This article was written by Bob Bailey
This article was published in SABR 50 at 50
This article was originally published in SABR’s Baseball Research Journal, Vol. 19 (1990).
Phoenix, Denver, Tampa, Washington, perhaps a dozen cities are all hoping to be tapped by major-league baseball’s magic wand and be initiated into the fraternities of American and National League clubs. Expansion has been a topic of discussion for at least 40 years, ever since weak franchises in two-team towns began looking for salvation outside the shadow of their more dominant cousins.
In baseball’s more distant past the question was not expansion, but reduction of teams. Back in 1899 the National League went from 12 teams to eight as Baltimore, Cleveland, Louisville, and Washington left the majors. Within two seasons all but Louisville had landed in Ban Johnson’s American League. Cleveland is still there. Washington spent many decades in the AL. Baltimore’s franchise shifted to New York in 1902 and the Maryland city remained beyond the pale until 1954. Louisville is the only city of the group that was out and stayed out.
This is the story, from the perspective of the almost forgotten Louisville Colonels franchise, of how the National League dropped four teams after the 1899 season.
The seeds for the reduction in 1899 were sown in the Brotherhood war of 1890. With the advent of the Players’ League in that year, the fans found three major leagues on the field. The venerable National League and the eight-year-old American Association had been battling for years. But the competition with three leagues caused a massive reorganization in the early 1890s. The Players’ League folded after one season and the magnates believed it expedient to merge the Association and National League into one “Big League.” The new 1892 National League had 12 teams, with Boston, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, and Columbus of the American Association dropping off the baseball map.
The 12-team arrangement had trouble from the start. Now 11 teams had a chance to be disappointed at not winning a pennant. Several franchises, including Louisville, were thinly capitalized and could not adequately compete for players. This led to several teams being chronic second-division dwellers, often out of the pennant race by the Fourth of July. Even the strong teams struggled. The expense of traveling to additional cities, fewer home games and a deepening national recession all cut into the teams’ revenue.
By 1895 rumors appeared that teams were either folding or moving to lower leagues that year. The League meetings began to discuss reducing the number of franchises.
The embers of reduction glowed softly for several seasons and burst into flame at the close of the 1898 season. Reports began to circulate that Washington, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, New York, and Brooklyn had lost money for the year. The most desperate appeared to be New York, which had major problems drawing fans to the Polo Grounds. Some blamed the Spanish-American War for curtailing attendance as people gave little thought to entertainment while their thoughts were on that conflict.
The Sporting News had time to think about it, and in November 1898, one of the paper’s correspondents spoke what many others believed: that the 12-club league had outlived its usefulness and some adjustments were necessary. He suggested not reduction but expansion. He proposed two eight-team leagues, a return to the pre-1890 status quo.
There can be no doubt that the league was in trouble. Only Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago consistently made money. Neither the New York nor Brooklyn franchise drew well in the nation’s largest city and both were in danger of going under. Baltimore always fielded a competitive, contending team, but the fans did not show up at the ballpark in sufficient numbers to prevent financial losses. St. Louis was tied up in a court case that would cost Chris Von der Ahe his franchise. Louisville and Washington were perennial losers on the field and at the box office.
On top of this, another phenomenon developed in the 1890s that gave rise to thoughts of reducing the number of teams in the League. It was the development of common ownership of several teams. This practice began in 1892, when A.G. Spalding, owner of a large block of the Chicago franchise, invested in the New York club. He did this more or less as the banker of last resort for the financially troubled Gotham franchise, but nevertheless, he ended up owning stock in both clubs. By 1898 seven of the 12 teams were involved in such arrangements to some degree. Arthur Soden of Boston, John Brush of Cincinnati, and F.A. Abell of Brooklyn had small holdings in the New York club. Abell, H. R. Yonder Horst, Ned Hanlon, and Charles Ebbets jointly owned the Brooklyn and Baltimore franchises. The Robison family owned both Cleveland and St. Louis.
