The First Baseball War: The American Association and the National League

This article was written by Richard Hershberger

This article was published in the Fall 2020 Baseball Research Journal


Organized baseball is, among other things, a business structure: an ordered way of operating for the benefit of its member organizations. It follows that it is not established for the benefit of any outside organization. Should such an outside organization attempt to seize these benefits, either exclusively or (more often) alongside the existing establishment, a baseball war results.

Five great baseball wars have been waged by outside organizations: the American Association in 1882, the Union Association in 1884, the Players League in 1890, the American League in 1901–02, and the Federal League in 1914–15. We could, should we wish to complicate matters, add various skirmishes between established major leagues, principally the American Association and the National League in 1891. And if we were to add abortive attempts to establish a challenger that never played any games, the list would be considerably longer. So too if we add “outlaw” minor leagues, acting within a limited scope and only challenging the system inasmuch as it claimed authority over them. But the five great wars stand out.

The American Association (AA) war was modest compared with its later counterparts. It should not be discounted because of this. The AA war of 1882 set the pattern for future wars, and the settlement bringing it to a conclusion set the pattern for how major league baseball would be organized in the twentieth century.

Objectives and weapons

A baseball “war” is, of course, a metaphor. How does the war metaphor translate to baseball? Combatants go to war seeking to attain objectives, and use weapons to achieve these goals. What, in a baseball war, are the participants’ objectives, and what weapons do they use?

Organized baseball in its mature form is a collection of leagues arranged hierarchically, with procedures regulating their interactions, principally control of geographical markets and movement of players. The leagues higher in the hierarchy claim exclusive control of more desirable markets, and mechanisms are enacted to move better players up the hierarchy. The top of the pyramid is occupied by one or more leagues, defined as “major,” while the various tiers below the top were occupied by leagues defined as “minor.” In this developed form, the wartime goal of an upstart league is to force its way to the top tier.1

This system did not yet exist in 1882. The top tier existed in the form of the National League (NL), founded in 1876, but the lower tiers were as yet inchoate. Professional clubs had always existed outside the NL, but the manners in which they organized among themselves and interacted with the NL had not yet evolved to their later forms. The issues in dispute in 1882 were similar to those of later wars, but where the later hierarchical structure bundled the areas of dispute into a package, in 1882 these were distinct. They fell into four categories: (1) territories, (2) exhibition games, (3) player discipline, and (4) player contracts.

Territories would play only a minor role in 1882, unlike the later baseball wars, but the issue was not entirely absent. There was, as will be seen below, some maneuvering with regard to New York and Philadelphia. The results would be important in the long term, but in the short term the fight was not yet over territory.

Exhibition games between NL and outside clubs were more important. These were a substantial source of revenue for both sides. The NL Boston Club, for example, had revenues of about $30,000 in 1877, with over $7,500 of that from games with non-League clubs.2 The League was only too happy to use its strength to demand favorable terms. It regulated when and where League teams would play exhibitions. The rules varied from year to year, but a typical rule was to ban exhibition games on NL fields, so as to avoid watering down the attraction of championship (i.e. regular season) games. This was a break from the tradition of “home and home” series where the two sides would play a game on each field. The result was to exclude the non-League teams from access to the larger populations of most NL cities. The most onerous requirement was that for a guaranteed payment, even if the game was rained out. The playing of exhibition games with the NL on equal terms would be one goal of the AA.

Player discipline was a major issue in this era. The infractions covered a wide range of seriousness. The most extreme were players throwing games at the behest of gamblers. Four members of the 1877 NL Louisville club were found to have thrown games and were banned permanently. The League held the moral high ground with the Louisville four, but it could not resist the temptation to expel players for lesser offenses, ranging from drunkenness and insubordination to poor play. The League had a point. The drunkenness of ballplayers was legendary, and poor play sometimes was the result of a player receiving a better offer and “playing for his release.” On the other hand, poor play was more often the result of a lingering injury or simply a slump. A heavy-handed club management could rapidly make the situation intolerable for the players.

Expulsions were issued by individual clubs for specific offenses. The NL in 1881 expanded the disciplinary regime with the instigation of the “black list” for “dissipation and general insubordination.” The process consisted of club officers at a special meeting of the League sitting down together and drawing up a list of names, unencumbered by any pretense of due process.3

These disciplinary measures would be ineffective if the player could simply go elsewhere. The League extended its reach to non-League clubs by refusing to play any club that included an expelled player. This would entail the sacrifice of gate receipts from these exhibition games, but the League clubs were better able to sustain this loss than were the clubs subject to the ban. The League further extended this regime beginning with the 1879 season, forbidding play with any club that had played a club that included an expelled (and later black-listed) player.4 Non-League clubs complained about the League presuming upon them, but the measure had the desired effect of driving most expelled players out of professional baseball.

There was a right of appeal, but this was largely theoretical. In practice, players were only reinstated in extraordinary circumstances after being expelled or black-listed, with these extraordinary circumstances having more to do with NL interests than any sense of equity. A notable example was Edward “The Only” Nolan, expelled in 1878 for insubordination. He went to California, the only locale with professional baseball beyond the League’s reach. This became a problem for the League in 1879, when the Chicago club made a post-season tour of California. Nolan’s play rendered the entire California League ineligible for games with the Chicago club, so the League hurriedly reinstated him. The hypocrisy was not lost on the rest of the baseball community.5

While the Nolan case showed the system to be arbitrary and self-serving, Charley Jones was the exemplar for League abuse of the system. Jones played for the Boston club in 1880. On September 3, while the team was in Cleveland, he demanded $378 in overdue pay, and refused to play when it was not given him. He was fined and suspended, and then expelled for insubordination. The club’s argument was that while his contract called for him to be paid on the first of the month, standard practice was to delay payment while on the road, and that he would have been paid upon the team’s return to Boston. The club further claimed that he was using this as an excuse to be released so that he could return to his home in Cincinnati and play there. In legal terms the club was claiming that while it was in technical breach of contract, the breach was not material. Later litigation, however, brought out that his monthly salary was $250, making it clear that his pay was in arrears more than merely the two days the club acknowledged.6 It is entirely plausible that, given the state of the Boston club’s finances, they were indeed behind in their payroll. He sued in Ohio, and a protracted legal battle followed, featuring a seizure and subsequent release of the club’s baggage while in Cleveland, garnishment of its share of the gate receipts, and eventually a final judgment against the club.7 Jones’s legal victory established his position as a victim of League abuse and called into question the entire system of expulsions and black listing.

