Whether because of a “gloomy day” in Detroit that stalled two attempts at opening day festivities1 or “weeping clouds” instead of sunshine in Baltimore2 or how the “rain makers put a damper on everything” in Philadelphia,3 the grandiose overtures set to ring in Ban Johnson’s upgraded American League had to wait in every city but one on April 24, 1901.
Fittingly, the one game that was played was the most intriguing on the schedule – pitting the defending league champions against an upstart franchise that aspired to launch a rebirth of major-league baseball in a city where the sport had been declared dead after an unceremonious exit of its National League franchise two years earlier.4
Under the “fairest skies the weather clerk could select,”5 the Chicago White Stockings raised the 1900 championship flag in front of 9,000 fans6 at South Side Park and picked up the first victory on the path to defending that title with an 8-2 drubbing of the visiting Cleveland Blues – the same franchise7 they swept in a doubleheader seven months earlier to clinch the city’s first pennant since 1886.8
“With pomp and ceremonial, with braying of bands and braying of fans, with an enormous audience gathered in the frapped stands, the American league season of 1901 was duly opened in Chicago, and the real champions, [Charles] Comiskey’s [W]hite [S]tockings, began their campaign by giving the Clevelands all that was coming to them,” wrote the Chicago Inter Ocean of the season-opening affair.9
The matchup was just shy of a decade in the making. Johnson had turned the fledgling Western League into one of the top minor-league circuits in the country between 1893 and ’99, and in 1900 he shifted some of the league’s geography and rebranded it the American League.10 One year later, Johnson relocated more teams and declared his intention to compete directly against the National League, hoping to reduce rowdyism and raise salaries to deliver a superior major-league product.11
“The American League is prepared to set just a pace as it set last year. It is in for clean, fast baseball, for we know that is the only kind the public wants to see,” Johnson said. “During the entire season there will probably be more or less ill feeling between the National and the American leagues, but next year I am sure there will be nothing more than a friendly rivalry. The players will have become settled then, and it will be evident that the people delight in two big leagues.”12
While Johnson traveled to Philadelphia to take in the Athletics’ opener there against the Washington Senators, it was in Chicago that the season started on schedule in a city that hadn’t called two major-league teams home since 1890.13 The Blues, meanwhile, were hoping a fresh start two years removed from the disastrous 20-win Cleveland Spiders team of 1899 would be enough to win back the city’s fan base.14
After a home-opening victory in 1900 against the Indianapolis Hoosiers in front of 5,500 fans, the Cleveland Plain Dealer claimed the supposedly dead fan base in Cleveland was “about the liveliest corpse that has ever found a place in history.”15 Excitement only grew as major-league status was declared for 1901, and by 1903 the Blues had cemented themselves as legitimate contenders for the pennant.16
Farther west, the Chicago Tribune wrote that opening day would “go down among the important events in baseball history,” which, while an exaggeration, exemplified the excitement surrounding the White Stockings’ coming season.17 After the First Regiment Rough Riders band regaled the crowd before and after the championship pennant was lifted up the new flagpole in center field, play in the American League commenced a little after 3 in the afternoon. Ground rules were established as an overflow crowd found its way onto the field of play.
Roy Patterson, the 24-year-old “boy wonder,” was tabbed to start for the White Stockings, despite developing a boil on his pitching arm the day before. The young right-hander, who went 17-8 as one of Chicago’s leading pitchers in 1900, threw a ball on the first pitch of the game but got Ollie Pickering to fly out to center fielder William Hoy – who at age 38 was the league’s oldest player – for the first out of the season.
Jack McCarthy, who jumped to the Blues from the National League’s Chicago Orphans before the season, received a round of applause from the crowd before hitting a hard smash that ricocheted from third baseman Fred Hartman to shortstop Frank Shugart. Shugart’s throw to first was late, and McCarthy was credited with the first hit in AL history.
Bill Hoffer, a 30-year-old right-hander whose 16 wins were the second-most on the 1900 Cleveland Lake Shores club, drew the start for the Blues. The former National Leaguer – who had 78 wins in 114 games from 1895 to ’97 – struggled with control early in his eight innings of work, heavily contributing to Chicago’s commanding lead after just two innings.
