1886 Winter Meetings: Radical Changes to the Playing Rules

This article was written by Dennis Thiessen

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


Baseball's 19th Century Winter Meetings: 1857-1900The National League and the American Association entered their respective winter meetings — hereafter called the annual meetings1 — buoyed by the growing popularity and profits of the past 1886 season.2 The owners recognized that to further expand the popularity of baseball and, with the consequent rise in attendance, increase their profits, they had to improve the game on the field. Accordingly, the NL and AA worked together to change the playing rules. Each league also took steps to ensure the financial stability and competitiveness of its membership, a matter of some importance in the process used to admit a new club to the League or Association. The annual meetings were occasions where such strategic directions were formally considered, debated, and decided.

Baseball in 1887: On and Off the Field

The fans of 1887 witnessed a different game than seen in previous seasons.3 The many rule changes created conditions that enabled numerous batsmen to have career-best performances at the plate and many teams to score an unprecedented number of runs. While players enjoyed greater success on the field, they continued to struggle off the field with limited contractual or professional rights, concerns that were taken up more vigorously in 1887 by the Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players.

In 1887 the National League and the American Association implemented a number of rule changes that significantly altered the way the game was played. These changes were designed to enable the umpire to perform his duties more effectively by clarifying rules that were previously difficult to enforce, by eliminating rules that often led to disputes, and by reassigning certain responsibilities to others. In addition, pitching and batting rules were revised to equalize “the powers of the attacking and defensive forces in the game.”4 While a number of rule changes affected the balance of power between pitcher and batter, three in particular shifted the advantage to the batsman, specifically the number of fair balls before he was declared out on strikes, the number of unfair balls before he was given his base on balls, and the scoring of a base on balls as a hit. These pro-batsman changes had a significant impact on the “attacking” numbers of most NL and AA teams in 1887.5

When compared to 1886 and 1888, in 1887 both leagues had higher numbers in runs, hits, and bases on ball per game and in the overall batting averages.6 Pitchers also recorded fewer strikeouts in 1887 than in 1886 or 1888. In tables 1 and 2, the 1887 figures are based on the rules of the day, that is, a base on balls is counted as a hit in the line on hits per game. For comparative purposes, bases on balls per game in 1887 are also shown separately.7

 

Table 1: Batting Statistics in the National League, 1886 to 1888

 

1886

1887

1888

Games

990

1016

1088

Runs Scored/Game

5.2

6.1

4.5

Hits/Per Game

8.6

12.2

8.2

Bases on Ball/ Game

2.4

2.7

1.9

Strikeouts/Game

4.3

2.8

3.7

Batting Average

.251

.321

.239

 

Table 2: Batting Statistics in the American Association, 1886 to 1888

 

1886

1887

1888

Games

1114

1100

1096

Runs Scored/Game

5.7

6.6

5.2

Hits/Per Game

8.5

12.7

8.3

Bases on Ball/Game

2.9

3.0

2.4

Strikeouts/Game

4.2

2.8

3.8

Batting Average

.243

.330

.238

 

This offensive power surge was even more evident in the records of the leading teams and leading batters in both leagues. After a close race for most of the season, the Detroit Wolverines won the championship of the NL by 3½ games. They led the NL in runs (969 runs or 7.6 per game), hits (1756 hits or 13.8 per game), doubles, triples, and batting average (.348). In the AA, the St. Louis Browns moved into first place at the beginning of May, never to relinquish the lead; they finished 14 games ahead of second-place Cincinnati. St. Louis was the first major-league team to score more than 1,000 runs in a season (1131 runs or 8.2 per game). The Browns also led the AA in hits (1992 hits or 14.4 per game), doubles, home runs, stolen bases, and batting average (.363).

Cap Anson (Chicago) won the NL batting championship with an average of .421.8 Tip O’Neill was the leading batsman in the AA with an average of .485. He also led the league in runs (167), hits (275, tied with Pete Browning), doubles (52), triples (19, tied with five others), home runs (14), and runs batted in (123).9 The fans flocked to the games. The AA attendance rose to an all-time high. The number of cranks through the NL turnstiles bested one million, a mark that for the first time exceeded the totals of the AA.10

As the players adapted to the new rules on the field, off the field they continued to cope with how the owners thoroughly framed and regulated their professional lives and careers. The players were concerned with restrictions on their freedom of movement (e.g., reserve clause, trades and sales of players), various contractual conditions (e.g., wanted the inclusion of their full salary in the contract), limitations on salary levels, and arbitrary discipline (through fines and sometimes suspension or blacklisting) issued by owners and the league for alleged misbehavior.11 Throughout 1887, John Ward, the president of the Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players, repeatedly raised questions about players’ rights, in particular when teams folded, moved from one league to another or joined the NL or AA as a new member, and traded or sold players based on alleged misbehavior.12 Whether a player was moved by sale, trade, or reassignment, the Brotherhood argued that the player had a right to be heard, and not simply shuttled from one place to another as if he were a slave.13

Meetings

The work of the two leagues shaped the direction and conditions that defined baseball in 1887 on and off the field. Though each league had its own constitution and operated independently, they were bound by the National Agreement. Accordingly, the NL and AA worked together on the Arbitration Committee, the Joint Schedule Committee, and, for the first time in 1887, the Joint Committee on Rules. (Previously each league developed its own playing rules.) The major meetings (location shown in parentheses) in the NL and AA from November 1, 1886, to October 31, 1887, were as follows:14

