The American League in Utero

The Chicago White Stockings were one of the best teams of the American League before it was the American League. (via Public Domain)

In the 19th century, major league status was probably as much a matter of opinion as of talent levels. Leagues and teams came and went, yet at the turn of the 20th century the National League, founded in 1876, was still around. In fact, it was the only major league after the American Association folded after the 1891 season.

Then in 1901 an existing minor league, the American League, took off the training wheels and proclaimed it was now a major league. Total attendance for the league that season was 1,682,584 (the Chicago White Stockings led the way with 354,350). Not a bad showing for the new major league, considering that the established NL had a total attendance of 1,920,031. Notably, the White Stockings (let’s call them the White Stox) far outpaced the crosstown Orphans (nka the Cubs), who drew just 205,071. Also, the second-place Boston Americans (n/k/a the Red Sox) outpaced the fifth-place NL Boston Beaneaters, 289,448 to 146,502.

In 1902 the AL outdrew the NL by 500,000. In 1903 it played in (and won) the first World Series (Boston over Pittsburgh). How did the AL go so far so fast?

Well, as is the case with most overnight successes, it had been in the works for a long time. The American League name was born in 1900; it was the Western League rebranded.

The original Western League was born in 1885 and lasted four seasons, shutting down in midseason of 1888. It was reborn in 1892 but that league also closed for business before the end of the season. In 1894 the league was reorganized and stabilized under the leadership of former journalist Byron Bancroft “Ban” Johnson.

The eight-team Western League went no farther west than Kansas City, so it was really more of a midwestern league. Of all the franchises, only Buffalo was not a midwestern city, but it had much in common with Cleveland, Chicago, and Milwaukee, the other franchises on the shores of the Great Lakes. Significantly, there were no eastern seaboard cities in the league.

In 1894 the Western League opened with franchises in Detroit, Grand Rapids, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Sioux City, and Toledo. In subsequent years, a number of franchise shifts occurred but the league remained strong. In 1900 the American f/k/a Western League included the existing franchises in Milwaukee, Indianapolis, Detroit, Kansas City, and Minneapolis, but the Toledo franchise moved to Chicago, while Cleveland (abandoned by the NL) and Buffalo were added to the mix. By changing its name from Western to American, the league served notice that it was no longer regional; it was nationwide.

Ban Johnson continued to preside over the league, which was still devoid of east coast cities. Meanwhile, another minor league adopted the Western League moniker and kept baseball alive in the former WL cities of Kansas City, Minneapolis, and Grand Rapids (the team had the unique nickname of the Furniture Makers in honor of the dominant local industry) in 1901.

Even during its sole minor league season of 1900, the AL featured some familiar names calling the shots. The White Stockings were managed by Charles Comiskey; the Brewers by Connie Mack, and the Tigers by George Stallings.

The final standings for the 1900 minor league AL season were as follows:

1900 American League standings
Team Record
Chicago White Stockings 82-53
Milwaukee Brewers 79-58
Indianapolis Hoosiers 71-64
Detroit Tigers 71-67
Kansas City Blues 69-70
Cleveland Lake Shores 63-73
Buffalo Bisons 61-78
Minneapolis Millers 53-86

In 1900 the National League had a monopoly on major league status but was not in a legal position to deny another league from claiming that status. So Ban Johnson and the AL owners gave themselves a promotion. They did not seek out validation or approval from any person or organization. They just did it. And so in 1901 a nation of 75.9 million suddenly had twice as many major league teams as the season before.
As Ban Johnson put it, “If we had waited for the National League to do something for us, we would have remained a minor league forever. The American League will be the principal organization of the country within a very short time. Mark my prediction!”

Bold words indeed, but Johnson never had to eat them. As Dizzy Dean would later state, “It ain’t braggin’ if you can do it.” And Ban Johnson and the AL did it…with a little help from former NL players.

On March 20, 1901, the AL announced the rosters for its eight franchises. Of the 185 players listed, 111 were signed out of the NL. The talent drain included Nap Lajoie, Jack Chesbro, Cy Young, Ed Delahanty, Jesse Burkett, John McGraw, Wilbert Robinson, Cy Seymour, Mike Donlin, Hugh Duffy, and Elmer Flick.

Significantly, Buffalo, Minneapolis, Indianapolis, and Kansas City were dropped from the league in favor of the four cities of the east coast megalopolis: Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington. Also, the AL was going head-to-head against the NL in Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia.

So why were so many NL players persuaded to take such a risk? The AL had no salary cap; the NL did ($2,400). As with any job, if you want more money and your employer won’t give you a raise, your only option is to seek work elsewhere.

Also, on October 13, 1900, the American League agreed to the demands of the newly formed (June 9) Players Protective Association; the National League rejected the demands. Unlike his NL counterpart, an American League player could not be traded, sold, or sent to the minors without his consent. So the AL offered better benefits as well as higher salaries for the same jobs. Consequently, it was relatively easy for the AL to get up to speed quickly. The AL also prospered because it cracked down on rowdiness and offered better pay and treatment for umpires.

