1899 Winter Meetings: A Full Docket

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: 1857-1900Magnates attending the 1899 winter league meetings in New York had a full docket:

  • Contraction of the National League
  • The gathering threat of other circuits aiming to claim major-league status;
  • Various internal headaches, chief of which was mollification of angry and vindictive New York Giants owner Andrew Freedman.1

In the end, the progress achieved on these fronts proved uneven. But, if for no reason other than the establishment of a National League structure that would endure for the next half-century, the meetings of 1899–1900 were among the most significant ever held by the circuit.

National League and American Association Winter Meeting
December 12 to 16, 1899, Fifth Avenue Hotel, New York City

The meeting in Manhattan commenced on December 12 with all National League magnates in attendance, except New York Giants owner Andrew Freedman. In his stead, club secretary Fred Knowles represented the Giants’ interests. The general business meeting was promptly adjourned to permit the league’s quasi-judicial organs to convene. The Board of Arbitration (club bosses John T. Brush, Cincinnati; James A. Hart, Chicago; Frank Robison, St. Louis; John I. Rogers, Philadelphia; and Arthur H. Soden, Boston, with NL president Nick Young non-voting, ex officio member) addressed various National League and minor-league disputes of little consequence, save one: the Wrigley case.

Zeke Wrigley, a shortstop with the Syracuse Stars of the Eastern League, had been signed by New York at the close of the 1899 minor-league season.2 After he had played four games in a Giants uniform, Wrigley jumped the club and, pursuant to a just-reached deal between Brooklyn and Syracuse, signed with Brooklyn. When New York protested, league president Young ordered Brooklyn not to play Wrigley. But Brooklyn disregarded Young’s order and played Wrigley in 15 late-September games. At season’s end, the Giants sought redress from the League. The Board of Directors did not meet but made their collective feelings known through correspondence. According to published reports, the sentiment was in New York’s favor.3

On the first day of the winter meeting, the Board of Arbitration formally considered the Wrigley case. They conferred standing to appeal upon the Syracuse club, not generally a party to the proceedings. Arguing the cause on behalf of Syracuse was Eastern League president Patrick T. Powers, who maintained that the Syracuse club had reserved Wrigley for 1899 and thus had exclusive control over his services. In reliance upon that reservation, the club then sold Wrigley to Brooklyn, as was its right to do so.4 The board also entertained argument at length from Brooklyn co-owner Charles Ebbets.5 But in the end, the arbitrators were unmoved, siding with New York.6 The Arbiters resolved:

That the National Agreement does not give to the reserving club the right to control the services of a player after his contract is terminated with the said club, and its right to transfer such reservation is not impaired by any action of the player entering into the services of any other club after the termination of such contract and before the commencement of the next season of the club to which he has been transferred.7

This ruling came as a shock to President Powers and the minor-league owners who wondered what were they getting for their fees if not protection of their reserve powers.

The Wrigley case was taken up the next day, December 13, by the Board of Directors, acting on an appeal by the New York club on the issue of damages, the $1,000 award of the Board of Arbitration being deemed insufficient relief by the Giants. Their cause foundered, however, when club secretary Knowles proved unable to specify the exact nature of the injuries claimed by the Giants. Nor was he able to quantify with a dollar amount the damages allegedly suffered by the club.8

The highlight of the proceedings, however, was informed and spirited debate of reserve clause-related issues between John Montgomery Ward, legal counsel for the Brooklyn club, and board member John T. Brush. Ironies abounded, with Ward, founder of the late Players League and former enemy-in-chief of the reserve clause, making an impressive case for its application in Brooklyn’s favor when it came to the signing of Zeke Wrigley.

Meanwhile Brush, only recently arch-antagonist of New York club owner Freedman and longtime reserve clause champion, insisted that Wrigley had become a free agent at the close of the 1899 minor-league season, and therefore was at liberty to sign with (and be bound to) his contract with the Giants.9 In the end, the six directors deadlocked on various motions in favor of granting relief to any of the parties, thus leaving the Board of Arbitration determination and damage award for New York intact.10

Baltimore-Brooklyn syndicate members Ferdinand Abell and Charles Ebbets could not abide this outcome, branding it a stain upon the honor of their club. The two therefore immediately appealed to the club owners sitting en banc. With Ebbets now doing most of the talking for Brooklyn, the proceedings largely repeated those previously conducted in the Wrigley case. When the appeal was finally put to a magnates’ vote, the underlying basis of the Board of Arbitration ruling was modified. The issue was no longer whether Zeke Wrigley was the property of the New York or Brooklyn club. Rather, it was Brooklyn’s defiance of league president Young’s order not to play Wrigley. On that basis, the Board of Arbitration ruling against Brooklyn was sustained, 7–5. But the penalty imposed on the club was reduced to $500, with the sum to be paid into the National League treasury, not to the Giants.11

