David Voigt’s History of Baseball, Part 3

Players League Guide, 1890.

Players League Guide, 1890.

This is the third installment of David Voigt’s history, as fine a brief telling of the tale as I know. This series commenced at: http://goo.gl/E4adJX.

The Players’ League War: 1890

The Players’ League of 1890 arose out of the long smoldering hostilities between major league players and owners, dating back to the NL seizure of power in 1876. Under NL control, players lost money and freedom of movement, and were subjected to harsh disciplinary codes backed by threats of expulsion and blacklisting. To the list of player grievances was added the reserve clause in player contracts, which players viewed as a device for lowering salaries and a denial of one’s right to sell his services to the highest bidder. For their part, owners credited the clause for stabilizing teams and increasing profits. Although legal challenges sustained the players’ position, such victories were too limited to overturn the reserve clause. Nor were players helped when rival leagues attacked the clause because the AA soon embraced the clause and the UA was driven out of business.

Frustrated on these fronts, in 1885 the players resorted to collective action by forming the Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players. Initially organized as a benevolent association, the Brotherhood, under the leadership of star player and lawyer John Ward, became a collective-bargaining agency by 1887. In confronting the major league owners, the Brotherhood sought redress on such matters as the reserve clause, the sale of players, and the threatened salary ceiling, known as the Brush classification plan.

In 1888 protracted negotiations between the Brotherhood and the owners broke down when the NL owners refused to budge on the salary ceiling issue, which had been accepted by the AA as part of the National Agreement. When the owners rejected Ward’s ultimatum on the key issues, the Brotherhood moved to field a rival major league in 1890. With most of the best players in the fold, the Players’ League attracted financial backers who accepted Ward’s plan of sharing profits and power with the players. In 1890 the eight-team PL opened play with well-stocked teams in every NL city except Cincinnati.

Faced with a head-to-head battle for survival, the NL relied upon its war committee headed by Spalding. Spalding met the PL head-on by scheduling games on the same dates as PL teams, bribing PL players to jump ranks, initiating costly lawsuits over the reserve clause, lowering ticket prices, cajoling press support by threats to withdraw advertising, and raiding the AA and minor league rosters for players.

Loyal managers like Anson, Wright, Bill McGunnigle, and Jim Mutrie persuaded good players to stay with the NL. Roster raids on AA teams lured stars like Billy Hamilton and Tommy Tucker; and promising rookies like pitchers Kid Nichols and Cy Young, infielder Bobby Lowe and outfielder Jess Burkett beefed up the NL teams.

Kid Nichols, 1889 Omaha

Kid Nichols, 1889 Omaha

Although beaten in the courts and at the turnstiles by the PL, which finished its season with Mike Kelly’s Boston team beating out Ward’s Brooklyn team by 6.5 games, the PL’s financial losses were too much for its backers to bear. In the fall of 1890, the disenchanted PL backers broke ranks and sued for peace. Magnanimous in victory, Spalding imposed no reprisals on PL players, but he gave no ground on the key issues. With the NL girding for war with the AA in the upcoming 1891 season, the salary ceiling implementation was delayed until the latest struggle was over.

The collapse of the PL afforded little relief for the stricken AA. In 1891 all-out war erupted between the NL and AA over the return of players and the relocation of franchises. When the AA’s weak Cincinnati club folded, its popular manager Mike Kelly joined the Boston AA team, but after a few days he joined the Boston Nationals. With Kelly gone, the Boston AA team won the pennant by 8.5 games over the Browns, but Boston fans flocked to watch Kelly captain the Boston Nationals to the NL pennant.

The 1891 season was the last for the AA. That fall four AA clubs, St. Louis, Louisville, Baltimore and Washington, quit the dying circuit to join the expanded twelve-club National League.

The “Big League”: The National League, 1892-1899

The defeat of the AA in 1891 saddled the NL with a $130,000 debt, which was incurred by buying out four of the defeated circuit’s clubs. The remaining four AA teams, Baltimore, Louisville, St. Louis, and Washington, were added to the NL to form the twelve-club National League and American Association of Professional Base Ball Clubs.

