1888 Winter Meetings: The Wide World of Sports

This article was written by Rich Bogovich

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


Baseball's 19th Century Winter Meetings: 1857-1900The annual meetings of the National League and the American Association after the 1888 season took place in the unusual context of “the great event in the modern history of athletic sports,” as the famous baseball journalist Henry Chadwick dubbed it. He was referring to the six-month world tour by the Chicago White Stockings and an NL all-star team, organized by Chicago’s Albert G. Spalding.

Starting in October, games were played in Hawaii, New Zealand, Australia, Ceylon, Egypt, Italy, France, and the British Isles. As Chadwick would conclude in 1889, the tour “did more in six short months to advance the popularity of our American national game throughout the world, than had previously been accomplished in a whole decade.”1 Would the NL and AA meetings be characterized by such boldness, or would the owners proceed with caution?

One positive sign for the NL was the league attendance record set by the 1888 pennant-winning New York Giants, who drew 305,000 fans to the Polo Grounds.2 However, a discouraging development resulted from the fifth-place finish of the 1887 champions, the Detroit Wolverines. Despite a winning record (68-63), lack of pennant contention caused attendance to drop precipitously and the franchise was selling its stars to other clubs. Disbanding seemed the likely next step. This had implications for the American Association because its Cleveland Blues were viewed as a prime candidate to become the second franchise to switch from the AA to the NL;3 the Pittsburgh Alleghenys made the jump after the 1886 season.

Before the League and the Association would each convene individually, their Joint Rules Committee was scheduled to meet in New York City on November 20. The Pittsburgh Daily Post previewed this meeting a full two weeks in advance, predicting immediately that “business of extraordinary importance will be transacted.” The local manager, Horace Phillips of the NL’s Alleghenys, said with certainty, “[T]he committee will have to deal with a question of the gravest importance to the national game, viz., how to increase batting.” Phillips was fully supportive of one change he expected to be approved, the restoration of a batter’s right to specify that a pitch be either high or low, and he described the view of each NL representative.4 That rule had been repealed prior to the 1887 season.

Two other predictions were offered in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: “It is believed that base-runners will be allowed to overrun all bases next season, just as they do first base at present. The pitchers will be handicapped in some way.”5 The latter is pretty vague, but imagine what the game would be like today if those batting and running rules were on the books.

On November 20, the Fifth Avenue Hotel hosted representatives from all of the NL clubs and several of the AA’s. Voting for the NL on the Joint Rules Committee were Walter Spalding of Chicago (substituting for the traveling Albert), John I. Rogers of Philadelphia, and John B. Day of New York. The AA members were Charles H. Byrne of Brooklyn, William Barnie of Baltimore, and Gus Schmelz of Cincinnati. The committee started its business shortly after noon and finished most of it within three hours, though it considered plenty of rule changes. It met again at 9:00 P.M., mostly to hear from official scorers.

Readopting the high and low ball advocated by the likes of Horace Phillips was voted down. The committee also voted down a rule allowing a runner to at least overrun second base, if not third as well, in addition to first. The committee also considered requiring that the pitcher be three or four feet farther from home plate, but it kept the front of the pitching box 50 feet away. A front-page account the next day in the Indianapolis Journal offered an explanation for staying put: “As the pitcher is now placed, he has to turn slightly to command a view of first base. This turn, slight as it is, is just the thing which gives a chance to run. If the pitcher was placed back a few feet he would be able to watch both home plate and first base without turning, thus considerably lessening the chances of base running.”6

Organized Baseball had gradually reduced the number of balls and strikes throughout the 1880s, but had now, finally, settled on the counts that still apply today. For 1880, the number of called balls for a walk was reduced from nine to eight, then to seven for 1882, six for 1884, back to seven in 1886, and then reduced to five in 1887 with the added bonus that a walk would count as a hit and an at-bat. The rules committee settled on four balls for a walk in 1888, with no at-bat charged and no hit awarded. A strikeout on three strikes had been in effect for the season just finished. [Since other authors will cover the rule changes at each year’s Winter Meetings, it’s best to stick to the rules changed in 1888. The changes were:

