Wednesday, September 7, 2011

On The Eve Of The 1884 Maroons First Game

It was over six months ago that I started covering the Maroons' 1884 season and I find it almost impossible to believe that I'm just now finishing the period leading up to the season.  I didn't realize, going into this project, how interesting and significant that period between October 1883 and April 1884 was and how much was going on during that off-season.  I should have realized what I was getting myself into but, as usual, didn't think the thing through before I started.  In the end, this has really turned into two projects.  The first was going through the 1883/1884 off-season from the perspective of the organization of the Union Association and the Maroons.  That project is now, thankfully and mercifully, at an end.  The second, which will begin tomorrow, is a day-by-day look at the 1884 Maroons.  That's the project I promised you six months ago.

But it absolutely was not six months wasted.  The 1883/1884 off-season was fascinating and has to be one of the more interesting off-seasons in the history of baseball.  As usual, I tried to stay focused on the St. Louis perspective but the actions that Lucas was taking had national ramifications.  The formation of the Union Association was a direct challenge to the national baseball establishment and it was seen as such at the time.  Lucas' new league was a threat to the NL and AA's monopoly on the best professional baseball talent and it was this monopoly that defined the established leagues as the "major leagues."  If Lucas had succeeded, the best case scenario for the established leagues would have been that the UA would have established itself as the third "major" league and seized an equal share of the professional baseball market.  The worst case scenario would have been the collapse of one of the established leagues, most likely the AA, with the UA taking its place.

The struggle between the UA and the NL/AA was about a monopoly fighting to preserve its markets and profitability in the face of a bold challenger.  It's a story that is much bigger than that of the establishment of the first national championship baseball club in St. Louis history.  It's a story that's bigger than that of Henry Lucas, the millionaire baseball fan.  It's a story that's even bigger than Fred Dunlap's great season.  In many ways, I believe that the greatest historical significance of the UA lies in the fact that we can mark the beginning of the Players' Revolt to Lucas' rejection of the reserve rule and his league's signing of players who had been reserved by the establish leagues.  Men like Henry Lucas and Fred Dunlap should stand beside John Ward and Curt Flood and Marvin Miller as heroes in the players' fight for economic freedom.

While in hindsight, the UA's rejection of the reserve rule seems like a normal, practical decision, it was, in fact, a radical step.  It was a decision that broke the conventional wisdom of what the relationship between management and player was and established a new vision of what that relationship could be.  It was a bold decision and Lucas should be remembered for attempting to reorder the relationship between player and management.  Dunlap and the other players who signed with UA teams should also be remembered for taking a step that was every bit as courageous as the one Flood took eighty-five years later.

Lucas' rejection of the reserve rule and the UA's attempt to sign reserved players were the most dramatic events of the off-season.  Lucas consistently stated that he viewed the reserve rule as unfair and talked about it in moral or philosophical terms.  It appears that he believed the rule to be immoral and that a baseball player had the same rights as any other free man to engage in free commerce and sell his labor how he saw fit.  His stated intention was to kill the reserve rule and free the ballplayer from the shackles of economic slavery.

Now that was how he presented his argument in the press and I believe that Lucas was sincere in his beliefs.  However, there was also a practical element to all of this.  The UA needed ballplayers to stock its clubs and the established leagues had most of the good ones.  It certainly had all the good ones who could draw a crowd.  To succeed, the UA not only needed players but it needed good ones who could sell tickets.  While there was a moral element to disregarding the reserve rule, it was also the best way to get good players, to get press, to raise public awareness about the new league and, therefore, to sell tickets and make money.  There can be no doubt that the UA had a pecuniary interest in disregarding the reserve rule.

Regardless of Lucas' intentions, what I find most interesting about the off-season was that he failed, for the most part, in rallying the players to the UA banner.  For all the talk of destroying the reserve rule and bringing economic freedom to the players, Lucas was only able to sign six players who had been reserved by the established clubs.  While every big name baseball player was, at some point in the off-season, rumored to be signing with the outlaw league, Lucas, in the end, wasn't even able to sign enough guys to stock one club.  Compare that to the success of the Players' League, just six years later, which was able to sign the biggest stars in the game.  The only true star that Lucas was able to sign was Dunlap.  Lucas simply failed, in 1883/1884, in landing the talent that he needed to stock his new league.