While the NL demanded that other organizations respect and enforce its disciplinary measures, it refused to similarly recognize theirs. This was a source of complaint, but there was nothing other organizations could do about it.8 The AA did not have any principled objection to the system of discipline, whatever critiques it might have of specific instances, but it demanded equal standing.

As important as the other disagreements were, disputes over player contracts were by far the largest. Clubs and players routinely entered into contracts intended to be legally binding, but in actual practice rarely turned to the civil courts. This was partly due to the expense of litigation and partly due to uncertainty—which proved entirely justified—over whether the contracts were in fact legally enforceable. (The legal issues will be explored further below.) Owners instead developed a parallel “baseball law.”

Baseball law went back to the 1860s, when the National Association of Base Ball Players created a judiciary committee. The National League considered itself the keeper of baseball law, while using it to advance its own interests. This manifested itself immediately in 1876. The League freely poached players from non-League clubs without regard to any existing contracts. Examples include outfielder Dan Collins, who abandoned the St. Louis Red Stockings for the NL Louisvilles, and pitcher Dale Williams who left Indianapolis for the NL Cincinnati club on the pretext of visiting his parents.9 At the League’s December 1876 meeting, the member clubs committed to respect non-League contracts beginning March 15, 1877.10 The implication was lost on nobody that the League considered itself free to disregard outside contracts until then. Nor was this a genuine commitment to respect contracts after that. The League created the “League Alliance” in the hope of including all non-League clubs. Members of the League Alliance ceded dispute resolution to the League in return for a promise by the League to honor Alliance club player contracts, implying that the NL still felt free to disregard contracts between players and non-Alliance clubs.11 The League through the 1870s never acknowledged any general obligation to respect contracts, and player contracts would always be the principal dispute in any baseball war. That the NL respect the AA player contracts was the AA’s highest priority.

These were the objectives in the baseball war. The weapons used might be direct threats against these objectives. An upstart league might, for example, be willing to take in players expelled by the older league, thereby threatening player discipline. The most important weapon was brute financial muscle: the ability to offer players in the competing league higher salaries. Ultimately, every baseball war came down to financial wherewithal.

Baseball 1876 to 1881

The dominant fact about professional baseball in the second half of the 1870s was that the national economy had fallen into a depression following the Panic of 1873. The baseball economy was affected by 1875 and would not see serious recovery until 1881. Nearly every development of organized baseball in this era was a response to economic stress. This reaches even to the founding of the National League in 1876. The predecessor National Association had structural weaknesses that were no longer sustainable, the most important being that it was an open organization. Any club could declare itself professional and join, without regard to its competitive or financial strength. The eight most financially sound clubs reorganized themselves into the National League.

The NL in its early years had constant turnover. League clubs were financially sound only compared with non-League clubs. The years 1876–80 saw a series of club failures, usually following the end of the season but in a few cases during it. Only two of the original members survived to 1880: Chicago and Boston (respectively the modern Cubs and Braves). The rest of the League lineup had to be replaced from one year to the next.

This had geographic implications that would be important during the AA war. The original lineup of clubs had a geographical footprint that formed a rough quadrilateral with the corners at Boston, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Chicago, similar to that of the major leagues in the first half of the twentieth century. As clubs dropped out over the next five years, the replacements were selected with an eye to minimizing travel expenses. By 1881 the League’s footprint was a line stretching from Chicago to Boston. Of the other six clubs, two were in modern major league cities (Detroit and Cleveland), two were in cities that were at least plausible (Buffalo and Providence—then the twentieth largest city in the country) while two were in cities obviously too small (Troy, New York, and Worcester, Massachusetts). This lineup would present the AA with the opening to form a more southerly circuit controlling larger markets.

Salaries were by far the largest expense for League clubs. They undertook various measures to reduce salaries. They repeatedly vowed to refuse to pay “fancy” salaries—a resolution that lasted only until a star player had multiple clubs bidding for his services. Various ideas were floated such as coming up with a system to rate each player’s ability and set a standardized pay schedule by position and skill class, or more simply to establish a salary cap for each position.12 Such schemes were never enacted, and in any case would have been unenforceable. The incentive to cheat on the salary cap would be too great.

Finally they arrived at the idea of the reserve system. (Today this is habitually called the “reserve clause,” but it was not yet a part of the player contract during the period in question, so it is here called the “reserve system” or simply the “reserve.”) Under this system the various NL clubs agreed not to negotiate with one another’s reserved players, forcing those players to sign only with the club that reserved them, negotiating salary from a weak position. The system started out modestly. It was limited to only five players per team, and no one claimed that this restriction prevented outside clubs from signing reserved players.

