Posts Tagged ‘Players League’

Why 1910 Matters

October 11, 2010

Since April I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time running all over the 1910 baseball season. Part of that is simply because it was 100 years ago and a centennial is worth remembering. It’s also because the season is interesting in itself. But primarily I’ve been focusing on the 1910 season because it is a watershed season for Major League Baseball. There are a lot of reasons why. Here are some in no particular order.

1. The appointment of Hal Chase as manager of the Highlanders (Yankees) is not, for managerial purposes, all that important. What is important is the ability of the owners and the National Commission (which ran baseball before Judge Landis) to look the other way when it came to gambling in the big leagues. Failure to crack down on this sort of activity meant that it was going to get worse and that eventually something like the Black Sox scandal was bound to occur. The players likely to participate in this kind of thing now had proof that not only were the powers that be not going to do anything about gambling,  but might actually reward a player if the situation was right. I don’t want to compare it directly with the steroid situation of the 1990s, but it does seem that Malamud was right, we really don’t learn from our mistakes (The book “The Natural”–not the movie–has this as one of its central themes.).

2. During the 19th Century the National Association, the Union Association, the American Association, and the Player’s League had all existed, as had the National League. By 1892 they were all gone. Only the American Association survived 10 seasons, and by the tenth was on life support. By contrast the American League, founded in 1901, was now ten years old and flourishing. The 1910 season marked a decade of success both as a business and on the field. Frankly, baseball had not had this kind of stability in its history. Ban Johnson had managed to create a new Major League and made it work. By 1910 there was no question the AL was here to stay and that the National League finally had a partner co-equal to it. 

3. The Athletics had created the first successful AL dynasty. From league founding in 1901 through 1910, four teams won all the AL pennants: Chicago (1901, 1906), Philadelphia (1902, 1905, 1910), Boston (1903-1904), and Detroit (1907-1909). None of the pre-1910 teams created a dynasty. OK, Detroit won three years in a row, but was defeated in all three World Series matchups, which is kinda hard to call a dynasty. Let’s be honest, dynasties work, especially if they happen to be your team. Baseball seems to do best in attendance and popularity when there is a dynasty. They give fans both a hero and a villain (depending on whether you like the team or not) and 3500 years of drama tell us that nothing  in entertainment sells like heroes and villains. On top of that, it was easy to like the A’s. Connie Mack was a nice enough human being (except when it came to paying his players–a common problem in the era). You hear very few negative comments about Eddie Collins, Frank Baker, or Stuffy McInnis. And in the case of  Chief Bender, he was a sympathetic figure to many fans because of all the racial riding he took (he was an American Indian). All those things went together to help boost attendance and cash.

4. The Cubs dynasty had come to an end. If one dynasty was born in 1910, another died. The “Tinker to Evers to Chance” Cubs had their last fling in 1910. Between 1906 and 1910 the Cubs dominated the NL. They won four of five pennants (losing in 1909 to Pittsburgh) and two World Series’ (1907-8). But 1910 was the end. In the Cubs Postmortem post I detailed what went wrong, so I don’t intend to do it again. But the loss of the Cubs dynasty is signficant because it allowed for a more wide open NL. If having a dynasty is good for baseball, having two isn’t. One league has to remain open for fans to believe their team has a chance to win. With the death of the Cubs dynasty hope could rise for other teams in the NL, notably John McGraw’s New York team, but also in the next ten years Boston, Philadelphia, Brooklyn, and Cincinnati would also win pennants (as would the Cubs in 1918). The end of the Cubs dynasty also ushered in the beginning of the Cubs mystique as the “loveable losers.” With only sporadic exception, the Cubs have been non-factors in the NL since.  After four pennants in five seasons, the Cubs have won the NL title exactly six times (1918, 1929, 1932, 1935. 1938, 1945). They are now a synonym for “loser”, a tradition that began with the end of the 1910 season.

