The Union Association War of 1884

This article was written by Richard Hershberger

This article was published in Spring 2024 Baseball Research Journal

The Union Association of 1884 can seem puzzling. It is classified as a major league, yet it lasted but one season, with a low level of play, absurdly poor competitive balance within that low level, and an odd selection of cities, several of them changing over the course of the season. Some people question its major league status, and it is not hard to see why. Even apart from its status, the decisions behind it can seem mysterious.

The mystery of these decisions comes from our modern perspective, knowing what we know now about how organized baseball would develop. They make much more sense viewed in the context of 1884. This paper will show that while some of these decisions were wrong, they were not irrational.


Early baseball history featured a series of challenges to the established leagues by various upstarts. The first of these, by the American Association (AA) to the National League (NL), was resolved fairly quickly and painlessly in early 1883, with the AA taking its place alongside the NL as a major league.1 The peace did not last long. The second war broke out a year later, with the new Union Association (UA) taking on both established major leagues. The first war had been minor and the following peace straightforward. The AA had moved into unoccupied territories and signed players the NL had for the most part passed on. The actual disputes proved not worth losing money over. The UA faced a different reality. It had to fight for territories and players already claimed by the established leagues. This fight was short and ugly.

The AA, the NL, and the minor Northwestern League (NWL) signed the National Agreement of 1883, giving it the nickname of the Tripartite Agreement. This agreement protected the member clubs’ territories, player contracts, and reserve lists. The AA and the NL, as befit major leagues, had broad geographical footprints encompassing both the East and the West, which at that time referred to the region east of the Appalachian Mountains and the region between the Appalachians and the Great Plains. The NWL occupied a smaller geographic footprint with smaller cities, befitting a minor league, with clubs in Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio.

To this list of leagues should be added the Interstate Association. While not a signatory to the National Agreement, it allied itself with the AA, protecting its player contracts and making it a de facto party to the agreement. It comprised mostly smaller Eastern cities in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and New York.

The 1883 season was a financial success. The surest sign of this was that the Tripartite Agreement leagues ended the season with the same clubs they opened with. The Interstate Association lost two clubs along the way, but the bulk of the league completed the season. The successful season led to further growth in the fall, with more clubs and more leagues joining in the fun and, hopefully, profit. The NWL grew to 12 clubs, expanding into Wisconsin and Minnesota. A new Eastern League (EL) was formed, replacing the old Interstate Association. The EL was organized first as the Union League, but the name was changed to avoid confusion with the UA.2 To this we can add lesser leagues. Some of those were outside the geographic region of the major leagues, such as the Western League, centered on Iowa and Missouri. Others, such as the Iron and Oil Association of western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio, were within the footprint of the majors, but in smaller cities.

The first rumor of the UA came in late August 1883, with word of an “independent base ball association” forming, with clubs from across the country and, most significantly, “to ignore the ‘eleven men’ rule, now in vogue in the League and the American Association.” In other words, it would disregard the established leagues’ reserve lists. The first meeting took place on September 12, 1883, with representatives from Chicago, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, Richmond, St. Louis, New York, and Pittsburgh. The meeting resolved to respect signed player contracts but refused to “recognize any agreement whereby any number of ball-players may be reserved for any club for any time beyond the terms of their contracts.” That is, it regarded as fair game players under reserve but who had not yet signed contracts for the following season.3

The UA included, or would come to include, many experienced baseball men. Among them were Thomas Pratt of Philadelphia, a businessman who had been a star pitcher in the amateur era. A.H. Henderson was a Baltimore businessman with connections to Chicago, where he led the UA club. In the 1870s he had been one of the movers of Baltimore’s first professional club. Michael Scanlon had founded the Washington Nationals club, the second of that name, in 1877. After the 1880 season he was double-crossed by the NL, which had promised a franchise to him, inducing him to invest in upgrading the team. The NL went instead with Detroit and trumped up an excuse to raid his team of its best players.4

Justus Thorner of Cincinnati had been president of the 1880 Cincinnati club, which the NL expelled on questionable grounds.5 Finally, there was former star shortstop George Wright, a late addition to the UA. He was by this time retired from the field, and co-owner of the sporting goods firm of Wright & Ditson. The UA was his bid to expand his firm’s share of the baseball market.

These were not baseball innocents. They were old baseball hands who went into this with their eyes open.

At the same time, viewed realistically, the UA had modest prospects. Initially, it was a gauzy construct. No one had yet committed serious money. It is entirely possible that nothing would have come of the project, or that the actual league would have been of more modest geographic scale and would have acceded to the established reserve lists. The EL had also initially rejected the reserve lists, but had been brought around in the end and signed the National Agreement.6 It is likely that the UA would have worked its way around to the same conclusion and retrenched. Then came Henry V. Lucas.


The two salient facts about Henry Lucas are that he was a baseball enthusiast and that he was rich. Not only was he rich, he was old money, at least by St. Louis standards. His grandfather, Jean Baptiste Charles Lucas, had been appointed by President Thomas Jefferson to the newly purchased Louisiana Territory, where he was commissioner of land claims and a judge in the territorial court. He used his position to good effect, coming to be the wealthiest man in St. Louis, owning much of modern downtown. Only two children, a son and a daughter, survived him, keeping the family fortune intact. His surviving son was James H. Lucas. Several of James’s sons were involved in early baseball in St. Louis. Robert Lucas, born in 1850, played for the Union Club. This was one of the best, and certainly the most fashionable, of the baseball clubs in St. Louis in the 1860s. John B.C. Lucas, born in 1847, was president of the first professional club in St. Louis, the original Brown Stockings of 1875–77.7

Henry was their younger brother, born in 1857. He shared the family passion for baseball. He laid out a diamond on his country estate at Normandy, just outside the city, where he played right field on an amateur club he sponsored. This was all well and good, but he wanted something bigger. He wanted to own a major-league club. There was, however, already a major-league club in St. Louis, and it was not for sale.

