The Birth of the American League

This article was written by Bob Buege

This article was published in the Road Trips: SABR Convention Journal Articles


This article was originally published in “Baseball in the Badger State,” the 2001 SABR convention journal.

 

Ask a baseball fan, what is the only city that has been the home of two different teams in the American League and two in the National League, all since 1900? Without thinking, many will say New York—which is, of course, wrong. The correct answer is Milwaukee. Beertown has been home to the National League Braves (1953- 1965) and Brewers (1997-present). Before the Brewers switched leagues, they were an American League franchise (1970-1996). And long before the defunct Seattle Mariners moved to the shores of Lake Michigan, way back in 1901, the Milwaukee Brewers were charter members of baseball’s junior circuit until they were unceremoniously transformed into the St. Louis Browns.

Even most baseball “experts,” though, including those who know about the 1901 Milwaukee Brewers, are not aware that Milwaukee was, in fact, the birthplace of the American League. More than a century ago, in a room inside a long-forgotten Milwaukee hotel, a small group of baseball entrepreneurs and pioneers met and changed the history of major league baseball.

The new league evolved slowly. In 1892 long-time St. Louis Browns first baseman-manager Charlie Comiskey took over the same positions with the Cincinnati club when the National League and the American Association merged. Comiskey had begun his professional baseball career in Milwaukee as a $35-a-month pitcher for a team called the Alerts.1 In Cincinnati, Comiskey enjoyed only modest success, but he had the good fortune to become a drinking buddy of a pudgy sportswriter named Byron Bancroft “Ban” Johnson. Comiskey helped Johnson become president of the Western League, and in 1895 Comiskey joined his league. With the financial backing of Milwaukee businessman George Heaney, Comiskey became owner-manager of the Sioux City club, promptly moving it to St. Paul.2

At the same time, Cornelius McGillicuddy (Connie Mack) was managing the Pittsburgh Pirates to a level of mediocrity. In 1897 he found his way to Milwaukee to manage the Brewers in the Western League. He took up residence in a downtown hotel called the Republican House. Another resident of the Republican House was Matthew Killilea, a Milwaukee attorney who was president and part owner of the Brewers. Also within the same hotel was the law office of Henry Killilea, brother of Matt and co-owner of the Milwaukee Brewers.3 What’s more, Henry Killilea just happened to be the lawyer, confidant, and close friend of Ban Johnson. Henry Killilea would remain counsel to the American League for as long as Johnson remained president.4

Whenever Ban Johnson visited Milwaukee, which was often, he was a house guest of Henry Killilea. In summer and early autumn of 1899, Johnson and Killilea frequently discussed Johnson’s long-held intention of making the Western League into a second major league, to challenge the National League. Killilea’s daughter, Florence Boley, recalled at the time of Johnson’s death, “My father often told the story of how the American League was organized at our old home at 1616 Grand Avenue.”5 She remembered Johnson, her father, and Charlie Comiskey, among others, laying the plans for the new league.

Also present in the meeting were Matt Killilea, Milwaukee meatpacker Fred C. Gross, and local boxing promoter Tom Andrews. By Andrews’ description, this was no ordinary meeting. “Unlike most meetings among baseball men of that time,” Andrews said, “our gathering had no refreshments. As Johnson said, ‘Boys, we are here for business.’”6

The business was a new league to challenge the National League. Johnson’s message in Killilea’s parlor invoked fire and brimstone: “Our idea of forming a new major league is to invade the larger eastern cities. Don’t be discouraged if the National League tries to bluff us. Fight them with fire, gentlemen!”7

The first visible sign of the fight occurred on October 11, 1899, when the Western League convened its annual meeting in the Great Northern Hotel in Chicago. The meeting began in late afternoon, and within five minutes, W. F .C. Golt of Indianapolis made a motion, seconded by James Franklin of Buffalo, to change the name of the league to the American League. Initially the Milwaukee contingent opposed the change, but after a brief discussion, the vote was announced as unanimous in favor of the new name.8

Despite its nominal existence, however, the American League had yet to be created. After conducting some routine business— formally awarding the pennant, reading and approving the annual report—the owners broke for the evening. At 11:00 the next morning they reconvened. After agreeing to lengthen the season to 140 games, the owners and representatives adjourned at 2:00

P.M. until the spring meeting on March 14. At adjournment the league still included teams in St. Paul and Grand Rapids, although both were expected to move. Comiskey’s St. Paul club appeared headed for Toronto, but Cleveland was also mentioned.9

