Lady Luck suspiciously landed on another 19th century team this week, perhaps her way of telling The Common Man he needs to finally finish Bryan Di Salvatore's vivid and excellent biography of John Montgomery Ward and get a review up. Anyway, this week's randomness crash-landed on the 1882 Cincinnati Red Stockings of the oft-forgotten American Association. 1882 marked the first season for the appropriately-acronymed AA (as it was considered the "beer and whiskey league" since the National League was prudishly dry), and the Reds were the class of it. Cincy won the league crown going away, with a 55-25 record and an 11.5 game lead over the second place Philadelphia team by the end of it. The Cincinnati squad was comprised of leftover players from the National League's Cincinnati Reds (who had folded in 1880), as well as a few players who jumped directly from the NL (most notably Pop Snyder). They also came up with second baseman Bid McPhee, who was a 22 year old rookie to Major League ball, and who would go on to have a Hall of Fame career.
The American Association itself was formed by owners who were rebuffed by William Hulbert and his powerful and insular National League, owners who wanted a taste of the big league life and noticed plenty of cities where the NL was absent. Indeed, the National League, in 1882, was ensconced in Chicago, Boston, Cleveland and Detroit, but also had clubs in Buffalo, Providence (R.I.), Troy (N.Y.), and Worschester. Sensing an opportunity, the AA owners moved into recently vacated Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Louisville, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Baltimore, and promptly began outdrawing the NL clubs.
Also, as Di Salvatore writes, the NL had not positioned itself to properly appeal to the masses:
"League magnates had embarked on a deliberate course to woo the 'respectable' middle class--most notably by instituting the $.50 grandstand fee, refusing to play Sunday games [usually the only day working class fans would have off from work]..., and banning alcohol sales. The League, then--by effectively excluding much of the working class--severely circumscribed the potential size of its daily gate."
This was another disadvantage the AA sought to exploit. Their admission was half that of the Nationals, and they recouped their expenses by selling beer in the stands, and adding Sunday games to the schedule.
Feeling the pinch, the NL chose to directly compete with their new rivals. When the AA moved into Columbus, OH and New York City, the NL countered by moving Worchester to Philadelphia (where they would become first the Quakers, then the Phillies) and Troy to New York (where they would eventually become the Giants). By promoting a better brand of baseball (the teams in the AA were still of relatively poor quality; terrible players from the NL could be above average, or even stars in the AA), the NL managed to hold its own until the two leagues declared peace in late 1883.
The AA promised to steer clear of the NL in the future, swelling dramatically into Toledo, Richmond, Brooklyn, Washington, and Indianapolis for a season before contracting back down to 8 teams until 1890, when everything started to unravel. The renegade Players League, led by the aforementioned John Montgomery Ward, formed in response to the reserve clause and essentially picked apart the AA in an attempt to compete with the stronger NL. Faced with this new threat, the AA rebuffed a peace offering from Ward and sided with the NL. Smelling blood in the water, according to Di Salvatore,
"Not only did the PL begin raiding the Association roster with waning reluctance--eventually picking up thirty or so of its players--but the NL dumped two of its own least viable franchises, Washington and Indianapolis, and successfully wooed two fo the Association's most powerful franchises, Brooklyn and Cincinnati, to its camp. The disheartened Association made the best of a bad situation...and gathered up a hatful of embarrassing new franchises in second-tier cities such as Toledo, Rochester, and Syracuse."
The Players League folded after just one season, but the American Association was too financially weak to continue. After an embarrassing 1891 season during which two teams folded (including the Milwaukee Brewers after just 36 games), the AA gave up. The four strongest teams, Louisville, St. Louis, Baltimore, and Washington were absorbed by the NL (now 12 teams), and the rest of the teams disbanded.
The American Association's existence was relatively long as far as startup challenges go. It outlasted the Players League, the Union League, and the Federal League, all of whom challenged the Major League structure. But the AA had significant advantages. The NL may have been a big league, but it still was not thinking like a business. It was wasteful and did not take advantage of opportunities to solidify its fan base and broaden its appeal. And the NL was the only real game in town at the time, whereas other startups have had to contend with two other competitor leagues. Its quick peace with the NL in 1883 was formed on the promise that the two leagues would stop raiding each others' rosters and competing for talent. This left the NL with a talent advantage it would continue to exploit throughout the AA's advantage. And when faced with an opportunity to join forces with the players and get the talent influx that may have saved it, the AA refused and stood with the NL. And because of this, it eventually crumbled and faded into sepia-toned memory, memories that too may soon crumble away into nothing.