1890 Winter Meetings: Three Divides Into Two

This article was written by John Bauer

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

Baseball's 19th Century Winter Meetings: 1857-1900The turbulence in the business of baseball reached its height in 1890. The players, through their Brotherhood association and chafing under the owners’ efforts to exert more control over them, assembled the financial backing to form their own league, the aptly-named Players’ League. The magnates of the National League and the American Association — particularly those of the NL — possessed the playing grounds, recruited players from elsewhere to replace those who bolted, and, where possible, scheduled most games in direct conflict with PL contests.

The result was red ink. Total losses sustained across all three leagues easily exceeded $250,000 and possibly reached $500,000. The so-called “magnates” of the NL (and, to a lesser extent, the AA) and the “capitalists” backing the PL sought to stanch the bleeding. While some postured about how much more pain one could endure than the other, the magnates and capitalists also attempted to find a way to reach terms. The question was how. As the 1890 season drew to a close, “how?” would be the dominant question as all sides continued to maneuver for a fight each was determined to win.

The Conquest of Cincinnati and a Conference Committee for Peace

Within hours of the PL season ending on October 4,1 the offseason business opened with the shocking and provocative sale of the Cincinnati Reds to a consortium of capitalists from six PL clubs. Cincinnati was the one NL city where the PL and NL were not in direct competition. Aaron Stern, who switched the Reds from the AA to the PL for the 1890 season, opted to cut his losses by taking $40,000 in exchange for the stock, ballpark lease, and player contracts.

With few changes expected to the on-field personnel and management, the PL capitalists hoped to flip the club to local backers in Cincinnati. The temporary allocation of stock among PL group, however, would prove consequential to later events related to the club. The Reds were formally re-organized with Cleveland president and lead PL antagonist Al Johnson in the club presidency. PL secretary Frank Brunell gloated about the capture, “The National League folks were no doubt surprised.”2 Brooklyn president Charley Byrne was alternately sympathetic that Stern sold out for the price he was able to command but also commented on Stern’s “duplicity,” promising “we will get even with him later.”3

The sale of the Reds occurred in advance of a meeting of the NL magnates at New York’s Fifth Avenue Hotel on October 9. Club owners from all three leagues had held intermittent meetings with counterparts to find a way to reach compromise. While there was desire to end the conflict, “no one has the slightest conception of the gigantic scheme which is now being brought to a focus in the brains of the baseball thinkers.”4 Several AA representatives, including St. Louis’ Chris von der Ahe, Baltimore’s Harry von der Horst and Billy Barnie, and Columbus’ Allan Thurman joined the NL meeting.

Although the AA largely avoided direct competition with the PL and NL, the circuit was “in a precarious position, yet its leaders endeavor to keep a stiff upper lip and talk confidently of the future.”5 Thurman proposed condensing the number of leagues from three to two.6 After some initial hostility to the idea, the NL designated Chicago president Albert Spalding, New York president John B. Day, and Byrne, to treat with AA and PL representatives on a conference committee. Spalding, a dominant figure in the game, had been key to the events to the schism between the magnates and players and would be instrumental to any settlement of differences.

Meeting a block away at the St. James Hotel, the PL appointed Johnson, New York’s Edward Talcott, and Brooklyn’s Wendell Goodwin to make the short walk to the Fifth Avenue Hotel. Joined by the AA’s Thurman, von der Ahe, and Barnie, the group “grasped each other warmly by the hand”7 and got to business.

The conference committee took the formal step of selecting Thurman as its chair and Byrne as secretary. While the representatives realized they were in no position to bind their respective leagues, a spirit of compromise nonetheless prevailed to avoid scheduling conflicts between rival clubs in the same city and refrain from going after each others’ players for a period through October 26.

One sticking point related to the names of the two circuits that might survive any consolidation. The PL and AA appeared willing to drop their names, but Spalding declared the NL would never do so. After an hour, Spalding calmed down and it seemed the existing circuits would yield to names such as United League and National Association.8 The conference committee concluded with an agreement to confer with their colleagues and reconvene on October 22. Compromise appeared within reach, as even Brotherhood leader John Montgomery Ward declared, “I am for peace first, last, and all the time. . . . It is evident to everybody that war is a losing game.”9 For his efforts to end the conflict, Thurman assumed the nickname, “White Winged Angel of Peace,” and optimistically predicted, “We’ll all be happy before Thanksgiving.”10

Capital Compromises and Labor Responds

The NL met again on October 10. During deliberations, the magnates agreed to reach out to PL counterparts in their respective cities with instructions to “buy or sell out or amalgamate as they saw fit.”11 In fact, discussions were underway in New York, Brooklyn, and Pittsburgh. Also, Chicago’s primary PL backer, John Addison, wanted out, making price the key factor in meetings with Spalding. Even Al Johnson conferred with Cleveland NL president Frank Robison and his partners; however, with each side owning a ballpark located near a streetcar line each controlled, compromise would prove elusive. Meanwhile, suspicions stirred among the players about the possible effects of consolidation. Outfielder George Gore declared, “If the Players’ League don’t want us, they had better let us go.”12 He claimed that new financial backers could be found and warned that the players “will fight the monopolists tooth and nail.”13

In advance of the conference committee reconvening, a sizable contingent of Brotherhood members descended on the St. James Hotel on October 20. Ward tried to assure his colleagues that the PL capitalists, particularly Johnson, would look after their interests. Many players, however, were “fearful that when the consolidation comes along the players will be forgotten, and that their sympathetic feelings, as well as their pockets, will be touched.”14