  • November 15-16: Joint Committee on Rules, NL & AA (Chicago)
  • November 17-18: Annual Meeting, NL (Chicago)
  • November 22-23: Special Meeting to Admit Cleveland, AA (Cincinnati)
  • December 13, 14: Arbitration Committee, NL & AA (New York)
  • December 15-16: Annual Meeting, AA (New York)
  • March 4: Joint Schedule Committee, NL & AA (Columbus)
  • March 7: Schedule Meeting, NL (New York)
  • March 7: Schedule Meeting, AA (Cleveland)
  • May 14: Special Meeting to Discuss Recent Rule Changes, AA (Cincinnati)
  • September 5: Special Meeting to Consider the Percentage System, AA (New York)
  • September 6: Arbitration Committee, NL & AA (New York)

Annual Meetings

Most of the key issues and themes of 1887 were first noted and, in some cases, addressed at the annual meetings.15 Most issues or themes considered at the annual meetings were subsequently followed up by various committees or at special meetings. Table 3 outlines the major decisions made at the NL and AA annual meetings. The section that follows on “Key Issues and Themes” describes how the most prominent decisions from the annual meetings were further examined, confirmed, or revised in other forums.

 

Table 3. Annual Meetings: Major Decisions by NL & AA

DECISIONS

 

NL IN CHICAGO ON NOVEMBER 17-18 1886

AA IN NEW YORK ON DECEMBER 15-16 1886

Rule Changes

 

Adopted the amendments of the Joint Committee on Rules

Adopted the amendments of the Joint Committee on Rules. AA did not agree with the provision in the playing rules (section 67)16 that gave the Joint Committee the “full power to act.” Approved an amendment that required that any changes in rules must be approved by a majority vote of members of the Association. Also recommended that the Joint Committee could be reconvened should the “rules prove unsatisfactory after being given a practical test.”17

 

Membership in the League or Association: New Clubs

 

Voted in favor of admitting Pittsburgh

Reported on financial strength of Cleveland (previously approved as a member at the Special Meeting in Cincinnati on November 22)

Guarantee vs. Percentage System (formula for dividing gate receipts between the home team and visiting team)

 

Passed motion to change from the current percentage system of 30% for the visiting team to a guaranteed system where the home team pays the visiting team $125 for every championship game (and 50% of the receipts for games played on national or state holidays)

Though there was some discussion prior to the meeting about changing from the current guarantee system to the percentage system, this topic was not on the agenda.

Revisions to National Agreement

 

 

Contracts for the following year cannot be initiated, negotiated or completed prior to October 20.

 

Reserve list not to exceed 14 players under contract; also submitted a second list of “players reserved in any prior annual reserve list who have refused to contract with said club members”

 

A club that wishes to resign its membership from either association must do so in November.

 

Qualified Membership: Those associations (professional and semiprofessional – minor leagues) that have signed the National Agreement must: (1) submit a list of those under contract on or after October 20; (2) review the case of any player suspended by the club without pay for violating the terms of his contract or the rules of the association; and (3) abide by the joint playing rules adopted for 1887 (failure by a club to expel those who do not comply with the new rules of play shall lose its qualified membership).

 

Minor Leagues: Rejected request by the International League to extend reserve list rules to its association. Supported motion to allow minor-league clubs to sign players during the October 20 to November 1 period.

Distinct Matters in NL and AA

 

Loss of Guarantee Fund: Any club that persistently refuses to resign its membership after being asked to do so will forfeit its entry deposit (up to $5,000). (Constitutional Amendment)

 

Discipline: Players can be fined (up to $200) or suspended for “drunkenness, gambling … insubordination, or dishonorable or disreputable conduct.” (Constitutional Amendment)

Leadership: Unanimously re-elected Wheeler Wikoff as president

 

Contract: Committee established to develop a new player contract

 

KEY ISSUES AND THEMES

Many of the decisions made at the two annual meetings became issues or themes that continued throughout 1887.

Rule Changes: For the first time, the NL and AA worked together to develop one set of playing rules that would govern both leagues, as well as those minor-league associations that had co-signed the National Agreement. In another “first,” the joint committee sought the counsel of an advisory group of captains.18

The changes were far-reaching, with minor (e.g., rewording) and often major revisions to over half of the 1886 “Playing Rules.” A number of changes clarified and strengthened the role of the umpire especially in those areas where disputes arise. For example, the new rules: repositioned the first- and third-base bags so that they were entirely in fair territory (to make it easier for the umpire to call a ball fair or foul); no longer allowed the batsman to call for a high or low pitch, as well as redefined a fair ball or strike as a pitch over the plate between the knee and shoulder (to reduce previous problems that the umpire had in determining whether a pitch was a fair ball);19 restricted the comments of a coach to advice directed to his own baserunners; and permitted only the captain to challenge the umpire and only then on questions about a possible incorrect application of a rule (last two changes intended to limit the intimidating tactics of coaches and captains, and to reinforce the powers of the umpire to make final and uncontested decisions).20 Arguably the most significant changes were those that affected the pitcher and the batsman.21

