J.P. Morgan and the Birth of the American League
By Chris Oakley
(Adapted from material previously published at Othertimelines.com)
Like many Americans, J. Pierpoint Morgan enjoyed the game of baseball; like many baseball fans, Morgan resented the monopoly that Albert G. Spalding’s National League held over the game’s professional elements. However, as one of the wealthiest and most politically connected men in America Morgan was in a better position than most to do something about that monopoly. And he knew that if he looked hard enough he could easily find men of like mind to help him change the status quo in America’s national pastime.
In the fall of 1881, shortly before President James Garfield was assassinated, Morgan met with eight of these men in New York City for the purpose of organizing a professional baseball association to compete with the National League for the hearts and minds-- and pocket money --of baseball fans throughout America. The result of this meeting was the announcement on February 15th, 1882 of the establishment of the formation of the American League of Professional Baseball Clubs; most of the new league’s eight charter franchises would be located in cities that had National League clubs, but a few were setting up shop in places that hadn’t had professional representation in the sport up until that point...
To Albert Spalding, the American League’s mere existence was a blatant insult; the fact that most of the new league’s franchises would play in the same cities as his own National League clubs was an even greater affront. And when one of the AL’s charter clubs, the Baltimore Colts, lured Cleveland Blues outfielder "Foxy" Ned Hanlon out of the NL to join their team, Spalding regarded it as tantamount to a declaration of war. "I am for combat without quarter or pause." he ranted at an NL executives’ meeting shortly after Hanlon signed with the Colts. "I am prepared to fight until one of us quits or drops dead."
Fortunately for today’s baseball fans, however, neither league dropped dead. Indeed, one of the ironic consequences of the blood feud that marked the early years of the American League’s relations with its older and more established cousin is that it laid the first stones on the pathway towards the joining of both leagues under the modern MLB banner.
According to historical records, the first organized American League game was played on April 6th, 1882 when the Boston Red Stockings faced the Philadelphia Atlantics at the old Congress Street Grounds. Few press accounts of the game have survived to the present day, but from those that are available one can gather it must have been a fairly exciting contest; a box score from that evening’s Boston Herald-Traveler indicates both the Stockings and the Atlantics had no-hit bids going into the eighth inning before Philadelphia right fielder George "General Grant"1 McCreary lined a solo home run over the center field fence to pave the way for a 2-0 Atlantics win.
Two weeks later pitcher Mickey Welch of the newly minted Hartford Whalers would record the league’s first-ever no-hitter, carrying his club to a 4-0 win over the St. Louis Browns at Sportsman’s Park. Much to Spalding’s dismay, it soon became clear that Morgan’s new league meant to stay in business as long as it possibly could. And yet, might there not be a way to put the upstarts in their place so they became less of a nuisance to his National League?
With this in mind, he offered Morgan a challenge: field a team of the AL’s best players against the National League’s top men in a special kind of exhibition game to be held at the end of the regular season on a field of Morgan’s choosing. Spalding, who apparently didn’t know Morgan all that well, was convinced that the tycoon would back down and his upstart league would wither into dust. If the game did go off, well, winning it would be the perfect way to prove the National League’s superiority, wouldn’t it?
Spalding’s gambit blew up in his face: Morgan not only took him up on his dare, he went the National League boss one better, proposing that the two leagues’ respective champions should square off head to head in a best-of-five tournament to determine the best team in the professional game. This "World’s Champions of Baseball Exhibition Series"-- shortened to "World’s Series" by the New York Herald-Tribune --would take place two weeks after the end of the regular season if Spalding approved.
The National League president was taken aback; he hadn’t counted on this kind of a response from Morgan. Nevertheless, he accepted the millionaire’s suggestion, and the first-ever World’s Series was set for early October of 1882. In the meantime, fans in both leagues would be privileged to witness one of the greatest baseball seasons in the game’s history as teams jockeyed with one another for the chance to represent the fledgling American League or the venerable National League in the inaugural World’s Series.
The Red Stockings, Atlantics, and Colts would spend much of that summer locked in a three-way struggle for first place in the American League stands; it wasn’t until mid-August, when the Atlantics took two games of a three-game set with Baltimore at Newington Park, that Philadelphia finally started to gain a clear advantage over its rivals in the race to be crowned the AL’s first champion.