Ward noted his own financial investment in the Brooklyn PL club and expressed his confidence that the PL capitalists would include the players in their deliberations with the NL magnates. To facilitate that outcome, the Brotherhood adopted a resolution the following morning expressing to the PL Central Board of Directors the players’ confidence in PL management and requesting the inclusion of three players on the conference committee. The PL received the Brotherhood resolution during its meeting later that day, and responded with the statement, “Your action now stimulates us to a still stronger effort for your interests in the future.”15

Addison moved to add three players to the conference committee. The resolution carried unanimously after some initial opposition from New York’s Edwin McAlpin, who was also the PL president, with the added instruction “to confine its deliberations in the joint conference committee to an effort to compromise and not consolidate, except when it was found to be for the good of the Players’ League.”16 Ward, Ned Hanlon, and Arthur Irwin were designated to represent the players, to which Johnson noted that as shareholders in their clubs, “the National League can give no acceptable reason for not meeting with them.”17

A Pause in Compromise and a Prelude to Consolidation

The NL and AA met separately during the morning of October 22. With the conference committee scheduled to meet at noon, both circuits instructed their delegates to oppose the inclusion of the players. When Thurman called the conference to order, he noted the presence of Ward, Hanlon, and Irwin. Johnson presented the resolution from the PL and added, “Unless the new members are allowed to act, we cannot consent to confer.”18 Ward argued that, as Spalding and Barnie were former players, they should not be allowed to participate if the current players were excluded. Thurman did not believe he could call to order a committee that was different from the one to which he was elected chair.

As a result, all six PL delegates exited the parlor. Johnson, Talcott, and Goodwin returned, whereupon Thurman called the meeting to order after Byrne called the roll. Johnson moved that the PL delegation be expanded by three players, but the committee members voted against the motion, 6-3. The PL delegates left once more, and Thurman adjourned the meeting after a short wait.

The recriminations commenced shortly after the meeting concluded. Spalding made clear that he had no intention to meet with the Brotherhood. He asserted, “[T]he League would never meet a committee of any kind upon which there was a member of the Brotherhood. I did not object to a ball player, but would never countenance a secret organization that for two years worked to undermine and wreck it.”19 He further suggested that the PL capitalists had agreed that the conflict should be settled among “moneyed men of both organizations on a purely business basis,” but the Brotherhood tied its backers’ hands ahead of the conference committee.20

The dispute over conference committee representation did not stop negotiations from occurring among the club owners in individual NL and PL cities. In Pittsburgh, the two sides met again but could not agree on how much each side would control in the consolidated club; the PL side wanted 70 percent and the NL side wanted 60 percent.21 In New York, reports stated that McAlpin and Talcott told Spalding and Byrne that the PL purchased Cincinnati in order to force an agreement with the NL.22 It was further suggested that McAlpin’s wife was exerting pressure on her husband to compromise.23

The Brooklyn PL capitalists were split among themselves on the terms of consolidation with Byrne, but the process of negotiations was turning Goodwin and Byrne into fast friends.24 With consolidation talks advancing in several cities, Ward and Boston PL president Charles Prince tried to counteract the effort. Ward singled out Talcott for criticism, and added more generally, “I don’t like the way certain capitalists of the Players’ League have been acting of late. They are not treating the players in good faith.”25

Prince’s situation in Boston was different from most cities where the PL and NL competed against each other. The so-called Triumvirs who controlled the Beaneaters — Arthur Soden, William Conant, and J.B. Billings — had neither an interest in consolidating nor sharing the city with a rival club. Julian Hart, a PL Boston director, had previously urged Talcott for a cessation in consolidation negotiations.26 When Frank Robinson, secretary of the New York PL club, wrote to other clubs to inform them of a tentative agreement there with the NL club, Prince called for a conference of PL capitalists at the Continental Hotel in Philadelphia on November 6.27

Robinson’s message stated that action on the consolidation proposal had been deferred 30 days to allow other PL clubs to make similar arrangements. Telegraphing the sentiments of New York, Robinson added, “We hope you will be able to satisfactorily adjust matters in your city within that time.”28 McAlpin assured Philadelphia’s Wagner brothers (Earle and George) that New York would remain in the PL if other clubs proved unable to strike similar deals, but Prince exhibited suspicion. Prince viewed the New York deal as “an effort made by the New York Club to force us to a surrender for their own advantage.”29

Earle Wagner counseled Prince against holding the special meeting only one week before the PL annual meeting. He also cautioned against alienating McAlpin, who was not invited to the Philadelphia gathering. Wagner suggested, “That would be a grave insult to him and would drive him absolutely into the consolidation scheme.”30 The Philadelphia meeting considered options in the event New York and Brooklyn (whose backers were also not invited) defected from the PL through consolidation. The delegates discussed various scenarios involving possible consolidations among NL and PL clubs and the potential inclusion of other clubs into an AA that was known to be seeking to shed its smaller cities. Nevertheless, the Philadelphia gathering concluded with an agreement to plan for an 1891 season.

The Players’ League Convenes Only to Fall Apart

The PL annual meeting opened November 11 at the Monongahela Hotel in Pittsburgh. After formally awarding the 1890 championship to Boston, the attendees shifted their focus to consolidation talks. McAlpin confirmed the satisfactory agreement made with his NL counterparts in New York, then stated his instruction to withdraw his club from the PL with the 60-days’ notice required by the PL constitution. (McAlpin later tried to resign as PL president, but withdrew the resignation when it was pointed out that his term had expired.)