The St. Louis Brown Stockings of the American Association were principally owned by Chris Von der Ahe, a colorful German immigrant adept at shrewd business maneuvers and playing the clown. He had been involved in St. Louis baseball since at least 1875, when he was on the board of directors of the amateur Grand Avenue Club. In 1881, as baseball was beginning its recovery from the depression of the late 1870s, Von der Ahe saw where things were heading and managed to gain control of both the only enclosed grounds in St. Louis and the semi-professional club playing there. These were the Brown Stockings, the direct ancestors of the modern Cardinals, and, in 1882, a charter member of the AA.8

Von der Ahe was sitting on a gold mine and he knew it. The Brown Stockings would make him rich, carrying him far past the modest prosperity of a local small businessman. Baseball franchise pricing was not yet well understood. The tangible assets of a baseball club were (and still are) comparatively modest. The value was in the intangible assets: the right to compete in a league, the territorial protection this conferred, and the reserve rights to its players. No one knew what these were worth, especially in a major market with bright prospects—which St. Louis was at the time. Purchases are difficult when no one knows the value. Lucas was rich enough that he might have been able to make Von der Ahe an offer so extravagant as to be accepted, but such a valuation of a baseball club was not yet imagined.

Lucas could more realistically have bought into some other existing club. A common ownership model at this time was of many small shareholders, typically local businessmen acting out of civic boosterism and enthusiasm for the game as much as any expectation of making a profit. Lucas might in theory have been able to buy up shares in a club somewhere else, but this was not what he wanted. He was a St. Louis man. That is where he wanted his club.

The incipient UA was the solution to Lucas’s problem. His involvement at the initial meetings is not clear. The St. Louis delegate, Ted Sullivan, was another old baseball hand who would go on to manage Lucas’s club. He may have been Lucas’s agent all along, or they might have combined efforts as the UA began to take form. Either way, Lucas showed his cards by the end of October, openly discussing his new club and dismissing the reserve rule. His wealth, and his readiness to spend on baseball, would strengthen the UA’s resolve.9


Seven of the eight clubs that opened the UA season were based in plausible major league cities: Chicago, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, and Boston. All but Washington already had one or more major-league teams, making this lineup a declaration of war. Seven clubs also left a gap, filled by Altoona, Pennsylvania. Altoona looms large with modern critics of the UA, being the smallest home city in major-league history. The Altoona franchise proved a mistake. The club played only 25 games, 18 of them at home, posting a 6–19 record before disbanding. This was a failed experiment, but there was reasoning behind it that merits examination.

The decision for where to place the eighth franchise was made under two constraints that would not apply today. It had to be a western city, and there had to be local ownership.

It had to be a western city because of how games were scheduled in the railroad era. A league was divided into western and eastern halves. The schedule cycled through the eastern teams going west, the western teams going east, and the teams in each group playing among themselves. This was the only way to minimize non-playing travel days, once the number of games reached a certain point. With 112 games scheduled, the same as the other major leagues, this scheme was necessary. There had to be two geographical groups of four teams.

Filling the western half often was a problem in the 1870s and ’80s, as western cities were farther apart than eastern cities, and many in good locations were of marginal size. Chicago, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and Louisville were the most stable western baseball cities. Others wandered in and out. Indianapolis had NL franchises in 1878 and 1887–89, and an AA franchise in 1884. Cleveland was in the NL from 1879 to 1884, then in the AA 1887–88. That team then jumped to the NL, where it played 1889–99. Similar histories of intermittent franchises are found in Columbus, Milwaukee, Detroit, and Kansas City.

The American Association expanded to 12 clubs specifically to exacerbate the UA’s problem. It brought in clubs in Indianapolis and Toledo (the 1883 NWL champion moving to the AA), which, along with its existing franchise in Columbus, blocked the UA from the midsized midwestern cities. At the same time, it gave a franchise to Washington in what would turn out to be a failed attempt to block the UA there, while taking advantage of the situation to bring in Brooklyn, by far the most desirable open market, from the old Interstate Association. This left the UA five flawed possibilities: Pittsburgh, Detroit, Cleveland, Kansas City, and Altoona.

Pittsburgh, Detroit, or Cleveland would seem the obvious candidates. They already had major-league teams, and it is unlikely they were large enough to support two, but they were unquestionably major-league cities that would reasonably fit within the UA’s western half. Here we come to the second constraint: local ownership.

Baseball club ownership in the 1880s was extremely local, organized as an association of local businessmen. While the hope was to make money, the reality was to spread the risk. The point was civic pride as much as expectation of profit. A league did not simply decide to place a team in a city. It had to find local owners. Finding money men able and willing to bankroll a club in a distant city was unlikely, and there still would be the problem of getting the operation up and running without any local ties and with only a few months before the opening of the season. This simply was not in the cards.10

The UA made an effort to recruit potential owners in Detroit, but nothing came of it. It had a good lead in Pittsburgh in the person of Al Pratt, another old baseball hand, but the AA’s Pittsburgh team blocked that effort through the simple, if costly, expedient of renting both available grounds. Cleveland is a cipher. If there was ever a prospective owner approached, it was not reported. In the event, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland were all out of the picture.11

Kansas City had some distinct advantages. It was small but it was wealthy, its stockyards second only to Chicago’s. Baseball enthusiasm also ran high, so much so that in 1886 the Missouri Pacific Railroad would name four of its stations after baseball players. (One survives to this day: the very small town of Bushong, Kansas, named after Albert “Doc” Bushong of the St. Louis club.)12 Kansas City’s location, however, was a major disadvantage. The train ride from St. Louis took a minimum of 10 1/2 hours under ideal conditions.13 Travel times between St. Louis and Chicago or Cincinnati were comparable, but St. Louis was a major metropolis that served well as the western anchor of a league. Kansas City could only be an appendage, a costly drag on the league schedule. The result was that Kansas City would be in and out of the major leagues, serving as the fallback for a league that could not find anything better.

