I see that I haven’t yet done anything on one of my major areas of interest, the 19th century, yet. So here you go: a long essay on the Union Association. Just what you wanted!
In the New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, James devotes 14 pages to an essay called “State of the Union,” about the 1884 Union Association. (It appears, for some reason, in the 1870s section.) He concludes (not surprisingly) that the UA wasn’t a very good league, and goes on to question its major league status and call for its elimination from the baseball encyclopedias.
I’m mostly interested in two statements he makes:
“[B]y 1884 there were actually eight minor leagues, a good many of which probably could have kicked the Union Association’s butt and stolen their lunch money…”
The UA “wouldn’t properly be included in an encyclopedia of the good minors.”
I think he’s exaggerating a bit here, but still, I thought I’d look into whether or not the UA was really worse than other minor leagues of the time.
The Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball lists seven minor leagues in 1884:
Iron & Oil Association
Ohio State Association
Connecticut State League
Massachusetts State Association
Five of these are clearly very small, regional leagues; I don’t think there’s any question that the Union Association was better. There are really only two candidates for minor leagues better than the UA: the Eastern League (which eventually turned into the International League) and the Northwestern League (a predecessor of the 20th-century American Association).
As it happens, one team (the Wilmington Quicksteps, one of the best nicknames in 19th-century baseball) moved from the Eastern League into the Union Association during the season. When they moved, the Quicksteps were dominating the Eastern League with a 50-12 record. So what ensued: the mugging that James would lead us to believe? Not exactly. In the UA, the Quicksteps, terrors of the Eastern League, went 2-16.
To be fair, two of Wilmington’s best players—shortstop Thomas “Oyster” Burns, who would become the National League’s
batting RBI champ in 1890, and outfielder Dennis Casey—were snatched away by the American Association after playing just two games each in the UA. But let’s look at the Wilmington regulars who stayed with the team throughout its short UA tenure.
Here are their totals in the Eastern League (h/ab, d/t/hr, ave/slg):
Redleg Snyder 47/255, 6/6/3, 184/290
Charles Bastian 90/266, 19/12/5, 338/556
Jimmy Say 66/250, 10/4/1, 264/348
Tom Lynch 89/278, 10/9/7, 320/496
Tony Cusick 58/240, 7/3/0, 242/296
The Only Nolan 46/141, 6/3/2, 326/454
Totals: 396/1430, 58/37/18, 277/407
Here are their totals in the Union Association:
Redleg Snyder 10/52, 0/0/0, 192/192
Charles Bastian 12/60, 1/3/2, 200/417
Jimmy Say 13/59, 1/2/0, 220/305
Tom Lynch 16/58, 3/1/0, 276/362
Tony Cusick 5/34, 0/0/0, 147/147
The Only Nolan 9/33, 2/1/0, 273/394
Totals: 65/296, 7/7/2, 220/311
All six players fared worse in the UA. Comparing the totals, that would be a straight conversion factor of .79 for batting average and .76 for slugging going from the EL to the UA. And before you ask, the league averages of the Eastern League and Union Association were nearly identical. The Eastern League hit .249 and slugged .319; the UA hit .245 and slugged .316.
It’s not like Wilmington spent all its time playing the St. Louis Maroons, either. This is their record against other UA teams, with their UA records in parentheses (from David Nemec’s Great Encyclopedia of 19th Century Major League Baseball):
Vs. St. Louis (94-19): 0-4
Vs. Cincinnati (69-36): 1-2
Vs. Baltimore (58-47): 0-1
Vs. Boston (58-51): 0-4
Vs. Washington (47-65): 1-4
Thirteen of Wilmington’s 18 games were played against over-.500 teams. But if the Quicksteps had dominated a league that was truly superior to the UA, they should probably have been able to do better than 1-9 against Baltimore, Boston, and Washington (teams that were collectively .500 in the Union).
Wilmington’s 18 games in the Union are a small sample, of course; but the evidence would seem to indicate that the Union Association was probably superior (possibly much superior) to the Eastern League. There’s
no way, based on what we know, certainly no evidence, anyway, that the Eastern League could have been the better circuit.
How about the other top minor league, the Northwestern League? It turns out that two NWL clubs, Milwaukee and St. Paul, were brought into the UA at the beginning of August.
