The last couple of research articles I have done (or attempted, anyway) wound up including a number of players who played in the Union Association. Guys like Tom Evers, who got a one game shot with Baltimore in 1882 and wound up playing a full season with the Washington Nationals in the UA and never saw action in the majors again. Another example is Ed Cushman, who pitched for the Creamers when Milwaukee was somehow added (invited?) to the Union Association in its dying days.
The Union Association lasted but one year, 1884, but if you look around you can see pieces of it in 1883 and 1885.
The first time I remember seeing anyone challenge whether or not the Union Association should be considered a major league was in the revised version of the Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (2001) where James breaks down the Union Association by comparing the level of talent in that league compared with other more recent minor leagues of the next century – the 1884 Union Association vs. the 1960 International League, or the 1926 Pacific Coast League. Then, he proceeds to compare the 1884 Union Association against eight general standards that one could apply to major leagues in general.
After re-reading this for probably the fifth time, I decided to see if I could write the counter argument as to why the Union Association was considered a major league (James figures that it was an error in judgment some 100 years ago by the first baseball encyclopedia editor, Ernest Lanigan), and try to decide if it’s reasonable to see the Association as a major league after all.
- Stability. James argues that because the Union Association had teams fold mid-season, and the Pacific League did not, therefore it’s not a major league.
- Competitiveness. James would tell you a major league would have a good pennant race (St. Louis which had, by far, the most talent, outpaced the UA by a lot, beating Cincinnati by more than 20 games).
- Quality Players. Good high level minor league teams in the 1900s, especially by the 1920s, had a lot of major league talent. The UA, by contrast, did not.
- Size of cities. The PCL had bigger cities than a few of those in the UA.
- Ballparks. James assumes correctly that the PCL had better ballparks in the 1920s that the teams of the 1880s.
- Attendance. Crowds of the 1920s in the PCL were larger than those in the UA in 1884.
- Media Coverage. The PCL in the 1920s had a ton of local newspaper coverage.
- A Structure to Attract Talent. Modern baseball had better scouting.
My first argument to counter all of this starts with the fact that the Union Association was formed in 1884. The National League had only started eight years earlier out of the ashes of a flailing National Association. The American Association started only a couple of years earlier and died less than a decade later (as a major league – it would reform as a high minor league and then argue for years it was practically another major league). In 1890, the best players weren’t in the NL or the AA – they were in the Players League that lasted all of one season. The American League grew out of a successful minor league operation at the end of the 1890s in part because the National League was unstable and had serious management issues including one ownership group owning multiple teams, a third major league started and failed in the 1900s (without ever getting off the ground) and the Federal League came and went in three seasons by 1916. What, exactly, was stable about professional baseball in the 1880s?
Let’s compare the 1884 Union Association against something a little closer to their era. Instead of picking on the Pacific Coast League, which by 1926 had been around for more than 20 years expanding from the California League in 1903 and had the examples of (and less competition from) the 50 year old National League and 25 year old American League to go by, you could compare the 1884 UA against a new National League. You might even be able to compare them against a one year old Federal League.
- Stability. In 1876, the National League had eight teams in mostly “major league” cities because they had the advantage of starting with established organizations and people with some history of running baseball programs. Even still, the second place team was the Hartford Blues. That team was gone by 1878. In fact, in 1877, the National League was no longer eight teams. It was six. And, it no longer included New York or Philadelphia. A year after that, you had Indianapolis, Milwaukee, and Providence as half of the league’s members. Cities came in and out of the league for the better part of six full seasons. If the UA was not considered stable, neither was the original National League.
- Competitive? In 1876 the Philadelphia Athletics, a well organized team with a long history, finished 14 – 45 – 1. And they finished seventh in the NL – Cincinnati was 9 – 56. Because the National League had the remnants of the National Association, there was a better distribution of winning records at the top, but there were still vast differences in the level of play from top to bottom in the league. Besides – everyone was beating Philadelphia and Cincinnati.
- Quality Players. The UA had to start somewhere – so they scraped up all the guys who could play some but didn’t already have other jobs. The fact that in 1884, with no organization at all, they could find a number of guys who could play in the other major leagues (before or after playing in the UA) is probably a good sign and not a bad one. The 1920s Pacific Coast League was stacked with talent – but they had longer to produce and own that talent. The UA got one shot. However, the 1876 National League had a lot of bottom feeder players, too. They had scores of players who would get a shot and not pan out. The leagues were just getting started then. Players came from everywhere.
- Size of Cities. Most of the cities in the UA were major league cities at that time. If you don’t believe me, let’s compare the cities of the UA in 1884 with, say, the National Association in 1874-75 or the National League from 1878 to 1884. The UA had teams in St. Louis, Washington, Baltimore, Chicago, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Boston, Kansas City, Milwaukee, St. Paul – as well as Altoona, PA and Wilmington, DE. The National Association had teams in Keokuk, New Haven, and Hartford for 1875. Keokuk? The National League, being unstable at the time, had teams in Hartford, Indianapolis, and Milwaukee in 1878, added Syracuse and Troy in 1879, swapped out a couple of others to add Buffalo and Worcester in 1880. The National League wasn’t in major league cities within five years of starting.
- Ballparks. By 1910 you started seeing permanent structures for baseball. In the 1880s, that still wasn’t the case. So, comparing the UA of 1884 with the PCL of 1926 isn’t close to a fair fight. What was so much better about the ballpark in Milwaukee (NL) in 1878 since the same location was used for the UA in 1884.
- Attendance. There wasn’t a whole lot of difference between the top UA teams and the top NL teams in attendance. Milwaukee drew better crowds as a Northwestern Association team in 1884 than many NL teams.
- Media Coverage. It’s unfair to compare the coverage of the 1880s with that of the 1920s, but what is TRUE is that major league city newspapers included coverage of the Union Association games at the same level as other major league games (NL or American Association).
- Structure to Attract Talent. The Union Association had the same structure to attract talent in 1884 as did any of the other leagues in 1884. None.
Ultimately, James is disparaging the Union Association because it doesn’t hold up with established minor leagues that had been running at least 25 years and had the general acceptance and support (and examples) of the major leagues that had remained in business. The UA didn’t hold up because the strength of ownership and financial backing of that league was incorporated into the National League. So, the UA was allowed to die.
The Federal League operated in some major league cities, and some really good minor league cities – like Buffalo, Kansas City, Baltimore, and Indianapolis. And, except for Wrigley Field, nothing really stuck around from the Federal League after it folded. The Union Association gave us the St. Louis Cardinals and the Cincinnati Reds. So, if you want to include the National Association as a major league because it includes so many people and players that continued into the flailing and newborn National League, you have to do the same thing with the Union Association. It was a precursor to two successful major league franchises. Yes – there were a lot of players who didn’t have full National League (or American Association) careers – but you could make the same argument for any number of players who made it to the Federal League but didn’t have full major league careers outside of their time with the Feds. Or some of those players who filled out rosters in 1890.
If Ernest Lanigan made an error by including the Union Association as a major league, I don’t see it. I see someone who was looking at the history of the National League teams and saw a precursor to the two National League franchises in St. Louis and Cincinnati the same way that the National Association was a precursor to the National League franchises in Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago. That is a totally fair and reasonable argument.
Perhaps James was lost on the word association of the word “association”. Every “Association” that was once considered a major league is no longer a major league. And that works against the Union Association. Had it been called the Union League, would he have made the same argument?