Saturday, November 15, 2003

The Founding of the American League: Those Were The Days by John Shiffert

1901—those were the days. The American League wasn’t polluted by the designated hitter or terrorized by George Steinbrenner. Maybe polluted by the lack of the foul strike rule and terrorized by Ban Johnson and John McGraw, but at least the DH and Steinbrenner weren’t on the scene yet. It was an exciting time in baseball history, because a new and promising league was on the horizon.

Following the untimely demise of the American Association in the fall of 1891, the National League ruled baseball with a less-than-admirable monopolistic grip. Syndicate ownership, rowdyism (the Baltimore Orioles and the Cleveland Spiders being the foremost practitioners), violence, competitive imbalance and salary classifications that resulted in a theoretical $2,400 per man salary cap, had taken a lot of the fun out of the game. Especially the concept of individuals owning pieces of more than one team--“Syndicate Baseball” it was called. And it was, indeed, a sin. After all, "monopoly" is an ugly concept, unless you're playing the Atlantic City-based board game.

It was into this unseemly situation that Ban Johnson, Connie Mack, John McGraw, Charles Somers, Charlie Comiskey, et al, brought the American League—an idea whose time had come.

Interestingly, it should be noted that, outrage over syndicate baseball to the contrary, there were also situations in the new American League where an individual had a piece of the action in more than one team. In fact, Charles Somers in Cleveland was Mack's and Shibe's financial angel (to the tune of $30,000) in getting the Athletics started.

However, neither Somers nor anyone else in the American League caused the wholesale shifting of players from one team to another. Although some player transfers were made, they were done to shore up struggling American League teams in the war with the National League, not because a joint ownership was trying to stack the deck for one city, as happened to the NL’s Baltimore, Cleveland and Louisville clubs.

Syndicate ownership aside, it's safe to say the National League was not an especially successful organization during its 12-team monopoly from 1892 to 1899. Despite its monopoly position, most teams lost money, and the competitive balance was terrible. Even the shakeout of four teams following the 1899 season accomplished little more than putting a lot of major leaguers out of work, and depriving fans in four cities of major league baseball, although it did provide the still-minor American League with half of its players in 1900. What four cities were dropped? As if you had to ask, Washington and the three less-favored "syndicate" cities, Baltimore, Louisville and Cleveland.

Even before the shakeout, the competitive situation in the National League was what Bill James has called, “A hybrid major/minor league, with teams competing against what would later be called their own farm teams.” In effect, the Baltimore, Louisville and Cleveland clubs had become farm teams for Brooklyn, Pittsburgh and St. Louis. Actually, this unique situation was repeated to a certain extent in the 1920's, when Boston Red Sox owner Harry Frazee sold off most of his good players (Babe Ruth, Waite Hoyt, Wally Schang, Sam Jones, Joe Bush, Everett Scott, Joe Dugan, George Pipgras, Herb Pennock) to the New York Yankees. It should further be noted that Frazee owed Yankee owners Jacob Ruppert and Tillinghast Huston $350,000—and that the loan was secured by a mortgage on Fenway Park. The Yankees could have literally put the Red Sox out on the street, if they had so desired. Frazee made sure they didn't so desire.

Just to prove things seldom change in baseball, almost the exact same situation came up again in the 1950's, this time with the once-proud Philadelphia Athletics franchise, after it was sold to Arnold Johnson and moved to Kansas City. Although Johnson was sharp enough to divide and conquer the already-divided Mack family in buying the A's, he wasn't sharp enough to take advantage of the fact that he owned Yankee Stadium, and could have exercised some leverage on the Yankees. Indeed, it was Yankee owners Del Webb and Dan Topping who took advantage of the relationship with Johnson. Shortly after the A's moved to KC, Missouri baseball fans found they would not be able to enjoy their ill-gotten ballclub, because the Athletics became a farm team for the Yankees.

Over the course of five years, the two teams made 16 trades involving 60 players. In the process, Johnson invariably dealt off the Athletics' best players (Roger Maris, Bobby Shantz, Harry Simpson, Art Ditmar, Ralph Terry, Enos Slaughter, Hector Lopez, Clete Boyer, Ryne Duren, Buddy Daley) and fueled the Yankees' string of pennants in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In fact, it could be argued, only somewhat facetiously, that the fall of the Yankees' dynasty after 1964 stemmed not from New York's well-noted failure to sign black players, but from the failure of Kansas City to employ enough good players of any color.

Returning to the 19th Century version of “Let's Make a Deal,” the competitive results of syndicate baseball in the National League were astounding, and predictable. In the years from 1892 to 1899, the first place teams in the National League finished with an average record of 94-43, a .686 winning percentage. The 12th place team's average record was 35-102, a .255 winning percentage. The average difference? The last place team finished 59 games out of first each year.

Given the situation that fans had been living with for the past eight seasons, Ban Johnson's decision to re-name his Western League in 1900 was met with more than a little interest, especially since he also made it clear that his new American League was getting ready to challenge the National League's monopoly.

