October.

IN THE MIDST of the Reds series, Covington’s ace pitcher was suspended for throwing the September 18 game against rival Ludlow.

The circumstances surrounding the allegations are murky, but the basics are that Trick McSorley started the game for the Stars, but was tagged for four runs in the third. Blong was pressed into relief service, but he informed the club he was, in his words, “not in any condition to pitch.”

None-the-less, Blong pitched the last six innings, giving up three runs on two hits. Something about those two hits and three runs did not sit well with some, including a Cincinnati Enquirer sports writer, who went public with his accusations that Blong sold the game. In Blong’s defense, he wasn’t the starting pitcher and was rushed into the game at the last minute, so it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to have arranged with the gambling crowd that he would throw the contest.

The allegations were especially serious since the game had been a winner-take-all affair instead of the usual 50-50 split of the gate receipts between the teams. Covington and Ludlow were long-time rivals, and there had been a lot of money riding on the game, with the Stars the odd-on favorite to win. Ludlow’s underdog victory meant there was a lot of pissed off gamblers and cash-strapped bookies on the Kentucky side of the river. Despite Blong’s insistence of his innocence, the Stars Board of Trustees met, stripped Blong of his captaincy and booted him from the club.

Besides being their ace, Joe Blong had been the team’s most popular player, and his suspected crookedness seemed to dim the light of the Covington Stars, both on the field and in the stands. The Covington-Cincinnati series resumed on October 11 with a 7-3 win against the Reds, but it was downhill after that. Without Blong, Covington lost four straight to lose the inter-state match. By then, interest had waned to just 400 fans at the final games and few lingered outside the Felthaus Cigar Store to catch the out of town scores.

The Covington Stars had won 38 games, lost 14 and tied 1. As the books were closed on the 1875 season, former captain Jim Ernst decided to hang up his cleats for good. His last appearance in a Stars uniform had been on August 16 against the Boston Red Stockings. Though going hitless in the game, the Cincinnati Daily Gazette described the Stars former captain as, “Ernst, a player who showed himself very weak at bat, but did quite well at first base.

DURING THE WINTER, unseen events were conspiring to end the Covington Stars as a professional team. The National Association proved to be too weak and poorly run, with players switching teams on their own accord, a revolving door of clubs and allegations of crooked play. As a result, the 8-team National League emerged. Since Cincinnati was a larger and more prominent city than Covington, it had the edge when it came time for the new league to award franchises. And because the league wanted to consolidate the fanbase in each city, the “5-Mile Rule” was instituted in that there could be no other professional team within that stated circumference to infringe on a National League team’s territory or fanbase. Even if a team like the Covington Stars were to exist without any league affiliation, the 5-Mile Rule meant that none of the National League teams would be allowed to schedule a game with the Stars. Without the lucrative exhibition games against the league teams, the Stars and all the other professional teams in Northern Kentucky and Southern Ohio were effectively put out of business.

In the spring of 1876, Jim Ernst was appointed by the team as a delegate to the Western National Base-Ball Association. This was a last-ditch attempt to form an independent league of Ohio and Kentucky teams who had been stripped of their professional status by the new National League. Unfortunately, just as the Federal League would discover forty years later, Major League Baseball could not be beaten.

The Star Base Ball Club of Covington, Kentucky was disbanded after 1876. Nine former Stars players would go on to play in the National League. Among them were Joe Blong, who was thrown out of organized baseball in 1877 for throwing ballgames; catcher Silver Flint won five championships with the Chicago White Stockings; and second baseman George Strief would star for Pittsburgh, setting several offensive records.

The Stars Grounds were dismantled in 1887 and the property sold. Today, the area at Madison Avenue and 17th street where the Covington Stars once played at is a Dollar Store parking lot. Except for a half season in 1913 when the Covington Blue Sox of the outlaw Federal League called Covington home, the 5-Mile Rule effectively ended any dream Northern Kentucky would have of fielding another professional team.

AFTER THE STARS disbanded, “Jim” became James C. Ernst and embarked on a wildly successful career that saw him taking part in almost every business venture that brought the Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky area from the days of the frontier into the modern age. He rose from cashier to president of the German National Bank, which helped finance the growing industrial center. Ernst then ran the Cincinnati, Newport and Covington Street Railway Company that joined those three rival cities into a cooperating, thriving metropolis. When he electrified the streetcars in the 1890s, Ernst had the revolutionary idea to sell the excess electricity generated by his plants to the houses and businesses along the routes. As the streetcar system spread outward into the country side, electricity followed, sparking the booming housing development in Northern Kentucky that took families away from the teeming city streets and into healthy green suburbs. Ernst’s electricity sales led to the formation of an electric company which was then bought out by the giant Northern America Company. And, of course, James C. Ernst was brought on after the sale to be CEO of the entire operation.

