1901 The American League

Ban Johnson upgrades his minor league circuit to the big time and scores an impressive and colorful debut, thanks to aggressive player raids upon National League rosters.

Ban Johnson, American League czar.

For nine full years, the National League was afforded the privilege of being unchallenged. Like a true monopoly, the NL’s magnates pretty much got away with whatever they wanted.

Yet the senior circuit’s corrupt arrogance was matched only by its sloppiness. As it reveled and rested in baseball’s castle of supremacy, no one was minding the watchtower, neither fearful nor aware that a possible upstart would charge forth. But little had the NL realized that, by 1893—barely two years after becoming the sole major league with the death of the American Association—the seeds had already been sown from which serious competition would sprout.

The birth of the American League, its slow and steady progress toward major league status, and its hostile arrival in 1901 as an intended equal to the NL would have a profound influence in shaping the destiny of big league baseball through the 20th Century and beyond.

Long before acquiring the unofficial title of God in the AL, Byron Bancroft “Ban” Johnson was a young Cincinnati sportswriter who loved baseball but hated its immoral attitudes. Through his columns, Johnson aggressively campaigned for a clean game where players behaved, umpires were in control, and rowdy hooligans gotten rid of. It never dawned on Johnson that he could act on his scriptures of reform by getting involved in baseball—until prodded to do so one evening at a bar with Charles Comiskey, a successful player-manager in the majors since the age of 23.

Though it was not the be-all, end-all of baseball, the Western League was a good place for Johnson to start—a minor league operation westward and wayward enough to avoid constant badgering from conniving NL owners. Johnson took over the circuit in 1893 at age 29 and quickly proved that, pound for pound—both figuratively and literally—his 300-lb. presence was as powerful as his pen, passionately persuading his way to a role as league czar and instilling his doctrine of fair and clean play. Under Johnson’s rule, the WL instantly became a financial and critical hit; NL owners took notice, casually nodded and carried on with their shenanigans.

With Comiskey in tow as the head man for the WL’s St. Paul franchise, Johnson’s self-confident (if not self-righteous) stature grew to the point that he eyed self-promotion of his league from minor to major. In 1900, he fired two warning shots across the NL’s bow; he renamed his circuit the American League, and he moved Comiskey’s team to Chicago. The NL was fine with its first direct competition from Johnson in the Windy City, but only on the conditions that it stay minor league and play in Chicago’s filthy industrial south side without a city ID—leaving the team to be formally listed simply as the “White Stockings.” Johnson, who risked outlaw status per the sport’s National Agreement if he violated the terms, agreed. He was just happy to be in the NL’s backyard.

For 1901, Johnson removed the kid gloves and went for the kill.

Conditions were abundantly ripe for AL advancement. The NL had opened up several idle baseball marketsJohnson quickly took advantage of one former NL city for 1900: Cleveland. Their first home game drew 6,500, more than the woebegone 1899 NL Spiders drew all year. by reducing its lineup from 12 teams to eight in 1900. Frustrated NL players had formed a union, but their owners laughed it off. Rowdyism remained rampant in the NL, enhancing Johnson’s position to sell the AL as a civilized alternative. And, most importantly, the National Agreement was set to expire—unchaining Johnson to do as he pleased without formal retribution.

Johnson expanded his reach nationwide. Retaining franchises in Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee and Cleveland, Johnson began relocating the othersThe four AL cities spurned in the league’s quest for major league ascension: Buffalo, Indianapolis, Kansas City and Minneapolis. eastward, starting with the abandoned NL markets of Baltimore and Washington. The NL, which had no use for these cities, reacted graciously in public and wished the AL good luck. But Johnson wasn’t done; he switched two more teams into the NL strongholds of Philadelphia and Boston, defiant moves that tore down the NL’s goodwill façade and sparked full-scale interleague war.

In 1900, John Anderson was out of a job when the NL contracted to eight teams. A year later, he made the Senior Circuit pay by starring for the AL’s Milwaukee Brewers.

For the players, the ensuing battle of league vs. league was pure bliss. No longer locked to the NL’s take-it-or-leave-it $2,400 salary ceiling, they were free to accept any generous AL offer—or use the upstart circuit as leverage to wring more money out of their incumbent NL employers. Those who considered jumping to the AL understood the risks; baseball’s last two major league start-ups—the Union Association in 1884 and the Players’ League in 1890—both collapsed within a year, leaving NL expatriates exposed to possible payback once they returned to the NL, if they were invited back at all. But the players knew Johnson was no pied-piping one-year wonder; he had, after all, paid his dues working his way to the top, just like many of the players. And besides, Johnson was more attentive to the players and their union, offering binding arbitration, player approval of any trades and medical reimbursements for game-related injuries.

