1898 Winter Meetings: Little of Substance Accomplished

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 good feelings of recent gatherings dissolved in New York City. The December 1898 winter league meeting was a highly contentious one, with little of substance accomplished.

The most vexing controversies confronting meeting attendees can readily be identified: (1) recognition of a representative of the St. Louis franchise from between two rival claimants; (2) determining the size and makeup of the National League for the 1899 season, and (3) continuation of the newly-established Board of Discipline.

Comity, fellowship, and cooperation were thwarted before the meeting commenced due to the absence of New York owner Andrew Freedman. The Giants boss had been sorely offended by his fellow owners’ support of Baltimore outfielder Ducky Holmes during NL proceedings that stemmed from an on-field, anti-Semitic slur directed at Freedman. His boycott of the meeting was another manifestation of the league-punishing course upon which the proud and wealthy Freedman had embarked.1

National League Winter Meeting
December 13 to 17, 1898, Fifth Avenue Hotel, New York City

Before any business could be conducted, a determination had to be made regarding who to recognize as the official representative of the financially-failing St. Louis Perfectos (formerly the Browns). The contenders were club founder and principal owner Chris Von der Ahe as one choice with club secretary Benjamin S. Muckenfuss, the court-appointed receiver on the other. When the matter could not be resolved privately, the league voted to recognize Muckenfuss, 9—2, with Brooklyn (Ferdinand Abell) and Baltimore (Harry Von der Horst) dissenting.2 Loser Von der Ahe was permitted to attend all closed-door meeting conferences, but only as an observer.3

Press observers deemed the recognition of Muckenfuss another triumph for Cincinnati Reds boss John T. Brush, viewing Muckenfuss as no more than a Brush pawn to be sacrificed later in furtherance of a Brush master plan to reduce the 12-club National League to an eight-team circuit. Giving substance to this perspective were admitted discussions between Abell and Von der Horst regarding the merger their Brooklyn and Baltimore franchises; the clear designs that Cleveland boss (and Brush ally) Frank Robison had on the St. Louis territory; and the reported willingness of the owners of the fiscally-ailing Washington and Louisville franchises to sell their clubs.

Attending the contraction rumors was another reported Brush-scheme whereby jettisoned venues like Washington, Cleveland, and Baltimore would become the backbone of a newly-created circuit, a sort-of uber-minor league to be imposed atop the extant minor leagues, and to be deemed second in stature only to the National League itself. 4 Standing in the way of achieving the goals of all this plotting were two obstacles: (1) the binding 10-year working agreement existing between the current 12 National League clubs did not expire until 1902, and (2) abrogation of the pact before that date required unanimous consent.5

For the moment, these obstacles appeared insuperable, obliging league president Nick Young to begin preparation of a 12-club playing schedule for the 1898 season. Nevertheless, the long-term fate of certain NL franchises had been foreordained.

The report of the new Board of Discipline was much discussed, but to no conclusion, the magnate agreed to create an oversight committee of Brush, Chicago club president James A. Hart, and Boston triumvir Arthur H. Soden. They were instructed to devise proposals for expanding and strengthening the disciplinary board’s powers. 6 Amid much press disdain (given the profusion of untoward incidents that had occurred on the field during the season), the league also unanimously adopted a resolution praising NL players for their purported respect for the new conduct rules and decorous diamond behavior.7

Although not mentioned in contemporary reports, presumably the 1898 National League pennant was formally bestowed on the repeat-champion Boston Beanaters at some point in the proceedings, per custom. Housekeeping matters included the appointment of Philadelphia co-owner John I. Rogers to the vacant post on the Board of Arbitration, joining incumbents Brush, Soden, Robison, Hart, and NL Nick Young; and the drawing of lots for a new Board of Directors. Those chosen were Brush, Hart, Soden, Muckenfuss, Philadelphia co-owner Al Reach, and Washington club boss J. Earl Wagner.8

The gathering then adopted a Brush motion to engage a stenographer for future league meetings to ensure an accurate record of the proceedings could be created. Meanwhile in the privacy of hotel rooms, possible franchise moves remained under discussion, with only the sudden illness of Harry Von der Horst appearing to thwart finalization of the rumored Brooklyn-Baltimore merger. 9 The Louisville and Washington clubs remained for sale at $50,000, but neither franchise had received an offer when the meeting adjourned to late February.