The first AL regular season major league game took place on April 24, 1901 at Chicago’s South Side Park (a cricket field prior to 1900), where the White Stox were defeated by the Milwaukee Brewers, 5-4 in 10 innings, in front of 10,000+ fans. (Fun factoid: the first time the major league White Stox took the field was in an exhibition game against the University of Illinois at Champaign, Illinois on April 2.)

The White Stox would go on to repeat as pennant-winners, this time as major leaguers, clinching on September 12 with a 12-4 victory over Cleveland. The World Series was not an option, but the Stox had a post-season of sorts, an exhibition series (called the All-American Series) against the crosstown NL Orphans, which resulted in a split.

The migration of NL stars had given the AL immediate street cred. At the top of the list was Napoleon Lajoie. Spurning the Phillies in favor of the A’s, he won the Triple Crown, hitting .422, going deep 14 times, and driving in 125 runs, while slugging .635 and accruing 229 hits. Cy Young, who left the St. Louis Cardinals and signed with the Boston Americans, led the AL with 33 wins (including his 300th) and a 1.62 ERA. Thought to be washed up at age 34, he won 119 games for the Americans from 1901 through 1904.

As the established league, the NL should have been in a good position to withstand if not dominate the competition, but it was were more vulnerable than it appeared. Factionalism among owners was tearing the league apart. One side was led by Giants owner Andrew Freedman, who advocated “syndicate baseball,” in which all players would be owned by the league and assigned to teams; call it codified collusion. Had NL supremacy remained unchallenged, it might have been feasible; clearly, it was no way to compete against the upstart AL. At any rate, the concept lost steam after Freedman lost an election (after 25 ballots!) for NL president. Disheartened, he sold the Giants in December 1901.

In the late 19th century, NL attendance was in decline, falling from 3,559 per game in 1897 to 2,575 in 1898. Dropping the four weakest franchises (Baltimore, Cleveland, Louisville, and Washington) in 1900 raised the per-game average for the remaining eight teams to 3,215, but total league attendance dropped from 2,541,485 in 1899 to 1,829,490 in 1900. Given the travails of the NL, the arrival of the AL must have seemed like a godsend to professional ballplayers. Despite the NL’s head start, the AL had brighter prospects.

Of course, nothing gave the new league greater credibility than the ability to meet payroll. This was due not just to Ban Johnson’s leadership but to the financial backing of Charles Somers, a Cleveland coal magnate who had interests in four franchises; granted, this was also a form of collusion but no one was calling Somers on the carpet for it. In fact, in 1902 the Boston franchise was informally dubbed the Somersets in his honor (even today, Majestic offers a Boston Somersets T-shirt online).

After the 1902 season, the NL finally admitted to the threat the AL posed. The NL tried to co-opt the competition by offering to absorb four of the AL teams. Johnson readily refused, as he knew the AL was in a strong position. So the two leagues agreed to a merger…sort of. The leagues would remain separate but equal entities, each with its own offices and administrators. A three-man commission was established to resolve differences.

Of course, equality meant that the rules of the game had to be standardized. So the AL adopted the foul ball strike rule, which was already in effect in the NL. Most importantly, each league agreed to respect the other’s contracts. The AL could keep the former NL players they had signed, but there would be no more league-jumping. Consequently, this rendered moot some murky legal issues pertaining to player contracts.

For example, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court had overturned a lower court’s decision and ruled against Nap Lajoie (and other former Phillies who had jumped to the AL), stating that they could play for no team other than the Phillies. Lajoie was taken out of the game on Opening Day in 1902 and benched for the rest of April and May before he signed with Cleveland. Since the court’s jurisdiction did not extend beyond Pennsylvania, Lajoie could play all the home games for the Bronchos (as the Cleveland franchise was then known) and all road games except for those in Philadelphia.

By agreeing to respect each other’s contracts, the two leagues not only curtailed player movement, they also diminished player leverage in contract negotiations. Adding insult to injury, the American League agreed to abandon the Players Protective Association demands, so AL players could be traded, sold, or sent down without their permission. definite downer for players, but there was a silver lining in this cloud. Organized baseball was finally, well, organized. A player could sign with a team without worrying if the team or the league would vanish before the end of the season.

Though the AL’s rise to legitimacy had been rapid, it was not without hiccups. In 1904, one year after the AL bested the NL in the first World Series, the league’s credibility was widespread but not unanimous: manager John McGraw, whose Giants had won the NL pennant, refused to meet the AL pennant-winning Boston Americans. For the record, he opined that the AL was still a minor league but perhaps more to the point he had a running feud with Ban Johnson. By 1905, however, McGraw had a change of heart…or rather, NL owners changed it for him by making participation compulsory for pennant winners.

Six of the inaugural AL franchises (Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Washington) caught on, but in 1902 the Milwaukee Brewers moved to St. Louis and became the Browns, and in 1903 the Orioles moved to New York and became the Highlanders (and ultimately the Yankees). And so the AL remained till the A’s moved to Kansas City in 1955. The biggest speed bump during that 52-year stretch was that 1919 Black Sox kerfuffle, which reflected badly on the AL but left the NL untouched.

