1896 Winter Meetings: The Height of Factionalism

This article was written by Jamie Talbot

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

Baseball's 19th Century Winter Meetings: 1857-1900The winter2 meetings of 1896-1897 were conducted at the height of National League factionalism, with club owners in the 12-team circuit divided into two camps. The Big Five franchises of Boston, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and Pittsburg represented the League’s prominent, Eastern venues.

At annual meetings, the concerns of the Big Five were most often expressed by Chicago club President James A. Hart and Philadelphia co-owner John I. Rogers, an accomplished lawyer and the magnates’ in-house legal adviser. When he deigned to attend meetings, wealthy and temperamental New York Giants owner and President Andrew Freedman was a wild card, usually aligned with the Big Five but on occasion a faction unto himself.

The Little Seven franchises of Baltimore, Brooklyn, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Louisville, St. Louis, and Washington banded together for self-protection. Under the leadership of John T. Brush, the wily, iron-willed boss of the Cincinnati Reds, the Little Seven usually prevailed in contested league matters decided by majority vote. Consequently, the Big Five could and did become the Little Five when they were in the minority against the Big Seven. As we will see, the membership in these press-contrived rubrics was fluid.

Observers predicted that the meeting of November 1896 could be particularly rancorous, with the usual factional antagonisms exacerbated by any one of several potentially disputatious subjects, including the Amos Rusie case, the Patsy Tebeau fine, the Brooklyn players combine, problems in the Western League, proposed abolition of the Temple Cup, and actions taken a month earlier by the National Board of Arbitration (the Board).3

A quasi-judicial league body charged with resolving disputes among recognized baseball associations, major- and minor-league ballclubs, or players, the Board consisted of Brush, his close ally Brooklyn club President Charles H. Byrne, and Boston co-owner Arthur H. Soden as voting members, with National League President Nick Young, nonvoting member ex officio. Meeting in New York October 5-6, 1896, the Board, controversially as it turned out, adopted resolutions enlarging its own powers at the expense of the league as a whole. One of these resolutions reduced the size of the Board to four from five members, as had been recently prescribed by the League. The fifth seat had never been filled and the Board decided the likelihood of 2-2 ties was great, putting the onus, unfairly, on Nick Young to constantly break ties.4

Also thorny was the Board’s resolution to give itself “the power also to pass [i.e., rule] upon any question brought before it by a club member or members of any organization, where unjust discrimination has been made against any club or clubs. …” If the charges proved true, in the opinion of the Board, then it could impose fines and other penalties. The Board meant to remedy its impotence in the case of Indianapolis (partly owned by Board member Brush) and Minneapolis against the Western League, however, the catholic nature of the resolution rankled League magnates who rightly saw the Board’s ability to impose penalties on them.

National League Winter Meeting
November 11-13, 1896, Auditorium Hotel, Chicago

The meeting commenced with noncontroversial matters being resolved by the National League Board of Directors.5 Among other things, the directors changed the starting date of future winter meetings by a few days; extended the regular season closing date to October 15 (from October 1); declined to take further action in the Amos Rusie case; and deleted a provision (Section 4) from the NL Constitution regarding the fining of umpires who failed to report player offenses.

The directors also formally awarded the 1896 National League pennant to the Baltimore Orioles. They declined, however, to accept jurisdiction over a several-year-old dispute between St. Louis owner Chris Von der Ahe and three other club owners regarding the rental of Pendleton Park in Cincinnati, deferring to then ongoing litigation among the parties in the Ohio courts. After auditing the treasurer’s report, the Directors meeting adjourned and the Annual League Meeting commenced “a few minutes later.”6

The gathering7 turned heated almost immediately, with the usually noncontroversial reading of the minutes from the previous meeting providing the spark.8 Some of the Big Five owners, with Colonel9 Rogers leading the charge, expressed shock and chagrin when the closing paragraph of the minutes was read, to wit:

This [National] Agreement may be altered or amended at any time by the unanimous consent of the [National] Board [of Arbitration]. This amendment shall become operative after Feb. 24, 1896.10

Rogers et al. claimed the minutes were incorrect, that they would never have voted for such an amendment. The power, they asserted, to amend the National Agreement should remain with the League. Messrs. Byrne and Brush, among others, claimed the contrary. Byrne reportedly offered, “the board was not answerable for its actions to [anyone] except itself; that if the power which created it objected to its ruling it could only so express itself by choosing a new board.”11 A challenge to the Big Five, to be sure.