New rules changed what the pitcher could do within the pitchers’ lines or box in ways that tipped the balance in the batsman’s favor. The box was reduced to 4 feet wide and 5½ feet long, with the front line 50 feet from the middle of the home base. Prior to each pitch, a right-handed pitcher had to keep “both feet squarely on the ground, the right foot on the rear line of the box, his left foot in advance of the right, and to the left of an imaginary line from his right foot to the center of the Home Base.”22 He was further restricted to one step in his delivery from the point at which he began (rear line of box). Against those pitchers who had previously relied on more than one step or jumped across the box to generate velocity, and on movements within and across the box to deceive the hitter, the 1887 batsman likely faced slower pitches with fewer distractions.23

The pitching rules also stipulated that before each delivery the pitcher had to hold the ball “in front of his body and in sight of the Umpire,”24 which would also put the ball in full view of the batsman. The pitcher had to return to his stance on the back line with the ball positioned in front of him after each pitch and after each throw or feigned throw to a base in an attempt to pick off a baserunner. A pitcher could no longer hide the ball behind his back, begin with his back to the batsman, quick-pitch a batsman, or turn as if to throw to a base and then wheel and throw to the plate all in one motion. The 1887 batsman thus had fewer deceptions to confront. He also was able to pick up and follow the ball sooner, especially from those pitchers who had depended on these tricks in 1886.

The one change that clearly favored the pitcher was the omission of the rule that allowed the batsman to call for a high (between waist and shoulder) or low (between waist and knees) pitch. This change doubled the strike zone to a fair ball delivered “over the home base, not lower than the batsman’s knee, nor higher than his shoulder.”25 The strategic advantage gained for the pitcher by the larger strike zone was offset by reducing the number of unfair balls required for a base on balls to five and increasing the number of fair balls required before a batsman was called out on strikes to four.26 In addition, a base on balls was scored as a base hit and a time at bat. Though the 1887 batsman now had to cope with both low and high balls, he was less likely to get called out on strikes and more likely to be awarded a hit for a called base on balls secured through skillful batting.27 He had more opportunity to work the count, to size up pitches, and to wait for a pitch he preferred.

As indicated above, the cumulative advantages that these rule changes afforded to the batsman contributed to the significant improvement in the productivity of the players, teams, and leagues. Though fans seemed to enjoy this offensive surge, there was also continued opposition to two of the changes, namely the rule that credited a base on balls with a base hit and the rule that required four strikes before a batsman is called out.28 Barely one month into the season, the AA met on May 14 in Cincinnati and drafted a resolution asking NL President Nicholas Young to confer with NL members of the Joint Committee on Rules about the advisability of revoking these two rules effective immediately.29 Young responded that the NL was in favor of these two changes but not until the end of the season.30 The two rules were revoked at the 1887 annual meetings of the NL and AA.

Changes in Membership: In the 10 years in which the NL and AA co-existed (1882-1891), there were frequent changes in the composition of clubs in each league.31 Though the two leagues lived with the worry and threat of defection, the move of Pittsburgh from the AA to the NL for the 1887 season was the first time a team chose to leave one league for the other. The NL-AA tension created by this departure lingered until the demise of the AA.32

In comparison to the AA, the NL engaged in a more complicated and prolonged process to determine which clubs would form the eight-team roster for 1887. Capitalizing on Pittsburgh’s disillusionment with the AA,33 the NL moved quickly and persuasively to secure the membership of the competitive Pittsburgh club (it finished second in the AA in 1886). It formally admitted Pittsburgh to the League at its annual meeting in November 1886. With one club too many, the NL devoted the next three months to sorting out its eight-team membership for 1887.

The NL had doubts about the continued viability of two of its teams (Kansas City, St. Louis) while a third, more established club (Detroit) no longer believed it was in its best interests to stay in the League. In its first year (1886), Kansas City proved to be both a poor competitor (won 30 of 121 games) and a poor draw (attendance of 55,000, the lowest in both leagues). Furthermore, the other NL teams objected to the extra travel time and costs incurred to play in Kansas City. During the annual meeting in November, NL representatives urged Kansas City to withdraw so that Pittsburgh could take its place at the table. Menges, the Kansas City director, responded strongly: “We will not be forced out of the League. We will stay in if we want and we will go out if it suits us to, and we won’t be driven out inch by inch by those fellows that are trying to manipulate things to suit themselves.”34 The NL also worried about the financial viability of the St. Louis Maroons after the departure of its owner in August 1886. Complicating matters further, Detroit threatened to jump to the AA after the league decided against the percentage system for splitting gate receipts with the visiting team. Neither Kansas City nor St. Louis would drop out of the NL voluntarily, while Detroit was poised to leave willingly, or so it seemed.

As a further “incentive” for those clubs that were reluctant to withdraw their membership, at the annual meeting the NL passed a motion “that any club persistently refusing to tender its resignation when called on for it will forfeit its deposit of $5000.”35 The League had the option of voting out a club that did not resign after being encouraged to do so (two-thirds majority required) but was hesitant to invoke this option for fear of a legal challenge. Instead the NL set up a committee of three36 (N.E. Young, A.G. Spalding, J.B. Day) to manage what turned out to be a prolonged process. The committee’s remit was as follows:

… to consider and determine all questions relating to the release and employment of players of any club in danger of probable disbandment, their decision to be final. Such committee to have power, in case of the club’s withdrawing from the League, or in case of its expulsion, to provide for the apportionment of its players among the remaining League clubs, as in the opinion of such committee the best interest of the League may require. They may, if they deem it right, continue the club, playing it in the same city or another city which the interest of the League may demand. The power and duties of such committee to continue until further action of the League. Their successors to be elected at the next annual meeting. The action of the committee to be unanimous.37

Given what transpired, the above statement, “They may, if they deem it right, continue the club, playing it in the same city or another city,” was prophetic. Shortly after the committee’s formation, representatives from Indianapolis made it known that it was interested in NL membership. For the next three months, there was considerable press coverage, swirling rumors, and much debate about which of the three cities, St. Louis, Kansas City, or Indianapolis, would become the eighth member. On February 21, 1887, the committee of three met with representatives of all three teams to review their respective proposals. The committee could not agree on a recommendation and so referred the final decision to the March 7 schedule meeting of the NL in New York.

