This article was written by Barney Terrell
This article was published in the Baseball’s 19th Century Winter Meetings: 1857-1900
The Altoona Mountain City played their first game of the 1884 season at Cincinnati’s new grounds on April 17. There was some fear that the opener would not happen, as it was reported that the American Association club held the lease on the Outlaw Reds grounds until April 1, and “was not doing one lick of work” on the flooded field. Justus Thorner hired an individual named “Mr. Marcus” to lead a 30-man crew down to the Bank Street field to work on St. Patrick’s Day; Marcus and his crew successfully got to work with no interruptions.1
Regarded as the weakest club in the new Union Association, Altoona stepped into a minefield out of the gate. Swept by the Reds, the Mountain City traveled to St. Louis to begin a home-and-home arrangement of eight games with the Maroons. By the time Altoona won a game at home against Boston on May 10, they had been outscored 117-29 in their first 11 games. By mid-May, the Altoona club was in financial trouble. The Maroons, however, raced out to an unprecedented start. Tommy Bond, the old Boston hurler, was the first pitcher to beat the Maroons, and the only pitcher to beat them during the first month of the season. On May 31 the Maroons were 24-1 and 6½ games ahead of the second-place Reds. The pennant race of 1884 for the Union Association was for all intents over.
The season was also over for the Altoona club. On May 29, Henry Van Noye Lucas appeared in Altoona and met with President William Ritz and manager Ed Curtis. After taking in the next day’s game, a 9-0 shutout at the hands of the Baltimore Monumentals, Lucas informed Ritz that he would no longer provide financial assistance to the club. The next day, Altoona players Charlie Berry, Jerry Moore, and Taylor Shafer refused to play unless they were paid. It should be pointed out that in the May 30 game in front of Lucas, Berry made five errors at second base. After a May 31 home loss to Baltimore, Altoona disbanded as Lucas recommended.2
Lucas’s arrival in Altoona prompted rumors that the club would be moved to Kansas City. This was at least half correct. Americus McKim, a malt and grain salesman from Kansas City, applied to join the Union Association in January of 1884 and the league turned him down. The club played throughout April and May as a semipro club. Of the stronger clubs that were turned down by the Union Association before the season started, most signed with National Agreement leagues (American Association, Northwest League, and Eastern League) and therefore were not available to take the place of Altoona. Kansas City, however, faced no such obstacle.
In a meeting June 1 in Chicago, Lucas proposed the admittance of the Kansas City club to take the place of Altoona and play the remainder of its season. This was agreed to by the other owners in attendance (George Wright of Boston was absent) and the Cowboys played their first game on June 7. While the game was a loss with 13 Cowboys errors, a crowd of 1,500 turned out to watch. Charlie Berry, the Altoona player who struck for his back pay, was termed “something of a daisy” by the local press.3
While there was a very tenuous and uneasy peace in June, it is clear that negotiations were going on between representatives of several leagues. On June 27, NL President Abraham G. Mills wrote to Henry Diddlebock, the secretary of the Eastern League. Mills asked him to discover who offered “that gang” a place in the NL next season. The “gang” Mills referred to was none other than the St. Louis Unions.4 Albert Spalding, responding to newspaper reports and another inquiry from Mills, wrote that
On my way to the baseball grounds, I met (Ted) Sullivan and a number of his players at the corner of Wabash Avenue and Madison Street. They were waiting for a car to take them to the 38th St. grounds. After some general talk, I asked Sullivan how the St. Louis Unions were getting along. … I understood from his remarks that Mr. Lucas was largely interested in both the Boston, Chicago and Baltimore Unions and that it was partially through the financial aid that they received from Lucas that these clubs were enabled to go on. … He asked me if I thought the St. Louis Union Club would be admitted if they made their application. I replied that they could not get in without a unanimous vote so long as they continued to hold Dunlap and (Orator) Shaffer sic]. I further told him that if the St. Louis club came into the league they would have to give up Sunday playing. He said that he knew Mr. Lucas was very anxious to get into the league.5
Sullivan was in Chicago with the Kansas City club, who played the Chicago Unions June 14-19. Sullivan took over as player-manager for Kansas City in July. While the press reported that this was an overture to the Unions, Spalding’s explanation seemed to assuage Mills.