Learning of the progress of consolidation in New York may have been no surprise, but Pittsburgh shocked the delegates by reporting that it signed a consolidation agreement with the local NL club just the prior day, November 10. After prior differences about the division of stock in a combined club, the two sides agreed to a 50-50 split. The club’s action, “denounced as treachery by nearly all present and as decidedly illegal under” the league constitution, Pittsburgh attempted to resign.31 PL secretary Brunell refused the request on the grounds that Pittsburgh placed itself in a position to be expelled.32

Amidst the commotion, the PL managed to elect a new slate of officers: Prince as president and Johnson as vice president, with Brunell re-elected as PL secretary. The league also appointed Prince, Johnson, and Ward as its representatives to the conference committee. About the new trio, Brunell opined that “if the same gentlemen had been on our recent conference committee instead of others, the Players’ League wouldn’t have received such a crack on the jaw.”33

With Buffalo broke and in debt, the PL referred that club to the Emergency Committee and admitted its Cincinnati acquisition to league membership. Before concluding the first day of business, the PL summoned its legal advisor, Judge Bacon, from New York to the meeting to review the league’s legal options.

When the PL meeting reconvened on the morning of November 12, McAlpin formally presented New York’s resignation. Bacon had arrived by then and, after reviewing the New York merger agreement, opined that the agreement was not binding due to a provision making it contingent on a consolidation between the NL and PL. There was some sentiment toward expelling New York, but McAlpin and Robinson offered to assist other PL clubs in reaching settlements in their cities. In the end, the PL took no action on the New York resignation and tabled the Pittsburgh resignation. The meeting subsequently adjourned, and the reconstituted PL conference committee delegation and Judge Bacon headed for the NL annual meeting due to convene in New York later that day.

The National League Meets

With consolidation looming in the air, the NL annual meeting convened at (naturally) the Fifth Avenue Hotel on the morning of November 12. The Board of Directors, composed of Young, Day, Robison, Byrne, and Pittsburgh’s William Nimick, conducted the seemingly mundane business associated with running a league under ordinary circumstances. The Board awarded the 1890 pennant to Brooklyn, adopted the secretary and treasurer reports, and re-elected Young as NL secretary.

The Joint Committee on Playing Rules met next. Spalding, Day, and Philadelphia’s John I. Rogers represented the NL and Barnie and Rochester manager Pat Powers sat for the AA. The committee adopted two rules changes. First, it amended Rule 28 with respect the substitutes, with clubs now permitted to dress as many substitutes as they wished instead of the previous limit of two players on the bench. Second, the committee adopted a change to Rule 48 with respect to baserunning. The prior rule required a player running to first base to stay within a three-foot space demarcated by the baseline and a parallel line that ran halfway from home plate to first base. The change would allow a baserunner to prepare to round first base in preparation of a possible dash toward second base on a hit to the outfield. No action was taken on a proposal to have every foul-tip called a strike.

The full league meeting was called to order during the afternoon. Before getting to the juicy business of consolidation, the NL elected Young as its president and chose a Board of Directors from Day, Nimick, Philadelphia’s Al Reach, and a Cincinnati representative to be named later. Members of the scheduling and rules committees and the representative to the Board of Arbitration were also selected. The league reviewed the Cincinnati situation, which included an assessment of the details that retired John T. Brush’s Indianapolis club during the previous offseason to make way for the additions of Brooklyn and Cincinnati from the AA. Brush, who was listed as a delegate on behalf of Indianapolis and considered “a representative of an untenanted franchise,”34 positioned himself to make a play for Cincinnati. With several notes still outstanding from the Indianapolis buyout, there was an expectation that Brush would end up with the to-be-revived Reds. Word soon arrived that the PL delegation was headed to New York, leading to an adjournment of the day’s proceedings.

Meeting in Bacon’s New York office, the PL representatives, which included New York and Brooklyn capitalists, agreed not to settle with the NL unless all PL clubs were accommodated.35 By letter to Young, the PL requested a meeting with the NL. In receipt of the request, the NL “chuckled over the downfall of the Players’ League,”36 and, at Byrne’s urging, agreed that it could not meet with the PL in the absence of the AA.

With the PL delegation held in abeyance, Brush made his move for Cincinnati during the November 13 proceedings. The NL had never recognized the transfer of the franchise to the PL consortium, believing that the NL franchise on Cincinnati was not subject to transfer without its consent. Brush brought charges that a series of post-sale games against Al Johnson’s Cleveland Infants violated the NL constitution and thus necessitated expulsion. Young telegraphed former Cincinnati director Harry Sterne requesting a response from the club, to which Sterne replied that he was not responsible for any games played following the sale.

The NL appointed a committee composed of Robison, Brush, and Young both to bring suit against the former Reds owners for breach of contract and evaluate applications for a new Cincinnati franchise if the current one (held by Johnson and other PL capitalists) was deemed forfeited.37 In lighter business, Rogers presented Pittsburgh president J. Palmer O’Neill with a pennant “of blue silk with 114 white stars”38 signifying the record-breaking number of defeats by the Alleghenys during the 1890 season. O’Neill accepted the pennant with good humor and a promise to claim the real pennant for the following season.

The National League Senses Victory

The NL ended its annual meeting with little formal business on Friday, November 14, but the posturing between PL and NL interests continued through the weekend. Prince arrived in New York, joining his PL colleagues at the St. James Hotel. With Addison on the brink of reaching a settlement with Spalding in Chicago, Prince declared he received legal advice questioning the legality of the apparent desertions of New York, Pittsburgh, and Chicago. Under a 10-year agreement among the clubs and the PL constitution, no club could sell out or assign its interests without a three-fourths approval of the others.39 Brunell was authorized to seek injunctions to enforce these provisions, if necessary.