Over in the National League, Cap Anson’s Chicago Cubs had overtaken the Providence Grays for first place and were looking forward to, as Anson himself put it, "stuffing the poor galoots who have to face us in the (World’s) Series like a Christmas goose"2. The possibility that it might end up being the other way around apparently never crossed Cap’s mind....
Newington Park was jammed to capacity on September 29th, 1882 as the Philadelphia Atlantics hosted the New York Highlanders in the finale of the American League’s inaugural season. The Red Stockings had collapsed in early September and the Colts had followed suit ten days later, allowing a surging Highlander club to rocket past both of them in the AL standings. Now New York and Philadelphia were tied for first place, and whoever won this end of season contest would clinch the pennant by a single game, earning the right to face the National League champion Cubs in the first World’s Series.
The Atlantics were quick to stake out an early lead; a bases- loaded triple by "General Grant" McCreary put them ahead of the Highlanders 3-0 in the 1st inning, and by the 4th that lead had swelled to 6-1. The same New York bats that had knocked Boston and Baltimore out of the AL pennant race were now helpless to make more than a tiny dent in Philadelphia’s pitching staff.
And it didn’t help matters any when Highlanders starting pitcher Amos Rusie got himself ejected in the 6th inning after making a crude remark to the home plate umpire during a dispute over a strike call. Without Rusie on the mound, New York’s already slim chances of winning the game vanished altogether, and McCreary took advantage of it by knocking in two more runs to hammer the last nail in the Highlanders’ casket.
Philadelphia won the game 11-2, clinching the first-ever American League pennant and setting off boisterous celebrations throughout the City of Brotherly Love. Philadelphia’s mayor gave McCreary the key to the city and declared a civic holiday; three days later McCreary and his teammates boarded a train for Chicago to battle Cap Anson and the Cubs in the first game of the 1882 World’s Series.
On October 5th, 1882 the Philadelphia Atlantics and the Chicago Cubs met at Lake Front Park for the opening game of the first-ever World’s Series. Next to "General Grant" McCreary, the Philadelphia player who posed the greatest challenge for the Cubs was righthanded pitcher J.B. Donlan, who had won 23 games for the Atlantics in the regular season and had a fastball that modern sports scholars estimate to have had an average speed of 90-95 miles an hour. "We’ve got to get to him early," Anson told his teammates, "if we’re going to win this game."
But getting to Donlan would prove easier said than done: he struck out six of the first eight batters he faced and would rack up fifteen strikeouts overall before leaving the game midway through the eighth inning. McCreary helped the Atlantics’ cause by driving in three runs and throwing Cubs outfielder Abner Dalrymple out at second base in the eighth inning to squelch a Chicago rally. Philadelphia won the game 7- 2, a triumph duly reported to fans around the country by telegraph operators in the Lake Front Park press boxes.
The Cubs would get their revenge the next day with a four-run shutout of the Atlantics in Game 2. Abner Dalrymple, Cap Anson, and Chicago shortstop "King" Kelly would each tally solo home runs off Philadelphia pitchers, and Anson would dazzle the crowd with a sixth inning steal of home plate. That game also saw the only time in "General Grant" McCreary’s career when he lost his temper with an umpire: in the fifth inning the normally good-humored Atlantics right fielder berated the home plate ump after a crucial strike call went against him.
Such an outburst was an exception in McCreary’s long baseball career, and a highly conspicuous exception to boot. He’d never lashed out at an umpire that way before, and he never did so again; in fact, an embarrassed and apologetic McCreary later sought out the umpire in question to mend fences with him. Such an act might seem hard to imagine in the era of spoiled multi-millionaire athletes and physical confrontations with referees, but that act of contrition was a window into the Atlantics star’s character.
McCreary was not only one of the most talented American League stars of that era, he was also one of the most likable. He seldom if ever passed up a chance to sign a fan’s autograph book, and his sense of humor made him highly popular among his teammates. Even Albert Spalding conceded him to be a man of good disposition: "The pity of it is," Spalding once told a crony, "that he is not wearing a National Leaguer’s uniform, otherwise I would consider him the finest man in the sport."