Though lauded as a “capitalist,” James C. Ernst was unique in that when his streetcar workers went on strike and began organizing a union in secret, he dispatched a representative who informed the men, “I am here in the interest of Mr. Ernst, and if you are going to organize do not go back of the bush to do it; that is your privilege.” In what was unheard of in this era of violent clashes between labor and management, Rezin Orr, the veteran union organizer who led the railway workers, declared at the conclusion of successful negotiations, “Mr. Ernst is the fairest and squarest man I ever met or dealt with since I have been an organizer and he is loyal to his men.” Upon learning of his death years later, every motorman on the streetcar line he once ran stopped their cars for one minute in silent tribute to their old boss.

And beyond his large part in modernizing the now thriving part of the country he called home, Jim Ernst’s most visible and long lasting contribution is seen every spring when the Cincinnati Reds take the field for another season of professional Major League baseball. Whether he recognized this vital contribution or not, it is well known that throughout his life, no matter how preoccupied he was with pressing business matters, James C. Ernst could be counted on to drop all matters at hand to become “Jim” once again and reminisce about the old Covington Stars. According to his lengthy obituary published upon his death in 1917, the old first baseman’s favorite baseball memory was of a long ago game between the Stars and their rival Ludlow:

“The score was 1-0 in favor of Covington in the ninth inning, and with three men on bases and two out it looked like a certainty Ludlow would win or tie the score. A hard-hit grounder was knocked to shortstop Andy Cummings, who had little time in handling the ball, and, throwing wildly, everyone in the stands thought the ball was going out of the reach of Mr. Ernst. With outstretched hand the ball was caught by the lanky “Jim,” as he was termed, and throwing himself headforemost on the base, barely beat the runner to the sack. Mr. Ernst was cheered lustily and carried off the field by the Covingtonians, who had made large wagers on their team.”

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IT TOOK ME a while to do the illustration of Jim Ernst because of one major obstacle: there was no known photograph of the Covington Stars. That is, until a few years ago when a single hand colored 1/6 plate tintype of Stars catcher Frank “Silver” Flint surfaced in the collection of Mark Rucker. Even if you haven’t heard of Rucker, you’ve no doubt seen his collection, as many of the rarest and iconic scenes of the old game are, or had once been, a part of his vast archive. I found a low resolution copy of the Stars photo and contacted Mark, who graciously provided me with a much clearer version to work from.
Because my specialty lies more in the 1910-1950 era, I had some trouble with some of the details of the Stars uniform. Obsessed with getting it as accurate as possible, I put in a call to John Thorn, Major League Baseball’s Official Historian, and most importantly, THE scholar on the game’s early years. Literally within an hour, John sent me copies of several 1870s sporting goods catalogues. Within these rare pages I found the actual items which the Stars no doubt ordered from the Peck & Snyder Company back in 1875. This included the strange but distinctive checkerboard belt, the blue and white cap with red star on top and the top of the line, two-tone baseball shoes. Where no real idea what the Covington Stars once wore existed, I feel confident my illustration of Jim Ernst is as accurate as can be done today – and I have the generosity of Mark Rucker and John Thorn to thank for that.
Finally, this entire story would not have been possible had it not been for one wildly creative filmmaker, Cam Miller. The Covington-born savant produces the exhibit videos for the Cincinnati Reds Museum but, more importantly, has also created two documentaries on early baseball in Covington. The first, “Our True Blues: The Story of the Covington Blue Sox,” tells the story of the short lived Federal League team that called this Northern Kentucky city home in 1913. His second is “Our Shining Stars: The Story of the Star Base Ball Club of Covington, KY” which reveals the long-forgotten story of the team that brought baseball back to Cincinnati. I believe both are available on YouTube and are well worth watching. Of particular note, it is incredible to realize after watching the Stars documentary that Cam tells the entire story without the visual aid of any photographs of the team – because there were none at the time – an extraordinary feat of storytelling on the filmmaker’s part. That the Covington Stars are known today is almost entirely due to Cam Miller.
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This week’s story is Number 30 in a series of collectible booklets.

Each of the hand-numbered and signed 4 ¼” x 5 1/2″ booklets feature an 8 to 24 page story along with a colored art card attached to the inside back cover. These mini-books can be bought individually, thematically or collected as a never-ending set. In addition to the individual booklets, I envision there being themed sets, such as the series I did on Minor League Home Run Champions. You can order a Subscription to Season 3 as well. A year subscription includes a guaranteed regular 12 issues at a discounted price, plus at least one extra Subscriber Special Issue. Each subscription will begin with Booklet Number 030 and will be active through December of 2021. Booklets 1-29 can be purchased as a group, too.