1900 On the Brink of Adulthood

The monopolistic National League lumbers into the 20th Century by continuing its self-served sleepwalk a year before the American League is forced to wake it up.

The lawless environment of 19th Century baseball is illustrated to (slightly) exaggerated effect in this Sporting Life commentary in 1885. The turn of the century provided little hope of improvement as a monopolistic and near-corrupt National League blindly trudged on.

The game of baseball entered the 20th Century as something of a juvenile delinquent. Throughout the 1890s, nobody behaved. Not the players, not the fans, not even the owners. Shoddy ballparks frequently burned down. Testosterone was spent in bulk, and the faint-of-heart need not apply. To attend the National Pastime was to engage in an occupational hazard.

As the calendar turned to 1900, there was hope that the game might soon grow up, get its life in order and settle into a more mature existence. Such prayers would soon be heeded. Until then, an indifferent baseball campaign would be played out in 1900 that resembled a hangover from the wild and woolly 1890s.

The 19th Century history of baseball reads like the first 20 years of a young person’s life, growing up, evolving, learning, misbehaving. Though the game exploded on a recreational level in the decades before the Civil War, the birth of the sport remains virtually untraceable. Baseball was not created in a single day by a single person. It certainly wasn’t whipped up by Abner DoubledayDoubleday was given credit until it was established that not only was he not in Cooperstown in 1839, but not once was baseball mentioned amongst his numerous memoirs. in Cooperstown, the stock theory given in the early 1900s. Nor was it imagined out of the blue by folks like Alexander Cartwright or Harry Chadwick, disparate people who helped elevate the game to an organized plain. It’s more likely that, instead, baseball took the Darwinist route of evolving from various other games such as rounders or cricket.

The National League would become the only one of five major leagues to survive the 19th Century, outlasting four others that existed before or during its early reign: The National Association (1871-75), the American Association (1882-91), the Union Association (1884) and the Players’ League (1890).

Its rampant growth tempered by the Civil War, baseball regained its momentum afterward and turned professional in 1871 with the advent of its first major league, the National Association. Over the next 20 years, baseball’s childhood would be an era of doing its homework but failing the exam. During this period, a total of five major leagues and 100 separate franchises—in towns as obscure as Keokuk, Elizabeth, Middletown and Troy—gave it a shot. By 1892, only one band would be left playing: The National League. Born in 1876, the league that would be nicknamed the senior circuit prevailed thanks to the reserve clause—which brought financial stability at the expense of the players, who were enslaved into perpetual servitude within the clubs that owned their rights.

Just as volatile as the ever-shifting major league landscape were the game’s pivotal rule changes, made as often as the changing of the seasons. In 1880, it took eight balls to be granted a walk; it would be whittled down to the current four by 1889. For a brief time in the late 1880s, it was four strikes and you’re out. By 1887, batters could no longer request a pitcher to throw high or low and, until 1891, players removed from a game were eligible to re-enter it. Most crucially, the distance between home plate and the pitching mound—moved from 45 feet to 50 in 1881—was shoved further back to the current 60 feet, six inches in 1893.

Baseball would assume a rebellious youth in the 1890s after the American Association’s death secured monopoly status for the NL. The decade would be among baseball’s most stagnant and uncivil, best reflected by the era’s most memorable team: The Baltimore Orioles, a group of brawling pranksters who won at all costsThe Orioles’ intimidation tactics helped lead them to three straight NL pennants, from 1894-96., and were led by third baseman John McGraw—a feisty, 5’7” troublemaker whose facial character had “beat it” viciously written all over it. The fans in the stands rooted by example, frequently engaging in an untamed form of audience participation. It got so bad that some ballparks put up barbed wire to separate the hoodlums in the bleachers from those on the field.

The National League’s owners were no less well behaved. Not only had they choked player payrolls with the reserve clause, but they had also set a salary cap of $2,400 per player that lasted through the balance of the 1890s—exceeded only on rare occasion for star players who used what little leverage they had to scratch and claw for the extra money. Further meddling with the league’s competitive element, a number of owners held control over multiple franchises, raising the potential of one team having its talent pool drained and emptied into that of another owned by the same magnate.

The downside to “syndicate baseball” was exposed with major embarrassment in 1899. The Cleveland Spiders were heavily plundered and sent to the St. Louis PerfectosFormer Spiders who escaped to St. Louis: Cy Young, Jesse Burkett, Mike Donlin and Lave Cross. by the Robison brothers—who owned both teams—and what was left of the Spiders was so awful, their fans literally stopped coming out to root for them. And when they stopped coming out—the Spiders drew just 6,088 spectators over 31 home games—the Robisons simply had the Spiders play their second half schedule almost entirely on the road. Cleveland lost 39 of its last 40 games, was outscored in its last nine (all losses), 111-22, and finished the year with a 20-134 mark that would make the 1962 New York Mets look respectable by comparison.

