Written by Jonathan Leshanski
Published: 01 May 2007
* In writing this article I did in fact take some liberties in simplifying the process which lead to the formation of the American League. We'll try to address some of this in later articles. If you have not seen other articles in the What Every Fan Should Know series, we have covered a number of topics and they can be found in our archives. - Jonathan
The American League did not spring forth fully-grown from the head of Zeus, but it could be said that it sprung forth from the head a man by the name of Ban Johnson. Johnson is a name that almost every baseball fan should recognize as he was the President of the American League from its inception until he retired in 1927. Up until the appointment of the first commissioner, Kennesaw Mountain Landis, Johnson was the most powerful man in the world of Major League Baseball.
Johnson’s career started inauspiciously enough as a catcher with a great fondness for baseball. Despite his family’s advice that he become a minister, Johnson decided to go into law at the University of Cincinnati. Subsequent to school he followed his heart and returned to his love of sports ending up as the sports editor and writer for the Cincinnati Commercial-Gazette.
His opinions made him friends and foes in the local baseball community, as he blasted Reds owner John T. Brush who he felt was only interested in making money at the cost of the good of the game. Strangely enough despite this he became good friends with Charles Comiskey - who worked for the Cincinnati Reds at the time. That friendship with Comiskey would serve them both in good stead as time went by.
In 1894 a newly formed minor league, the Western league was looking for a president. Based upon a recommendation by Charles Comiskey, John Brush made sure Ban Johnson was hired by the Western League. Brush hoped that if Johnson were busy administrating a league he would not be writing opinions for the Cincinnati papers which targeted Brush as the brunt of his criticism.
The Western League had eight teams including Grand Rapids, Sioux City, Milwaukee, Detroit, Kansas City, Toledo, Indianapolis and Minneapolis - the core of which would turn into the American League. Johnson took to the job like a duck to water and he ruled with an iron fist. He was not going to allow the Western League to take any of the worst aspects of baseball as a part of the game.
Perhaps the most important of these negative issues was the lack of respect for the umpires and the dirty or rowdy play and language. The National League was truly plagued by this at the time and cheating such as hiding extra balls in the infield grass and using them when needed, verbal and physical abuse of the single umpire (there was only one for the game at the time) was rampant. Because of this the environment was so bad that many fans, particularly families and ladies, would not often attend games – causing a serious decline of attendance and revenues. Johnson realized that management in the NL was not going to crack down in their league - so he did.
Soon the Western League was recognized as the best run league in baseball, not just the minors. More than that - it was family entertainment without the violence or objectionable language that was present in the Majors. Women and children began attending the Western League games in greater numbers. As attendance soared so did Johnson’s prestige.
Comiskey, Johnson’s biggest supporter was not out of the picture either. After his contract with the Reds ended Johnson rushed to the Western League and purchased the Sioux City team. He moved them to St. Paul. He spoke extensively with Johnson and helped him plan for expansion.
The team owners in the Western League were ecstatic. They were making money, the fan base was growing, and they credited it all to Johnson giving him a free hand in the running of the league. However there was one owner who had problems with Johnson - Cincinnati Reds owner John Brush – the one who had gotten Johnson the job.
Brush owned part of the Indianapolis team and had been used to playing one league against the other. He would draft players to play for the team in one league - then transfer them to the other - before selling off their contracts to another team at a profit. Johnson was irate and with the help of owners managed to drive Brush to sell his stock in the Indianapolis franchise.
Johnson’s power in the Western League was enormous. He moved franchises, made schedules and signed players to his league. With a group of happy owners supporting him Johnson waited for an opportunity to take the Western League to the next level.
The chance came in 1899, when the National League contracted, dumping the franchises in Baltimore, Washington, Louisville and Cleveland. Johnson did not hesitate; at a special meeting of the League he changed the name to the American League and shifted Comiskey’s franchise to Chicago and added another to Cleveland.
The National League could have thwarted the American League there in Chicago, but the NL feared the recently defunct American Association would make a comeback which was more disconcerting than the birth of the American League, which they saw as nothing more than another minor league. So the National League and the Chicago Orphans decided to give the south side of Chicago to the American League.
The popularity of the American League continued to grow while the National League slid. By the time the NL realized that the AL was a threat to their dominance it was too late. Still they turned a blind eye to many things that should have been obvious and like the kings of old pretended the problems did not exist.
In 1901 Ban Johnson’s contract was renewed for 10 years. With that security he made some of his boldest moves of franchises, including the plan to move the Baltimore Orioles to New York (where they became the Highlanders and eventually the NY Yankees) and moving the Milwaukee franchise to St. Louis (where they became the Browns).
The NL tried to crush the new league but Johnson was ready for them. He shored up weak franchises with strong financial backers and shifted players to non-competing teams to strengthen them and keep interest high. It was then that the NL made its biggest mistake.
The NL capped salaries. The lords of baseball decided that they would not pay any player more than $2,400. They believed that the reserve clause which, protected them from raiding each other, would prevent the AL from chasing their players.
They were wrong - Johnson and the AL ignored the reserve clause since they were not party to it in their contracts. They offered salaries higher than the NL did and stole much of the best talent from the NL. Players like Cy Young, Nap LaJoie, “Wee” Willie Keeler and roughly 100 others switched leagues.
For two years a war between the leagues raged with the NL losing far more than they gained. The AL was being touted as a superior brand of baseball and with its clean and fair play the fans agreed. The AL outdrew the NL by over half a million fans in 1902.
In 1903, bruised and battered the National League was ready to compromise rather than continue the head to head battles with the AL. In the National Agreement (we’ll discuss this in a later piece) The AL was recognized as a separate but equal Major League.