National League Winter Meeting
February 28 to March 2, 1899, Fifth Avenue Hotel, New York City

The crisis involving the St. Louis franchise, significant changes in the league constitution and playing rules, and the authority of the fledgling Board of Discipline dominated the agenda of another tense league meeting held in Manhattan. Again conspicuous by his absence was New York Giants owner Andrew Freedman, making good on a vow not to attend league meetings until the Ducky Holmes unpleasantness had been redressed to his satisfaction. Boston co-owner Arthur H. Soden held Freedman’s proxy and would nominally represent New York club interests at the gathering.

Muckenfuss, successful in his recognition bid the previous December, now found himself on the hot seat, hauled before the Board of Arbitration on the first day of the meeting to explain St. Louis’s failure to comply with the board’s order instructing St. Louis to pay the Eastern League’s Wilkes-Barre Coal Barons $750 for the release of shortstop Suter Sullivan. After the Board of Arbitration adjourned the Board of Directors further found St. Louis owed $1,000 to Chicago for outfielder George Decker, and $1,153 in club dues and assessments to the National League office.

Muckenfuss acknowledged these debts, but with club assets frozen pending a court-ordered auction of the St. Louis franchise, disbursements could not be made from the club treasury without court authorization. The Arbitrators were unsympathetic, unanimously voting to suspend St. Louis from the protections of the National Agreement. The Directors intended to go further, wanting to expel St. Louis from the National League — until Al Reach pointed out, according to the League Constitution, no trial by the Directors could ensue since St. Louis was not disputing the facts. The board, fatefully, took no action and merely reported its proceedings to the league. Since the Directors had made “no finding or recommendation,” the League could do nothing but accept and file the Director’s report. St. Louis prevailed for the time being. 10

With the St. Louis debt a relatively small one and with other NL clubs also behind in payment of minor obligations, the move to expel the Perfectos was seen as a subterfuge. The St. Louis financial hardship, according to Sporting Life among others, was an excuse for Brush, Robison, and Hart to contrive forfeiture of the St. Louis franchise to the league and thereby make the territory available to receive the transfer of Robison’s Cleveland team.11

With achieving the constitutionally-mandated unanimity unlikely, director Hart thereupon moved to suspend expulsion proceedings to amend the league constitution as needed to achieve St. Louis’s eviction. This, in turn, provoked vigorous opposition from Philadelphia co-owner Rogers, an accomplished attorney and the magnates’ in-house legal counsel. Following heated debate, the Hart motion to amend the constitution was put to a vote and failed, with Washington, Boston, Baltimore, and Brooklyn registering their opposition before the motion was withdrawn by Hart. With that, the board resolution to expel the St. Louis franchise was “placed on file.”12 Further action on the St. Louis situation was then deferred until after the March 14 franchise auction-sale of the club had taken place.

Once it moved on to other fronts, the meeting yielded fruit. Recommendations contained in the report of the Playing Rules Committee (Hart, Reach, and Baltimore’s Ned Hanlon) were adopted unanimously. Chief among these rule modifications were those that required the catcher to remain within the catcher’s box until a pitch was released from the pitcher’s hand (Rule 17); a player in a uniform different from his teammates will not be allowed on the field (Rule 19); modified and refined various aspects of the balk rule (Rule 32); a foul tip caught by the catcher while in the catcher’s box is a strike (Rule 43), and restricted those in the coaching boxes to coaching, forbidding them from bench jockeying, arguing umpire calls, and interacting with spectators (Rule 52). A proposed amendment to add 50 feet, from 235 to 285, to the minimum distance a batted ball must travel to be considered a home run was strongly opposed by Boston and was subsequently voted down. 13

The magnates then discussed the rules and procedures of the Board of Discipline. Rather than expand the body’s powers as proposed in the report of its oversight committee (Brush, Soden, and Hart), the disciplinary board was effectively gutted by constitutional amendments sponsored by Philadelphia’s Rogers, a longtime Brush nemesis. Following adoption of the Rogers amendments, the board’s jurisdiction was curtailed, limited to complaints referred to it by NL president Nick Young following a three-quarters vote of approval by the 12-club league representatives. Other adopted amendments reduced the number of players that each club could place its reserved list to 18, and, in a thinly-veiled strike at the powerful Brush, shackled the practice of farming major-league players to affiliated minor-league clubs. From now on, such a player would have to be offered for sale to the other NL clubs at the draft price before he could be sent down to the minors.14

With the St. Louis situation unresolved, no action was taken on various playing schedules offered by president Young.15 The proceedings were then adjourned, subject to resumption at the call of the NL president once the St. Louis club was in the hands of new owners.

