The Birth of the American League and How it Transformed the Game

Ban Johnson, left, was instrumental in helping to form the American League. (via Library of Congress)

Ban Johnson, left, was instrumental in helping to form the American League. (via Library of Congress)

Negro Leagues aside, there have been up to seven major leagues in professional baseball history (there is some dispute among historians about exactly which leagues qualify): the National Association, the National League, the American Association, the Union Association, the Players League, the American League, and the Federal League. With the exception of the National Association, the general theme of these leagues is that they all emerged as challengers to the established National League. And with the exception of the American League, they were all relatively short-lived, doomed to collapse as the National League continued on.

Why did the American League succeed where its predecessors (or, in the case of the Federal League, successor) failed? And how did this series of competing leagues driving each other out of business give way to the coalition of the National and American Leagues that form Major League Baseball as we know it today?

The Origins of the American League

Key figure: Ban Johnson

We can start back in 1885 with the Western League, a minor league covering the Midwestern states. The Western League was not particularly notable at the time. In fact, it barely stayed afloat at all, folding and reforming several times in its first decade. When Ban Johnson, a sportswriter from Cincinnati, took over as league president in November of 1893, the league had just failed to get through another full season. There was little reason to suspect this league even would be around at the turn of the century, let alone be ready to challenge the National League.

Professional baseball at this time was marred by dirty, and at times violent, play. Umpire intimidation and flat-out cheating were commonplace, even expected. The language of the ballpark was, to put it euphemistically, pretty colorful. Johnson saw no place in the game for any of this. As a writer, he had advocated for the cleaning up of the game. As a league president, he put his ideals into practice. Soon, his teams were marketing a different brand of family-friendly baseball, and with their expanded audience the league was not only solvent but flourishing. At their best, they could even draw crowds that rivaled those of the National League.

By contrast, the National League suffered from a relative lack of central leadership. NL President Nicholas Young did little to challenge the power of the league’s owners. By the turn of the century, this complacency had begun to cause some serious problems for the league.

The National League Contracts

Key figures: Frank and Stan Robison, Andrew Freedman, Cy Young, et al

The 19th century was a volatile period for professional baseball. Teams, and sometimes whole leagues, popped in and out of existence on a regular basis. The National League, while more stable as a league than its competitors, was not immune. By 1900, only two of the league’s eight original teams (Chicago and Boston) were still around.

Following the collapse of the NL’s primary competitor, the American Association, in 1891, the National League operated unchallenged for most of the next decade. The NL absorbed four of the former AA teams (St. Louis, Baltimore, Washington, and Louisville) and continued as a 12-team league through the 1899 season with no turnover. By 1899, however, some cracks were beginning to show in that stability. Or rather, some cracks and one giant breach that was the Cleveland Spiders.

Cleveland was bad. You may know of the Spiders for their record futility, a 20-134 finish that left them 84 games out of first. It’s worse than that, though. The team drew roughly 6,000 fans that year. Hey, you might be thinking, the Marlins draw worse than that some nights. And they do, on some nights. But that was Cleveland’s entire season total. Not 6,000 fans per game, 6,000 fans, period.

Which brings us to an even more untouchable record than their 0.130 winning percentage: Cleveland lost 101 games on the road that year. The team drew so poorly that the gate receipts weren’t even guaranteed to cover the transportation costs for teams to come play there. The Spiders abandoned their home schedule in early July and started playing nearly every game on the road just to get through the season.

At the end of the year, Cleveland folded and was dropped from the league, along with Baltimore, Washington, and Louisville, and the NL returned to an eight-team format. This, by itself, wasn’t the biggest problem for the NL. Teams had folded before. The biggest problem was that when these cracks were forming, rather than doing what they could to patch them up, they instead picked up a proverbially rather large hammer and began driving a wedge through them until they ruptured.

