The fall and rise of the Western baseball league

 In spring 1893, Kansas City was a baseball-minded town. Every weekend amateur and junior league teams played for companies, schools, and neighborhoods: workers from the Americanite cigar factory played their counterparts from the Gels factory; the Oviatt shoe team challenged “any baseball team composed of shoe men.”

pitcherTeams used the papers to set up games: The Shannon Juniors announced in June that they had reorganized and “would like to hear from the Crescent Juniors … for a game on Sunday,” implying the Shannons had a score to settle. The Holly Street Sluggers, another junior team, hoped to hear from “some amateur club whose members are under 13 years of age for a game on Sunday after next.” Young ballplayers around Troost and Forest avenues were reported to be so enthusiastic they horrified neighbors with their “shameful talk and action…. They were not only boisterous but insulting,” the Star reported, “and it does seem that proper authorities should see to it that they are made to carry their sports to more secluded localities, and not within the very doorway of law-abiding citizens.”

Unlike young ruffians playing in neighborhoods, the Reds of Kansas City, Kansas, an amateur team, courted respectability by touting that they had “charge of the Chelsea Park grounds” in Kansas City, Kansas, a park with a direct elevated rail line, and would play there every Sunday throughout the season.  It was said to be a strong team; one of its players,  “Noisy John” Kling, went on to play ten seasons with the major league Chicago Cubs.

An African American amateur club, the Blues, managed by F. Woodson, was also said to be strong, but played only with other “colored” teams, reports on their games seldom appearing in local papers. A June game scheduled at Exhibition Park had to be cancelled when the manager of a rival African-American team, the No. 11s, refused to pay for use of the grounds.

What the city didn’t have in 1893 was a pro team. There were plenty of ball players around town “working at other pursuits,” reported the Times, “who would willingly return to the diamond for moderate salaries,” but there had been no professional club for their services since the Kansas City Cowboys folded in 1889.

The first necessity, however, was to revive the defunct Western League, which had enjoyed an on-again off-again existence since the 1880s.  In early April, letters went out to Joplin, Parsons, Carthage, Springfield, St. Joseph, Topeka, Leavenworth, Atchison, and Omaha inviting them to attend an organizational meeting at the Midland Hotel in Kansas City.

Favorable responses came in indicating that a league of at least six clubs could be organized and recruiting players begin despite the lateness of the hour: the teams might not “have the reputation of National League players,” conceded the Journal, “but there is no reason why clubs should not be gotten together which would furnish a very good article of baseball.” A “compact circuit with easy jumps and cheap traveling expenses… should be a good financial investment,” thought the Star; citizens in Wichita were reported to be interested in fielding a team; Des Moines and Sioux City were also mentioned, thus considerably widening the “compact circuit.”

Midland Hotel reception Room: Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library, Kansas City, Missouri The Midland Hotel meeting was held on April 26, barely ahead of opening day for the eastern teams in the National League.  The number of cities expected to show up in Kansas City fluctuated until the last minute: there would be at least nine, reported the Times three days before, including Denver and Pueblo, described as “enthusiastic supporters of the new league,” and possibly four others: “From these places the strongest minor league of eight clubs in the country can be chosen.” Given the economic depression and the number of out of work players, “It is thought,” the Times reported, “that the salary list of none of the clubs will exceed $1000 every month, and many of them will be below that.”

By the day before the meeting, the number had shrunk to six or eight, and on the meeting day, to six, including Denver, Pueblo, Omaha, Topeka, Wichita and Kansas City, with continued hopes that St. Joseph and Leavenworth would come in. The first games were projected for some time between May 10 and May 13 -- barely two weeks from the date of the league’s organization – with a season of four and a half months. Blue laws meant that Sunday games for some teams, including Topeka and St. Joseph, would have to be scheduled in other cities.

Formation of a Kansas City team had already quietly begun, backed by some well-known entrepreneurs -- J.W. Speas, Walton H.John W. Speas Holmes, E.F. Swinney, M.H. Hudson, A. Judah, and L.C. Krauthoff --  who were described in the Times as ready to ensure “ample financial support… One thing is certain. No club at all will be organized unless a first-class one can be secured.”