National League Winter Meeting
March 24 and 25, 1899, Fifth Avenue Hotel, New York City

A special owners meeting was convened in late-March to ratify new ownership of the St. Louis franchise and to adopt a playing schedule for the 1899 season. The Louisville, Pittsburgh, and New York clubs went unrepresented, content with leaving their votes to the discretion of proxy-holder Arthur H. Soden, the Boston club president.16 Before the League meeting started, however, a hastily organized Directors meeting became heated with two directors, Messrs. Rogers and Hart nearly coming to blows over the wording of a motion to expel the St. Louis franchise.17

In the weeks preceding the meeting, the fog shrouding the operation and ownership of certain NL clubs had lifted. Brooklyn co-owners Ferdinand Abell and Charles Ebbets and Baltimore club bosses Harry Von der Horst and Ned Hanlon had agreed to merge their operations, with Brooklyn to host the new syndicate’s premier nine. But with Opening Day looming on the horizon, a ball club would also be maintained in Baltimore for the 1899 season, if only to avoid National League scheduling nightmares.

The thornier problems presented by disputed control of the financially-distressed St. Louis club likewise seemed headed toward solution. At the court-ordered auction-sale of St. Louis franchise rights held 10 days earlier, Edward C. Becker, a major creditor of club founder Chris Von der Ahe, had purchased a controlling share of club stock. This, Becker intended to convey to Cleveland club boss Frank Robison, a prelude to installation of Robison as St. Louis club president and the relocation of his Cleveland nine to St. Louis.18 Again largely to avoid scheduling difficulties, a National League team representing Cleveland would be fielded for the 1899 season, with control of this satellite operation to be exercised by Frank’s brother, Stanley Robison.19

The principal purpose of the magnates meeting called by National League president Nick Young was to place the official league imprimatur on these franchise moves. But for reasons either grounded in law or in self-interest, Philadelphia co-owner Rogers turned obstructionist, stymieing the ratification process. Given that the NL Constitution required unanimous magnate approval of franchise ownership changes, Rogers’ stance was no mean problem for his fellow magnates. The “Philadelphia lawyer” that Rogers embodied came to the fore during maneuvers to get the St. Louis club into Robison’s hands.

After several procedural misfires, its floor managers got the franchise transfer process rolling by means of a resolution to expel the old St. Louis club from the National League — a parliamentary stratagem upon which everyone, including now-majority St. Louis club stockholder Becker, seemed agreed. But Rogers unexpectedly refused to go along until deficiencies in the language of the expulsion resolution were cured. This prompted irritated Chicago club boss Jim Hart to remark loudly that Rogers would have problems with its wording if “The Lord’s Prayer” were put to a vote.

Sharp words, followed by personal insult, were thereupon exchanged by the two men. A now-enraged Hart then threw a haymaker at Rogers — it either missed or just grazed Rogers’ jaw — prompting Rogers, a colonel in the Pennsylvania National Guard, to reach into his coat pocket. Whether Rogers was going for his revolver as onlookers feared, or just retrieving his spectacles as Rogers later claimed, Soden, Young, and others quickly intervened to separate the combatants.20

A short adjournment allowed passions to cool. But it did not resolve the impasse. When the meeting resumed, resolution backers attempted to embarrass Rogers by disclosing private correspondence between the Philadelphia magnate and deposed St. Louis club receiver Muckenfuss regarding renewal of a just-expired financial arrangement between the two clubs. Other NL clubs charged 50 cents for general admission to the ballpark. But Philadelphia had thrived charging only 25 cents general admission, with a reduced rebate to the visiting club.

