Baseball had problems long ago

March 24, 1995|By PHIL JACKMAN

Baseball announcer Tim McCarver has always given the impression he's as clued in about the game as anyone could be: What transpires on the field, front-office follies, what makes the players tick and kick, the history of the Grand Old Game, it's all there.

But the former All-Star catcher and man conceded to be the best game analyst on television made a major slip recently. While trying to feign interest in a New York Mets exhibition game in Florida, McCarver reviewed the strike situation and concluded, "It's a weird time, maybe the weirdest in the game's history."

No, Tim, not even close.

Baseball has had so many down periods, scandals and periods of disrepute interspersed with the glorious times, goodwill, folklore and staggering popularity that it's not difficult to accept how the game has arrived at its current, sorry state.

Let's go back almost to the beginning, which author David Nemec chose to do in his latest effort entitled "The Beer and Whiskey League." Many will recognize this as the nickname of the American League back in the early part of the century when, in actuality, it refers to the original American Association, a mighty force when the professional game was barely under way.

After the National League got the big-league ball rolling in 1876 with eight teams stretching from Boston to St. Louis with stops in Hartford, New York, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Louisville and Chicago, several other cities (Providence, Milwaukee, Buffalo, Troy, N.Y., Syracuse, Detroit, Cleveland and Worcester, Mass.) all gained a piece of the action before the American Association sprang into existence in 1882. It lasted a decade, this original consortium of Baltimore, Cincinnati, Louisville, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and St. Louis, often proving the better of the two leagues.

Certainly it was far more innovative, introducing any number of rules changes such as allowing overhand pitching, getting rid of the foul-bound rule, reducing the walk/strikeout ratio from five and four to four and three, doing away with the rule that counted a base on balls as a hit and, for the first time, allowing substitutions for reasons otehr than injury.

The legislation by the AA that got owners for generations to come singing its praises was enacted on July 15, 1888, when the 25-cent admission was abolished and 50 cents was established as the minimum price of entry anywhere but in Philadelphia.

Cincinnati was the champion the first year (1882) and, with two more teams (New York and Columbus) added the next season, Philadelphia finished on top. By 1884, the AA was up to a dozen teams, same as the National League, as the eight-team Union Association hit the ground running. Baltimore was an equal-opportunity city, competing in two leagues, thence trading those two for the NL in 1892.

Naturally, the "established" NL, run in puritanic fashion, ridiculed the AA at every turn, particularly when some of its players were coaxed into jumping. Still, it agreed to a first "world series" in 1884 and prevailed as Providence swept three games from New York.

Two years later, and after the leagues had worked out a National Agreement in an attempt to limit player salaries (the first salary cap, ta-da), St. Louis gave the AA its first "series" triumph.

The rival leagues were now functioning on almost even terms, conducting an extensive inter-league preseason slate of games and mutually agreeing that batters no longer be allowed to call for either high or low pitches from the pitcher. While this spirit of cooperation raged, nonetheless the NL swiped the Pittsburgh franchise from the AA.

Cleveland was next to defect to the NL, taking leave after the 1888 season, and Brooklyn, Cincinnati, Baltimore and Kansas City did likewise after the 1889 campaign. While being put on hold by the NL, Baltimore grabbed another spot in the AA, joined by Rochester, Syracuse, Toledo and Brooklyn.

Strangely, shortly after naming Allan Thurman its president late in 1890, Thurman turns around and starts awarding AA players to NL clubs while deciding disputes arising from player raids. Late in the 1891 season, the Cincinnati team disbands and is replaced in the association by a minor-league team from Milwaukee (perhaps the origin of replacement teams).

Finally, just before Christmas in '91, the leagues consolidate (on the NL's terms) and head into the 1992 season with 12 teams.

Among the reasons author Nemec cites for the demise of the once-solid "Beer and Whiskey League" are the fact it entered into an unwritten agreement with the NL to bar black players after being the first league to allow them to play; the mishandling of franchise defections due to a lack of strong leadership; treating solid baseball towns like Cleveland and Kansas City as stepchildren, and allowing Charlie Comiskey to run its most successful franchise, St. Louis, into the ground for his own personal purposes.

You're talking weird times, Tim McCarver. Forget the labor strife that arrives on cue every three years and check out the early years of this so-called Great Game.

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