An encounter that happened late in McCreary’s career, when he was a player-manager with the Detroit Excelsiors, illustrates his rapport with the fans. He was in Baltimore, walking back to his hotel after having just finished batting practice in preparation for the start of a four-game series with the Colts, when he happened to pass a vacant lot and saw a ten-year-old boy standing at the edge of it. The boy had been hoping to get in a sandlot game with some of the other kids in the neighborhood but couldn’t find any takers; McCreary volunteered to join him for a few rounds of catch until either they found some more players or until sunset, whichever came first. Before long, passersby on the street stopped to watch, then to take part in the game.
The ten-year-old who played catch with McCreary that afternoon was a saloonkeeper’s son who would one day become a baseball superstar in his own right, George Herman "Babe" Ruth. The encounter may have made as much of an impression on McCreary as it did on Ruth; in the final months of his life, "General Grant" amended his will to include Ruth as one of his pallbearers.3
On October 10th, 1882, a capacity crowd flocked to Newington Park for the third game of the 1882 World’s Series. It marked the first time Albert G. Spalding had ever set foot inside an American League ballpark, as well as the first time a sitting US president(Chester Arthur) had thrown the ceremonial opening pitch of a game in either league. But most important about this day was that it would witness the closest game of the entire Series. J.B. Donlan’s younger brother Isaac started for Philadelphia that afternoon, while Chicago countered with Ned Williamson, normally a reliever and infielder.
Over the first eight and a half innings Isaac Donlan proved that baseball talent ran in his family; he racked up thirteen strikeouts for the Atlantics and held the Cubs scoreless while only giving up four hits. Williamson was almost as effective on the opposite side, confining the Atlantics to just three hits and notching ten strikeouts while yielding no runs.
The scoring logjam was finally broken in the top of the ninth when Chicago catcher Silver Flint singled over Atlantics reliever Julius Marcotte to bring Cap Anson home from second base. From his luxury box Spalding watched with barely concealed glee; his National League was about to demonstrate its clear superiority by taking a 2 games-to-1 lead in the World’s Series and putting the upstart American League over a barrel.
But his optimism turned out to be premature. A King Kelly error in the bottom of the ninth allowed Marcotte to score the tying run all the way from first; he then retired the side in the top of the tenth inning to short-circuit a rally attempt by Chicago. Now it was up to "General Grant" McCreary and teammate Luca Gianello, a gangly third baseman who’d signed with the Atlantics after failing a tryout with the New York Giants, to win the day for Philadelphia.
In contrast to the majestic line drives McCreary was famous for, Gianello tended to be a singles hitter; he was better-known for his phenomenal base-stealing ability than for his slugging power. But after McCreary drew a walk from Cubs pitcher Larry Corcoran, Gianello belted a triple to center that would become the most talked-about hit of the game if not the entire Series; it brought McCreary home to clinch a 2-1 victory for Philadelphia and put the Atlantics ahead two games to one in the Series overall.
It was a shellshocked Albert Spaulding who staggered out of Newington Park after the game was over; like Frankenstein’s monster, Spaulding’s concept of having the elite of the American League face the best of the National League was turning on its creator. The Cubs, who by all rights should have been preparing to clinch the NL’s ultimate triumph over the AL, were instead teetering on the brink of final defeat.
The Series resumed on October 13th after a two-day pause for the Columbus Day holiday. Game 2-winning pitcher Fred Goldsmith would be the Cubs’ starter for Game 4; J.B. Donlan, the hero of Game 1, would toe the mound for the Atlantics. With Luca Gianello hospitalized by a migraine headache, Julius Marcotte had been temporarily switched to third base by Philadelphia for this crucial matchup; Abner Dalrymple of Chicago was also sidelined, nursing a hangover after a wild night of boozing in a West Philadelphia tavern to dull his embarrassment at the Cubs’ Game 3 defeat.
Cap Anson, not the most mild-mannered of men to begin with, was seething like a caged lion as game time approached. He’d been counting on Dalrymple’s bat to help power Chicago to a Series-tying win, but thanks to Demon Rum that particular option had been yanked out of Anson’s hands and the Cubs infielder-manager was furious about it. Joe Quest, the 29-year-old reserve fielder who would start the game in Dalrymple’s place, took the brunt of Anson’s pregame tirade; it had been Quest’s responsibility to keep Dalrymple out of trouble, and in Anson’s eyes Quest had failed that task miserably.
