1894 Winter Meetings: The Empire Strikes Back

This article was written by Bill Johnson

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


Baseball's 19th Century Winter Meetings: 1857-1900The Fall Meeting — November 16-17, 1894

The first conclave after the 1894 season convened in Parlor F of the Fifth Avenue Hotel in New York City.1There were no hot-button issues facing the magnates, but there were still critical details that required the group’s collective attention.The largest single administrative action came in reappointing the Board of Directors, to include John T. Brush, Chris Von der Ahe, Arthur Soden, Charles Byrne, Harry Von der Horst, and Jim Hart.This ensured that Eastern and Western clubs were equally represented on the board.2

The Assessment

One of the items near and dear to the collective heart of the magnates was money, and the 10-percentassessment that had been in effect in order to pay off a standing League debt of $133,000.3“The real hitch in the convention…occurred when the settlement of the gate receipt question came up.Now that the League’s indebtedness of $133,000 has all been paid up, the wealthier clubs objected to sending 10 percent of their receipts to the treasurer.It was all right as long as the League was in debt, and nobody objected.”4

The managing director of the New York team (a rough equivalent to a modern-day team president), E.R. Talcott, convinced the other owners that for most clubs, rescinding the levy was in their best interest.In New York’s case alone, the team stood to save between $7,000 and $15,000 in 1895.“Last season that 10 per cent footed up $68,000, and each club drew from that amount $2,900.The contribution of each city to the fund was as follows: New York — $12,000; Baltimore — $8,900; Philadelphia — $8,500; Boston — $6,500; Pittsburg — $6,000; Brooklyn — $5,500; Chicago — $5,100; Cincinnati — $3,800; St. Louis — $3,400; Cleveland — $3,000; Washington — $2,900; and Louisville — $1,500.5From this came a change to section 49 of the National Agreement, stating ‘Out of the funds of the league now in the hands of the treasurer he shallcreate a fund of $12,000, which shall be invested in government bonds, and all other funds shall be placed in the treasury to meet current expenses.’”6

The Philadelphia Exemption

Next, a commission of Byrne, Brush, Harry Von der Horst (of the Orioles), and Hart drew up a resolution regarding Philadelphia’s contribution to the League revenues: “Resolved. That the special agreement with the Philadelphia baseball club relating to the division of gate receipts, and grand stand admissions, dated February 1891, be suspended for four years from this date, and that the same division of receipts be made as in 1893 for four years.Under the agreement of February, 1894, Philadelphia was allowed to deduct twenty-five cents from every grand stand admission.This was done at the request of Mr. Rogers after the grand stand of the Philadelphia club was burned down.The fund went towards paying for the new grand stand.”7

The politics of the deal were not universally popular, but the owners were not in favor of establishing any precedent that might haunt them in similar circumstances in future years.The New York Evening World reported that Philadelphia owner John Rogers “emerged, smiling, from Parlor F at recess.He denied the reports of his linguistic and loquacious efforts, but said he had accomplished a big thing for Philadelphia.It seems he had succeeded in convincing the League that there was a distinct relation between the fire which destroyed the Quakers’ grand stage last summer and the new rate of division.”8

Rules proposal and umpire enforcement

While there were not any major changes to the playing rules themselves at this meeting, there was acknowledgment among all concerned that umpires were not uniformly enforcing the existing rules as written. Ned Hanlon and Jim Hart were named to a special rules committee to screen proposed changes for the following year, and the group at large adopted a separate resolution addressing the umpire problem. Rule 64 was changed to read: “That the committee on rules is instructed to report to the spring meeting such amendments as may be necessary to compel the umpire to enforce the playing rules, particularly those prohibiting noisy coaching and rowdy or disorderly conduct on the ball field.”9 The reports by some were almost vindictive. “Patsy Tebeau, Tommy Tucker, and John McGraw, among others, will be accountable for their on-field actions. With this object in view, the League intends to ‘shake up’ the umpire staff from top to bottom, and the men who have winked at obscenity upon the field and refused to enforce the rules will be allowed to drop into oblivion, as far as baseball is concerned.”10

One of the more aggravating offshoots of poor game control by the presiding umpire was that some managers had simply been pulling their team off the field in protest, and not completing their respective game. The proposed solution to that was a resolution saying that“… the captain or manager, or the person in charge of the offending team and responsible for the team leaving the field shall incur a penalty of $100, which shall be paid in five days to the secretary of the League, such penalty not to be remitted under any circumstances.” That rule was in addition to the $1,000 penalty on a club for leaving the field.11

Pre-empting start-up leagues, and the charging of Barnie, Buckenberger, and Pfeffer