The Kansas City team uniform would be the traditional blue and white, giving rise to the team being nicknamed the “Blues” in some newspaper reports, though it was also called  the “Cowboys” -- referring to an earlier pro-team incarnation --  the “Colts,” and simply the “Kansas Citys.”

Just days before the season was to begin, the Western League plan fell apart. According to the Journal, it was all the fault of the St. Joseph Saints, who worried that the larger cities – Kansas City and Denver – would have such strong clubs that the Saints could never win a game and consequently not attract enough fans to be profitable. The St. Joseph club set out to break up the new league, inducing Wichita and Topeka to withdraw.  It was decided, the paper reported, that play would begin between the remaining four teams – Kansas City, Denver, Pueblo, and Omaha – but no regular schedule would be established.

W.H. Lucas  New York Public Library Digital GalleryKansas City “is to have a ball club, however, anyway,” the paper concluded. The manager would be W.H. Lucas, who’d managed teams in Wisconsin, Iowa and Washington State.  “It doesn’t make a particle of difference if those towns have withdrawn,” Lucas told the Times, “for we can organize a four-club league, which I know would succeed,” despite the considerable distances between the competing cities: “The scheme in our proposed league,” said Lucas, “Is that Kansas City and Omaha go west together and play three games each in Denver and Pueblo and the Western clubs than come east for a series. I do not approve of the scheme of Kansas City having a team independent of a league, because I do not think the people would be sufficiently interested to patronize the games.”

Lucas and J.W. Speas huddled to discuss the proposed arrangement, and while no details were published in the papers, it seems likely that the distances involved were too daunting for the nascent league, which returned to the original plan of a local circuit comprising Kansas City, Lawrence, St. Joseph, and Topeka, the smaller towns stipulating that they would only join if Denver and Pueblo were kept out. An “ironclad salary limit of $800” was agreed on; with “trifling” travel costs and such a small salary limit, the Journal predicted, “the four clubs can run the season through and make money with any kind of attendance.”

L.C. Krauthoff of Kansas City, who had been president of the old Western League, was elected president of its resurrected version. Lucas proposed a three-game a week schedule in each town in the league, with Kansas City and St. Joseph to host games Sundays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays and Topeka and Lawrence Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, thus having Sunday games in the two largest towns and Saturday games in the towns where blue laws prevented Sunday games.

Opening day was pushed back to May 24 with Kansas City in Lawrence and St. Joseph in Topeaka. Exhibition games were scheduled the preceding weekend between “the Kansas Citys and the Topekas” to “show the admirers of base ball that a Western League is a reality and what the home team can do.”

Days before the exhibition games, Kansas City’s team roster was still incomplete, although Lucas had signed a number of veteran minor league players, including pitchers Frank Pears, Ernest Gragg  and Bill Kling and catcher Frank Belt, who would play with over fifteen minor league teams over the next two decades. “It is a good club,” said the Times, “and will certainly give the others a close race for the pennants.” With some of its signed players still not in town, the Kansas City club prepared for its home opener, an exhibition game against Topeka on Sunday, May 21

“The game was not all that could be desired,” commented the Journal next day after Kansas City’s 9-7 loss to Topeka. The Kansas City club had been “thrown together in great haste and is yet but a patchwork affair…. Yesterday there was a pitcher [Pears] at first, a catcher at third, a catcher and an amateur in the outfield, and a lame man [O’Day] at shortstop, and yet there were many good features about the game. The men all seem willing and exhibit considerable spirit.” The crowd was estimated by the Journal at 1,500. Catcher

The Times said the number was more like 700, all of them in “the slough of deepest despondency” as they watched their team go from apparent victory to defeat. The Times writer was not inclined to make excuses for the team’s performance: having downed the Topekas in two previous away games, the Kansas Cityans “cantered about the diamond like little lambs at play… laboring under the hallucination that the Topekas would be nice strawberry pie smothered in cream for them,” but they were disappointed after the visitors “awakened to the fact that there was a game of base ball being played and if they wanted the people to know that they were in it they must hump themselves.”