5 The AL became the dominant league. I said earlier that the reasons 1910 mattered were in no particular order, but this one is last on purpose because it’s the most important. Between 1903 and 1909 there were six World Series matchups. The NL won four (1905, 1907-09) and the AL only two (1903, 1906). By 1910, the AL hadn’t beaten the NL in four years. All that changed in 1910. Take a look at the next ten years, actually 11 because I’m going to ignore the 1919 “fixed” Series. Between 1910 and 1920 inclusive the NL wins one untainted World Series, 1914. And it took a team known as the “Miracle Braves” to do that.  The AL won everything else: Philadelphia in 1910-11, 1913; Boston in 1912, 1915-16, 1918; Chicago in 1917; and Cleveland in 1920. And that kind of dominance continues in some measure all the way to 2010. Here’s the World Series wins by league by decade since 1910 (going from the zero year to the nine year to determine a decade, thus 1920-29, 1940-49, etc.) 1910-19: AL-8, NL-2 (including 1919), 1920-29: AL-6, NL-4, 1930-9: AL-7, NL-3; 1940-9: AL-6, NL-4, 1950-9: AL-6, NL-4, 1960-9: AL-4, NL-6, 1970-9: AL-6, NL-4; 1980-9: AL-5, NL 5, 1990-9: AL-6, NL-3 (and no series in 1994): 2000-9: AL-6, NL-4. In each decade except the 1960s, when the NL actually wins more World Series championships and  1980s when the each win five, the American League has won the more often. I think this is much more significant than the results of the All Star game which saw the NL have along period of dominance in the 1960s and 1970s. I’m not really impressed with winning an exhibition game. So the American League has been the superior league in most of the last 100 years, and that began in 1910.

I’ve enjoyed going over the 1910 season. I learned a lot, some significant, some trivial. I’ve begun to celebrate the players of the era more by having done this, and I consider that a good thing. Hope you enjoyed it.


Truly Awful Teams

March 31, 2010

There must have been something in the air, or maybe it was the water, in the late 1880s and the 1890s, something that reached up and attacked baseball teams with poor play. The period served up over and over some truly awful teams. Almost yearly some team wasn’t within the same time zone of a pennant.

I define truly awful teams as teams that play below .300 baseball. In modern terms (a 162 game season), a team that goes 48-114 has a winning percentage of .296 and is a truly awful team. OK, I know it’s arbitrary and that a 49-113 team with a winning percentage of .302 isn’t really any better, but I need a cutoff and .300 works for me.

In 1884 the Union Association went under, the players worthy of distribution to the remaining teams got jobs and the big leagues went back to a 16 team format. From that point on there is almost always a team under .300. Remembering that the National League (NL) lasts through the entire period, that the American Association (AA) folds in 1892, and that the Player’s League (PL) only exists in 1890, here’s a brief list of them:

1885: none

1886: Kansas City NL (30-91, .248); Washington NL (28-92, .233)

1887: Indianapolis NL (37-89, .294); Cleveland AA (39-92, .298)

1888: none

1889: Louisville AA (27-111, .196)

1890:  Pittsburgh NL (23-113, .169), Brooklyn AA (26-72, .265), Buffalo PL (36-96, .273)

1891-1893: none

1894: Louisville NL (36-94, .277)

1895: St. Louis NL (39-92, .298); Louisville NL (35-96, .267)

1896: Louisville NL (38-93, .290)

1897: St Louis NL (29-102, .221)

1898: St. Louis NL (39-111, .260)

1899: Cleveland NL (20-134, .134)

1900: none

What we have is that almost yearly there is at least one team that can’t play .300 ball. In 1890 there are, with the one year advent of the Player’s League, three leagues. In 1892, the National League expands to twelve teams and the American Association goes under. In 1900, the National League drops four teams and becomes an eight team league. Those are the changes in team numbers for the period. Three of the worst teams occur in 1890, but not in either 1892 or 1900.

So why is this? Well, my guess is that several things are going on. First, the country simply doesn’t have enough quality players to sustain sixteen, and in 1890 more than sixteen, teams that play reasonably well. Second, there is simply shoddy ownership, owners who don’t have any idea how to run a team. Third the abiliy of owners to control more than one team, which peaks in the 1890’s, especially in the destruction of Cleveland in 1899, makes them place their talent on one team and leaves the other to take it on the chin. Finally, the leagues are segregated and unable to draw on a rich pool of players that could and probably would have improved the play of the teams, including those that end up on the bottom. There are probably other reasons, and if you have one feel free to add it.