Unfortunately, I don’t have statistics for the NWL, so I can’t do the same comparison of individual players. Here are their overall records in the two leagues:
Milwaukee NWL 53-34, .609 -> UA 8-4, .667
St. Paul NWL 31-55, .360 -> UA 2-6, .250
Total NWL 84-89, .486 -> UA 10-10, .500
Here are their records against other UA teams:
Vs. Baltimore (58-47): 3-1
Vs. Boston (58-51): 2-2
Vs. Washington (47-65): 3-1
Vs. St. Louis (94-19): 1-2
Vs. Cincinnati (69-36): 0-3
Vs. Kansas City (16-63): 1-1
Milwaukee’s 8-4 record doesn’t include any games against the UA’s best two teams. Still, you could argue that this small sample gives us evidence that the NWL and the UA were comparable in quality. (The best pitcher in the NWL that year, btw, was John Clarkson, who may have already been the best pitcher in baseball.)
Of course, James didn’t argue that the UA was comparable to the best minor league in existence that year. He said “a good many” minor leagues at the time were better than the UA. The evidence just doesn’t support that.
OK, big deal. Maybe, like James, I just spent an inordinate amount of space proving something rather trivial. And, in fact, he’s pretty much right about the UA from a broader perspective. The league does have less of a claim on major-league status, in term of quality of play, than the PCL of the 1920s or the Negro National League of the 1930s and 40s. So now let me get to what I really disagree with in James’s essay.
He tries to figure out how the UA got listed as a major league in all the reference books, especially as the Spalding and Reach guides didn’t give the league much space at the time. He traces the decision back to the first real encyclopedist, Ernest Lanigan, and concludes that Lanigan somehow got his childhood memories all twisted up, and misremembered the UA as a major league when he was putting together his reference works years later. Then everybody else just copied him.
It’s clear, from what James says, that Lanigan’s where it started. But there are two factors he doesn’t consider:
1) The Spalding and Reach guides weren’t about to give the UA much space, no matter how successful it was, or how high the quality of play. Both were owners, sporting goods magnates, and all-around influential figures in organized baseball; both had a tremendous investment in the maintenance of the status quo. Why would a guide published by the owner of the Chicago White Stockings give much publicity to an upstart rival league that tried to steal his players?
2) The UA might not have risen above the level of a good minor league, but it did fulfill important qualifications for what is usually considered a major league: it announced and presented itself as a competitor to the NL and AA, and it tried to compete with them directly, with franchises placed in every major city except New York; and it was a substantial enough effort that the American Association actually expanded in order to head off the threat—something that didn’t happen when the American League challenged the National League, or when the Federal League challenged organized baseball.
But say you agree with James (and I do) that the UA is way below the usual major league standards. What do you do about it? His answer: expunge it, because it “pollutes” the record books. And he makes the remark about how the UA “wouldn’t properly be included in an encyclopedia of the good minors.”
Here’s the real problem (finally!): there isn’t “an encyclopedia of the good minors.” It doesn’t exist. Yes, there are collections of statistics for individual leagues: Marshall Wright’s books on the AA, IL, Southern Association, and Texas League; Carlos Bauer’s books on the PCL. Much more information than even these books contain (including fielding statistics) is scattered about in hundreds of guides. But nobody has ever undertaken the task to put all this in one place. (For good reason—it’s a huge amount of work, and it probably wouldn’t sell all that many copies.)
The point is: if you erase the UA from major league records, where does that information go? Nowhere. It has no place to go. You no longer know what Fred Dunlap, for example, did in 1884. His career just skips a year (“What happened to him? Was he injured?”). To be sure, since it has been compiled and published, the UA records would still exist. Not every encyclopedia would follow in lockstep. The Lahman database and Baseball-reference.com would probably still keep it in some form.
But James writes explicitly as an editor/compiler of baseball encyclopedias. It seems to me that, in that position, your responsibility, upon proposing to delete data, is to propose a new context in which that data can reside—along with the other good minor leagues, including leagues that aren’t generally available, like the 1877-1880 International/National Association, or Ban Johnson’s 1894-1899 Western League, or the 1900 American League, or the 1881 Eastern Championship Association (or the American Association, for that matter--Marshall Wright's book is apparently out of print). In other words, “an encyclopedia of the good minors.”
Like I said, it would be a difficult project. But then, lots of things are difficult projects. Few books would change the course of baseball scholarship more than a full collection of high minor league statistics, done with all the care now lavished on the major league encyclopedias. And few people are in a better position than James, right at this moment in history, to bring to bear pressure to get such a project started (after all, how many people have the ear of a billionaire?). Anyway, wouldn’t that be a better use of 14 pages than arguing to erase an obscure (but interesting) corner of baseball history?