There remained a split among the Brooklyn PL backers, primarily over whether the consolidated club would play its games at Washington Park (NL home) or Eastern Park (PL home). One director, Edward Linton, declared he would maintain a PL club at Eastern Park if either the circuit continued or Brooklyn would be taken care of in the event of a wider consolidation.40 Prince announced he was prepared to prop up the league financially and sent a letter to players under his signature. Prince attempted to assure players, writing that “you have no fear for the success of the organization, notwithstanding the way many of the so-called capitalists have shown weakness.”41

Keeping to their position not to meet with the PL in the absence of the AA conferees, the NL authorized Robison to invite Johnson into their conclave in his capacity as an individual club owner. Telling the NL magnates they “were the masters of the situation,”42 Johnson outlined the basis of a settlement. He asserted there could be no agreement without accommodating Prince and the Wagners in their respective situations in Boston and Philadelphia.

The resistance of the Triumvirs was well known, but the Wagners had navigated through a three-way fight in Philadelphia. The AA Athletics had collapsed before the conclusion of the 1890 season and their affairs were being handled in local bankruptcy courts. The NL Phillies appeared willing to countenance the Wagners’ PL team as competitors under the AA umbrella. Earle Wagner had hinted to Spalding his willingness to move to the AA.43

The opinion of the AA was unclear, however. As for himself, Johnson proposed two paths to settlement: giving him full control of Cincinnati under the NL banner or compensate him for $37,000 of his claimed $46,000 in losses from the prior season. The NL rejected that offer, as well as a subsequent offer from Johnson consisting of cash and notes and also volunteering the condition that there be no PL club in Boston, Brooklyn, or Philadelphia.44

When Brush, Byrne, and Robison later delivered an offer from Spalding of $25,000 for Johnson’s interests in Cleveland and Cincinnati as well as his retirement from baseball, Johnson “indignantly rejected the proposition, threw the paper on the floor”45 and stormed out of the room declaring an end of negotiations with the NL. Johnson advised the other PL capitalists they could settle with him if he was an obstacle to an agreement with the NL. Spalding later gloated about the relative state of the rival leagues, “The Players’ League is dead as the proverbial door nail and no amount of hustling can revive it.”46

And About the American Association . . .

The AA met in Louisville on November 24 for its annual meeting, which AA president Zach Phelps had moved up from its original December date in response to recent events. The AA convened with half of its clubs teetering on expulsion or exclusion. Because the Athletic club was in arrears for unpaid player salaries, league dues, and gate guarantees, the AA unanimously expelled the Philadelphia club despite the interest of the receiver and minority shareholders in paying off indebtedness and reestablishing the team on sounder footing.

Rochester, Syracuse, and Toledo had been recruited from the minor leagues to round out the 1890 AA circuit after Brooklyn, Cincinnati and others bolted the AA following the 1889 season. Now, they were surplus to requirements but also members in good standing. There were no decisions taken with respect to the PL clubs in Boston and Philadelphia, but it was generally understood (and, among some, already agreed) that Rochester, Syracuse, and Toledo would need to make way if such an arrangement occurred. Plus, former Nationals manager Michael Scanlan organized a group in Washington and sent former player Sam Trott to Louisville to file the application. (New Haven was also interested in AA membership, but that interest was not reciprocated.)

Louisville president Laurence Parsons moved to appoint a conference committee, which turned out to be composed of Barnie, Thurman, and von der Ahe, to settle the Philadelphia franchise as well as “all matters affecting the circuit and welfare of the association.”47 The motion carried unanimously. In other business, although Phelps had been reelected president at the outset of the meeting (with Barnie elected vice president), he resigned the post due to the demands of his law practice. At Phelps’ suggestion and upon von der Ahe’s motion, the AA unanimously elected Thurman to the presidency. Phelps would be retained as legal counsel for the association. After the meeting’s adjournment, the conference committee met briefly to hatch plans to pay off Rochester, Syracuse, and Toledo and recruit other cities (likely Boston and Chicago) in their places.

Following the Louisville meeting, von der Ahe and Thurman set to work in dealing with the AA’s smaller cities. Thurman met with Syracuse president George K. Frazer in New York on December 13, and the latter agreed to a buyout then estimated at $8,000 and conditioned on Frazer’s player contracts and territorial rights being respected. Rochester’s Col. Henry Brinker also intended to meet with Thurman, but returned home when kept waiting too long.

Brinker claimed losses of around $18,000 and stated that he had a written agreement from the 1890 AA finance committee to be reimbursed for any losses. The AA was unlikely to meet that price, to which Brinker responded, “I am still ready to sell my Rochester franchise, but I don’t intend to be kicked out.”48

Toledo was not eager to be bought out, and it seemed the club might get kicked out. Club president V.H. Ketcham met with von der Ahe and Thurman in late December. During the meeting, Ketcham brushed aside an initial buyout offer of $7000 and also pointed out that as a condition of Toledo leaving the International League, other AA clubs (including St. Louis) had agreed not to force Ketcham from the association. Thurman threatened to invoke a section of the AA constitution as a means of forcing out Toledo if Ketcham did not take a buyout.

The matters of Rochester and Toledo lingered until the joint NL-AA meeting in mid-January in New York. In the case of Rochester, Brinker remained willing to sell; the issue was agreeing on a figure. It was believed the Rochester’s dismissal would make way for Washington to join the AA. Prior to the meeting, Thurman served notice on Ketcham to show cause why Toledo should not be expelled. Asserting that his club remained a member in good standing, Ketcham responded by obtaining an injunction to prevent Toledo’s expulsion.