The reserve system was immediately criticized:

The plan said to be adopted by the League to prevent competition between the several clubs for the others’ players is open to criticism, as by it a League club could force a player who has been under contract with it the past season to either play at a reduced salary or play with no League club the coming year.13

Players understood exactly that the purpose of the reserve system was to suppress salaries, and they were not happy about it. The most prominent was George Wright, reserved by Providence. He refused to sign with Providence. Whether this was due to personal conflicts or merely money depends on whose version one believes. Either way, he became baseball’s first holdout.14

The reserve system would prove to be the foundation upon which organized baseball would be built, but that was in the future. Through 1882 it was a minor element of conflict. The NL’s reserved players were signed shortly after the close of the 1881 season, and were not pursued by the AA.

The National League clubs were comparatively well prepared to ride out the economic depression of the late 1870s. Non-League clubs had a harder time of it. This is not immediately apparent. The NA closed the 1875 season with eight active clubs. Six of these, along with two new organizations, formed the National League the following year, while the other two clubs also opened the season, for a total of ten openly professional clubs in 1876. The season of 1877 saw some forty or fifty.15 Superficially, this looks like a new golden age for professional baseball. The reality was different. Most of these were old clubs, which had been only nominally amateur. The NA had claimed to comprise all professional clubs, with all professional clubs competing for the national championship. Any club, therefore, that chose not to join the NA was by definition classified as amateur, regardless of the reality of paying players. The NL, being a closed organization, made no claim to comprise all professional clubs. This opened up the possibility of unaffiliated professional clubs. Developments in 1876 occurred too fast for clubs to take advantage of this, but going into the 1877 season clubs felt free to drop the pretense of amateurism.

This raised the question of how non-NL clubs would be organized, if at all. L.C. Waite, secretary of the Red Stocking club of St. Louis, circulated a letter dated September 23, 1876, to the various “non-League baseball clubs” to form an association.16 This would result in the International Association (IA—the “International” part reflecting its two Canadian members). Its main purpose was to prevent its members from poaching players under contract to another member. It also organized a championship, but with the key difference from either the old NA or the NL that participation in the pennant race was optional. A club could join the IA to protect its player contracts without incurring the expense of long-distance travel.

The mere existence of the IA presented a potential threat to NL hegemony. Exactly what form of threat requires skeptical scrutiny. Modern writers often present it as a direct challenger to major league status, like the upstart major leagues of later decades. They frequently point to IA clubs’ success against NL clubs in exhibition games. This misses the point. Later baseball history is filled with examples of major league clubs losing exhibition games to semi-pro teams. This doesn’t tell us those semi-pro teams were better, but that the major league clubs weren’t trying, often playing backups, particularly in the pitcher’s position. The major league club had nothing to lose. A victory would give the semi-pro club, on the other hand, collective prestige, and in the era before scouts these games served as tryouts for the individual players. Under such circumstances it is not surprising that the lesser club might win the game.

This was no mystery at the time, but the IA victories were publicized by Henry Chadwick, the foremost baseball reporter of the day. This mostly reflects Chadwick’s priorities. He had been cut out from the information loop when the NL formed. It took him a few years to get over the slight, and in the meantime used his bully pulpit to criticize the NL at every chance. Modern writers have taken Chadwick’s peeving at face value and concluded that the IA was a direct challenger to the NL. In reality its clubs mostly occupied second- and third-tier cities. Its best clubs often were tapped to fill vacancies in the NL, and almost always turned out to be tail-enders.17

The NL saw the IA as a threat, not to the NL’s superiority on the field, but to the NL’s hegemony. Were it to prove able to act collectively, it might be able to protect its player contracts against NL incursions and demand better terms for exhibition games.

The NL’s first response was to organize a competing organization, the League Alliance (LA). It promised the same protections as did the IA, with the added benefit of the NL’s promise to respect LA clubs’ player contracts, as well as the more questionable “benefit” of authorizing the NL to resolve any disputes. It also included a pennant race, but with the twist that it was determined strictly by wins in games between LA clubs, with no schedule. The individual clubs arranged as many or as few games as they saw fit.18 This gambit was partially successful, attracting most of the western clubs, while the IA was largely an eastern organization.

The LA in this form lasted only the season of 1877. The economy hit the LA clubs hard. Many folded, and those that survived did not bother to rejoin for 1878. The IA was also hit by the economy, but continued with fewer clubs. The NL devised a new gambit to play against the IA: divide and conquer. It imposed onerous conditions for exhibition games, then offered more favorable terms to select clubs. These terms were eagerly accepted, the IA lacking the cohesion to act for the common good.19 It was further reduced in 1879, and no longer having any Canadian clubs was renamed the National Association. 1880 was its last season, down to just two clubs by season’s end, the Rochester Club and the Nationals of Washington.

Midsummer of 1880 was the nadir of professional baseball. That August the Rochesters and Nationals played a series of games in Brooklyn. This was an act of desperation. Professional baseball was known to be thoroughly dead in the metropolis, killed off by a combination of the economy and the corrupt baseball establishment of earlier years. It was a surprise when respectable paying crowds turned out for the games. This led to the hurried formation of new clubs, formed by old players who had been laid off.

The most important of these was styled the Metropolitans. It was backed by John B. Day, a local cigar manufacturer who had been involved in amateur baseball. It was managed by James Mutrie, who had been kicking around minor clubs for several years. Day sublet a playing ground from the Manhattan Polo Association. The first game on the Polo Grounds, and in fact the first professional game played on the island of Manhattan, took place September 29, 1880, between the Metropolitans and the Nationals.20

The success of these late-season games led to a burst of baseball activity in 1881. The Eastern Championship Association formed with clubs from Washington to Albany, the Metropolitans taking the pennant easily, with only a reformed Athletic Club of Philadelphia as serious competition. Independent clubs played in the west, the most important in Cincinnati and St. Louis. This was the setting for the creation of the American Association in the fall.

