1881 Winter Meetings: The American Association

This article was written by Michael McAvoy

This article was published in Baseball’s 19th Century Winter Meetings: 1857-1900

Baseball's 19th Century Winter Meetings: 1857-1900Introduction: Entry, Reaction, Conflict, Change, Growth

An important event leading into the 1882 season was the founding and organization of the American Association of Professional Base Ball Clubs (AA). The National League (NL) survived the difficult economic environment of the late 1870s and the club competition with the International Association. It emerged as the sole provider of organized professional baseball with a championship season. The entrepreneurs seeking to organize the AA were united by professional clubs located in urban and populous places, some semiprofessional or remnants of former NL clubs, and a few were entirely new enterprises.

The business climate at the time was amenable to the organization of another baseball association. On the supply side, the NL restricted membership. Entrepreneurs in locations without an NL franchise promoted and operated baseball clubs. In 1876, the NL developed the closed format of no more than eight clubs, each with an exclusive territory. However, when an NL franchise failed, the NL tended to embargo that location.1 They did continue to play exhibition games in some of these places. Each season more clubs sought membership than the available franchises.2 Exhibitions at non-NL locations were successful and led some baseball entrepreneurs to believe that customer demand was sufficient to support an organized club in a new association.3 Eventually a critical mass of locations had entrepreneurs with sufficient NL or other professional club baseball experience to organize a new association.

The NL established a reputation for providing regular employment but imposed formal behavior codes on its players. The NL implemented policies designed to reduce labor costs, including the five-man reserve and a standard labor contract. Savings for the team meant limited opportunity for the player. The five-man reserve prevented almost half of the players in NL rosters from offering their services to other NL clubs.4 Within the standard contract, the NL experimented with behavior codes and developed a blacklist with associated policies and procedures. A player who appeared on the NL blacklist would find limited employment opportunities as a professional baseball player. Potential blacklisting was credible if the NL offered sole access to major-league baseball. Some NL clubs treated players poorly.5 The NL’s labor practices resulted in competitive imbalance, dissatisfied players, and reduced salaries. Some players considered alternative employers but remained sensitive to the blacklist threat. The organization by the AA into major-league status was therefore a direct threat to the NL blacklist.

The NL also restricted club rules, bylaws, and actions. Its shared-revenue policy promoted small-market clubs and reduced incentives for clubs to develop their exclusive territories. Its 50-cent admission fee limited the number of customers. Clubs were prohibited from selling alcohol at their grounds.6 Combined, NL policies limited clubs’ revenue streams.

After successful 1881 exhibitions, Horace Phillips, manager of Philadelphia’s Athletic Club, announced a September 1881 meeting of baseball men from a number of places without an NL franchise. O.P. Caylor, a Cincinnati lawyer and a newspaper baseball editor, responded. They declared their organization the “American Association” and adopted the motto “Liberty for All.” Then they sent telegrams to those who had not attended to invite them to a meeting in Pittsburgh.7

Meeting of the American Association
October 10, 1881, Monongahela House, Pittsburgh

On October 10, 1881, club representatives met at the Monongahela House and elected temporary officers: John Day8 (Metropolitan Club), president; Chris Von der Ahe (St. Louis Club), vice president; H.D. McKnight (Pittsburgh), corresponding secretary; and James A. Williams9 (Columbus, Ohio), recording secretary and treasurer. Several of these men had previous baseball organizational and executive experience, which undoubtedly helped to begin this new association. These officers appointed a committee to recommend a constitution and bylaws at a meeting at Cincinnati on November 1. Club delegates were to organize the AA on November 2.10

By late October 1881 enough clubs were reported to intend to join the new AA that its successful organization was expected.11 The AA was expected to be club-centered with a “liberal policy.”12 With anticipation of a new organization, several former NL players negotiated agreements with prospective AA clubs, and each contract was a threat to the credibility of the NL’s blacklist.

Adjourned Meeting of the American Association
November 2–3, 1881, Gibson House, Cincinnati

No official minutes of the November 2, 1881, meeting appear to exist.13 The New York Clipper observed, “The unanimous opinion of all, however, was to extend the right hand of fellowship to the League [i.e., NL], and not to be antagonistic in any respect, while adopting a more liberal policy.”14 These objectives were met.

The delegates refused to recognize Metropolitan Club representatives who declined to affiliate with the AA.15 They voted Pittsburgh’s Denny McKnight as chair of the meeting and Williams as secretary. Several present had organizational and executive baseball experience. McKnight was a founder of the International Association; Williams, secretary for the National Association and the International Association; Justus Thorner, Cincinnati a baseball promoter; and Von der Ahe, president of the St. Louis Sportsmen Association.16 Many of the clubs claimed to have substantial financial backing and all were located in markets with large populations.