As both sides prepared to argue the matter in court, Thurman and Ketcham met privately and struck a deal. On January 14, 1891, the AA reached an agreement with all three clubs that would pay $8,500 to Toledo and $7000 to Syracuse in cash the following morning. Rochester would receive $10,000 in notes to be paid over three installments. When Parsons objected to the arrangement, it was suggested that Louisville might be dropped instead of Toledo.49 At that threat, Louisville joined the scheme. For the AA, disposing of its unwanted cities was only part of the structuring the league for the 1891 season.

Compromise and Consolidation Squeeze Out the Players’ League

While the AA sorted through the business of its future configuration, the NL and PL clubs spent the remainder of 1890 maneuvering in individual cities. In Chicago, two issues required disposition: the buyout of the PL club and the placement of an AA club. Spalding and Addison reached a tentative buyout agreement at $25,000 (with some New York stock thrown into the deal by McAlpin and Talcott), but Addison faced claims from Chicago PL players for unpaid salaries.

Spalding wanted that matter resolved before consummating the deal. Addison argued that he owed the players nothing, asserting that their contracts called for salaries to be paid from gate money after payment of expenses.50 Addison complained, “I’ll see them hanged first.”51 After conferring with his business partners, Addison told Spalding to deduct the salary payments from the $25,000 and pay the players himself. Thus, for approximately $18,000, Spalding acquired the player contracts, grounds lease, and a commitment from the Chicago PL officers not to go into the baseball business in the Windy City for at least five years.

The Spalding-Addison agreement did not account for the AA’s efforts to place a club in Chicago, however. Thurman met with Spalding in early December, and the Chicago magnate signaled his willingness to relent on the conditions that the AA club charge 50-cents admission and not play on Sundays or sell beer. Spalding argued, “I have labored for fifteen years to elevate the game and I have always felt Sunday ball degrades it . . . .”52 Those conditions seemed fatal to any success an AA club might enjoy. The Sabbath question was also complicated by the local City League, which generally played its games on Sundays and used available grounds around Chicago to do so. Though Spalding just spent a tidy sum to get rid of Addison and the PL, he was also lobbying the Triumvirs to accept an AA team in Boston and realized he could not ask them to agree to local competition without doing so himself.53

Meanwhile, several clubs completed their consolidation arrangements as the new year approached. Leaders of the New York NL and PL clubs signed an agreement at Judge Bacon’s office on December 18, completing their consolidation arrangement. The expectation was that Day would assume the presidency of the combined club with Talcott as vice president.54 Pittsburgh finalized the consolidation in mid-December; the NL club would resign from the league during the January NL meeting with the combined club being admitted in its place as the “Pittsburgh Athletic Company.”55

Brooklyn seemed likely to be the next domino to fall with Byrne and Goodwin nearing an agreement that, if completed, would bring half of the 1890 PL under the control of NL. Further, in consolidating PL clubs into the league, the NL was slowly acquiring shares of the Cincinnati Reds that had been subscribed by PL capitalists now brought into the NL fold.

A jilted Al Johnson and an uncertain Charles Prince worked to keep alive the PL although it was unclear whether they were motivated by maintaining by leverage over the magnates or the ideals upon which the PL was founded. Prince implored, “Don’t you think for a moment our League is dead,”56 and announced plans to form a six-team circuit from the remaining clubs and the prospective new entrants he believed to be plentiful. Johnson and Brunell wrote to players believed to be loyal to the PL cause on December 12 requesting that they stand by the PL “at a critical stage of its existence.”57

The letter promised the settling of any outstanding salaries and a bright future, but requested whether the players would sign for a smaller salary than 1890. Learning of the letter, Spalding mocked, “Such a circular makes one laugh.”58 Declaring the PL defunct, the Chicago owner added, “All the Al Johnsons on earth . . . could not revive the Players’ League.”59 In response, Johnson stated of the NL magnates, “The Czar of Russia could not be more autocratic than the airs and authority which they have assumed.”60

As the calendar turned to January, resolution in additional cities brought greater clarity to the baseball landscape for 1891. The Brooklyn situation had remained unresolved due to a continuing difference of opinion among the directors from the PL side. Objecting to the terms of the deal, Linton obtained an injunction on January 6 in Brooklyn Superior Court to prevent the other directors from disposing of club property or effecting consolidation. Linton met with other PL capitalists to discuss fielding a rump circuit for the 1891 season, but he ultimately accepted a buyout that allowed the consolidation of the Brooklyn clubs at the end of January.

The Triumvirs remained opposed to a second team in Boston, relying on the provision of the National Agreement that allowed them control of their territory as well as their conviction that the Hub could not support two profitable teams. During the New York NL-AA meeting, Spalding and Thurman promised Prince a spot in the AA, although it was unclear it was their spot to give.61

The joint committee — by now, the NL-AA grouping of Spalding, Day, Byrne, Thurman, von der Ahe, and Barnie — voted unanimously to allow Prince’s club to join the AA. Without support for their position, the Triumvirs finally caved to the momentum for peace but not before extracting conditions. In exchange for their consent to allow Prince’s club to join the AA, Boston had to agree to return players under reservation to NL clubs, refrain from using “Boston” as its name, charge 50-cents admission, and agree to play away on Decoration Day in exchange for playing at home on the Fourth of July.

With the path cleared, the AA formally admitted Boston and Philadelphia from the PL as well as the new Scanlan-Trott club in Washington. It was expected that Chicago would be admitted later, but Milwaukee was positioned as an alternate member.