The Coming of the American Association

The idea of a new association was in the air: not merely a regional association, but one of national scope. This association would be a true rival to the NL. Early canvassing started in August, when Horace Phillips and Charles Mason of the Athletics of Philadelphia journeyed west “on business appertaining to the club both for this and next season.”21 A report in September listed the prospective members as St. Louis, Louisville, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and New York.22 New York and Washington would not, in the end, be in the new league, but the list would prove otherwise accurate. These early efforts culminated in a preliminary meeting in Pittsburgh on October 10 with John Day of the Metropolitans elected president.23

The American Association was formally organized at a meeting in Cincinnati held over two days, November 2 and 3, 1881. Delegates were present from Cincinnati, St. Louis, Louisville, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Boston, Brooklyn, and New York. Two developments beyond the act of organizing would prove critical.

The AA considered the question of eligibility of players expelled by the NL. They finally adopted a resolution that “they would always refuse to hire players expelled by the League for drunkenness, dishonesty or any venal offense, and believed that that body should similarly act toward their black sheep…” This language was crafted to allow for the Cincinnati club to sign local favorite Charley Jones, which it promptly did.24

The second development was the inaction of the New York delegation, represented by James Mutrie, manager of the Metropolitans, and W.S. Appleton, one of the club’s financial backers. They encouraged the new organization, but declined to join it at that time. Immediately after the meeting they took a train to Chicago and conferred with NL President William Hulbert. Hulbert told them that the Jones matter would prevent harmonious relations between the two organizations. The Metropolitans had made a lot of money the previous season playing games with NL clubs. This would not be possible if they joined the AA. In light of later events, we can also read between the lines and speculate that Hulbert promised a NL franchise when one next came available. In any event, the Metropolitans announced that they were not joining the new AA after all.25

In the event, the AA ended up backing off its policy on NL expelled players. It voted at its meeting in March to prohibit the hiring of any player blacklisted by the NL, forcing Cincinnati to default on the Jones contract. This allowed for spring exhibition games between the two leagues, cynics entirely reasonably suspecting this to be the reason for the change of heart.26 At the same time Baltimore replaced Brooklyn, where the financing had failed to materialize. Nothing had ever come of the Boston membership, resulting in a six-team circuit: St. Louis, Louisville, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Baltimore.

The spring exhibition games proved a mixed blessing to the AA. While the revenue was important, the new league was embarrassed by an unbroken string of defeats at the hands of the senior circuit. While exhibition games generally are not a good indicator of relative strength, this applies more to a weaker side defeating a stronger one, the question being how hard the stronger side was trying. An unbroken string of victories by the presumed stronger league is especially embarrassing, suggesting that the stronger won effortlessly.

Baseball contracts and the law

The AA had made concessions about signing players on the NL blacklist. The NL did not return the favor. Its clubs poached several players already signed by AA clubs. The NL took the position of reserving the right to simply refuse to recognize the existence of the AA clubs. This was an expression of “baseball law,” unencumbered by the niceties of civil law. NL President Hulbert made this explicit in correspondence with Denny McKnight, the AA president, regarding the case of John “Dasher” Troy. Troy had signed with the AA Athletics before accepting a higher offer from the NL Detroit club. When McKnight protested, Hulbert responded:

For years the League has proffered the use of its machinery for the recording and enforcement of players’ contract to any and all Ball Clubs that chose to avail themselves of the conditions offered. Annually we have published in our book the form of agreement to be signed by Clubs that desired to avail themselves of the privilege. Not the slightest trouble has ever arisen between any League Club and League Alliance Club. … John Troy, by all our laws, is a player under contract with the Detroit Club, and no Club on earth can inflict any penalty on John Troy that the Chicago or any other Club in the League will recognize except it be inflicted by the Detroit Club or by the League.27

The AA, rather than endangering the spring exhibition season by expelling these players, determined instead to attempt to enforce the AA contracts through the civil courts, taking as their test case Sam Wise, originally signed by AA Cincinnati and then by NL Boston. This would be the first of a series of such cases stretching into the twentieth century. It would, like most of its successors, fail.

The legal point is that a court, under English and American law, cannot force someone to fulfill a contract. In legal language, this is “specific performance.” There are some exceptions to this principle, but contracts for personal service, such as to play baseball, clearly are not among them. The club need not pay the non-performing player, of course, but the court cannot force the player to play against his will.

This principle was well established and widely understood. The hope for the AA was not to force Wise to return to Cincinnati, but to prevent him from playing for Boston. There was an English case from 1852 in which a singer jumped a contract to sing at one theater after receiving a better offer from another. The court could not force her to sing at the first theater, but it issued an injunction restraining her from singing at the second.28

This hope proved futile, though the precise reason is unclear. The first round was in federal court, the court ultimately ruling in May that it lacked jurisdiction on technical grounds and this was a state matter. The matter was then moved to Massachusetts state court. A hearing was scheduled for June 5, but it never took place. Furthermore, the baseball press—after having followed the case closely—quietly dropped the matter. The usual explanation for litigation being quietly dropped before a hearing is that the parties have settled. This clearly was not what happened here. Rather, the Cincinnati Club expelled Wise two months later.29 What happened in the meantime? This is not reported. Perhaps the AA balked at the growing legal expenses. Perhaps it received legal advice that it would probably lose the case (as indeed it almost certainly would have, judging from the outcomes of later cases making similar arguments).

There was a second go-round in the fall, the player in question this time being Charlie Bennett. He had played the 1882 season for NL Detroit, then in August agreed to sign a contract for the 1883 with the AA Pittsburgh Allegheny Club, receiving $100 in advance money. Before signing the formal contract he jumped back to Detroit. The Allegheny Club sued him in federal court and lost on multiple grounds.30

The Wise and Bennett cases wouldn’t completely discourage clubs from turning to the courts to enforce player contracts. While these cases didn’t establish a precedent in the legal sense of the word, they set the pattern. Only rarely would the legal strategy prove effective.