Rogers further objected to the Board’s work at its last meeting, in October, when it failed to elect a fifth member and gave itself the power to regulate any entity covered by the National Agreement. Brush and Byrne declined to argue the point further, apparently confident they would prevail once a motion to accept the minutes as written was put to a vote. Louisville’s Dr. T. Hunt Stucky, had other ideas however, and uncharacteristically joined the Big Five bloc in opposition. A vote to accept the offending paragraph as well as a vote to accept the February minutes was deadlocked, 6-6 (meaning they were not accepted).12

Brush, angered at the result, stormed out of the meeting. If Brush was surprised, so was Rogers. He was expecting his side to carry the point with seven votes, but Senators chief magistrate J. Earle Wagner change his mind at the metaphorical last minute. Since nothing further could be done on the minutes, the remaining owners unanimously agreed to direct President Young to create a three-member permanent committee on playing rules. The committee would consider and propose changes, reporting to the League at least 30 days prior to the annual spring meeting. With this quotidian matter resolved, the day’s session concluded. Dr. Stucky, as it turned out, had no shortage of company over the next 24 hours.

The Friday session was meant to start at 11 a.m. but the Big Seven were nowhere to be found. The Brush faction had sequestered Dr. Stucky and were impressing upon him the advantages of coming back their side. Meanwhile, the gelded Little Five, lacking a quorum, could do nothing but stew. Sprinkled within press accounts of ensuing developments were reports that Stucky demanded players and other benefits from the Little Seven in return for his vote.13 Alternatively, Stucky’s return to the fold was contingent upon Brush relinquishing ownership of the Western League club in Indianapolis.14 Other press accounts had the Cincinnati magnate doing the menacing, threatening to withhold lucrative Sunday playing dates from the Louisville club schedule for 1897.15

Whatever the cause, Stucky reversed his position when a motion for reconsideration of the Spring Meeting minutes was made. By a 7-to-5 vote, the minutes, complete with transfer of National Agreement amendment power to the Board of Arbitration, were approved. Getting angrier by the hour, the Little Five were calling for all-out war when this vote was official. “Brushism” had to go. “Rather than submit to it,” opined a nameless Fiver, “we will do the most serious thing that ever was done in the National League.” The intimation, of course, was secession.

With this contentious issue behind them (for the time being, at least), the magnates reelected President Young for another four years though he had one year remaining on his current contract. The Board of Directors for 1897 was chosen by lot, as it had been in the past, instead of by ballot. The new board included Freedman, Soden, and Wagner in the East as well as Stucky, Von der Ahe, and Frank Robison in the West.

Given what had transpired in the first two days of the Annual Meeting, it would have been reasonable to assume the election of members to the Board of Arbitration would be fraught, yet, it was not. A.G. Spalding was nominated but he refused the honor. The present board was placed in nomination. Before the vote, however, Dr. Stucky wanted an emendation to the eligibility rules, as follows:

“Resolved, [t]hat no member of the National League and American Association of Professional Base Ball Clubs shall be eligible to the National Board [of Arbitration] who has any pecuniary interest in any minor league club.”16

This resolution was aimed directly at Brush, who was known to have financial interest in the Western League’s Indianapolis franchise. Further it was his machinations, before the Board of Arbitration, to allow Indianapolis and Minneapolis to exit the Western League without hardship, that led to ill-will among the other League magnates. Rogers called for Brush to explain precisely his ownership stake in the Western League club. Brush surprised the crowd by claiming his initial $1,000 investment was gone and that he had no more than $50 in capital stock. He said also that he never used the stock and had no other ties to the club.

This satisfied his fellow magnates and he, Soden, Byrne, and Young were approved for another year on the Board of Arbitration. The outcomes of the second day left “Little” Seven leader Brush triumphant, and an unidentified “Big” Five magnate (probably Rogers) muttering darkly, “This thing cannot keep up much longer. We will do nothing rash, but we will bide our time.”17

That time would not be long in coming. Within 24 hours, Stucky and Washington club boss J. Earle Wagner defected from Little Seven ranks. At the third day’s session, Wagner made a motion to amend Article 34 of the National Agreement by striking “vested in the board of arbitration” and replacing it with “vested in the league.”18 The motion carried, 7 to 5, with Louisville and Washington voting with the Big Five.

