At the turn of the century baseball was not only America’s favorite past time it was also becoming a rowdy, and slightly dangerous, sport. Crowds were often ugly jeering, threatening, and attacking umpires and others if they were not happy with calls. Angry crowds murdered officials, and the players themselves were a rough lot. Sons of working men these players were used to rough language and behavior taking away from the gentlemanly roots of baseball.
While these players were getting a chance to live out a dream come true as major league baseball players they were at the mercy of the owners and the Leagues. They had little or no say in negotiated contracts, if they were unhappy with their team they were forced to stick things out until their team chose to sell their contract. An effort to form a Players League failed giving the National League owners less motivation to make a change that would not directly benefit them.
In 1900 Bryon Bancroft “Ban” Johnson stepped onto the scene. The son of an Ohio professor Ban played baseball while attending Marietta College and wrote about baseball for the Cincinnati Commercial Gazette. Later he took on a struggling minor league circuit, the Western League, in 1893 and made it a financial success. Encouraged by his accomplishment Ban began to consider taking on the big city monopoly that was the National League.
He renamed the Western League the American League and began trying to get the attention of the big city Leagues. Ban was thoroughly ignored; on one occasion he asked to address the National League during their 1900 annual meeting and was left waiting in the hall during the entire event. Furious Johnson decided to take matters into his own hands and declared war on the National League.
When the National League decided to drop four of its least profitable teams Johnson took the opening that he was given. He quickly established four new clubs in the cities of the dropped teams (Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington). He then contacted the newly unemployed baseball players in each city and convinced them to join his newly formed clubs. From there Johnson set his sites on the stars of the National League and by promising salaries starting at $500 per season he managed to lure away over 100 stars.
With a roster of popular baseball players Ban then began getting the attention of the fans. He boasted clean ballparks that would have a family friendly atmosphere. It seemed as though Ban would be bringing back the original gentleman’s game of baseball by getting rid of the rowdy behavior that was now being associated with the sport.
By 1902 the National League was taking notice of the American League and realizing what a threat it was. Fans were beginning to frequent American League games drawn by the big name stars, nice ballparks, and good games. The National League tried to fight back with lawsuits and publicly denouncing the American League but it was no use. Even A.G. Spalding’s publication “Guide to Baseball” admitted that the American League had more stars and inspired more articles than the national league.
In 1903 the National League decided it was time for peace. They made an agreement that made the two major leagues ‘separate but equal’ and decided they would honor each other’s contracts, and retain the reserve clause. While the American League and National League had a truce of sorts the competitive nature of the game still continued and the players themselves were still unrepresentative.
One of the first players to chafe under the rule of Ban Johnson was John McGraw. He was a competitive sort who believed in winning whatever the cost and not worrying over what went on outside of the game. A rough sort of man he resented the harsh rules Johnson placed on the players in an effort to keep the ball players family friendly.
As one of the players who were lured away from the National League to join the American League in hopes of getting a fresh start John McGraw was more than a bit disappointed with his choice. McGraw once stated, “Ballplayers are not a lot of cattle to have the whip cracked over them.” When given the chance to return to the National League as a manager for the New York Giants McGraw happily accepted the offer and the $11,000 salary.
Regardless of his aggressive nature McGraw was a capable manager and led his team to win the 1904 National League pennant. After the win he got revenge on Ban Johnson by refusing to let the Giants play the American Leagues Boston Pilgrims. The Giant’s owner, John T. Brush, upheld McGraw’s decision. Brush stated “there is nothing in the constitution or playing rules of the National League which requires its victorious club to submit its championship honors to a contest with a victorious club in a minor league.”
McGraw was more blunt and stated “The Giants will not play a postseason series with the American League champions. Ban Johnson has not been on the level with me personally and the American League management has been crooked more than once.” Not only did McGraw disagree with the way Johnson ran his ballparks he did everything he could to encourage the exact opposite behavior during his own games. He often stalked around the field and even into the crowds. Fights often broke out when the Giants were jeered or their decisions were questioned. McGraw encouraged his players to follow his example of concentrating on winning and winning alone. One reporter estimated that the Giants won 24 games on intimidation alone.
While McGraw was having a battle of sorts with Johnson and the American League black players were fighting an uphill battle with all of the leagues. Every major league club shut its doors on players of other ethnicities regardless of their baseball skills. In 1901 John McGraw, recognizing talent, attempted to get an African American player onto his team by claiming he was Native American. His ploy failed but it was more than most baseball managers were willing to do.
Because baseball was a sport enjoyed by all races attempts were made to establish a Negro League. These attempts continuously failed due to a lack of financial funding and black players started a variety of independent professional teams. J.L. Wilkinson, a white businessman from Kansas, eventually formed a League of sorts and he called his League the All Nations Team. He admitted players of all races but even with his backing these teams still faced hardships brought on by prejudice.
When traveling it was almost impossible to find hotels willing to board the teams and the other major leagues did not seem to acknowledge the All Nations Team. There was still a following as nonwhite baseball fans showed up for games. More importantly the existence of the team gave young black men and young men of other races something to dream about. Now they would have a chance of being part of a small, but still known, major league team. The end of 1910 saw two major leagues, the National and American League still gaining a great deal of attention and individual teams facing off with the entire nation watching scores, stats, and individual players.