In the bottom of the first, Fielder Jones drew a one-out walk and moved up a base when Sam Mertes hit a hard shot at first baseman Bill Bradley, who was unable to turn the double play. Shugart and Frank Isbell drew back-to-back walks to load the bases, and Hartman battled through a lengthy at-bat, finally lining a two-run single into left field to drive in the first two runs in league history.
Erve Beck hit a harmless single for Cleveland in the top of the second,18 and in the bottom of the frame, Hoffer once again got two quick outs with one runner on but couldn’t contain the White Stockings. Jones, Mertes, and Shugart each drew consecutive two-out walks to bring in a run for a 3-0 Chicago advantage.
Isbell followed with a two-run single to center, and that is where the inning should have ended. Shugart found himself caught in a rundown between second and third, and Isbell got tied up in a rundown between first and second. But the Blues couldn’t nab either runner in one of the “weirdest mix-ups ever seen at South Side Park,” and the White Stockings continued to bat.19
With a chance to make the mix-up meaningless, Cleveland shortstop Bill Hallman struggled to contain a sharp shot from Hartman, and his errant throw to first allowed two more runs to score, giving Chicago a 7-0 lead.
“I had a couple of rather bad seasons and got discouraged, but last season, I played in almost my old-time form” said the 34-year-old Hallman, who hadn’t appeared in a major-league game since 1898 and spent 1900 with the Buffalo Bisons before joining the Blues on April 1. “I am convinced that I am out of the little rut I struck.”20
But Hallman’s try at a big-league comeback in Cleveland was short. After committing five errors in five games, he was released. Hallman signed with the Philadelphia Phillies and played 123 games at second base and third base the rest of the season, making just 17 errors.
Candy LaChance opened Cleveland’s half of the fourth inning with a single, and after a popout, Patterson walked Beck and Hallman to load the bases. Bob Wood grounded into what should have been an inning-ending double play, but Chicago second baseman Dave Brain struggled to control the ball and Wood beat the throw to first, which allowed LaChance to score.21
Hallman opened the seventh by reaching on an error, moved to second on Wood’s single, and got to third when Hoffer grounded into a double play. Pickering’s smash between the third baseman and shortstop went for an infield single, but it would be the last run in Cleveland’s effort to spoil Chicago’s grand opener. The White Stockings answered with their eighth and final run in the bottom of the frame when Mertes singled, Shugart sacrificed, and Isbell hit his second RBI single of the game.22
“Our men are hardly in shape to play winning ball. The bad weather at Cleveland for the last week – in which we had only one day’s practice – set us back considerably,” said Blues manager Jimmy McAleer. “I think with a few more games we will round into form. We have, I believe, a team capable of winning the pennant, and it will take a lot of beating to change my mind.”23
Cleveland picked up a win in the third game of the series, but it was otherwise a lot of beating in the early going. A season of ups and downs saw the Blues start 4-17 on the way to a seventh-place finish in the standings at 54-82.24 The White Stockings used the 3-1 start over Cleveland as a springboard for an 83-53 record that was good for a second straight pennant – and a 29-game advantage over the hapless Blues.25
Johnson’s league had a successful first year, drawing nearly 1.7 million fans26 and gaining respect among baseball’s top players. In 1902, teams in the AL outdrew their NL counterparts by more than 520,000 fans,27 and the AL franchises were especially strong at the ticket offices in the four cities where each league held a team.28 The leagues came to a peace agreement after the 1902 season, and a championship World Series between the leagues was first played in 1903.
This article was fact-checked by Russ Walsh and copy-edited by Len Levin.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, I used the Baseball-Reference.com, Stathead.com, and Retrosheet.org websites for statistics and team information.
1 “Opening Game Postponed,” Detroit Free Press, April 25, 1901: 6.
2 “A Baseball Setback,” Baltimore Sun, April 25, 1901: 6.
3 “Rain Falls Upon Just and Unjust,” Philadelphia Inquirer, April 25, 1901: 7.
