Back in 1981 Major League Baseball decided to have a split season. There was a strike during the year and so a first and second half winner was declared in each division, playoffs occurred, and eventually the Dodgers beat the Yankees in the World Series. To hear pundits and some fans tell it, that was the worst thing that head ever happened to baseball, if not to the entire world. For a season or two, even the worst designated hitter haters had a new villain. Turns out, of course, that it was really nothing new. It had all been tried before.
Between 1882 and 1891 there were two Major Leagues, the National League and the American Association. They existed in an uneasy truce that led eventually to a handful of postseason games that were something like a 19th Century version of the World Series. That ended in 1890 and after the 1891 season, the American Association folded leaving only the National League. The postseason series’ had been pretty haphazard in number of games and in scheduling, but they had been reasonably popular. With the demise of the Association, there were now no more postseason games, which among other things, meant less revenue for the owners. What to do?
The owners decided to split the season into two parts. The winners of each half would then meet in a postseason series. Should the same team win both halves, then the team that finished second in the last half would take on the overall winner.
The team in Boston, the Beaneaters–which gets my vote for the absolutely worst team nickname ever–went 52-22 and won the first half by 2.5 games over Brooklyn. The team consisted of Hall of Famers Hugh Duffy and Tommy McCarthy in the outfield, King Kelly behind the plate, with Billy Nash, Tommy Tucker, Joe Quinn, Bobby Lowe, and Herman Long holding down the rest of the positions. Hall of Fame pitcher John Clarkson started the season at Boston, but was traded to Cleveland during the season. That left Kid Nichols as the undisputed ace. Nichols had a great year going 35-26 with 187 strikouts, a 2.84 ERA, and five shutouts.
During the second half of the season, Boston continued winning, but a new team showed up to challenge them. The Cleveland Spiders finished fifth in the first half, then ran off a 53-23 record in the second half to finish three games ahead of Boston. Cleveland had future Hall of Famers Jesse Burkett and George Davis leading their attack, with Cupid Childs and Jack Virtue providing the rest of the firepower. Clarkson, over from Boston went 17-10 and Nig Cuppy was 28-13 for the Spiders. But the real find was third year pitcher Cy Young. Young went 36-12, led the league in ERA at 1.93, struck out 168, and threw a league leading nine shutouts.
The postseason series was a walkover. After a tie in game one, Boston ran off five straight victories, defeating both Clarkson and Young twice, to claim the title. Duffy hit .462, had nine RBIs, twelve hits, and one of the three Boston home runs to pace the Beaneaters. Nichols and two pitcher Jake Stivetts each won two games (Harry Staley won the other). For the Spiders,shortstop Ed McKean hit well (.440), as did Childs, but the rest of the team was shut down.
The split season hadn’t been overly successful. There were allegations that because Boston had nothing to play for, the team wasn’t playing up to speed during the second half. In their defense, they came in second that half and had the best overall record in the league. The postseason games had not been either well played or well attended. The owners decided to scrap the split season and go with a single pennant winner. There would be no more postseason play until the Temple Cup games beginning in 1894. The split season was not a success and it took all the way to 1981 to try it again.