The delegates adopted the motto “Liberty to All” and jointly sought to protect their interests.17 To accomplish this purpose, they adopted elements of a cartel, which ironically restrict member actions for the benefit of all members but are theoretically unstable. The work of the conference showed that the AA would regulate through bylaws and rules, prescribe the schedules, uniforms, and playing rules, standardize the player’s contract, mediate conflicts between clubs and between clubs and players, and award the championship.

After examining the financial standing of clubs, a committee18 recommended membership for clubs in Cincinnati, Louisville, St. Louis, Brooklyn, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia, which had two representatives present. The two would not consolidate, so the committee recommended Charles Fulmer’s club – the Athletics – for membership, rather than the A.J. Reach-H.B. Phillips entry.19

The meeting proceeded to adopt the organization’s name, the “American Association of Professional Base Ball Clubs.” The AA largely adopted the NL constitution and bylaws with few differences.20 The AA’s principles of liberty and self-support were reflected in policies for a game guarantee, exhibitions, alcohol sales, and Sunday baseball games. The guarantee policy required a home club to pay $65 to a visiting club for each championship game and permitted the home club to keep any receipts above $65 and revenues from sales of privileges. The policy was risky for AA clubs. If a home club failed to sufficiently develop its market it would not cover its club expenses. When traveling, the guarantee was not expected to cover all the visiting club’s expenses, although managers knew their lowest expected revenues.21 The AA allowed its members to play any nonmember club – rejecting the exclusive territories for League Alliance clubs under the NL’s affiliation policy – at home or away during the championship season.22 AA clubs’ ballparks could be utilized for other events when the home team was on the road, which allowed them to utilize their grounds with greater efficiency. The AA delegates signed a “contract” which allowed clubs in Cincinnati, Louisville, and St. Louis to play games on Sundays.23 Other differences included a $50 annual membership fee, lower than the NL’s $100.24 Rather than the number of wins (as in the NL), the AA championship would be decided by winning percentage. Managers were permitted to sit with players on the grounds.25 The New York Clipper predicted that AA clubs would benefit from the lower admission price and less restrictive club rules.26

The AA offered players better labor relations.27 Clubs agreed to pay one-half of a month’s salary to released players. Rather than wait, released players could immediately contract with and play for another club.28 The AA refused to recognize the NL’s reserve lists, but it respected the NL’s blacklist for players expelled for drunkenness, dishonesty, or for “any venal offense.” The AA would not contract with reserved players who had 1882 season contracts.29

The meeting continued on November 3. As officers the AA elected McKnight, president; Pank, vice president; and Williams, secretary-treasurer. Thorner, Fulmer, Barnie, and Von der Ahe were elected directors.30 Committees were appointed to draft playing rules,31 prepare a schedule of championship games,32 and draft a uniform contract for players.33 Their reports were expected at the next meeting, which was scheduled for the second Monday in March in Philadelphia.34

Aftermath of Organization

Initially, the NL reportedly extended neutrality. Historians have noted intrigue when Appleton and Mutrie of New York’s Metropolitan Club proceeded to Chicago and met with NL President William A. Hulbert on November 5, 1881. Appleton hoped to maintain good business relations with the NL.35 It was mutual. To keep the New York territory, Hulbert proposed to reform the League Alliance to provide the Metropolitan club with a more exclusive and desirable arrangement. In exchange for not scheduling Sunday games, Hulbert offered League Alliance members territory rights and games with Reach’s Philadelphia club.36 When AA clubs neither collectively nor individually requested membership within the League Alliance, they effectively sought status as equals with NL clubs.

When the AA’s Athletic club reportedly signed William Crowley and the Cincinnati club signed Charles Jones, both players expelled by NL clubs, Hulbert reportedly responded that these were hostile acts toward the NL, its policies, and the blacklist.37 To calm matters, McKnight affirmed that no AA club would contract with a blacklisted player. However, NL managers did not respect contracts signed between players and AA clubs. NL clubs in Detroit and Boston each signed a player who had previously signed an AA contract. These events revealed that some players preferred employment with NL clubs.38 Nevertheless, AA clubs signed contracts with some players, for example Pop Snyder, subject to the NL’s five-man reserve.

Surprisingly, the AA completed its championship season and gained legitimacy after incurring costs of its independence policy. Its willingness to contract at higher salaries for the 1883 season attracted favorable attention. Alternatively, the NL’s completion resulted with questions for which club was the legitimate champion and for its sustainable financial viability. Both associations ultimately sought compromise to stabilize their business models and protect their new markets. It was temporary, as baseball then mirrored turbulence between business and labor. Ultimately the customer gained from the more competitive product offered.



