The Spitter History Project: UNION! (Association, that is) – 1884
A/K/A: UNION! (Association, That Is)
Best Teams: Providence (NL) (84-28), New York Mutuals (AA) (75-32), St. Louis Maroons (UA) (94-19)
Worst Teams: Washington (AA) (12-51), Indianapolis (AA) (29-78), Pittsburgh (AA) (30-78). Combined Washington and Richmond in the AA were 24-81. The UA had a lot of lousy teams. I mean lousy.
Average Roster Size: 19
Average Pitching Staff Size: 6
Roster Highs: The Kansas City Unions used an incredible (for the time) 51 players, and they weren’t even around for an entire season. Washington in the UA used 51 players as well, including 16 that played only one game.
Roster Lows: Columbus in the AA and Buffalo in the NL only used 15.
Staff Highs: The Kansas City UA team used 20 pitchers. It’s like they ran a modern ballclub, roster wise, instead of a team that dressed 12 or so a game. Surprisingly, the Chicago White Stockings used 14, including 10 different starters, as former stalwart Fred Goldsmith lost his stuff and they tried anyone before finding a replacement in John Clarkson to match with Larry Corcoran.
Staff Lows: Jack Lynch and Tim Keefe started all but the final game of the year for the New York Metropolitans
Players Who You Should Know (But May Not): “Sureshot” Fred Dunlap, “Pebby” Jack Glasscock, Fleet Walker, Welday Walker, Tim Murnane, Bill Sweeney, Charlie Sweeney, Henry Moore, Larry Corcoran
Names, Names, Names: Dupee Shaw, Buster Hoover, Jersey Bakely, Monk Cline, Pretzels Getzein, Moxie Hengel, Trick McSorely, Phenomenal Smith, Tony Suck
Died Too Soon: Art Croft, Bill Smiley
Solid Leadership: Frank Bancroft handled his pitching situation the best he could and walked away with the NL title. Gus Schmelz willed his underfunded Columbus squad to a 69-39 record in the AA.
Horrible Mismanagement: Henry Lucas, the founder of the UA, for his business dealings in baseball. The AA for expanding by four teams for no damn good reason except unfounded fear of the UA.
Rule Changes: Overhand pitching is allowed, legally.
Let’s Play the Feud: The UA versus the baseball world. Charlie Sweeney vs. Old Hoss Radbourn. Bill Sweeney vs. UA Batters
So, Here’s the Thing: Baseball will always find a way to screw up a good thing.
The 1883 season was a boom for fans and clubs and players. There was an actual pennant race (which is unusual in the olden days, since there wasn’t much competitive balance), an agreement between leagues that didn’t allow for team jumping, excellent attendance, and profits. There was room, it seems, for both the fifty-cent dry NL and the quarter wet AA, just as long as the teams didn’t get too diluted.
And then a young, rich whippersnapper from St. Louis decides to ignore the new-ish reserve clause, raid teams, and start his own league, “The Union Association”.
Henry Lucas was a railroad heir that loved baseball. Unfortunately for him, Chris von der Ahe owned the St. Louis market with the Browns of the AA, and the NL didn’t really want a team in that market. So he took his million-dollar inheritance and went about gathering teams together to take on the established leagues.
He disregarded the reserve clause, gave out signing bonuses, and put a scare in both the NL and AA. So much so that the NL told the AA, “Hey, grab four extra teams and let’s put more players under reserve”. That’s right, the AA, which started with six teams in 1882, was now at 12. The NL started to add ‘reserve’ teams that played semi-pros and put even more players under contract.
Players signed contracts, took the bonuses, and broke the contracts to sign back with the team they came from. It was chaos and anarchy and put baseball back into the wild, wooly time of the National Association.
Lucas put teams in St. Louis, Baltimore, Boston, Cincinnati, Chicago, Washington, Philadelphia, and….
Altoona. Altoona, Pennsylvania. Worcester and Troy laughed at Altoona.
The AA put new teams in Washington, Indianapolis, Toledo, and Brooklyn – with only Brooklyn as a tested baseball market.
This meant two teams in St. Louis, Baltimore, Boston, Cincinnati, Chicago, Washington, New York, and three in Philadelphia. Don’t forget the one in Altoona. (In Lucas’ defense, it was on the train line, but still…)
When the games started, a few things became obvious.
The NL was going to have some good teams in Providence, Boston, and Buffalo. The AA was diluted to try to build up the new teams, but the New York squad was nails. The Union was a mess, and it was obvious the Lucas rigged the system to help his team in both the schedule and roster. Lucas had his Maroons play Altoona in games 2-9 of the season and swept them all.
Soon, it was obvious to all except the diehards and deluded that 16 teams in two leagues at peace was decent, 28 teams in three leagues at war was untenable. The dominoes fell, quickly.
Altoona was the first to go under, naturally. After 25 games, they folded, and a team in Kansas City was soon pressed into action to fill their schedule. In early August, the AA felt the impact of the marketplace, as the Washington team quit and a squad in Richmond, Virginia took its place. The other new AA teams were also shaky on the field and the box office, too.
That caused an issue with Toledo’s squad. Fleet Walker was the catcher for Toledo, and he was the first recognized African American regular in baseball (and the last until 1947, of course). There was no way he could make the trip to Richmond – conveniently he was injured at the time.
Then the Union Association started to come unglued. Chicago moved lock, stock and barrel to Pittsburgh. Philadelphia was the third choice for cranks in a three-team city, so they gave up. A team in Wilmington, Delaware took its place. That didn’t work out, so the Wilmington team quit and a team in Milwaukee finished their schedule. Finally, the erstwhile Chicago squad playing in Pittsburgh couldn’t hack it and a team based in St. Paul was drafted to finish their schedule, playing all road games.
It didn’t really matter, since Lucas’ St. Louis squad was so dominant. Even more so when ex-Providence pitcher Charlie Sweeney joined the team after he became persona non grata for the Grays, and then Jack Glasscock signed on as well. Lucas never thought about balance – he thought his team would be so good people would go see them both at home and on the road. Not so much.
The New York Metropolitans surged ahead in the AA in August, and distanced themselves from a surprisingly game Columbus squad, while Louisville. the St. Louis Browns, and Cincinnati all gave chase.
Meanwhile, one of the best stories of 1884 was being told in Providence – books have been written about the Grays and how they won the pennant on the arm of Old Hoss Radbourn and good cast of regulars. It’s a smashing read and a wonderful story best told over 200 plus pages.
The NL and AA played a World Series of sorts that Providence won three games to none. It could be said that it was just a perfunctory performance, as the Metropolitans started a pitcher in the post-season that threw just one game in the season. Meanwhile, Lucas wanted a match but the NL and AA ignored him.
Most of the UA teams decided against another year, as only the Maroons and Kansas City made any money. The NL and AA came to terms by basically distributing the UA players from the defunct teams as they saw fit, allowed the Maroons to enter the UA and the AA disbanded Richmond, Indianapolis, Toledo, and Columbus (surprisingly, but Brooklyn was going to be a better market).
Money was lost for no good reason. When it all shook out, there were few players in the UA worth having. Many of the UA players never appeared in the NL or AA, and the stars of the UA never had that much success afterwards (take a look at the career of Fred Dunlap, for one). The UA somehow was classified a ‘major league’ when it was maybe the caliber of a high-A league today.
Peace returned in 1885, for a while at least. There was some good ball played, but without much competition the owners made some decisions that would come to haunt them.