1903 Winter Meetings: Married Life Begins For American, National Leagues

This article was written by Marshall Adesman

This article was published in the Baseball’s Business: The Winter Meetings: 1901-1957


It could be compared, in a way, to a romance novel — first they hate each other, then they start to learn more about each other to where they like each other, and finally they fall in love and get married. Unlike the two protagonists in this popular style of fiction, though, the National and American Leagues actually went to war before they agreed, somewhat grudgingly, to their shotgun wedding.

The ceremony took place in 1903, which has proven to be an early watershed season for baseball. After two years of battling, the established National League and fledgling American League signed a peace agreement in January and proceeded to play their games under a wary and uneasy cloud. Much like a marriage in its first year, the two leagues were learning how to live together, so by the time the last pitch had been thrown and the owners met again for their Winter Meetings, certain things had been learned, certain accommodations had been made, and some things still needed to be sorted out.

The War and What It Meant

In the very early years of baseball, it was common for leagues to come and go. Owners realized that their economic success was tied to bringing people to their ballparks, and people came out to see star players, so there were often fierce battles for these athletes, even those already under contract to another club. The 19th century ballplayer, in fact, rarely gave a second thought to jumping from one team to another, choosing a lucrative salary over legal obligation. Realizing this could undermine the public’s respect for the game and thus keep people away, three leagues — the National League, the American Association, and the Northwestern League — got together in February of 1883 and signed the “Tripartite Agreement,” which recognized the validity of the signed contract and prohibited all teams from pirating players. This accord shortly became better known as the National Agreement,1 and by the turn of the 20th century it covered 13 minor leagues, plus the National League.

When the original agreement was signed, the American Association was considered the “other” major league. While it offered fans such amenities as lower admission prices, Sunday baseball, and beer, the league struggled throughout its 10-year history, and after the 1891 season four clubs — Baltimore, Louisville, St. Louis, and Washington — defected to the National League. The owners in Boston, Columbus, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia were subsequently bought out, ending the American Association as a major league, and turning the NL into a 12-team major-league monopoly.2

But in the 1890s, such a large circuit proved to be unwieldy, due to poor roads (no interstate highways then) and no air travel whatsoever. Many years later, when both majors expanded and became 12-team leagues (after the 1968 season), they wisely split into divisions to help with travel costs. Their Gay Nineties great-grandparents, however, did not do that, however, and for several years the NL struggled along until they contracted, ousting Baltimore, Cleveland, Louisville, and Washington after the 1899 season.

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and that other man was Byron Bancroft “Ban” Johnson. He was President-Secretary-Treasurer of the Western League, one of the minor leagues that was a part of the National Agreement. Despite its success primarily in the Midwest, Johnson had higher aspirations, and for the 1900 season he moved into the newly-opened Cleveland market, transferred his St. Paul franchise to Chicago, and re-named his circuit the American League.3 Despite the name change it was still a minor league, but in the offseason Johnson grabbed for the brass ring, announcing his intention to operate the AL as a major league and, when the Senior Circuit scoffed, he renounced the National Agreement and declared war, moving into the open territories of Baltimore and Washington, as well as NL strongholds of Boston and Philadelphia.

All bets were off. The National League had the reserve clause and a salary cap of $2,400 per player in effect, but Johnson said there would be no such thing in his league, and 111 players jumped into the new circuit, including such marquee names as Cy Young, Napoleon Lajoie, John McGraw, and Joe McGinnity.4 After the 1901 season, Johnson moved the Milwaukee franchise into St. Louis and saw more players make the move, including Ed Delahanty, Jesse Burkett, and Elmer Flick. (You may note that all the jumpers named here would eventually wind up in the Hall of Fame.) The new American League outdrew its more-established rival by more than half a million fans in 1902, which emboldened Johnson even further — he announced the Baltimore team would be moving into New York.5

The Big Apple would prove to be the catalyst for bringing the war to an end. John J. McGraw had become a part owner of the Baltimore franchise, and he also became the team’s manager and third baseman. The pugnacious McGraw, however, quarreled regularly with umpires, and when Johnson, as AL President, regularly backed his arbiters, it incited the enmity of the Little Napoleon. After another tempestuous on-field dispute, Johnson suspended the Orioles skipper indefinitely, whereby McGraw jumped back to the NL, taking over as manager (and occasional infielder) of the New York Giants, a pitiful aggregation that, at the time of McGraw’s arrival, had only won 23 of its 73 games and had already gone through two other managers.6 It went through some players, too — McGraw brought a half-dozen men with him from Baltimore, including McGinnity and Roger Bresnahan, and he released people he felt were not producing.7 This soap opera proved to be the impetus for Johnson’s decision to invade New York and, when the newly-elected mayor, Seth Low, offered Johnson a site for a ballpark,8 the National League realized it was time to sue for peace.

On January 9 and 10, 1903, the two leagues met at the St. Nicholas Hotel in Cincinnati to negotiate terms. Both league presidents brought three owners,9 and the eight men hammered out the “Cincinnati Peace Agreement,” which would govern baseball for almost 18 years.

Better known as the National Agreement, it established the National Commission, the game’s version of the Supreme Court, which would be made up of both league presidents and, as Chair, a neutral third party, which became Reds owner Garry Herrmann, an NL owner but close friend of Ban Johnson. It allowed the Baltimore franchise to move to New York and also established that each league would be comprised of eight clubs, a configuration that would remain in effect until 1961!

