Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Yankees Might Be Getting 2 Years Younger

Over at the Baseball-Reference blog, Sean Foreman is considering divorcing the 1901-02 Baltimore Orioles from the 1903 New York Highlanders from the rest of the Yankees franchise. The ESPN Baseball Encyclopedia considers them to be two distinct franchises and Foreman asked one of the authors, Gary Gillette, why that decision was made:
We discussed this at length when we did the first edition of our new encyclopedia in 2004. IIRC, the deciding factor was that the Baltimore franchise went bust during the season and was turned over to the league. After the season, the league then sold a new franchise to investors in New York City. We felt that wasn't really a relocation or a transfer; it was simply filling the gap in the league that was opened when the Orioles' franchise disintegrated.

Of the 39 players who appeared for Baltimore in 1902, only five appeared for New York in 1903. Jimmy Williams was the regular second baseman for both clubs. Herm McFarland, a utility player in '02, became a regular outfielder in '03. Ernie Courtney played one game for Baltimore. in 1902, then 25 for NY in 1903. Harry Howell was the only pitcher of consequence to make the transition. Snake Wiltse (4 G in '03) also appeared for both.
Before 1900, the Baltimore Orioles had been a National League club. They existed from 1892 to 1899, winning three straight championships in 1894, 1895 and 1896 and featured greats such as Wee Willie Keeler and John McGraw (who would go on to become player-manager of the team in 1899). The O's were disbanded after that 1899 season when the National League was contracted from 12 teams to 8.

The Orioles were re-formed with some of the same pieces, including McGraw, shortstop Bill Keister and second baseman Jimmy Williams in 1901 as an AL squad. Commissioner Ban Johnson had begun the American League and after a season without baseball in Baltimore in 1900, the city and the players were anxious to rejoin. However, Johnson was a proponent of "clean baseball" whereas McGraw was most certainly not.

Up until that point, baseball games were marked with brutal violence, including umpire abuse. According to the Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract:
Players spiked one another. A first baseman would grab the belt of the baserunner to hold him back a half-second after the ball was hit. Players tripped one another as they rounded the bases. Fights broke out on more days than not. Players shoved umpires, spat on them, and punched them. Fans hurled insults and beer bottles at the players on opposing teams.
The Orioles were the best team of the 1890's by a considerable margin, and were responsible for promoting this style of play. McGraw in particular was especially nasty. As was noted in The Ultimate Baseball Book, he "had a genius for making enemies".

So perhaps McGraw becoming the manager for one of the teams in Johnson's new, "clean" league wasn't the best idea. But they needed each other. After spending 1900 in St. Louis, McGraw wanted to return to Baltimore and Johnson needed a team there.

It all came to a head during the Orioles second season in the American League. After a litany of fines and brief suspensions for his foul and sometimes violent play, Johnson suspended McGraw indefinitely. After the decision came down, McGraw persuaded John T. Brush, the chairman of the National League Executive Committee to buy a share of the Orioles. Brush obliged and promptly began by releasing McGraw and other players from their contracts. McGraw landed with the Giants where he would play for the next four and a half years and manage for the next 29. It got so bad that the Orioles couldn't field a full team by mid-July and the American League took ownership of the club and starting filling the roster with players from other AL teams.

Up until 1902, the National League claimed that they had the right to keep the American League out of New York. However, when Brush had bought a controlling interest in the Giants - already being managed by McGraw - Johnson chose to disregard the pact. After their blanant sabotage of the Orioles, Johnson saw an opportunity to get even. He decided that he needed to give the American League a foothold in what was then the undisputed baseball capital of the world.

With the help of commissioner Johnson, the Highlanders then began snatching up talent from National League teams. They pillaged Wee Willie Keeler from Brooklyn and Jack Chesboro, Lefty Davis, Jesse Tannenhill and Wid Conroy from Pittsburgh, among others. They also built a brand new stadium in Washington Heights called Hilltop Park which, to the dismay of the Giants was only a few blocks from the Polo Grounds. It would be a few years before the team would compete but the new owners of the franchise, Frank Farrell and Bill Devery, were set up very nicely by the commissioner and his desire for revenge.

The Highlanders undoubtedly took the place of the Orioles as the 8th team in the American League when they began play in 1903. However, the fact that only five (or six, depending on the source) players carried over from Baltimore to New York calls into question whether or not they were really the same team. They didn't have the same manager or owners. So were they the same franchise? It seems like the Orioles were killed by John McGraw and John T. Brush only to be reincarnated by Ban Johnson as the Highlanders. One in the same though? I'm not sure.

There is a debate going on over in the comments at the B-R blog and if you feel strongly either way, let your opinion be heard. I could go either way.

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