According to Chicago Inter-Ocean of October 12, 1899, “This much is certain, there will be a club in Chicago, with Tom Loftus [of Grand Rapids] at the head of it.”10 Loftus did not attend the meeting; he was attending the funeral of his former partner back in Michigan. The next day, however. The Evening Wisconsin reported, ‘The prospective holder of the prized Chicago franchise, it has developed, will not be Tom Loftus, as had been predicted, but Charley Comiskey Loftus, if he wanted it, can have the other new location, which, if expectations are realized, will be Toronto.”11

Completion of the new league’s eight-team alignment faced several obstacles. First and foremost, the placing of a club in Chicago would constitute a clear challenge to baseball’s National Agreement. Under this agreement, all minor leagues pledged to respect the territorial rights of the National League and to yield their players to the “draft rights” of the established major league at established prices. Ban Johnson’s clear intent was to violate that agreement.

Between the name change on October 11, 1899, and the start of March, 1900, surprisingly little was accomplished toward the creation of the new American League. Newspapers across the country reported continual rumors and threats concerning the future of major league baseball. The apparent strategy of the National League to combat an incursion on its Chicago territory was to intimidate Johnson and his allies with talk of placing rival minor league teams in American League cities. ‘That scheme of a revival of the old Western League is extremely practicable,” said Jim Hart, president of Chicago’s National League club, “and I have little doubt that it will be started.”12

Hart went on to say, “The National League rarely bluffs. Baseball without the National Agreement don’t amount to a pinch of snuff. This [Western] league can be organized under the protection of the National Agreement by simply sending out contracts and signing players. In a day or so, everything ready and no brain worry.”13

Johnson received Hart’s threat of competition with amusement. “The next thing we know,” Johnson said, “he will be planning a baseball tour over to that region across the Styx with the idea of playing with snowballs and batting with icicles.”14

Comiskey was no more intimidated than was Johnson. “I will either have a team in Chicago or else go on the police force,” Commie said. “I am tired of being the filler for the Western League. . . . I shouldn’t want to travel a beat, but I guess I could if worst came to the worst. I am pretty near six feet tall and weigh over 180 pounds. I ought to be able to qualify as a policeman.”15

Meanwhile the National League faced internal troubles. With failing franchises in a number of cities, the league looked to reorganize and consolidate. After eight years as a 12-team league, it looked to reduce its number of clubs, preferably to eight. Less than two months before opening day, however, it remained in flux. Ban Johnson ignored the National League’s threats and went about assembling his new American League. Besides Chicago, another obstacle Johnson encountered was Cleveland.

The NL team in that city in 1899, the Spiders, had set a new standard of futility, winning only 20 games while losing 134. The National League dropped the Cleveland franchise, but owner/ president Robison refused to allow an American League club to play in old League Park. In exchange for the use of the ballpark, Robison demanded that Johnson abandon his plan to locate Comiskey’s club in Chicago.16

Johnson traveled to Cleveland on February 28 to negotiate with Robison. The former Cleveland owner remained adamant. Johnson, though, was not to be denied. He arranged for two new owners, wealthy businessmen Charles Somers and J. F. Kilfoyle, to purchase the Grand Rapids club and move it to Cleveland. Rather than continue trying to deal with Robison, they made plans to construct a new ballpark in Cleveland for $12,000, in a more upscale neighborhood, to be completed in five weeks.17

On the evening of March 3, before returning home to Chicago, Johnson said, “I have worked on the Cleveland situation for weeks and weeks, and I am going away tonight the happiest baseball man that there is in the country, because I have solved the problem.”18 Before boarding his train, Johnson sent a telegram to President Killilea of the Milwaukee Brewers: “Closed Cleveland deal to-day. Highly satisfactory. Come to Chicago to-morrow.”19

Killilea did. He met with Johnson and Comiskey at the Great Northern Hotel. They discussed the success in Cleveland and strategized about Detroit. While Johnson had been in Cleveland, emissaries from Milwaukee, Gus Koch and J. D. O’Brien, had journeyed to Detroit with Johnson’s blessing to buy the ball club if the opportunity arose. The league wanted the club to remain in Detroit but wanted to oust owner George A. Van Derbeck. James Burns, of whom Johnson approved, was attempting to purchase the team from the reluctant Van Derbeck; complicating the situation was a lawyer seeking additional alimony for the former Mrs. Van Derbeck.20 In the Great Northern meeting, Killilea and Comiskey agreed with Johnson that the sale to Burns appeared likely, but they agreed to send Koch and O’Brien to Detroit just in case.

