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"I don't want to play golf. When I hit a ball, I want someone else to go chase it."
--Rogers Hornsby


Major Leagues

By Patrick Mondout

As part of Major League Baseball's centennial of professional baseball celebration in 1969, a special commission (Special Records Committee) was formed to, among other things, determine which former leagues would be officially called "major leagues." The list was published that year in the first MacMillan Baseball Encyclopedia, whose influence was immense. Not everyone agrees with their determinations, including us.

The official list includes:

The other leagues that are most often cited as deserving "major league" status are:

Some argue that the 1884 Union Association (UA) should not be classified as major. While it is true that the league was not internally competitive with St. Louis having all the best players and with so many teams coming and going during the season, it is also true that the NL and AA rosters were raided for players and that both saw the UA as a competitor. Our position: The league may have been less organized and less talented-filled than the 1875 National Association, but we agree that it still counts as a major league by contemporary standards. It may have been a failed major league by everyone's definition, but it was clearly a major league.

So who cares if any of these leagues get classified as true major leagues? Anyone who is passionate about baseball records, 19th Century baseball, or the Negro Leagues. There are also those who had relatives play in these leagues and it is a matter of personal pride to those relatives that their ancestors be listed in the record books alongside Aaron, Ruth and Cobb.

The arguments for and against each of these other leagues often go far beyond the summaries below. The arguments against generally have to do with the level of play, the level of organization, and how the league was perceived in contemporary terms:

  • No one doubts the National Association (NA) was the first professional baseball league. It was the unquestioned dominant pro league during its existence; the best baseball players in America at the time were in the NA. Although the National League refuses to accept it as a major league, it was the precursor to that league and six of the eight original NL franchises in 1876 came out of the 1875 NA. Since the NL views itself as the savior of professional baseball (specifically as the league that was formed to essentially reform the corrupt NA), their position on the NA is perhaps not surprising. Those who argue against the NA suggest it was on the wrong side of the line between simply being a professional league and being a "major" league. Our position: We consider the NA to be major league and include all available statistical information. We also provide rudimentary information on the true predecessor to the Major Leagues, the NABBP.
  • American League (AL) president Ban Johnson made a point of not calling his circuit a major league in 1900 though little could have been gained by picking a fight with the NL before Johnson and his owners were ready to win it. The Western League (as it was called from its inception in 1893 through 1899) changed its name in 1900 and withdrew from the so-called National Agreement, but they the AL fell short of raiding NL rosters for players. A Washington Post article from January 2, 1900 claims that the new AL was going to put teams in the East (Boston and Philadelphia) and was in fact declaring war on the increasingly disorganized senior circuit. While the talent in the league improved greatly in 1901, when it first began raiding the NL's rosters, it is primarily the assertion by the league itself that it was minor in 1900 that has lead it to have the distinction. Our position: Aside from raiding the existing major league rosters, a case can be made that the 1900 American League compares well with the 1914 Federal League in terms of franchise stability, profitability, caliber of play, and team locations. However, the league was clearly in transition from minor to major status in 1900 and its unwillingness to call itself a major league - whatever the motivations - is the convincing argument. We therefore do not recognize the 1900 AL as a major league though we do have more information on it here.
  • Arguing for or against the Negro Leagues is tough. On the one hand, the nature of the leagues meant that they did not have the stability of the contemporary American or National Leagues (specifically, regular schedules, facilities, and record keeping - such as statistics). On the other hand, there is the emotion involving the fact that there ever had to be a separate set of "Negro Leagues" in the first place. Josh Gibson and countless others never got a chance to prove they were better than Ruth, Cobb, or Mathewson. This injustice cannot be undone by welcoming all of those leagues, even the ones that barely lasted a season with players who would have been lucky to find themselves in a "D" minor league, into the major league family. No one seriously doubts that these leagues were filled with players who were just as talented as any in white organized ball. The question is really whether or not the leagues themselves (not the players) were up to up to contemporary AL/NL standards. It is hard to make that argument. Even if one is able to make that case, baseball historians have a serious problem when it comes to the Negro Leagues: the records themselves are very incomplete. The number of home runs that various historians attribute to the aforementioned Josh Gibson varies by hundreds. This is due to a number of factors: some artificially inflate his numbers in a misguided attempt to right an historical wrong, others make estimates because of the countless missing box scores, even where there are boxscores, it is sometimes difficult to differentiate between regular and exhibition games. Our position: Despite the fact that we do not classify any of the Negro Leagues as "major", we would love to include complete statistics for the 1920-1953 Negro Leagues. Such a record is probably not possible now, though there is much encouraging work going on in this area. In any case, Cap Anson and others who worked to exclude fellow humans from the game on the basis of their skin color have a lot to answer for.
  • Some have suggested the International Association (IA) was a competitor to the National League during its short existence. Others have suggested it was the first minor league. The IA, which initially featured teams in such locales as London (Ontario), Rochester, Syracuse, Utica, Buffalo, Hornellsville, Binghampton, Manchester, New Bedford, and Springfield, can hardly be said to have been competitive with the NL either in player quality or locations (the National League from the same season (1877) consisted of: Boston, Hartford, Louisville, St. Louis, Chicago and Cincinnati). There is also little evidence that anyone outside of the poorly organized promoters of the ill-fated league took it seriously. Our position: It is unlikely that any serious researcher will attempt to rehabilitate the IA to "major league" status.

Federal League sources/bibliography:
The Federal League of 1914-1915
by Marc Okkonen.
The Formation, Sometimes Absorption and Mostly Inevitable Demise of 18 Professional Baseball Organizations, 1871 to Present by David Pietrusza.
May the Best Team Win: Baseball Economics and Public Policy by Andrew Zimbalist.
Total Baseball: The Ultimate Baseball Encyclopedia by John Thorn, et al.

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--Patrick Mondout



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