From 1892 to 1899 this monopolistic “big league” represented major league baseball. Enthralled by their newly created baseball “trust,” the league’s owners styled themselves as magnates presiding over a million-dollar entertainment industry. The magnates fully expected their monopoly league to produce unprecedented cash and glory. But such dreams were dashed by external factors, including a chronic national recession, the 1898 war with Spain, and the league’s competitive imbalance. Eight seasons of play under the twelve-club format underscored its imbalance.

Andrew Freedman

Andrew Freedman

With Boston, Baltimore, and Brooklyn winning all the races, fans in other cities lost interest. As profits dwindled, owners imposed a $2,400 ceiling on player salaries and battled one another over the division of gate receipts. Lacking strong leadership, each individual owner ran his club like a feudal fiefdom. Indeed, the blustering antics of the owners often upstaged players in newspaper accounts of this time. Some magnates hatched grandiose schemes aimed at making the monopoly league work more efficiently. Thus Andrew Freedman of the Giants advocated the annual pooling and redistribution of players and profits, provided that the “strongest and most lucrative franchises” got the best players.

And another, Cincinnati owner John T. Brush, proposed harsh disciplinary measures aimed at curbing rowdy players, while also experimenting with minor league farm systems as a cheap source of talent.

Indeed, owner infighting over these and other issues damaged the big league’s image, but the biggest threat to the league’s credibility was the “syndicate” issue. The term “syndicatism” used at this time referred to interlocking club ownership schemes. Following bitter debate in 1898, two such interlocking directorates were approved by the owners. One of these schemes permitted owner Frank Robison of the Cleveland and St. Louis teams to transfer his best players to St. Louis; the other allowed owners Ferdinand Abell and Harry Vonderhorst of the Brooklyn and Baltimore teams to stock the Brooklyn team with the pick of those two squads.

These operations made a farce of the 1899 pennant race and prompted the NL to return to an eight-club format in 1900; the cutback was accomplished by dropping Cleveland, Baltimore, Washington, and Louisville from the NL.

1899 baltimore orioles

1899 Baltimore Orioles

The return to the eight-club format ended eight wayward seasons of major league baseball played under one unwieldy league format. Nevertheless, major league baseball continued to mature in the 1890s. Surprisingly enough, there were no franchise changes in these years. In 1898 the 154-game playing schedule was introduced, a format which dominated until 1961. And in 1893 a major change in playing rules fixed the pitching distance at 60’6″ from home plate and also replaced the pitching box with a rubber slab atop a mound. This permanent change was introduced that year to correct the pitching-batting imbalance, a desirable goal which to this day remains elusive. The immediate effect of the lengthened pitching distance was not to give a mild boost to batting averages, but to send them soaring.

Ed DElahanty, 1894

Ed Delahanty, 1894

Thus in 1894 the Phillies posted a .349 team batting average, with the four-man outfield of Ed Delahanty, Sam Thompson, Billy Hamilton, and Tuck Turner combining for a .400-plus batting average. Sluggers also prospered, as Thompson hit 129 homers in this era, and Washington outfielder Buck Freeman hit 25 homers in 1899; both these records endured for twenty years. (Later recounts gave the career record to Roger Connor and the single season mark to Ned Williamson who had 27 tainted homers in 1884.)

It took pitchers several seasons to adapt to the increased distance, but they did so by developing curves, changeups, and ball-doctoring trick deliveries to go with their fastballs. Meanwhile two offensive styles vied for acceptance in this era. For a brief time the “manly slugging” style feasted on pitchers, but the “scientific style” mastered by the Baltimore and Boston teams, which stressed bunting, stealing, sacrificing, and the hit-and-run, became the dominant offensive style of the next twenty years.