Johnson’s command, bravado and experience were enough to convince NL superstars and common players alike that the AL was worth the risk. And so they came: Cy Young, Jimmy Collins, Nap Lajoie, John McGraw, Mike Donlin, Joe McGinnity, Clark Griffith and Hugh Duffy, among many, many others. When the Opening Day rosters were set for 1901, nearly two-thirds of all American Leaguers were NL veterans.

Others were highly tempted but decided to stick with the NL’s relative fear of the known. One such player was a young yet highly touted Christy Mathewson, who had signed with the AL’s Philadelphia Athletics—he even received an advance—before developing cold feet and returningPhiladelphia manager and minority owner Connie Mack considered suing Mathewson, but ultimately decided against it. to the New York Giants.

A portrait of the Chicago White Stockings, owners of the AL’s first pennant. Seated in the middle in top hat and suit is manager-owner Charles Comiskey, Ban Johnson’s right-hand man.

The Chicago White Stockings clearly set the pace for the AL’s debut as a major circuit, winning the league’s first-ever game—April 24Three other AL games scheduled for April 24 were rained out. over the Cleveland Blues, 8-2—and its first-ever pennant. The team once managed and now owned by Charles Comiskey grabbed first place the way they often would throughout its early existence: With pitching, speed and very little hitting. Buffeted by the pitching (and managing) of veteran ace Clark Griffith (24 wins, seven losses and a 2.67 earned run average) and the rookie presence of Roy Patterson (20-16, 3.37), the White Stockings overcame a mid-season rally from the Boston Americans to win the AL flag by four games.

The range of talent throughout the AL, one that mixed all-stars with veterans and career minor leaguers who slipped through the cracks, firmly suggested that there was some fleshing out needed to develop a consistent level of play. Two storied players would especially take advantage of the talent imbalance and feast upon the AL.

Cy Young set out to prove that his former employer, St. Louis Cardinal owner Frank Robison, was wrong to assume that the 34-year-old pitcher was at the end of the line. Given a three-year contract by the AL’s Boston Americans after Robison offered only a one-year deal, the quiet, masterful Young shut down the opposition with a 33-10 record, 1.62 ERA and just 37 walks allowed in a prodigious 371.1 innings. That was the good news for Boston. Here was the better news: Young was settling in, not down as Robison had predicted.

Cy Young’s remarkable durability led to his standing as the modern era’s winningest pitcher after turning 34—an age ridiculed by Young’s former NL employers in St. Louis as being over-the-hill.

As Young stood head and shoulders among AL pitchers, he found an equal among the hitters in Nap Lajoie. A 26-year-old Rhode Island native with a tightly-packed, muscular physique worthy of Adonis, Lajoie decimated the competition for the Philadelphia Athletics with a triple crown performance—batting a 20th Century-high .426Lajoie’s .426 average remains a point of contention; some sources list him at .422, while others debate the relative sanctity of an average accomplished when foul balls were not counted as strikes. with 14 home runs and 125 runs batted in. The Baltimore Orioles’ Mike Donlin finished second in the AL batting race behind Lajoie—by a full 86 points. Lajoie’s crushing performance helped the Athletics rebound from a mediocre start to a respectable fourth-place finish, nine games back of the White Stockings.

Although Ban Johnson succeeded in acquiring National League players in bulk, he also inherited whatever on-field roguery they brought with them. The American Leaguers behaved for the first half of the year in accordance with Johnson’s decree to do away with the game’s uncivilized elements. But by mid-summer a number of players, perhaps assuming Johnson had been bluffing all along with his pledge to clean up the game, reverted to their old ways. Those who took the risk paid dearly. Baltimore’s Bret Hart and Chicago’s Frank Shugart punched out umpires in separate incidents—and quickly got kicked out of the AL; neither would play again in the majors. Joe McGinnity, the tireless ace of the Orioles’ staff, also received an expulsion notice after spitting at another umpire—and had to all but beg on his knees for reinstatement. Johnson, in a rare case of forgiveness, gave it to him.

In the end, the AL held its own against the NL. Attendance checked in at 3,100 per game, not far behind the NL’s average of 3,500. More importantly, in the three cities where the two leagues rammed head-to-head, the AL scored a technical knockout. The AL outdrew its NL competition two-to-one not only in Chicago but in Boston, the latter city a stunning case of a first-year AL franchise outdrawing a once proud NL franchise in the Beaneaters—who in desperation slashed admission prices in half during the season in a vain attempt to win backThe Americans were impressive enough to make converts out of the Royal Rooters, a band of enthusiastic Irish fans who had been following the Beaneaters. their fans. Only in Philadelphia did the NL hold firm—but barely, as the AL’s Athletics proved their worth to their crosstown NL rival in the Phillies with an almost equal gate.