The AA and NL Season of 1882

The AA’s actions in August, one of expelling Wise and the second of signing Bennett, constituted a declaration of war with the NL. The only alternative for the AA would have been to accept an inferior status, with whatever protection of player contracts the NL was willing to grant it. This was really no choice at all, so long as the AA had the ability to fight.

The AA was indeed able to fight, because the 1882 season had succeeded beyond all expectation. This is not merely an expression, but the literal truth. This is shown by the Cincinnati Club ownership question. A syndicate had been formed the previous summer to revive the sport in Cincinnati. Its documentation was, from a legal draftsmanship perspective, slapdash to the point of incoherence. This is not the act of businessmen expecting to turn a profit. Indeed, a cynic might suspect that they expected to lose money, and were entirely satisfied by vague personal responsibility for any debts. This changed when it became apparent that the club was going to turn a profit worth fighting over. It took two lawsuits for the courts to sort out the mess.31

The AA did very well. Exactly how well is hard to say. One report claimed profits ranging from $25,000 for St. Louis (saying that most of it was in beer sales) down to $5,000 in Baltimore. These numbers probably should not be taken too seriously.32 By way of comparison, and more likely to be accurate, the NL Worcester Club is said to have been slightly in the red, Boston about $4,000 in the black, and an actual financial statement from the Buffalo Club showed a profit of just under $4,000.33

While these numbers, especially the claims for AA profits, should not be taken as reliable, it is difficult to do better. On the revenue side, there are estimated attendance numbers, but they are even less reliable than their modern counterparts, and are difficult to convert to revenue. The NL charged fifty cents for general admission, while the AA charged only twenty-five cents. This does not mean, however, than the AA only got half per person. Both leagues charged an extra twenty-five cents for seating in the grandstand. Even with reliable attendance numbers, we don’t know how many fans paid for premium seating.34 Furthermore, the AA sold alcohol at games—the source of the “Beer and Whiskey League” nickname beloved of modern writers—while the NL did not, giving the AA an additional revenue source.35

On the NL side, finances were not quite so rosy. The rising tide of the economy lifted all boats, but the NL was not designed to receive the full benefit. It was laid out to minimize travel expenses, not to maximize revenue. The irony was that the improving economy of 1881 allowed Troy and Worcester, the NL’s weak sisters, to survive to play in 1882. This was the first time in the NL’s history that it fielded the same teams from one year to the next. Ordinarily one would take this as a sign of fiscal health, but here it meant that a quarter of the league wasn’t carrying its weight.

On the expenditure side, the AA again came out ahead. The previous year most of its players had been working day jobs while perhaps bringing in a bit on the side playing semi-pro ball. They were thrilled to be playing ball full time, and didn’t quibble over salaries. AA owners in later years looked back wistfully at the payrolls of 1882. But that was later. In 1882, the AA clubs benefitted from low salaries. The NL had the better players—players who had been negotiating their salaries upward for several years.

The upshot is that while we don’t know the true state of league finances, the AA did well enough that by August the AA owners found themselves in a position to fight. The Wise expulsion meant that postseason exhibition games were off the table. The Cincinnati Club, upon winning the AA pennant, arranged a series with NL clubs under the pretense that the club had actually disbanded and the players had been hired by an unnamed local businessman. Only four games were played, two with Cleveland and two with Chicago, splitting the results with each. The Cincinnati victories were the only games that year where an AA club defeated an NL club. The rest of the AA was unimpressed, and told the Cincinnati Club to end the games or be expelled.36

The NL realized that Troy and Worcester were no longer sustainable as league members, at least to the rest of the league. The league took the straightforward action of expelling both in a special meeting held September 22, adopting a resolution by a vote of 6 to 2 “declaring it the sense of the meeting that these clubs be not represented in the association next season.” This was in spite of neither club having violated any NL rule. Both complained, murmuring about taking legal action, but the writing was on the wall and both ended up submitting their resignations at the NL annual meeting on December 6.37

The NL now had two openings, which it used to good effect. New York and Philadelphia were the obvious locations to fill the slots. John Day’s Metropolitans filled the New York need. Alfred Reach, a former player turned sporting goods manufacturer who had fielded a Phillies team in 1882, took the second slot. Applications from both were received at the December meeting and promptly accepted.38

John Day of the Metropolitans then managed the neat trick of obtaining an AA franchise to go along with his NL franchise (the AA expanding to eight clubs, also adding Columbus, Ohio). Both leagues needed to enter the New York market. Day’s was by far the most established organization there, so both leagues wanted him. This put Day in the position to accept both offers. This, however, meant that he had two franchises with only one team. His solution was to sign the Troy players en masse, throwing all his players into one pool, and divvying them up again between his two franchises, the AA franchise ending up with the Metropolitan name. This is the source of the modern claim that the NL New York Club (eventually known as the Giants) was a transfer from Troy, and by the process of elimination the Phillies from Worcester. This would imply some compensation for the Troy and Worcester owners. They in fact received no such consideration.