At this time other rule changes allowed player substitutions, established the infield fly rule, treated foul bunts as strikes, defined sacrifice flies and bunts, and introduced the pentagon-shaped home plate. On the playing fields, players wore stylized uniforms and most sported gloves, with catchers employing the big “Decker” mitt and wearing masks and chest protectors. When in action, teams played heady ball, using signals to trigger offensive and defensive movements. Defensively, infielders aligned themselves to turn double plays and outfielders coordinated their play by using backups, cutoffs and relays. Offensively, bunting, sacrificing, sliding, stealing, and hit-and-run plays were familiar tactics.

But when teams like the Baltimore Orioles and Cleveland Spiders augmented their play with roughhouse tactics like spiking and jostling runners, baiting umpires, and bench jockeying, this “rowdy” brand of ball stirred the ire of reformers like Indianapolis owner John Brush.

But hard-nosed baseball survived its critics, as did Sunday baseball. Despite fervent opposition from Sabbatarians, Sunday games were permitted by local option, although eastern cities held out against such games for twenty years. By then, major league clubs had outgrown the wooden parks of this era. A spate of ballpark fires late in this era inspired tougher safety codes that soon prompted the replacement of the vulnerable old wooden parks with concrete-and-steel edifices.

NL Campaigns: 1892-1899

During the big league’s eight-year existence, pennant monopolizing was the rule as only Boston, Baltimore, and Brooklyn teams won pennants. Managed by Frank Selee, the powerful Boston Beaneaters won back-to-back pennants in 1892-1893 and in 1897-1898. Paced by pitcherKid Nichols (who won 297 games in this decade), Boston won the 1892 race played under a split-season format. Boston easily won the first half, but lost the second half by 3 games to manager Pat Tebeau’s Cleveland Spiders, whose ace pitcher was the great Cy Young. In the postseason playoff, after the two teams played a scoreless tie, Boston swept the rest of the games to land the 1892 pennant.

In 1893 the unprofitable split-season format was dropped and the pitching distance was increased to 60’6″. In a campaign marked by heavy hitting, Boston won by 5 games over Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh’s Frank Killen won 34 games to lead hurlers, and outfielder Billy Hamilton batted .380.

Temple Cup game at Polo Grounds, 1894, by Henry Sandham

Temple Cup game at Polo Grounds, 1894, by Henry Sandham

The following year saw Boston fall to the Baltimore Orioles, who rebounded from an eighth-place finish in 1893 to win the first of three consecutive pennants. Although plagued by poor pitching, the offense-minded Orioles batted .343, with every regular topping the .300 mark at the plate. Future Hall of Famers on this star-studded team includedDan Brouthers, Hughie Jennings, John McGraw, Joe Kelley, Willie Keeler, and Wilbert Robinson. The Orioles won the 1894 pennant by 3 games over the Giants, but lost the first postseason Temple Cup Series, played between the first- and second-place finishers. In this inaugural Temple Cup Series, manager John Ward’s Giants swept the Orioles in four straight games.

The following year manager Ned Hanlon’s Orioles repeated as NL champions by edging the Cleveland Spiders by 3 games. A .324 team batting average and a brilliant 54-14 home won-loss record keyed the 1895 Orioles. But once again the Orioles failed in Temple Cupplay, this time falling to the Spiders by four games to one. In 1896 the Orioles won a third consecutive NL pennant by 9.5 games over the Spiders and swept their rivals in postseason Temple Cup play.

Boston 1898

Boston 1898

Bolstered by newcomers Billy Hamilton, Chick Stahl, and Jimmy Collins , Boston regained the heights in 1897-1898. Nichols won 30 games as the 1897 Beaneaters edged the Orioles by 2 games. But the Orioles won the postseasonTemple Cup four games to one, the last year of this unremunerative and “shabby spectacle” which, one observer said, no more resembled the old World Series than a “crabapple does . . . a pippin.”

