Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Times Change

But Few of the "Old Guard" in Base Ball Left

Anson and Connor are the only two men who were playing ball in 1876 that were found in the major League this year, while Glasscock and Hines, who were playing from 1876, were with minor league teams during the past season. Of all the other players of the leading teams of 1886 only Nash, Brouthers, Thompson, Pfeffer, Ryan, Donnelly, Ewing, Ganzel, Clements, McGuire, Quinn, C.F. Dailey, Miller, W. Robinson, Bierbauer, Lyons, McGarr, Terry, George Smith, McPhee and Latham were found with the major League teams of 1896. Of these Dailey, Brouthers and Latham remained only a short time, the last two finishing the season with minor league teams.
-From Sporting Life, January 16, 1897

I like the use of the phrase "major League" in this piece as compared to the modern usage of "Major League(s)." When we talk about Major League Baseball or the Major Leagues, we tend to forget about the "major" part and that the NL and AL are the major baseball Leagues. It's something we take for granted and this older usage is a good reminder.


Richard Hershberger said...

You wrote in your comment to the previous post that MLB in modern usage is no different than NFL, NBA, or NHL. This is quite so. When we talk about "the National League" and "the American League" this is an anachronism, and no more reflects contemporary reality than when we talk about "knocking the pitcher out of the box". There are no such things as the National and American leagues, and haven't been for years. They merged and formed a combined entity, Major League Baseball.

This is a controversial assertion, but how is MLB different from the NFL?

The modern NFL is the result of the merger of two predecessor leagues, combining the league offices, officiating crews, etc. and forming out of the old leagues two conferences, which have limited inter-conference play during the regular season and which provide the brackets for post-season play.

You can go back through the previous paragraph, make some minor adjustments to the vocabulary, and have it be equally true of MLB. The only difference is that with football, they held a press conference and announced the merger. With baseball, the merger was a gradual process spanning decades.

We see something similar with the minors, where the old NAPBBL changed its name to Minor League Baseball, at least for marketing purposes. My understanding, though, is that the individual leagues retain autonomy. And the indies confuse the discussion greatly.

Going back to the 1897 usage, what strikes me is that "League" is capitalized. In the 1870s and into the 1880s you often see references to "the League", where "League" was taken as the identifying element of the name, not "National". You can even see usages like "the League association". Did this sort of thing carry over into the 1890s? I don't know.

Jeff Kittel said...

Whatever vestiges of the old leagues existed certainly were cleared away whenever Selig did away with the league offices and took that power into the commissioner's office. Certainly they had been moving towards that for sometime with collective labor bargaining, national tv rights, etc. From a business standpoint there has been no distinction between the two leagues in my lifetime. Add to that the elimination of the league offices, league umpires, and even a distinct league schedule and there is no difference between the NL and the NFC. League distinction is nothing more than a tool to organize a postseason tournament and a midseason all-star game.

Bob Costas wrote a book right around the time of the strike and made the argument that baseball, in making these kinds of changes, was throwing away the very thing that made it unique. By chasing "modernization" at the expense of tradition, baseball gained little while throwing away its history. The argument is probably a little overstated and almost 15 years later baseball is as healthy as its ever been but I think that by tossing away the league distinctions we've certainly lost something. And I don't even want to talk about league pennants, batting titles, etc being decided based on games played outside the league.

I'm wondering how long it took them to get from "the League" and "the major League" to "the Major Leagues." It would have to be a 20th century invention with "the Major Leagues" referring to the NL and AL. Off the top of my head, I can't think of any 19th century equivalency in referring to the NL and the AA.

It would be interesting to compare the relationship between the NL and AA in the 19th century to that of the NL and the AL prior to 1920. We tend to think of the NL and AL as cohabiting nicely after an initial period of adjustment but I would bet that the relationship between the two leagues was rather similar to that between the NL and AA. We're only talking about a decade or so between the merger between the NL and AA and the advent of the AL. Most of the same people are involved on the NL side and you would think that they would want to apply the same tactics, solutions, organizational structures, etc to the AL situation that they did to their relationship to the AA.