Additionally, the “embryotic American Association” was a topic for the magnates. Nick Young told reporters that there was “little profitability of the organization of Association clubs in cities where there already are League clubs.” Young also noted that the owners were aware of certain players who might plan to join a new AA, and that those players would be disciplined.”12

The owners appointed a subcommittee of Charles Byrne, John T. Brush, Jim Hart, Harry Von der Horst, and Young to prepare a report for the League. Their product ostensibly traced the issue of challenges to the League structure dating back to 1876.“The report shows that it has been the object of those interested in baseball to perpetuate the sport as the National game of the United States and to surround it with such safeguards as to warrant in the future absolute public confidence in its integrity and methods to protect and promote the mutual interests of professional baseball clubs and professional baseball players.”13

The language is striking in the implication. Interpreted cynically, terms like “safeguards,” “integrity” and “mutual interests” could be defined as entirely consistent with the collective self-interest of the owners. The report implies that the ownership group is best situated and able to decide what constitutes integrity and mutual interest. This sets the foundation for what followed.

“The report shows,” it continued, “that today the future of baseball is confronted by a new condition — a condition more harmful and dangerous than open dishonesty and dissipation.It refers to treachery within the lines.The report shows that the interests of clubs and players are identical; that one cannot succeed without the other, and that success means mutual benefit.”14 This reference to “treachery within the lines” has nothing to do with the quality, caliber, or integrity of the conduct of the game, but instead of individual players putting self-interest above that of the game (or, to be clearer, the interest of the owners’ profit).

The report concluded: “It is a matter of public rumor and is also a fact which has come to our knowledge that men identified with clubs, members of the National Agreement, have been cooperating in the formation of clubs or organizations whose purpose is to conflict with the National Agreement. In view of this…the National League and American Association of Professional Clubs, in convention assembled, respectfully suggests to and requests the National Board to declare A.C. Buckenberger, William Barnie, and Frederick Pfeffer ineligible to be employed either as manager or player or in any capacity whatever, by any club or organization operating under the National Agreement, and they be forthwith suspended. Such suspension to remain in force until such time as they or either of them can satisfy the National Board that they in no way have been engaged directly or indirectly in the organization of any club, league, or association formed or to be formed in conflict with the principles of the National Agreement.And in the event of their failure to relieve themselves from this suspension within such time as your board may direct, they shall be expelled and forever debarred from any connection …with…Professional Baseball Clubs.”15

To paraphrase, Barnie, Buckenberger, and Pfeffer were being scapegoated for supporting a start-up league two years before. This report and conclusion were largely the work of John T. Brush, an owner more committed to cauterizing threats before they could ever blossom, and would provide grist for discussion at the next meeting. As a sidenote, both Barnie and Buckenberger met with League representatives in late December 1894, and both were reinstated. Fred Pfeffer chose not to show up, however, and his case made for some animated exchanges during the February 1895 meeting.

The Second Meeting — February 1895

The year 1895 had dawned on an America that was entering its third year of a severe economic recession. That age, a time before color photography, is today only represented in sepia and black-and-white tones, and those shades — perhaps unintentionally, but accurately — convey a sense of the pall that hung over the collective nation just before the turn of the century. Grover Cleveland was in his second term as president, and while the country had not yet elected to engage in the Cuban war for independence from Spain, it was just three years from one of its first forays into genuinely international conflict.

It was a time of yellow journalism, of unregulated businesses, of semi-institutionalized criminals actually running cities like New York, and a time at the cusp of baseball’s transition from a professionalized club sport to a self-sustaining entertainment activity. As such, money had become more important to the game every year, and baseball had clearly drawn to its ownership ranks men who valued lucre infinitely more than the game between the lines.

The second formal conclave of the owners (or magnates, as the press often described them) after the 1894 season convened on February 28, 1895, again at the Fifth Avenue Hotel in New York City, a site sufficiently gaudy for the collection of barons. The particular team owners, or their representatives, had arrived over the preceding weekend and included Baltimore owner Harry Von der Horst and team manager Ned Hanlon; Boston’s Arthur Soden and William Conant; Dr. Thomas Hunt Stucky representing Louisville; Chris Von der Ahe of the St. Louis Browns; Washington’s J. Earl and George Wagner; John T. Brush of the Cincinnati Reds; the polarizing newcomer of the Giants, Andrew Freedman; Charles Byrne and silent financier Ferdinand Abell of Brooklyn; Pittsburg co-owner William Kerr; Jim Hart of Chicago; and a proxy for the Robison brothers of Cleveland.16

The men gathered with a collective purpose of strengthening their collective grip on their money-making machine, and there was absolutely no premium placed on ethical conduct. Several of the owners, for example, held stock in different teams. Tammany Hall power broker Andrew Freedman had taken over majority ownership of the New York franchise a month earlier, but several of the majority owners of other, presumably competing, teams also owned minority positions in the Giants. The level of cronyism is almost unimaginable in the twenty-first century, but it was purely business for the owners in the 1890s.