It mandated that each team respect everyone else’s roster, which was a nice way of saying “don’t steal my players!” It required the two leagues to coordinate their schedules and to use the foul-strike rule.10 It prohibited “farming,” which meant signing a player to a major-league contract but then assigning him to a minor-league team. (By the 1930s, of course, that clause would become obsolete.) It gave the minors the “absolute” right to their players, except during a six-week period from September 1 through October 15, when a major-league team could draft players and pay the minor-league club a set fee.11

And, most importantly, it established a standard player contract that included the reserve clause, which essentially bound players to their teams for life unless they were traded, sold or released. Until it was overturned in the 1970s, the reserve clause made the players little more than property.

The National Association of Professional Minor Leagues (now known as the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, or NAPBL) also signed this agreement, making it the law of the baseball land. A special ruling was made on several players who were claimed by two clubs; for instance, Sam Crawford and George Mullin were awarded to Detroit, Wee Willie Keeler went to the Highlanders, Tommy Leach headed to Pittsburgh, Nap Lajoie was assigned to Cleveland, Ed Delahanty went to Washington, and Christy Mathewson wound up with the Giants. Despite gaining Leach, the Pirates lost several players to the Highlanders but gained in the long-run when the Agreement prevented Ban Johnson from moving a team into the Steel City.12 The Pirates, in fact, won the National League pennant in 1903, though they lost the first World Series to the Boston team known at that time as the Americans, led by Cy Young.

The Minors Meet

The minor leagues gathered for their Winter Meetings on October 22 in St. Louis, just nine days after Boston’s Bill Dinneen had thrown the final pitch of the inaugural World Series. The Mound City was a happening place at that time, as they were preparing to host the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, and those members of the National Association who gathered for the three-day event at the Southern Hotel were treated to a visit to the grounds of what would be commonly known as the 1904 World’s Fair.13

John Farrell, the Secretary of the National Association, gave the delegates what was more or less a State of the Minor Leagues address. At that point in time, the Secretary was more like a Chief Operating Officer, responsible for day-to-day dealings, which made him, and not the President, the right person to speak to the gathering. He was very proud to report that, even amidst the tumult of the first season played under the new National Agreement, 19 leagues began the season and 19 completed their schedules.14 This did not count the independent Pacific Coast League which, because of the nice weather in California, was actually still in the midst of their 200-plus game season.15

The Association was hoping that, for at least this year only, the majors would issue an exemption to the National Agreement clause that allowed for minor-league players to be drafted during that six-week period in September and October. They were specifically seeking an exemption for players signed before September 11, but the new three-man National Commission disagreed and ruled that the draft had been held legitimately.

The Commission also ruled on the fate of numerous players who were being claimed by two teams or leagues, with the most notable one being Ed Walsh, the big right-hander who had been drafted by the White Sox. Walsh would go on to win 195 games in the majors, all with Chicago, including 40 in 1908, on his way to the Hall of Fame.16

The White Sox (also known as the White Stockings at that time) had another right-handed hurler bring his case before the Commission. Drafted off the Birmingham roster, Frank Smith balked, saying he preferred to go to the Boston Beaneaters (later known, at various times, as the Doves, Rustlers, Bees, and ultimately, Braves). Smith consulted with an attorney, who told him he could ply his trade wherever he chose because “the reserve clause was stricken out.”17 The new governing body, however, ruled against him, and since the record book shows that he did, indeed, pitch in the same rotation as Ed Walsh in 1904, one assumes he and his lawyer chose not to fight the decision in court.18

The Commission expected to have a very serious matter brought before it, the charge of fixed ballgames. Bill Phyle, a pitcher and third baseman who had played parts of three seasons in the majors — 1898 and 1899 with the Orphans, now known as the Cubs and 1901 with the Giants — had played with Memphis of the Southern Association in 1903 and claimed to have information about games that had not been on the up-and-up. He was asked to come to St. Louis and tell the Commission all he knew, but he failed to appear, whereupon he was banned from baseball for life.19 He appealed the decision and was actually reinstated and played through 1909, mostly in the minors but also 22 games with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1906.

The various leagues were busy on numerous fronts. The American Association (Class A, the highest level of the minor leagues at that time), lost their president when Thomas Hickey resigned. Several people were rumored to be candidates to replace him, but ultimately the post went, for one year, to a writer and editor, J. Ed. Grillo, who was based in Cincinnati and was also a contributor to The Sporting News.20

The Milwaukee Brewers chose New Orleans to be their spring training site, and they also announced a series of exhibition games against (Class-B) Southern Association teams such as Memphis and Nashville on their way north for Opening Day.21 Brewers manager Joe Cantillon announced he had purchased the contract of third baseman John Hankey from Decatur of the (Class-B) Three-I League. Hankey, however, had already marketed himself and signed to play with Atlanta in the Southern Association. The dispute was resolved by sending Hankey back to the Three-I (which stood for Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana), but not to Decatur; he played instead for Springfield, Illinois,22 and would, ultimately, never advance beyond Class B.