That night Killilea took the train back to Milwaukee. The next afternoon Johnson and Comiskey did the same. They caught a cab from Union Depot to the Republican House and met Killilea in Room 185. Also joining them were Connie Mack and Killilea’s brother. Henry. In the ensuing six hours on the night of March 5, 1900, baseball history was made.21

The discussion in the meeting centered on Chicago. They had long since decided to move Comiskey’s club into Chicago; now was the time to actually do so. With Cleveland in the fold and Detroit needing only to resolve a few legal issues, the final piece of the American League puzzle was the Chicago franchise. But this was a poker game. The National League and American League were playing for high stakes, and neither wanted to show its cards. The Nationals had not yet decided how many teams they would have or in which cities they would play. To illustrate the point, just before the annual spring meeting of the National League, on March 7, Ed Hanlon of Baltimore said confidently, “You may safely say that it will be a ten-club league. I am in a position to know and that is my prediction.”22 By the conclusion of the meeting, the National League had eight teams and Baltimore had been bought out.

If Comiskey filed articles of incorporation for his club in Chicago, as expected, the Windy City newspapers would be all over the story. That open declaration of war might influence the National League’s meeting and subsequent actions. Ban Johnson spoke defiantly when the National League threatened to place Western League teams in American League cities: “All right; let them go ahead. I think it is a bluff to scare us out.”23

But he was no fool. He was not seeking a challenge. What Comiskey and Johnson did instead was to incorporate not in Chicago but in Milwaukee—in Room 185 of the Republican House. Comiskey was not a Milwaukee or Wisconsin resident, so the signatory officers of the club were three Milwaukee businessmen: George Heaney, the insurance tycoon whose backing first allowed Comiskey to become an owner in Sioux City and who resided in the Republican House; William Lachemhaier, a clothier whose shop was near the Republican House; and Charles Friedrich, an attorney in Henry Killilea’s office. The signing of the incorporation papers was witnessed by Moritz Well, a notary public with office in the Republican House. Henry Killilea actually notarized the document.24

By eleven o’clock that Monday night, when the meeting broke up, the American League Base Ball Club of Chicago had been signed into existence. On Thursday the document was recorded by the Milwaukee County Register or Deeds.25 Eight days later, after the National League had reduced to eight teams, Johnson announced officially at an American League meeting in Chicago that Comiskey’s team would make its home at the old cricket club grounds at 39th and Wentworth in Chicago.26

That completed the American League’s eight-team alignment. The following day President Hart of the Chicago National League club conceded, saying that Comiskey’s team could play in Chicago without violating the National Agreement and could use the name “White Stockings,” a former National League team name, with the stipulation that the word “Chicago” not be part of the team name.27 This semantic face-saver was readily accepted by Johnson and Comiskey. They figured that fans would know which city the White Stockings called home.

The incipient American League played one year as a minor league. After the season ended, the league reorganized, dropped its clubs in Indianapolis, Buffalo, Minneapolis, and Kansas City, and added new teams in the East: Washington, Philadelphia, Boston, and Baltimore. With its new eastern members, the league went from regional to “American.” With two more teams in National League cities, it clearly had flouted the National Agreement’s territorial rights. It also stopped allowing its players to be drafted by the National League. The National Agreement was broken. The American League in 1901 was, by its own proclamation and in practice, baseball’s second “major” league.

 

Notes

  1. Milwaukee Journal, October 26, 1931.
  2. Milwaukee Sentinel, January 24, 1929.
  3. Milwaukee Sentinel, March 29, 1931.
  4. Milwaukee Journal, March 29, 1931.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Milwaukee Journal, October 12, 1899.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Chicago Inter-Ocean, October 12, 1899.
  10. Evening Wisconsin, October 13, 1899.
  11. Chicago Daily News, March 1, 1900.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Cleveland Plain Dealer, March 2, 1900.
  14. Chicago Tribune, March 3,
  15. Chicago Tribune, March 1, 1900.
  16. Cleveland Plain Dealer, March 8, 1900.
  17. Cleveland Plain Dealer, March 4, 1900.
  18. Milwaukee Sentinel, March 4, 1900.
  19. Detroit Free Press, March 1, 1900.
  20. Chicago Tribune, March 6, 1900.
  21. Milwaukee Sentinel, March 6, 1900.
  22. Chicago Daily News, March 7, 1900.
  23. Chicago Tribune, March 13, 1900.
  24. Articles of Incorporation of the American League Base Ball Club of Chicago, March 5, 1900 and City of Milwaukee Directory, 1900.
  25. Recorded Articles of Incorporation, Henry A. Verges, Register of Deeds, March 8, 1900.
  26. Chicago Tribune, March 17, 1900.
  27. Chicago Tribune, March 18, 1900.

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