Altoona was the ultimate fallback for the UA. It is in the Allegheny Mountains, where it was founded by the Pennsylvania Railroad for a major maintenance facility. Financially, with its railroad money, the town played above its weight class. Its position on the railroad’s main line made it convenient for scheduling. The hope was that these would compensate for its small size. This hope was forlorn, but not irrational. It soon became clear that the Altoona club was unsustainable, even with Lucas subsidizing it. He contacted Kansas City backers, who quickly raised the funds necessary as Lucas wrapped up affairs in Altoona and gathered a cadre of players for Kansas City.14


Recruitment of major league–caliber players was the heart of the matter. If the UA was to establish itself in cities that already had major-league teams, it had to put a good—or at least good enough—product on the field

Player recruitment presented a novel problem. When the first professional organization, the National Association, formed in 1871, its membership was made up of clubs that already existed. When the National League formed in 1876, it was largely a reorganization of the National Association clubs that had competed in 1875. When the American Association formed in 1882, it caught the wave of a rising economy, with many plausibly major league–level players available and eager for work. But 1884 was a different matter. With two established major leagues, two high minors, and various lower-level leagues, there were no surplus players to be had.

This was a problem even for the established major leagues. With small rosters, any injury or poor play would require a replacement. It was possible to pay another club to release a player, while simultaneously negotiating a contract with him, but this was slow and expensive. The established major-league clubs tried an experiment of establishing “reserve” teams, and even setting a schedule for them to compete for a pennant: a rudimentary farm system decades before Branch Rickey brought the idea to maturity. The idea was premature. The economics did not support it, and most of the reserve teams were disbanded before the season was over. It is not clear that the experiment was a response to the UA threatening to make replacement players scarcer than they would be otherwise, but it is suggestive that 1884 was the year this was tried.15

In the meantime, there was only one possible solution for the UA (and all future challengers to the baseball establishment): Try to hire players away from the established leagues. Everyone preached the principle that a signed contract was sacrosanct. But what about a player who had been reserved, but had not yet signed a contract?

This was not yet the “reserve clause,” a part of the player’s contract. The reserve was an agreement between owners allowing each club to make a list of a set number of players whom the other owners would not sign. It was, in other words, open collusion. The system had been introduced following the 1879 season, with NL owners each able to reserve five players. This was expanded to 11 in the Tripartite Agreement. Since this was merely an agreement among owners, both players and outside associations would seem to be on firm ground holding that the reserve had nothing to do with them. Leagues not a party to the agreement could sign whom they pleased, and players were under no obligation until they signed a contract.

That was the theory, but not the practice. In reality, when the UA passed a resolution that “we can not recognize any agreement whereby any number of ball-players may be reserved by any club for any period of time beyond the term of his contract with said club,” the established leagues responded vigorously.16 The NL and AA followed the same manual as the NL had two years earlier in its fight with the AA: refusing to play exhibition games, which were financially important at that time. Both leagues now refused to play exhibitions with any club that played with the UA. The more important weapon was player discipline, with the NL and AA expelling reserved players for signing with the UA. This was done via the Day resolution, proposed by John B. Day, owner of the New York franchises of both the NL and the AA. Here is the version adopted by the NL:

Resolved, That no League Club shall, at any time, employ or enter into contract with any of its reserved players, who shall, while reserved to such clubs, play with any other club.17

The Day resolution raised the stakes for any player tempted to join the UA, but not as high as it could have. It penalized players not for signing a UA contract, but for actually playing in a game on a UA club. The AA and NL would happily take back an errant player who renounced a UA contract before actually playing a game. The talk of signed contracts being a line not to be crossed was pure hypocrisy. The established leagues recognized no contracts but their own.

In the meantime, players could play both sides:

Hanlon, the left-fielder of the [NL] Detroit Club, has resigned from [sic: should be “signed with”] that organization. He had been reserved by the Detroits, and for a long time refused to sign. When he threatened to go to the Cincinnati Unionists, the Detroits weakened on their bluff and decided to give him the salary he had stipulated. The Lucas Union Clubs may not be successful, but they can be thanked for compelling the League and American Association to pay dearly for passing such an unjust and tyrannical rule as that of reserving eleven players.18

The threat also forced the established leagues to measures such as the NL New York club signing pitcher Mickey Welch to a two-year contract, which was nearly unheard of in this era. Even well into the season, the UA was disruptive. In early July, it revoked its earlier policy of respecting NL and AA contracts and renewed its recruitment efforts. “Discipline has gone to the dogs,” observed one unidentified NL manager, and the UA was said to have agents in every city making extravagant offers.19

The UA tried to make the fight a matter of principle. Players did not like the reserve rule, which often was compared with slavery. Here, an editorial offers a comparatively measured critique:

Let the eleven men reserve rule be repealed, or else let the players organize and resist its operations. The Sporting Life does not counsel any measure that may injure the national game, of which it is one of the most earnest and enthusiastic exponents and supporters. Harmony between managers and players is essential to success. But we do insist that the laborer is worthy of his hire, and that the ball player is a man and a citizen, and not a slave, and as such is entitled to all the rights and privileges of a free man.20

The topic offered ample possibilities for those inclined to rabble rousing:

The reserved players in the League and American Associations should wear high dude collars to hide the iron band put around their neck by the reserve rule.21

The UA worked the theme:

The [UA Philadelphia] Keystone Club enunciates its principles in this, its initial season, by declaring that:

I. Believing it has the right to exist it has come to stay.

II. It recognizes the inviolability of contracts and would refuse the services of the finest player if under agreement with the smallest amateur club in the country.