The history of Johnson's creation actually dates back to late 1893, when the original Western League folded. Johnson, a collegiate catcher who graduated from Marietta College (much later, the winner of three NCAA Division III baseball crowns) in 1887 and went into journalism with the Cincinnati Commercial Gazette was, like most sportswriters past, present and future, a highly opinionated individual. In Johnson's case, his opinions were directed at the biggest (and almost only) target in American sports—baseball. However, unlike most of his ink-stained brethren, Johnson was in a position to do something with his opinions—or, at least do something more than seeing them in print.

Johnson had caught the eye, ear and attention of Charles Comiskey, from 1892 to 1894 the manager-first baseman of the National League Cincinnati Red Stockings, and a key figure at the same two positions with the champion St. Louis Browns of the American Association in the 1880's. Since the not-yet-Old Roman was about through as a player, hitting .227, .220 and .264 in that high-average era, it could be speculated that Johnson was writing that Comiskey should retire.

However, that was not the case. Johnson and Comiskey ended up talking about the future of the game, and how a league should be run. (Actually, Comiskey did retire as a player following the 1894 season, with a career .264 average that suggests his Hall of Fame election was a tribute to his organizing, fielding and managing skills. It certainly couldn't have been for the pinch-penny ways and the player relations skills that helped bring about the Black Sox scandal.)

In November 1893, while still managing the Reds, Comiskey met with several club owners from the failed Western League, and persuaded them to re-group, and name Johnson as president. Thus, what would become the American League in 1901 began with the 1894 season and teams in Sioux City, Toledo, Indianapolis, Detroit,Kansas City, Milwaukee, Minneapolis and Grand Rapids.

When Comiskey was fired from the Cincinnati job following a 10th place finish in 1894, he joined Johnson, taking over the Sioux City franchise and moving it to St. Paul and eventually (following the 1899 season) to Chicago where he appropriated the National League club's old nickname, White Stockings.

One of the other key moments in the development of the Western League took place in September 1896, when Pittsburgh owner William W. Kerr, a managerial second-guesser such as baseball has seen time and again over the years, came to a parting of the ways with his frustrated catcher-manager, Connie Mack.

Johnson ran his Western League with a good deal more, for want of a better word, dignity, than the National League. Umpires were given real authority, parks were spruced up, drinking and rowdiness were frowned upon (although Johnson himself was known as hard drinker) and most of the clubs made money.

A key moment in the development of 20th Century baseball came after the 1899 season when, as previously mentioned, the National League cut loose Washington, Baltimore, Cleveland and Louisville from its unwieldy 12-team set up. Although the move to dump the weak sisters of syndicated baseball made sense (even though they might not have been weak sisters if not for the joint ownership situation), it gave Johnson an opening to upgrade his operation into a major league city, moving the Grand Rapids franchise to Cleveland. Of course, after what Cleveland fans had experienced from afar in 1899 (a 20-134 record), any reasonably capable team would have probably been welcomed with open arms.

At the same time, Johnson re-named his circuit “The American League,” and Comiskey moved his team from St. Paul to Chicago, interestingly enough, with the agreement of Cubs owner Jim Hart, who felt that The American League wouldn't prove a threat with its ballpark located in the malodorous stockyard section of Chicago. While still a “minor” league, and bound by the National Agreement that governed all organizations within “organized” baseball, there was no doubt that the now-renamed American League was getting serious, and war clouds were gathering at the edges of the National League's wooden bleachers.

Were the fans and the media ready for war? Did William Randolph Hearst invent “Yellow Journalism” a couple of years earlier to fan the flames of the Spanish-American War?

By the time the 1901 rolled around, and war was formally declared, there wasn't much doubt as to the potential of the American League, at least not in the pages of the Philadelphia Ledger. “Its course has been such as to win it many friends,” said the paper's April 23, 1901 edition regarding the new League. And this was the day before the Athletics' scheduled opener. "That it has outgrown being minor league cannot any longer be denied, for that has been demonstrated by its growing popularity, and more especially by the caliber of the teams that represent the cities composing its circuit."

Details of the actions of the new league and the impending war spread like wildfire through the industry's two trade papers, Sporting News and Sporting Life, as well as through dozens of local newspapers (this was the height of the newspaper boom, when a big city would typically have a half dozen dailies) in the late winter and early spring of 1901.

After a successful 1900 season, and after the National League had rebuffed an overture by Johnson to incorporate some of the Western League teams into the National League (which would have ended our story before it began), Johnson eliminated the minor league cities of Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Buffalo and Kansas City, and replaced them with Philadelphia, Boston, Washington and Baltimore. The first two were in direct competition with two of the National League's stronger teams and the last two were, of course, two of the recently evicted NL cities. These moves, in effect, changed the American League from a regional, midwestern loop to a national organization.