On the field as well as at the turnstiles, the National League remained the better of the two leagues for the moment, in spite of the players’ mass defections to the AL. And while most NL teams shared in the pain of the talent drain, the NL pennant would be easily captured by the one team virtually unaffected by AL encroachment: The Pittsburgh Pirates.

Most of the hard work that enabled the Pirates to win the first pennant in their 20-year history was actually done before, not during, the 1901 season, as Pirates owner Barney Dreyfuss fought battles on two fronts. One battle was internal; after buying half-interest in the Pirates a year earlier, Dreyfuss emerged successfully from a bitter, off-season power struggle to get the other half from his equally hostile co-owner, William Kerr. The other battle was external; Ban Johnson and his AL spies zealously tried to lure Pittsburgh superstar Honus Wagner away, but Dreyfuss just as fervently wedged himself in to prevent it. Wagner remained anyway, content to stay the course in the more established NL even as the AL offered more money.

The American League’s initial raids upon the National League shifted the senior circuit’s balance of power—though it wasn’t necessarily a clear-cut example of the most affected teams sinking in the standings.

Now solely in charge upstairs, Dreyfuss watched as the Pirates took first place in mid-June and never gave it back, taking the NL flag by seven games. Wagner stayed put and continued his offensive dominance, batting .353 and leading the NL with 126 RBIs and 49 steals. Just as fearsome to opponents was the Bucs’ starting rotation, featuring three right-handers in Deacon Phillippe (22-12, 2.22 ERA), Jack Chesbro (21-10, 2.38), Sam Leever (14-5, 2.86) and a southpaw Jesse Tannehill (18-10, 2.18) who put together the league’s best ERA.

For the time being, the idea of a postseason series between the two leagues remained as distant as Neptune. The American League, relishing over its solid major league debut, might have been up for it—but it held no illusions that the National League would embrace this exultant new kid on the block.

War would rage into the coming offseason with a new round of player raids—not just by the AL, but also by a vengeful NL. Meanwhile, a salivating and hardly content Ban Johnson readied to invade more NL markets. It was just a matter of time before the lawyers got involved.

Thanks to the American League’s entrance onto the big league stage, baseball was alive again. Fans had more choices. Players took advantage of competitive bidding to receive long-overdue wage increases. Even the owners, with all their money being poured out to retain and acquire new players, would eventually get it and comprehend their own positives.

The monopoly party may have been over for the National League’s magnates, but in its place was a healthy atmosphere of competition that forced them to get off their cans and put out a top-flight product.

Because if they didn’t, someone over in the other league would.

1902 baseball historyForward to 1902: Enemies Within the Gate Warfare between the American and National Leagues turns brutal with increased player raids and sabotage.

1900 baseball historyBack to 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.

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.

share this page with a friendShare this page with a friend.

Have a comment, question or request? Contact us at This Great Game.

© 2019 This Great Game.

1901 Standings

National League
Pittsburgh Pirates
Philadelphia Phillies
Brooklyn Superbas
St. Louis Cardinals
Boston Beaneaters
Chicago Orphans
New York Giants
Cincinnati Reds
American League
Chicago White Stockings
Boston Americans
Detroit Tigers
Philadelphia Athletics
Baltimore Orioles
Washington Senators
Cleveland Blues
Milwaukee Brewers

It Happened in 1901

Sorry, Charlie
Before he begins his short and turbulent reign as manager of the Baltimore Orioles,
John McGraw attempts to sign up Charlie Grant, a light-skinned African-American, and disguise him as an Indian by the name of Charlie Tokohama. But before he pitches his first inning in the American League, Grant is seen being congratulated in public by two of his friends—both black—and is also noticed by White Stockings owner Charles Comiskey, who recognizes him from a Negro team in Chicago years earlier. Thus the AL—which adopts the National League’s unspoken rule for barring blacks from baseball—overrules McGraw’s signing; it is the closest an African-American will get to playing in the majors until Jackie Robinson’s debut in 1947.

The AL may claim to be major league, but the glovework shown in its first big-time campaign has, at times, a minor league look to it. Numerous displays of bad defense enter the record book and over 100 years later remain listed there. Among them: The most errors by a team in one game (Detroit, 12), most by a team in a doubleheader (Cleveland, 16), and most by a player in one inning (Milwaukee third baseman
Jimmy Burke, four). The overall league fielding average of .938 remains, by far, the worst in AL history to date.