The first home championship game for Kansas City was played against Lawrence at Exposition Park on May 28. The Times writer this time was more sympathetic: “It is difficult work to organize a base ball team and get it in playing condition and Manager Lucas should not be condemned because his team is no stronger at the moment. Instead… the people of Kansas City should congratulate themselves that they are in a league. Any man who knows a thing about base ball will acknowledge that base ball in most parts of the West has been as dead as it is in Jaffa. Omaha, Milwaukee, St. Paul, Minneapolis, Lincoln, Sioux City and Des Moines, old Western League towns, have not even an amateur team, and the fans in these towns must content themselves with seeing games between the county and city officials….”

The fans might have preferred a contest between county and city officials the following week, when Topeka handed the Kansas City team “a most humiliating defeat,” in the Star’s words, “the Populists beating them hands down by a score of 15 to 4.” Wolf, the Kansas City pitcher, was described as “having no control of the ball and demoralizing the whole team.”  Kansas City’s batting and fielding were equally weak; hope for respectable attendance at the next home game against Lawrence was placed in the appearance of Australian boomerang throwers brought in to entertain the audience.

In June, Lucas’s Blues began winning games more consistently. Early in the month they won a 12 to 10 squeaker against Topeka in a game that featured what the Times called “sharp hitting and good base running.” Frank Pears’ pitching was “apple pie” for the “Populists,” but his veteran replacement, Bert Cunningham, whose record for most wild pitches in a single major league inning still stands, stepped in and headed off a Topeka rally: “the visitors,” said the Times, “could do nothing with him.”

Four of Kansas City’s runs were made by “Happy Jack” Huston, a veteran who’d played in a score of minor league teams from coast to coast before coming to Kansas City, and would play in at least as many more before retiring from the game in 1909 as manager of the Senators of Helena, Montana.

Kansas City won three straight games against Topeka that weekend: “the Blues have struck their gait,” declared the Times.Bert Cunningham And so it seemed: the St. Joseph Saints were the next to fall, with Bert Cunningham, though considered “a fossilized relic of old American Association days,” pitching a shutout.  “The Cowboys,” summarized the Times, played good ball. The St. Joseph team played in hard luck.” By the middle of June, Kansas City and St. Joseph were tied for the league lead, each with a record of ten games won and eight lost.

Then the hapless Lawrence club folded: “The Association Dead,” headlined the Journal: “The Western Association is a thing of the past. It was never a strong child; its life was not a happy one, and now it is dead.” The Kansas City club was “ready to go ahead if any one else was,” but Topeka left for home while St. Joseph preferred to play independent ball, without a league.

It was, said the Star, a matter of poor play: the games were not up to standard: “To revive an interest in base ball here, Kansas City must be identified with some of the associations which take in cities of its own class.”

Kansas City and St. Joseph continued to meet through June; one game, won by St. Joseph, was described in the Journal as “brilliantly played” and “stubbornly contested.” In early July the two played the final games for the diluted championship of a defunct league at Exposition Park: “Both games,” said the Times, “will be for blood.” In the final game, “Happy Jack” Huston pitched a shutout for Kansas City and the Blues went errorless. It was, said the Times, “the cleanest and sharpest kind of ball playing ever seen at Exposition Ball park…. By winning this game” said the Journal, “Kansas City is justly entitled to the honor of champions of the Western League and Western Missouri.” The audience was, the paper reported, “small but very enthusiastic….”

The Times report on the victorious final game ended on a lugubrious note: “The Kansas City team will be disbanded today."  Soon after, Manager Lucas announced he would try to hold the team together for a series of exhibition games with Denver later in July.  The plan apparently did not materialize and it looked as if Kansas City baseball fans would have another long wait for a pro team in town.

James H. ManningThen, in December, Jim Manning came to town with a different plan.  James H. Manning, “the most popular player who ever wore a Kansas City uniform,” in the Journal’s view, had played with the Kansas City Cowboys in the 1889 season, after several seasons with the Boston Beaneaters and Detroit  Wolverines. Now he was back in Kansas City trying to arrange a series of games in Kansas City and other Western cities between the Beaneaters, 1893 National League champions, and an “All-American” team.