Two owners in particular were responsible for this irresponsible hammer-wielding: Frank Robison (along with his brother Stan), who owned Cleveland, and Andrew Freedman, who owned New York.

Cleveland had actually finished in the first division (that is, the top half of the standings) with a perfectly respectable 81-68 record in 1898. That offseason, the Robisons bought the St. Louis franchise in addition to their Cleveland franchise, which gave them a simultaneous controlling stake in two different teams.

Rather than try to field two reasonable teams, they decided to build one contender. In the most lopsided transaction in major league history, the Robisons sent anyone of any value, including Hall of Famers Cy Young, Bobby Wallace, and Jesse Burkett, to St. Louis while returning nothing but roster filler back the other way (this is why no one is allowed to own more than one team at a time anymore, by the way). This rather predictably led to the collapse of the Cleveland franchise.

While the Robisons acted out of genuine (if selfish and short-sighted) business interests, Freedman was literally just trying to mess with the NL. I know that sounds hyperbolic, but Freedman is quite possibly the worst owner in the history of sports, which is saying something given what we just went over with the Robisons in Cleveland. Check out his SABR bio if you have time (highlights include Bill James calling him “George Steinbrenner on Quaaludes with a touch of Al Capone” and him taking over a minor league team only to have it run out of the league by his mere presence within a year).

The Split Stat Hall of Famers
These players might have gotten greater Cooperstown consideration with less dramatic splits.

While Freedman didn’t conduct the type of fire sale the Robisons held in Cleveland, he basically just let the New York Giants fall into complete neglect out of some combination of losing interest and a desire to spite the other NL owners (see the SABR bio for more details, but basically he was upset the other owners hadn’t backed him on a disciplinary issue involving a player on an opposing team). He left the team in control of some truly bizarre managerial choices (John Day, the team’s former president and an acquaintance of Freedman, and Fred Hoey, neither of whom had any other experience playing or managing professionally) while ignoring his front-office duties and watching the team plummet through the standings.

This was important because New York was critical to the league’s financial success. It was so much so that when, a few years earlier, Freedman had driven star pitcher Amos Rusie to sit out the entire 1896 season in a contract dispute, the league’s other owners actually paid Rusie to return to pitch against their teams the next season. Under Freedman’s (lack of) direction, within a few years New York went from the league’s leading draw to the attendance levels of the teams (other than Cleveland) that were contracted. The loss of essential New York revenues meant those teams couldn’t survive their own attendance woes. Of course, Freedman also lost money, but he was by far the wealthiest owner in the league and could afford it.

Without strong leadership to rein in these owners, the league contracted unnecessarily. This meant two things for Ban Johnson and the American League. One, four major league cities now were without teams. Two, a third of the National League’s players were now without jobs. This created the first condition necessary for the AL to make the jump to major league status. By 1901, the AL had moved into the vacated Cleveland, Baltimore and Washington markets, and also put teams in Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia to challenge the NL in its own cities.

The Players Protective Association

Key figures: Chief Zimmer, Ban Johnson, Cy Young, Nap Lajoie, John Montgomery Ward

Young was perhaps the player most affected by the Robison debacle in Cleveland. He hated the summer heat and humidity of St. Louis. His wife, an Ohio native like Cy, missed their old home in Cleveland. Young was, in essence, exactly the kind of player Ban Johnson needed: a major star who was dissatisfied with his current situation in the National League.

Even after moving into the top markets in the country, the AL still needed to attract the game’s top talent to truly challenge the National League. Valuable players like Honus Wagner, John McGraw or Joe McGinnity who had played for the folded teams were simply traded or transferred to other NL teams rather than released as free agents, so contraction only provided access to the weakest level of major league talent.

Previously, the American Association had declined to pursue the NL’s players upon its founding in 1882. The following year, a formal agreement between the AA and NL restricted player movement between the two leagues for most of their coexistence. Without the NL’s talent, the AA was never quite able to catch up to the NL’s level of play and, in fact, ended up losing a good deal of its own talent because strong AA teams would regularly jump over the more profitable NL whenever there was an opening in the league.

