This article was written by James D. Smith
This article was published in the 1982 Baseball Research Journal
The Federal League suspended operations after the 1915 campaign, with the clouds of World War I on the horizon. It survived for two seasons and remains the only attempt in this century to plant and sustain a viable “third major league.” Aside from it, major league baseball has meant National League and American League baseball since 1901.
Before the turn of the century, however, the situation was significantly different. Prior to the establishment of the American League in 1901, no less than five major leagues took the field for various lengths of time. Despite erratic scheduling and procedures, the National Association of Professional Base-Ball Players, organized in 1871, must be recognized, for our purposes, as the first major league. The National Association (NA), however, proved unable to police itself as gambling, contract-jumping and unsavory ballpark situations were rampant into its final season of 1875. The National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs (NL) was organized as a reform league for the 1876 campaign and remains to the present day. The American Association (AA) joined the field in 1882, featuring innovations like Sunday baseball and lower, 25¢ admission prices designed to attract the “plain workingman.” An eventual National Agreement meant peaceful co-existence with its National League rival, and the Association operated through the tumultuous 1890 and 1891 seasons. The Union Association (UA) was in business during the summer of 1884, with 13 teams being members at one time or another. Only five survived the entire season of league warfare and player movements. Finally, the Players’ League (PL) made its single-season stand in 1890, motivated by frustrations of the National Brotherhood of Professional Players with salary ceilings and other practices of the existing leagues. With its demise, all contract jumpers were returned to their original clubs without penalty.
Our purpose, however, is not to examine any of these leagues in detail. Rather, it is to consider which players, managers and umpires took advantage of the changing situation by involving themselves in the most major leagues during their careers. Our research has uncovered 29 players, one manager and two umpires active in four major leagues. Despite the opportunities, none was active in the elusive fifth league. Actually, the Federal League was too far removed in time from the Players’ League and the American Association to be attainable by players. All participants enjoyed careers during a period beginning in 1871 and ending in 1907. This period, then, becomes the focus of the present article.
The following chart summarizes the careers of those players active in four major leagues:
W-L / BA
Edward F. Bakely
Joseph V. Battin
Thomas H. Bond
George W. Bradley
Edward N. Crane
William E. Hoy
Henry T. Luff
Morgan E. Murphy
Joseph J. Quinn
Lewis I. Say
John E. Seery
Charles N. Snyder
Samuel H. Weaver
Some general observations may be made about these four-league players. Nine of them began their careers in the National Association. All 29 played in the National League prior to 1900. Five of the players — Quinn, Snyder, Battin, Foreman and Shaffer — played in periods when five leagues were operating. Technically, Jim O’Rourke, whose career extended from 1872 to 1904, with a ten-year gap at the end, could have played in six leagues, but actually played in only three.
Hugh Duffy was the best batter in this group, hitting over .300 and collecting home runs in each of the four leagues. Dummy Hoy had the highest level of games played in each league — 122 and up — and he stole at least 27 bases in each loop. Lave Cross was a standout on Philadelphia teams in four different leagues. John Irwin was the most peripatetic, changing leagues six times. Cornelius Murphy had the most unusual career. He played only two years but in four leagues — the UA and NL in 1884 and the PL and AA in 1890 — for a grand total of 53 games. Tommy Bond retired at age 28, but by that time he had played in four leagues and had won 234 games. Pitcher John Ewing quit while he was ahead; he was 21-8 in the NL in 1891, his final season. No one played on championship teams in four leagues, but Quinn and Farrell did it in three.
Considering that managers have the potential to stretch their careers over many years, we were surprised to uncover only one manager who led the teams in four leagues. Thomas J. Loftus (1856-1910) holds that singular distinction. He appeared initially as the non-playing manager of the short-lived Milwaukee entry in the 1884 UA. He served in that same capacity for Cleveland in the AA in 1888 and then switched to that city’s NL franchise in 1889. He also managed teams in Cincinnati 1890-91, and Chicago 1900-01, and ended his managerial career with two years at the helm of the American League Washington Senators in 1902-03.
It appears that more than 20 persons have umpired in as many as three major leagues. This includes Battin and Cuthbert on our list of four-league players. However, only two officiated in four leagues and they were from the very early period. Robert Ferguson officiated in the NA 1971-75, the NL 1879 and 1884-85, the AA 1886-89 and 1891, and the PL 1890. A former player and manager, he died in 1894. “Honest John” Kelly called games in the AA (1882-88), NL (1882, 1884-85, 1888, 1897), the UA (1884), and the PL (1890). As can be seen by those overlapping years, he moved back and forth pretty freely. Those were the days when there was only one umpire per game and the expression “kill the umpire” had a deeper meaning.
It is the players of that era, however, who continue to hold the greatest fascination. Four of the four-league performers died while still in their thirties. On the other hand, Frank Foreman lived to 94, and his former Cincinnati teammate, the remarkable Dummy Hoy, got to be 99, the oldest of all the ten-year players. All these players bring to us an image of that uniquely American age in which major league baseball players became, in the words of Lawrence Ritter, “the glory of their times,” and the countless leagues dotting the landscape, major and minor, organized and disorganized, helped them toward their dream.