Also in the American Association, long-time minor-league shortstop Bill Clymer signed on to be the player-manager of Columbus.23 He stayed in the Ohio capital for several years and was a mainstay in minor-league dugouts through the 1932 season. Meanwhile, in an interview with The Sporting News, Indianapolis president William Watkins said of the meetings that the “most important things accomplished … were the regulations governing the drafting of players, the acquiring of territory and the fixing of a salary limit,” which he said was $2,100 per month.24

Patrick Powers, the ceremonial President of the National Association, was also head of the (Class-A) Eastern League and wanted to remain in that position. Some league officials, however, hoped to unseat him with Buffalo owner Harry Taylor.25 Powers would fight off the challenge and remain in control for two more years, when he resigned after purchasing the Providence club, and at that time was succeeded by Taylor.26

You’ll recall that the American League had been born when Ban Johnson renamed his Western League and declared it a major, precipitating the battle for big-league talent. In the shadow of this conflict, the Western League re-formed as a Class-A circuit, with cities such as Denver and Des Moines. By 1903 they found themselves facing a challenge — the American Association had been formed and was competing with the Western, not only at the Class-A level, but also head-to-head in both Kansas City and Milwaukee.

Obviously, while these were two of the premier urban centers in the Midwest, neither could support more than one club, and the two leagues hoped to settle the matter in St. Louis. While there was some talk about the Western dropping down to Class B, it was eventually decided to allow a “committee of three” to settle the matter via binding arbitration where, as predicted by former-pitcher-turned-sportswriter Tim Murnane, the American Association was victorious.27 Milwaukee would remain in the AA through 1952, when the Braves left Boston and appropriated the territory for the National League, while Kansas City would be a league member through 1954, when the AL’s venerable Philadelphia Athletics were sold and moved to the “Paris of the Plains.”

The Western League, meanwhile, had to scramble when George Tebeau, the manager of the Louisville club, made an effort to get Omaha to also bolt for the American Association.28 His effort would not be successful — in fact, Omaha would remain in the Western through 1936 — but the league did lose Peoria and operated as a six-team circuit in 1904.29

The Southern Association (Class B) seemed poised to lose its leader, Judge William Kavanaugh, who said he would not stand for re-election. No matter, the league’s leaders chose him again and he would, in fact, remain as president until his death just prior to the 1915 season. The Southern did, however, lose an umpire, W.B. Carpenter, who moved to the American League.30 Montgomery hired Bill Stickney to be its manager but, despite being “thoroughly familiar with Montgomery and its people,”31 he would not complete the season in the Alabama capital.

News was made in other Class-B circuits. Two cities in the State of Washington, Vancouver and Whitcomb, expressed interest in joining the Pacific National League but had travel concerns, especially those long trips to both Salt Lake City and to Butte.32 Vancouver eventually joined the Oregon State League (Class D), while Whitcomb would never field a team in Organized Ball.

The Central League was looking to add Zanesville (Ohio), but did not because of objections to the league policy of playing lay Sunday games.33 Erie, Youngstown, Peoria, and Anderson, Indiana were also considered, but only the last joined the circuit. The Three-I League decreed that all umpires would work the same number of games in each city, and that a sum of $2,000 was to be set aside to help strengthen any weak franchises, with the aim of raising that figure to $5,000 over time. They also determined that their policy of requiring each team to pay 10 percent of each night’s gate receipts to the league for operating expenses was too steep and they made an adjustment, though the new percentage was not reported in the press.34

The Hudson River League had an interesting winter. Elevated in status to Class C, they voted not to play any doubleheaders prior to July 1 or after September 23, and replaced Ossining, New York (home of the famous Sing Sing Correctional Facility) with Paterson, New Jersey. Having already expanded to Saugerties, New York, this gave them seven franchises and necessitated adding one more. Three candidates emerged, including two Massachusetts towns — Pittsfield and North Adams — plus Yonkers, New York.35 The best-laid plans, however: none of the three prospects panned out and, when Peekskill dropped out before Opening Day, the Hudson River once again operated as a six-team circuit.

The Texas League was already thinking bigger — it assigned J.W. Gardner of Dallas to meet with members of the South Texas League to gauge interest in a “consolidation” of the two Class-C circuits.36 The idea did not go over well and the South Texas wound up operating for three more seasons; the Texas League, of course, was still functioning into the 21st century at the Double-A level. Another Dallas-based executive, Ted Sullivan, announced he was attempting to convince the White Sox to hold their spring training in the town of Marlin, Texas (also known at times as Marlin Springs or Marlin Wells).37 Known even to this day for its mineral water, they did play host to Charles Comiskey’s club.

Meanwhile, things were looking up for the Missouri Valley League. After completing just its second season and watching two clubs go under during the summer, they were promoted to the Class-C level for 1904 after most of the surviving clubs made money, “not a bucketful, but a good profit on the investment,” according to the Sporting News correspondent.38 Topeka would become a new member and Leavenworth would re-join after having disbanded in July.

At that time, the lowest rung of the National Association was Class D,39 and three associations proved to be active. After re-electing George Wheatley as their president, the Cotton States League discussed adding the Mississippi towns of Jackson and Meridian to the fold.40 Both municipalities did become members, but not until 1905.

