1897 Winter Meetings: A Period of Good Feeling

This article was written by Jamie Talbot

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


Baseball's 19th Century Winter Meetings: 1857-1900The National League winter meetings of 1897-1898 were conducted during a period of good feeling among club owners, with Cincinnati Reds boss John T. Brush at the height of his influence.

The gatherings were highly productive in terms of the adoption of new legislation and policy, although some initiatives, particularly the player-conduct commandments known as the Brush Resolutions, would prove impractical or unenforceable. As was the practice, the meetings were conducted behind closed doors, and with the official minutes now lost, the following description of events is based on contemporaneous newspaper coverage, with preference given to The Sporting News and Sporting Life.1

National League Winter Meeting
November 9—13, 1897, Hotel Walton, Philadelphia

The November 1897 National League meeting was a “record breaker” in terms of its duration; the “absolute harmoniousness” displayed by club owners; and the importance of the legislation adopted. This “meeting will be one to stand forth among League meetings as a white mile-stone in the path of progress,” declared Sporting Life.2 The magnates’ stay in Philadelphia was elongated by an unprecedented number of banquets, sightseeing tours, and other amusements, with little more than the equivalent of two full working days devoted to League business. Still, a number of significant measures were adopted before the session closed.

The National Board of Arbitration, made up of club bosses Brush, Arthur H. Soden (Boston), James A. Hart (Chicago), Frank Robison (Cleveland), Charles H. Byrne (Brooklyn), and nonvoting ex-officio member Nick Young, the NL president, met on Monday, November 8, and again on the 9th. Compared with the controversy generated the previous year, this year’s meeting was quiet. The Board granted the request of the Boston, Chicago, and Louisville clubs who each wanted a “trial player” minimum salary of $600. Further, they declared Philadelphia Athletics players given to the Phillies in lieu of rent subject to the reserve clause. The Board declared the transaction tantamount to a sale.

The only other matter getting much ink was a dispute between Brooklyn and Pittsburg over the rights to minor-league second baseman Bill Eagan, decided in Pittsburgh’s favor.3 This decision led to subsequent emendations of Article 13 of the National Agreement by the League. In the future, written notice of all player acquisitions had to be submitted to Young’s office within 10 days of the deal.

Over several brief and desultory sessions, the Board of Directors, Soden, Robison, Andrew Freedman (New York), J. Earle Wagner (Washington), Harry C. Pulliam (Louisville), and Chris Von der Ahe (St. Louis), handled a variety of noncontroversial chores, including accepting President Young’s report, auditing the financial statements, and officially awarding the 1897 National League pennant to the Boston Beaneaters.

The board also granted umpire Tom Lynch’s request for salary withheld during the month he had been unable to work due to illness, but dismissed several player claims. To accommodate Young, a longtime employee of the US Treasury Department, the board authorized the relocation of League offices to Washington, DC. The proceedings thereupon adjourned, with board members joining other magnates for the next scheduled pleasure excursion.

The magnates met briefly on Tuesday evening, November 9, to approve the Directors’ report and to consider breaking the telegraphing monopoly held by Western Union. A competitor, the Postal Telegraph Company, wanted a piece of the action. The matter was referred to the special committee (Hart, Freedman, and Robison) formed the previous spring to deal with all matters telegraph. The League wanted a report by the ’98 spring meeting.

Additionally, the delegates spent several hours on Tuesday listening to a report from the Board of Arbitration. The proposal, made at the behest of the affected minor leagues, restructured the process by which minor-league players were drafted from Class A organizations (then the Eastern, Atlantic, and Western Leagues). The principal features of the new regime were: (1) a prohibition on National League club drafting of a player until that player had completed two years’ service with his minor-league club and (2) agreement that no more than two players could be drafted from a minor club’s roster during a given year.

In return, in an amendment offered by Brush, the magnates wanted (3) official sanction of the “loan” of a NL player to a minor-league club, subject to that player’s recall to the NL within 30 days. The members decided to defer decision until later in the week.4

Wednesday and Thursday saw very little League business transacted; however Philadelphia and St. Louis consummated a substantive trade. The Phillies sent veteran utilityman Lave Cross, pitcher Jack Taylor,5 33-year-old catcher Jack Clements, and outfielder Buttermilk Tommy Dowd to St. Louis in exchange for regular shortstop Monte Cross, Villanova alumnus pitcher Red Donahue,6 and everyday catcher Klondike Douglass.7

After outings, excursions, banquets, and much toasting, the business meeting finally got serious on Friday. In short order, a number of important policy initiatives were adopted. Acting upon the concerns of minor-league executives in attendance at the meeting, the League adopted the drafting rules considered on Tuesday if the minor leagues would agree to the loan provision. These draft-rule changes, however, were not meant to affect the purchase, sale, or trade of player contracts. As before, such mutual-consent transactions could be completed at any time.