Rogers, long a vocal defender of his club’s reduced general admission and rebate practice, was not cowed by the disclosure of his correspondence to Muckenfuss.21 He readily acknowledged his desire to reinstate the arrangement with St. Louis.22 In fact, Rogers would not permit transfer of the St. Louis franchise to Robison until the prospective new club boss would agree to its reinstatement. Robison knew he was beaten, and acceded to Rogers’s demand.23 The other magnates present then fell in line.24 When the meeting reconvened the following morning, Rogers absented himself, and the measures needed to officially transfer ownership of the St. Louis club to Robison were unanimously adopted.

With the St. Louis franchise controversy settled, and magnates committed to maintaining clubs in Cleveland and Baltimore for the 1899 season, the 12-club,154-games schedule presented by league president Young was quickly ratified. 25 With that, the proceedings closed.

 

Notes

1 For purposes of the meeting, Boston boss Arthur H. Soden (who also held a minority interest in the New York franchise) was given Freedman’s proxy. For a detailed account of the Ducky Holmes affair and its ramifications, see William Lamb, “The Ducky Holmes Game,” Inventing Baseball: The 100 Greatest Games of Nineteenth Century Baseball (Phoenix: SABR, 2013), Bill Felber, ed., 268—269, and Burt Solomon, Where They Ain’t: The Fabled Life and Untimely Death of the Original Baltimore Orioles, the Team That Gave Birth to Modern Baseball (New York: Free Press, 1999), 129—131.

2 “League Meeting,” Baltimore Sun, December 14, 1898: 6.

3 “Von Der Ahe Ousted,” Sporting Life, December 24, 1898: 4.

4 “Bereft of Baseball,” Baltimore Sun, December 16, 1898: 6.

5 “Still Twelve Clubs,” New York Herald, December 18, 1898: 4.

6 “League Whitewash,” New York Herald, December 16, 1898: 11.

7 The Board had reported no disciplinary action taken during the season, lending fuel to critics’ charge that the body was useless.

8 “But Little Done,” Sporting News, December 24, 1898: 3.

9 “No Change In League Make-Up,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, December 18, 1898: 12.

10 “The League Meet,” Sporting Life, March 11, 1899: 2. Among other things, mollification of Freedman would require return of the $1,000 fine imposed on the Giants by the league for forfeiting the game wherein Holmes had publicly insulted Freedman.

11 “World of Sport,” Baltimore Sun, March 1, 1899: 8.

12 “The League Meet.”

13 “Meeting is Ended,” Cleveland Leader, March 3, 1899: 6.

14 “The League Meet,” Sporting Life, March 11, 1899: 2—3. The new regulation, akin to the modern waiver rule, was intended to thwart the Brush practice of revolving players between the Cincinnati Reds and the Indianapolis Hoosiers of the Western League.

15 “Major League Meeting,” New York Clipper, March 11, 1899: 31.

16 “Another Turn-Up,” Sporting Life, April 1, 1899: 2.

17 “Major League Meeting,” New York Clipper, April 1, 1899: 91.

18 “Another Turn-Up.”

19 “Special League Meeting,” Baltimore Sun, March 27, 1899: 6.

20 “Major League Meeting,” New York Clipper, April 1, 1899: 91. “The Rogers Letters,” Philadelphia Inquirer, March 27, 1899: 4.

21 See “Another Turn-Up,” Sporting Life, April 1, 1899: 2, for a detailed account of the correspondence disclosure.

22 “The Rogers Letters.”

23 “Late Sporting News,” Washington Evening Star, March 27, 1899: 9.

24 After the meeting adjourned, Boston president Soden informed the press that Cincinnati, Chicago, Cleveland, and Brooklyn had refused to acquiesce in the arrangement. Philadelphia would remain obligated rebate their visitors’ share of the gate on a 50 cents general admission basis. “Unaware of Change,” Boston Herald, March 29, 1899: 8.

25 “A Revised Schedule,” Boston Herald, March 26, 1899, 2. Robison assumed the position of St. Louis club president, with Becker becoming vice-president, “A Lively Meeting,” Washington Evening Star, March 25, 1899: 7. See also, The Sporting News, April 1, 1899, for exposition of the Robison-Becker arrangement.

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