Not that the rest of the Cubs got off easy; as Silver Flint put it in a letter to a friend back home, Anson "drove us like dogs" during the pregame workout and declared that for every error that was made on the field, the entire team would be fined $200 per player. He even threatened to fire King Kelly, to which Kelly bluntly answered that he intended to quit the team anyway if Anson didn’t stop riding him so hard.
In short, the Atlantics would be facing a badly divided and weakened Cubs team-- and they would take full advantage of their foes’ plight.
Philadelphia wasted little time seizing the initiative against Chicago; a solo home run by George McCreary and a bases-loaded double by Julius Marcotte put the Atlantics ahead 3-0 after two innings, and by the fourth inning that lead had grown to 5-1. J.B. Donlan was so dominant on the mound that afternoon some baseball historians think it might not have made all that much difference whether Dalrymple had played the game or not.
Up in his luxury box Albert G. Spalding watched the proceedings with the horrified look of a man who’d just been told he was about to die. His National League champions were getting their heads chopped off by the American Leaguers, and he’d made the mistake of supplying them with the ax. And things were going to get even worse for him as the afternoon rolled on; in the sixth inning Atlantics shortstop Cyrus Jones whacked a three-run homer over the Newington Park right field fence that swelled Philadelphia’s lead to 8-1 and effectively killed Chicago’s hopes of winning the World’s Series.
The Cubs finally managed to get a second run in the top of the eighth with a Cap Anson bunt single that scored infielder Tom Burns from third base, but by then the wind was completely out of their sails and nothing could get it going again. In the bottom of the eighth J.B. Donlan put the Atlantics ahead 9-2 with an RBI double to center.
His brother Isaac took over the pitching chores in the top of the ninth. The Newington Park crowd was on pins and needles as he struck out the first two men he faced; Cubs outfielder George Gore then hit a weak pop fly to center-- and the silence was broken by a thunderous ovation. The Philadelphia Atlantics had clinched the inaugural World’s Series championship.
The Atlantics’ principal owner threw a lavish banquet for his players to celebrate their triumph, the first of many honors that would be bestowed on them. The Philadelphia city council and the Pennsylvania state legislature both passed resolutions honoring the Atlantics’ accomplishment; the state’s most senior Congressman in Washington arranged for the team to visit the White House, where they delighted President Arthur and his family by staging a pickup game with Capitol Hill police.
They repeated as World’s Series champions in 1883, overcoming a 2 games-to-0 deficit to beat the National League champion Boston Braves in five games. This time, there was nothing to keep Luca Gianello from being there for the finish-- in fact, Gianello would be credited with driving home the Series-winning run with an RBI double in Game 5. By then it was clear that the Series, and the American League, would become permanent fixtures on America’s baseball landscape.
The National League finally took the brass ring in 1885 when the Chicago Cubs swept the Baltimore Colts, exorcising many of the Series ghosts that had haunted them for three years; they buried the rest in 1891 by winning a Series rematch against the Atlantics in four games.
McCreary, Gianello, Marcotte, and the Donlan brothers-- dubbed "the Five Musketeers" by the New York World-Telegram --continued to play an integral part in the Atlantics’ success well into the 1890s; on their watch the team won six American League pennants and four World’s Series championships and never finished lower than second place. Only Marcotte’s tragic death from a ruptured appendix in 1899 prevented this remarkable quintet from ushering in the 20th century together.
Luca Gianello was released by the Atlantics in 1902; a year later he helped propel the Boston Red Stockings to their first-ever World’s Series trophy.4 Following his retirement from the majors in 1906 he became a saloonkeeper in New Haven, Connecticut and spent the rest of his life there, dying from heart failure in 1925.
Isaac Donlan’s pitching career in the majors ended abruptly in 1904, when as a member of the Chicago Furies he was hit in the side of the head with a line drive; the blow left him permanently half-blind in one eye and subject to frequent dizzy spells until his death in 1931. His brother was noticeably more fortunate; J.B. Donlan retired in 1908 as the first 300-game winner in American League history and went to an outstanding second career as a New York Post sportswriter, helping cover their baseball and football beats until he passed away in 1940.