The K-I-T League (Kentucky-Illinois-Tennessee, also known as the Kitty),41 was expecting to lose Jackson (Tennessee, not Mississippi), but was poised to replace it with Bowling Green, and was also receiving inquiries from Evansville and Cape Girardeau.42 Jackson did drop out, as did Owensboro (Kentucky), and when none of the potential suitors followed through, the Kitty operated as a six-team circuit for the next three seasons.

Over in the Hawkeye State, a group of businessmen were gauging interest in forming an Eastern Iowa League that would have a salary limit of $700 and travel limits of no more than 300 miles north-to-south and 125 miles east-to-west.43 Burlington, Keokuk, Marshalltown, Ottumwa, and Waterloo followed through and were soon joined by Boone, Fort Dodge, and Oskaloosa in what officially became known as the Iowa State League.

A couple of other minor-league notes of interest: Waterbury had been one of the founding members of the (Class-D) Connecticut League in 1899, but dropped out after the 1902 season. Perhaps people in the Brass City missed their baseball, or perhaps businesses complained about the loss of collateral income, but for whatever reason they sought to return and did. They did, however, have to wait until 1906, when the league moved up to Class B.44.

Another group of businessmen, this time on New York’s Long Island, had a similar intent. Interests from Flushing, Bayside (now both part of the Borough of Queens), College Point, Manhasset, and Port Washington formed the North Side League of Baseball Clubs. They intended to add a sixth franchise, with Corona, Hyde Park, or Roslyn mentioned as the strongest candidates,45 but the league never got off the ground. Probably the lack of good roads — neither the Long Island Expressway nor the Grand Central Parkway were built for many years — contributed to their failure to launch.

And then there was the Pacific Coast League. As mentioned earlier, it had been operating as an independent/“outlaw” circuit, completely outside the purview of the National Association, and Organized Ball was hoping to bring them into the fold. According to the Los Angeles Times, however, there was no great league-wide interest in joining up, and after the Eastern League and American Association attempted to “control matters,” the PCL delegates “bolted the convention,” which then “proceeded without them.”46

However, the Washington Post reported that James A. Hart, owner of the Chicago Cubs, was assigned the task of making the group a part of the National Association and “it is said the outlaws are not only willing, but anxious, to get under the wing of the major body.”47 The Post reporter got it right as the PCL joined as a Class-A league, the equal to the Eastern, Western, and American Association, with such cities as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and Oakland.

Not everyone was pleased — former catcher Daniel Dugdale, who had made a fortune in real estate during the Klondike gold rush, had been operating the Seattle Siwashes in the Pacific National League.48 Despite having announced plans for a brand-new downtown ballpark,49 Dugdale saw the loop downgraded to Class B in the wake of the Coast League’s admission, and he sold the team and moved to Portland, though he returned to Seattle later in the decade to run the city’s Northwestern League franchise until the end of World War I.50

The Older Brother Takes Charge

After more than a decade of being the only major league, the NL was not used to sharing, much like an only child who suddenly has to make room for a new sibling. A peace agreement may have been signed, but the National League still felt like this was their game and they should be running things. It didn’t help matters when Boston’s American League champions defeated Honus Wagner and his Pittsburgh Pirates in the very first World Series. Something needed to be done to restore order, at least as defined by the owners in the Senior Circuit.

The National League formally met at the Hotel Victoria in New York City on December 8 and 9. Several routine matters were taken care of, including the ceremonial ratification of the terms of the peace agreement, which also meant that the league’s constitution needed to be amended so it would conform to the new National Agreement.51 Harry Pulliam was re-elected as league president and his power to maintain discipline on the playing field, including the ability to fine or suspend any player for disorderly conduct, was re-affirmed and written into the by-laws.52 They also gave him the power to rule that any player who “jumped” his contract was immediately ineligible to play anywhere.53

But perhaps the most important news to come out of these meetings was the lengthening of the schedule. A 140-game season had been played for the previous three years, ever since the NL had dropped down to an eight-team league, but now the owners agreed to a 154-game schedule, beginning on April 15 and ending on October 15.54

Surprisingly, money was not behind this move — the real reason was to kill off the World Series and any other postseason games.55 The Boston Globe reported that “Oct. 15 is too late to start the games,” the Chicago Tribune remarked that the “American league clubs made such a good showing against the National league this fall … that the effect on the public was not relished” by the NL, while The Sporting News opined that starting a series in mid-October would “make it too late in the year to play a world’s series with financial profit.”56

The Washington Post really railed against the move because it believed “the seasons always have been too long” and that “long before those 154 games are played both leagues will find that the public has tired of the contests.”57 It advocated for the season to begin in mid-May and run through mid-September, and even came out in favor of limited interleague play, all within the framework of a shorter schedule, because a 154-game slate “has been tried before and proved a lamentable failure, just as it will the coming season.”58

This was just one way the senior circuit tried to “stick it” to the younger league. National League owners also passed a rule that prohibited any player from being traded over to the AL without unanimous consent from the rest of the league.59 Rumors persisted that the NL would eventually do what it had done in the case of the American Association — absorb four AL teams, let the other four die off, and become a 12-team circuit once more.60 The scuttlebutt was universally denied, though the influential J. Ed. Grillo wrote that “the two leagues can not continue … change will have to come sooner or later … either … another 12-club league … or one major and a secondary league.”61