Major revisions were made in the length and structure of the League playing schedule. Beginning in 1898, the regular season would be expanded to 154 games from 132 games, with the makeup of postponed games fostered through relaxation of previously observed rescheduling mandates.8 Extended homestands were eliminated, with no club permitted to play at home for more than two weeks at a time.

For scheduling purposes, the 12-club circuit was divided into four regions: Northeast (Boston, New York, and Brooklyn); Southeast (Philadelphia, Washington, and Baltimore); West (Pittsburg, Cleveland, and Chicago); Southwest (Cincinnati, Louisville, and St. Louis). Each club would now make four road trips (rather than the previously customary two) to each region during the regular season. In-season exhibition games between NL clubs were prohibited.

Finally, the annual motion to abolish the postseason Temple Cup of Chicago club President Hart garnered widespread support. Only Baltimore’s Ned Hanlon and New York’s Andrew Freedman, whose clubs figured to be leading contenders for Temple Cup play in 1898, objected. For the sake of unanimity, Hanlon and Freedman withdrew their objections and the motion was adopted unanimously. A committee consisting of President Young, Bridegrooms boss Byrne, and Pittsburg club executive William H. Watkins was thereupon appointed to consult with cup donor William C. Temple regarding disposition of the trophy.

Another major policy change was the NL’s adoption of the two-umpire system. President Young was authorized to employ a 12-umpire staff, with the direction that preference for new positions be given to “ex-League players who have good educations and reputations.” The game itinerary for each NL umpire for the entire 1898 season was to be drawn up in advance by Young and kept secret from the clubs and the sporting press. No umpire was to appear in more than six consecutive games involving a particular team. Rules governing the double-umpire system would be developed by the Rules Committee (Hart, Al Reach, and Ned Hanlon).9

Player deportment was the topic of considerable meeting attention, as the influential Brush had long been vexed by “foul, indecent and obscene language on the ball field.” A powerhouse committee of Brush, Hart, and Soden was then charged with preparing recommendations for the suppression of objectionable player conduct and language to the next league meeting.10 Housekeeping matters included settling $75 on an off-duty Cincinnati fireman injured by a beer glass thrown back into the stands by umpire Tim Hurst; the unanimous reelection of the incumbent Board of Arbitration; and the random selection of a new Board of Directors consisting of Messrs. Wagner, Pulliam, Watkins, Harry Von der Horst (Baltimore), Al Reach (Philadelphia), and Chris Von der Ahe (St. Louis). Following an attendees’ vote of thanks to the Philadelphia club for the generous hospitality,11 the proceedings adjourned until February 1898.12

National League Spring Meeting
February 28-March 2, 1898, Southern Hotel, St. Louis

The two national baseball weeklies agreed that the League meeting in St. Louis had bent to the will of Cincinnati Reds boss John T. Brush, but their views on the beneficence of this outcome could not have been more different. To The Sporting News, Brush had authored “the brightest page written in the history of baseball.”13 Further, it declared that the legislation enacted by the magnates, particularly the player disciplinary measures known as the Brush Resolutions, would leave “followers of the great and only national game … well pleased with the work of the league moguls.”14 Conversely, Sporting Life fumed at league subservience to “Dictator Brush,” and derided the meeting as no more than a “passive instrument to register [Brush] decrees, to work out his desires, and to further his personal and sectional interests.”15

The meeting began in routine fashion, with the Board of Arbitration, absent a member following the death of Brooklyn’s Charles H. Byrne.16 The Board attempted to fill the vacant spot with Reach, who was having none of it. He had no objection to serving but he did not believe the Board had the authority to add members to its ranks. The Board also refused to amend the National Agreement’s minor-league draft rules as expected. The deal with the Class-A leagues fell through when they demurred on the player-loan proviso. The matter was referred to the League. After several minor-league disputes of limited import were resolved, the meeting was adjourned.

It is not clear if the Board of Directors met prior to the start of the spring meeting. Only the St. Louis Post-Dispatch claimed they did. If they did, they did not meet for very long and likely only decided to form a committee on what to do about the vacancy on the National Board of Arbitration.17 The general business meeting commenced at 8:00 p.m. Monday, February 28, with all teams but one represented. The New York owner, Andrew Freedman did not attend but Boston triumvir Soden held the Giants’ proxy. Soden, as always, presided over the group with the multifaceted Nick Young as secretary.