The final resolution gave the committee of three responsibility for the purchase and subsequent distribution of players. Indianapolis was accepted as the eighth member of the NL. Kansas City and St. Louis withdrew their membership. The NL paid $6,000 to Kansas City for its players and $12,000 to St. Louis for its players. In turn, Indianapolis paid $12,000 to the NL for all of the St. Louis players and $1,000 for two Kansas City players (Bassett, Hackett). The NL sold three Kansas City players (Whitney, Myers, Donnelly) and one St. Louis player (O’Brien) to Washington for $2,500 and one Kansas City player (Radford) to the New York Metropolitans (AA) for $500. To forestall possible confusion or disputes that might arise with some “star” players from St. Louis, Indianapolis was not permitted to sell or release Glasscock, Myers, Denny, and Boyle for one year.38 The committee of three exerted its muscle, and got the changes it wanted.39 Or as the Boston Globe summarized: “That sounds pretty strong; but it’s the way they do things in the League. The rule is: ‘You can do as we want you to with good grace or not, just as you see fit, but you will have to do it.’”40

After the annual meeting of the NL, the AA, still upset by both the League’s aggressiveness and secrecy, focused on the task at hand, namely to determine a replacement for Pittsburgh. It called a special two-day meeting of all members for November 22, 1886, in Cincinnati. After due consideration of proposals from Kansas City and Cleveland and an expression of interest from Detroit (NL), the delegates voted to admit Cleveland “contingent on their being able to show a solid financial basis and deposit a bond.”41 An Association committee of three consisting of Chris Von der Ahe, A.S. Stern, and C.H. Byrne was appointed to make a site visit to Cleveland and report the results of this visit at the American Association’s annual meeting. Cleveland was formally admitted as a member of the AA at the annual meeting on December 15 in New York.

At a special meeting in November, the AA was prepared to negotiate favorable terms with Detroit, but not before Detroit submitted a formal application for membership. By the second day, Detroit clearly did not want to leave the NL, and admitted as much, in that it had used the threat of defection as leverage to gain concessions from many of the NL clubs on the amount they would pay Detroit when it was the visiting team.42 Kansas City had the strongest submission but was not seriously considered, in part because of the extra travel costs and time that would be required to play in that city. But the primary reasons were anger and pride. The AA could not be seen as accepting a club rejected by the NL.

Guarantee System vs. Percentage System: In both leagues, nothing was so contentious as the debate about which of two competing systems would be used to divide gate receipts between home and visiting clubs. The guarantee system required the home team to pay the visiting club a set amount for each championship game. The percentage system based the allocation to the visiting team for each championship game on a predetermined percentage of the gate receipts. The overall income of the team in the guarantee system was primarily based on the ability of a club to promote a high attendance at home. The financial success of a team in the percentage system was dependent on a club’s capacity to draw well at both home and away games.

Though some owners changed sides in this ongoing debate about the best system, they tended to support one system over the other according to their location (East or West), success (most or least wins), or size of city (big market or small market). Most of the NL and AA teams in the East initially favored the guarantee system while most teams in the West (except for Cincinnati in the AA and Chicago in the NL) initially preferred the percentage system. At the annual meeting of the NL in November 1886, two of the three least successful and small-market teams (St. Louis and Kansas City, not Washington) supported the percentage system. Among the top three teams, only Detroit (also a small-market team) wanted to retain the percentage system (not Chicago or New York, which also were big-market teams). Prior to the September AA meeting on the percentage plan, St. Louis, the first-place team (also a big-market team), two of the three small-market teams (Louisville and Cleveland, not Cincinnati), and the two teams with the worst record (New York and Cleveland), endorsed the percentage system. Of the four teams that maintained a commitment to the guarantee system, Cincinnati and Baltimore were two of the top three teams in the AA in wins, and Brooklyn and Philadelphia were two of the three big-market teams.43

The two leagues appeared to be going in different directions. At its annual meeting, the NL changed from the percentage system used in 1886 (the visiting team received 12.5 cents for each person admitted or 30 percent for each championship game) to a guarantee system for 1887 (the visiting team received $125 for each championship game and 50 percent of the gate receipts for games on national or state holidays). In the AA, a guarantee system was in place for 1887 (the visiting team received $65 for each championship game and 50 percent of the gate receipts for games on national or state holidays). Once the season began, St. Louis embarked on a public and behind-the-scenes lobby against the guarantee system, a strategy that also included a threat from St. Louis to defect to the NL if a percentage system was not adopted.44 At a special meeting in September, the AA approved the change to a modified percentage system for 1888 (visiting team received 7.5 cents for each person admitted, roughly 30 percent of receipts for each championship game including those games played on national or state holidays, but not less than $130). As the 1887 season progressed, the ongoing debate about the two systems, the respective threats of defection of Detroit to the AA45 and the St. Louis Browns to the NL, and the decision of the AA to change to the percentage plan had swung the pendulum in favor of the percentage plan in both leagues.46 At its annual meeting in November, the NL also switched to a modified percentage system (the visiting team received 12.5 cents for each person admitted or 25 percent for each championship game including those games played on national or state holidays, but not less than $150).47

Regulation of Players’ Lives and Careers: Both leagues clarified and strengthened their control over players’ lives and careers through changes in the National Agreement or in their respective constitutions, many of which are noted in Table 3 above.

