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A History of Major League Baseball, Part IV: The Union Association

 This is a contribution by Jason E. Castro. Jason is a writer from Staten Island who has published several short stories in on-line literary magazines such as Danse Macabre, MediaVirus Magazine, Sparkbright Magazine and Greensilk Journal. He also has two books to his credit, “Rowdies” published in 2011 and “Cricket for Souls” which has been accepted by Muse It Up Press.

Part I: The Knickerbocker Rules

Part II: The National Association

Part III: The National League

Josh Gibson Baseball

Josh Gibson

The Toledo (Ohio) Blue Stockings, champions of the minor Northwestern League in 1883, jumped to the American Association for the 1884 season. Along with them went catcher Moses Fleetwood Walker, a fair-hitting gent with a rifle arm. When Walker got the opening day start for the Blue Stockings against the Louisville Eclipse on May 1st, 1884, he became the first African-American to play in the major leagues.

Walker would go on to hit .263 in 152 at-bats, while his younger brother, Welday Walker, batted .222 in very limited action. Unfortunately, their on-the-field play mattered less than the dark skin covering their bodies, and once Toledo returned to the minor leagues after finishing eighth out of thirteen teams, the AA kowtowed to pressure from the senior circuit (thanks in part to the NL’s biggest star and the vociferous “Father of Segregated Baseball,” Chicago White Stocking first baseman and manager Cap Anson) to enter into the gentleman’s agreement now known as the color line. By 1888, African-American players were gone from the minor leagues as well.

Between 1880 and 1886, the Chicago White Stockings had won five out of seven NL pennants and were considered the class of the circuit. In the meantime, the St. Louis Brown Stockings (later shortened to Browns) won four consecutive AA pennants between 1885 and 1888. They would square off twice in pre-World Series post-season exhibitions. While the 1885 version left much to be desired (ending in a 3-3-1 tie), the 1886 World’s Series, by all accounts, likely set the standard by which such affairs would follow in the future.

John Clarkson Baseball Player

John Clarkson

After both teams split the first four matches, the Browns won Game 5 in St. Louis when the White Stockings ran out of healthy pitchers to take a 3-2 lead in the series. Cap Anson trotted out now-rested John Clarkson for Game 6, and the fellow future Hall of Famer responded by taking a no-hitter into the sixth while the White Stockings jumped out to a 3-0 lead. However, a furious eighth inning rally highlighted by third baseman Arlie Latham’s two-run triple by tied the score, and with a raucous home crowd reaching crescendo in the bottom of the tenth, two singles, a sacrifice, and a wild pitch by Clarkson would bring the American Association its only championship over the rival National League. Curt Welch’s baserunning effort, later to be known as the “$15,000 slide” after the gate receipts won by the Browns players tallied nearly that amount, has been cited by modern-day sources such as Bill James as the greatest singular play in 19th century baseball history.

Although those two organizations have squared off many a time since, the 1886 World’s Series was the last time to date that the Chicago Cubs would match up in the post-season against the team that, after moving to the NL in 1892, would become arguably their most hated rivals—the St. Louis Cardinals.

While the NL and AA were baseball’s premier major leagues during the period between 1882 and 1891, they were not the only ones:                                     

The Union Association (derogatorily referred to as the “Onion Association” by many peers) was the brainchild of Henry V. Lucas, a young and perhaps bored heir from a wealthy banking family. Looking to compete with the already established NL and AA, he organized his own league and placed franchises in baseball-mad cities such as St. Louis, Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia. To entice popular players from those leagues into joining his venture, he eliminated the reserve clause from player contracts.

The Union Association baseball

The Union Association

However, Lucas’s own ego ruined the enterprise almost before it had gotten off the ground. He signed the top players available to his own St. Louis Maroon squad, leading to such an extreme competitive imbalance that any idea of a pennant race was quashed by May. The Maroons won their first twenty games, and their .832 winning percentage is an all-time single-season record. As can be expected, spectators stayed away from the farce while small-market franchises in Altoona (Pennsylvania), St. Paul (Minnesota) and Wilmington (Delaware) dropped out nearly as soon as their league entry fees had cashed.

Surprisingly, the Union Association made it to see 1885. In January of that year, Lucas was offered the chance to move his Maroons to the NL, and discarded his baby like an empty bottle of soda pop. Most of the remaining franchises didn’t bother showing up for the 1885 UA meeting.

Because of the UA’s competitive imbalance, many modern-day observers do not regard it major league status. Should they? Perhaps the best indicator is in the Maroons’ subsequent NL performances—they finished dead last in the eight team senior circuit in 1885, then improved two spots to sixth the following year before Lucas sold the team to interests in Indianapolis, who relocated the team there and renamed it the Hoosiers for the 1887 season.

Part V: Rowdyball

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