Boston repeated in 1898, in a baseball campaign overshadowed by the Spanish-American War, beating the Orioles by 6 games. But by then the unprofitable “big league” was in its last throes. In a race marred by ludicrous syndicate ventures, in 1899 the Brooklyn Superbas won by 8 games over Boston. A syndicate team, the Superbas were managed by Hanlon, who stocked the Brooklyn team with the best players from the Brooklyn and Baltimore rosters.

A similar venture that season had Robison’s St. Louis-Cleveland syndicate loading the St. Louis team with the pick of these two clubs. But Robison’s venture failed miserably as St. Louis finished fifth while the Cleveland team’s 20-134 record was the worst by any major league team playing a 154-game schedule.

In the aftermath of the 1899 campaign, the owners scuttled the twelve-club big league and cut back to eight teams.Baltimore, Cleveland, Washington, and Louisville were dropped at a cost of $100,000, a buyout shared by the eight surviving teams. Born in debt, the monopoly big league died in debt, but the dawning twentieth century soon saw major league baseball prospering under a revived dual league format.

The American League War: 1901-1902

The American League’s struggle for major league recognition began in 1900, a propitious time for such an incursion. The NL owners had recently shed four teams, which left many unemployed players and some promising territories. Moreover, NL owners were distracted by an abortive attempt by other outsiders to revive theAmerican Association , and by the NL’s prosperous season of 1900. With a hefty boost from the nation’s booming economy, most NL teams made money that year. In a close race the Brooklyn Superbas repeated as NL champs by beating a strong Pittsburgh team by 4.5 games.

Such distractions favored the cause of the American League schemers.

Minneapolis Millers, AL 1900

Prior to 1900, the newly proclaimed American League had operated as the Western League, a strong minor league based in the Midwest. Since 1894 the Western League’s president, the able, dictatorial, and hard-drinking Byron “Ban” Johnson, had dreamed of making his circuit into a major league. To this end he had battled with NL owners over the drafting of his league’s players, a practice which underscored his league’s inferior status. Johnson’s opportunity to press toward his goal came in 1899, when the NL cut back to eight teams. With the backing of lieutenants like Charles Comiskey and Connie Mack, Johnson renamed his circuit the American League, his clubs snapped up surplus NL players, and Comiskey moved his team to Chicago, where his White Stockings boldly confronted the NL’s Cubs. With solid financial backing and a new ballpark, Comiskey’s team of major league castoffs and promising youngsters captured the first AL pennant in a profitable campaign.

Emboldened by the AL’s successful 1900 campaign, Johnson took note of the expiring National Agreement and unilaterally proclaimed the AL to be a major league. This 1901 declaration formally opened the American League war, and Johnson’s promoters commenced hostilities by invading the NL’s Philadelphia and Boston territories and occupying the former NL sites of Baltimore, Washington, Cleveland, and Detroit. To stock their teams, Johnson’s financiers offered higher salaries to NL players, and in 1901 over a hundred NL players snapped at the bait. The jumpers included a bevy of stars, among them Cy Young , Clark Griffith, Jimmy Collins, and Nap Lajoie. Then, in a hotly contested and profitable pennant race, Comiskey’s Chicago team edged Boston by 4 games to capture the 1901 AL pennant.

The timing of the AL’s assault was excellent. In 1901-1902 the leaderless NL owners were locked in a bitter struggle over the choice of a league president. Two factions, one headed by owner Andrew Freedman of the Giants and the other by Spalding, battled to a standstill. In 1902 a temporary Control Commission headed the NL, which finally elected Henry Clay Pulliam as its president. In a complicated settlement the controversial Freedman sold his New York Giants interests for $125,000, on the condition that one of his cronies be permitted to plant an AL franchise in New York in 1903. By then, the AL had concluded another profitable season. With more NL players joining AL ranks, Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics landed the 1902 AL pennant by beating the Browns by 5 games.

