This article was written by Bill Johnson
This article was published in Baseball’s 19th Century Winter Meetings: 1857-1900
Following the 1895 season, and almost six weeks after the death of Harry Wright, the owners met in New York on November 13 and 14, at what was identified as the “Fifth annual meeting of the National League and American Association of Professional Baseball Clubs.”1 One paper predicted, “At tomorrow’s meeting … there may be a lively exchange between Presidents Freedman of New York and Byrne of the Brooklyn club,” but that was merely in regard to scheduling football games on their respective fields.2
Fall Meeting — November 1895
The National Board again met ahead of the general body, the lead item on the docket being a dispute between St. Louis, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis over a catcher named Ed McFarland, a player who had batted .343 for Indianapolis during the 1895 season. According to the account in Sporting Life, Chris Von der Ahe had agreed to trade Marty Hogan to Indianapolis for McFarland, “whereupon Cincinnati protested that he belonged to Cincinnati and not to Indianapolis, to which club he had been previously loaned.”3 Reds owner John T. Brush produced a legal contract with McFarland, so the catcher was sent to Cincinnati.
The Board also heard an appeal from John Montgomery Ward, again seeking release from his contract with New York based on a procedural error by the Giants a year earlier. Andrew Freedman quickly denied the claim, and asked that issue be tabled until the following meeting in order to give the Giants time to prepare their argument. After some discussion, Ward agreed that he would neither play baseball nor “connect himself with any baseball club,” and the issue was adjudicated as settled without further argument.4
At the subsequent League directors’ meeting that day, following the approval of the treasurer’s report, the group heard the cases of various players regarding fines assessed during the season. The directors, perhaps unsurprisingly, refused every case. Finally, the season’s championship was formally awarded to Baltimore. This judgment might be a bit curious to a modern observer, as Baltimore had lost the postseason Temple Cup series to the Cleveland Spiders, four games to one. Declaring Baltimore the champion due to the Orioles’ superior regular-season record, in effect, demonstrated the actual value the group placed on the entire postseason series.
The full meeting convened at 2:20 P.M. on the 13th for perfunctory administrative introductions. After a brief adjournment at 3 P.M., the group reconvened an hour later. Arthur Soden served as president and Nick Young continued as secretary/treasurer.
The group of owners included Baltimore owner Harry Von der Horst and Ned Hanlon; Boston’s Arthur Soden and team treasurer J.B. Billings; Louisville’s Dr. Thomas Hunt Stucky and owner Barney Dreyfuss; Chris Von der Ahe of the St. Louis Browns; Washington’s J. Earle Wagner; John T. Brush again representing the Cincinnati Reds; the Giants’ Andrew Freedman; Charles Byrne and Ferdinand Abell of Brooklyn; Pittsburgh owner William Kerr; Jim Hart of Chicago; and Frank Robison of Cleveland.
From the Eastern League, President Pat Powers was the lead delegate. Providence was represented by a Mr. William H. Draper, Wilkes-Barre by Mr. E.F. Bogert, Springfield by Mr. Sheehan, Syracuse by Mr. George M. Kuntzsch, and Toronto by Mr. John C. Chapman. Ban Johnson, president of the Western League, attended, along with James Manning of Kansas City and John Carney of Toledo. The New England League sent Tim Murnane, while the Atlantic Association sent Sam Crane. John H. Hanlon represented the Pennsylvania League, along with Messrs. Markle and Sharsig of Hazelton and Reading.
The first order of business was the reading and approval of minutes from the February 1895 meeting. After that was completed, the group considered an amendment to Section 2 of the League constitution. After a bit of minor wordsmithing, the new section read: “To perpetuate base ball as the national game and to surround it with such safeguards as to warrant absolute public confidence in its integrity.”5 It was then that the real negotiation began.
Unbeknownst to the larger group, Freedman had assembled a cabal of like-minded owners the day before, the non-Sunday-playing organizations of Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburg, and New York, to try to amend the constitution to prevent all Sunday baseball in the future. The group of four assumed that Brooklyn, Washington, and Cleveland would fall in line. It was pure politics, Tammany-style, a milieu both familiar and comfortable for the Giants’ owner.
Unfortunately for Freedman and company, Brooklyn and Cleveland voted with the Western clubs that relied on Sunday baseball for economic viability, and on the grounds that if the National League abdicated Sundays, then any potential rival, start-up league could enjoy a built-in opportunity to gain traction on the weekends. There was agreement that the non-Sunday-playing teams should play most of the Saturdays in the Sunday towns, that they should get preferential scheduling for Saturdays when playing in Cincinnati, St. Louis, and the others, while those Western teams would play each other on Sundays. It was an imperfect compromise, but it satisfied the owners.