The Peace Settlement

The AA’s newfound bellicosity, and their obvious ability to back it up, forced the NL to take them seriously. At the same time, the interests of both sides were for peace, especially with the potentially awkward New York situation, with its dual franchises under one ownership. Into this budding potential for peace stepped the newly formed Northwestern League. It had no desire to get involved in a fight with anybody, and so invited both leagues to meet with it to negotiate an agreement. The presence of an outside party might have had a calming influence. In any case, the NL made the overture, proposing a peace conference, which the AA accepted after much discussion—in the end only St. Louis voting for war.39

There were three major points of dispute: the sanctity of player contracts, the NL’s blacklist, and the reserve system. With everyone wanting peace, these proved susceptible to amicable resolution. The result was the first National Agreement, often called the Tripartite Agreement with the inclusion of the Northwestern League. This was the first of a series of such agreements that continue to today. Each party to the agreement agreed to respect the others’ player contracts. The NL reinstated the players on its blacklist except for those who had thrown games. The reserve was not only expanded to all three leagues, but expanded from five to eleven players per club—nearly the entire roster. This was a sticking point for the AA, as it would preserve the NL’s superiority on the playing field, but it was non-negotiable for the NL and the AA eventually came around. It also guaranteed member clubs exclusive territorial rights, apart from the fait accompli of shared territory in New York and Philadelphia. And so the first baseball war was over.40

Errors and omissions

No war is perfectly fought. Both the American Association and the National League made missteps. New York was the biggest prize. Either side might have had it to themselves, had they played their hand better.

On the AA side, they wavered over signing players on the NL’s blacklist, and Charley Jones in particular. It is entirely possible that New York would have joined the AA for 1882, had it not been scared off by the prospect of losing lucrative games with NL clubs. Had the AA early on declared the NL’s blacklisted players off limits, there would have been no barrier to these games. That they later reversed themselves showed indecision. Had the Metropolitans joined the AA for 1882 they likely would have done very well and taken a leadership role against the NL, blocking it from the New York market and possibly resulting in a very different later history of baseball.

On the NL side, they too could have had New York in 1882, and possibly Philadelphia as well. The Troy and Worcester problem was readily apparent in the fall of 1881. The correct move would have been to expel them then and invite Day and Reach to join the NL for 1882. This was before the AA was yet a fact, and the NL was the established and prestigious organization. Both Day and Reach would almost certainly have taken the opportunity. This would have blocked the AA entirely from New York, and even if it did not discourage the AA Athletics from even trying, it would have given the NL Philadelphia club a head start. (In the event, the Athletics would win the 1883 AA pennant, while the NL Philllies finished in eighth place, 46 games behind Boston. The net result was to firm up the Athletics’ fan base.)

Why didn’t the National League do this? There are two explanations frequently given. The first, which seems to be modern, is that William Hulbert, president of both the NL and the Chicago Club, had a grudge against the cities of New York and Philadelphia going back to 1876, when their respective clubs failed to complete the season. This explanation is highly unlikely. It makes Hulbert out to be petty and vindictive, and prepared to let these outweigh good business sense. He was cutthroat and ethically challenged, but not petty, and certainly not a bad businessman.

The second explanation has the benefit of coming from Hulbert himself. He gave an interview in July 1881 to a reporter about the prospects for 1882. The question of expelling Troy and Worcester in favor of New York and Philadelphia was discussed:

As one member of the League, he would never consent to any course toward any member of the body, no matter how weak, looking to securing its withdrawal, in order to let in any other organization, however strong, or however much it may promise in the way of patronage of the game. The present members, who had helped to build up and make the League the success that it is, had rights in it, and, as long as they did not see fit to withdraw from it, he would vote to retain them to the exclusion of all others. Whether all the eight would elect to remain in next year he did not know. If one of them, or two of them, should drop out, there would be so many places to be filled from the most available materials at hand; if not, he did not see any chance for outside applications.41

The problem with this explanation is that it is obvious nonsense. The NL under Hulbert had a history of kicking out member clubs to improve the circuit, and had never had any qualms about niceties such as its own rules, much less the club’s wishes. The most egregious was the Milwaukee Club after the 1878 season. The NL constitution at that time included a provision requiring a club to pay its players or be subject to expulsion. The Milwaukee Club ended the season with outstanding debts to some of its vendors, but its players were paid in full. Hulbert simply ignored the actual rule, pretending it said something it did not. Then following the 1880 season the NL made a new rule against liquor sales and expelled the Cincinnati Club (ignoring the procedures for this in the NL constitution) when it refused to agree. The idea that Hulbert and the other NL owners were so committed to high ideals as to sacrifice their own interests for the benefit of one of their members is simply untenable. Indeed, it would have been trivially easy to expel Troy and Worcester. The NL constitution required member clubs to be in cities of not less than 75,000 population, except by unanimous vote. Troy and Worcester were both well below that limit. The NL could simply have discovered a newfound commitment to that rule.

Why didn’t they? Hulbert was ill, and would die in April of 1882. This suggests the likely explanation is that he was off his game, and the rest of the NL followed along. Had he full command of his powers he would have foreseen what needed to be done and would have done it without hesitation. As it was, he had a moment of inattention and the moment passed.

Conclusion: What is a Major League?

Why did the American Association succeed? Of course it didn’t, in the long run, but in 1882 it was a resounding success. To explain this we turn to an apparently unrelated question: What is a major league? Most people would answer this with something along the lines that a major league is one playing at the highest competitive level. A league is major because it is good. This presents a paradox. The AA was a major league. It forced the NL to treat it as an equal. It is recognized as a major league by modern Major League Baseball, and this assessment rarely arouses controversy. Yet the AA in 1882 manifestly was not playing at the highest level. The humiliating exhibition games with the NL show this. The NL’s superiority is unsurprising. The NL, after all, had already picked its players before the AA starting hiring. NL managers were every bit as capable as AA managers at spotting talent. It is to be expected that the NL had the cream of the crop. The AA got better over the course of the decade, but this doesn’t answer how we justify classifying it as major in 1882. One fallback is that its major status is backdated from when it was actually good. The problem with this is that the American League of 1900 and the Federal League of 1913 are both classified as minor, then the following year as major. Why is the American Association not treated the same way?