There was also talk that the leagues might trade franchises, with Pittsburgh and Cincinnati moving over to the American League while Detroit and Washington joined the NL lodge,62 a tacit admission that there were a couple of profitable franchises in the junior loop. And the foul-strike rule was another way the NL tried to re-establish its dominance. Its owners voted to continue using the rule, knowing full well that their American League counterparts were against it, and they instructed their Committee on Rules to stand firm on keeping it in place.63

The NL also made sure of their dominance over the minor leagues by establishing their “absolute right” to draft players from the minors between September 1 and October 15 of each year.64

The meetings weren’t only about carrying the biggest stick. Several teams announced spring training sites — Boston would be in Thomasville, Georgia; Chicago would be in Los Angeles; and New York would be in Birmingham.65 Frank De Hass Robison, owner of the Cardinals, was busy fending off reports that he was trying to find a buyer for his team. The Chicago Tribune speculated that this simply meant a “purchaser has yet to be found,”66 and in fact Robison did hold onto the team for three more years before selling to his brother.

As always, rumors abounded. Cincinnati first baseman Jake Beckley, who would be inducted into the Hall of Fame more than 50 years after his death, was rumored to be coveted by the Cardinals and the Phillies; the Chicago Tribune stated with certainty that he “will play with the Philadelphia Nationals next season.”67 It took two months for Beckley to move, but when he did it was to St. Louis.

The Sporting News, meanwhile, reported that Chicago right-hander Jack Taylor, who won 20 games in both 1902 and 1903, would be shipped to Cincinnati.68 The Cubs did move him but to the Cardinals, along with catcher/first-baseman Larry McLean. In exchange they received a catcher named Jack O’Neill and a young right-handed pitcher named Mordecai Brown, nicknamed “Three Finger” because of a childhood farming injury that took most of his right index finger.69 Brown’s erstwhile malady gave his pitches great movement and he won 188 games for the Cubs (second only to Charley Root in the team’s history), and a spot in Cooperstown.

The Reds were part of one more rumor, which had pitcher-turned-outfielder James “Cy” Seymour heading to the Giants in a straight swap for catcher Roger Bresnahan. According to a Grillo piece in The Sporting News, “McGraw can not get along with Bresnahan and Seymour doesn’t want to play another year in Cincinnati.”70 Everyone must have learned accommodation, however, because Seymour stayed in Ohio until July of 1906 (when he was purchased by the Giants!), while Bresnahan and McGraw tolerated each other for another five seasons.

Brooklyn surprised baseball fans everywhere by sending shortstop Bill Dahlen to the Giants for infielder Charlie Babb, right-hander Jack Cronin, and cash. The Washington Post said that “it looks like McGraw got very much the better end of the deal,”71 and they were right, as it turned out. Babb had a fair season in 1904, a terrible one in 1905, and then went back to the minors, while Cronin lost 23 games in 1904 and spent the rest of his baseball life in the Eastern League. Dahlen, meanwhile, continued his stellar career throughout the decade, even leading the league in RBIs in 1904.

Cleveland announced that it had signed outfielder Will O’Hara, but this proved to be another case where a player inked more than one contract. Toledo of the American Association also had a deal with O’Hara and that is where he wound up in 1904, not surfacing in the majors until 1909.72 A conflict that included Detroit, Pittsburgh and Buffalo of the Eastern League was resolved when right-hander Charles “Rube” Kisinger, infielder/outfielder Ernie Courtney, utilityman Lewis “Sport” McAllister and third baseman Joe Yeager were sent from the Tigers to the Bisons for right-hander Alfred “Cy” Ferry and outfielder Matthew McIntyre.73

Two future Hall of Famers made some news. Hugh Duffy had not played in the majors since 1901 and had, in fact, been the president and manager of Milwaukee in the Western League. The lure of the big leagues was strong, however, and he agreed to become player-manager of the Phillies, posts he held for the next three seasons.

The Reds, meanwhile, found themselves in need of a second baseman and were willing to give a shot to a young man who had impressed people at St. Paul in the American Association. It was speculated that this rookie would prove to be the best Cincinnati had seen at the keystone since Bid McPhee.74 Miller Huggins would, indeed, become one of the game’s premier second basemen, first for the Reds and then for the Cardinals, but he would cement his Cooperstown credentials by managing the Yankees to six pennants and three World Series titles in the 1920s.

And the Younger Brother Fusses and Whines But Eventually Goes Along

Well, that peace agreement may have been signed, but the National League still seemed to be lobbing grenades towards the Junior Circuit. So when American League executives convened for their Winter Meetings on December 17 at the Auditorium Annex in Chicago, there was some confusion as to what direction they ought to take, especially with the playing schedule. President Ban Johnson told the New York Times that he expected their schedule to remain at 140 games (though he personally favored a 126-game slate), and was disappointed by the NL’s expanding to 154 games, but admitted that there was a division of opinion among his owners.75 No doubt there was considerable debate on this topic, but in the end the AL felt they had to follow along.

Charles Comiskey of the White Sox called the 154-game schedule “one of the biggest mistakes ever made in baseball,”76 while I.E. Sanborn, writing in The Sporting News, said that “(t)wo wrongs never made a right…” and predicted it would only be a “makeshift” schedule.77 But the American League felt their hands had been tied and, as Comiskey stated, “…there was nothing left for us to do but follow suit.”78 It is rather ironic, then, that the 154-game season, so publicly maligned at the outset, became one of baseball’s most cherished foundations for almost six decades.