The next day the group considered Tim Hurst’s ideas — the same Tim Hurst that they’d chosen not to rehire the preceding February — on reducing and resolving complaints about umpiring and game management. The umpires generally agreed that the biggest problem was that team owners did not support the rules and associated penalties, and were still paying fines for individual players, thus eliminating any incentive for improved behavior. After some discussion, the owners determined that immediate ejection of offending players, in lieu of fining them, would be the best course of action in correcting bad behavior on the field. This gave the umpires a usable tool that did not provoke players the way that taking money did, and in a sense it reduced costs for the owners in that they would no longer be paying any fines at all.
The final wording read: “Resolved. That the Rules Committee, when elected, are requested to submit to this body an amendment to rule 59, substantially abolishing the infliction of money fines, and empowering umpires to remove from the ground any player who after being cautioned continues to be guilty of violating any of the rules, and in the case of serious violation to remove him without such caution.”
That was, in large part, the end of the real business of the meeting. The next action was the reading of a letter from Harry Wright, bequeathing his entire baseball collection of documents and other items to the league. The league accepted the items, and officially expressed its collective regret over the death of the Reds’ pioneer, entering into the record a formal statement eulogizing Wright and his contributions to the game. They also, on Byrne’s motion, agreed that every club officially recognize a day to be known as “Harry Wright Day,” with the proceeds from that game going toward a fund to build some sort of monument to Wright.
With that completed, the delegates elected officers for 1896. Byrne, Soden, and Young were re-elected, and Brush was added for the first time. The Board of League Directors was filled by Von der horst, Soden, Wagner, Hart, Stucky, and Kerr, creating a division of three members from the East and three from the West. The Playing Rules committee was appointed by President Soden, and included Von der Ahe and Hanlon, along with Alfred J. Reach.6
The meeting wrapped up with Byrne proposing that anyone, in any capacity, who joined any other competing baseball organization be considered “simply … dead from the National Agreement point.”7 In other words, any future Pfeffer situations would result in a lifetime ban for every player involved. Several of the Eastern owners, leery of losing the services of particularly valuable players if implicated in some future scheme, opposed the action. Philadelphia, Colonel Rogers specifically, noted that he “proposed to be at liberty to withdraw from the National League the instant his property was jeopardized by any tomfool legislation.”8 Rhetorically, these brief snippets reveal the owner mindset as one of a modern feudal vassal, with players as his serfs and the greater good measured in terms of profit and loss for each magnate. Given the general disagreement, Byrne’s motion was tabled indefinitely.
As the members prepared to disperse, the minor leagues — represented largely by respective league presidents — requested greater representation among the body of owners. They were soundly and roundly denied. As a form of mollification, though, the National League did agree to pay additional compensation to those minor-league clubs when particular player contracts were purchased by the big leagues. This was business, after all, and baseball players were merely a commodity to be traded and manipulated. The various owners, executives, players, and writers went their separate ways, with the intent of reconvening after the holidays the following February.
Winter Meeting — February 1896
This meeting took place on February 24-25 in New York City, again at the Fifth Avenue Hotel.9 Just as in the immediate past, though, the National Board met a day earlier, on Sunday the 23rd, to discuss several matters in advance of the main battery of owners. There were no proposed changes to playing rules on the Board’s agenda, but it did delve into reconsideration of the decision by the owners during the meeting of the previous November, that umpires be allowed to simply eject players for bad behavior instead of imposing monetary fines.
In a very real sense, this sort of discussion represented the collective ethos of baseball ownership at the time — that the owners controlled production and product, and merely had to worry about selling it to consumers. As a historian has commented, “(The) National League, with its strict internal rules and methods of self-enforcement, was typical of private industry arrangements at the time. … Through private ordering, the owners set limits on their own competitive activities, allocating customers by means of exclusive territories and controlling the wages of players.”10 It was this perspective that framed both meetings in 1896.
The first full meeting convened on Monday, February 24, with President Arthur Soden and Secretary Young calling the magnates to order. The teams were represented as follows:11
- Boston — Soden, Conant, Billings
- Baltimore —Von der horst, Hanlon
- Brooklyn — Abell, Byrne
- Philadelphia — Reach, Rogers
- New York — A. Freedman
- Washington — J.E. Wagner
- Cincinnati — J.T. Brush
- Cleveland — Frank Robison
- Louisville — Dr. Stucky
- St Louis — Walter Hezel (Von der Ahe absent, due to physician’s orders)
- Chicago — Hart
- Pittsburg — D.L. Kerr (brother and proxy for team President William Kerr; co-owner Phil Auten was absent)
- Minor-league representatives included Ban Johnson (Western League), Tim Murnane (New England League), and T. Powers of the Eastern League.