As teams added more pitchers and catchers to their rosters, they needed a larger reserve list to retain these batteries. Accordingly, the reserve list for 1887 was increased to 14. Section IV of the National Agreement also stated that the list of players “reserved in any prior annual reserve list who have refused to contract with said club members and such players together with all others thereafter to be regularly contracted with by such members, are and shall be ineligible to contract with any club member of the other association.”48 The changes to Section IV thus required each club to submit two lists on October 10 each year, one for the reserved 14 players under contract and the second for reserved players who had not signed a contract in previous seasons. A player on the reserved-but-refused-to-sign list could be on this second list indefinitely, effectively denying him a chance to play baseball until he was either signed or released.49

Some changes in the National Agreement further defined when and under what conditions minor-league players could sign with their clubs or with the NL or AA. The minor-league associations that had qualified admission to the National Agreement increasingly were frustrated by the terms that governed their affiliation with the NL and AA.50 Revisions to Section II of the National Agreement significantly curtailed the use of personal contracts through the stipulation that no player could sign or negotiate a contract before October 20, a restriction that particularly affected those clubs in the NL or AA that sometimes tried to sign minor-league players before this date.51 A revision to Section II of the “Articles of Qualified Admission to the National Agreement of Professional Base Ball Associations” moved the date when minor-league clubs could first sign their players from November 1 to October 20. The NL and AA could no longer use the 10 days between October 20 and November 1 to “steal away the minor league’s players.”52

Other changes to the National Agreement or to the NL or AA constitutions identified and clarified those offenses that would invoke the use of suspensions or blacklisting. Suspensions could be given for unacceptable conduct (drunkenness, insubordination, etc.) in the NL (constitutional change); for any breach of contract including signing or negotiating a personal contract prior to October 20 (changes in National Agreement); and with reserved players, for those who failed to sign a contract (suspended from play for the following season or until he was released or signed: changes in National Agreement). A few owners in the AA who were especially vexed by players who refused to sign their contracts struck back by amending Section 37 of the AA constitution to read as follows:

And in case any player under reserve shall willfully hold off and refuse to sign a regular contract with the club which has him reserved, for the purpose of harassing the club or compelling it to increase his salary, or shall by any means, directly or indirectly, endeavor to attempt willful extortion from the club which has him reserved, he shall upon complaint and satisfactory evidence be placed upon the blacklist by the president and the secretary and notices issued to all clubs as provided by this constitution and the national agreement.53

Finally, an amendment to Section III of “Articles of Qualified Admission to the National Agreement of Professional Base Ball Associations” restricted clubs to the use of suspensions for any breach of contract or rules. Previously, a club could suspend, blacklist, or expel a player for such offenses.54 In the amendment to Section III, the relevant league or association had sole responsibility for making a decision to blacklist a player or terminate the period of his suspension.55

Conclusion

As the owners prepared for the 1887 annual meetings (NL in November and AA in December), many were pleased with the profits of the season just completed and guardedly optimistic about the prospects for continued financial gain in 1888. The increase in attendance in 1887 across both leagues suggested that fans enjoyed the product on the field. With few rule changes anticipated for 1888, most owners were confident that the fans would return in large numbers. Furthermore, with the change to a percentage system already approved by the AA and on the agenda of the 1887 NL annual meeting, teams in both leagues would likely receive a more equitable share of the gate receipts in the coming season. The popularity of the game and the new business model would ensure a profitable year once again, or so many thought.

A few owners, however, were more cautious about the prospects for the 1888 season. They had concerns about the competitiveness of their respective leagues, the emerging unrest among players, and the possible threat to the profitability of their clubs that these two concerns posed. Getting fans out to the games depended on the level of competition and the expectation of a hard-fought contest with most if not all of the other seven teams in the League or Association. Of the three new teams, Pittsburgh (NL) fared the best (sixth in final standings, fifth-highest in attendance). Indianapolis (NL) and Cleveland (AA) each finished last in its respective league.56 While there were spirited rivalries between some teams, in 1887 only the NL had a tight race to the end, with three teams vying for the championship in the final weeks of the season.

For the most part, the numerous changes outlined above under “Regulation of Players’ Lives and Careers” most affected how clubs managed player contracts, movement (e.g., sale, trade, release), or behavior (e.g., through fines, suspensions, blacklist). The changes did not address the rights of players in any of these actions or transactions, an omission that was repeatedly criticized by the Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players. Though aware of some signs of labor strife, the NL and AA remained resolute that they had the sole responsibility for determining what is expected of players on and off the field. They would not allow player unrest to threaten all that they had done to enhance the popularity and profits of Organized Baseball. The NL and AA were determined to make a success of 1888.

 

Notes

1 In 1887, the newspapers, two baseball weeklies (The Sporting News, Sporting Life), and two annual guides — Spalding’s Base Ball Guide and Official League Book and Reach’s Official American Association Base Ball Guide — used the label “annual meetings” to denote the winter meeting of the League and Association.