The Union Association had managed to sign a handful of good players away from the NL, such as Jim McCormick and Jack Glasscock from Cleveland, but overall the UA barely made a dent in the NL’s talent pool before folding after one season.

Only the Players League had managed to pry away a significant portion of the National League’s talent. Spurred by unfavorable labor conditions in the NL and AA, the players unionized in 1885, forming the Brotherhood of Professional Baseball Players (led by Hall of Famer John Montgomery Ward). After failing to make progress with the NL and AA, the Brotherhood eventually formed its own league in 1890.

With the full support of the game’s best talent, the Players League was an instant success on the field. It was probably stronger than the National League for its one year of existence. However, the league lacked the funding and organizational infrastructure to continue beyond that year, and the players returned to their old teams. (Incidentally, increased competition from the Players League was a significant factor in the weakening and subsequent collapse of the American Association shortly thereafter.)

After years of building up the old Western League, the AL already had the funding and infrastructure in place that the Players League had lacked. It just needed the talent, and the Players League had provided the blueprint for how to get it.

Early in the 1900 season, several National League players met in New York to discuss their discontent with labor conditions. Fed up with situations like Young’s transfer to St. Louis, they decided to form the Players Protective Association, a successor to the Brotherhood. The PPA’s primary goal was to give players more control over their own employment by addressing three main issues: the perpetual reserve clause, the trading or selling of players without their consent, and the farming of players to and from the minor leagues. Additionally, the PPA sought general improvements like medical coverage for injuries sustained in the field of play, limits on suspensions, and arbitration to settle disputes between players and the league or their teams.

When the National League flatly refused to negotiate with the PPA or make any concessions to the players, the AL saw the opportunity to get the talent it needed. Johnson announced he would be more amenable to the PPA’s demands, and the players responded. At a meeting ahead of the 1901 season, PPA president Chief Zimmer made clear to the NL that the AL threat was real:

Practically every National League player in the country is with us, and if we decide to stick together, as we surely will, what can the magnates do?…I am not forecasting our action, but I would like to ask what would happen should we decide to go over to the American League in a body?

Even as players actually began leaving their NL teams to sign with Johnson’s league, the NL continued to underestimate the strength of the AL’s position and held firm with the players. Brooklyn manager Ned Hanlon summed up the NL’s position to reporters that March:

I tell you that every player who has jumped the National League and signed with the American League will feel sorry before the season ends. I think the American League will go to the wall…I see that Mr. Ban Johnson says I don’t know what I am talking about when I say his league will not make money. Well, before the season is half over Mr. Johnson will acknowledge that I am right and that he was talking through his hat.

As you probably have surmised from the fact that the AL is still around, Mr. Johnson was not, in fact, talking through his hat (at least not figuratively—I have no idea what he did literally). The NL lost roughly a third of its players to the AL that offseason, including seven future Hall of Famers, most of whom were gone for good. Add in the players the AL picked up from the 1899 contraction, and over half the league that year came from the NL. The NL was still the stronger league in 1901, but with stars like Cy Young and Nap Lajoie leading a deep crop of talent, in just one year the AL had already made up most of the difference.

By the 1902 season, the case could be made that the AL had caught up. It took another quarter of the NL’s workforce that winter, including several more stars. The upstart league also moved into another NL market, as the Milwaukee franchise transferred to St. Louis, where it quickly began out-drawing the NL’s Cardinals, largely by signing away the Cardinals’ biggest stars (including the aforementioned Wallace and Burkett). Some players who had jumped to the AL the year before went back to NL, but the number and quality of players switching leagues clearly favored the AL, with one notable exception: the Baltimore Orioles.