All eight of the current teams sent representatives to the July 1 meeting at the Eutaw House in Baltimore. Lucas and Justus Thorner presided over the most important meeting for the UA since its creation. The games played by Altoona would be thrown out, and the schedule committee submitted a revised schedule that was unanimously adopted. The schedule placed Kansas City in Chicago’s place on the schedule and Chicago in Altoona’s place. The owners registered some complaints about the Wright and Ditson league ball of “being various weights and sizes … and very lively.” The ball was proving to be popular with the public, however, and sold well for the company.6
The clubs went over their financial situation, and it was thought Washington, Baltimore, or Boston would not last throughout the season. Lucas ordered that “no straggling will be permitted. … Teams are expected to stay with their colors to the last.”7 This martial language set the stage for an all-out declaration of war by the UA. Because the leagues of the National Agreement never respected the contracts of the Union Association, the UA would now respond in kind. In a league founded on freedom from the reserve clause, the Chicago club blacklisted six players for taking advances and then signing with Northwestern League clubs. The league instructed three players to return $150 in advance payments following their refusal to leave the Peoria Reds.
Did the war declaration pay off? While some well-known players such as Charlie Sweeney, Tom Dolan, and Jack Glasscock jumped, the decision drove up the costs of other players and also pushed some to jump the other way. Tommy Bond jumped to Indianapolis of the American Association. Bond claimed Boston owed him $208 of back salary, and Sporting Life reported that the Boston players were very sympathetic to his plight. In response, George Wright fined him $100 and complained that Lew Brown, Bond’s teammate from the old Boston National League days, was so drunk that his condition was “evident to the spectators.”8
Lucas issued a statement through the St. Louis Critic, reproduced in Sporting Life on July 23, and asked for the UA to be acknowledged as an organization, the appointment of a National Arbitration Board for the resolution of contract squabbles, and the complete abolition of the reserve rule. None of these things were going to happen, and Lucas probably knew it. The declaration of the UA turned Sporting Life against the association; its editor pointedly asked, “Does the National League have to die so that the UA might live?”9
As the summer dragged on, it became apparent that there were just too many baseball teams. When teams began to fold, it did not necessarily bother Abraham G. Mills. He wrote on July 31 to James A. Williams of the St. Louis American Association club that “the UA will probably debauch and steal some of our players … but they cannot, in the aggregate, get many,” and the NL’s established clubs could fill spots with players from teams that have folded.10
August saw the reckoning, as four teams from the Northwest League folded in the first two weeks. The UA Philadelphia Keystones folded on August 7. The Chicago Unions relocated to Pittsburg and the UA welcomed a new team. The Wilmington Quicksteps won the Eastern League title, and following the loss of Reading and Richmond, the Eastern League folded on September 29. Lucas offered to pay the expenses for Wilmington’s Western road trips, and directed the home clubs to split gate receipts 50/50 with the Quicksteps.11 This became a pattern for Lucas. As the Northwest League fell apart, he approached the lucrative Milwaukee team, as well as St. Paul, a team that was tied to the UA before the season started.
The Quicksteps, their roster open for poaching by NL and AA clubs, lost Andy Cusick and Tommy “Oyster” Burns from their outfield and stumbled to a 2-16 record. Before a September 15 game against Kansas City, the team disbanded. Investors blamed Lucas for not following his agreement to pay expenses. Stew Thornley of SABR wrote that the Wilmington club was frozen out by Lucas through his postponing of UA league meetings to September 20. By that time, Lucas obtained Milwaukee and Omaha to replace Wilmington and the bankrupt Pittsburg club.12
The final in-season meeting of the Union Association occurred at the National Hotel in Washington, DC. William Warren White set out the financial picture and stated that Washington, St. Louis, and Kansas City made money and that Baltimore was “nearly even.” Even though John T. West represented the Wilmington club, it was dropped from the league. Justus Thorner and representatives from Milwaukee were expected, but did not arrive. It is telling that teams were asked for a $1,000 bond to finish the season. Pittsburg was dropped, and replaced by a club from Omaha. This is a unique situation in the history of baseball. Omaha never played a single game in the UA, and simply did not show up to play in Milwaukee. The next week they were replaced by St. Paul.
Not one to end meetings on a negative note of rapid franchise turnover, Lucas announced that the Athletic and Metropolitan Association clubs had sought admittance to the UA for the 1885 season. William White also stated that the UA would meet the NL halfway on peace talks when asked about rumors that the Baltimore UA club would fold within a week.13 The next week, A.G. Mills wrote to Sporting Life to state that the “NL is not, nor ever has been, in favor of reconciliation with the Unions. … It is not, nor has it ever, considered adding the Cincinnati and St. Louis clubs to the league.”14 Mills knew the olive branch from the September 20 meeting for what it was: the last gasp of a league that had already lost four members.