2 In 1886, Reach’s Guide proudly declared: “In the American Association not one of the eight clubs played to a losing treasury — a state of affairs that had not been known during the previous four years of the organization’s existence.” “1886,” Reach’s Official American Association Base Ball Guide 1887 (1887; Reprinted New York: Horton Publishing Company, 1989), 5. Spalding’s Guide stated that five of the eight NL clubs made a profit. On the other three clubs, it added: “The clubs of St. Louis, Kansas City and Washington, however, failed to realize expectations, all three being on the wrong side of the column in profit and loss.” “The League Season of 1886,” Spalding’s Base Ball Guide and Official League Book for 1887. (1887; Reprinted New York: Horton Publishing Company, 1989), 14.

3 David Nemec’s The Great Encyclopedia of Nineteenth Century Major League Baseball. Second Edition (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2006), 409, states: “Never before and never again did the game undergo as many changes as occurred in 1887.”

4 Henry Chadwick, “The New Rules of Base-Ball,” Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, May 1887: 836.

5 I discuss the new rules in greater detail in a later subsection entitled “Rule Changes.”

6 The figures in Tables 1 and 2 are based on those provided on the Baseball Reference website. See Baseball-Reference.com. For the 1887 figures, I also referred to John Thorn, Phil Birnbaum & Bill Deane, Total Baseball. The Ultimate Baseball Encyclopedia. 8th Edition (Wilmington, North Carolina: SPORT Media Publishing, Inc., 2004), 2485-2486. For 1887, the seventh and eighth editions of Total Baseball include bases on balls as hits in its statistics for players, teams, and the NL and AA.

7 Most databases normalize the 1887 statistics, specifically by not counting a base on balls as a hit. The adjusted hits per game and league averages that appear in Baseball-Reference.com are shown in the following table:

 

NL

AA

Games

1016

1088

Runs Scored/Game

6.1

4.5

Hits/Per Game

9.5

9.6

Bases on Ball/ Game

2.7

1.9

Strikeouts/Game

2.8

3.7

Batting Average

.269

.273

8 When bases on balls are not counted as a hit, Sam Thompson (Detroit) had the highest batting average (.371) in the NL in 1887. He also had the highest number of hits (203) and the most runs batted in (166).

9 In 1887 Tip O’Neill’s official average was reported as .492, which was changed to .485 many years later when it was discovered that there had been an error in the calculation. When the AA averages are normalized (bases on balls not counted as a hit), O’Neill still headed the list of AA batters with an average of .435.

10 Gary Gillette & Pete Palmer, eds., The ESPN Baseball Encyclopedia. Fifth Edition (New York: Sterling Publishing, 2008), 243.

11 Robert Burk, Never Just a Game. Players, Owners, and American Baseball to 1920 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994), 94-99; Harold Seymour, Baseball: The Early Years (New York: Oxford University Press, 1960), 221-225; David Voigt, American Baseball. Volume 1: From Gentleman’s Sport to the Commissioner System (University Park: Pennsylvania University Press, 1983), 154-160.

12 After the 1886 season, Chicago sold George Gore, Abner Dalrymple, and King Kelly in part because of their drinking and Jim McCormick for his failure to sign a contract. In November, the St. Louis Browns moved five players — Bill Gleason, Curt Welch, Doc Bushong, Dave Foutz, and Bob Caruthers — some of whom had contract disputes with the owner, while others had problems with drinking, inconsistent performance, or insubordination. Chicago sold Kelly to Boston for $10,000, a sum that The Sporting News claimed was the “largest amount ever paid for the release of a ball player.” “The Only Mike Kelly. Boston Pays Chicago Ten Thousand Dollars for His Release,” The Sporting News, February 19, 1887: 1.

13 A number of the early articles on the rule changes were based on interviews with Ward (e.g., “The New Rules for 1887,” New York Clipper, December 18, 1886: 632). He also wrote, “The New Rules,” Sporting Life, February 9, 1887: 4. Ward condemned the reserve clause in an article entitled, “Is the Base-Ball Player a Chattel?” Lippincott’s Magazine, Volume XL, August 1887: 310-19.

14 The two leagues had other committee meetings as needed or as opportunity permitted. For example, on August 15, the NL Board of Directors met in Asbury, New Jersey, to adjudicate the protest submitted by the New York Club against the umpire’s decision to forfeit their game of June 27 to Detroit. “Current Topics. Results of the League Director’s Meeting,” Sporting Life, August 24, 1887: 1.

15 The delegates to the NL annual meeting were A.H. Soden and W.H. Conant (Boston); President Hewitt and Manager Gaffney (Washington); President Stromberg and Thomas Russell (St. Louis Maroons); Manager Dave Rowe, President Helm, and Director E.E. Menges (Kansas City); John I. Rogers and Al Reach (Philadelphia (Quakers); President Fred K. Stearns (Detroit); John B. Day (New York Giants); and Al Spalding and W.I. Culver (Chicago), with Nicholas E. Young as the NL president and secretary. The delegates to the AA annual meeting were Will Sharsig and C.E. Mason (Philadelphia Athletics); Wm. Barnie and H.R. Von der Horst (Baltimore); C.H. Byrne, F.A. Abell, and J.J. Doyle (Brooklyn); A.S. Stern (Cincinnati); F.D.H. Robison, Geo. W. Howe, and J.A. Williams (Cleveland); Z. Phelps and J.R. Botto (Louisville); E. Wiman and W.W. Watrous (New York Metropolitans); and C. Von der Ahe and H.M. Weldon (St. Louis Browns), with Wheeler Wikoff as AA president and secretary.