  • Four balls to a base on balls
  • A batted ball striking the umpire stationed behind the pitcher would count as a single for the batter and any baserunner would be allowed to move up one base.
  • Foul tip abolished
  • No assist awarded to a pitcher on a strikeout
  • Sacrifice hit recognized (e.g., a fly out that moves a runner (not necessarily scoring) counts as a sacrifice and stolen base)

According to Sporting Life, there was considerable debate about a motion “to do away with the injustice of putting the batsman out on a foul-hit ball, which afforded him no chance for the compensating advantage of gaining a base, as in the case of a fair-hit ball.” The joint committee reached a compromise by not calling the batter out after any catch within 10 feet of home. “This, of course, does away with the fly tip catch, and with catches of high foul balls which fall into the hands of the catcher near the home base. It was decided, too, to allow the base-runner running from one base to another on a foul ball to return to the base he left without his being put out, as he hitherto has been on a fly catch of a foul ball,” the weekly’s writer added.7 Another rule change affecting play on the field was awarding batters first base and a “base hit” when any ball they struck made contact with the umpire standing behind the pitcher.

Sporting Life also reported on the various changes affecting official scoring. Most notably, Byrne advocated expanding the definition of a stolen base to include when a runner advances after a fair fly ball is caught. That was approved. Excluding base hits, a batter would be broadly credited with a sacrifice for moving up a runner, even if that resulted from a fielder’s error. As a result, a fly out that moved a runner from second to third would earn the batter a sacrifice and the runner a stolen base. Conversely, the work of scorers would become a little easier by the elimination of the “unaccepted chance” definition. Standardized box scores would have columns for at-bats, runs, base hits, sacrifice hits, putouts, and assists. When journalists and official scorers learned that the column for errors was to be eliminated, they protested vigorously, and that omission was reversed.8

When Sporting Life had previewed the meeting of the Joint Rules Committee it did likewise for the annual meeting of the National League in the same city, to begin a day later. The paper considered the agenda of the former and not the NL to “be of greater importance,” expecting that the most important League action would ratify Detroit’s withdrawal in favor of Cleveland. Perhaps because six-place Pittsburgh was relatively new to the NL, Sporting Life named only the seventh- and eighth-place franchises as thought by close followers of the game to be at risk, but its editorial position was one of confidence: “Indianapolis and Washington will go on for another season at least,” readers were assured, “and whatever other business there may be will be of a routine character.”9

Contrast the headline in the New York Times on November 23, the day after the NL concluded its two-day conclave: “Bombshell in Baseball.” After six years of threatening to contain salaries, the League established a five-class compensation structure with a maximum of $2,500 annually and decreases of $250 for each of the four lesser classes. In addition to skill and effort, the League secretary’s assignment of each player to a class at the conclusion of a season would be based on “conduct, both on and off the field, at all times,” the Times reported, prefacing its explanation with a warning that “from present appearances a war between managers and players is imminent.”10 That war would be waged fully in 1890 with the Brotherhood of Professional Baseball Players, the labor organization that had been formed in 1885.

Of course, the NL had conducted other business, including admitting Cleveland as the replacement for Detroit. The Sporting News noted that Detroit was represented at the annual meeting, and its representatives shed light on how some teams ended up with no former Wolverines. In fact, out of fairness, the Detroit men started at the bottom of the 1888 standings and worked their way up. “They had first gone to Indianapolis and Washington, but when those clubs did not see fit to put up the money they let Pittsburg in the scheme and Rowe and Ganzel went to that city,” the weekly explained. “The big clubs were then asked to buy, and Boston at once picked out five men, and those five decided to stick together.”