When the 1884 season ended, it was clear that almost everyone had lost money. On December 18, 1884, the UA convened its first meeting of the winter at the Laclede Hotel in St. Louis. The first order of business declared St. Louis the champion with a pennant of “not more than $100 to be purchased.”15 The Baltimore club resigned via telegram. Boston and Washington, which did not even bother to send representatives, were dropped from the league. In all, only Milwaukee, St. Louis, Cincinnati, and Kansas City attended on behalf of the teams in the Union Association. Since St. Paul did not show in Milwaukee to play its final games of the season, that franchise was not asked back. John B. Sage from Buffalo and Charles Houtz from Pittsburg attended. Sage was a printer of baseball lithographs and posters who may have been there for back pay.
The league announced losses of $787.71, which seems absurdly low considering the sparse crowds and franchise failures. Lucas blamed the deficit on Altoona and Chicago, which still owed the league money. This seems disingenuous, as the owners more than likely owed Lucas money due to his personal loans to the teams. Milwaukee representative C.M. Kipp moved that an amendment that “a $500 check be deposited as surety that the club will perform all its duties in to the league” be placed in the constitution for the next season; the club owners agreed.16 The Union Association would be in business for 1885, but it would be a Western league. The franchises that made up its Eastern cities were long gone. The core of a Western professional league was in place with strong support. The question would be the ongoing dispute with the American Association and the National League. Would peace be found? Could the other teams find players to challenge the mighty Maroons? It was agreed that the league would meet in Milwaukee in January. Both Americus McKim and C.M. Kipp of Milwaukee were quite excited about the prospects of the Association for the next season.
However, the 1885 season was a chimera. Michael Scanlon represented the reconstituted Washington club at the Eastern League meetings. In January 1885, the bottom fell out on the Union Association. Henry Lucas told an associate on January 4, 1885, that both the St. Louis and Cincinnati Union clubs would move into the National League in place of the Cleveland and Detroit franchises.17 By January 25, the NL made its decision following the resignation of President Mills. Democratic Congressman John J. O’Neill of Missouri brokered a peace between Lucas and St. Louis Browns President Chris Von der Ahe and their league surrounding territorial money owed to Von der Ahe over a new team in St. Louis. Players who jumped the year before would be assessed individually for reinstatement. Lucas had his place in the League at last.
By that time, there was no Union Association. On January 15 Americus McKim and Tom Loftus of the Kansas City and Milwaukee clubs met in Milwaukee. The two men decided to end the Union Association for good; they may have found it odd that they voted the league out of existence even though they were not even original members. Indeed, not one original team was left. However, not all was lost. At the last UA meeting, the duo announced the creation of a new league and announced that Columbus, Ohio, and St. Paul, Minnesota, were interested in fielding teams. Both were rabid baseball cities, and both had experienced baseball men to manage clubs. This new league would seek application to the National Agreement and would be called the Western League. By 1888 it would be playing as the Western Association; several of its clubs would survive the turbulent 1890s to form the nucleus of the American League.
1 Sporting Life, March 19, 1884: 6.
2 Jerry Jay Wright, “The 1884 Altoona Unions,” The National Pastime No 13 (1993): 55.
3 Bradford Doolittle, “A Lost Pioneer: Americus V. McKim brought Big League Ball to KC, but for Nearly a Century His Legacy Went Unmarked,” Kansas City Star, May 21, 2006: C1.
4 Mills to Diddlebock, June 27, 1884. Mills Papers, National Baseball Hall of Fame.
6 New York Times, July 2, 1884: 11.
8 Sporting Life, July 23, 1884: 4.
9 Sporting Life, July 16, 1884: 7.
10 Mills to J.A. Williams, July 31, 1884. Mills Papers.
11 J. Scott Gross, “Wilmington Quicksteps: From Glory to Oblivion,” research.sabr.org/journals/wlmington-quicksteps-glory-to-oblivion. Accessed October 22, 2017.
13 Sporting Life, September 24, 1884: 10.
14 Sporting Life, October 1, 1884: 5.
15 Sporting Life, December 20, 1884: 5.
17 New York Times, January 5, 1885: 11.