Part 2 of our series on Important Moments in Team Building. See introduction, and up-to-date list.
Whatever one might think about the quality and style of the baseball played in the 19th century — the great players, the exciting pennant races, the personalities, the stories, the romance — we should all agree on one thing: for the historian interested in team management or roster building, it was a bit of a mess. There were five different major leagues (counting the National Association, whose major league status is disputed); there were teams that moved cities (including in the middle of a season), disbanded, or merged with other teams. There were owners who controlled multiple teams and swapped players between them at will. There were minor league teams that joined major leagues in mid-season. Some of these teams played only a handful of games in their history, but are still considered “major league” teams today, and their players have the same status in the record book as Willie Mays.
After the American Association folded in 1891 (technically a merger, and four of its teams joined the NL), the National League enjoyed the first stable period of its existence, and exploited its status as the only recognized major league. From 1892-1899, the single 12-team league had the same teams in the same cities, and enjoyed some of its more famous seasons. The Baltimore Orioles and Boston Red Stockings of the 1890s were legendary clubs.
In 1900 the National League dropped its four weakest franchises, providing the
opening for the American League (a strong minor league at the time) and its imperious president, Ban Johnson, to vie for major league status. The 1901 American League (now a self-described “major league”) would be made up of a mix of current NL cities (Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago), and former NL cities (Baltimore, Washington, Detroit, Cleveland) plus Milwaukee. Within two years they moved into New York and St. Louis.
The NL still had the best players, and the reserve clause meant that a challenge would be a tough slog. The AL respected the NL’s contracts, but not the reserve clause, and spent the 1900-1901 offseason traveling the country trying to sign NL players whose contracts had expired. Since nearly everyone had one year contracts, this offered a large field. For their efforts, the AL owners landed many of baseball’s top stars –including Jimmy Williams, Nap Lajoie, Jimmy Collins, and Cy Young—players who had never before known competition for their services.
Within a year it was obvious that the AL was a serious competitor – it was well capitalized, its franchises were in big cities (matching the NL in attendance for the 1901 season), it had good players, and it was unified under a powerful and competent president. Much more unified, in fact, than the constantly feuding and self-interested NL owners.
For about two years, major league players had options. Those who did not switch leagues – men like star shortstop Honus Wagner – could at least bring a little more leverage into negotiations with their current club.
The low point in AL-NL discord came in 1902, and ultimately led to the destruction of the AL’s Baltimore franchise. The Orioles (not the same as the 1890s Baltimore NL club that had folded) were managed by John McGraw, an NL star from the 1890s whose brand of umpire-baiting and general ruffianism put him at odds on a near daily basis with President Johnson, who wanted his league to be a cleaner, more respectable affair. Sensing an opening, the two most scheming NL owners decided to pounce. Cincinnati owner John Brush convinced McGraw to quit the Orioles and move back to the NL to manage the New York Giants in the middle of the 1902 season. Giants owner Andrew Friedman, Brush, and confidants then followed up by purchasing a controlling interest in the Orioles and releasing many of the best players. McGraw quickly directed many of his former charges to re-sign with him and the Giants.
Johnson had been itching to challenge the NL in New York. With the Orioles now decimated on the field and with a muddled ownership, Johnson had his chance. He soon announced that the AL would replace the Orioles with a new franchise in New York City, competing directly with the Giants. Freedman, who didn’t really like baseball anyway, sold the Giants to Brush, who in turn sold the Reds to local Cincinnati businessmen. The new Reds owners named August Herrmann as team president. The resultant National League – losing Freedman and gaining Herrmann — proved to be one of the more important upgrades in league history.
Without Freedman, a remarkably divisive figure, the remaining NL owners – led by Pittsburgh’s Barney Dreyfuss – soon agreed to peace talks with the American League. The resultant agreement essentially recognized the AL as an equal partner. The leagues remained separate legally, but once they agreed to recognize each other’s reserve lists the leagues were effectively a single monopoly that controlled the careers of its players. The emergent two-league 16-team setup made no changes to its map for 50 years, not until the Boston Braves moved to Milwaukee in 1953.
Sealing the partnership, at the end of the 1903 season the NL champion Pittsburgh Pirates and the AL champion Boston Americans agreed to play a series of games to determine baseball’s true champion. This became an annual event — the World Series – and has been played in 113 of the past 115 seasons. The major leagues, as all of us came to know them, truly came into existence in 1903.