In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author also consulted Spalding’s Base Ball Guide and Official League Book for 1882 (Chicago: A.G. Spalding & Bros., 1882, reprint, Horton Publishing, 1988).



1 The NL expelled Philadelphia and New York after the 1876 season. Louisville and St. Louis exited after 1877. Cincinnati was expelled after 1880. Other clubs entered and exited, changing membership between the NL, its League Alliance, and the International Association. See Harold Seymour and Dorothy Seymour Mills, Baseball: The Early Years (New York: Oxford University Press, 1960), 135-136.

2 Seymour and Mills record 16 clubs that requested membership for the 1879 season, and another group applied for 1880. The benefits from NL membership included the prestige of exclusive membership, the monopoly territory, and the guaranteed number of home games. The costs were loss of local rivalries and travel expenses. Seymour and Mills, 94–95.

3 The various issues of the New York Clipper detailed clubs operating at former NL franchise locations of Cincinnati, Louisville, Philadelphia, and St. Louis, and the Athletic club’s successful Western tour. For instance, the Eclipse Club played 19 innings to a 2-2 tie on June 26, 1881. “A Nineteen Inning Game,” New York Clipper, July 9, 1881: 252. The same issue reported that a Cincinnati club traveled to St. Louis for a game on July 2, 1881, and the Athletic Club hosted the Atlantic Club (page 247). On August 1, 1881, the Boston NL club traveled to Philadelphia to best the Athletic Club 10-5. “Baseball in Philadelphia,” New York Clipper, August 6, 1881: 314. The Athletic Club traveled west during September with plans to play games in St. Louis, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh, as well as the NL club at Detroit. “The Athletic Club,” New York Clipper, September 10, 1881: 398.

4 During this era, professional club rosters were much smaller than today. During the early 1880s clubs commonly carried 11 or 12 players.

5 Prior to the end of the contract period, NL clubs in Boston, Detroit, and Worcester released players. The players in Boston were “dissatisfied” by their release. No fewer than 15 players were released by the NL’s Detroit club during 1881. “Sporting World,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, October 4, 1881: 4.

6 Seymour and Mills (1960) summarize NL policies. Other rules prohibited NL members from appearing in any game played on any Sunday, exhibition games within NL cities during the season, any games other than NL ones within NL grounds (see pages 77-103).

7 David Nemec, The Beer and Whiskey League: The Illustrated History of the American Association – Baseball’s Renegade Major League (Guilford, Connecticut: The Lyons Press, 2004), 20-21. In Pittsburgh, representatives were expected from Philadelphia, Louisville, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and New York City. New York Clipper, October 1, 1881: 447. Strangely, prior to October 10, the Athletic Club released Phillips, who was contracted to be the manager of Al Reach’s new Philadelphia club. Philips in turn announced a St. Louis baseball meeting on October 20, 1881, instead of a Pittsburgh meeting on October 10. New York Clipper, October 8, 1881: 463. However, Phillips appeared at the organization meeting as a delegate for A.J. Reach’s new Philadelphia club.

8 The 1881 Mets were a member of the NL’s League Alliance. Its players were signed to League contracts which protected the club though mutual recognition with the NL. New York Clipper, November 5, 1881: 532. Both the New York Clipper and the Pittsburgh Post list the temporary president as M.F. Day. The writer presumes this person is John B. Day, to provide the Mets and Day with some plausible deniability with Hulbert and the League. Pittsburgh Daily Post, October 11, 1881: 4.

9 Seymour and Mills record that Williams had been present at the International Association’s organizational meeting in Pittsburgh, where he represented the Columbus (Ohio) Buckeyes. During the meeting, he was chosen the secretary-treasurer. See Seymour and Mills, 98-99.

10 Charles Fulmer (Athletic club), Justus Thorner (Cincinnati club), and an unnamed delegate (Louisville Eclipse club). “The New League,” Pittsburgh Daily Post, October 11, 1881: 4. Seymour and Mills give a decidedly different account. Phillips called the meeting, then forgot about it. Caylor, Thorner, and Frank Wright, a Cincinnati sportswriter, arrived in Pittsburgh, where they found no meeting. Al Pratt introduced them to McKnight. These men named officers and sent telegrams to other baseball men inviting them to an adjourned meeting on November 2 in Cincinnati. See Seymour and Mills, 138. In Nemec’s account, Caylor and Phillips withdrew to allow Day, McKnight, and Von der Ahe to organize the Association.

