: September 15, 2008
Baseball at the Turn of the 20th Century by Bob Chaikin
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Baseball\'s modern accouterments often seem to possess too much velocity for such a leisurely. Sitting in a park this weekend, watching the frenetic scoreboard exhort the crowd to shout, to applaud, to wave, to feel something, we thought about an earlier game, played on quiet summer afternoons before decorous crowds of men in ties and straw hats, of women in dresses, carrying parasols, and we remembered this article by Bob Chaikin which appeared on our pages in July, 1999)
Baseball has been America’s national pastime for close to 130 years, if not longer. As we approach the year 2000 and the turn of this current century there are many aspects of the game that we as fans love, but some that as followers of the sport we just don’t want to hear about anymore. Everyone follows intently the current home run race between Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire, but most of us are just plain tired of hearing team owners complaining that they need new stadiums, financed by the public, to increase their revenues when most of us can’t even afford the price of a single game ticket.
Everyone was happy for Pete Rose, and for the game of baseball, when he broke Ty Cobb’s record for hits in a career back in the mid-1980s. Charlie Hustle epitomized the type of player fans loved the most, the one who played all out all the time and would seemingly play the game for nothing. But most fans are sick of hearing about whether or not he should be in the Hall of Fame, weighing his statistics against his purported gambling on baseball and the blemish that lends to the sport. The old-timers are often quoted as saying “…why can’t the game be like it was when I was young, when all they did was play baseball? When it was a game and not a business?…”. But was that all that baseball really was way back “then”? As we approach the turn of this century, just what was the game of baseball really like at the turn of the last century?
Back in the decade of the 1890s there was only one “major” league in baseball, the National League. It consisted of twelve teams for eight straight seasons, from the years 1892 through 1899. Two years earlier to this reign, in 1890, there was actually not just one but three different major leagues, the National League, the American Association, and the Players League. The AA had been the NL’s major competition in the 1880s, and the PL was born out of the players’ frustration in both those leagues with the team owners, their salary constraints, and the reserve clause, which basically bound a player to a team indefinitely. Teams did not hesitate to treat their players like commodities and pieces of property, and players in turn commonly jumped between teams and also leagues searching for the best deal for themselves. Low gate revenues, stretched exceedingly thin by having 24 teams and 3 different leagues in 1891, forced the dismantling of the PL after just one season, and by t!he end of 1892 compelled the merger of the AA with the NL (actually the NL took in only four of the eight AA teams, with the remaining four clubs being disbanded).
Although having a monopoly on the game during the years just prior to 1900 would have appeared to lend the National League stability as compared to the “chaos” seen earlier with the several leagues and constant player movement, just the opposite became true. Without the competition of another league, the reserve clause bound players to their respective teams (at pretty much a salary dictated by the team), and they had no say as to where they may be traded or sold (and also not receive any of that sale money). The NL further alienated its players by slashing salaries and reducing rosters, creating an atmosphere of discontent between the players and owners that lasted the whole decade. Many star players held out and numerous lawsuits over contracts ensued. Since there wasn’t a players union, any players who fell ill during the season or were even injured while playing on the ball field had little assurance of being paid their salaries.
On the field the grand old game was one of constant rowdyism and dirty play compared to the standard of today (yet not as bad as in the 1870s and 1880s). Since the umpire did not yet have the authority to throw a player or coach out of a game (not until the end of the decade), constant arguing, umpire-baiting, name-calling, player fights, and indecent and often vile language were the norm rather than the exception. Umpires could do little as owners often looked the other way believing the fans were getting more of what they wanted for their dollar. Gambling, too, was a prevalent problem, and not just in the stands among the patrons but also between players, managers, and even the team owners themselves. Local newspapers often inquired in print as to whether certain players were on the “take” based on their lackluster performances of the day before.
Even the “world series” of the time (called the temple cup in the 1890s) was a farce to the fans, designed strictly to increase the revenue of the owners. Since there was just the one league of 12 teams (no divisions like there are today) the first place team in the league simply played the 2nd place team in the series, meaning the 1st place club had basically everything to lose and nothing to gain by playing, except for the money awarded the winners. Fans lost interest when rumors emerged of players from the two teams secretly agreeing to split the winning money 50/50 prior to the contests even being played.
Towards the end of the decade, many NL team owners began to gain financial interests in other teams within the league as well as their own (called syndicate ownership). This was nothing new in the short history of baseball up until then, but a few owners took extreme measures to, again, increase their revenues by “trading” the best players from one of their teams to the other (to the city capable of drawing the higher attendance), making a mockery of the concept of genuine competition. As an example, in 1899 the team owners of the Cleveland Spiders gained controlling interest in the St. Louis Browns and commenced to sending Cleveland’s best players to St. Louis, resulting in the Spiders finishing dead last in the league with an abysmal 20-134 record after having finished 5th the year before. The Brooklyn Bridegrooms finished in 1st place despite having been in 10th place just a year ago as they benefited by most of Baltimore’s good players being dealt to them by the Baltimor!e team owner, who had partial ownership of the Brooklyn club as well.