Detroit even gave its replacement, Cleveland, a chance.11 The newly-named Spiders acquired outfielder Larry Twitchell plus pitcher Henry Gruber. Utility player Charlie Ganzel actually played in Boston, along with catcher Charlie Bennett, first baseman Dan Brouthers, and second baseman Hardy Richardson. In addition to shortstop Jack Rowe, Pittsburgh obtained third baseman Deacon White, outfielder Ned Hanlon, and 30-game-winning pitcher Pete Conway. The NL’s Philadelphia Quakers took outfielder Sam Thompson, a future Hall of Famer, as were Brouthers, White, and Hanlon, the latter as a manager. Starting outfielder and Detroit native Count Campau played in 1889 for the new Detroit Wolverines of the International Association; the city would not have a major-league franchise again until 1901, in the American League.

Just one day after the NL meeting adjourned, a transaction announced between two clubs may have been the first skirmish in the looming war with the Brotherhood of Professional Baseball Players, when it was revealed the Brotherhood’s leader, John Montgomery Ward of the Giants, had been sold to Washington for $12,000. According to Tim Murnane of the Boston Globe, the Alleghenys had offered $15,000 for Ward a year earlier, and that was New York’s asking price of Washington and other bidders, including Boston. “Mr. Hewitt sic informed THE GLOBE correspondent that he felt as if he had done a good day’s work,” Murnane noted.12 (In early April, Ward, one of the all-stars taking part in Spalding’s world tour, refused to play for the Nationals and remained with the Giants.)

With such a spectacular decision about salaries from the National League leaders, it might have been difficult to envision anything similarly dramatic resulting from the annual meeting of the American Association, scheduled for Wednesday, December 5, at the Lindell Hotel in St. Louis. Sporting Life promoted the AA meeting as a golden opportunity to implement the elaborate “Millennium Plan” proposed by the weekly a year earlier. “Financially the situation of the Association could hardly be worse than it is,” the paper commented. “[Just] three clubs out of eight made any money worth speaking of this year. Of the rest all lost money, some very heavily, and none are in condition to stand the drain much longer.” Therefore, they argued, the solution was their plan, at the core of which was a complicated scheme for divvying up the pool of talented players, for the good of the sport overall.13

The Kansas City Times, for one, previewed the AA meeting in less grandiose fashion by reporting on the session of the three-member board of directors the night before, which focused mostly on auditing the books of one of them. The Times also speculated about the replacement for Cleveland’s franchise, and by a process of elimination they were left with one: “Buffalo and Jersey City have not made formal application, and Cincinnati has removed its objection to Columbus. It is stated as a fact that Buffalo would be willing to enter the association provided the players and franchise were handed over without money and without price, but this strikes the association as a bit of humor,” the paper wrote. It added that the case “for Milwaukee is strong, but the location of that city is against its success.”14

As there was indeed only one application received by the Association at the start of its annual meeting, after a few hours the Columbus Solons were approved for membership as the new eighth franchise. In other business, there was a proposal to reduce the number of games in the AA season from 140 to 120, but that was defeated. The graded salary plan that had emerged from the NL meeting the previous month “was favorably discussed,” reported one daily in Chicago, but the only official action in the direction of adopting a similar structure was appointing a committee to take it up during an AA meeting to be held in March. That wasn’t the only committee to receive marching orders. “The committee appointed to secure the services of umpires was instructed to reduce the expenditures in that direction,” the same paper noted, “and it is predicted the result will be a new set of umpires all around.”15

One major publication was underwhelmed by the outcomes, and it commented a bit wryly: “The annual meeting of the American Association last week was not productive of sensational incidents or startling results; neither was it conspicuous for any radical changes or marked progress,” Sporting Life editorialized. “Indeed, it was chiefly remarkable from the fact that for almost the first time in the history of the organization no glaring blunder was perpetrated. And in strange contrast the Association proceeded most conservatively, and devoted a goodly portion of its time to undoing the bad work of former meetings and correcting some mistakes and abuses.”16