After much rancor, hard feelings, contention, argument, Sturm und Drang, and changed minds, in the end, the Board had its wings clipped, with the power to amend the National Agreement being restored to the National League ownership fraternity as a whole.19 This final reversal appears to have been orchestrated (i.e., Brush allowed Stucky and Wagner to defect) and was reportedly done to promote harmony in the league. The five negative votes were merely nominal.20

When asked about the apparent charge of heart, Brush stated, “We wanted to show that we intended no arbitrary measures. I stand where I always have — in favor of the best interests of the League. … We had no intention to use any arbitrary powers. … Such talk is silly.”21

In other words, Brush and his compatriots did not like how Rogers and his brethren were trying to use disagreements about the minutes to change League policy. There was a process and it must be followed. No reporter, apparently, sought to press the Reds’ boss on how the League could give the power to change the National Agreement to the Board one day only to take it back the next. Seemingly, the Board would have had to relinquish the authority. So much for process.

Another split in ownership ranks was precipitated by news that star New York Giants hurler Amos Rusie had initiated a federal lawsuit against his employer. Rusie, represented by John Montgomery Ward, was suing the Giants for $5,000 damages and for his release. The star pitcher sat out the entire 1896 season because the Giants owner would not return fines Freedman had unjustly, in Rusie’s view, levied. Freedman also offered Rusie a smaller salary in ’96 than he had earned in ’95.

Because the suit threatened judicial review of the National League’s precious but legally suspect reserve clause, Freedman enlisted the support of his fellow owners. However, Brush, a frequent Freedman adversary in NL executive councils, opposed intervention in the Rusie lawsuit. The thin-skinned Freedman thereupon accused Brush and Robison of being the instigators of the Rusie litigation, an allegation that left the two “dazed.”

After Freedman had been “calmed down and an exciting scene narrowly averted,”22 a majority of the magnates decided to assist with the equity suit (whether Rusie would be released from his contract) but left the suit for damages with the deep-pocketed New York owner. Apparently, it was the individual owners who offered support, not the League. For example, Colonel Rogers, himself a Philadelphia lawyer, engaged the Chicago team’s attorney, Charles M. Sherman, to assist with his support of the Rusie equity suit.23

The remainder of the meeting dealt mostly with housekeeping matters. The new Playing Rules Committee would consist of Hart, Baltimore co-owner-manager Ned Hanlon, and Philadelphia co-owner Al Reach.24 Largely as a sop to Freedman, the magnates voted to abrogate the issuance of free ballpark passes by the league president.25

Accepting a judgment rendered by the Court of Common Pleas, Cuyahoga (Ohio) County, that vacated a fine imposed on Cleveland player-manager Patsy Tebeau as having been levied in contravention of the League’s own disciplinary procedures, the magnates voted to discontinue further proceedings against Tebeau and drop the matter. And by a 10-to-2 vote, club bosses rejected Colts President Hart’s annual motion to abolish the postseason Temple Cup match. Finally, the league awarded a $50 monthly stipend for life to Henry Chadwick, a token of appreciation for the venerable sportswriter’s contributions to the game.26 Once the sometimes-testy winter meeting was completed, club bosses from both sides of the Big Five-Little Seven divide repaired to the hotel café to share cigars and swap stories in anticipation of locking horns again in February.27

National League Spring Meeting
February 25-27, 1897, Rennert Hotel, Baltimore

Confounding widespread newspaper prediction of more factional strife, the late-February 1897 National League meeting found club owners working in harmony, the gathering amounting to an uneventful “love feast.”28 The only really divisive note sounded came from a league vote on expansion of the Board of Arbitration, the outcome of which left New York and Boston club owners temporarily estranged from their fellow magnates.

No Board of Directors meeting was conducted, while the Board of Arbitration attended to minor-league disputes that received little press attention. At the general business meeting attended by all club owners, the assembly decided, unanimously, to increase the Board of Arbitration by two members. Brush had made the motion to expand the board and, in an effort to promote harmony, Freedman, Rogers, and Soden went along with it. Brush, leaving nothing to chance, nominated Robison and Hart to fill the new positions.

This should have been perceived as a fair offer, an olive branch even, since Hart was from the Five and Robison, the Seven. The captious Freedman wanted Rogers instead but the Quaker refused to serve. The Beaneaters’ William Conant nominated Freedman but the latter knew where he stood in the popularity rankings. Consequently, Robison and Hart won easily, leading to bad feelings in the Big Five. Boston, Pittsburg, and Philadelphia did not bother to vote for any candidate.