We should instead regard major and minor status from a structural perspective. Organized baseball is a hierarchy of leagues, with one or more major leagues at the top and a descending ladder of minor leagues. Players move up the ladder according to their abilities, the best making their way to the majors. Why do the minor leagues allow their best players to leave? It is easy to take this for granted in the modern farm system, with major and minor league teams formally affiliating and with the major affiliate having complete control of all the players. But the movement of players is older than the farm system. So why were minor league teams willing to give up their best players?

The answer is brute financial force. Player contracts were not, as we have seen, legally enforceable. A major league team could simply offer the player more money. The minor leagues therefore took the best deal they could get, which the major leagues offered so as to maintain the flock of sheep to be fleeced. The majors could offer players more money because, in turn, they were located in larger markets and therefore had more revenue. A major league is one controlling major markets. This is why they have fiercely defended their territorial rights throughout the history of organized baseball.42 In other words, a league is not major because it is good. It is good because it is major. The system guarantees this. A league is major because it has the finances to act as a major league. This forces other leagues to respond to it, whether in peace or war, as a major league.

The system of major and minor leagues was not yet formed in 1882. The Tripartite Agreement is the founding document of the system, and also demonstrates its undeveloped state. The Northwestern League’s minor status is implied in the enactment of the reserve rule, which included a minimum salary for reserved players. This was not out of concern for the player’s wallet, but to prevent a team from stockpiling players it wasn’t actually paying. The AA and NL minimum was $1,000, while the Northwestern League minimum was $750. It was understood that the minor league would pay lower salaries. At the same time, the Northwestern League was a full signatory to the agreement and enjoyed full protections, as if it were of equal stature. This was not out of any great respect for the Northwestern League but rather a sign that the logic of the system had not yet been worked out, and in any case the AA and NL were not, in 1883, in direct competition with the Northwestern League for rising players. In any event, the national agreement would be renegotiated three years later, by which time the Northwestern League was defunct and the newer minor leagues were excluded.

This brings us to the explanation the American Association’s success, and spectacular success at that. The NL had abandoned the southern tier of major cities. This gave the nascent AA the opening to move in unopposed. Its control of major-league cities gave it the financial wherewithal to demand equal status with the National League. This was a nearly unique moment in baseball history. The only time like it would be 1900, after the NL reduced from twelve to eight clubs, abandoning both markets and players for the American League to snap up. It is no coincidence that the American League would become the only other successful new major league.

The AA would last ten years. The two major leagues merged following the 1891 season, with the AA the decidedly junior partner. This gives the AA the stench of failure. Why this came about is a topic for another day. In the meantime, we should not let later events obscure the triumph of the American Association of 1882 in the first baseball war.

RICHARD HERSHBERGER is a paralegal in Maryland and the author of the book “Strike Four: The Evolution of Baseball.” He has written numerous articles on early baseball, concentrating on its origins and its organizational history. He is a member of the SABR Nineteenth Century and Origins committees. Contact him at rrhersh@yahoo.com

 

Notes

1 The exception was the Players League of 1890, which sought to overturn the system entirely. Other challengers often used similar rhetoric, particularly with regard to the reserve clause, but showed little sign of meaning this seriously.

2 “Ball Talk,” New York Clipper, January 19, 1878.

3 “The League Meeting,” Cincinnati Enquirer, October 1, 1881.

4 “The League Convention of 1878,” New York Clipper, December 14, 1878.

5 “Expelling Players,” New York Clipper, August 24, 1878; “The League Meeting” October 11, 1879.

6 “The Jones Case,” New York Clipper, September 18, 1880; “Jones Sues the Boston Club,” Boston Herald, May 15, 1881.

7 “Baseball,” New York Clipper, June 4, 1881, July 2, 1881; “Base Ball Notes,” Boston Journal, October 11, 1881.

8 “The International Association forbids the engagement of any player who has been expelled from any association, while the League declines to recognize any other association, and allows any of its clubs to engage a player who has been expelled from the Internationals, or any other association.” “Notes and Gossip,” New York Sunday Mercury, March 10, 1878.

9  “A St. Louis Revolver,” New York Clipper, August 19, 1876; “Expulsion of a Player” August 26, 1876.

10 “The Professional Arena,” New York Sunday Mercury, January 7, 1877.

11 “Mr. Spalding’s Plan,” Chicago Tribune, January 21, 1877.

12 “Grading Professional Salaries,” New York Clipper, April 20, 1878; “Meeting of the National League at Providence Yesterday,” New York Sunday Mercury, August 11, 1878.

13 “Baseball Notes,” New York Clipper, October 18, 1879

14 “George Wright’s Wrongs,” Cincinnati Enquirer, March 28, 1880; “The Wright Case,” Chicago Tribune, April 4, 1880. Some modern writers repeat a claim that players considered being reserved an honor, reflecting praise upon their skill. This was a piece of League propaganda, repeated today by the credulous.

15 The exact number is somewhat arbitrary, as the line between fully professional and semi-professional clubs was loosely defined. Spalding’s Base Ball Guide for 1878, pp. 33-39, lists 33 professional clubs, plus the six in the NL and an additional 14 clubs “employing part of all of their players.”

16 “A New Movement Out West,” New York Clipper, October 21, 1876.

17 See, for example, Harold Seymour Baseball: The Early Years (New York, Oxford University Press, 1960) in which chapter 9, on the IA, is titled “The First Outside Threat.” The exception to IA clubs doing poorly in the NL is the 1878 IA Buffalo club, which went 46-32 to place third in the NL in 1879.