Ban Johnson

Ban Johnson

In the fall of 1902, with most war-weary NL owners favoring a return to the dual major league structure, the NL sued for peace with the AL. Early in 1903 Johnson and Comiskey met with Pulliam and Cincinnati owner August “Garry” Herrmann and negotiated the National Agreement of 1903. Under its terms, the NL and AL would operate as separate but equal major leagues, bound by common playing rules, harmonized playing schedules, and mutually recognized territories and player contracts. The player contract accord restored the reserve clause and ended the AL’s roster raids. The agreement also allowed an AL franchise to be located in New York, which Johnson secured by moving the financially shaky Baltimore Orioles to Manhattan, where in time the team prospered as the New York Yankees. Among other points, the Agreement reclassified the minor leagues and set new rules for the drafting of minor league players. Indeed, in this era minor league baseball grew lustily, reaching an all-time peak in 1913, when 46 leagues started the season. But if the National Agreement stimulated the growth of organized baseball, it did little to empower major league players. Major league players were denied representation on the controlling National Commission , and over the years 1902-1913 two attempts by players to organize unions were beaten down. And if the National Agreement included no salary ceiling plank, the Agreement unequivocally embraced the reserve clause and asserted the right of the National Commission to control baseball “by its own decrees . . . enforcing them without the aid of law, and making it answerable to no power outside its own.”

The power to enforce these baseball laws came via a master stroke when the negotiators created a three-member National Commission charged with enforcing the National Agreement and keeping peace between the rival major leagues. As earlier demonstrated by the uneasy coexistence that marked the dual major league system of the 1880s, some such high-level executive and judicial body was needed to settle disputes between two independent and highly competitive major leagues. It was a challenge that the National Commission successfully met for seventeen years.

Heading the National Commission were league presidents Johnson and Pulliam and Cincinnati magnate Garry Herrmann, who served as the Commission’s permanent chairman. On the face of it, this gave the NL two votes, but Johnson and Herrmann were close friends.

August "Garry" Herrmann

August “Garry” Herrmann

Together they served during the lifetime of the National Commission, while four relatively weak presidents represented the NL, whose owners feared to empower any president. By contrast Johnson reigned as the most powerful president in major league history. As the AL’s entrenched “czar,” Johnson used his powers to safeguard his league against any NL treachery. In defending his league, Johnson personally held all AL franchise leases, ruled on ownership changes, fixed playing schedules, set basic admission prices, and imposed his standards on owners and players. Inevitably such powers incurred enmities among AL owners, but until the Black Sox Scandal of 1919, Johnson’s domination of the AL held firm.

Over the years 1903-1920, with Herrmann’s support, Johnson dominated the National Commission. In those years the Commission functioned as baseball’s Supreme Court, settling disputes between clubs (mostly involving rights to player services), supporting the interests of club owners, disciplining players, defending umpires, fending off Federal League interlopers, defusing a players’ union threat, and overseeing relations with the minor leagues. But the most important achievement of the National Commission was its profitable administration of the revived World Series. Initially revived in 1903, the World Series got off to a shaky start when the Giants refused to play the AL champion in 1904. But in 1905 the two leagues adopted a new World Series format that placed the conduct of the classic under the control of the National Commission. With 10 percent of World Series revenues set aside for financing National Commission activities, the Commission faced a stern test. By capable administration the Commission met the challenge and the annual World Series became a profitable and permanent part of each major league season. By 1910 profits from World Series games had increased tenfold over those of 1905. But the Commission was responsible for any World Series chicanery; thus the rigged World Series of 1919 precipitated the downfall of the National Commission.

Part 4 tomorrow.



“These operations made a farce of the 1899 pennant race and prompted the NL to return to an eight-club format in 1900; the cutback was accomplished by dropping Cleveland, Baltimore, Washington, and St. Louis from the NL.”

It was Louisville, not St. Louis, that was dropped from the League, with most of Louisville’s best players going to Pittsburg.

You are correct. David, if he were alive to reply, would be grateful for your correction, as I am. I will fix this.

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