The first docket item was to consider formalizing a permanent change to the existing National Agreement, based on the closing discussion from the November 1895 meeting, to codify permanent disqualification of any player, manager, or even minor league, who acted in opposition to the agreement. After a holiday season to consider not only the Pfeffer case but the entire gamut of potential threats that might continue to pop up if competition were permitted to evolve, several of the magnates felt this to be draconian but necessary prophylaxis. As was the case in November, when the loyalty resolution was proposed but not passed, this amendment was tabled until the following November.12
The rest of the “substance” of the new National Agreement increased the National Board to five members, and renamed it the National Board of Arbitration. Regarding the selection of players by the National League, it “shall be limited to the period from October 1 to January 1, and the following prices shall be paid for drafting players from the minor leagues: Class A, $500; B, $300; C, $200; D, $100; E, $75; F, $50.”13
The Ward Case
The loyalty clause deferred, the National Board spent the next three hours deliberating the case of John Montgomery Ward. The Ward case is well known, and the owners finally voted unanimously that “… the findings of this Board are that the said Ward was illegally reserved for the season of 1896, by reason of the fact that said Ward was not under contract with the New York Ball Club for the season of 1895 and did not refuse to sign contract with said club for said season. … [R]eleased from reservation …”14
Andrew Freedman, as New York’s owner the de-facto defendant, acquiesced without additional complaint, and Ward was released from his reserve status for the coming 1896 season. The ruling was merely a formality. Ward had already begun a second career as an attorney the previous July — lining up clients like Fred Pfeffer and Amos Rusie — and since 1894 had been finished as a professional baseball player. It was also a bit ironic, given Ward’s role as a rabble-rousing insurrectionist back in 1890.
With that work completed, the owners adjourned until Tuesday afternoon.
Minor League Taxonomy
When they did muster, it was only for a few small business items. First was the establishment of a formal hierarchy of leagues, with Class A being the top of the minor-league ziggurat, “in alphabetical order, according to the population of the cities played in by the clubs of the league. …”15 The Eastern League, Western League, and Atlantic Association were formally designated Class A, but the Pennsylvania State League was not. It was deemed to be a lower-level league.16
As the Chicago Tribune reporter noted, there was some resistance among all of the minor leagues to the process enacted by the National Association, that the big-league clubs could audition minor-league players in September, once the latter’s regular season had ended, without formally drafting or signing those players over that two-week period. This had the effect, the leagues claimed, of allowing the larger league to examine those players without compensating their minor-league owners. The cry, as might be expected, fell on deaf ears.17
Additionally, several playing rule provisions were entered into the record, including the rule that fines were still to be issued for minor in-game indiscretions, and that player ejection was mandatory after the third such violation. This was a codicil to the umpires’ newfound authority to eject players for egregious offenses without even a warning. The owners also dictated that players be ejected for vulgar language, in an attempt to appeal to a wider audience and counter the stereotype of the crude, ill-spoken ballplayer.
The most interesting, and enduring, of the rule changes was the requirement that umpires “give corners of the plate” to the pitcher, that if a ball passed over any part of the plate while in the zone between shoulders and knees, the pitch must be called a strike. This was interpreted to mean that if any part of the ball touched that area, the pitch must be ruled a strike. That definition of the lateral legality of a pitch continues today.
The owners readopted the 1896 playing schedule,18 and decided to change the venue for the November meeting from New York to Chicago. Also, Jim Hart moved to abolish the Temple Cup series, but the motion failed by a vote of 7 to 5. Finally, “Secretary Young said that the members of the National League had instructed him to give all the effects of the late Chief Umpire Harry Wright, which related to baseball, to K.E. Stagg, to be placed in his custody at the new Chicago University. …”19
With the brief meeting over, the owners adjourned until the fall.
1“The Moguls Meet,” Sporting Life, November 16, 1895: 2.
2 “Baseball Magnates Gathering,”Chicago Tribune, November 13, 1895: 8.
3 “The Moguls Meet.”
6 “Fines Abolished,” New York Times, November 15, 1895: 3.
7 “The Moguls Meet.”
9 Elmira (New York) Star Gazette, February 24, 1896: 1.
10 Roger L. Abrams, Legal Bases: Baseball and the Law (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998), 22.
11 Elmira Star Gazette.
12 Chicago Tribune, February 25, 1896: 8.
14 “The National Board,” Sporting Life, February 29, 1896: 2.
15 Chicago Tribune, February 26, 1896: 8.
17 Chicago Tribune, February 25, 1896: 8.
18 Times-Picayune (New Orleans), February 26, 1896: 8.