A History of Major League Baseball, Part V: Rowdyball
June 26, 2012 Leave a Comment
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.
Peace between the NL and AA was again challenged in 1890, and this time, the dissension came from within. Leading the charge was John Montgomery Ward, the current New York Giant everyman superstar (although now a position player by this time, he may best be known for pitching MLB’s second recognized perfect game in 1880), future Hall of Famer, and former Columbia Law School graduate. The latter distinction helped him form MLB’s first labor union, the Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players.
While Ward and other baseball superstars were traveling the world on an 1888 barnstorming tour designed by Albert G. Spalding (the Hall of Fame pitcher, sporting goods magnate, and Chicago White Stocking owner) to promote the game abroad, other baseball executives gathered during that year’s Winter Meetings to scheme against the players. They came up with a new, complex system regarding player compensation that would limit salaries to $2,500 per year at most. When Ward and the others learned of the deception, they were outraged, and talk of a labor stoppage among the players was rife by the middle of the 1889 season.
But there would be no strike. Instead, Ward presented an alternate proposal to the Brotherhood, one he had been kicking around for some time—the creation of a rebel circuit. And on November 4th, 1889, Ward would take action by cutting ties with the NL and forming the Players’ League. Armed with fifty-six player defections from the NL alone (as well as several key ones from the AA), the PL (which was owned and operated by the players themselves, with financial backing from sympathetic investors) was ready by Opening Day 1890 to compete with the established clubs for the hearts, and money, of MLB fans everywhere.
And it did more than just compete—the PL actually crushed the competition at the gate, outdrawing both the NL and AA by a good margin. With an exemplary product on the field and a fair business model off of it, the Players’ League probably should have survived more than just the 1890 season. However, jittery investors, not seeing the profit returns they were anticipating, prematurely gave up on the venture and sold out to NL interests. The mass owner exodus turned what could have been a brilliant victory for the Brotherhood into a horrible defeat, and by 1891, the Player’s League refugees were to go back with their old teams.
However, one of the more lasting effects of the PL’s rapid rise and sudden downfall was the immediate effect it had on the two leagues left. With all three circuits vying for gate receipts, competition had become fierce enough to destroy the somewhat amicable relationship between the NL and AA. With the PL gone, the two leagues were at war over players once again, and this time, it was to the death. The hatred had become such that the actions of one NL team, the Pittsburgh Alleghenys, were deemed “piratical” in an official complaint filed by the AA. The organization found the complaint humorous enough to adopt “Pirates” as their official nickname going forward, one they keep to this day.
The AA permanently shut down operations after the 1891 season. To the victor went the spoils, and the NL fattened itself on whatever viable franchises and players hadn’t previously abandoned the Association. This meant that, for 1892, the swelled NL would carry twelve teams—the Boston Beaneaters (Braves), Chicago Colts (Cubs), Philadelphia Phillies, Pittsburgh Pirates, Brooklyn Bridegrooms (Dodgers), Cincinnati Reds, New York Giants, Louisville Colonels, Cleveland Spiders, Baltimore Orioles, St. Louis Browns, and Washington Nationals.
While the American Association was gone, it was not to be forgotten. Of the twelve teams left, eight had been sired in the AA. The NL would also adopt many of its rival’s innovations, including Sunday baseball, twenty-five cent admissions, and allowing teams the choice of allowing alcohol sales. Not to mention the idea of a post-season “World’s Series,” which may or may not have inspired 1892’s controversial “split season” experiment.
In 1894 Baltimore, a new dynasty was born. The Orioles were led by Ned Hanlon, a Hall of Famer and brilliant baseball mind often regarded as the “Father of All Managers” (having managed future Hall of Famers such as Connie Mack, John McGraw, Wilbert Robinson, Hughie Jennings, and Miller Huggins at one time or another, there are unbroken managerial lines leading to him that contain nearly every great baseball intellect ever to man a dugout. Casey Stengel, Frank Frisch, Billy Southworth, and Al Lopez learned directly from Hanlon’s original protégés and taught Billy Martin, Yogi Berra, Leo Durocher, and Walter Alston, who would in turn manage Dick Williams, Tommy Lasorda, Lou Piniella, and Joe Torre, giving us recent skippers Tony LaRussa, Joe Girardi, Dusty Baker, Ozzie Guillen…and so on…) Hanlon popularized many of the techniques—bunting, stolen bases, the hit-and-run play—that make up inside baseball, or “small-ball” today. He was also known as a deft trader with a special eye for talent. But in his day, Hanlon’s Orioles were regarded best for their particular brand of dirty play, called Rowdyball.
Could you imagine a world where runners regularly skip a bag during a dash along the basepaths, or tackle the first baseman during a bang-bang play? How about grabbing an opponent’s belt as he crosses your base to hold him up a second? ESPN would have a field day with it—if angry ballplayers didn’t destroy their video equipment and set fire to their studios first. Would Bud Selig be man enough to dole out fines in Baltimore, or run in cowardice when chased down by angry mobs of players, fans and possibly executives at Camden Yards? In the rowdy 90’s, there was no such thing as anger management— riots and forfeits were about as commonplace as hot dogs and beer. And Hanlon’s Orioles—led as much by instigators like McGraw, Jennings and Robinson as fellow Hall of Famers Dan Brouthers, Wee Willie Keeler and Joe Kelley—reeled off three straight pennants in a style more similar to ice hockey’s Broad Street Bullies of the 1970’s than the 1920’s New York Yankee teams next to achieve the feat.
And ultimately, those three pennants represent much of their legacy. For their dominance coincided with the “Temple Cup” years—a period of baseball when, attempting to recapture the buzz surrounding the “World’s Series” events of the previous decade, the NL decided to hold a post-season exhibition series between the 1st and 2nd place teams to determine a champion. But since the pennant each year had already been decided, many players saw the Temple Cup series as a sham and cut financial deals with opponents to split the proceeds. As those deals were shady in themselves, so were the results of the Temple Cup matches, which likely are forever clouded by taint.
Throughout the 1890s, several NL organizations could claim common ownership—John T. Brush had stakes in both the Giants and Reds, Barney Dreyfuss owned both the Pirates and Colonels, and the Orioles and Bridegrooms shared full ownership groups. These incestuous conflicts-of-interest were known as “syndicate baseball,” and in 1899, the out-of-control practice tilted the league’s stability back towards critical.
The problem began when the Robison brothers, already owners of the successful Cleveland Spiders, purchased the miserable St. Louis Browns. Eager to play with their new toy, they shipped every decent player the Spiders had west and replaced them with little more than warm bodies. The result was MLB’s all-time record for futility, not even threatened by modern-day moribunds such as the 1962 Mets or the 2003 Tigers—20 wins, 134 losses, and a .130 winning percentage. So shocking was the fall of the 1899 Spiders (who had previously touted future Hall of Famers Cy Young, Bobby Wallace and Jesse Burkett in their stead), that they were forced to play most of their games on the road. And it was for naught—the Browns (who would become the Cardinals in 1900) finished 4th.
As a result, four teams were contracted from the senior circuit after that season—the Spiders, Orioles, Washington Nationals and Louisville Colonels. For the state of Kentucky, that would be their last whiff of Major League Baseball. As for the other three cities…