1883-84 Winter Meetings: The Union Association

This article was written by Barney Terrell

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


Baseball's 19th Century Winter Meetings: 1857-1900The work of establishing the Union Association of Base Ball Clubs began on September 12, 1883, at the Monongahela House hotel in Pittsburg. Sporting Life commented that the “men in the room are well known in baseball circles.”1 In all, representatives of nine teams met that day: Chicago, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Washington, Richmond, Virginia, Indianapolis, and St. Louis.

The president of the St. Louis club was not present at the beginning of what would come to be viewed as his league. Henry Van Noye Lucas was 26 years old and a member of one of the first families of St. Louis. His grandfather was John Baptiste Charles Lucas, federal judge of the Missouri territory from 1805 to 1820. Lucas inherited about $2 million from his father’s estate and in 1880 married Louise Espenschied, daughter of a very successful wagon-maker in St. Louis.2 Lucas sent Ted Sullivan as a representative. Sullivan was a former manager of the St. Louis team of the National League.

Tom Pratt, well known in Philadelphia baseball circles since the 1860s, owned the Philadelphia entrant. Al Pratt, no relation, headed the Pittsburg team. Both men were players in the inaugural season of the old National Association and well-known amateur players. A.H. Henderson, a Chicago mattress manufacturer and cable-car company owner, ran the Chicago operation. Henderson, who lived during the winter in Baltimore, also oversaw some of the operations of the Monumentals.

Three men represented the Washington club: Mike Scanlon, William Warren White, and H.B. Bennett. Scanlon owned a pool hall near the Capitol that was very popular with both baseball enthusiasts and government employees. White was a Civil War veteran and player in the National Association. He was commissioned a second lieutenant in the 14th New York Heavy Artillery in December 1864 after the regiment saw heavy combat in and around Petersburg, Virginia. Both Bennett and White worked as government clerks. White informed reporters that the new league “was capitalized at $100,000 … and we have the goodwill of every player in the country.”3

The owners selected H.B. Bennett as the first Union Association president, a post he held for about three months. However, the meetings produced one resolution that would cement the goodwill of the ballplayers. The resolution read, “While we recognize the validity of all contracts made by the League and the American Association, we cannot recognize any agreement whereby any number of ballplayers may be reserved by any club.” In short, the UA would not recognize the new reserve rule, thereby guaranteeing that it would go to war with the baseball establishment. After the team representatives adjourned on the 12th, White stated that they did not want war with the League, but if “either old association declares war we will not sit idly by.”4

The constitution of the new league banned reservation and sought to promote the mutual interests of clubs and players. During the December meeting, Lucas equated the reserve rule with slavery, and maintained that a body of men “does not have the right to dictate to another what they should do. … It will not deter me from signing players if I want to.”5

The UA owners and managers spread out to find players and resolved to meet on October 20 in Philadelphia. Six clubs took part in that meeting: Baltimore, Washington, Chicago, Pittsburg, Philadelphia, and St. Louis. Neither the National League nor the American Association had shown much reaction to the beginning of the UA, and there would be no official comment until November. Bennett moved that the league expand to eight teams; White announced that several clubs had applied to join the UA. Both the National League and American Association had eight-team leagues and none other than National League President A.G. Mills described eight as an optimum number.6

Some of the clubs attempting to join the UA could have spelled trouble to the established clubs. Richmond was still interested, but was leaning toward the Eastern League and the protection of the National Agreement. White announced a group of unnamed New York City investors, as well as interest in clubs from Brooklyn and Indianapolis. While the New York information may have been an attempt to scare the National League, the Brooklyn and Indy clubs were very real. The difficulty, as White allowed to Sporting Life, was that their joining the UA was contingent upon their not joining the American Association first.7

A further two clubs mentioned were Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and Kingston, New York. Lancaster would field two professional clubs in 1884, but neither in the Union Association. Kingston would field a team in the Hudson River League in 1886. To close the meeting, White called for a motion to reinforce the position of the UA on the reserve rule. The motion passed unanimously.8

The National League registered no immediate reaction, and did not officially comment until November. At their own behest, White and Bennett traveled to New York that month and attempted to meet with NL owners. While friendly in private, publicly the League let it be known in no uncertain terms that it viewed the UA as less than worthy competition. John Day, owner of the New York teams in the NL and AA, produced a resolution that read “no club shall, at any time, employ or enter into contract with any of the reserved ball players who shall, while reserved to such club, play with any other club.”9 The American Association adopted the resolution at its December meetings. This resolution explicitly targeted players interested in joining the UA. With some notable exceptions, the possibility of a blacklist worked.