Had the agreement between the two leagues not been forged, major league baseball history would have been significantly different. If the AL had nixed the merger and continued to prosper, the NL might have been forced to adopt the PPA guidelines to compete for talent. Player salaries might have escalated more quickly, which means ticket prices also would have. Would attendance have turned downward, or would the fans have kept on coming?

The American League’s upgrade from minor to major league status raises the question of whether such a thing is possible today. It could not happen with any of the existing Triple-A or Double-A leagues, as all the teams are affiliated with major league teams. But could a reasonably competent indy league, say, the Atlantic League, unilaterally declare itself a major league?

Short answer: No. Major League Baseball is now trademarked. No team or league can call itself major league “without the express written consent of Major League Baseball” (love that phrase). Also, there are precious few cities without major league teams that are capable of supporting one – hence the hyper-cautious attitude toward expansion and relocation in MLB today.

Old-timers may recall the early days of the American Football League, which opened for business in 1960. The league may have been suspect at the outset, but after the 1966 season, the AFL and NFL met in a Super Bowl. By 1969 the AFL had merged with the NFL. Or how about the old American Basketball Association that existed from 1967 to 1976? The league folded but four ABA teams (Nets, Nuggets, Pacers, Spurs) were incorporated into the NBA. Could something similar happen in baseball?

The prospect of a third major league has arisen before. The Federal League lasted a mere two seasons (1914-1915), and a threatened third major league, the Continental League, became moot after the AL and NL opted to expand. Franchise moves to the West Coast and expansion derailed any attempt to upgrade the Pacific Coast League to major league status. In the 1940s the Mexican League’s attempts to elevate itself by raiding major league rosters also went awry.

The possibility of an indy league raiding existing major league rosters is as close to nil as you can get. All it can do is sign released players. No player with a valid major league contract would ever consider going renegade. The Frontier League, for example, has a total team salary cap of $75,000. With the major league minimum pay at $555,000 per season, the indy leagues just don’t have the bucks to raid major league rosters…unless some eccentric billionaire wanted to subsidize the league and raise the salary cap.

I suppose it is possible that MLB could realign itself so the existing 30 teams are split into three leagues, but that would be a radical step and it would serve no purpose.

While the AL’s rapid rise to respectability is a marvel, it occurred at a point in baseball history when conditions were most favorable and capable people were waiting in the wings to take advantage of the situation. Just as important, start-up costs and regulations were not what they are today.

For all those reasons, a third major league is even less likely than a viable third political party.

Resources and References

  • Deadball Stars of the American League, ed. by David Jones, Potomac Books (Dulles, Virginia, 2006)
  • “Napoleon Lajoie: How Major League Baseball made legal history,” by Richard Saylor, March 22, 2016, the State Museum of Pennsylvania,
  • The Timeline History of Baseball, by Don Jensen, Palgrave MacMillan (New York, 2005)
  • Twentieth Century Baseball Chronicle, by David Nemec, et al, Torant (Lincolnwood, Illinois, 1992)

Frank Jackson writes about baseball, film and history, sometimes all at once. He has has visited 54 major league parks, many of which are still in existence.
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4 years ago

Nowadays, we’ve reached the point where the two leagues have effectively merged in all but name, the designated hitter rule, and the annual awards. Entire franchises have even jumped leagues on two occasions, which would’ve been unthinkable a century ago!

Paul G.member
4 years ago

One of the reasons the American League had an opening was the National League had abandoned several viable, or at least seemingly viable, cities. Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit, and Washington had had major league teams in past, all but Detroit having had a team in the NL as of 1899. At the time Baltimore and Cleveland were the 6th and 7th largest cities in the country. You will also notice that the cities the AL ending up facing the NL directly were the five largest cities in the country at the time: New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Boston. The simple matter of the situation is there was a lot more demand for major league baseball than the NL could provide, which led naturally to a competitor.

This is pretty much what also happened with the American Association a couple of decades earlier. The AA grabbed a bunch of large but untapped markets – hello Philadelphia! – which made them a significant threat. (It helped that the NL was still playing around in far too small cities like Providence, Troy, and Worcester). The Continental League had the same idea as there were several large cities without major league baseball. Take a look where they were going to put teams: Atlanta, Buffalo, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Minneapolis, New York (recently missing both the Dodgers and Giants), and Toronto. All of these cities, save Buffalo, ended up with major league teams, several of them within a couple of years of the threat.

Today there are no such plum open markets. If there were, the MLB would have expanded into them, or they would have moved Tampa to one of them. The largest metro in the United States without a team is Orlando at #22, and that is in driving distance of Tampa. I’m not saying you couldn’t put successful teams in places like Charlotte, San Antonio, Portland, Sacramento, Las Vegas, Austin, Columbus, Indianapolis, and Nashville, but these would all be considered small to medium market by MLB standards. Montreal and Mexico City are still open, but those are markets fret with peril for different reasons. The only option to succeed here is basically try to kill MLB and replace it, which means trying to compete in New York, Los Angeles, etc., which is a very high risk and extremely expensive proposition. It could happen, but it would probably require the MLB to do something very stupid and probably multiple very stupid things.