Editor’s note: This column originally appeared on, and is reprinted with permission of, VisitKC.com.
Back in the late 1800s, when America was first smitten by the tender young sport of “base-ball,” the enthusiastic crowds that came out to cheer major league nines like the Kansas City Cowboys and the St. Louis Browns were considered downright “fanatical.”
A colorful fellow by the name of Ted “Red” Sullivan, who coached and played for the notoriously rowdy KC Cowboys in 1884 and 1885, is said to have first referred (behind his hand) to the boisterous folks behind him in the stands as “fans” – short for “fanatics.”
A former college classmate and a long-time friend of baseball impresario Charles Comiskey, Sullivan would go on to build what we know today as baseball’s “farm system,” which he utilized to find and cultivate players for Comiskey’s White Sox, John Mcraw’s Giants and other major league squads.
KC Cowboys manager credited with coining the term ‘fan’
But it was while he was helping to fan the flames of baseball fever in Missouri – first in Kansas City and then in St. Louis in 1886 and 87 – that Sullivan is said to have coined the now ubiquitous term “fans” to describe avid followers of America’s favorite game.
Born in Ireland in the 1850s and raised in Milwaukee, “Red” Sullivan was a senior member of the baseball team at little St. Mary’s College in St. Marys, Kansas, when he got to be pals with a younger teammate, Charlie Comiskey. Young Comiskey’s father had reportedly shipped the boy off to the remote Kansas college to learn a “useful” trade. Baseball was apparently not what the young man’s father, a Chicago politician, considered useful.
After leaving St. Marys and catching on as a player, coach and promoter with semi-pro ball teams in Iowa and Illinois, Sullivan turned up in Kansas City in 1884 tasked with slapping together a team to compete in the Union Association, a new league formed to compete with the more established American and National associations
Early players fanned the flames of baseball fever
Alternately referred to as the Unions, the Onions (they stunk) and the Cowboys, Kansas City’s squad finished dead last – behind the Cincinnati Outlaw Reds, the Pittsburgh Stogies and the Wilmington Quicksteps – in their first and only season in “the majors.” But Sullivan and his players had successfully fanned the flames of baseball fever at Cook’s pasture, the team’s 4,000 seat stadium at Summit and Southwest Boulevard.
Sullivan introduced and promoted such innovations as ladies nights and rain checks and his team finished the season in the black, making him a baseball man in demand for decades to come.
The Union Association went belly up, and by 1885, the Cowboys were relegated to “farm team” status in a new Western League. Still, a “fanatical” love of baseball had been firmly planted in the fertile soil of our old cowtown.
As Kansas City grew into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, bigger and more beautiful ballparks were built and filled. Millions of fans have enjoyed and agonized over their Blues, their Monarchs, their A’s, their T-Bones and their Royals. Dozens of All-Star and Hall of Fame players – Jackie Robinson, Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Bo Jackson, George Brett and Satchel Paige, to name just a few - have worn the KC logo and dug their cleats into the hometown dirt first plowed by Red Sullivan and his Kansas City Cowboys.
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