Comeback Central
Just as no routine defensive play is assured, the AL also proves in its first big league year that no lead is safe. In the Detroit Tigers’ first-ever major league contest, they come from nine runs behind in the ninth inning—an Opening Day record—to defeat the Milwaukee Brewers, 14-13, on April 25. A month later on May 23, the Cleveland Blues are down to their last out trailing the Washington Senators, 13-5—and score nine straight runs to win, 14-13. No other major league team, before or since, has ever won a game trailing by as many runs with no outs to spare.

All Aboard!
Despite the splurge of wild finishes, the Blues believe a 22-run comeback is not in the cards and, rather than play out a 21-0 deficit to the Tigers on September 15, abandon the game in the middle of the eighth inning…to catch a train. The 21-0 decision will remain the most lopsided shutout in AL history until 2004.

The Ultimate Compliment
How good is
Nap Lajoie in 1901? The eventual triple-crown winner among AL batters is given an intentional walk by White Stockings ace Clark Griffith—with the bases loaded. Griffith’s gamble against the Philadelphia Athletics on May 23 brings the tying run to the plate with nobody out—yet each of the next three hitters behind Lajoie ground out, preserving an 11-7 Chicago win. Only five other major leaguers—Mel Ott, Del Bissonette, Bill Nicholson, Barry Bonds and Josh Hamilton—have been given a free pass with the bags full since 1900.

Just Passing Through
Cy Young earns his 300th career victory on July 3 at Boston in the Americans’ 9-1 defeat of the Baltimore Orioles. What’s normally a major milestone for most pitchers is but a pit stop for the 34-year old Young, who still has over 200 victories left in him.

Rounding the Bases the Hard Way
Sam Crawford, who at age 21 is exploding into stardom at Cincinnati, hits 12 of his National League-leading 16 home runs inside the park to set an all-time mark.

Advantage, Pitcher
In what may be the most pivotal rule change of the 20th Century, the NL declares that hitters will now be charged with strikes on any foul ball unless they already have two strikes on them. Before, such plays were waved off with no change in the count. The alteration will give a decided edge to pitchers, who now find themselves more frequently ahead in the count. The AL will follow suit in 1903.

Advantage, Hitter
One other rule change by the NL will be short-lived. It is initially decreed that any pitch hitting a player will be called a ball. Bruised batters will complain early in the year, and soon after the league rescinds the change, allowing hit batsmen to be awarded first base as before.

This Doc is Not the Cure
On June 21, Cincinnati Reds pitcher
Doc Parker starts in his first major league appearance since 1896—and his ensuing performance against Brooklyn will prove to be his last ever. Parker will go the allowable maximum eight innings in a road loss to the Superbas, allowing all 21 runs on a major-league record 26 hits; he also walks two and commits a balk. Only the strikebreaking Al Travers in 1912 will match Parker’s 26 hits allowed. The Reds lose, 21-3.

Fire of the Year
A fire erupts in the wooden grandstand of St. Louis’ Robison Field during the tenth inning of a 4-4 game between the Cardinals and the Chicago Orphans on May 4. No one is hurt as fans safely retreat to the playing field from the blaze, said to start in a garbage can by a discarded cigarette. The game is called and, amazingly, the Cardinals patch things up and resume their home schedule after canceling only one game at Robison.

In Double Figures
The New York Giants, in the midst of a late-season freefall in which the NL preseason favorites lose 63 of their last 85 games, hit a truly awful patch of play when they allow ten or more runs in a record seven straight games—all losses—from September 3-6. The latter six of the seven games are doubleheaders played on three consecutive days. The Giants are outscored by a total of 90-27 during this stretch.

Giant Hit Parade
When things are better for the Giants back on June 9, they set a modern major league record for a nine-inning game by knocking out 31 hits in a 25-13 rout at Cincinnati. The game is ended with one out to go when an overflow crowd, which had lined the field all day and contributed to ground rules that favored the offense, uncontrollably spills out onto the field.

The Last of the Bare-Handers
Gus Weyhing, a veteran pitching workhorse of three different major leagues before suffering a career downturn with the revised, 60’6” distance between the mound and home plate in 1892, retires at age 34 after splitting the season between the NL’s Reds and the AL’s Blues. What’s of special note is that Weyhing is the last major leaguer to play without a glove.

They’re Selling Like…What Do Call Those Things?
Harry M. Stevens is having an awful time trying to sell ice cream on a cold April day at a Giants game in New York, and decides to improvise—boiling sausages and having them wrapped in a bun. The result: The birth of the hotdog.

This Great Game Tooltip
As shown in the example above, move your mouse over any hyperlink with a dotted underline to instantly see more information on the topic at hand.

The Ballparks on This Great Game