Needless to say, fans, suspicious of the conditions of the game (dirty team play, gambling, team owner chicanery) were losing interest in a big way. This, coupled with a partial lose of fan base due to the Spanish-American war in 1898, convinced NL team owners that to remain in business the league needed to be stream-lined, so in 1900 four teams were dropped reducing the total number to just eight. This left a number of quality ballplayers and several cities longing for major league baseball. The one-time NL rival American Association attempted a revival, even going so far as to try to include a consolidation of teams of a minor league (the Western League a source of players for the NL) composed of mostly mid-western towns headed by one Ban Johnson. But Mr. Johnson had loftier ambitions to create a second major league out of the Western League headed by himself.
The National League, fearful of the AA’s attempt to rekindle, in 1900 allowed Ban Johnson to expand his minor league, now called the American League, into towns recently vacated by the league. But after a successful minor league campaign in 1900 in which many of the teams picked up former National League players, Johnson avowed that no more of his league’s players would be allowed to be drafted by National League teams and proclaimed in 1901 the American League to be a direct major league competitor to the NL. The AL then expanded further eastward, and also shifted a number of the league’s franchises from the midwest to the east coast.
Johnson further solidified his league’s status by recognizing the players new union and their demands, which were both ignored by the NL. Understandably, in just two short years over a third of the NL’s players, including many of it stars, switched allegiances to the AL, either for the higher salaries, less team owner tyranny, or both. The AL also promised a “cleaned-up” game with more authority given to and more backing for the umpires. Fans welcomed the refreshing change, as evidenced by the eight team AL eventually outdrawing in attendence the eight team NL in 1902, reversing the trend of 1901.
Many of the players that jumped leagues simply stayed put in their respective teams towns. The Boston Beaneaters of the NL lost star pitcher Bill Dinneen (20 game winner), third baseman Jimmy Collins (three time .300 hitter), and starting outfielders Buck Freeman and Chick Stahl, to the AL Boston Americans. Clark Griffith (six time 20 game winner) and starting outfielders Danny Green and Sam Mertes left the Chicago Orphans of the NL for the Chicago White Sox of the AL. Jesse Burkett (of), Emmet Heidrick (of), Bobby Wallace (ss), and Willie Sudhoff (p) of the NL St. Louis Perfectos jumped to their cross town rivals the St. Louis Browns.
Some of the big name stars of the day to switch leagues included pitchers Cy Young (from St. Louis of the NL to Boston of the AL, led the AL with 33 wins in 1901), Rube Waddell (Chicago of the NL to Philadelphia of the AL four straight seasons of 20 wins in the AL), Jack Chesbro (28-6 in 1902 for Pittsburgh of the NL, to New York of the AL and 41-12 in 1904), and Joe McGinnity (28-10 in 1900 for Brooklyn NL, to 26-20 in 1901 for Baltimore AL). Napolean Lajoie, star second baseman for the Philadelphia Phillies, whose five seasons in the NL led to a .345 career batting average and season highs of a .378 average and 127 rbi’s, won what we now call the triple crown in the 1901 AL by leading the junior circuit in batting average (.426), home runs (14), and rbi’s (125). That mark of .426 to this day has not been bettered by players in either league.
A few of the other big name players to eventually “see the light” was a trio of all-star outfielders including Ed Delahanty, who hit over .400 three times in the NL for the Philadelphia Phillies and who finished 1st in the AL in hitting in 1902 with a .376 average, Sam Crawford, who after four years with the Cincinnati Reds of the NL played 15 seasons with the AL Detroit Tigers, and 5’4” outfielder Wee Willie Keeler of the NL Baltimore Orioles and Brooklyn Superbas, who played a decade in the NL prior to serving seven years with the AL New York Highlanders.
Few could dispute the quality of play in the AL in 1901 either - compared to the NL. Not only did they have many former NL stars on their squads, but they had some of the very best minor league talent in the country from the year before available. In 1901 the AL as a league hit .277, compared to .267 for the NL (the AL era was 3.66 compared to 3.32 in the NL), with 228 home runs compared to 226 for the NL. In 1902 the AL was the slightly better hitting league with the NL the slightly better pitching league, but in 1903 those roles were reversed. 1903 also saw the first world series between the two leagues, and here, too, the AL showed their superiority as their Boston Pilgrims defeated the NL’s Pittsburgh Pirates in a nine game series.
Even the 1902 annual Spaulding Baseball Guide stated that despite being the new league, the AL offered fans more star players and a better brand of baseball than the established NL. Finally, by 1903 the NL had seen enough and induced the AL to sign a “National Agreement” whereby both leagues recognized (legally) each other as sovereign leagues and respected one another’s player contracts, ending the raiding of a team’s best talent and a player’s ability to play one side against the other in salary negotiations. The downside of this alliance was the dissolution of the players union and the return of the reserve clause in player contracts in other words, baseball business as usual.
Bob Chaikin is the developer of www.bballsports.com, an online historical sports statistics database.