Losing allies, Johnson sought to preserve whatever advantage might remain available to him as he increasingly appeared to be a one-man PL. Prince and Wagner agreed to permit Johnson to hold their Cincinnati stock as a trustee, the intention being to provide Johnson with leverage to force a settlement with the NL over the Reds. Johnson warned the NL not to acknowledge anyone else as the Cincinnati owner, a request tabled by the NL in apparent deference to Brush.62

Johnson’s isolation became increasingly obvious when several NL representatives showed up to a PL meeting intending to exercise the influence gained through consolidation. With the PL all but dead, the consolidation “scorecard,” if one was kept, might have read as follows:

  • NL: New York, Brooklyn, Pittsburgh, Chicago consolidated with local PL rivals; Philadelphia and Boston intact with local AA opposition from admission of former PL clubs; Cleveland intact with no apparent local competition; Cincinnati with Brush application pending.
  • AA: Baltimore, Louisville, St. Louis, Columbus returning; Rochester, Syracuse, Toledo bought out; bankrupt Athletics replaced by Wagners’ Philadelphia PL club; Boston admitted from PL; Washington admitted; Chicago or Milwaukee for final spot.
  • PL: Four clubs consolidated with NL clubs; two clubs admitted to AA; Buffalo effectively collapsed; Cleveland/Cincinnati interest held by Johnson.

Therefore, the only open questions appeared to concern the eighth clubs in the NL and AA; that is, who would control the NL franchise in Cincinnati and whether Chicago or Milwaukee would claim the final spot in the AA. As it stood, Johnson had no one with whom to contest the PL.

The Making and Unmaking of a New National Agreement

With the make-up of the leagues coming into shape, a new National Agreement was developed and approved by the NL and AA on January 16. Former NL president A.G. Mills was the lead drafter of the document, but he received considerable input from the leading figures of the NL and AA. The Western Association was admitted to major-league status under the agreement with the lobbying of president L.C. Krauthoff.

The agreement established a three-person Board of Control that had broad oversight over the game, including the powers to approve player and manager contracts, resolve controversies and grievances, release players whose salaries had not been paid, and enforce “all agreements fairly made.”63 The agreement carried prior concepts of territorial rights and minor-league classifications, and attempted to resolve two of the Brotherhood’s grievances by prohibiting the transfer of players without their consent and eliminating the player blacklist. The reserve rule, however, remained in place. Clubs were to submit their reserve lists to the Board of Control by February 9 and the Board was scheduled to meet February 13 to resolve any outstanding issues about player reservation, assignment and allocation.

Before leaving New York, the AA and NL transacted additional league business. Meeting on January 17, the AA agreed a plan to divide gate receipts on a 50-50 basis with an exception for pooling and dividing equally among all clubs those receipts from Decoration Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day games. The exception was included to address complaints from some clubs about playing in lower-drawing cities on major holidays.

The owners also selected Thurman as the AA representative to the Board of Control, a decision that later events would prove significant. Thurman and Prince were delegated the responsibility of filling the vacancy intended for a new Chicago club, but Spalding and Anson were making offers to provide players to strengthen Milwaukee should the AA look toward the north for its final club. The NL also met on the 17th, with Rogers chosen as its representative to the Board of Control after Spalding declined the post; Rogers’ name was pulled from a hat to break a 4-4 deadlock between him and Byrne.64

The issue of player reservation and allocation became crucial to the remaining events of the winter meetings. With the Wagners’ PL team effectively becoming the successor club to the bankrupt AA Athletic club, the brothers believed that Athletics players would be “returned” to them as the new Athletics club prepared for the 1891 season. Lou Bierbauer and Harry Stovey, one rising star and one current star, were two former Athletics players the Wagners counted on controlling.

The circumstances of their reservation after the 1890 season was unclear, however, and the matter would be decided by the Board of Control. The issue was whether the collapsing Athletics, or then-AA president Phelps when the club was forfeited, properly reserved Bierbauer and Stovey (and other players, too). Bierbauer and Stovey played for the Athletics in 1889, but signed for the PL’s Brooklyn and Boston clubs for 1890. The Wagners intended to exercise their perceived rights to the players. They wanted Bierbauer for themselves but intended to “transfer” Stovey to Boston (where he played in 1890) to help Prince maintain a strong nine for 1891.

Believing they had not been reserved correctly and therefore free agents for 1891, Bierbauer signed with Pittsburgh and Stovey agreed a contract with the Triumvirs in Boston. Earle Wagner thought the players would be awarded to the “new” Athletics club because the players had been reserved by the “old” Athletics after the 1889 season and their lack of reservation after the 1890 season was a technicality given the circumstances of the Athletics’ collapse.

With AA president Thurman and NL representative Rogers (from Philadelphia) forming a majority, the Board declared on February 14 that the players were not properly reserved and the contracts with their new clubs should be “sustained and enforced.”65 Only Krauthoff sided with the Wagners and the AA. (An additional ruling upheld Pittsburgh’s deal with Connie Mack, the contract disputes leading to the “Pirates” nickname that survives to this day.)

The ruling, and Thurman’s role in it, enraged the AA. Meeting February 17 with Barnie as chair, the AA unanimously voted to withdraw from the National Agreement. Peace had reigned for 32 days. Thurman, “charged with acting in complicity with the League and against his own organization,”66 was stripped of the presidency, and the AA appointed a committee to examine his books, records, and cash accounts. An outraged Thurman lashed back, asserting that his sacking “only shows that they do not understand or appreciate the purpose of the board.”67

The AA installed Cincinnati attorney Louis Kramer as its new president. Intending to ensure that the AA held together, the owners adopted a guarantee fund to be composed of 51% of the capital stock of each club. The AA also adopted a resolution thanking Krauthoff for supporting the AA position and decided that players would wear white at home and black on the road. In a final act, the AA named its eighth club: Al Johnson’s Cincinnati club. Johnson conditioned his acceptance on Mike “King” Kelly joining his club, which was agreed by the Prince’s Boston Reds.