18 The 1877 LA pennant winner was the Red Caps of St. Paul. This raises an intriguing possible explanation for the widespread but entirely baseless claim that the Boston club was known as the Red Caps. Boston won the 1877 NL pennant. Perhaps some later writer confused the LA and NL pennants and mistakenly attributed “Red Caps” to Boston.

19 “The National League at Buffalo,” New York Sunday Mercury, April 7, 1878; “The Buffalo Conference,” New York Clipper, April 13, 1878.

20 Richard Hershberger, “September 29, 1880: Metropolitan club opens new Polo Grounds with a win,” SABR Games Project, https://sabr.org/gamesproj/game/september-29-1880-metropolitan-club-opens-new-polo-grounds-win

21 “Defeated by the Trojans,” Philadelphia Times, August 12, 1881.

22 “A New Association,” Cincinnati Enquirer, September 12, 1881.

23 There is a widely told amusing story that when few clubs turned up for an initial meeting, Horace Phillips sent telegrams to the others reporting the meeting a huge success, with everyone present except the telegram’s recipient and offering the chance to correct this omission at the next meeting. Some version of this story might be true, but it is significant that its earliest known publication is from 1884, and in this version it is Justus Thorner of Cincinnati who sent the telegrams, with Phillips not present at all. “The American Association: Who Was the Originator?—A Bit of History,” Sporting Life, June 25, 1884.

24 “The First Run,” Cincinnati Enquirer, November 4, 1881.

25 “Sporting Events,” Chicago Tribune, November 6, 1881.

26 “Sporting Matters,” Cincinnati Enquirer, March 14, 1882.

27 “Hulbert’s Hobby,” Cincinnati Enquirer, January 1, 1882. The claimed perfect relations with League Alliance clubs is disingenuous. The NL expelled the Nationals of Washington from the LA after the 1880 season, and divided the desirable players among the NL clubs.

28 28. Lumley v. Wagner, 42 Eng.Rep. 687 (1852). It was unremarkable for American courts to look to English precedents.

29 “Crushed Again,” Cincinnati Commercial, May 13, 1882; “Heavy Hitting,” Boston Herald, May 17,1882; “Base Ball,” Cincinnati Commercial, June 4, 1882; “Base Ball,” Cincinnati Commercial, August 5, 1882.

30 Allegheny Base-Ball Club v. Bennett 14 F. 257 (C.C.W.D.Pa. 1882). This case is more widely known than the Wise case, with a hearing resulting in an opinion on the substance, reported in legal reports. It is nonetheless widely misunderstood, with many modern writers, including many who should know better, confusing its issues with the unrelated reserve clause. See, for example, Richard L. Irwin, “A Historical Review of Litigation in Baseball.” Marquette Sports Law Review 1, no. 2 (1991): 283-300. Irwin describes the case as “The earliest litigation regarding the reserve clause…”

31 For the initial formation, see “Clapps Detective Agency,” Cincinnati Enquirer, June 16, 1881; and “Base Ball,” Cincinnati Enquirer, June 24, 1881. For the lawsuits, see “John R. Mclean vs. O. P. Caylor” Cincinnati Gazette July 15, 1882; “Base Ballists at Outs,” Cincinnati Commercial, September 28, 1882; “Honors Easy,” Cincinnati Commercial, October 8, 1882; “The Courts,” Cincinnati Commercial, December 3, 1882: and “Base Ball,” Cincinnati Commercial, December 31, 1882.

32 “Battles at the Bats,” Philadelphia Times, September 3, 1882.

33 “Base Ball,” New York Clipper, October 7, 1882; “The Boston Club,” New York Clipper, December 30, 1882; “Base Ball,” Cincinnati Enquirer, December 24, 1882.

34 Scattered reports over the 1880s stating the number of people in the grandstand suggest that a reasonable approximation of average gate receipts per fan in the AA was about 5/8 that in the NL.

35 The NL Cincinnati Club prior to the 1880 season sold the refreshment “privilege” (i.e. concession) for $2,000. “Base Ball,” Cincinnati Enquirer, January 25, 1880. How much this would be, were alcohol not included, is unknown. So too is the profit the concessionaire made, though presumably it was enough to be worth his while. It is reasonable to estimate that alcohol sales to the larger crowds of 1882 resulted in several thousand dollars of profit per club, some clubs splitting this with a concessionaire and some selling alcohol directly.

36 “It Ended Well,” Cincinnati Commercial, September 24, 1882; “Base Ball,” New York Clipper, October 7, 1882.

37 “The Late League Meeting,” New York Clipper, September 30, 1882; National League minutes for the special meeting held September 22, 1882, and the annual meeting held December 6, 1882: Constitution and Playing Rules of the National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs. Chicago, 1882. The minutes for the special meeting do not include the resolution, suggesting that it was unofficial, but no less effective for it.

38 National League minutes for the annual meeting held December 6, 1882: Constitution and Playing Rules of the National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs. Chicago, 1882. A letter from Day dated September 22, 1882, applying for membership was sold at auction by Christies in 2016. Persistent reports claim that Reach was less eager to join the NL, preferring to field an independent team, but was persuaded that an NL franchise was going to be placed in Philadelphia with or without him, for which see “Seven Straights,” Cincinnati Enquirer, September 28, 1882.

39 “The American Association Convention,” New York Clipper, December 16, 1882; “The League Convention,” New York Clipper, December 16, 1882; Cincinnati Commercial December 17, 1882.

40 “The Work of the Conference,” New York Clipper, February 24, 1883.

41 “League Figures,” Cincinnati Enquirer, July 11, 1881.

42 Compare this with the English system pioneered by the Football Association, which lacks territorial rights and includes promotion and relegation of clubs. The combination of territorial and league franchise rights is inherent in the American system.

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