One of the reasons for this failure was that Lucas ignored several avenues of player acquisition.  While the UA ignored the reserve rule, it did not engage in a wholesale raid on the established leagues.  Lucas stated that the league would respect all contracts that had already been signed and would not attempt to steal a signed player.  This immediately limited the number of players that Lucas was able to target in the 1883/1884 off-season.  Once a player signed with their League or AA club, that player was no longer pursued by Lucas.  The established leagues were able to limit the players available to the UA simply by signing their players.  Lucas also appeared to ignore the lower-level leagues.  While someone like Von der Ahe was exploring the Northwestern League for talent and would have great success developing young talent in the 1880s, Lucas never pursued that avenue of player procurement and it seems that he was entirely focused on signing "major league" players for his new league.  Given the goals that he had set for himself and the UA, that's understandable.  However, given the dearth of talent in the new league and the fact that there was substantial baseball talent outside of the major league structure, there's no doubt that Lucas, by attempting to make a big splash with player signings in 1883/1884, missed out on numerous good players.  If Lucas had taken the longer view and been willing to develop the UA over a period of years, he could have stocked his club with any number of young players and grown his own stars, rather than attempting to poach stars from the established league.

The most interesting avenue of player acquisition that Lucas ignored in the 1883/1884 off-season was the signing of black players.  There is no doubt that there were an extraordinary number of outstanding black players during this period and, if he had had the vision, Lucas could have signed several of these players to help stock the UA clubs and raise the overall talent level of the league.  In St. Louis, Lucas certainly would have been aware of the Black Stockings and the outstanding players that they had on their club.  Their were black players in organized baseball during this era, playing in the Northwestern League, the International League and the Eastern League.  These players could have been brought into the UA but were not.  It's unknown what Lucas' opinion of race relations were and if this was something that he ever considered but for a man who took such a classically liberal view of economic justice, it's not a stretch to imagine him having a similar view regarding racial justice.  Lucas' failure to integrate the UA, whether a failure of imagination, character, or courage, is one of the great missed opportunities in baseball history.

While there is no doubt that Lucas failed in his attempt to procure sufficient talent for his new league, it was not entirely his fault.  The established leagues quickly recognized the threat that the UA posed and took action to defend themselves.  The Day Resolution was adopted in December of 1883 and any player who signed with the new league was threatened with the blacklist.  With the very real possibility that the UA would not even see the field in 1884 or not make it through the season, this was a serious deterrent to players who were considering signing with Lucas' new league.  Also, players who had signed with the new league were subjected to an organized effort to bring them back into the fold of organized baseball.  Several players, such as Tony Mullane, jumped back to the established league after signing a contract with the UA.  The baseball establishment also had significant allies in the press who spread stories about the instability of the new league and preached its immanent demise.  The anti-UA press, I believe, played a role in creating an environment that discouraged players from signing with Union clubs.

The battles between the anti-UA and pro-UA factions in the sporting press are fascinating and extraordinarily entertaining to read.  In my coverage of the off-season, I focused mostly on articles from the pro-UA St. Louis Globe-Democrat and the anti-UA Cleveland Herald.  The Cleveland paper had an interesting perspective on the off-season battles because, of course, their local club was in the process of losing Dunlap to Lucas' Maroons.  It was obvious to me that the sporting editors of each paper were reading each other's work and there was often a point/counter-point debate going on between the two papers, each defending their particular editorial position.  I enjoyed reading the anti-UA press because it not only offered argument in opposition to my own feelings about the UA but also because I believe that, in the anti-UA press, you were hearing the voice of the baseball establishment railing against Lucas' outlaws.  I obviously have a pro-UA bias and I hope that including the voices of the anti-UA press helped balance that to some extent.

As I said earlier, this was one of the most interesting off-seasons in the history of baseball and there was just an amazing amount of information to pass along.  I quickly realized that I had to focus on the development of the Maroons and let most everything else fall by the wayside.  I don't think I mentioned the Day Resolution once in the last six months.  I don't think I spent much time, if any, on the organization of the other clubs in the UA.  I really wanted to trace the development of the UA as a whole and the development of the Maroons within that context but was simply unable to do so.  Periodically, I tried to include articles that spoke generally about what was going on but to really do justice to this period would have taken me another six months.  In the end, the focus of this website is St. Louis baseball history and as much as I'd love to give you a comprehensive look at the history of the UA, I had to limit my focus to what Lucas was doing to build his club in St. Louis.  There is a lot of interesting stuff out there about, for instance, the Boston UA club and it was fun to read but, in the end, I just don't have the time to pass all of that along or fit it within the context of what Lucas was doing from October 1883 to April 1884.  I see that as a bit of a failure but the perfect is the enemy of the good and I have the Maroons' entire 1884 season to get to.

So it's time to put baseball politics and business aside and get to the good stuff on the field.

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