Mercifully, the Spiders would be taken off life support prior to the 1900 season. But three other teams—Louisville, Washington and even the Orioles—some of which had also suffered as the lesser halves of dual-ownership, would also get termination notices. Franchises were not all that got axed; NL owners also decided to reduce the number of umpires per game—from two down to one.

This NL’s last-minute contraction for 1900 left eight franchises that would stick around for a long, long time: Charter members in the Boston Beaneaters (Braves) and Chicago Orphans (Cubs); the Philadelphia Phillies and New York Giants, who joined the fold in 1883; and the St. Louis Cardinals (renamed from the Perfectos for 1900), Brooklyn Superbas (Dodgers), Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates—all of whom eventually jumped to the NL after starting out in the American Association.

Baseball’s last unilateral regular season was a tight but ultimately uninspiring campaign in which the eight NL survivors produced a 23-game span from first place to last.

The Philadelphia Phillies stormed into first place with a 22-10 start, but it was at that moment that the Phillies’ two young star hitters, Nap Lajoie and Elmer Flick, decided to pick a fine time to brawl. Their May 31 scuffleTime has obscured the reasons behind the Lajoie-Flick fight; The Sporting News claimed it was over “such a trifling thing as a bat.” sidelined not only Lajoie for a month, but also the Phillies’ chances; the team played subpar baseball in Lajoie’s absence and never recovered.

That left the race for the NL pennant between Brooklyn and Pittsburgh, two teams who greatly benefited from franchise cutbacks elsewhere.

The Pirates, who hadn’t made much of a dent in a pennant race since 1893, had their talent pool sweetened with the arrival of several key Louisville refugees; the prime inheritance among them was, undoubtedly, 26-year old Honus Wagner. Discovered in 1896 by Ed Barrow—whose claim to fame as architect of the New York Yankees’ early glory years lay ahead of him—the muscular, gangly Wagner, now in his fourth major league season with the Pirates, initiated a dominant decade in which he would win seven NL batting titles with perhaps his very best performance—setting career highs in hitting (.381), doubles (45) and triples (22).

The National League tried a best-of-five “championship” series of sorts between first-place Brooklyn and second-place Pittsburgh, but it had tried that as well with something called the Temple Cup in the 1890s. Few cared then, and few cared now.While the Pirates were able to absorb a fair team in Louisville, the Brooklyn Superbas were able to take in a very good one in the Baltimore Orioles. Already sound a year earlier with the transfers of acclaimed Orioles manager Ned Hanlon and miniscule (5’4”, 140 pounds) Willie Keeler—who continued to make good on his legendary motto to “hit ’em where they ain’t” by stroking out 200 hits every year since 1894—the Superbas were made a great team with the 1900 addition of ex-Orioles in talented 21-year-old outfielder Jimmy Sheckard, veteran infielder Hughie Jennings, and pitcher Joe McGinnity—a workhorse of a pitcher who, a year after winning 28 games as a 28-year-old rookie for Baltimore, would win 28 more as a 29-year-old sophomore for Brooklyn.

Hanlon forged the same kind of results out of the Superbas as he often had from the Orioles: Aggressive hitting, relentless baserunning and a first-place finish. The Pirates gave chase late in the summer and pulled to within a game and a half of Brooklyn, but the overall balance of talent within the Superbas—part nee Orioles—would be too much to overcome.

One doleful bit of reality with the National League’s monopoly status was the absence of a meaningful postseason. When Brooklyn clinched first place, the season was basically done. Everyone played out the string. Oh, they did try a best-of-five “championship” series of sorts between the first-place Superbas and the second-place Pirates, but they had tried that as well with something called the Temple Cup in the 1890s. Few cared then, and few cared now; after all, why get excited over whether Brooklyn could outlast Pittsburgh in five games when they had already done it in 136? When the Superbas reproved their supremacy over the Pirates, three games to one, attendance in Pittsburgh—where all the games were playedThe series was sponsored by one of the local Pittsburgh newspapers; a silver cup went to the winning Brooklyn side.—was well below regular season average.

The 1900 season had the look of stale leftovers. Reduced to eight teams, the National League could not prove that less was more. Per-game attendance remained steady from 1899 figures, but that was a disappointment given that it hadn’t spiked with the absence of the four weak links disposed of before Opening Day. Bad behavior continued to linger, both in the stands and on the field. The players, fed up with being trapped under the NL magnates’ salary cap structure, formed a union in mid-1900 under the guidance of Samuel Gompers, President of the American Federation of Labor. It took six months for the Players Protection Association, as the union was called, to get an appointment with the owners; when they finally got through the door, every suggestion they offered was promptly shot down. And then, days later—as if to punish the players for their dare to reform—the owners reduced team rosters to 16 players, in effect laying off 10 per cent of the major league workforce.

It was hard to figure out if the owners were arrogant or stupid. Or both. As they shrugged their shoulders and laughed at a frustrated and angry union, their monopoly-fed addiction to leverage was soon to be rendered impotent with quick and cold reality. For the juvenile delinquent known as the National League was about to be shaken down and forced to grow up by a newly-arrived stepbrother whose house was well in order: The American League.

