Ryczek: The 1884 Northwestern League, a tragedy in three acts

From SABR member Bill Ryczek at The National Pastime Museum on July 17, 2014:

Operating a minor league is a daunting prospect, and it was even more so in the nineteenth century. There were no farm systems, nor was there any support from the Major Leagues or revenue from radio or television. Minor league baseball consisted of a group of men each trying to operate a franchise in a city that was too small for the Major Leagues, with players who weren’t good enough for the Majors. The minors weren’t an organized feeder system; they were just teams that played each other, tried to keep their players from jumping contracts, and struggled to generate enough revenue to pay expenses. Leagues came and went with troubling regularity, and even among those that survived, it was the rare circuit that finished the season with the same teams that started it.

Perhaps the most cataclysmic failure of the nineteenth century was that of the 1884 Northwestern League (NWL). During the long history of baseball, many leagues have folded, but most went down all at once. There would be rumors of financial trouble and then an obituary. It usually happened quickly, sometimes with lightning-like rapidity. In 1913, the United States League closed up shop after its teams had played about two games each. That was unusual, but no league expired with the agonizing slowness of the NWL. One by one, its teams melted away, but those that remained slogged resolutely forward, finally mounting a last-gasp attempt at survival in late August, only to go down for the final time a few weeks later.

Eighteen eighty-four was one of nineteenth-century baseball’s most interesting years, and possibly one of the most compelling in the entire history of the game. Baseball had survived the lean years of the late 1870s, and the economy had recovered from the collapse of 1873. The American Association, seeing the growing prosperity of the National League, was formed in 1882, and Henry Lucas’s Union Association (UA) came to life two years later.

Read the full article here: http://www.thenationalpastimemuseum.com/article/1884-northwestern-league

Originally published: July 17, 2014. Last Updated: July 17, 2014.