September 18, 2021

The Pittsburgh Americans? It Almost Happened

June 1, 2009 by · 2 Comments 

Over the first 30 years of the modern era, Barney Dreyfuss’ Pittsburgh Pirates battled John McGraw’s New York Giants for National League supremacy, but had Ban Johnson gotten his wish, the Pirates might have been the class of the American League instead.

On October 11, 1899 a group of executives from the Western League, including president Ban Johnson, gathered for a meeting at the Great Northern Hotel and decided that their circuit needed a new name.  The decision was swift and unanimous; they would call themselves the American League of Professional Baseball Clubs.

Rumors had swirled for a year and a half that a new league was being formed to compete with the National League.  Early in 1899, however, newspapers continued to report on the Western League as if it were going to continue as an independent minor league.  Finally in July, Columbus owner Tom Loftus admitted that a new league was being formed, and criticized the National League’s policies for being “narrow and arbitrary.”  It was speculated that Loftus would helm a team in Chicago, Charles Comiskey would run the St. Louis faction, and Connie Mack would most likely land in Pittsburgh.

The National League had inadvertently opened itself up for a baseball war when it absorbed four of the old American Association’s teams and went from a manageable and successful eight-team venture to a cumbersome 12-team circuit. Several franchises struggled financially and most of them were out of the pennant race by the Fourth of July. The league as a whole had a difficult time dealing with the additional travel, and fewer home games and a national recession made it all but impossible for the league to turn a profit.  The league wisely recognized this following the 1899 season and dropped four of its teams—Baltimore, Cleveland, Louisville, and Washington—and went back to its old eight-team format with clubs in Boston, Brooklyn, Chicago, Cincinnati, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis. But that move also prompted Johnson to act on his desire to establish a new league and he moved swiftly and decisively.

Johnson’s “vision for the future of baseball” included an eight-team league with rival clubs in at least a handful of National League cities.  His first step was to secure a team in Chicago, not for Loftus, but for his buddy Comiskey, who was from there and had served as player-manager for the Chicago Pirates of the old Players’ League in 1890.  Then he brought in Ohio native Charles Somers, who was extremely wealthy, having earned a fortune in the coal mining and shipping industries, and who had a desire to put a team in Cleveland.

The upstart league now had franchises in Chicago, Buffalo, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Detroit, Milwaukee, Kansas City, and Minneapolis. But on October 14, 1900 the American League held a reorganization meeting at which time it was decided they would move into Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, while dropping out of Minneapolis, Kansas City, and Indianapolis.

But the league’s new franchises needed marquee players and Johnson saw an opportunity to raid National League rosters when delegates from each team gathered in New York on June 10, 1900 and formed the Players’ Protective Association, which objected to “farming,” being traded or sold without their consent, and the reserve rule.

The National League owners held their annual meeting in December 1900 and their response to the newly formed Protective Association of Professional Baseball Players and their demands would effectively determine the immediate fate of the American League. Johnson and the A.L. magnates were banking on the National League’s refusal to surrender to the demands of the players, which would allow the American League to sign away some of their rival’s better talent. Johnson wouldn’t be disappointed. The players had three demands: (1) no more farming, (2) no player sales without consent of the individual players, and (3) a limitation on the reserve clause to from three to five years. They also asked for the right to serve club owners “ten days’ notice of release from contract for violation of any of its provisions.” The proposals were soundly rejected.

Johnson agreed to the Players’ Protective Association contract, which gave the league the leverage it needed to start signing players. Of the 46 players approached by the American League, all but one, Pittsburgh’s Honus Wagner, signed contracts to play with the American League in 1901. The biggest coup was the signing of Philadelphia star Napoleon Lajoie, who jumped from the Phillies to the Athletics.

The American League made its final franchise shift on January 28, 1901, announcing that Boston would be admitted to the league in place of Buffalo.  With his insurgence into Boston, Johnson had teams in three competing National League cities—Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia—the only three that were able to consistently turn a profit for the National League prior to the contraction of 1899.

Much to Johnson’s delight, those cities pulled in three of the top four attendance figures in ’01. Chicago paced the league in attendance at almost 5,000 a game; Boston came in second at just over 4,000 a game; Detroit was third at 3,700, and Philadelphia was fourth with just over 3,000 per contest.  The bottom four teams—Baltimore, Washington, Cleveland, and Milwaukee—averaged just over 2,000 customers per game and the league as a whole drew 1,683,584 fans. The National League drew 1,920,031 fans, but in two of the three major markets where it competed with the junior circuit—Chicago and Boston—it failed to garner the support that the upstart teams did. The White Sox outdrew the Cubs by almost 150,000 total fans while the Boston Americans outdrew the N.L.’s Beaneaters by almost 143,000.

Much of the A.L.’s success was due to its profitable raids on National League rosters.  Not only did the A’s procure the services of Lajoie, but they grabbed two of the Phillies’ winningest pitchers in Bill Bernhard and Chick Fraser, and took Lave Cross from Brooklyn. The White Sox landed hurlers Nixey Callahan and Clark Griffith from the rival Cubs, and Fielder Jones from Brooklyn, and named Griffith to manage the club. And Boston pilfered third baseman Jimmy Collins, and outfielders Chick Stahl and Buck Freeman from the Beaneaters, and Cy Young and catcher Lou Criger from the Cardinals.