The same could be said for the foul-strike rule. The AL formally voted against it, deadlocking the two leagues and forcing the establishment of a conference committee to try and resolve the difference. National League President Pulliam had stated that if the AL declined to endorse the foul-strike rule, it would be a violation of the National Agreement and could renew the war,79 and perhaps this helped shape the feelings of the conference committee when they eventually met to discuss the issue. The foul-strike rule was upheld for both major leagues (and the minor leagues as well), and has been in full force for more than a century.80

Ban Johnson also had to deal with financial instability with his franchise in Washington, DC. Shortly before the AL meetings began, the Chicago Tribune reported that the league needed to “bolster the affairs” of its team in the District, and suggested that the current Brooklyn manager (and former Orioles skipper) Edward “Ned” Hanlon was being viewed as a good candidate to own and operate the team.81 At the same time the Washington Post was reporting that Philadelphia Athletics co-owner Ben Shibe was being “importuned” to take over in D.C.82 All the while a local attorney, Wilton J. Lambert, was doing his best to land the ballclub, which was purportedly $6,000 in debt.

What Lambert found, however, was that things weren’t quite on the up-and-up in Washington (imagine that!). He was initially negotiating with a Detroit hotelier, Fred Postal, who claimed to own one-third of the team, but Lambert eventually learned that Postal was just a front man — the club was actually owned entirely by the American League itself!83 He also discovered that the debts were $15,000, more than twice what he had been given to believe. Undaunted, though, Lambert continued to try making a deal, even after the Winter Meetings ended, but ultimately he was unsuccessful. New owners for the Senators would not be found until March.84

Other matters were dealt with, of course. Following the NL lead, the National Agreement and uniform players contract were both formally ratified,85 and a committee was appointed to revise the league constitution so it, too, would conform to the wording of the National Agreement. Rosters were capped at a maximum of 16 players after June 1.

Ban Johnson was given a raise of $2,500, bringing his salary to $10,000 a year (the equivalent of about $265,000 today). An attempt was made to also give him a one-time bonus of $5,000, but he objected so strongly that the offer was withdrawn.86 The St. Louis Browns were confident that they could conclude a spring training deal with the city of Corsicana, Texas (which they did), while Cleveland was also looking for a Lone Star State location. Their manager, Bill Armour, had been hoping to travel to San Antonio and perhaps strike a spring training deal with them, but the city was under a yellow fever quarantine, making a visit impossible.87 (He must have made it down eventually, because the team did train there in 1904).

Player movement seemed to be restricted to the committee that was arbitrating disputes between the two major leagues, fallout from the Late Unpleasantness. Only one deal of note was discussed, at least publicly — the Highlanders (today’s Yankees) were looking to move Jesse Tannehill, a noted outfielder and left-handed pitcher, and found a partner up in Boston, who sent right-hander Tom Hughes to New York in a straight swap.88 The Red Sox got much the better of this deal, as Hughes was swapped to Washington in July (where he spent the next eight-plus seasons), while Tannehill had great success in Boston, winning 20 games each of the next two years.

Summary

The Winter Meetings of 1903 took place in three different venues, no doubt reflecting the status of a game trying to recover from a harsh two-year war, with its three entities — the National Association of Professional Minor Leagues, the American League, and the National League — still being cautious, not sure whether or not to trust one another, not even certain that the peace would hold. The NL, probably viewing itself as “first among equals,” took the initiative and virtually dictated certain terms, especially in the case of the foul-strike rule and the increase of the schedule to 154 games. Their ulterior motive, however, in approving a longer season was to eliminate the possibility of a World Series and prevent being “embarrassed” again, but in this they obviously failed, as the Fall Classic quickly became one of the premier events in American sports.

Yet, while there would be other battles over the years — three attempts to form a third major league, antitrust issues with Congress, and numerous labor disputes with both players and umpires — the peace agreement hammered out in 1903 between the American and National Leagues and ratified at their respective Winter Meetings, has remained intact. Presumably, then, after more than a century of matrimony, we can call this union a success.

 

Sources

In addition to the sources cited in the notes, the author also consulted Baseball-Reference.com and Don Jepsen’s biography of John McGraw, part of SABR’s BioProject and found at http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/fef5035f, accessed October 9, 2013.

 

Notes

1 “The Commissionership: A Historical Perspective.” http://mlb.mlb.com/mlb/history/mlb_history_people.jsp?story=com, accessed October 5, 2013.

2 John Thorn, Pete Palmer, Michael Gershman and David Pietrusza, editors. Total Baseball: The Official Encyclopedia of Major League Baseball, Fifth Edition (New York: Viking Penguin, 1997), 1858.

3 Joe Santry and Cindy Thomson, “Ban Johnson,” SABR Baseball Biography Project (http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/dabf79f8), undated, accessed October 5, 2013.

4 Ibid.

5 Robert L. Finch, L.H. Addington and Ben H. Morgan, editors. The Story of Minor League Baseball (Columbus, Ohio: The Stoneman Press, 1952), 15.

6 “The Shaky Peace of 1903,” (http://baseballhistoryblog.com/1590/the-shaky-peace-of-1903/), accessed September 13 and October 9, 2013.