11 “Base-Ball,” Cincinnati Enquirer, October 23, 1881: 12. Clubs from St. Louis, Louisville, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Brooklyn, and New York City were expected to be present. Two ownership groups from Philadelphia and two from New York City were expected to compete for a franchise at their locations. “Baseball in Philadelphia,” New York Clipper, October 15, 1881: 486; October 22, 1881: 504; October 29, 1881: 515, 517. See also “Well Done: Such Is the Result of the First Day’s Meeting of the Independent Base-Ball League,” Cincinnati Enquirer, November 2, 1881: 5.

12 “The New Association,” New York Clipper, October 29, 1881: 515.

13 The Clipper reported the following delegates at the Gibson House: Thorner, G.L. Herancourt, and Caylor for Cincinnati; Von der Ahe, David L. Reid, and E.T. Goodfellow for St. Louis; J.H. Pank and J.W. Reccius for Louisville; McKnight for Pittsburgh; William. H. Barnie for Brooklyn; Phillips and Fulmer for Philadelphia; Louis H. Mahn for Boston, and James Mutrie and J. Walter Appleton for New York City. “The American Baseball Association,” New York Clipper, November 12, 1881: 556.

14 New York Clipper, November 12, 1881: 556.

15 The Metropolitans refused to enter AA membership, because they earned large revenues from games with NL clubs, and did not wish to risk losing that privilege. “The First Run,” Cincinnati Enquirer, November 4, 1881: 4. The AA held a spot for the Metropolitan Club in the event it later requested membership.

16 New York Clipper, November 12, 1881: 556, and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, November 4, 1881: 1.

17 New York Clipper, November 12, 1881: 556.

18 Pank, McKnight, Caylor, and Von der Ahe.

19 New York Clipper, November 12, 1881: 556, and “Born, and its name is …,” Cincinnati Enquirer, November 3, 1881: 5.

20 “A New Base Ball Association,” Pittsburgh Daily Post, November 3, 1881: 1.

21 “Base-Ball,” Cincinnati Enquirer, November 6, 1881: 2. Games on July 4, Decoration [i.e., Memorial] Day, and state holidays resulted in splitting the gate.

22 Cincinnati Enquirer, November 3, 1881: 5. “The Baseball War,” New York Clipper, January 7, 1882: 687.

23 New York Clipper, November 12, 1881: 556.

25 New York Clipper, November 12, 1881: 556. Allegedly, the NL sought to prevent Boston’s manager Harry Wright from directing play.

26 New York Clipper, January 7, 1882: 687.

27 Pittsburgh Daily Post, November 3, 1881: 1.

28 New York Clipper, November 12, 1881: 556.

29 Cincinnati Enquirer, November 3, 1881: 5.

30 New York Clipper, November 12, 1881: 556, and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, November 4, 1881: 1.

31 Caylor and Barnie. New York Clipper, November 12, 1881:556.

32 Williams. New York Clipper, November 12, 1881: 556. With six member clubs, the AA expected a schedule of 16 games with each other member, eight home and eight away, for 80 total championship games for each club. Cincinnati Enquirer, November 4, 1881: 4.

33 Williams, again. New York Clipper, November 12, 1881: 556.

34 Ibid.

35 The club had more than $40,000 in revenue from games featuring NL teams during 1881. “Notes,” Cincinnati Enquirer, November 6, 1881: 2.

36 The Metropolitan and Philadelphia clubs were uncertain whether they would cover their operating expenses under the AA’s guarantee plan, since their entry would allow them fewer home games and require them to incur travel expenses.

37 Following the AA’s successful organization meeting, Cincinnati reportedly signed the expelled Jones. “Baseball,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, December 9, 1881: 3. “Baseball,” Cincinnati Enquirer, November 6, 1881: 2. The AA neither endorsed nor recognized this contract. By November 23, Cincinnati filed with Secretary Williams the first AA contract with catcher Charles “Pop” Snyder, who played with Boston in 1881. “Base-Ball,” Cincinnati Enquirer, November 24, 1881: 2. The NL reaction affected the Metropolitan and Philadelphia clubs’ decisions to enter the AA because of their desire to maintain business relationships with NL clubs. “Baseball,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, December 9, 1881: 3. See also “The Boss Talks,” Cincinnati Enquirer, November 6, 1881: 2.

38 After Boston signed Dasher Troy and Detroit signed Sam Wise, Denny McKnight accused the two NL clubs of intending to encourage conflict. “The Baseball War,” New York Clipper, January 7, 1882: 687.