III. The reserve rule is not part of a player’s contract, but is a mere club regulation without the former’s consent, to take effect after the termination of such contract.

IV. Its enforcement is exacted by the law of might, not right, and should be resisted by every manly player worthy the privileges of a freeman.

Against such an arbitrary, one-sided, unlawful and un-American violation of the rights of ball players the Keystone club, for itself and colleagues, protests and invokes the approval and support of all the citizens of Philadelphia who love fair play and despise the tyranny of monopolies.22

In the end, few players actually made the jump. Regardless of their feelings about the reserve system, the established leagues were the better bet for stable employment. Many players were happy to use the UA as a bargaining chip, even going so far as to sign contracts, but most returned to their clubs. Most of the players, and especially most of the prominent ones, who signed with the UA and stuck with it did so with Lucas’s St. Louis club, his wealth allowing him to make offers both extravagant and credible. This led to the competitive imbalance that is a notable feature of the UA, with St Louis ending the season 21 games ahead of second-place Cincinnati.


The season was neither an artistic nor a commercial success. It could hardly have been otherwise, dominated as it was by competitive imbalance. Cincinnati’s second-place finish, 21 games behind St. Louis, fails to capture the state of affairs. Add that Cincinnati held what would, in normal circumstances, be an excellent 69–36 record, and it is more clear how steep was the drop-off.

We have seen that Altoona dropped out at the end of May after 25 games. Its replacement by Kansas City provided stability over most of the summer, but the Keystone club gave up the ghost in early August, reportedly having lost over $10,000. Confidence in the UA nonetheless remained high. Three players, including star shortstop Jack Glasscock, jumped from the NL Cleveland club to the UA Cincinnati club. The Wilmington club jumped from the Eastern League to take Keystone’s place.23

Chicago was the third club to collapse. It did this in a more complicated way. The club announced on August 19 that it was moving to Pittsburgh. This on its face contradicts the earlier discussion about why the UA could not put a team in Pittsburgh, as it lacked local connections and both local ball grounds, Union Park and Exposition Park, had been secured by the city’s AA club. The claim had been that the AA club was going to field a reserve team in Exposition Park while the main team played at Union Park. This might have been true, or it might have been a move to block the UA all along. Either way, by August the club had relinquished its control of Exposition Park. This opened it up for the UA Chicago club to transfer there, splitting the gate receipts with the proprietors, the Exposition Park Association.24

This leaves the matter of local ownership. Partly, the transfer was a desperation move improvised on the fly, making thinkable the previously unthinkable. Partly, the Exposition Park Association could be expected to play the role of local ownership. Mostly, there was less here than meets the eye. While this was presented as a genuine transfer, it was timed for when Chicago would play St. Louis, by far the biggest attraction in the UA. They played a five-game series in Pittsburgh, then played the rest of their games on the road, including one nominal home game in Baltimore, again against St. Louis. This looks less like a genuine transfer and more like a marketing stunt to gin up interest in a series at a neutral site. Modern sources take the transfer at face value, but this is generous.

To complete the tale of woe, the Chicago/Pittsburgh club and the Quickstep Club of Wilmington both collapsed in mid-September, replaced by Milwaukee and St. Paul, respectively, who emerged from the wreckage of the Northwestern League’s own collapse. Of the original eight UA clubs, five (St. Louis, Cincinnati, Boston, Baltimore, and Washington) completed the season.

It was not all grim for the UA, however. There were some bright spots. The St. Louis club was essentially immune to market forces, backed as it was by Lucas’s riches. The UA Cincinnati club also did pretty well. It had stolen a march on Cincinnati American Association club, whose lease on its grounds was set to expire before the 1884 season. The AA club had not anticipated any difficulty renewing the lease, giving the UA club an opening to sneak in. The result was that the UA club had the best playing ground in Cincinnati, while the AA club had to scramble to find a replacement. The UA Cincinnati club came out of the 1884 season solvent and expecting to play in 1885.25

The UA Washington club was another success. It beat the AA Washington club into submission while reportedly turning a profit. The two Washington clubs had entered the fray on equal footing. Both were new organizations, with no fan base predisposed to favor either. Neither were good, but the UA team’s 47–65 record looked good compared to the AA team’s 12–51. The most important difference was their playing grounds. The UA club’s ground was immediately north of the capitol, near present-day Union Station. The AA club played on a site over a mile away. While not a terrible location, it could not complete with the UA site for convenience.26 The AA club disbanded in early August, the UA giving a twist of the knife by holding a benefit game for the AA players who had not been paid. The AA vacancy was filled by the Eastern League Virginia Club of Richmond. Interestingly, the position was initially offered to the Quicksteps, who declined, instead taking the UA vacancy left by the Keystone club a week later.27


The UA closed the season expecting to return in 1885. Over the course of the fall, ambitions were reduced somewhat. The economics did not support the travel expenses of its large geographic footprint, leading to the anticipation that the eastern clubs would drop out. The rumors proved true. At the annual meeting in December, Baltimore sent a resignation, while Boston and Washington simply did not show up. The Boston and Baltimore clubs would dissolve. The Washington club had a brighter future. After a failed attempt to join the AA for 1885, it settled on the Eastern League. This proved wise, as the following year it joined the National League, where it played 1886–89.28