The first order of business was the creation of a committee (Brush, Hart, and Philadelphia co-owner John I. Rogers) for the purpose of developing resolutions honoring the lamented Mr. Byrne. The resolutions were expected to “include telegrams of regret from league presidents, newspapermen, and others throughout the country.” The reading of the minutes transpired without incident. Bridegrooms director Ferdinand Abell formally introduced new Brooklyn President Charles H. Ebbets, who was warmly welcomed by the other magnates. Ebbets expressed his thanks, telling the owners, “I am glad to be among you and trust that our relations will always be pleasant.” The ad-hoc Temple Cup committee reported that the Cup had been returned with thanks to Mr. Temple.18

The meeting then turned to the League constitution. Rogers, representing the Committee on Revision of Constitution, gave his report. He claimed to have perused the constitution and had, he opined, emendations to make the document “more perfect.” Amendments adopted included a change to Section 33 which, for games when the league-designated umpire failed to appear, authorized the team captains to select one player from each side (rather than a spectator) to serve as official game umpires. Section 35 was amended to require that a game protest be filed with the league president within five days of the contest, and allowed five days for a response from the opposing side.

As modified, Section 45 allowed a canceled game to be made up during the same series between the clubs or during the next visit of the opposing club. Previously, canceled games had to be played on open dates, a scarce commodity during the season. This change would allow for more doubleheaders. The provisions elsewhere in the constitution preventing the twin bill were revised.

Other amendments required that rain checks be issued to spectators for any game forfeited before five innings had been played (Section 53); and reduced the game forfeiture sanction to a $500 fine, halving the previous $1,000 penalty (Section 54), if the forfeit was caused by other than the players not taking the field. The date of the League meeting was changed from the second Tuesday in November to the second Tuesday in December. The impetus for this change was the growing popularity of football and the presumed lack of interest in baseball in November. Sporting Life called this “A Wise Change.”19

The power of game umpires to mete out on-the-spot punishments was reaffirmed but clarified, serving as a prelude to meeting consideration of a new and comprehensive disciplinary regime: Brush Resolutions. There was some discussion of these comprehensive revisions on Monday night, but given the late hour, the meeting was adjourned.

Crafted and championed by their namesake, a longtime proponent of player decorum standards and a prim, humorless magnate, the Brush Resolutions sought to suppress rowdy behavior and the use of vile or obscene language on the ball field by means of disciplinary measures that ranged from fines to suspensions to expulsion from the game.

The 23-point program that embodied the resolutions was largely devoted to matters of process and procedure; what exactly constituted actionable conduct or language was left undefined in the resolution text.20 But “any person or persons, whether player, manager, umpire or club official of any club, member of this League or spectator” offended by player conduct or language could initiate the disciplinary process by filing a complaint with the league president.21 Thereafter, the evidence submitted to the president by the complainant and by the accused in defense would be forwarded to “a tribunal of judges … to be called the ‘Board of Discipline.’” This board was given “absolute authority to acquit or convict on the evidence submitted.”22

Upon conviction, no appeal was allowed, except in cases where the ultimate sanction of “life expulsion” was imposed. Those permanently banned from the game could seek review and modification of the sanction from the National League Board of Directors.23 After some modest changes to mollify Hanlon and Robison, leaders of the two most unruly clubs in the National League, the Brush Resolutions were put to a floor vote and passed unanimously.24

Tuesday had been consumed with abolishing the vile and the obscene. After that long day, the baseball powers were ready for tamer fare. The Playing Rules Committee led off with two reports. Hart and Reach offered the majority opinion while Hanlon gave the minority report. The two differed only slightly, with the biggest difference in the power of the umpire to determine the duration of a player’s suspension. The majority wanted the umpire to have power to suspend a player for “kicking” and to set the length of the hiatus. Hanlon granted the umpire the power to put a player out of the game but wanted the League president to determine if a suspension was necessary and if so, for how long.

More than 2½ hours of discussion ensued, the outcome of which was the strengthening of the now two25 umpires’ powers as codified in Rules 54-62. A compromise was reached between the majority and minority of the Rules Committee as shown in Rule 61. The umpire would be allowed to suspend a player but only for three games, including the one from which he was ejected. The umpire was also bound to notify the league president immediately.

Again, it was Brush leading the way to cleanse the game of its coarseness. For the game to be respected, the umpires had to be respected and had to have authority. He encouraged his fellow magnates to instruct their players directly on the consequences of excessive arguing with and general disdain for umpires. “… All of us must get into line right here or be forever condemned and denounced by the press and the public of America,” orated the Reds boss.26

All the owners signed a letter stating their emphatic support of the stronger umpiring rules and the Brush Resolutions. Although Soden had Freedman’s proxy, he did not think it extended to this letter. Consequently, a copy with 11 signatures was sent to the New York magnate in hopes that he would affix his. The owners also crafted a letter to the League players, to make sure all who were under contract were aware of the new rules and to set expectations. The players were expected to sign and return the letter indicating they had read it. The letter discussed “the enormity of this evil,” the Board of Discipline and its composition, and the rationale behind protecting “patrons from this villainously filthy language.”