Fittingly it was "General Grant" McCreary who had the longest tenure in the majors, being traded to the Detroit Excelsiors in 1901, finishing his playing days with them in 1910, and serving as their manager until 1934. That year, he was forced to resign after doctors diagnosed him with an inoperable brain tumor; true to his nature, though, he refused to indulge in even the briefest moments of self-pity when he heard the news. In fact, in a farewell speech that would be quoted five years later by departing New York first baseman Lou Gehrig, McCreary told a crowd of 25,000: "Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth..." He died four months later; in keeping with his last will and testament, Babe Ruth and J.B. Donlan were among the pallbearers.
In sports, like in life itself, change is a constant. Just over a decade after the American League was founded, the Hartford Whalers, suffering from poor attendance, disbanded only to have some of their former players resurface two years later to form the Cleveland Browns.5 Four years after that one of Cleveland’s sister expansion teams, the Pittsburgh Imperials, decamped to the Flatbush section of Brooklyn and renamed themselves the Brooklyn Cyclones; in 1906 they became the Dodgers in a nod to the fans who dodged oncoming trolley cars to see their home games. (Half a century later, the Dodgers would relocate once more, this time to their present home in Los Angeles.)
The Chicago Furies experimented with a plethora of uniform and color styles as the years rolled on; between 1911 and 1928 alone, the club boasted eleven different color schemes and eight uniform designs. Some years they would try out four or five different designs in the same season.6
In the mid-1920s boxing impresario George Lewis "Tex" Rickard bought a majority stake in the New York Highlanders; a New York Daily News sportswriter chronicling the transaction nicknamed the club ‘Tex’s Rangers’, and they became the New York Rangers for good by 1928.
The World’s Series switched its best-of-five format for a best-of- seven arrangement in 1904, toyed with a best-of-eight format between 1910 and 1917, held a one-time-only7 best-of-nine Series in 1919,8 and returned to the best-of-seven format in 1920. All subsequent World’s Series have been played under the best-of-seven arrangement, which both the American and National Leagues use today in their respective League Championship Series.9
One AL club, however, was embarrassingly consistent in the won-lost department: from the time they joined the American League in 1900 to the day they left Potomac Field six decades later to become the Houston Rockets, the Washington Capitals averaged between 75 and 80 losses a year and posted five consecutive last-place finishes between 1912 and 1916. At one point they threatened to become the first club in MLB history to go winless in the entire month of April; their only World’s Series championship, in 1924, came against a New York Giants club that lost a great deal of its offensive punch when outfielder Hack Wilson was injured after a collision with teammate Ross Youngs when both players were chasing a fly ball in the second game.
As baseball fans in 2007 mark the 125th anniversary of the American League’s inaugural season, America’s national pastime, like the nation itself, now stretches from sea to shining sea; the AL has grown to 13 teams, and if current expansion plans work out two more may join the league by 2010. In 2032, a time capsule is due to be earthed as part of ceremonies commemorating the 150th anniversary; no one can predict with complete certainty what baseball as a whole or the league in particular will be like when the unearthing takes place, but it can be safely assumed that somewhere in the afterlife the league’s original founder will be keenly watching the festivities.
1So nicknamed because he liked to style his whiskers after those of the famous American Civil War commander.
2Quoted in an interview by Anson for the August 28th, 1882 Chicago Tribune.
3McCreary also kept a scrapbook following Ruth’s major league career; after McCreary’s death the book was donated to the Philadelphia Public Library, where it remains today.
4In 1904 they became the Red Socks to avoid confusion with Harry Wright’s defunct Cincinnati Red Stockings club.
5Named after the new team’s principal investor, Ohio brewer Ignatius Brown.
6And the experiments don’t seem to be showing any signs of stopping; Chicago is set debut yet another batch of new uniform and color styles in 2009.
8The infamous "Gambler’s Series" in which the heavily favored Chicago Furies threw the contest to the National League champion Cincinnati Reds in exchange for hefty payoffs from a New York City bookmaker.
9The best-of-five format has been retained for divisional playoffs, however.