Although Hart was nominated by Brush, it was not considered a defection or a realignment of the cliques. Apparently, the Chicago owner simply wanted to serve on the Board.29 Freedman and Soden were angered because, with the addition of Hart and Robison, the center of the Board’s universe shifted westward. The two perhaps thought Brooklyn’s Byrne was a closet Westerner since he sided regularly with the Queen City magnate.30

With that disagreement behind it, the meeting moved swiftly. Remarkably, the 1897 playing schedule proposed by league President Nick Young, in years past invariably a source of contention, was adopted without discussion or dissent, and released to the press.31 The schedule had not even been read aloud during the meeting. Young later announced that the 1897 schedule reduced travel by some 8,000 miles per club in comparison to the previous season.32

The magnates unanimously adopted the report of the Telegraphic Committee (Freedman and Robison), including its recommended directive that telegraph operators cease transmission of inning-by-inning game scores, viewed as a disincentive to fans coming out to the ballpark. Henceforward, only final game scores were to be transmitted. Western Union, the current contract holder, allowed each club $25 of free telegraph service. The magnates, predictably, wanted more. President Young pointed out that the current contract ran until December 31, 1897. It was very unlikely any changes could be made prior to that.33

Various recommendations of the Playing Rules Committee (Hart, Hanlon, and Reach) were also adopted. One new rule eliminated on-field coaches when the bases were empty. If a runner got on, one base coach was permitted. With two or more runners on base, both coaching boxes could be filled. Another new rule prohibited a team captain from leaving his position on the field in order to dispute an umpire’s ruling; if the captain played the outfield, he could communicate his disagreement to the ump via a megaphone!34

The scoring rules were also changed, so that if a stolen base figured in the scoring of a run, that run would be considered unearned. Meanwhile, the power to appoint official game scorers was conferred upon the league president, a move designed to eliminate hometown favoritism in base-hit and error rulings.

The question of National League intervention into the litigation initiated by Amos Rusie was revisited, with the magnates voting 11 to 1 (Brush dissenting) to support, as a league, Giants boss Freedman in the equity action, lest NL interest in preservation of the reserve clause in player contracts go undefended. “Messrs. Freedman, Soden, and Young were appointed a committee to attend to the matter and fight the case to the bitter end.”

As before, Freedman was still on his own, in the separate, damages suit.35 The gathering adopted the recommendation to create a Supervisor of Umpires position, with former Giants owner John B. Day appointed to the post at a $2,000-per-season salary. The club bosses also voted to increase the annual salary of League President-Secretary Young by $1,000, and to deputize club owners Byrne, Rogers, and Hart to explore the advisability of continuing with or replacing Sporting Life as the official press outlet of the National League.36

Finally, the last “bomb” was thrown by Bridegrooms’ best man Byrne, who surprised the gathering by stating his plan to charge, in addition to the regular 25-cent and 50-cent tariff, 35 cents for admission to covered bleachers. This raised the ire of the New York boss, who vociferously disagreed. He averred that Brooklyn was cheapening baseball in the Metropolitan area. Yet Brooklyn was well within its rights. There was nothing in the League constitution to prevent Brooklyn or any team from charging what it wanted as long as it was not less than 25 cents and as long as the visiting club received half the gate.37

While in Washington, DC, to attend President-elect McKinley’s inauguration, Byrne stated emphatically that he was not asking permission nor asking for a concession. “When the Brooklyn club, representing one of the greatest cities38 in the country, gets to the point where it has to plead the pauper act, or ask its associates for any consideration, the management will be changed and I will not be a party to it.”39

On the evening of February 26, the owners, club delegates, and newspapermen celebrated with a sumptuous private banquet hosted by Baltimore co-owner Harry Von der Horst. Their differences reconciled at least for the moment, the magnates regaled each other with toasts and speeches. A highlight of the festivities came from an unexpected quarter: acerbic Andrew Freedman. Asked by fellow owners for the location of Brooklyn, the usually humorless Freedman, a resolute Manhattan chauvinist, responded with “one of the happiest and wittiest speeches of the evening.”40



1 The official name of the organization was The National League and American Association of Professional Base Ball Clubs.

