Johnson, Somers Driving Force Behind American League’s Founding

Cleveland became a major league city – again – 115 years ago this week.

The city had been home to a National League team, the Spiders, in the 1890s. The Spiders, behind Newcomerstown native Cy Young, had won a Temple Cup as the league champions in 1895, but when the National League contracted from 12 to eight teams for the 1900 season, the Spiders – who had been essentially looted by their owners in favor of the St. Louis team, which they also owned – disappeared.

At the time, the National League was the only major league in operation after the folding of the old American Association in 1891. But the Western League, a minor league with teams in major and medium-sized Midwestern cities, had designs on being a competing major league, thanks to its dynamic and autocratic president, Byron “Ban” Johnson.

Johnson, a native of Norwalk, found an ally in another Ohio native, Charles Somers, who had become a millionaire through his ownership of coal mines. Somers was also a baseball fan and wanted to see a team in his adopted hometown of Cleveland. In 1900, he and John Kilfoyl bought the Western League team in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and moved it to Cleveland.

Somers was willing to spend money for other teams as well. He loaned money to Ben Shibe for a new ballpark to be built in Philadelphia, as well as Charles Comiskey for a baseball field on the South Side of Chicago.

The league expanded eastward, adding teams in Baltimore, Boston and Washington (another city, like Cleveland, that had been abandoned by the National League) in addition to Philadelphia. “The American League has burned its bridges behind it in the west and has come east to stay,” Johnson said. In fact, Somers was the original owner of the Boston Red Sox – while he was still nominally the owner of the Cleveland team (he had transferred control to Kilfoyl for two years). On January 27, it officially chartered as a major league, with Johnson as president and Somers as vice president.

Johnson was magnanimous in writing National League owners, saying, “If fairness and common sense prevail, there can never be any friction between the National and American league.” But behind the scenes, there were furious machinations on both sides. The American League had no intentions of honoring the National League’s salary cap, and poached players – including Napoleon Lajoie, who went from the Phillies to the new American League team in Philadelphia, the Athletics. And the National League was starting another American Association with the hopes of driving the new American League out of business – hopes that were unfounded, said The Plain Dealer. “If the National League declares war against the American League, the National and its baby will be the sufferers,” The Plain Dealer wrote.

The prediction came true. On April 24, 1901, the first American League game was played, with the Cleveland Blues losing to Chicago, 8-2. A full slate of games was scheduled, but rain forced the cancellation of all but one game.

More than 100 National League players jumped ship to the American League and, in 1902, the American League actually outdrew its counterpart in cities with two teams (Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago and St. Louis). Ultimately, the National League looked for peace, and the two leagues forged a truce. After the 1903 season, the winners in the respective league played a best of seven series to determine the World Champions – the first World Series.

But Johnson’s dictatorial streak – he was putatively one of three members of a national commission overseeing baseball, but he was by force of his personality first among equals – ultimately led to the cancellation of what would have been the second World Series. John McGraw, who had helped organize the American League team in Baltimore, had a falling out with Johnson and abandoned that team – taking many players with him – for the New York Giants. He refused to play the American League winners that year in a fit of pique. The World Series would not be played only once after that – in 1994, when a players’ strike in August forced the cancellation of the remainder of the season.

Responding in anger, Johnson moved the Baltimore team the following season to New York. The Highlanders became tenants of McGraw and the Giants at the Polo Grounds before, flush with their own success in the early 1920s, building their own stadium, the biggest in sports, which would bear their new name: The Yankees.

Photo courtesy of Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

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