Manning’s ambition, the Journal reported, was to have a club in Kansas City in 1894, and to formulate a “strong league” in the West. Manning told a reporter:

Kansas City is like home to me, and I think I know the Kansas City baseball public. Kansas City has seen good baseball. It has seen Herman Long and Hamilton and Kid Nichols and the rest, and it knows what good baseball is. If I put in a team here next year, as I hope to, it will be a winner, for that is what this town wants and what it demands.

Charles Augustus “Kid” Nichols, called by Manning “the greatest pitcher in the business,” was a Kansas City boy who played for the Kansas City Cowboys and the Blues before going to the Boston Beaneaters, where he ran up a major league record of seven thirty-win seasons between 1891 and 1898.  Herman Long also played for the Beaneaters after a season with the Cowboys; he also holds a major league record, if a less distinguished one: for most errors in a career. Long was, however, an outstanding batter: he was home run champion in 1900 and had 4 seasons of a 300+ average.Kid Nichols

Manning had some justification, therefore, for believing that Kansas City baseball could live up to his expectations. For the October exhibition games against the Beaneaters, he put together an All-American team that included a number of Kansas City veterans, including himself at second base, and headed off to Chicago to meet with representatives from Milwaukee, Minneapolis, St. Paul, Toledo, Indianapolis, Detroit, and Columbus about organizing a Western baseball league; there was no more talk about “easy jumps and cheap traveling expenses.”

“Fans love such a game” headlined the Times about the opening game between Boston and the local team in early October. Boston had a seven run lead in the ninth inning when Manning’s team exploded with eight hits, tying the game. Nichols, the home town boy playing for the visiting champions, won the squeaker for the Beneaters: he bunted his way to first base with the help of a fielding error, reached third on a sacrifice, and “cantered home with the winning run” after a wild pitch: “The game was of the kind that the base ball fiend loves to see,” said the Times, “with plenty of free hitting and lively base running and a close finish.”

By the end of the month, the new and expanded Western Baseball League was taking shape in Chicago: “Nearly every town west of the Alleghenies is striving for admission in the association. Milwaukee, Toledo, Kansas City, Indianapolis and Minneapolis got in on the ground floor,” the Journal reported, with additional applications from a dozen other cities, including Chicago, Denver, and Detroit. “We propose to select the eight cities that present the strongest advantages and backing,” said D.A. Long of Toledo. “The gentleman on the outside,” noted the paper, “gave Mr. Long credit for talking at random, and said but three others would be chosen” in addition to the five original clubs.

Formal organization of the Western league occurred almost a month later, in a meeting November 20 in Indianapolis, when the constitution of the National League was adopted, with modifications. It was proposed that each club deposit $1000 as a guarantee of its commitment to remain in the League through the 1894 season: the League, said the Journal, “cannot fail from lack of resources,” since its backers were men of sufficient means. The Times listed the final members of the new League as Grand Rapids, Sioux City, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Kansas City, Toledo, Indianapolis, and Detroit.

Perhaps Manning envisioned the Western League as a counterpart to the National League, an extension of the spirit of the entrepreneurial, silverite west against the monopolistic gold-bugs of the East. Soon enough, though, the formative teams began to drift about: the Sioux City Cornhuskers to St. Paul, then Chicago, where they became the White Sox; the Grand Rapids Rustlers to Cleveland, where they became the Indians; the Toledo White Stockings to Columbus, then Buffalo and finally Boston, where they became the Red Sox; and, of course, the Kansas City Blues, who migrated to Washington, D.C. to become the Washington Senators, then returned to the Midwest as the Minnesota Twins.  

Jim Manning was prescient when he predicted that the prospects for the new League “are superior to any previous conditions.” In 1900, under Ban Johnson’s leadership, the revived Western League became the American League. Ten years after the 1893 Indianapolis meeting, the American and National Leagues met for the first World Series of baseball.

March 26, 2013