At an October 14, 1900 meeting in Chicago, Johnson, in what would prove to be one of his biggest mistakes, gave the Baltimore franchise to old Orioles John McGraw and Wilbert Robinson. McGraw's ego was as big as Johnson's, and, even worse, his behavior was far from the professional and more refined image that Johnson was trying to create for the new league. It was a case of open warfare from the beginning, culminating in McGraw jumping back to the National League in July 1902 and sabotaging the Oriole franchise through a slick stock transfer scheme that put control of the American League team in the hands of New York Giants owner Andrew Freedman.

While Johnson was bringing McGraw into the fold (a wolf in sheep's clothing, as it turned out), he was also giving control of the Washington franchise to Tom Manning (actually, Johnson himself owned 51% of the franchise) and dispatching Connie Mack from Milwaukee to the City of Brotherly Love.

If Mack's many responsibilities in Milwaukee did indeed stand him in good stead when he came to Philadelphia, standing him in even better stead when he was putting the Athletics together were...a couple of other newspapermen...Philadelphia newspapermen.

That's right, the establishment and early acceptance of the A's received a tremendous boost (and not just in the form of good publicity) from the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Associated Press, and various other local media outlets.

Mack arrived in Philadelphia following the 1900 season and set up shop in the Hotel Hanover, initially holding one-quarter of what became the Philadelphia Athletics' stock, worth between five and 10 thousand dollars. The rest was originally held, as previously noted, by Johnson's primary money reserve, Charlie Somers.

Two weeks later, Nick Young, president of the National League, wired Johnson to advise him that he had forgotten to renew his protection fees for the National Agreement for the 1901 season. Johnson, who viewed protection fees the same way as a small shop owner views paying protection to the neighborhood hood, wrote back in typically undiplomatic fashion that he hadn't forgotten. At the same time, he also referred to the on-again, off-again efforts various baseball people were making to revive the old American Association (or, at least, a new major league bearing that name) as a threat that helped motivate the American League's non-payment. (Just to confuse things further, the National League also attempted to form a minor league called the American Association in early 1901, with teams in all of the American League cities.)

Here's the important part of Johnson's letter to Young:

“The plan of the American League to occupy Eastern territory has been well defined, and I think the men of the National League thoroughly understand our position in this matter. For the two years we have been menaced by the possible formation of a league hostile to our interest and detrimental in many ways to organized baseball. This annual agitation is hurtful and we propose to so shape our organization as to check it in the future. In extending our circuit to the far East, it is unreasonable to assume we could continue along the old lines prescribed by the National Agreement. New conditions must alter, in part, our relations with the National League. This is a matter I have informally discussed with some of your members.”

Imagine being a fly on the wall of Young's office when this little missive came in...

"I think the men of the National League thoroughly understand our position."

"Yes, we understand you're trouble," growls Young.

"For two years we have been menaced by the possible formation of a league hostile to our interest and detrimental in many ways to organized baseball."

"Ho, ho. The pot calling the kettle black," snorts Young.

"In extending our circuit to the far East..."

"We'd rather you really extend it to the far East, say to China. Maybe you could get caught in the Boxer Rebellion," wishes Young.

"It is unreasonable to assume we could continue along the old lines prescribed by the National Agreement."

"Since when did you really want to follow the National Agreement in the first place?" asks Young.

"New conditions must alter, in part, our relations with the National League."

"As if you didn't create those conditions yourself," rages Young.

Certainly the part about the menace of another league (the new American Association) was a red herring, since Johnson had only one thing in mind, having the American League take on the National League for supremacy. He couldn't have cared less about a phantom American Association.

Actually, Young didn't directly answer Johnson's baseball version of firing on Fort Sumter, although the November National League annual meeting in Indianapolis decided that it would hold the high moral ground in a baseball war, since the American Leaguers were the secessionists.

However, Johnson, et al certainly weren’t viewed as secessionists, at least not in the sports pages of the April 24, 1901 Philadelphia Inquirer. (Inky Sports Editor Frank Hough was a stockholder in the A's!)

“The commanding position in the baseball world secured by the American League, which opens its championship season to-day, is due in great part to the mistakes of the older organization, the National League. While there has always been a well-defined sentiment favorable to two organizations of a national character, it would have been the work of years to build up the American League to its present proportions but for the shortsighted policy and the grab-all disposition shown by the National League magnates ever since the asinine Indianapolis amalgamation.”

Of course, Inquirer readers could also have gotten the picture from the cartoon of Ban Johnson holding an Emancipation Proclamation in front of an unchained American Leaguer. "The Liberator of the American Baseball Slave" the cartoon was titled.

Those were the days…

John Shiffert is a member of the Society for Baseball Research (SABR), the former publisher of the Philadelphia Baseball File (1989-1991), the former Sports Information Director for Earlham College (1973-1974) and Drexel University (1975-1979) and a sportswriter of some 35 years experience, starting in high school in Philadelphia. Every week Shiffert (a baseball historian and Phillies fan living in exile outside of Atlanta) looks at a timely event from baseball's history and ties it into a event or news story from today's headlines in his free e-zine, 19 to 21 (

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