16 “The National Playing Rules,” Reach’s Official American Association Base Ball Guide 1887 (1887; Reprinted New York: Horton Publishing Company, 1989), 166. Note in Reach’s Guide, the rule is incorrectly numbered. Rule 66 is on page 65. The amendment rule on page 166 should be numbered Rule 67.

17 At the March 7 schedule meeting, the AA withdrew its amendments, and supported the revised wording of section 67 initially proposed by the Joint Committee on Rules.

18 The members of the Joint Committee on Rules were: A.G. Spalding (Chicago, chairman), John Day (New York), and John Rogers (Philadelphia) for the NL and Zach Phelps (Louisville), William Barnie (Baltimore), and J.A. Williams (Cleveland) for the AA. The advisory group consisted of Cap Anson (Chicago), John Morrill (Boston), and John Ward (New York) from the NL and Charles Comiskey (St. Louis), Harry Stovey (Philadelphia), and Ed Swartwood (Brooklyn) from the AA.

19 Previously there had been numerous disputes over whether a waist-high pitch was high or low. For example, a batsman who called for a high pitch and then had a pitch he perceived as below his waist — and thus low — called a fair ball often argued against or kicked about this ruling by the umpire.

20 The AA was especially concerned with violations of the coaching rules (e.g., continued and illegal use of intimidation tactics and kicking). At the special meeting of the AA on May 14-15, they passed a motion that reinforced the expectation that the umpire would enforce the coaching rules and that each club would support the umpire in this enforcement. St. Louis and Cincinnati, the two teams most criticized for violating the coaching rules, opposed the motion. “Secret CONFAB: A Special Meeting of the Association,” Sporting Life, May 18, 1887: 1.

21 The changes also addressed such areas as the home plate (to be made of white rubber, no longer stone); the ball (must use the standard ball made by A.G. Spalding & Brothers or A.J. Reach & Company); the balk (any motion that tries to deceive the baserunner); a foul hit (if intentional, will be called a strike); etc.

22 Reach’s Official American Association Base Ball Guide. 1887 (Philadelphia: A.J. Reach & Co., 1887), 149, 150, 153, 154.

23 While the requirement that a pitcher start from the back line set the pitching distance at 55½ feet, the release point of most pitchers was between 51 and 53 feet depending on the stride of the pitcher and the timing of his release. A pitcher who in 1886 used two or three steps timed his delivery so he could release the ball just before the front line of the box. This same pitcher in 1887 would then release the ball between one and two feet farther back than in 1886 and without the leverage gained by a two- or three-step run up, and so likely as a result experienced a slight reduction in the speed of his pitch.

24 Reach’s Official American Association Base Ball Guide, 1887, 149.

25 Ibid., 153.

26 See Ward; also O.P. Caylor, “New Rules: Radical Changes by the Joint Committee. The Game to Be almost Revolutionized in Pitching and Batting,” Sporting Life, November 24, 1886, 1.

27 In addition to getting on base through a fair hit and a base on balls, under the new rules a batsman became a baserunner when he was hit by a pitch and when a pitcher delivered an illegal pitch — one that violated one of the rules governing the pitcher’s position and movements in the pitcher’s box.

28 On the 1887 rules governing when a batsman was out on strikes, Eric Miklich explained: “The batsman is out on strikes the moment the Umpire calls ‘four strikes,’ whenever first base is occupied and only one man is out, without regard to the catch of the ball from the fourth strike or not. In all other cases of four strikes being called, the ball on the fourth strike must be caught on the fly, or the batsman — then becoming a base runner — must be thrown out at first.” Eric Miklich, The Rules of the Game. A Compilation of the Rules of Baseball 1845-1900. 19C Base Ball, 19CBASEBALL.COM, 2005, 63.

29 “Secret CONFAB: A Special Meeting of the Association,” Sporting Life, May 18, 1887: 1. Barnie (Baltimore) and Byrne (Brooklyn) lobbied hard for these two rule changes. The delegates voted unanimously to rescind the base-on-balls-as-a-hit rule. A majority of the delegates supported the suspension of the four-strike rule and a return to three fair balls for a strikeout.

30 “The League Agrees, and the New Rules Will be Changed Next Season,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 16, 1887: 5; “National League: Notes,” New York Clipper, July 2, 1887: 250.

31 In this NL-AA period (1882-1886), the NL dropped Troy and Worcester and added New York (Gothams) and Philadelphia (Quakers) in 1883, made no changes in 1884, dropped Cleveland and added St. Louis Maroons in 1885, and dropped Buffalo and Providence and added Kansas City and Washington in 1886. In this same period, the AA added New York (Metropolitans) and Columbus in 1883, added Toledo, Washington (replaced by Richmond in August), Brooklyn, and Indianapolis in 1884, dropped Toledo, Washington, Richmond, Columbus, and Indianapolis in 1885, and had no changes in 1886.