4 Franklin Lewis, The Cleveland Indians (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2006), 53.
5 “Champions Win Opening Game,” Chicago Tribune, April 25, 1901: 6.
6 The game report from the Chicago Inter-Ocean estimated a crowd of 10,000 spectators.
7 Cleveland’s nickname in 1900 was the Lake Shores.
8 In 1886, the Chicago White Stockings – a precursor to the modern Cubs – won 90 games to edge the Detroit Wolverines by 2½ games.
9 “White Sox Begin Well,” Chicago Inter Ocean, April 25, 1901: 8.
10 Going into the 1900 season, six Western League teams remained in place, while new clubs were added in Cleveland and Chicago (replacing Columbus, Ohio, and St. Paul, Minnesota). When Johnson went for major-league status in 1901, only the Detroit Tigers and Milwaukee Brewers remained from the final year of the Western League in 1899.
11 Johnson’s league fielded teams in Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia, where he directly competed with long-standing National League clubs from the start. In 1902 he moved the Milwaukee Brewers to St. Louis to compete with the Cardinals, and in 1903 the Baltimore Orioles moved to New York City to compete with the New York Giants.
12 Francis C. Richter, “American League,” Sporting Life, April 29, 1901: 5.
13 That year, the Chicago Colts of the NL and the Chicago Pirates of the Players’ League shared the city’s fan base.
14 Spiders owner Frank Robison, along with his brother, Stanley, purchased a majority share of the NL’s St. Louis franchise and rebranded the team as the Perfectos. In an effort to build up the St. Louis club, Cleveland’s top players – such as Cy Young, Jesse Burkett and Bobby Wallace, and manager Patsy Tebeau – were transferred to St. Louis in exchange for the bottom feeders on the Perfectos’ roster. Attendance became so poor at Cleveland’s League Park that opposing teams refused to travel to play there because it wasn’t financially feasible. Prior to the 1900 campaign, Robison offered the new Cleveland club a pick of some of his St. Louis players, but manager James McAleer wanted to cut all ties with the previous regime and said, “We don’t care to give anyone an excuse for saying that we are running a farm for the St. Louis club, and that opinion might be formed if we accepted some of the surplus players from that team. Mr. Robison has been kind to us to give us a chance to secure several men, but for the present, we prefer to get our players elsewhere.” “No Assistance From Old Owners,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, April 11, 1900: 6.
15 “A Right Royal Welcome,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, April 27, 1900: 6.
16 In 1903 Cleveland finished third in the standings. The closest the franchise came to a pennant in the early 1900s was a second-place finish in 1908, when the Naps finished a half-game behind the Detroit Tigers.
17 “Pennant to Be Raised Today,” Chicago Tribune, April 24, 1901: 7.
18 In the ninth inning, Beck hit a double – the only extra-base hit of the game.
19 “Champions Win Opening Game.”
20 “Out of Door Work Today,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, April 5, 1901: 6.
21 Wood hit .307 in 36 games for the 1900 White Stockings after opening the season with the Cincinnati Reds.
22 Isbell’s .248 average was the second-lowest among regular hitters on the 1900 championship roster, so a fast start to the season was a welcome surprise for Chicago. He hit .257 in 1901 but led the major leagues with 52 steals.
23 “Champions Win Opening Game.”
24 McAleer left the Blues after the season, which was his second year in Cleveland, and managed the St. Louis Browns until 1909 and the Washington Senators in 1910 and ’11.
25 The White Stockings finished five games ahead of the Boston Americans, and they were in first place from July 10 until the end of the season.
26 The new league drew 1,683,584 fans, which trailed the NL by 265,823 fans.
27 The AL won the attendance battle by 523,442 fans – bringing in 2,206,454 spectators to the NL’s count of 1,683,012.
28 The AL outdrew the NL by wide margins in Philadelphia (the Athletics drew 308,012 more fans than the Phillies) and Boston (the Americans drew 231,607 more fans than the Beaneaters), while posting moderate positive margins of fans in Chicago (74,198) and St. Louis (45,866).