National League Abandoned Cleveland 117 Years Ago Today

On this date 117 years ago, Major League Baseball died in Cleveland. It wasn’t dead for long.

At the National League owners meeting, the owners voted to reduce from 12 teams to eight. Gone were Baltimore, Cleveland, Washington, and Louisville. The Cleveland team, the Spiders, was a ripe candidate for contraction. Frank and Stanley Robison owned the St. Louis team in addition to the Spiders, and systematically looted the Spiders, taking all the talent to St. Louis. The Spiders were so bad, nobody in the league wanted to come to Cleveland to play them, because attendance was so lackluster that visiting teams couldn’t recoup travel expenses. So the Spiders played 112 of their 154 games on the road – and lost 101, a record that will probably never be matched, let alone surpassed.

But all was not lost in Cleveland. Ban Johnson, a former sportswriter, was determined to start a new major league from the remnants of the Western League, a minor league. And there would be a team in Cleveland, owned by Charles Somers and John Kilfoyl. The team would bring in a familiar name to manage: James McAleer, a Youngstown native who had played for the Spiders (and Cleveland’s brief entry into the Players League in 1890).

However, the National League wasn’t going to let the new American League get a foothold without a fight. It suggested that a new American Association would begin play that year, and rattled the saber, suggesting that the teams – which were paid $10,000 for contraction – had willingly resigned from the league, and those resignations could be rescinded. The Robisons said that Somers and Kilfoyl couldn’t have League Park or the rights to Cleveland if the American League put a team in Chicago. Undeterred, Somers and Kilfoyl made alternate plans for a ballpark at Cedar and Madison Avenues on the city’s east side – not far from League Park.

Ultimately, peace prevailed. An American League team was placed in Chicago, and the Cleveland entry into the American League played at League Park – well into the 1940s. Two years after its founding, the American League champion met its equivalent in the National League in what was called the World Series. With the National League settled, the eight remaining teams – Chicago, New York, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Boston, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati in addition to St. Louis – would remain in the same cities for more than half a century, until the Braves left Boston for Milwaukee in 1953, setting in motion a 20-year period of franchise moves and expansion.

Ironically, a similar scenario would play out 46 years later in football. The NFL’s Rams played their home games at League Park, and a new team was forming in the All-America Conference, which would play its games at Cleveland Stadium.

The Rams and the new team – called the Browns in honor of coach Paul Brown – had an uneasy armistice and believed they could co-exist peacefully. Why there was even talk of the AAFC and the NFL champions meeting after the season to play a championship game, an idea that finally took root 20 years later between the NFL and the American Football League.

But the Rams moved, essentially ceding the town to the Browns, much like the Robison brothers did for the American League nearly half a century earlier.

Photo: Library of Congress

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