While the National League outdrew the American League at the gate, the 1901 season clearly favored the latter.  Johnson had a winner on his hands, but he wasn’t one to sit on his laurels.  St. Louis outdrew every major league city in 1901, pulling in almost 380,000 paying customers, so Johnson decided to attack the National League’s western front by invading the “Mound City.” Milwaukee, a team that had finished in last place with a 48-89 record, and pulled in less than 2,000 fans a game, was shifted to St. Louis to provide direct competition with the senior circuit’s most popular team.

No time was wasted raiding the National League Cardinals of some of its players, either. Johnson enlisted former Cleveland manager Jimmy McAleer to go to St. Louis and talk to the Cardinal players personally. McAleer had relationships with most of them and Johnson assumed he could convince them to come over to the American League.

Not only did McAleer succeed in convincing players to jump leagues, but he gutted the Cardinals roster of most of its better players, including Hall of Famers Jesse Burkett and Bobby Wallace. Also coming over to the Browns were second baseman Dick Padden, outfielder Emmet Heidrick, and pitchers Jack Powell, Jack Harper, and Willie Sudhoff.

Despite successfully invading yet another N.L. city, Johnson wasn’t satisfied and had his eye on two of the senior circuit’s strongholds—New York and Pittsburgh—choosing different tactics with which to gain a foothold in each.  The Giants finished in seventh place in 1901 with a dismal 52-85 record, but they ranked second in attendance behind only St. Louis, drawing just under 300,000 customers.  The Pirates ranked third in attendance at 251,955, and won their first pennant with a 90-49 mark.  Johnson wanted pieces of both pies.

He badly wanted to place a team in New York and had considered moving the Detroit or Washington franchises there because of flagging attendance.  Meanwhile, instead of trying to place a franchise in Pittsburgh, Johnson tried to convince Pirates owner Barney Dreyfuss to secede from the National League and join the American League.  The Sporting News reported midway through the 1902 season that Dreyfuss was actually considering Johnson’s invitation and that, if he accepted, the Pirates would switch leagues prior to the 1903 season.

On the face of it, it was a brilliant plan.  The Pirates were already a strong club, boasting the likes of Honus Wagner, Fred Clarke, and Ginger Beaumont in the field, and Deacon Phillippe, Jack Chesbro, Jesse Tannehill, and Sam Leever on the mound. They finished in second place in 1900, then won consecutive championships from 1901-1903. The 1902 team totally dominated the National League, finishing with a 103-36 record, which gave them a 27 ½ game cushion over the second place Brooklyn club. No other National League team won more than 75 games that year.

Some historians believe that while Dreyfuss was mulling over Johnson’s offer, the A.L. president issued a hands-off edict towards the Pirates.  All other National League rosters could be raided of their best players, but Pittsburgh was to be left alone.  Johnson’s biographer, Eugene Murdock, suggested that Johnson may have had ulterior motives for excluding Pittsburgh from his raids and that by leaving the Pirates intact, it created an imbalance of power and made the National League uninteresting.

Meanwhile the American League featured a pennant race that found five teams over .500 and no fewer than four teams within eight games of the championship, which went to Mack’s Athletics. More importantly, however, is that the junior circuit outdrew the Nationals in four major markets—Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, and St. Louis—bringing 2.2 million fans through the gates as opposed to 1.7 million for the senior loop.

Brilliant or not, Johnson’s plan to lure the Pirates to the A.L. failed.  Before the end of the ’02 season, Dreyfuss politely declined Johnson’s invitation, choosing to stay in the National League.  That marked the end of the hands-off policy.  Heading into August, the Pirates were busy destroying the National League’s also-rans, holding a 16-game lead over Brooklyn with 60 games to go.  If Johnson’s hands-off policy was, in fact, designed to create a competitive imbalance in the National League, it worked to perfection.

But given the choice between competitive imbalance in the N.L. and a chance to procure the services of some of Pittsburgh’s better players, Johnson chose the latter.  He and Somers snuck into the “Steel City” in August and began conducting secret raids on the Pirates.  They set up a clandestine meeting with Pirates backup catcher Jack O’Connor at the Lincoln Hotel, and convinced six Pirates to jump to the American League following the 1902 season.  Dreyfuss and team secretary Harry Pulliam got wind of the meeting and holed up in the hotel’s lobby, but O’Connor deftly shuttled everyone into a freight elevator to avoid detection, and the men escaped unnoticed.

By the end of the night, Dreyfuss had lost O’Connor, third baseman Tommy Leach, outfielder Lefty Davis, shorstop Wid Conroy, and pitchers Jack Chesbro and Jesse Tannehill, who were assigned to the American League’s New York franchise, which was to begin play in 1903.

The American League’s popularity, its advance into New York, and its successful raids on its older rival prompted the National League to surrender, and in December 1902 it was decided that they should extend an olive branch to Johnson and the American League. Negotiations commenced at the St. Nicholas Hotel in Cincinnati and an agreement was reached in January 1903 regarding contracts and the reserve rule, territorial claims, and disputed player distribution.  The N.L. also agreed not to interfere with Johnson’s plans to move the Baltimore Orioles to New York as long as Johnson agreed to keep the junior circuit out of Pittsburgh.

Johnson signed the St. Nicholas peace pact and the Great Baseball War ended with Pittsburgh still a member of the National League.

Much of the above was excerpted from my book, Harry Frazee, Ban Johnson and the Feud That Nearly Destroyed the American League.


2 Responses to “The Pittsburgh Americans? It Almost Happened”
  1. Devon says:

    I love historical articles like this.

  2. Mike Lynch says:

    Thanks, Devon, I love writing them. I’m glad they’re being read.

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