With the loss of the eastern clubs, the plan was to field what today we might call a quadruple-A league, with clubs in St. Louis, Cincinnati, Kansas City, Milwaukee, and St. Paul, plus three more cities to complete the circuit. Toledo, Detroit, and Cleveland were reported to be their target. A meeting was set for a month later to consider applications for membership.29

A bombshell fell before the meeting took place: The UA St. Louis club was joining the National League, the UA Cincinnati club also maneuvering to get in. Rumors had been floating around for weeks, which Lucas had denied. He and Justus Thorner of Cincinnati had been two-timing their UA partners.30 A rump meeting of the UA came off, only Kansas City and Milwaukee in attendance. They knew what course of action was needed: abject surrender to the established major leagues. They declared the Union Association to be dissolved and set about forming a new Western League that would follow the rules of the National Agreement.31

There were various loose ends on the NL side. The admission of Lucas’s club was predicated on there being a vacancy. Lucas arranged this by buying out the Cleveland club, $500 down and another $2,000 when his membership in the NL was finalized. (Cincinnati’s hopes were based on Detroit’s anticipated readiness to also resign, but this hope proved unfounded, and Cincinnati seems not to have offered any financial inducement.) Cleveland had been particularly hard hit by the events of the previous season, with rising salaries and losing players to the UA. They were ready to sell out. They took a parting shot, arranging the transfer of the bulk of their players to the AA Brooklyn club.

This took Lucas by surprise. One account from the time, often repeated nowadays, was that he thought he was buying the reserve rights as well. This is unlikely. The idea of reserve rights being something that could be transferred did not yet exist. Technically, Lucas did not buy Cleveland’s franchise, but rather paid it to resign from the league, while separately negotiating with the other NL owners to get the vacant franchise. Such a transaction normally would also have included negotiations with the players. This did not happen, perhaps due to the need for discretion as Lucas hid the affair from his UA partners until the deal was completed.

What he thought he was also getting was the assistance of the Cleveland management to arrange matters with the players. They had little love for Lucas, whom they saw as the author of their financial woes. When Brooklyn offered its own financial inducement, reportedly $4,000, the Cleveland management was ready to lend its aid in that direction. Lucas, upon discovering what they had done, complained of their “bad faith,” which was rather rich under the circumstances. Lucas refused to pay the outstanding $2,000, resulting in a lawsuit and eventual judgment against him, the interest owed bringing the debt up to $2,255.32

The second loose end was the detail that the NL’s action in admitting Lucas’s club was in flagrant violation of the National Agreement’s protection of territorial rights. Chris Von der Ahe, owner of the AA St. Louis club, was not happy. By rights, the NL’s action should have marked the reopening of the NL-AA war that the National Agreement had ended. Would either side really do this, coming on the heels of the UA war? The NL either would, or it made a good bluff of it.

The National League stared down the American Association, asking the rest of the AA owners if they would really go to war for Von der Ahe. It turned out they would not. After a few tense weeks, Von der Ahe conceded. The terms, if any, were not put out for publication, allowing Von der Ahe to save face via rumors of concessions by Lucas. The NL owners took note of the AA’s disunity. This would set the tone for relations between the two leagues in later years.33

The final loose end was the status of the players who had been expelled. Lucas needed a team, after all, and the NL needed him to have one. With the Cleveland players signed by Brooklyn, this left the expelled players. They fell into two classes: those who had abandoned signed contracts and those who had merely broken the reserve. The latter group was not a major issue. The Day resolution expelling such players was not part of the National Agreement, but rather than been adopted separately by both major leagues, making the players’ reinstatement a league matter.

The contract jumpers, however, had been expelled under the National Agreement. The AA would have to agree to their reinstatement. The AA, whether out of genuine principle or lingering ire over the St. Louis affair, was not in a conciliatory mood. The NL simply acted unilaterally, reinstating the players at a special meeting just after the lucrative spring exhibition season had ended and before the opening of the regular season. The AA was outraged at this second breech of the National Agreement in three months and withdrew from it.

The NL and AA were technically at war. Come the fall, however, when it was time to sign players for the next season, the AA again blinked. Its owners were unwilling to get into bidding wars for players and instead negotiated a new National Agreement. The war of 1885 was a phony war, so little disturbing the apparent baseball tranquility as to go unnoticed in baseball history.34

Lucas’s experience as a National League owner was brief and unsatisfying. He turned out to be very bad at running a baseball club. He could buy his way to the UA pennant, but he could not build a winning team within the constraints of the reserve system. The team went 36–72 in 1885, finishing last in the NL, before improving to 43–79 for a sixth-place finish in 1886.

Lucas sold out his interest in the club that August, after less than two seasons in the National League. Between the UA and NL, he claimed to have lost $70,000 on baseball. Reports following the collapse of the UA had placed his losses at $40,000, between his own club and subsidizing others. There is no way to confirm either number, but both are plausible. Losing money to field a losing team turned out not to be fun, so he abandoned the project. The franchise was transferred to Indianapolis.35

Lucas was not merely bad at running a baseball club. He was bad at business in general. By 1890, he had to get a job. It is tempting to ascribe his financial woes to his baseball losses, but the Lucas family fortune was much larger than that. His lack of acumen ran deep. Persons with connections like his are rarely allowed to fall too far. He was appointed the head of the Chicago passenger department of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, despite the absence of any obvious qualifications for the job. A year later, he was a manager at a life insurance company in Chicago. His losing ways continued and in 1902 he filed for bankruptcy with $40,000 debt. The next year, his wife divorced him, citing desertion and non-support. He spent the last three years of his life as a St. Louis city street inspector, earning $75 a month.36


The Union Association was, from the modern perspective, obviously doomed. So what were they thinking? Was this merely a vanity project?