Baseball works best when teams are competitive. That doesn’t mean the same team can’t win year after year, but it does mean that someone must be able to challenge them for superiority. As this season is set to begin, there are teams that have no chance of winning a pennant, and others that are locks for the playoffs (unless the unforeseen occurs, which it frequently does). We are lucky that we are in an era where the number of truly awful teams is minimal. Pity the poor 19th Century fan that had to watch the teams listed above.

The Brotherhood Revolts

March 26, 2010

Sometimes you’ve just had enough. You’ve had those days, right? It’s one damn stupid thing after another. It’s one thing too many, it’s…well, you know, it’s your Howard Beale moment, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” (See the movie Network). The same kind of thing happened in baseball way back in 1889. It was just one too many slaps at the players by the owners. They responded by forming a new league, the last league run by players.

During the late 1880s the leaders of both major leagues, the National League and the American Assoiciation, tried to control costs by setting the equivilent of the modern salary cap. They announced that no player could earn more than $2500 a season. It’s not a great salary in 1890, but not an awful one either.  Just prior to this announcement, John Montgomery Ward had formed the Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players, the first sports union (love it or hate it). Many, but certainly not all, the players joined. Their anger at the salary cap was such that they decided to act.

The late 1880s is not a particularly good time for labor unions. They were seen as rabble rousers, as anarchists (The very idea of Monte Ward as an anarchist is laughable.), as not knowing their place, etc. There were no federal laws protecting them, no law granting a right to strike in certain circumstances, no binding arbitration. So many of the modern ways a union can attack what it perceives as an evil were not available or were illegal at the time. Ward came up with an alternative. They players would form their own league and would call it the Player’s League.

The Player’s League began operation in 1890 in the following cities: Boston, Brooklyn, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Buffalo. Every team except Buffalo was in direct competition with a National League team, and Brooklyn had three teams. With only a smattering of new players, the new league drew most of its players from the established Major Leagues. As an example of what happened here’s the starting eight for the 1889 winner of the “World Series,” the New York Giants: Jim O’Rourke, Mike Tiernan, and George Gore in the outfield; Roger Connor, Danny Richardson, Monte Ward, Art Whitney in the infield; and Buck Ewing catching. In 1890 only Tiernan was still with the Giants, who slipped all the way to sixth. Connor, Richardson, Whitney, O’Rourke, Gore, and Ewing were now all with the Player’s League team in New York, with Ewing as manager. Ward was the manager of the Player’s League Brooklyn entry.

The team from Boston, the Reds, won the pennant going 81-48 and winning by 6.5 games over Brooklyn. Hall of Fame players Dan Brouthers, King Kelly (who also managed), and Charles Radbourne played for Boston along with a number of stars of the day. Pete Browning won the batting title, Billy Shindle led in total bases, Connor in home runs, Harry Stovey in stolen bases, Mark Baldwin in pitching wins, and Silver King in ERA. King also threw the only no hitter in the league (besting Brooklyn).

In the stands, the new league did well, sort of. By June the Player’s League led in attendance by about 10,000 over the NL (and almost 20,000 over the Association). The gap, particularly with the Association continued to grow. But there was a problem developing. The United States of 1890 simply couldn’t sustain three Major Leagues. Most teams were hemorraging money, especially the bottom few teams in all three leagues. Salaries were up, especially among the Player’s League teams, and there just weren’t enough fans in the stands to pay for it. In the National League in particular, the owners had much larger sums of money to weather the storm than the players. When the season ended with a World Series between NL winner Brooklyn and Association winner Louisville, the Player’s League was shut out, thus losing another source of revenue.

The Player’s League went under 14 January 1891. The Brotherhood simply didn’t have the funds to keep going. They managed to get, everything considered, a reasonably good deal. Most of their players got back into the two established leagues (but more of the truly superior players ended up in the NL, to disastrous consequences for the Association). Brotherhood president Ward became the new manager of the NL team in Brooklyn (I guess that means he didn’t have to move). Two teams, Boston and Chicago, were not scrapped. They shifted into the Association. They were the final pieces of the Player’s League. They, like the American Association, lasted one more season.