2 The Winter Meeting was usually held in the fall and the Spring Meeting was usually held in the winter.

3 “The League Meeting,” Sporting Life, November 14, 1896: 4.

4 “A New Amendment,” Sporting Life, October 10, 1896: 4.

5 At the time, the board was chaired by Boston boss Arthur H. Soden. The other directors were Harry Von der Horst (Baltimore), James A. Hart (Chicago), T. Hunt Stucky (Louisville), Phil Auten (Pittsburg), and J. Earle Wagner (Washington), with NL President Nick Young, ex-officio member.

6 “Major League Meeting,” New York Clipper, November 21, 1896: 605.

7 The delegates present were Soden and William H. Conant (Boston); Freedman and J. Walter Spalding (New York); Ferdinand Abell and Byrne (Brooklyn); Al Reach and Rogers (Philadelphia); Harry Von der Horst and Ned Hanlon (Baltimore); Wagner (Washington); Auten (Pittsburg); Hart and A.G. Spalding (Chicago); Brush and Ashley Lloyd (Cincinnati); Stucky and Charles Dehler (Louisville); Chris Von der Ahe and Walter Hetzel (St. Louis); Frank and Stanley Robison (Cleveland); and Nick Young, League president-secretary.

8 Some newspapers reported President-Secretary Young had forgotten the February League Meeting minutes and was relying on his memory. See, for example, “Powwow of Magnates,” Chicago Tribune, November 12, 1896: 8.

9 Rogers was a former judge-advocate in the Pennsylvania National Guard, attaining the rank of colonel.

10 “The League Meeting,” Sporting Life, November 21, 1896: 2. It is difficult to understand how any of the magnates could have been surprised by this amendment since it had been printed as Article 34 in the 1896 edition of Constitution and Playing Rules of the National League and American Association of Professional Base Ball Clubs (New York: A.G. Spalding and Bros., 1896).

11 “Major League Meeting,” New York Clipper, November 21, 1896: 605.

12 “The League Meeting.”

13 “Muddle in the League Meeting,” Columbus (Georgia) Daily Enquirer, November 13, 1896: 1.

14 “A Hot Baseball Fight,New York Times, November 13, 1896: 7.

15 “Stuckeysic Breaks the Tie,” Chicago Tribune, November 13, 1896: 8.

16 “The League Meeting.”

17 “The ‘Big Five’ Beaten,” New York Tribune, November 13, 1896: 3.

18 “Agony Is Done With,” Chicago Inter-Ocean, November 14, 1896: 6.

19 “The Baseball League,” Daily Charlotte (North Carolina) Observer, November 14, 1896: 1.

20 “Ends in a Smile,” Boston Herald, November 14, 1896: 8.

21 “The League Meeting.”

22 “Power Back of Rusie,” Chicago Tribune, November 14, 1896: 7.

23 “Sharp Mr. Freedman,” Baltimore Sun, November 14, 1896: 6.

24 ”Stuckeysic Breaks the Tie.”

25 “Phillies Worsted in a Proposed Exchange,” Philadelphia Inquirer, November 14, 1896: 8.

26 “Agony Is Done With.”

27 “Pat’s Paean,” Cleveland Leader, November 14, 1896: 3. The article identified Cleveland club boss Frank Robison as mogul merrymaker-in-chief.

28 “The Magnates,” Sporting News, March 6, 1897: 2.

29 “’They Win,’” Boston Journal, February 27, 1897: 1.

30 “Major League Meeting,” New York Clipper, March 6, 1897: 10. National League President Nick Young remained as an ex-officio member of the board, but was empowered to vote only in the improbable case of a tie-vote of other board members.

31 “Phillies Fare Well in League Schedule,” Philadelphia Inquirer, February 27, 1897: 4.

32 “Soden Likes It,” Boston Herald, February 27, 1897: 3.

33 “The Baseball Council,” Baltimore Sun, February 26, 1897: 6.

34 Seriously. “The Magnates.”

35 “Princes of Baseball,” Baltimore Sun, February 27, 1897: 6.

36 F.L.H., “Philadelphia Is the Next Meeting Place,” Philadelphia Inquirer, February 28, 1897: 8. The National League Sporting Life contract had expired the previous month.

37 “The League Meeting,” Sporting Life, March 6, 1897: 2.

38 Brooklyn would be an independent city for only 10 more months.

39 “Echos sic of the League Meeting,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 1, 1897: 3.

40 “Princes of Baseball.”