These arrangements led to some strange dealing. The Robisons transferred the best players of their two franchises to St. Louis, leaving the woeful Cleveland Spiders of 1899 to achieve the lowest winning percentage in major-league history. Brooklyn and Baltimore engineered the “trade” of nine players with Hughie Jennings, Willie Keeler, and Joe Kelley moving to Brooklyn in 1899 for a mess of pottage and bringing a pennant to the Flatbush faithful. During the 1899 pennant race, anti-syndicalist Arthur Soden got a return on his New York investment when pitcher Jouett Meekin came to Beantown free of charge.
In any event, the dual ownership of several teams by now had led to the idea of consolidating those teams and moving to an eight-team league. The general idea was to merge Baltimore into Brooklyn and Cleveland into St. Louis, and to buy out two teams from among the poor-performing Washington, New York, and Louisville. When the League meeting was held in December 1898, the reduction plan was discussed but so was the idea of two eight-team leagues. The magnates ended up adjourning with instructions for the League office to prepare an 1899 schedule for 12 teams.
As winter turned to spring in 1899 the owners left the 12-team structure as it was. Not because they wanted to, but rather by the default of uncertainty. However, by July it was clear that something had to be done. By that time Cleveland was playing most of its home games on the road. In August the Louisville ballpark burned down. Makeshift bleachers were erected, but the club’s inability to collect an insurance settlement in a timely fashion prevented construction of covered grandstands. With Louisville’s summer heat the fans decided to remain home rather than sit in the sun to see a bad ballclub.
In September, The Sporting News commented that financial problems might lead to Louisville, Cleveland, Baltimore, and Washington dropping from the League. But Louisville signed 10 players in early October to 1900 contracts and Ned Hanlon in Baltimore was having no part of any league reduction if his team was a target.
Finances for the clubs in 1899 had improved over 1898, but still only pennant-winning Brooklyn, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and St. Louis were more than marginally profitable. Something would have to be done to return the owners to steady profits.
Three clubs – Louisville, Pittsburgh, and Washington – were for sale. The syndicate clubs of Baltimore-Brooklyn and Cleveland-St. Louis were searching for ways to make both clubs pay.
Publicly, NL President Nick Young was optimistic that the 12-team league would continue. His basic argument was that the National Agreement that emerged after the Brotherhood Wars had two years to run. But it was this looming deadline that encouraged the weaker clubs to seek new owners. They believed, probably rightly, that once the National Agreement expired, their franchises would have little value.
Here was the crux of the problem. The powerful clubs of Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia wanted to reduce the league to eight teams. But they hoped the four clubs, whoever they might be, would be willing to leave quietly. The targeted clubs had no intention of going gently into the night without substantial compensation. All sorts of posturing began. Soden of Boston was adamant that he would not contribute to a buyout. Frank De Haas Robison of Cleveland announced that he was ready to field a team for 1900. Louisville was staying but planned to run on the cheap. The owners announced that they were looking for ballplayers who would play for $100 per month or less.
The stage was set for the struggle to reduce the League to eight clubs. The four targets were identified (Louisville, Baltimore, Cleveland, and Washington). These clubs were willing to discuss dropping from the league but wanted to be bought out. The powers of the league were split on the issue of payment. Soden proposed arranging a schedule for the four that would ensure financial disaster. President Young continued to make silly statements that no reduction was contemplated.
The president of the Louisville club at this time was Barney Dreyfuss, a local businessman. The club was in debt to several of the club directors, including Dreyfuss, and had no real prospects of improvement on the field or on the financial ledgers. The club had several solid players — Honus Wagner, Fred Clarke, Rube Waddell among them — but was given to poor starts and strong finishes. Unfortunately the strong finishes never got Louisville out of the second division. Dreyfuss wanted to stay in baseball but saw no future in Louisville. He wanted to sell. But there were no buyers. So Barney looked for greener pastures. He cast his eye about 400 miles up the Ohio River to Pittsburgh. W.W. Kerr of the Smoky City club wanted to sell. Dreyfuss began negotiations with Kerr. The negotiations were difficult.
