- Turbulent Seasons: Baseball in 1890–1891, and: Under Pallor, Under Shadow: The 1920 American League Pennant Race That Rattled and Rebuilt Baseball, and: Wins, Losses, and Empty Seats: How Baseball Outlasted the Great Depression
Three new books shed light on the processes and impetus for reforms to America’s national pastime. Combined, they provide new understanding of how modern baseball developed.
Charles C. Alexander’s Turbulent Seasons chronicles the 1890 and 1891 seasons in which Major League Baseball witnessed the collapse of two leagues that attempted to challenge the dominance of the National League. While a number of historians have done institutional and labor histories of the period in question, Alexander attempts to highlight the actual baseball played on the field and to demonstrate how it influenced events during the period he examines. This was especially true in the 1890 season when major league talent was spread across three competing leagues. The resulting decline in team performance caused attendances to plummet and forced numerous teams to fold. The older and financially stronger National League was able to weather these years better and came out of the 1890 and 1891 seasons as the only major league in baseball for the next ten years.
Turbulent Seasons does an excellent job of portraying the character of Major League Baseball in the years before 1900 when only one umpire was present at most games and some players regularly showed up on the field inebriated. Modern fans of the game would perhaps be surprised to know that many players in the 1890s considered the homerun the least manly of plays and championed the “small ball” that is considered the domain of today’s weaker teams. The overhand pitch had only recently become legal, and the pitcher threw from a box level with the batter, not from a mound. Alexander’s book is filled with anecdotes that depict the style of game that made the pre-1900s form of baseball unique, but these are not thrown in just as colorful references. They are part of his attempt to link the onfield drama of the game with the off the field issues that previous historians have chronicled.
The Brotherhood of Professional Ball Players, an early players’ union, had long been upset over the reserve clause, which kept players from signing with a new team even after [End Page 335] the expiration of their contract. In 1889, the owners angered players even more when they implemented a classification system whereby they ranked players from “A” to “E.” Based on both on and off the field performance, the lower a player’s ranking, the less money he received and the greater the chance he would have to do manual labor around the stadium in addition to playing in games. In response to these grievances, the Brotherhood sought out financial backers to assist players in forming their own league.
The newly formed Players’ League opened the 1890 season with the bulk of the talent in Major League Baseball but with no existing infrastructure to host games; whereas the American Association and the National League both had established facilities but had to call up a large amount of minor league players to fill out their rosters. The result was that the 1890 season had a “bush league” feel despite the teams competing in the largest sports markets of the United States. In addition, the National League intentionally scheduled its games at the same time as that of the Players’ League, believing, correctly, that the new league would not have the financial resources to withstand the attack.
The three-way inter-league war in 1890 caused the Players...