For better or worse, the NL outshone the AA toward the end of 1888. However, 1889 was not very old when the NL was in the headlines again, this time for a decidedly less than flattering reason. In light of an insurmountable debt, three weeks into January the ownership of the Indianapolis Hoosiers suddenly surrendered the franchise to the National League. Very quickly a plan to retake the franchise was offered by a pair of theater magnates in the city, George Dickson and Henry Talbott, but according to the Indianapolis Sun, the NL was looking to Hoosier President John T. Brush as the savior. As alluded to in an early report by that daily, the five-class salary framework enacted by the League in November had been spearheaded by Brush. “That this termination of the club’s history was unexpected until recently is conclusively shown by the diligent effort made by President Brush for the adoption of a plan to profitably sustain league teams in the smaller cities, his success in this fight, and a possibility of reducing expenses about $18,000 for next season,” the Sun wrote.17

On February 2 Brush was named to head a reconstituted ownership group, but not everyone was happy. For example, the Washington Post declared this outcome a “farce” and expressed frustration about not getting a full explanation. “If the franchise had to be returned to Indianapolis, it should have been given to Messrs. Dickson and Talbott, whose offer was infinitely better than the Brush syndicate,” the Post insisted. “Their price was larger, and they agreed to pay the debts of the old club. They offered $20,000 for the franchise, while people who obtained it paid much less.”18

Lastly, in March the American Association was supposed to take up, among other things, the graded salary plan presented toward the end of 1888. The AA did meet on March 5, in its newest city, Columbus, and the Kansas City Times reported multiple actions in detail. For one, the aforementioned umpire committee was eliminated, and appointment authority was assigned to the AA president. To benefit the Athletics, in AA cities where there was also an NL city (to wit, Philadelphia), the AA club would no longer be required to charge the NL’s prices for tickets but rather the standard AA rates. As for the salary plan, “Byrnes sic of Brooklyn did not submit his proposed classification scheme as the league is now trying it, and if adopted at this meeting could not go into effect till next season,” the Times explained.19 Perhaps the American Association leadership was hoping John Montgomery Ward’s Brotherhood of Professional Baseball Players would focus on the National League as its primary enemy.

 

Notes

1 Harry Clay Palmer, J.A. Fynes, Frank Richter, and W.I. Harris, Athletic Sports in America, England and Australia (New York: Union Publishing House, 1889), 6-7. Henry Chadwick supplied the introduction. On occasion a variation of the initial quotation has been published, most notably with “greatest” in place of “great,” simply.

2 https://baseballchronology.com/Baseball/Years/1888/Attendance.asp.

3 For example, see F.H. Brunell, “Brunell’s Budget,” Sporting Life, October 24, 1888: 3.

4 “Sporting News of the Day,” Pittsburgh Daily Post, November 5, 1888: 6.

5 “Base Ball Chat,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 17, 1888: 8.

6 “Base-ball Rules,” Indianapolis Journal, November 21, 1888: 1.

7 “The New Rules,” Sporting Life, November 28, 1888: 2. According to the New York Clipper, the 10foot-radius rule applied only to foul balls that did not reach the height of the batter’s head. Loftier balls could be caught inside the 10-foot circle for an out.

8 Ibid.

9 “The Question of the Hour,” Sporting Life, November 21, 1888: 2.

10 “Bombshell in Baseball.” New York Times, November 23, 1888: 2.

11 “The League Meet,” Sporting News, November 24, 1888: 2.

12 T.H. Murnane, “Limit Raised,” Boston Globe, November 24, 1888: 2.

13 “Another Important Meeting,” Sporting Life, December 5, 1888, 2. More insight into the “Millennium Plan” was provided by Robert F. Burk, Never Just a Game: Players, Owners, and American Baseball to 1920 (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 2001), 100.

14 “Magnates All Ready,” Kansas City Times, December 5, 1888: 2.

15 “The American Association,” Daily Inter Ocean (Chicago), December 7, 1888: 3.

16 “The Association Meeting,” Sporting Life, December 12, 1888: 2.

17 “The Club May Stay,” Indianapolis Sun, January 22, 1889: 1.

18 “Brush Gets the Club,” Washington Post, February 3, 1889: 2.

19 “The Schedule of Games,” Kansas City Times, March 6, 1889: 2.

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