Yank Robinson questioned A.H. Henderson about the possibility of a blacklist before signing with Baltimore. Moxie Hengel, acting as Henderson’s proxy in Chicago, advised him that he did not need to fear the blacklist “as long as you do not play in any club sic in the NWL, National or American Association.”10 This reading of the National Agreement was critical for the Union Association’s attempts at acquiring players. If the players jumped the reserve to play with the UA, since it was a nonsignatory to the National Agreement, they could not be blacklisted for breaking reserve.11

It is also quite possible that the National League pushed the American Association to expand into cities being courted by the UA. NL President Mills wrote to AA President Denny McKnight in December that “if you take … clubs not now identified with any of our associates you will be rendering a most important service to the interest of baseball.12 “Any of our associates” meant the Eastern League and Northwest League. In November, the Chicago UA club announced its first haul of players, all eight of whom were reserved by Northwest League clubs. The war was on in earnest.

The Union Association next met at the Bingham House in Philadelphia on December 17. H.B. Bennett represented Baltimore, with Justus Thorner making his first appearance for the newly signed Cincinnati club. Thorner had been forced out of the National League three years before, and certainly held a grudge against the NL. Dayton, Ohio, sent a representative, and Felix Moses of the Virginia club attended to announce that his team was not going to join the league. It was also announced that George Wright would attend to represent a possible club in Boston. The first order of business over the daylong meeting was the election of Henry Lucas as president. The second was admitting the Cincinnati club as a member to replace the Virginians. This was certainly a trade up for the new league.13

The power of this new arrangement, with Cincinnati and St. Louis in the West, and Boston and Washington in the East, was immediately apparent. Thorner announced on December 20 that the Cincinnati Unions had signed “Yaller Bill” Harbridge and George Bradley to contracts. Harbridge had been released by the Philadelphia NL club after the 1883 season. Bradley had come out of nowhere to win 16 games for the AA champion Athletics in 1883, twice as many games as he had won in the previous two seasons combined. Further, Lucas announced that he and Ted Sullivan had procured the services of Fred “Sure Shot” Dunlap of the Cleveland NL team. While certainly representing a coup for the UA, it could also be a danger sign.

What must have given the Union Association clubs pause was the price tag for Dunlap, not to mention the contract for Harbridge. Sporting Life reported that Dunlap received a $1,000 signing bonus and a $4,000 contract.14 Harbridge, a player who batted .211 over 1882 and 1883 for two of the worst teams in the National League, received a $1,400 contract and $400 bonus from Thorner.15 Harbridge received a contract that was nearly half that of the highest-paid NL player, Buck Ewing. This certainly filled some clubs with trepidation. At this point, the UA included the following teams: Chicago, Baltimore, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Washington, and Cincinnati. The Boston club was not officially in the league during the December meetings.

George Wright was not at the UA meeting to enter a team, but to sell his sports equipment to the new league. Wright partnered with Henry Ditson in 1880 and unsuccessfully marketed his baseball equipment and sporting books to both the National League and American Association in the early 1880s. At the December meetings, Lucas and Wright discussed the possibility of a team in Boston in exchange for the Union Association to exclusively use the Wright and Ditson baseball. When the men agreed, Wright returned to organize the team in Boston; the team was officially welcomed to the UA at the March scheduling meeting.16

In the first week of March, the UA settled on Altoona, Pennsylvania, as the eighth team in the circuit. Why Altoona? Altoona President W.W. Ritz received Lucas in Altoona on March 8 and the club received a $2,300 gift from Lucas, setting a pattern that would bedevil the UA for the next several months.17 Ritz was the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad company shops. The Altoona club was set to play in the Inter-State Association, until President Ritz discovered that the league was “to be made up of such small cities that a doubtful feeling prevailed” as to the survival of the league.18 If the Altoona braintrust was worried about the viability of the Inter-State Association, the fact that Lucas was willing to invest in the smallest city in the circuit buoyed their hopes. Lucas most likely looked to Altoona as a bridge city between the Eastern and Western teams of the league, something that he mentioned to the St. Louis Globe and Democrat in November 1883.19