7 Ibid.

8 This would become Hilltop Park, in the Washington Heights section of upper Manhattan; it would be the home of the Highlanders for 10 years, from 1903 through 1912. See Philip J. Lowry, Green Cathedrals (New York: Walker Publishing Company, 2006), 151.

9 The National League was represented by President Harry Pulliam, Frank DeHass Robison of the St. Louis Cardinals, James Hart of the Chicago Cubs, and Garry Herrmann of the Cincinnati Reds. The American League was represented by President Ban Johnson and Charles Comiskey of the Chicago White Sox, Henry Killilea of the Boston Americans, and Charles Somers of the Cleveland Naps. “The Shaky Peace of 1903,” (http://baseballhistoryblog.com/1590/the-shaky-peace-of-1903/), accessed October 9, 2013.

10 The foul-strike rule is, simply, the rule that we have all grown up with — a foul ball hit with no strikes or one strike on the batter is called a strike, but once the batter has two strikes on him, subsequent foul balls will not count against him. The NL had adopted this rule in 1901 but the AL, in its first two seasons, did not have this rule in effect, which may have led to more offense in the Junior Circuit. Having both leagues play by the same rules was a key aspect of the negotiations. http://www.baseball-reference.com/bullpen/Foul_strike_rule, accessed September 13 and October 9, 2013. Interestingly, with the adoption of the designated hitter rule for the 1973 season, the two leagues have now played for better than 40 years under slightly different parameters.

11 Reach Guide, 1904, 115-123; accessed online October 9, 2013.

12 “The Shaky Peace of 1903,” op. cit.

13 Judy Garland fans will recall that the 1904 World’s Fair was the backdrop for the 1944 musical Meet Me in St. Louis, one of her best films. It was also where she met director Vincent Minnelli, whom she later married.

14 “Farrell’s Report,” The Sporting News, October 31, 1903, Vol. 36. No. 8: 2.

15 “Late News: Minor Leagues in Session,” The Sporting News, October 24, 1903: 1.

16 J. Ed. Grillo, “Subject to Draft,” The Sporting News, October 31, 1903: 1.

17 “Late News: Minor Leagues in Session,” op. cit.

18 Smith had a decent major-league career. He won 120 games in nine major-league seasons, plus another 19 in his two years with the Federal League, the World War I-era group that lured many players in an attempt to become a third major league. Smith eventually did pitch, very briefly, in Boston, but ironically it was for the Red Sox.

19 “Gossip of the Players,” The Sporting News, October 31, 1903: 2.

20 “Boosted Prices,” The Sporting News, October 24, 1903:

21 Arthur B. Marsh, “Only Outlaw Body; Cantillon’s Spring Plans,” The Sporting News, October 31, 1903: 2.

22 Earl Obenshain, “Late News: American League Meeting; Needs Three Players,” The Sporting News, December 19, 1903: 1.

23 Marsh, op. cit.

24 “Not Yet Decided; Advanced Their Interests,” The Sporting News, October 31, 1903: 1.

25 “Late News: No Prospects for War; Opposition to Powers,” The Sporting News, December 26, 1903: 1.

26 Charles Bevis, “Patrick Powers,” SABR Baseball Biography Project (http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/e95ef025), undated, accessed October 29, 2013.

27 T. H. Murnane, “Disputes to Settle,” Boston Globe, October 26, 1903: 5.

28 P. H. Saunders, “Late News: No Prospects for War; Tebeau is Scheming,” The Sporting News, December 26, 1903: 1.

29 “Late News: American League Meeting; Western’s Annual Postponed,” The Sporting News, December 19, 1903: 1.

30 “Late News: No ’04 Post-Season Games,” The Sporting News, December 12, 1903: 1.

31 “Late News: Cases Decided By Herrmann; May Manage Montgomery Club,” The Sporting News, October 31, 1903: 1.

32 Walter H. Murphy, “Make Them Equal: May Lose Freeman,” The Sporting News, December 12, 1903: 1.

33 R. H. Archer, “Ignored Patrons; Central League Circuit,” The Sporting News, December 19, 1903: 1.

34 “Fans Displeased; Reserve Fund of $5,000,” The Sporting News, October 24, 1903: 1.

35 Skye S. Colt, “Late News: American League Meeting; Hudson River League,” The Sporting News, December 19, 1903: 1.

36 “Ignored Patrons; Belongs to the Browns,” The Sporting News, December 19, 1903: 1.

37 Ibid.

38 “Not Yet Decided; Advanced Their Interests,” The Sporting News, October 31, 1903: 1.

39 Though minor-league baseball had been played for years, official classifications had begun in 1902, ranging from A down to D. The Double-A level was added in 1912, Triple-A in 1946. With the decline of attendance and the corresponding number of leagues in the 1950s and early 1960s, the major leagues affected a reorganization of the minors following the 1962 season, eliminating the B, C, and D levels and, later in the decade, adding the short-season and complex leagues. W. Lloyd Johnson and Miles Wolff, editors. The Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, 2nd edition. (Durham, North Carolina: Baseball America, Inc., 1997), 479.

40 “Only Outlaw Body; Cotton States League,” The Sporting News, October 31, 1903: 2.