Further positioning the AA for war footing, Johnson was named to the Board of Directors. The AA fully planned to raid NL clubs for players, a state of affairs to which the NL would oblige. The Board of Control had taken the position that AA clubs effectively annulled all player contracts by withdrawing from the National Agreement that was specifically referenced in those contracts, meaning that AA players were free agents available to any National Agreement (read: NL) club. Referring to the Board action, the AA’s law committee stated that “[t]he American Association does not take its law from the self-constituted court of base ball—the Board of Control.”68

The scramble for players included many twists, perhaps none more strange than von der Ahe swearing out a warrant for Pittsburgh pitcher Mark Baldwin’s arrest when the latter traveled to St. Louis for the purpose of enlisting players to jump from the AA to the NL. The subsequent contest for players’ services eliminated hope of a “peace dividend”; salaries would rise from an average of $3,000 in 1890 to $3,500 in 1891.69

Back Where We Started in Cincinnati

Since the January NL meeting, Brush had been acting as the presumptive owner of Cincinnati franchise. Coming from Indianapolis, however, he had a difficult time finding local investors to take stock in the new club. Viewing Johnson’s newspaper allies as creating a hostile atmosphere, Brush even tried to reach an agreement with Johnson.70

With Johnson joining the AA, Brush requested assistance from the other magnates when the NL assembled at the Fifth Avenue Hotel on March 3. The fight with Johnson in the Queen City dominated the first two days of proceedings. While the magnates blanched at the estimated $30,000 for the fight, they also agreed on the need to stabilize the Cincinnati club. The NL appointed a committee of Reach, Robison, and O’Neill to assess and report on the matter and directed Brush to make arrangements for playing the 1891 season in Cincinnati. The NL also resolved a long-discussed scheme for dividing gate receipts by adopting a formula of 50 percent to the home team, 40 percent to the visitors, and 10 percent to be sent to Young for a guarantee fund. That fund might be tapped to prop up Brush, if needed.

The AA magnates might have believed it had the upper hand in Cincinnati with its history of Association baseball, but they soon discovered the risk of doing business with Al Johnson. As the AA assembled in Cincinnati on March 10, delegates heard rumors that Johnson was negotiating with the NL about a sellout. O’Neill, who was part of the committee appointed to assess the Cincinnati situation, provided the funds to buy out Johnson for $26,000 in cash and $4000 in notes.

The AA obtained a temporary injunction on March 11, claiming that Johnson violated his trusteeship for those who subscribed to stock when the PL bought the Reds in October. Indeed, there was a question about whether Johnson controlled what he attempted to sell. With Johnson holding $7500 in stock in his own name and $10,000 in trusteeship for Prince and the Wagners (although Johnson later claimed they gave him their stock in “atonement for deserting him”71), that only added up to $17,500 of the $40,000. Through consolidations in New York and Brooklyn as well as Addison’s share from Chicago’s stake, the NL appeared to control $19,000 of the stock. The remaining stock, held by former Chicago PL shareholders not controlled by Johnson, appeared to provide the balance.

With the injunction in place and the lack of clarity about Johnson’s ability to actually deliver the Cincinnati club, O’Neill and the NL held up payment of the funds promised to Johnson. The NL nonetheless ratified the O’Neill-Johnson agreement in late March and turned over the club to Brush as the season approached. NL clubs answered Brush’s appeal for players by placing 17 men at the Reds’ disposal for the season.72

The AA quickly established a new club in Cincinnati, subscribing 80% percent of the capital stock to local investors within the first few days. King Kelly chose to remain with and manage the AA outfit, subscribing $1,000 in stock before setting out to find players for a club due to open its season within a month. With the Western Avenue grounds tied up in the court action, both clubs scrambled to find a place to play. The NL managed to secure the Western Avenue grounds on the eve of the season when the NL paid the money promised Johnson to a court-appointed receiver, while the AA had settled on constructing stands in Pendleton, four miles from central Cincinnati.73

As the Cincinnati correspondent to The Sporting News stated, “There’s no doubt of our having a well developed, real and lively base ball war in Cincinnati . . . .”74 An offseason that opened with a battle over Cincinnati would end with that same city representing the wider dispute between the two leagues still standing for the hearts and minds of baseball fans.

One Era Ends and The Next One Nears

Shortly before the opening of the 1891 NL season, an era of baseball history came to a close. In a letter to NL president Young on April 14, Spalding announced his retirement from active involvement in baseball with James Hart elected as president of the Chicago club in his place. Spalding claimed he originally intended to leave the baseball arena after the famous 1888-1889 world tour, but “I was deterred from this course at that time on account of the recent Brotherhood revolt.”75

With the PL no more and his expanding sporting goods empire requiring greater attention, Spalding apparently felt comfortable to “retire with the consciousness that I have always tried to do that which I believed to be for the best interests, advancement, and elevation of professional baseball.”76 With that announcement, Spalding and his wife boarded a ship for a long European vacation.77 Spalding, however, would never be far from the game.

From the outside and Spalding’s exit notwithstanding, the events of the 1890-1891 offseason may seem to have brought a restoration of the status quo: the NL and AA as the two dominant baseball organizations, changed but largely intact after prevailing in a bruising war with their players. The PL was no more, but there was hardly a return to the 1880s. The decade of the 1890s would prove much different, and 1891 would also prove to be the last of the century with two major leagues. The battle for players and the battle between the leagues proved still costly. Posturing would continue, so would back-channel contacts. By the end of the year, the way forward for major-league baseball would reveal itself as monopoly.