Given the clarity and transparency of this missive, the magnates were confident that “if any player suffers because of this law of reform and its penalties it will be his own fault.”27

In other rules news, Hanlon wanted runs scored on “battery errors,” i.e., wild pitches, bases on balls, and the like to count as earned. This was rejected. Hart and Reach wanted nothing less than the abolition of the earned-run average as an official statistic. They claimed it was not an effective tool for measuring a pitcher’s value. This and the adoption of what would become the modern stolen-base rule prevailed by 6-to-5 votes. The bunt was allowed to remain but by an equally slim margin. There were other tweaks to the balk rule, players’ position on the bench when not otherwise in the game,28 and attempts to clarify several other rules. The tinkering drew brisk criticism from the press. Sporting Life went so far as to claim it was tinkering to oblige Jim Hart, who they averred was “not a visionary enthusiast [and] who probably never played the game.” Why Reach signed with Hart instead of Hanlon was “past finding out.”29

For the second year running, meeting attendees ratified without controversy or rancor the season schedule proposed by Young. The magnates also voted to not renew the leaguewide relationship with Western Union. The Postal Telegraph Company offered $120 worth of free telegraph service but it was not enough for the “thrifty magnates.” From now on, each club could contract with the telegraph service of its choice.30 The League decided against having an official newspaper in 1898. Wagner suggested, as a tribute to the late Brooklyn club president, that the vacant position on the Board of Arbitration be left unfilled until Byrne’s term expired. The other magnates heartily agreed and the motion carried. Lastly, to prevent recurrence of the excesses of the Philadelphia winter meeting, the magnates placed a ban on banquets and other extravagances.31

 

Notes

1 Based in Philadelphia, Sporting Life could bring all of its resources to bear on the fall meeting. The Sporting News, based in St. Louis, could do the same for the spring. Further, being weeklies, they had the time to report and ruminate not afforded the dailies. Lastly, their editorial styles were antithetical to each other’s.

2 “Fine League Meet,” Sporting Life, November 20, 1897: 2.

3 “Board Decisions,” Sporting Life, November 13, 1897: 2.

4 “Fine League Meet.” Also “League Association,” New York Clipper, November 20, 1897: 631.

5 Taylor would lead the League in losses in 1898 with 29.

6 Donahue led the League in losses in 1897 with 35.

7 “Deal with St. Louis Goes Through on Time,” Philadelphia Inquirer, November 11, 1897: 4.

8 For example, setting the date and place of a makeup game would no longer require the consent of the visiting team.

9 “Double Umpire System Adopted at Last,” Philadelphia Inquirer, November 14, 1897: 8; “League Association.

10 The committee’s work yielded the much-lampooned and unenforceable Brush Resolutions, considered below.

11 The meetings had been spiced by a banquet at the Hotel Bellevue; a “Night in Bohemia” at the Pen & Pencil Club; a “Tally-Ho” carriage tour of Fairmont Park; a lavish supper at Indian Rock; and excursions on the Delaware River.

12 “Fine League Meet.”

13 “Higher Plane,” Sporting News, March 5, 1898: 1.

14 C.A. Conrand, “Cleaner Ball,” Sporting News, March 12, 1898: 1.

15 “One-Man Power; Sham Reform,” Sporting Life, March 12, 1898: 2.

16 Byrne died on January 4, 1898.

17 “Caught on the Fly,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 1, 1898: 5.

18 “Magnates Get to Work,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 1, 1898: 5.

19 “The League Meeting,” Sporting Life, March 12, 1898: 3.

20 The full text of the Brush Resolutions was published in the 1898 Spalding Base Ball Guide, 195-197.

21 “Brush Resolutions,” Section 2.

22 “Brush Resolutions,” Section 4. Board of Discipline members were not to have a financial interest in any NL club, and were to be elected at the annual league meeting (Section 12). Proposed for membership on the initial board were L.C. Krauthoff, Kansas City; Louis Kramer, Cincinnati; and Frederick K. Stearns, Detroit, per Section 13.

23 “Brush Resolutions,” Section 8.

24 “Higher Plane.”

25 According to Rule 56, the umpires would be designated Umpire, who would take his place behind home plate, and the Assistant Umpire, who would work the bases. A suggestion to call the Umpire the Referee-Umpire had a short life span.

26 “Major League Meeting,” New York Clipper, March 12, 1898: 26.

27 “Higher Plane.”

28 In the Please-Don’t-Eat-the-Daisies section, Rule 18 specified that uniformed players could not sit with the spectators.

29 “The League Meeting,” March 12, 1898: 5. News organizations present at the league meeting “unanimously agreed” to continue to publish pitcher ERAs notwithstanding NL decertification of the statistic. Philadelphia Ledger, March 3, 1898.

30 “Hereafter League Base Ball Players Must Be Good,” Philadelphia Inquirer, March 2, 1898: 4.

31 “League Session Ended,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 3, 1898: 4.

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