32 Three “defections” by AA clubs to the NL occurred: Cleveland in 1889 and Brooklyn and Cincinnati in 1890.

33 Pittsburgh did not like the “circus-like” and often chaotic way the AA conducted its affairs, especially in its handling of the Barkley case. It also did not like to play on Sundays. The club preferred the more businesslike approach of the NL. For a further discussion of the Pittsburgh move to the NL, see Jon Cash, Before They Were Cardinals. Major League Baseball in Nineteenth-Century St. Louis (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2002), 151-153. Also see Seymour, 216-220.

34 “A Sensation: Kansas City in Fighting Mood,” Sporting Life, November 24, 1886: 1.

35 “The National League,” New York Clipper, November 27, 1886: 586.

36 Here I refer to it as the committee of three. It was formally recognized as the League Committee on Apportionment, though some newspapers had other labels (e.g., “Committee on Take,” in Cincinnati Enquirer, February 20, 1887: 10).

37 “The League Committee,” Sporting Life, December 1, 1886: 1.

38 “The Hoosiers Selected as the Eighth Club,” Sporting Life, March 16, 1887:1.

39 The prescient editorial group of Sporting Life surmised most elements of the committee’s strategy. They saw the scheme as “to freeze St. Louis out, induce Kansas City to sell its franchise to Indianapolis, combine the best players of the two teams into one strong aggregation and admit Indianapolis as the eighth city,” “The Ninth Club: Kansas City Maintains its Organization,” Sporting Life, December 22, 1886: 1.

40 “Nearing the End,” Boston Globe, March 9, 1887: 8.

41 “Cleveland Got There,” The Sporting News, November 27, 1886: 1.

42 Two clubs, Chicago and New York, promised to give the visiting Detroit club a percentage of the gate receipts and not just the recently approved guarantee of $125. See “Detroit’s Game of Bluff,” New York Clipper, December 4, 1886: 601. Boston decided not to make any concessions, while others were not forthcoming about their plans. “No Concessions Made by the Boston Club to the Detroits,” Boston Herald, November 28, 1886: 2. In the AA through much of the 1887 season, the St. Louis Browns adopted a similar tactic to that of Detroit, suggesting or failing to deny rumors that they might switch to the NL. The St. Louis strategy was likely based on Chris Von der Ahe’s desire for the AA to adopt a percentage system for distributing gate receipts to visiting clubs. See Cash, 153, 160-163.

43 F.H. Brunell, “Well Made Points,” Sporting Life, August 10, 1887: 3.

44 A motion to change to a percentage system was on the agenda of the schedule meeting in March but was not considered because no one seconded the motion. New York Clipper, March 12, 1887: 828.

45 Spalding noted that as a visiting team, Detroit could receive between $300 and $1,500 on the 30 percent percentage system, but in the guarantee system approved for 1887, would get only $125 per game. “Will Detroit Leave the League?” Chicago Herald, November 21, 1886. See Brunell as well as “Chadwick’s Chat,” Sporting Life, August 10, 1887: 3.

46 In an interview with Henry Chadwick, A.G. Spalding predicted that the NL would return to a percentage system. “Chadwick’s Chat,” Sporting Life, August 17, 1887: 3.

47 Seymour, 209.

48 Reach’s Official American Association Base Ball Guide, 1887, 126.

49 “The Blacklisting of Burns,” Boston Herald, December 15, 1886: 3; “The Arbitration Committee,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, December 15, 1886: 8.

50 The International League sought equal status with the NL and AA through a motion to have the right to reserve players. The Arbitration Committee voted against the motion. See “Arbitration. Results of the Joint Committee’s Council,” Sporting Life, December 22, 1886: 4.

51 The ruling by the Arbitration Committee on the Burns case prompted new restrictions on personal contracts. Failure to adhere to the October 20 date could result in a fine to the club of $500 and a disqualification of the player for the ensuing season. In addition to “Arbitration. Result of the Joint Committee’s Council,” Sporting Life, December 22, 1886: 4, see “The Baseball Bosses. The Arbitration Committee Get in Their Fine Work,” The Sporting News, December 18, 1886: 1, and “The Arbitration Committee,” New York Clipper, December 18, 1886: 635.

52 For the revised wording of Section II see Reach’s Official American Association Base Ball Guide, 1887, 127. For a comment on the signing of minor-league players, see “The Arbitration Committee,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, December 15, 1886: 8.

53 Chris Von der Ahe (St. Louis) and Zach Phelps (Louisville) were dealing with players who refused to sign contracts. See Reach’s Official American Association Base Ball Guide, 1887, 137-138, 147.

54 “The New National Agreement,” Reach’s Official American Association Base Ball Guide 1886 (1886; Reprinted New York: Horton Publishing Company, 1989), 26.

55 See Section III of “Articles of Qualified Admission to the National Agreement of Professional Base Ball Associations” in Reach’s Official American Association Base Ball Guide, 1887,127. For further comments on this amendment, see “Arbitration. Result of the Joint Committee’s Council,” Sporting Life, December 22, 1886: 4; “The Baseball Bosses. The Arbitration Committee Get in Their Fine Work,” The Sporting News, December 18, 1886: 1; and “The Arbitration Committee,” New York Clipper, December 18, 1886: 635.

56 Indianapolis also had the second lowest attendance in the NL (84,000), more than 180,000 fewer than the club with the highest attendance (New York: 270,945). Cleveland had the lowest attendance in the majors (72,000), more than 200,000 fewer than the leading club in the AA (Brooklyn: 273,000). Nemec, 415, 429.

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