With eight teams in the fold, the final meeting of the winter took place on March 17, 1884, at the Gibson House in Cincinnati. The league decided on a 112-game schedule, to open on April 19, with a percentage system of determining the championship. In response to threats from players concerning bonus payments, the league referred players who had broken contracts to the board of directors. While many UA owners offered bonuses to players to jump from established teams, Lucas paid the most. Tony Mullane received a reported $800 advance in November of 1883 to play for the St. Louis Unions. Mullane then announced in February that he would play for Toledo in the American Association. Lucas filed an injunction against him, angered at the loss of the player and the money, but also cognizant that Toledo joined the AA after spurning his league the previous October.20 During the March meetings, Thorner announced the signing of Dan O’Leary to the Cincinnati club and the touted the “great victory” of signing Grin Bradley.21

With the start of the season less than a month away, all the player signings announced in March and the rosters announced in April were filled with “great victories.”22 Only one future Hall of Famer played in the Union Association, Tommy McCarthy. McCarthy is a very weak member of the Hall and signed with the Boston Unions with Mike Slattery from the Chickering Piano Company team. Slattery, who was 17 years old the entire season (he turned 18 a month after the season was over), was the youngest player to ever appear in 100 games in a season. In all the Union Association featured 21 teenage players, more than any other “major” league of the nineteenth century.

At the beginning of the season, this is the combined games of professional experience for players on Union Association Opening Day 1884 rosters:

 

Team

Games of Professional Experience 1871-83

St Louis

1461

Boston

1020

Cincinnati

1011

Chicago

539

Philadelphia

355

Baltimore

271

Altoona

111

Washington

36

 

All of Altoona’s games come from one player, Jack Leary.23 In comparison, all but one of the NL teams featured lineups with 3,000 or more games of experience. Many of Boston’s players were legends past their primes. Tommy Bond, who developed a “new shoulder high throwing motion that increased his speed,” had not pitched a full season since 1880.24 Lew Brown and Tim Murnane had been teammates with Bond in the National League. Murnane led the National Association in steals in 1875 but had not played on a major-league team since 1878. The Philadelphia Keystones brought Levi Meyerle out of retirement at age 35. He doubled in his first game and then retired for good two games later. A 39-year-old NA veteran, Ned Cuthbert, began play with the Baltimore Monumentals; the Baltimore Sun termed his fielding “rocky” but noted that he was still fast enough.25

With the teams set, the Union Association embarked on its only season of existence.

 

Notes

1 Sporting Life, September 22, 1884: 4.

2 Joan M. Thomas, “Henry V. Lucas,” SABR BioProject, sabr.org/bioproj/person/20cd29bd, accessed August 1, 2017.

3 “A New Association,” New York Times, September 13, 1883: 2.

4 Sporting Life, September 20, 1883.

5 David Q. Voigt, American Baseball: From the Gentleman’s Sport to the Commissioner System (State College, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1983), 316.

6 A.G. Mills letter to Dennis McKnight, October 22, 1883. Mills Papers, National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

7 Sporting Life, October 25, 1883.

8 “Base-Ball Matters,” New York Times, October 21, 1883: 2.

9 Letter to McKnight, December 21, 1883. Mills Papers.

10 Emery J. Hengel to Yank Robinson, October 23, 1883. Yank Robinson player file, National Baseball Hall of Fame.

11 Ibid.

12 Mills letter to McKnight, December 21, 1883. Mills Papers. Italics added.

13 “New Base-Ball Rules,” New York Times, December 19, 1883: 2.

14 Sporting Life, December 9, 1883. Interestingly, the Dunlap player file includes a quote from Sam Crane in 1912 that Dunlap was paid $7,000 for the 1884 season.

15 “New Base-Ball Rules,” New York Times, December 19, 1883: 2.

16 Jerry Jaye Wright, “What’s in a Name? George Wright’s Influence, Favors and Deals During the Organization of the Boston Unions of 1884,” NASSH Proceedings, North American Society for Sports History, 1991.

17 Brock Herlander, “The History of Baseball in Altoona, Pennsylvania,” Baseball Research Journal (Fall 2012, SABR).

18 Sporting Life, February 20, 1884.

19 St. Louis Globe and Democrat, November 24, 1883. Lucas told the interviewer that he saw the league with “east and west contingents.”

20 “New Base-Ball Rules,” New York Times, February 1, 1884: 2. See also the reporting in the May 14, 1884, Sporting Life.

21 Sporting Life, March 20, 1884: 6.

22 Ibid.

23 The 111 figure counts only his 1871-75 National Association games and major-league games.

24 Chris Rainey, “Tommy Bond,” SABR BioProject, sabr.org/bioproj/person/c0089818.

25 Baltimore Sun, April 26, 1884.

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