While now home to two of Major League Baseball’s most popular teams – the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox – the American League (AL) once was the rebellious upstart in baseball.
The AL has its roots in a league that struggled to maintain financial footing, but the work of three men helped make the league more successful than the “senior league,” the National League (which has been around since 1876).
The Al officially began playing in 1901 as a major league. But its roots go back into the 19th Century.
The Western League
Back in the late 1800s, you could call a league “western” and not have a team west of Kansas City. That league, originally called the Northwestern League, is the foundation upon which the American League was built.
A minor league founded in 1885, The Western League had teams in a number of Midwestern cities, including Indianapolis, Kansas City, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Toledo, Omaha and St. Paul.
Around this time, a young sportswriter in Cincinnati named Byron Bancroft Johnson was talking with Charles Comiskey, a player-manager in the National League, at a bar (or so legend has it). Johnson voiced his disgust with how the National League was run – profanity, hooligans in the stands – and Comiskey encouraged him to start his own league.
So, in 1892, Johnson and Comiskey purchased the Western League and Johnson became president, according to “The Arrival of the American League” by Warren Wilbert. This proved a key moment in the history of baseball.
Make It Nice
Johnson instituted zero tolerance for profanity among players or loutish behavior. He insisted on having a civilized league. The result? People started coming to the games and even bringing the kids. Soon, attendance was better than in the National League. Certain modern sports leagues could take a lesson or two from this.
When the National League contracted from 12 teams to eight, Johnson saw an opportunity. In 1901, he renamed the Western League as the American League and declared it a major league. Here are the original teams in the league:
- Baltimore Orioles
- Boston Americans (they became the Red Sox in 1908)
- Chicago White Stockings (later shortened to White Sox)
- Cleveland Blues (they became the Cleveland Napoleons in 1903 and the Indians in 1915)
- Detroit Tigers
- Milwaukee Brewers
- Philadelphia Athletics
- Washington Senators
Comiskey owned the Chicago club, having moved it from St. Paul. The White Sox won the AL’s first ever game – against Cleveland on April 24, 1901 – and the league’s first pennant.
The legendary Connie Mack, who had been a player-manager in the National League, came over to the Western League to manage the Milwaukee club. When the AL became a major league in 1901, he agreed to manage and become part owner of the Philadelphia Athletics, giving the league some credibility among players and fans.
He managed the team until 1950. He was 87 years old.
National League Reaction
The National League was not, to say the least, very happy with this development. They had essentially enjoyed a baseball monopoly. Now the American League threatened that monopoly.
In the most infamous ploy, the owners of the New York Giants and Cincinnati Reds – Andrew Freedman and John Brush – bought controlling interest in the financially struggling Orioles in 1902. On that same day, they released all the core Orioles players from their contracts, signed them to their own teams, and left Baltimore with not enough players to field a team.
Johnson ended up stepping in and buying the team back with the Orioles minority owners, but they had to keep the club going by borrowing players from other clubs.
Revenge, when it came, was sweet. The National League eventually had to recognize the popularity of the AL clubs, and in 1903 the two leagues agreed to hold a “World Series” between the champions of the respective leagues. Boston won, beating the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The next year, 1904, the National League refused to play the game.
But after that, it became much smoother sailing. The National League agreed to play in the game in 1905. There’s been a World Series every year since – except for the strike year in 1994, but let’s not get into that now.
After a century of (for the most part) cooperation, the two leagues merged to form Major League Baseball in 2000, although they continue to be called “leagues.”
That’s a brief history of the American League, in which three men – Johnson, Comiskey and Mack – saw the opportunity to expand baseball’s popularity across the country and give people an experience they enjoyed. It ended up being a good business move – and great for baseball.