The Player’s League was the second league formed by the players. It met the same fate as the 1870’s National Association. The  players, even with well educated men like Monte Ward leading them, simply lacked the expertise to make a league go. They also lacked financial backing to survive. Before we take too much time and criticize the players, it should be noted that there were five “Major” Leagues formed in the 19th Century: National Association, National League, American Association, Union Association, and the Player’s League. Only the National League survived. If both player organized leagues failed, so too did two of the three owner organized leagues. It was a tough business, owner or player.

Before there was Marvin Miller…

March 13, 2010

John Montgomery Ward

…there was John Montgomery Ward. He was a lawyer, a ballplayer, a union man, and an organizer. He was, in short, the players best friend and the owners worst nightmare.

First, let’s clear up something. He is not to be confused with the retail magnate Aaron Montgomery Ward who started the first mail order catalogue business in 1872. When I was growing up we had a bunch of “Monkey Wards” stuff in the house, but it had nothing to do with a baseball player.

Our Ward was born in Pennsylvania just prior to the Civil War in 1860. By 1873 he was attending Penn State University (yes, that makes him age 13), but left in 1874 when his parents both died. He wandered around some, working as a salesman and minor league pitcher until 1878 when the Providence Grays of the National League signed him to pitch for them. He stayed there until 1882 (two years before Providence won the pennant) playing outfield, pitching, and hurling a perfect game in June 1880 (the second one in Major League history). In 1883 he was sent to the New York Gothams (now the San Francisco Giants) where he became a full-time shortstop occasionally patroling the outfield and pitching 43 games.

While with the Giants, Ward attended law school at Columbia in New York City. He became the leading player spokesman for detailing grievances. By 1885 he was vocal in opposing the reserve rule and demanding more money for the players. This didn’t hurt his playing ability. Between 1883 and 1889 his batting average was as low as .226 and peaked at .338.  He averaged 130 hits, 86 runs, stole a bunch of bases (remember stolen bases were figured differently then). OK, he wasn’t Honus Wagner, but those aren’t bad numbers for the era. In 1888 and 1889 the Giants won the National League pennant and won the 19th Century version of the World Series both seasons.

By 1890, Ward had enough. He had already helped form the Brotherhood of Professional Baseball Players, the first sports union, and served as both its leader and spokesman. After a particularly bitter fight with management over salaries (the NL adopted a rule that capped player’s salaries at $2500 in 1889), Ward decided the Brotherhood would form a new league, called the Player’s League.

The Player’s League was run by the union, with Ward as it’s major spokesman. They placed teams in eight towns (New York, Brooklyn, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Buffalo), with Ward managing the Brooklyn team. He finished second, 6.5 games out. He played short, hit .337, scored 134 runs, and  had 189 hits as the player-manager. Unfortunately, the league was not entirely successful. Baseball simply couldn’t afford three leagues, The Player’s League drew reasonably well, but not well enough for the bottom handful of teams to survive.  With all three major leagues suffering, and the American Association almost moribund, the players blinked first. On 14 January 1891, Ward and the Brotherhood gave up the Player’s League and returned to the other two leagues (in such a way that it was fatal to the American Association). I want to do a post on the Player’s League at a later date and will detail what happened at that time. Ward ended up with the National League Brooklyn team (one day to become the Dodgers) and was player-manager for two seasons. He finished his career back with the Giants as player-manager in 1893 and 1894. 

For his career, Ward hit .275 with 2107 hits, 1410 runs, and 869 RBIs. His career fielding average is .887, not bad for the 1880s. All in all a nice little career, but not really first rate.

He spent the early years of his retirement as an attorney representing players against management, then joined the Boston Beaneaters (now the Atlanta Braves) as a joint owner prior returning to the law. He was actively involved in the Federal League of 1914-15 (you knew he would be), handling the business affairs of the Brooklyn team. He turned to golf after his retirement and did well in a number of amateur tournaments (I wonder if Tiger Woods can pitch). Fittingly, he died in Augusta, Georgia in 1925 and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1964.

Ward, for better or worse, invented the sports union. He worked tirelessly to improve the lot of players, and used his legal skills to upset management’s plans on a number of occasions. Without him there would be no Player’s Union today. There would be no strikes, but there would be no free agency either. When you look at baseball as a business, you look at it thanks to the vision of John Montgomery Ward.