At some point during the 1902 season, NL owner John T. Brush managed to acquire a controlling stake in the AL’s Baltimore franchise. Brush, the most adamantly anti-AL owner in the game, proceeded to release most of Baltimore’s roster and allow its players to sign with the National League, effectively destroying Baltimore as a franchise. Baltimore forfeited its July 17 game against St. Louis because it didn’t have enough players left to field a team.

Ban Johnson, in contrast to Nicholas Young, took a proactive approach in handling the situation. The league immediately took over the franchise and loaned out enough players from other teams to avoid a repeat of the July 17 forfeit and get Baltimore through the season. Granted, the team was terrible, but Johnson was not willing to simply let itcollapse. Following the season, Johnson was able to find a new ownership group to take over the franchise and maintain the league’s continuity.

Even with the Baltimore disaster, the AL clearly had the upper hand. Over the course of the previous two seasons, more players from the 1900 NL had jumped to the AL than remained in the NL. It was clear the NL needed to do something quickly.

A Change in Leadership

Key figures: Albert Spalding, Andrew Freedman, John T. Brush, Nicholas Young, Harry Pulliam

While the NL publicly downplayed the threat posed by the upstart American League, privately its owners were concerned. Ahead of the 1901 season, a letter from Frank Robison circulated among the NL owners pushing for a change in leadership of the league. Robison argued that the National League had lost the support of the public and of the newspapers, and that to get it back it would need a popular figurehead to counteract the efforts of Ban Johnson. He put forth Albert Spalding, one of the most popular and influential figures of 19th century baseball, as the man for the job.

The American League’s success over the following year only increased the sense of urgency. This was not the first time Spalding’s name had come up in connection with the league presidency, but with most of the league supporting a change, it was the first effort that amounted to anything. Following the 1901 season, the NL owners officially advanced Spalding as a candidate to succeed Nicholas Young as president.

There was, however, a rival faction within the league, led by Andrew Freedman and John Brush. The Freedman-Brush plan was to do away with the office of the president entirely, convert the league to a single-entity structure, and run the league through a central trust. Under their model, the central trust would run the baseball operations for each team. Players would sign with the league and then be assigned to teams by a board of regents, similar to how Major League Soccer operates today or how the WNBA originally operated.

Freedman and Brush privately built support for their plan over the course of the year, eventually winning the backing of Frank Robison and Boston president Arthur Soden, both of whom had previously supported Spalding. When the owners met in December of 1901 to decide on the issue of the presidency, the Freedman-Brush faction nominally backed the re-election of Nicholas Young.

The two factions were completely deadlocked. They took 25 votes, each ending with the same 4-4 split. At one point they tried introducing Abraham Mills as a third candidate, but to no avail. Finally, after the meeting had carried on past midnight with no progress, Freedman, Brush, Robison and Soden stormed out of the hotel. The four remaining owners declared the meeting still in session, took a 26th vote, and unanimously elected Spalding the new league president.

Spalding’s election had the desired effect among fans and newspapers. A wave of optimistic articles praising Spalding brought the NL much needed publicity. Ban Johnson personally endorsed Spalding’s election, and Spalding pledged to work toward peace with the new league. The only problem was that Spalding’s election, while popular, was not particularly legitimate, and Freedman quickly obtained an injunction blocking him from taking office pending court proceedings. In fact, the only thing Spalding actually did as president was try to expel Freedman from the league, which, while itself a popular move, also lacked any concrete legal basis.

Things remained unchanged through the 1902 season, and within the year Spalding and Freedman were both out of the league for good. Freedman sold his New York franchise to Brush, the central-trust faction dissolved, and the following winter, Pittsburgh president Harry Pulliam was elected as Young’s successor.

Peace Between the Leagues

Key figures: Harry Pulliam, Ban Johnson, August Herrmann

The first event on Pulliam’s calendar was a peace conference with a group of AL leaders in Cincinnati. Each league was to send a delegation of three owners, along with Pulliam and Ban Johnson, to discuss terms of an agreement.