In other business, the magnates approved an amendment to the National Agreement proposed by Philadelphia co-owner Rogers, acting at the behest of Class-A minor leagues. The amendment raised the draft price of Class-A players from $500 to $1,000, and restricted the pool of minor leaguers eligible for the NL draft to those players who had been on their minor-league club’s reserve list for the past two seasons.12 The directors also revisited the powers conferred upon the position of Umpiring Supervisor, but deferred filling the post until formal applications had been solicited and reviewed.13

Thereafter, the Board of Directors was reorganized to ensure that its six members would be split evenly between representatives of eastern and western clubs. Chosen to represent the East were Reach (Philadelphia), Soden (Boston), and Freedman (New York), while Brush (Cincinnati), Hart (Chicago), and Robison (St. Louis) became the directors from the West.14

After three days devoted to the above and other housekeeping, meeting attendees got down to the subject foremost on the mind of club owners, the press, and baseball fans alike: the proposed contraction of the National League. Club principal Harry Pulliam reiterated Louisville’s willingness to relinquish its franchise, while the Robison brothers were willing to fold the sad sack Cleveland club.

When further progress toward club reduction could not be achieved, the owners unanimously approved a Brush proposal to appoint a committee on contraction. Named the Circuit Committee, it would consist of Brush, Hart, Soden, and Rogers. Contraction would be reconsidered by the magnates after the committee had apprised them of its recommendations.15 Other lesser business included the consideration of 132-game instead of the 154-game season (did not pass); assignment of umpires to all scheduled games prior to season start (also failed to pass); assigned Colonel Rogers the task of communicating with new Secretary of War Elihu P. Root to determine the efficacy of getting more baseball equipment into the hands of active duty soldiers and sailors; and the consideration of Rogers’ motion to rescind the $1,000 fine imposed on the New York club for its forfeiture of the Ducky Holmes game of July 1898 – that fine being a major obstacle to league reconciliation with the absent Freedman (motion deferred).16 The proceedings recessed until March 1900.

National League and American Association Spring Meeting
March 7 to 9, 1900, Fifth Avenue Hotel, New York City

The follow-up winter meeting in March 1900 was consumed by attention to three vital subjects: (1) contraction of the National League to an eight-club circuit; (2) the threat to the National League’s monopoly of major league baseball posed by potential rivals, and (3) reconciliation with disaffected New York Giants owner Andrew Freedman.

The meeting began with club owners approving unanimously a resolution to rescind the $1,000 game forfeiture penalty imposed upon New York in the aftermath of the Ducky Holmes incident. Full reimbursement, by the way, came with six percent interest, calculated from August 15, 1898.17 Cincinnati club boss John T. Brush then delivered the report of the Circuit Committee, advising his fellow magnates that the owners of the Louisville and Cleveland clubs were ready to fold, and that Baltimore and Washington owners would also agree to liquidation – provided the buyout terms were agreeable.

For contraction purposes, Brush initially proposed placing a $10,000 value on each of the four franchises; for the league to assume any outstanding financial obligations of the liquidated teams, and that each departing club be given five years to dispose of its playing grounds.18

Following privately conducted negotiations, the contraction settlement positions of the targeted clubs were announced. Baltimore sought $30,000 for surrender of its franchise (with ballpark lease and fixtures included), but also wanted the right to dispose of the Orioles players as Baltimore club owners saw fit. The Robison brothers wanted $10,000 for the Cleveland franchise, plus another $10,000 for assignment of its ballpark lease to the NL. Representing Louisville ownership interests, Harry Pulliam was willing to agree to the Colonels’ liquidation on terms similar to Cleveland’s.

The momentary sticking point was the Washington club, controlled by the Wagner brothers. As noted by J. Earle Wagner, the principals of the Baltimore, Cleveland, and Louisville franchises held ownership interests in other National League clubs.19 The Wagners did not, and thus would be leaving the league altogether. Given that, they demanded a $46,500 buyout, minus a $7,500 set-off for Senators players already sold to other clubs. Final settlement terms were not specified in the meeting minutes, but Chicago club president James A. Hart stated that the buyout of the four liquidated clubs would cost the remaining eight the sum of $7,750 each.20 Sporting Life reported the League came to the following arrangements with the departing teams:

  • Washington got $39,000 for “its entire plant.” The League controls the players not previously sold or traded.
  • Baltimore received $30,000 for its franchise and retained the right to dispose of its players.
  • Cleveland got $25,000 for the club and grounds.
  • Louisville received only $10,000 but the League assumed its considerable debt, estimated to be $104,000.21

The formal resignation of the Louisville, Cleveland, Baltimore, and Washington clubs from the National League was accepted, whereupon league president Nick Young was directed to devise a 1900 playing schedule for an eight-team league.22

Ratification of the contraction agreement was complicated by the absence of New York club boss Andrew Freedman. Club secretary Fred Knowles was in attendance as New York’s official representative, but powerless to act without Freedman’s express approval. Knowles therefore felt compelled to vote No during the roll call vote on the contraction settlement. Contraction thus lacked the unanimous consent for alteration of the league’s makeup required by the NL Constitution. In time, however, Knowles was prevailed upon to abstain from voting, with New York’s assent being considered deferred for the present. Leaving a blank space for Freedman’s signature, the necessary contraction documents were then executed by all other club representatives at the meeting.23

The magnates then turned to assessment and response to the threats to National League interests posed by the rumored revival of the American Association,24 and by American (formerly Western) League president Ban Johnson’s openly-stated intention to place clubs from his circuit in Chicago and Cleveland. After discussion, meeting attendees concluded that keeping a rein on ballpark leases would frustrate American Association intrusion into NL venues. To that end, the magnates paid $2,500 to Baltimore as a reimbursement of expenses incurred in resisting efforts by rival circuits to gain access to Union Park.25

As for Johnson, he was to be warned that unauthorized placement of American League teams in Chicago or Cleveland was prohibited by the National Agreement, and that to do so would expose his organization to expulsion from the pact.26 Other business included owner adoption of proposals returning the National League to the one-umpire system,27 filling the vacant umpire supervisor post;28 modification the balk rule (batter not awarded first base but runners move up); and the repositioning of home plate square to the pitcher (i.e., the adoption of the modern shape of home plate).29 A special committee on player dispersal then assigned a monetary value to each of the now-available Washington players, with the $2,500 placed on first baseman Dan McGann being the highest.30

Enter Andrew Freedman, just arrived from his nearby Manhattan offices. Dispensing with pleasantries, Freedman immediately went on the offensive, bluntly reminding his fellow owners that he controlled Manhattan Field, the spacious former Giants ballpark situated immediately adjacent to Polo Grounds III. Notwithstanding the fact that Manhattan Field cost him an annual rent of $15,000 [which the NL had “selfishly” never troubled to reimburse him for], Freedman had rebuffed overtures to make the grounds available to rival baseball circuits – at least thus far. But, Freedman warned, “the New York club feels that it has not been treated justly in the matter of Manhattan Field.”31

Despite that, Freedman was prepared to improve the down-trodden Giants, provided the other club owners were willing to sell him first-rate players at “a reasonable cost.” And by first-rate players, he did not mean the “off-shoots…cast-offs …and riff-raff” on the Washington roster.32

When Freedman had finished, the others fell over themselves trying to make him happy. Acting upon a resolution proposed by Pittsburgh club president Barney Dreyfuss, the magnates agreed the League would reimburse Freedman up to $15,000 per year for future Manhattan Field rental short-falls.33 Thereafter, various club owners pledged to make desirable players available for purchase by Freedman, and upon motion of Boston triumvir William Conant, the league awarded pitcher Win Mercer, the best available Washington player, to New York free of charge.34 With the magnates now having done their utmost to placate Freedman, the meeting closed.35

 

Notes

1 Furious at his fellow club owners for their opposition to his position in the Ducky Holmes affair of July 1898, Freedman had revenged himself by degrading the National League’s foremost asset – his own New York Giants franchise. By the end of the 1899 season, the dismal Giants nine that Freedman put on the field had produced a precipitous drop at the gate for both Giants home and away games, a particularly punishing blow to small-market clubs that relied upon the revenue generated by attendance at games against New York. For Freedman, a real estate/municipal finance millionaire whose personal fortune was reputed to exceed that of the other NL club owners combined, Giants revenues were of little consequence. But the other club owners did not have Freedman’s money, and could not afford to run their baseball teams at a loss indefinitely. Thus, measures would have to be taken to mollify Freedman. By the time of the December 1899 winter meeting, the process had already begun, with Cincinnati Reds boss John T. Brush, long a Freedman adversary, having reconciled his differences with Freedman during a private meeting held in October. “White Wings,” Sporting Life, October 14, 1899.

2 New York had received approval from NL president Young before signing Wrigley. “A Cause Celebre,” Sporting Life, December 23, 1899.