That interpretation works with respect to Lucas. He wanted to own a major-league baseball team. He succeeded, though in the end it brought him no joy. But what about the backers of the other teams? Were they seduced by Lucas’s riches, or was there something more going on?

The key to unlocking the mystery of what were they thinking is how little was understood in 1884 about the business of baseball. The UA was an attempt to overlay a major league atop the existing major leagues—in other words, to double up teams in the various cities. The discussion about overturning the reserve system is a red herring. The American Association had used similar rhetoric before joining with the NL in the National Agreement. The American League would do the same thing in the early twentieth century.

An upstart league is by its nature opposed to the reserve. The whole point of the reserve is for the established leagues to secure control over players. In the ordinary course, this is to prevent bidding wars within organized baseball, but the reserve also blocked any outside leagues. The only options for the new league would be to accept that they would be restricted to players that none of the established leagues—major or minor—wanted, or to reject the legitimacy of the reserve. This did not mean, however, that the new league would continue to reject the reserve, should it succeed in establishing itself. At that point, the logic behind the system would prove compelling. The end game is membership within the establishment, which means the reserve system.37

The real issue was territorial rights. Could the UA cause the NL and AA so much financial pain that they would accept sharing their markets? This was not a ridiculous ambition. The American League would have a similar ambition and would succeed, in many cases in the same cities. The Federal League would take its unsuccessful shot a decade after that.

The UA’s failure resulted from two miscalculations. The first was that it was underfunded for the impending fight, and with the bulk of its capital concentrated in the person of Henry Lucas, the entire enterprise was subject to his whims. The second miscalculation was how the fans would support a lesser team in the various markets.

Later experience would show this to be a tough sell. A team with an established fan base can keep it through hard times. A century of futility didn’t turn Cubs fans to the White Sox. But putting a weak team in a city that already had a major-league team simply did not work.38 This was not at all obvious at the time, or indeed for some years after. Minor leagues would repeatedly try the experiment, as in 1892, when the Pennsylvania State League included a team in Pittsburgh, using the same ballpark as the National League club, scheduled for when the big club was on the road. The experiment lasted two weeks.39

The Union Association’s strategy was doomed, but this was not obvious, given the state of knowledge at the time. The backers were making, from their perspective, a high-risk, high-reward bid to force their way into organized baseball. They failed, but they were not irrational. 

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. Reach him at



1 Richard Hershberger, “The First Baseball War: The American Association and the National League,” SABR Baseball Research Journal, Vol. 49, No. 2, Fall 2020.

2 “The New Association,” Sporting Life, October 1, 1883; “The Union League,” Philadelphia Sunday Item, January 6, 1884.

3 “Another New Association Movement,” Sporting Life, September 2, 1883; “New Associations,” Sporting Life, September 16, 1883.

4 “The League Convention,” New York Clipper, December 18, 1880.

5 A major reason was the club’s persistence in selling alcohol. At the same time, the New York club maintained a bar on its grounds. The claim was made that when the New York club joined the NL in 1883 it had an existing contract with the bar’s proprietor. By 1886, people were wondering how long this contract extended. “Sports and Pastimes” Brooklyn Eagle, January 31, 1886.

6 “A Dish of ‘Crow,’” Cincinnati Enquirer, January 6, 1884; “The Union League,” Philadelphia Sunday Item, January 6, 1884; O.P. Caylor, “The National Agreement,” Sporting Life, February 27, 1884.

7 Jeff Kittel, “The Lucas Family, Part One,” This Game of Games, October 20, 2010; Kittel, “The Lucas Family, Part Two,” This Game of Games, October 21, 2010. Both posts can be found via the Internet Archive Wayback Machine at Kittel cites James Neal Primm, Lion of the Valley, and Howard Conrad, The Encyclopedia of the History of St. Louis.

8 Kittel, “Chris Von der Ahe and the Creation of Modern Baseball: A Hall of Fame Argument,” This Game of Games,, accessed February 1, 2024).

9 “The New Club,” St. Louis Republican, October 26, 1883; “Regarding the New Club,” St. Louis Republican, October 28, 1883.

10 The exception to the principle of local ownership was the NL Hartford club, which in 1877 played its games on Brooklyn’s Union Ground. This was a special case. The Brooklyn ground had been vacated when the Mutual club disbanded the previous year, and William Cammeyer, its proprietor, sought a tenant and took on the role of local connection.

11 “Notes and Comments,” Sporting Life, January 16, 1884; “Allegheny News,” Sporting Life, September 24, 1883.

12 “From St. Louis,” Sporting Life, November 3, 1886.

13 1886 Missouri Pacific Railway timetable in the David Rumsey Map Center at Stanford University.

14 “The Change Effected,” St. Louis Republican, June 3, 1884.

15 “A Reserve Schedule,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 13, 1884; “Reserve Schedule,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 18, 1884; “The Sporting World,” Cincinnati Enquirer, October 26, 1884.

16 “The New Base-Ball Association,” Cincinnati Enquirer, September 13, 1883.

17 Constitution and Playing Rules of the National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs, 1884, 47. For the American Association, see “The Reserve Rule,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 13, 1883.

18 “Base-Ball,” Cincinnati Enquirer, January 20, 1884, quoting the Pittsburgh Leader.