The conference almost didn’t happen. The American League granted its delegation full power to negotiate and ratify any terms at the meeting without the approval of the remaining teams, and they demanded the National League do the same. Without this assurance, the AL felt attending the conference would be a waste of time, as any agreement could be easily undone in a later NL meeting. Observers were skeptical the NL would agree, especially after the start of the conference was postponed. At the last minute, however, the NL conceded, and the conference was granted full power to produce a binding agreement.

Notably, John Brush was not included in the National League delegation. The last-minute terms ensured he would have little power in the final negotiations. This removed the biggest roadblock to negotiations. The AL had most of the leverage—the NL had waited too long sorting out its own issues and was by that time clearly the side in greater need of a truce—but the proceedings remained surprisingly cordial nonetheless, as both sides genuinely wanted to move on from the constantly escalating fight over players. Cincinnati president August Herrmann, an old friend of Johnson’s, was particularly active in the meetings and was critical to their success.

The two main points of contention at the conference were the various disputes over players who had ignored the reserve clause to jump from one league to the other, and the territorial rights of each league. In particular, the American League was threatening to move its Baltimore and Washington franchises to the NL cities of New York and Pittsburgh, respectively. There were additional discussions—for example, the NL favored consolidating into one 12-team league—but those were the two main issues at stake.

On the first point, the committee drew up a list of all contested players and assigned each of them to one league or the other. Only players who had tried to jump that offseason were considered—anyone who had already jumped for previous seasons remained with his new club.

Most players were returned to their 1902 teams, such as Christy Mathewson (returned from the Browns to the Giants), Nap Lajoie (returned from the Giants to the Naps—Cleveland’s nickname would have been pretty awkward otherwise), George Davis (returned from the Giants to the White Sox), and Ed Delahanty (returned from the Giants to the Senators). Some, however, were allowed to remain with their new teams, most notably Sam Crawford (jumped from the Reds to the Tigers), Willie Keeler (jumped from the Superbas to the Highlanders—teams that later would be known as the Dodgers and the Yankees, respectively), and Jack Chesbro (jumped from the Pirates to the Highlanders).

On the second point, the AL agreed to withdraw its plans to move into Pittsburgh. However, it would not budge on the issue of New York. In a bitter twist of irony, Brush’s maneuvering the previous season likely ended up causing him more problems than anyone. Johnson and the new ownership group he had found for the Baltimore team insisted on relocating to the nation’s most valuable market, and it was exactly Brush’s stunt leaving the team in shambles that gave them the justification to do it. Furthermore, it was likely that same need to rebuild from nothing that led to the New York team getting some of the most favorable rulings on player disputes (Keeler and Chesbro).

The NL had little choice but to give in on the matter. With that concession, peace was achieved relatively quickly, and the major leagues as we know them today effectively came into existence. The AL and NL would be jointly governed by the National Commission, a board consisting of Johnson, Pulliam, and a mutually-agreed-upon third party (later decided to be August Herrmann) that essentially filled the role of the modern commissioner’s office. The leagues would respect each other’s contract claims, including the reserve clause. Major changes, such as a team in either league relocating, would have to be approved by a majority vote in both leagues.

Brush, of course, was incensed. Not only had he lost some control of the New York market to the AL, he also had been the most successful NL owner in luring away AL talent that offseason, which was completely nullified by the agreement. Plus, he never wanted a peace agreement in the first place. George Davis, one of the era’s biggest stars, attempted to defy the agreement by refusing to report to Chicago and playing for Brush’s Giants anyway, but a judge ruled his action illegal. Davis played only four games for New York and returned to Chicago the following year. Brush’s attempts to derail the agreement also were unsuccessful.

The agreement was not all positive. While it was welcomed by most owners in both leagues, the return of the major leagues to a monopoly structure effectively killed the players union movement.

