It’s the end of baseball season—time for the World Series, the final battle between the top teams from the National and American leagues. And a time to reflect on where it all began with that first “official” World Series in 1903.
Prior to 1903, there had been other world championships between the National League (founded February 1876) and the American Association. But they were haphazard, mostly arranged by the teams themselves and highly disorganized. When the American Association went belly up in 1891, the National League became the only game in town—until 1900, when the American League was born.
Under the direction of Byron Bancroft “Ban” Johnson, the American League had been steadily progressing toward major league status. Johnson had started with the small Western League, a minor league that he turned into a critical and financial hit. The National League owners noticed but didn’t take this new upstart too seriously. Then, things changed. In 1900, Johnson created his American League and began moving into abandoned National League cities. The National League publicly and graciously wished him luck. Then, in 1901, Johnson moved two teams into National League strongholds, Philadelphia and Boston. This tore down the National League’s benevolent façade and began an interleague “war,” which continues today.
Johnson’s vision for the American League was to create a league that was based on fair and clean play. The National League had been known for its rowdiness and its somewhat immoral attitudes. Johnson loved baseball but hated the way it was being run.
His attitude and his attention to players’ issues enticed a number of National League superstars to buck the National League and jump to the American League. When opening day rosters were set for 1901, nearly two-thirds of the American League players were National League veterans, including Cy Young, Nap Lajoie, Mike Donlin and Joe McGinnity.
Cy Young was 34 years old and considered at the end of his career by Cardinal’s owner Frank Robison. Johnson disagreed and offered Young a three-year deal with the American League’s Boston Americans. He went on to prove that he wasn’t shutting down, just settling into his prodigious pitching abilities.
Behind Young’s pitching talent came the batting talent of Nap Lajoie. While there is some dispute over the exact average due to differences between then and now in the rules of the game, a number of sources give Lajoie a batting average in 1901 of .426 with 14 home runs and 125 runs batted in for the American League’s Philadelphia Athletics. Mike Donlin of the American League’s Baltimore Orioles finished second in the batting race behind Lajoie.
But it wasn’t only with outstanding players that the American League proved its worth.
Attendance in 1901 at American League games averaged 3,100 per game; the National League average was 3,500. In 1902, the war between the leagues raged on with more player defections in both directions and even court battles. But despite the efforts of the National League to sabotage the American League, the National League’s attendance in 1902 had dropped 15% while American League attendance had risen 30%.
It was time to bury the hatchet. And, in 1903, it was the National League—the more established entity—that waved the white flag. An agreement was reached between the two leagues. It was the National Agreement by which the leagues would be run. At the same time, a National Commission was created, which would rule over the game.
In August of 1903, Pittsburgh Pirates owner Barney Dreyfus proposed a postseason series to Boston Americans owner Henry Killilea. Both realized that their respective clubs would end the season on top of their leagues and that it would be good business to compete against each other. The agreed-upon “Championship of the United States”—later changed to the World Series—was set for October 1903.
The American League’s Boston Americans won the series five games to three. Since then (through 2016), the American League has gone on to win 63 World Series, the National League 48.
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