19 “Our National Game,” Philadelphia Sunday Item, January 13, 1884; “Sporting,” Missouri Republican (St. Louis), July 11, 1884; “Big Pay For Ball Playing,” Philadelphia Times, July 30, 1884.

20 “Base Ball,” Sporting Life July 22, 1883

21 “Sporting World,” Cincinnati Enquirer, December 23, 1883.

22 “Tom Pratt’s Team,” Sporting Life, March 26, 1884.

23 “The Union Association,” Sporting Life, August 13, 1884; “Base Ball Players Desert,” Sporting Life, August 13, 1884.

24 “The Chicago Unions Transferred,” Cincinnati Enquirer, August 20, 1884.

25 “A Base Ball Sensation,” Sporting Life, November 21, 1883; “Base-Ball,” Cincinnati Enquirer, October 28, 1884.

26 “The Sporting World,” Cincinnati Enquirer, January 14, 1884, quoting the Mirror of American Sports; “Diamond Chips,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 6, 1884.

27 “The Financial Part of It,” Sporting Life, October 22, 1884; “From Washington,” Sporting Life, August 13, 1884; “The American Association,” Sporting Life, August 13, 1884.

28 “The Sporting World,” Cincinnati Enquirer, December 9, 1884; “The Pennant Awarded,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 18, 1884. The connection between UA Washington of 1884 and NL Washington of 1886–89 is not recognized by the standard sources. For the move to the Eastern League, see “Local Base Ball,” Washington National Republican, December 15, 1884. For the move to the National League, see “The Nationals’ Chance,” Washington Critic, January 13, 1886; “Eight Clubs,” Sporting Life, January 20, 1886.

29 “Sporting,” Cincinnati Enquirer, December 19, 1884; “A Sporting Budget,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 3, 1885.

30 “Sporting,” Cincinnati Enquirer, January 9, 1885; “The League-Union Deal,” Cincinnati Enquirer, January 11, 1885; “Base Ball,” Cincinnati Enquirer, December 21, 1884.

31 “The Sporting World,” Cincinnati Enquirer, January 16, 1885; “Sporting,” St. Louis Republican, January 16, 1885. The report names the replacement organization the Western Association but it came to fruition as the Western League.

32 “The Sporting World,” Cincinnati Enquirer, January 19, 1885; “The League-Union Deal,” Cincinnati Enquirer, January 11, 1885; “The Brooklyn-Cleveland Deal,” Sporting Life, January 21, 1885; “On The Ragged Edge,” Sporting Life, January 28, 1885; “Passing Comments,” Sporting Life, January 21, 1885; “Cleveland Beats Henry V. Lucas at Law,” Sporting Life, April 20, 1887.

33 “Peace Once More,” Sporting Life, February 4, 1885.

34 “The League’s Flop,” Sporting Life, April 22, 1885; “Another Speck of War,” Sporting Life, April 29, 1885; “The Great Meeting,” Sporting Life, October 21, 1885.

35 “Lucas Quits,” Sporting Life, August 25, 1886; “The Sporting World,” Cincinnati Enquirer, February 1, 1885.

36 “New Notes and Comments,” Sporting Life, August 2, 1890; “St. Louis Siftings,” Sporting Life, September 5, 1891; Joan M. Thomas, “Henry V. Lucas,” SABR BioProject,

37 The Players’ League of 1890 is the possible exception. It sought not to join the established leagues, but to overturn them. On the other hand, had it succeeded, it seems unlikely that it could have found a different solution to the logic of bidding wars for players resulting in unsustainable salaries.

38 This is less true today than in earlier decades. Minor-league ball is no longer marketed as the home team competing to win a pennant. Not even the most callow 10-year-old lives and dies with the fortunes of the Lansing Lugnuts. Modern marketing is more as affordable family-friendly entertainment and a chance to see the stars of the future. This can differentiate the product enough to create a distinct audience.

39 “A State League Club,” Pittsburg Dispatch, May 1, 1892; “Pittsburg Pencillings,” Sporting Life, June 18, 1892.



When major league baseball determined to codify its statistical record in the mid-1960s, preparatory to the publication of The Baseball Encyclopedia, the Special Baseball Records Committee was created, meeting in 1968 to decide a wide assortment of questions. The most basic was what to include. Which leagues were major?1

The Union Association made the cut. This was not a surprise. Earlier histories of baseball had routinely treated it as a major league. The committee simply made this official. This decision has never been officially revisited, but it has been unofficially challenged. By far the most prominent challenge came from Bill James in The New Bill James Historical Abstract, with later commentary following James’s lead.2

James’s argument begins with some rhetorical flourishes, giving great weight to the UA’s only playing a single season (a critique absent from the discussion of the Players’ League of 1890). It then gets down to the heart of the argument: The UA’s level of play was poor. James is unquestionably right about this. Later critiques of the UA typically are merely expansions of this theme.

There are two problems with this argument. It is simply assumed that level of play is the appropriate criterion, that a major league, by definition, is good. Even if we accept this standard, showing that the UA was weaker than the established major leagues does not by itself lead to any conclusion about its status.

Taking the second issue first, we can take as proven that the UA was significantly weaker than the NL and AA. So what? Considering any three leagues, it is unsurprising that their quality of play is unequal, and also unsurprising that a new league will be the weakest. If we want to categorize that third league as either major or minor, we need also to have some idea about the level of play of the established minors.

The Northwestern League and the Eastern League were the two high minor leagues in 1884. Was the UA more like these, more like the established majors, or something in between? Neither James nor his successors make any real argument. James nods in this direction by writing, “By 1884 there were actually eight minor leagues, a good many of which probably could have kicked the Union Association’s butt and stolen their lunch money.”