There were some lasting effects of the PPA’s progress with the American League. The top salaries were more than double what they had been just a couple of years earlier. The NL’s previous system of farming players was outlawed in the new agreement. The union’s two other primary goals (placing restrictions on the reserve clause and requiring a player’s consent to be reassigned to another team) remained unfulfilled, however. Players won the right to appeal suspensions, but only to the National Commission and not to an independent arbitrator.

Still, the agreement played a significant role in transitioning from the much wilder (both on and off the field) atmosphere of 19th-century baseball to the relatively stable model of MLB that has existed for the past century, and the emergence of the American League brought several improvements to the game at the professional level.

Finally, as a sign of their newfound alliance, the two leagues agreed to terms for a postseason series pitting the champions of the two leagues against each other to crown an overall champion. This was the birth of the modern World Series, a spiritual successor to the previous postseason series between the champions of the National League and the American Association during the 1880s, and to the Temple Cup, a postseason series between the NL champions and runners up during the mid-1890s.

The Boston Americans defeated the Pittsburgh Pirates in the first World Series, and fans had a new occasion to celebrate. After two years of bitter fighting, the baseball world was finally at peace. That is, of course, until Brush’s Giants won the pennant in 1904, but I’m afraid that’s another article entirely.

References & Resources

  • Washington Evening Star, Sept. 18, 1901
  • The New York Times, Dec. 14, 1901
  • New York Tribune, Dec. 14, 1901
  • Omaha Daily Bee, Dec. 17, 1901
  • St. Paul Globe, Jan. 19, 1902; Dec. 30, 1902; and Jan. 11, 1903
  • Doug Pappas, SABR


Adam Dorhauer grew up a third-generation Cardinals fan in Missouri, and now lives in Ohio. His writing on baseball focuses on the history of the game, as well as statistical concepts as they apply to baseball. Visit his website, 3-D Baseball.
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Paul G.
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Paul G.

Another thing that may have helped the American League is there was a movement at the time to reform the American Association. From what I have read the National League was very concerned at squashing the new AA which let the AL go relatively unnoticed. Element of surprise is always useful!

obsessivegiantscompulsive
Guest

This is a great article, I enjoyed reading it immensely! Can’t wait until you follow up with the 1904 Giants brouhaha! :^)

Adam Dorhauer
Guest

Thank you, I appreciate it.

I think the current plan is to wait until the 2016 THT Annual for the 1904 WS follow-up, so it could be a while, but hopefully it will be worth the wait.

Mark Armour
Guest
Barney Dreyfuss deserves considerable credit for the peace. While all the other NL owners were fighting amongst themselves and pissed at Dreyfuss (who had the best team), Dreyfuss acted as the only adult in the room. It was he who orchestrated the election of Pulliam (who was Dreyfuss’s friend and employee), and it was he who agreed to meet the upstart AL in the post-season even though his team was wracked with injuries. And, of course, it was he who came out of the peace negotiations will all of his players. In my view, Dreyfuss in the unheralded giant of… Read more »
Scooter
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Scooter

I loved the stuffing out of this article. Fascinating and complex subject, laid out in digestible format. Thanks!

art kyriazis
Guest
art kyriazis
great article, but this has all been covered at longer length in earlier works, particularly Harold Seymour’s three volume work on the History of Baseball published in the 1950s and early 1960s. And of course the original source material in the Reach and Spalding Guides from 1901-04 are readily available, as are newspaper accounts from the time. To be honest, I’d think a more footnoted and scholarly approach would be called for given all of the sources and all of the SABR articles out there. On the other hand, this article does have some peculiar omissions, such as the weird… Read more »
Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider

No court may have specifically upheld the reserve clause but, in later years, by finding that baseball was exempt from the federal antitrust laws, the Supreme Court effectively upheld it. The reserve clause is a naked restraint of trade under antitrust laws; there are other ways of attacking contracts under contract law, but I assume these would be more difficult to win, especially since these claims would have to be on a state-by-state basis.