One of the subtexts to this meeting was the implicit threat to the de-facto monopoly that the owners had created. There was an unspoken, but very real, possibility that the American Association might re-emerge and offer baseball to paying customers outside the National League’s purview. Additionally, collective paranoia dictated that the minor-league Eastern and Western Leagues might seek to break away from the existing organizational construct and compete for customers, an odious idea that demanded suppression at every opportunity.

Individual business

Under those conditions, and with those participants, the February meeting convened with a preliminary conclave of the smaller National Board. After the treasurer’s report, Nick Young was re-elected secretary/treasurer as the first official act of business. Then several disputes were adjudicated, including the awarding of John Walters to Indianapolis, M.J. Trost to Nashville, and Joe Strauss to Minneapolis.

John Walters, who had signed contracts with both Indianapolis and Rochester, the former partly controlled by Cincinnati Reds owner John T. Brush, was awarded to Indianapolis and was directed to repay $50 in damages to Rochester within 10 days or face suspension. Nashville and Rochester both claimed Trost, and after being awarded to Nashville he was also ordered to pay damages to Rochester. Catcher Joe Strauss was claimed by both Minneapolis and Lincoln, and was given to Minneapolis with no fine attached.

Competing claims of various League members on the contracts necessitated each of those decisions. The National Board simply assigned the players based on the logic of the various arguments. The League Directors, a working group spun off from the Board, met immediately after to consider an administrative matter regarding Pittsburgh’s Ad Gumbert. Pittsburgh had traded the player to Brooklyn for catcher Tom Kinslow a few weeks earlier, but Brush’s Cincinnati team had claimed Gumbert based on what the Reds owner claimed were “prior negotiations.” The Board decided against Cincinnati, reasoning that manager Connie Mack — who had actually spoken to Gumbert — had no authority to negotiate or act. They also ruled that Pittsburg had withdrawn its trade offer with the Reds before the latter accepted the deal.

Rule changes

The formal meeting convened at 11:20 A.M. on February 28, when “President Young requested that Mr. Soden be called to the chair, and the request was granted.”17 The business session began immediately with a brief review and final adjudication of proposed rule changes. Those encompassed the following actions:

  1. Rejected the proposal to “annul specifications for length and thickness” of bats, but did approve a change in the maximum bat diameter, from 2½” to 2¾”. This was likely a concession to the physically larger, and more popular sluggers like Cap Anson and Dan Brouthers, among others.
  2. Rejected the proposal that would have prohibited padding in any glove except for first baseman and catcher mitts, but compromised in that the League “allows any kind of old mitt to be used in those favored positions and requires any other fielder … to wear a finger glove, not over 14” in circumference around the hand and not weighing more than 10 ounces.”18
  3. Adjusted what has come to be known as the “infield fly” rule. The wording is telling: “When base-runners are on first and second base, with not more than one out, and a fly ball shall be batted, the umpire must at once call out and announce whether it is an infield fly or outfield fly for the purpose of removing all doubt therein from the minds of the baserunners.”
  4. Some members objected to a proposed rule that required umpires to eject any player who used indecent, obscene, or abusive language on the field, and then to require a three-day suspension for each act. The approved compromise was that each incident of such language would result in a fine of between $25 and $100, and that the monies would be forwarded to League Secretary Young within five days or the player would be suspended until the fine was paid.
  5. The most interesting change was a rule adopted to require umpires to “enforce the playing rules as written,”19 imposing a $25 fine on the respective umpire for the first such failure in a game, and doubling that to $50 for a second failure

The last rule is telling, as umpires working alone too often felt compelled to enforce rules as they understood them, or in order not to incite the home crowd to violence toward them.

Several rule changes were accepted without discussion:

  • The size of the pitching plate was increased from 12 by 4 inches to 24 by 6 inches, an expansion from 48 square inches to 144 square inches.
  • Rule 14 was changed to read, “The new ball delivered to the pitcher may be discolored by him, but by no other player.” Only “earth” could be used as a discolorant, and not tobacco juice or other substance.
  • The act of bunting was defined.
  • Umpires will “call a strike on all foul tips caught by the catcher within the 10-foot line.”

Several of those changes remain in effect today, specifically the dimensions of the pitcher’s slab and the definition of the infield fly.