The statement about eight minor leagues in 1884 is mysterious. It might be defensible, if we are loose about including local semipro leagues, but the claim immediately follows a list of earlier leagues that were defunct by 1884. It seems more likely that James believed they still existed. In any case he makes not even a gesture toward defending the claim that they could “kick the Union Association’s butt,” and this section is most generously taken as hyperbole. What is needed here is an analysis of the NWL and EL. This would be more work than with the majors, the data being less readily available. But again, so what? Without it, we are left with half an argument.

This is, in any case, getting ahead of things. The discussion of definitions is perhaps tedious, but necessary to establish that everyone is talking about the same thing. What is the definition of a major league? Here James starts on firmer ground. He correctly notes that in modern terms a major league “rests atop a pyramid of organized competition.” He follows this by also correctly noting that the structure was just getting organized in 1884.

He then abandons the thread. The issue with analyzing the UA is not that organized baseball in 1884 was inchoate. The major status of the National League and American Association was established, as was the minor status of the Northwestern and Eastern Leagues. The difficulty with categorizing a league such as the UA is that it was not a part of organized baseball. It was an upstart challenger, like the American League would be in 1901 and the Federal League in 1914. Like those leagues, the UA was trying to force its way into organized baseball, and at the top level. Like the Federal League, it would fail.

What does it mean to say that the major leagues “rest atop” the pyramid? What places them in this privileged position? How do they stay there? Why do the minor leagues tolerate this arrangement? These questions suggest a better definition of major and minor leagues: In its mature form, organized baseball is a hierarchy of professional leagues, with the leagues higher up controlling larger markets than the leagues below them, and the higher leagues controlling the flow of players to and from the lower leagues. One or more leagues occupy the top of the hierarchy. This position is the definition of a major league, when considering leagues operating within organized baseball.

This definition has many advantages over simply defining a major league by level of play. If we define a major league as one that is good, this tells us nothing about why it is good, or whether it will stay good. Should we examine each league year by year to decide if it is major that year? Most years, this would be pointless, but we might wonder about 1890, when the Players’ League gutted the NL and AA. More to the point, why do leagues’ quality of play not drift up and down over the decades? This is exactly what happens in college football, on both the level of conferences and individual schools.

The answer lies in the control of the best markets. This is baked into the structure of organized baseball dating to the National League’s original constitution of 1876:

Every club member of this League shall have exclusive control of the city in which it is located, and of the territory surrounding such city to the extent of five miles in every direction, and no visiting League club shall, under any circumstances—not even with the consent of the local League club—be allowed to play any club in such territory other than the League club therein located.3

Major leagues have exclusive control of the largest markets, giving them the financial wherewithal to dictate terms to the leagues with smaller markets, and therefore smaller revenue. The practical application of this strength is for major-league clubs to claim—and enforce—the right to take desirable players from minor-league clubs. It is, in this light, obvious why major leagues are good: because they can demand and take the best players. Major leagues are good because they are major, not major because they are good.

Being good is not, however, universally true. We see this on the team level, where a major-league team might be very bad indeed, but the mere fact of membership in a major league allows them to get better. Were the 1919 Philadelphia Athletics better than the 1919 International League Baltimore Orioles? It is hard to say for certain, but the Orioles’ collection of past and future journeyman major leaguers looks better than the Athletics’ motley crew. But beyond question even at the time was that the Athletics would get better, in later years winning World Series. The Orioles were about as good as they could ever be.4

The same was true on the league level. The American Association of 1882 was woefully weaker than the National League, which swept the spring exhibition season games. Four years later, the AA St. Louis Brown Stockings beat the NL Chicago White Stockings in the World Series. The fact of the AA being major meant that its clubs could protect their good players and acquire more good players from the minors. Their quality of play in 1882 was simply beside the point. They were major because they had the financial strength to force the NL to treat them as major. From there, raising the level of play was simply a matter of time to let the logic of the situation run its course.5 This definition of major league removes any mystery about both why a major league is good, and why it stays good. Its status can only be overturned by a challenger with the finances to muscle in on the action.

This brings us to the question of classifying upstart leagues such as the Union Association or the Federal League. The American League poses less of a question, as its status was resolved when it forced the NL to make peace in 1903. The UA and the FL tried to do the same but fell short. The difference between these and what would later be called “outlaw” minor leagues is the established leagues’ response. The established leagues took the UA and FL very seriously, in a way that we don’t see with something like the outlaw Carolina League of the 1930s.6

The AA added teams to block the UA. The established leagues changed their own rules via the Day resolutions. They were forced to pay higher salaries. The AA Washingtons were run out of town by the UA. The NL Clevelands were brought to the brink and forced to sell out. Finally, the NL paid Lucas off by bringing him into the league, risking renewed war with the AA. In short, we should regard the Union Association as a major league because the National League and American Association regarded it as a major threat. They were in a position to know.



1 The Encyclopedia of Baseball, (New York: MacMillan, 1969), 2,327.

2 Bill James, The New Bill James Historical Abstract (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001), 21–34.

3 Article V. Sec. 2 of the 1876 National League Constitution.

4 The Orioles of 1919 were, of course, completely unrelated to the modern AL Orioles. See Alan Cohen, “Baltimore’s Forgotten Dynasty: The 1919-25 Baltimore Orioles of the International League,” The National Pastime (2020).

5 Richard Hershberger, “The First Baseball War: The American Association and the National League,” Baseball Research Journal 49, no. 2 (Fall 2020).

6 For the Carolina League, see R.G. Utley and Scott Verner, The Independent Carolina League, 1936–1938: Baseball Outlaws (Jefferson, NC: McFarland), 1999.


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