Arthur Soden of Boston saw this as a great opportunity to bring about the league reduction. He foresaw Louisville combining with Pittsburgh, Cleveland with St. Louis, and Baltimore with Brooklyn. That would leave just Washington to deal with. But things are never that easy.
Louisville baseball circles were in an uproar. The city still held an NL franchise and intended to play in 1900. Essentially the same line was taken in Baltimore by Ned Hanlon, who was pushing the idea of two eight-club leagues.
To complicate things further, two new figures entered the drama. One was Ban Johnson and his Western League, recently renamed the American League. Johnson was beginning his campaign to create another major league and the NL owners did not wish to cede any territory to him. The other was a group including Francis Richter, the Spink family of St. Louis, and other investors who began to organize a new American Association. So the National League faced another baseball war on one front while trying to trim teams from its loop on another.
On December 6, 1899, directors of the Louisville club confirmed that Dreyfuss had purchased Pittsburgh and had immediately effected a trade between the two clubs. Dreyfuss sent $25,000 and pitcher Jack Chesbro, catcher Paddy Fox, and infielders John O’Brien and Art Madison to Louisville. In return Pittsburgh received Rube Waddell, Deacon Phillippe, Tommy Leach, Honus Wagner, Fred Clarke, Claude Ritchey, Mike Kelly, Tacks Latimer, Chief Zimmer, Walt Woods, Conny Doyle, and Patsy Flaherty. In addition Dreyfuss announced Clarke as the new Pittsburgh manager and said he was leaving Louisville to establish a permanent residence in Pittsburgh.
The local reaction in Kentucky was strange. Within a few days of the big deal, local papers reported that the “general impression is that Louisville got much the best of the deal.”1 Apparently the Louisville franchise owners did not agree, for the following day they embarked for the league meeting in New York intent on selling the team.
The local press became manic-depressive, assuring people that Louisville would have a big-league team in 1900 in one paragraph and bewailing the loss of the team a few columns later. The Courier-Journal on December 12, 1899, displayed these swings by reporting, “Louisville is not going to be wiped off the baseball map.” Rather, it went on, the club would either be sold to the NL or join the American League. “At the present time,” it reported, “the indications are that the circuit will not be reduced.”2 So, either the team was to be sold to the National League, which was not in the market to add squads, or it was about to join a league which would compete with the baseball establishment.
The truth of the situation was that the NL was going to reduce but had two situations to confront: to keep the buyout price for the targeted four down; and to position itself in such a way as to not harm itself in comparison to the American League or the new American Association.
On the first front, problems for the National League arose immediately. The December league meeting had set up a Circuit Reduction Committee to negotiate the terms of a buyout of Louisville, Washington, Cleveland, and Baltimore. It was rumored that Louisville was looking for $20,000, Baltimore $60,000, Washington $55,000, and Cleveland wanted whatever Louisville got. Nobody expected the league to pony up over $150,000 to become an eight-team circuit.
As the new century opened, the NL was faced with the problems of inflated expectations of the four designated departees and the maneuverings of Ban Johnson and the new American Association. The general strategy of the National League was to lengthen the process so that when the four teams were bought out, the other leagues would have insufficient time to reorganize to occupy those cities. John McGraw, years later in his autobiography, My Thirty Years In Baseball, confirmed part of the strategy, writing, “The league heads hesitated to act openly (on circuit reduction) for fear that the new American League, then expanding, would grab the territory.”3 True enough as far as it went. From press reports of the day it appears the established league was even more concerned about the newly proposed American Association. This latter group had promoted Cap Anson as its president and had interested McGraw enough to consider jumping. From the AA’s plans to go head-to-head with the NL in most major cities, the League had more to fear from them than from the AL, which still inhabited cities like Minneapolis and Milwaukee and had no real Eastern base.