In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author also consulted baseball-reference.com.



1 Robert B. Ross, The Great Baseball Revolt: The Rise and Fall of the 1890 Players League (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2016), 179.

2 Joe Murphy, “The Hoosier Club,” The Sporting News, October 11, 1890: 1.

3 “Byrne Roasts Stern,” The Sporting News, October 18, 1890: 3.

4 “The Great Baseball War,” New York Times, October 6, 1890: 2.

5 “Random Guesses,” Sporting Life, October 4, 1890: 6.

6 F.C.R., “Conference at Last,” Sporting Life, October 11, 1890: 1.

7 “All In Favor Of Peace,” New York Times, October 10, 1890: 3.

8 F.C.R., “Conference at Last.”

9 “All In Favor Of Peace.”

10 “The Baseball Situation,” New York Times, October 12, 1890: 8.

11 “Baseball Men In Session,” New York Times, October 11, 1890: 3.

12 “Another Baseball Row,” New York Times, October 19, 1890: 10.

13 Ibid.

14 “Ball Players in Session,” New York Times, October 21, 1890: 2.

15 “Players’ League Meeting,” Sporting Life, October 25, 1890: 2.

16 Ibid.

17 Ibid.

18 Gotham, “A Verdict Rendered,” The Sporting News, October 25, 1890: 1.

19 “Spalding’s Review,” Sporting Life, November 1, 1890: 3.

20 “Baseball Men Disagree,” New York Times, October 23, 1890: 3.

21 Reddy, “Want to Compromise,” The Sporting News, November 1, 1890: 5.

22 Gotham, “The Latest News,” The Sporting News, November 1, 1890: 1.

23 Ibid.

24 Gotham, “In the Metropolis,” The Sporting News, November 8, 1890: 3.

25 “Prodding Players’ League Men,” Sporting Life, November 8, 1890: 2.

26 “Boston on the Rampage,” Sporting Life, November 8, 1890: 2.

27 “Fresh Excitement,” Sporting Life, November 8, 1890: 2.

28 Ibid.

29 “Boston on the Rampage.”

30 Ibid.

31 “The Players’ Annual Meeting,” Sporting Life, November 15, 1890: 2.

32 Ibid.

33 Ibid.

34 “The League Meeting,” Sporting Life, November 15, 1890: 4.

35 Gotham, “The League Meeting,” The Sporting News, November 15, 1890: 3.

36 “Sale of a Baseball Club,” New York Times, November 14, 1890: 3.

37 “The League Meeting.”

38 “Sale of a Baseball Club.” Modern records state that the Pittsburgh Alleghenys lost 113 games during 1890 instead of the 114 losses depicted by the white stars on the pennant presented to O’Neill.

39 H.W. Lanigan, “Wagner Still Fights,” The Sporting News, November 22, 1890: 3.

40 “Players’ League,” Sporting Life, November 22, 1890: 2.

41 Gotham, “The Closing Rites,” The Sporting News, November 22, 1890: 2.

42 “Players’ League.”

43 Gotham, “The Closing Rites.”

44 “Players’ League.”

45 Ibid.

46 Murphy, “The Olive Branch,” The Sporting News, November 29, 1890: 1.

47 Anslem(?) “A New Association,” The Sporting News, November 29, 1890: 5.

48 “Brinker’s Views,” Sporting Life, January 10, 1891: 1.

49 “A New Baseball Circuit,” New York Times, January 14, 1891: 2.

50 Murphy, “The Olive Branch,” The Sporting News, January 3, 1891: 1.

51 “Chicago Settled,” Sporting Life, November 15, 1890: 1.

52 Murphy, “Boston and Chicago,” The Sporting News, December 27, 1890: 1.

53 “Spalding’s Review,” Sporting Life, December 27, 1890: 4.

54 “The Consolidation Perfected,” New York Times, December 20, 1890: 8.

55 “Checkmated Again,” Sporting Life, January 10, 1891: 2.

56 Mugwump, “Hub Happenings,” Sporting Life, December 6, 1890: 4.

57 “That Circular,” Sporting Life, December 27, 1890: 3.

58 Murphy, “Boston and Chicago.”

59 “Spalding’s Review.”

60 “Johnson Still Confident,” Sporting Life, January 10, 1891: 1.

61 Charles C. Alexander, Turbulent Seasons: Baseball in 1890-1891 (Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 2011), 114.

62 “Daylight at Last,” The Sporting News, January 24, 1891: 2.

63 “End of the Baseball War,” New York Times, January 17, 1891: 2.

64 “Daylight at Last.”

65 “Thurman’s Break,” The Sporting News, February 21, 1891: 2.

66 “Another Baseball War,” New York Times, February 19, 1891: 3.

67 Murphy, “Thurman Very Warm,” The Sporting News, February 21, 1891: 1.

68 “Work of the Week,” Sporting Life, March 7, 1891: 3.

69 Ross: 198.

70 Ban Johnson, “Cincinnati Chips,” Sporting Life, February 7, 1891: 6.

71 The Cincinnati Scandal,” Sporting Life, April 11, 1891: 1.

72 “Cincinnati Affairs,” Sporting Life, April 4, 1891: 7.

73 “Work of the Meeting,” Sporting Life, March 14, 1891: 3.

74 D.O.K., “In the Queen City,” The Sporting News, March 28, 1891: 3.

75 Murphy, “Al Spalding Resigns,” The Sporting News, April 18, 1891: 1.

76 Ibid.

77 Alexander: 127.