3 “Coming Base Ball Changes,” Brooklyn Eagle, November 26, 1899, 37.

4 See TA13-13 to TA22-1. Note: The minutes of the December 1899 winter meeting were transcribed, but the page numbering of the surviving one-volume transcript is trifurcated, with the general league meeting, Board of Arbitration proceedings, and Board of Directors proceedings separately numbered. For purposes herein, T represents the transcript record pertaining to the general league meeting; TA represents the transcript of Board of Arbitration proceedings; and TD/2TD represents the transcripts of the two days of Board of Directors proceedings.

5 See generally, TA32-13 to TA48-6: TA54-25 to TA61-25.

6 TA68-1 to 8.

7 “Baseball,” New York Clipper, December 23, 1899, 901.

8 See e.g., TD23-2 to TD25-21.

9 See TD26-2 to TD42-25.

10 See 2TD26-9 to 2TD36-22.

11 Voting to sustain the Board of Arbitration determination, as modified, were Boston, Cincinnati, Louisville, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Washington. Siding with Brooklyn were Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, and St. Louis.

12 T4-6 to 20. This new minor-league player draft scheme adjusted the player draft provisions enacted at the November 1897 meeting by modestly enhancing the protections previously afforded Class-A clubs.

13 T4-21 toT6-10; T12-17 to T16-5. The umpiring supervisor post had been vacant since John B. Day left it to become New York Giants manager in spring 1897.

14 T9-14 to T11-16.

15 Although unmentioned in the official minutes, the press reported that the liquidation of the Cleveland, Louisville, and Washington clubs had already been agreed to, and that only satisfaction of the demands from the Baltimore-Brooklyn syndicate for the surrender of the Baltimore club charter stood in the way of contraction of the National League to an eight-club circuit. F.L.H., “League Magnates Still Guessing,” Philadelphia Inquirer, December 15, 1899,6.

16 T80-1 to T86-6.

17 See T2-1 to T3-19. The minutes of the March 1900 meeting were transcribed in a single volume, hereinafter denoted as T. Remission of the game forfeiture penalty was brought to the floor via a motion of Philadelphia co-owner John I. Rogers, and converted into a resolution at the suggestion of Cincinnati boss John T. Brush.

18 T8-23 to T13-25.

19 See generally, T15-19 to T56-25. Baltimore co-owners Harry Vonderhorst and Ned Hanlon were members of the syndicate that also controlled the Brooklyn club, while Frank Robison was president and majority owner of the St. Louis franchise. Pulliam, Barney Dreyfuss, and other Louisville backers were invested in the Pittsburgh Pirates.

20 T60-15 to T62-7. The total represented an annual $2,250 assessment for three years.

21 “The Big League,” Sporting Life, March 17, 1900, 2.

22 The 1900 schedule would be set at 140 games per club. See T67-7 to 8.

23 T62-15 to T68-8; T71-16 to T73-13. The meeting minutes do not reflect New York assent to the contraction agreement, and club boss Andrew Freedman subsequently refused to sign it. See Sporting Life, March 17, 1900. But contraction was consummated nonetheless, although Freedman would never contribute New York’s share to the club buyout fund.

24 As a major league, the American Association had been defunct since the end of the 1891 season.

25 T76-1 to T78-19.

26 T41-2 to T42-1. The expulsion threat was a toothless gesture, as NL magnates were well aware that Johnson intended to abrogate the National Agreement once his American League declared major-league status.

27 T67-2 to 7.

28 T92-2 to T100-9. Erstwhile supervisor John B. Day was elected to the post at a salary of $2,000 per year.

29 T67-8 to 11.

30 T88-25 to T89-15.

31 T113-19 to T114-7. New York Giants owners from club founder John B. Day onward erected and held title to the ballparks that the Giants played in. But they did not own the real property on which various iterations of the Polo Grounds sat. That property had to be leased. In the case of Polo Grounds III (nee Brotherhood Park) and Manhattan Field (originally the New Polo Grounds or Polo Grounds II), the underlying ground was leased from the wealthy and vastly-propertied Gardiner-Lynch family and overseen by its real estate agent, James J. Coogan.

32 T114-8 to T116-3.

33 T119-2 to T121-8.

34 T121-13 to T122-3. The vote was 6–1 in favor, with Brooklyn opposed and Chicago absent from the vote.

35 Even hostile press elements expressed grudging admiration for the way Freedman had dominated the meeting, while simultaneously expressing disgust at how fellow club owners had sought to curry his favor. See e.g., “Freedman Gets All He Asks For,” Philadelphia Inquirer, March 10, 1900: 10.

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