Pfeffer revisited

The daytime session adjourned at 7 P.M. for dinner, and reconvened in a small sidebar executive session at 8:30 for a four-hour-long deliberation aimed at finally closing the matter of Fred Pfeffer. The committee of Brush, Hart, and Freedman needed to hash out the details of the case before making a recommendation to the larger group the following day.

Pfeffer had been a gifted infielder on Cap Anson’s Chicago teams in the 1880s, and enjoyed his best season in 1884 when he finished second in the League in home runs and runs batted in. He and A.C. Buckenberger had committed the heresy of trying to restart the American Association, a direct conflict with (and threat to) the existing National Agreement.20 The allegation was that Pfeffer and others would receive considerable compensation for jumping to the new iteration of the Association. When that came to light, he was suspended indefinitely. Although 35 years old, Pfeffer had still applied to the owners for reinstatement. The battle lines were clear: Brush’s contingent was adamantly opposed to giving any quarter to seditionists like Pfeffer, for fear of appearing weak and thus encouraging future forays toward independence; whereas Hart wanted Pfeffer’s suspension vacated immediately. The old Tammany Hall dealmaker, Freedman, was thus put in the middle of the discussion, and he proposed a compromise providing that Pfeffer be reinstated but forced to play only for Louisville, and for only a $200 annual salary, and also pay a fine to the League of $800.

The terms were presented to the entire body of owners the next morning, and provoked some heated words. John Rogers argued that the blacklisting had been a mistake, but a human one, and noted that Buckenberger had already been reinstated. Chris Von der Ahe was similarly disgusted with the action, and after making Louisville his proxy vote in the matter he dramatically stormed out of the meeting room in disgust.

The ensuing back-and-forth lasted all day, but by 6 P.M. the group voted for what was referred to as the “Freedman Compromise” and Pfeffer’s reinstatement. The lines were clear, with six clubs (Louisville, St. Louis, Pittsburg, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia) voting for Pfeffer and four (Brooklyn, Cincinnati, Washington, Boston opposed). The owners did agree, 11 to 1, that the fine should be $500 instead of $800. Louisville, the lone dissenter, argued that there should be no fine at all.

Charlie Byrne defended the judgment, telling reporters, “Pfeffer got off very cheaply. In 1890 he joined the Brotherhood and helped in the attempt to wreck the League and baseball. In 1891 he deserted the Chicago League Club and associated himself with George Williams’ American Association team. … Last fall (1894) when the new, or rather the defunct, Association scheme was sprung, Pfeffer was in it up to his neck. … If we had reinstated him without some sort of punishment it would have been encouragement for other players to join future movements against organized baseball. Pfeffer can consider himself lucky.”21

The diction and word selection in Byrne’s statement is revealing in that he conflates the potential wrecking of the League with wrecking Organized Baseball. What was left unsaid, and not challenged by the press, was the reality that the profits of Organized Baseball fell to those few lucky owners of recognized League teams, and that threats to the collective bottom line would not be tolerated.

Closing out the meeting

A few additional items were handled to close out the agenda.The secretary of the South Australia Baseball Club, Mr. E. Kreusler, had sent a letter to the owners requesting that the National League send a team to Australia at the end of the American baseball season.“Kreusler wrote that such a visit would serve to boom the game in the Antipodes…as there was already considerable interest in the game in his country. …”22The magnates reportedly acted favorably to the idea, and referred the request to a subcommittee of Hart, Byrne, and Freedman.

The clubs agreed unanimously not to pay fines assessed to their players, and adopted the proposed schedule for the 1895 season. They also passed a resolution of regret over the death of Martin Stanford Robison, the father of Cleveland owner Frank Robison, and considered a petition to not rehire Tim Hurst as an umpire since he was also officiating other sports. Hurst was not immediately rehired, but his professionalism would force the owners to bring him back as an arbiter later that year.With that, the February meeting adjourned for the 1895 playing season.

 

Notes

1 Detroit Free Press, November 16, 1894: 2.

2 Ibid.

3 New York Tribune, November 16, 1894: 3.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 Detroit Free Press, November 16, 1894. 2.

7 Detroit Free Press, November 17, 1894: 2.

8 New York World, November 16, 1894: 3.

9 Detroit Free Press, November 16, 1894.

10 New York Tribune, November 16, 1894.

11 Ibid.

12 Detroit Free Press, November 17, 1894.

13 New York Tribune, November 19, 1894: 9.

14 Ibid.

15 Ibid.

16 Sporting Life, March 9, 1895.

17 Sporting Life,March 9,1895: 8.

18 Ibid.

19 Ibid.

20 New York Times, November 19, 1894.

21 Sporting Life, March 9, 1895.

22 Ibid.

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