1901 baseball historyForward to 1901: The American League Championed as a safe and honest alternative to the National League, the American League opens up for business.

1900s baseball historyThe 1900s Page: The Birth of the Modern Age The established National League and upstart American League battle it out, then make peace to signal in a new and lasting era.

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1900 Standings

National League
Brooklyn Superbas
Pittsburgh Pirates
Philadelphia Phillies
Boston Beaneaters
St. Louis Cardinals
Chicago Orphans
Cincinnati Reds
New York Giants

It Happened in 1900

A Shocking End
Marty Bergen, a veteran catcher of four years with the Boston Beaneaters, picks up an ax in his North Brookfield, Massachusetts home on January 19 and proceeds to kill his wife and two kids—ages 3 and 6—before ending his own life by slitting his throat with a razor. Although the motives for the horrifying murder-suicide are never fully understood, it’s suspected that the 28-year-old Bergen was a mentally troubled individual who took occasional, unannounced leaves of absence from the Beaneaters—and was reported to be distraught over the 1898 death of his three-year old son.

The Kid Reaches 300
Kid Nichols, who began his major league career at the beginning of the 1890s and proceeded to win an astounding 297 games throughout the decade, becomes the youngest player ever to reach 300 career victories on July 7 with a 11-4 Boston win at Chicago. The 30-year old has an off-season otherwise, finishing with just a 13-16 record over 231.1 innings; from 1890-99, he averaged nearly 30 wins and 400 innings per year.

Out With the Past, In With the Future
Amos Rusie, whose electric fastball was one of the prime reasons baseball moved the pitching mound back 10 feet in 1892—and whose occasional disputes with irascible New York Giants owner Andrew Freedman interrupted his terrific play—is dealt one-up to the Cincinnati Reds for a 20-year-old pitching prospect named Christy Mathewson. Rusie has 245 career victories, Mathewson none, but the Giants know enough of Mathewson to believe he’s got real promise, while well aware that Rusie has virtually nothing left. The Giants are right on both counts; Mathewson will win a National League-record 373 games, while Rusie will never win again. Ironically, Mathewson had appeared in six games for the Giants in 1900 before being released and picked up by the Reds.

If You Can’t Get ’em Out, Join ’em
The Giants have less foresight when it comes to the predicament of
Cy Seymour. Better known as one of the game’s best hitters in the 20th Century’s first decade, Seymour enters 1900 with a different reputation as a hard-throwing—yet erratic—pitcher. A 25-game winner with a National League-high 239 strikeouts as recently as 1898, Seymour’s pitching game falls apart in 1900 with a 6.96 earned run average and 54 walks in 53 innings. The Giants haven’t figured that Seymour might be better used as an everyday hitter, but the Baltimore Orioles of the American League will do just that a year later when they sign the 28-year old as an outfielder.

The Shape of Things to Come
Baseball continues to hone down the rules of the game toward its modern day interpretation of the rulebook. The NL agrees to change the shape of home plate from a simple square to a five-sided, house-like shape that remains the standard today. Also, any balk infraction by the pitcher will no longer allow the batter to be awarded first base.

Instant Offense
The Philadelphia Phillies and Boston Beaneaters set a major league mark by combining to score the most runs in an Opening Day contest, as the Phillies prevail 19-17 in 10 innings on April 21. After blowing a 17-8 lead in the bottom of the ninth, the Phillies rebound to score two in the 10th to win it. Incredibly, starting pitcher
Al Orth goes the distance, allowing all 17 Boston runs and picking up the victory for Philadelphia.

The Defense Rests
An all-time record for defensive futility by a team in a doubleheader will be set not once, but twice, during the season. On September 13, the Cincinnati Reds commit 17 errors in a twinbill at Brooklyn, losing both games, 7-2 and 13-9. Later on October 8, the Reds will take two at Chicago, 13-4 and 9-1, in the process witnessing the Orphans match their earlier ineptness with 17 errors of their own.

Fire of the Year
In an era where wooden ballparks still rule—as do the fire hazards that accompany them—the bleachers at Cincinnati’s League Park are crippled by a nighttime fire on May 28 that forces the Reds on the road for a month. When they return, the field is redirected so that the surviving bleachers sit behind home plate—but batters complain about the sun shining in their eyes. The ad-hoc set-up will remain until 1902, when it will be replaced by the unique, Romanesque Palace of the Fans.

With Displays Like This, Who Needs Fireworks?
Two years after Cincinnati owner
John Brush publicly spearheaded a campaign to clean up the rogue element within the NL, it appears that the wilds of the playing field and bleachers are still untamed. The ballpark is an especially riotous place to be on the Fourth of July. In Cincinnati, the Giants’ Jack Doyle engages in a fight with lone umpire Robert Emslie that nearly turns into a full-fledged riot; Doyle is arrested and later fined for assault. Meanwhile in Chicago, It’s reported that some 1,000 out of a crowd of 10,000 attending a doubleheader between the Orphans and Phillies bring firearms to shoot into the air in celebration.

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