A group of Louisville businessmen then entered the picture to save major-league baseball for Louisville. They organized quickly and raised about 30 percent of their goal of $20,000 in capital. Their intent was to find a league — any league — that would have Louisville as a member. They negotiated with the NL, which offered to make Louisville a charter member of their own reincarnation of the American Association. The NL version of the AA was to be a sort of junior varsity to the big clubs. It was really a brilliant tactical move.
While it is doubtful that the NL had any real intention of following through with this venture into a new AA, it gave potential rival financial backers pause to consider that they might be starting a venture that would be in local competition with a team backed by the powerful National League. This effectively froze the Louisville contingent, which continued to flirt with the American League and American Association but wanted no part of any baseball war. By mid-February the AA bubble had burst because of a lack of funds and the inability to secure substantial owners in several cities. That left just the American League to deal with.
The game for the NL owners was still the same: reduce the League at the lowest cost without giving any rival league an opening. As one owner put it, “It is not so much a question of buying out Washington and Baltimore as it is of keeping a tight grip on territory slated for abandonment that is keeping the leaders guessing. … The League, therefore, is practically forced to decide between two alternatives — either continue the present twelve-club league or pacify the ‘little four’ by reasonable cash appropriations and then place them in another eight-club league which would work in harmony with the National.”4 This last notion of “harmony” was uppermost in the NL owners’ minds. With the purpose of circuit reduction being to return the NL to prosperity, the shadow of another war cast a pall over their plans.
But now time began to run against the older league. It was March and the teams were making plans for spring training. Negotiations continued with the “little four.” Earl Wagner at Washington said his franchise was not for sale. Ned Hanlon of Baltimore was starting to push for a 10-team circuit. Louisville and Cleveland were just looking for as much cash as they could get to cover their debts. Meanwhile, Ban Johnson was preparing another thrust into NL territory. He announced plans to move the St. Paul franchise, held by ex-St. Louis manager Charles Comiskey, to Chicago. The National League owners were aghast and Jim Hart of the Chicago (NL) club announced that a baseball war would erupt if Johnson came into Hart’s territory.
As the battle heated up the Circuit Reduction Committee finally had to make its move.
On March 9, 1900, the report of the National League Circuit Reduction Committee was released. The National League would be reduced to eight teams. Washington received $39,000 for its franchise but retained its player contracts. Cleveland received $25,000, $10,000 for the franchise and $15,000 for its stadium, grounds and equipment. Louisville got $10,000 for its franchise. The NL had achieved one of its goals. It had shed four clubs and saved about $50,000 from the original asking price. But the specter of the American League remained.
Ban Johnson immediately began plans to put franchises in Washington, Baltimore and Cleveland. The NL countered with renewed reports of starting an American Association of its own. Johnson correctly divined that “it is a bluff to scare us out.”5
As far as Louisville was concerned, the bluff worked. A chronically weak franchise with little extra capital to risk had no business in the new league. Although the Louisville committee and Ban Johnson exchanged several sets of telegrams and the local papers reported the securing of an AL franchise as a done deal, the dispute over the Chicago territory scared off the Bluegrass delegation. In all probability, even if they had thrown in with Johnson, they would not have received a franchise. Louisville was well down the AL’s list of potential cities and was used by Johnson to keep the NL off balance.
On March 21, 1900, it was announced that there would be no war between the American and National Leagues, with the AL consigned to Chicago’s South Side as the terms for entry into that city. But it was too late for Louisville. Insufficient capital, population and support left Louisville on the outside of the major-league candy store looking in. The Kentucky city moved to the minor leagues, where its baseball history continues today.
1 “The New Colonels, “Louisville Courier-Journal, December 9, 1899: 6.
2 “Their Price is $20,000,” Louisville Courier-Journal, December 12, 1899: 6.
3 John J. McGraw, My Thirty Years in Baseball (New York: Boni & Liveright, 1923), 122-123.
4 “May Injure This City,” Louisville Courier-Journal, February 26, 1900: 6.
5 “Threat of James Hart,” Louisville Courier-Journal, March 13, 1900: 8.