41 The K-I-T, or Kitty, League was made up of teams from towns in Kentucky, Illinois, and Tennessee, and occasionally Indiana as well. To quote its website, it brought baseball to “fans in Western and Central Kentucky, Southern Illinois and Indiana, Southeast Missouri, and West and Middle Tennessee for thirty years between 1903 and 1955.” http://www.kittyleague.com, accessed November 2, 2013.

42 “Late News: Cases Decided By Herrmann; K-I-T’s 1904 Circuit,” The Sporting News, October 31, 1903: 1.

43 “Late News: No Prospects for War; Proposed Iowa League,” The Sporting News, December 26, 1903: 1.

44 “Late News: No Prospects for War; Wants League Ball,” The Sporting News, December 26, 1903: 1.

45 “Foul Strike Rule Out,” New York Times, December 18, 1903: 7.

46 “No Peace for the Magnates,” Los Angeles Times, October 25, 1903: B3.

47 “Baseball Gossip,” Washington Post, December 20, 1903: A2.

48 Eskenazi, Daniel and Walt Crowley, “Dugdale, Daniel E. (1864-1934), Baseball Pioneer.” HistoryLink.org/index.cfm7.DisplayPage=output.cfm&file_id=3431, published July 5, 2001, accessed September 26, 2013.

49 Walter H. Murphy, “Lengthened Race; Dugdale’s New Park,” The Sporting News, December 26, 1903: 1.

50 Eskenazi and Crowley, op. cit.

51 “Meeting of Magnates,” Washington Post, December 9, 1903: 8.

52 Ibid.

53 “Longer Season on Ball Field,” Chicago Tribune, December 10, 1903: 8.

54 “More Games,” Boston Globe, December 10, 1903.

55 A postseason exhibition series between two teams, such as the Cubs and White Sox, was common at this time as a way for both players and owners to make extra money.

56 “More Games,” Boston Globe, December 10, 1903; “Longer Season on Ball Field,” op. cit.; “Late News: No ’04 Post-Season Games,” op. cit.

57 “Baseball Gossip,” op. cit.

58 Ibid.

59 “Late News: No ’04 Post-Season Games,” op. cit.

60 “No Baseball Combine,” New York Times, December 9, 1903:10.

61 J. Ed. Grillo, “Fair Deal To All,” The Sporting News, December 19, 1903: 1.

62 I. E. Sanborn, “Almost the Limit,” The Sporting News, December 12, 1903, Vol. 36, No. 14: 1. This wasn’t the only buzz about the soon-to-be Motor City, by the way. Reportedly a group out of Milwaukee was hoping to buy the team and move it to Wisconsin, but the AL, however, was not inclined to approve such a deal because, according to the Washington Post, it is “a good beer town, but a poor baseball drawing card.” “Baseball Gossip,” op. cit.

63 “Meeting of Magnates,” op. cit.

64 “Baseball Rules Defined,” New York Times, October 27, 1903: 10; and Reach Guide, 1904, accessed online October 9, 2013.

65 T. H. Murnane, “Gets to Work,” op. cit.; “Late News: No ’04 Post-Season Games,” op. cit.

66 “Problem for Old League,” Chicago Tribune, December 6, 1903: 10.

67 “Longer Season on Ball Field,” op. cit.

68 J. Ed. Grillo, “Not Sensational,” The Sporting News, December 12, 1903: 1.

69 Not long after suffering this injury, he fell while chasing a rabbit and broke his other fingers, which left him with a bent middle finger, a paralyzed little finger, and a stump where the index finger used to be. Cindy Thomson, “Mordecai Brown,” SABR Baseball Biography Project, (http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/b0508a3c), undated, accessed November 11, 2013.

70 J. Edward Grillo, “Boosted Prices,” The Sporting News, October 24, 1903: 1.

71 “Baseball Gossip,” op. cit.

72 Sanborn, “Almost the Limit,” op. cit.

73 “Late News: Cases Decided By Herrmann,” The Sporting News, October 31, 1903: 1.

74 J. Edward Grillo, “Cut in Salaries,” The Sporting News, December 26, 1903: 1.

75 “American League Plans,” New York Times, December 16, 1903: 7.

76 “Long Schedule,” Boston Globe, December 18, 1903: 5.

77 Sanborn, I.E., “Lengthened Race,” The Sporting News, December 26, 1903: 1.

78 “Long Schedule,” Boston Globe, December 18, 1903: 5.

79 Sanborn, “Lengthened Race,” op. cit.

80 Interesting to note that, when the American League voted to implement the designated hitter rule for the 1973 season, it did so alone — the National League refused to add it, and to this day the two leagues play with this slightly different set of rules. There is never any mention of an abrogation of the National Agreement, or of the two leagues going to war.

81 “Magnates to Hold Meeting,” Chicago Tribune, December 8, 1903: 8.

82 “Baseball Deal Hangs Fire,” Washington Post, December 9, 1903: 8.

83 Bruce Goldberg, unpublished paper on the history of the Washington Senators, accessed September 28, 2013.

84 Ibid.

85 “Long Schedule,” op. cit.

86 “Washington in Deal,” Washington Post, December 19, 1903: 8.

87 “Tips By The Managers,” The Sporting News, October 31, 1903: 2; H. P. Edwards, “Not Yet Decided,” The Sporting News, October 31, 1903: 1.

88 “Long Schedules,” The Sporting News, December 26, 1903: 1.

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