The American League was the brainchild of Ban Johnson, the president of the Western League, which was the strongest minor league in the 1890s. It was upgraded by Johnson and former major leaguer Charles Comiskey, the owner of the St. Paul franchise. By 1900 it was renamed the American League, and in 1901 it went into open competition with the National League, the only other major league at the time. Comiskey moved the St. Paul club to Chicago, and the new league also competed with the NL head-on in Boston and Philadelphia; the other franchises were in Detroit, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Baltimore, and Washington.
Johnson stocked his new league with major league players by starting a bidding war for their services, ignoring the reserve clause in the NL contracts. The low salaries paid by NL clubs, enforced with a $2,400 salary maximum, made it easy to lure stars such as Cy Young, John McGraw, Willie Keeler, Napoleon Lajoie, Ed Delahanty, Jesse Burkett, and others. Connie Mack signed Lajoie for the Philadelphia Athletics by offering him a $6,000 contract, and Lajoie won the Triple Crown with 14 HR, 125 RBI, and a tremendous .422 average (still the AL record). When a Pennsylvania court ruled that Lajoie had to return to the Phillies, Johnson convinced Mack to transfer the highly desirable star to the Cleveland franchise to keep him in the AL. For a while, Lajoie did not accompany the team on trips to Philadelphia, a small consolation to Mack. This kind of owner solidarity helped the young league survive the war with the senior circuit, although it certainly helped that the AL outdrew the NL in all three cities in which they both competed in 1901. The Milwaukee franchise moved to St. Louis for 1902 and, now competing in four cities, the AL once again outdrew the NL in head-to-head competition; overall attendance for the eight-team league was 2,228,000 in a 136-game schedule compared to the NL’s 1,684,000.
After the 1902 season, there was a peace settlement between the two leagues; the NL sought a merger, but Johnson knew he had the upper hand, and held out for full acceptance by the NL. The only concession the AL had to make was to promise not to place a franchise in Pittsburgh; they did move the Baltimore club to New York, they were allowed to keep all the players they had taken from the NL, and the AL reserve clauses were to be respected. The American League based its popularity on its contrast to the rowdyism of the National League, with Johnson especially noted for his strong support of the league’s umpires. In the NL an arbiter’s authority depended largely on his own presence (which is how Bill Klem became famous), but Johnson stood behind all of his umpires and tolerated very little abuse of them by players or managers. This was a major element in John McGraw‘s decision to move to the NL’s New York franchise, and McGraw tried to block the AL’s move of the Baltimore club to New York. The bad feelings between McGraw and Johnson led to another conflict the next year. The revival of the two-league concept allowed the resumption of postseason play in 1903 with the inaugural World Series, won by the Boston Pilgrims over the Pirates, but when McGraw’s Giants won in 1904, he refused to play the Pilgrims. He did design to meet Mack’s Athletics in 1905, and the Series has continued uninterrupted ever since, as has the peace between the two leagues.
The profitable American League expanded its schedule to 154 games in 1904. It had good luck in attracting young talent that turned out to be of superstar caliber. Ty Cobb, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Ed Walsh, Addie Joss, Tris Speaker, Walter Johnson, and most of all Babe Ruth brought the AL more publicity and helped the junior circuit win twice as many World Series as the NL through 1918.
In 1919 the Black Sox scandal rocked the game as key members of the seemingly invincible White Sox threw the WS to the Reds for payoffs from gamblers. The AL’s antidote was the legendary Babe Ruth. He had set what many considered to be an unbreakable record in 1919 by hitting 29 HR for Boston (19 ahead of the runners-up). After being sold to the Yankees for the 1920 season, Ruth benefited from several changes regarding the ball: it was livelier, it was cleaner (the spitball was outlawed), and it wasn’t kept in play until it was falling apart. Ruth hit an unprecedented 54 HR in 1920 with his then unorthodox (and later much-copied) uppercut swing, and he proved to be quite a gate attraction. League attendance was over five million, more than a million and a half above the previous high and a million better than the NL total. Ruth’s 54 HR was 35 ahead of runner-up George Sisler, but Ken Williams adopted the new strategy, and soon he, Bob Meusel, Al Simmons, Lou Gehrig, and Joe Hauser were breaking the 20-HR barrier as Ruth set a new standard with 60 HR in 1927. When the next generation came along in the 1930s with the new style as a normal part of their repertoire, stars like Jimmie Foxx, Earl Averill, Hank Greenberg, Indian Bob Johnson, Joe DiMaggio, Hal Trosky, and Rudy York hit 30 HR regularly, occasionally challenged Ruth’s record, and enabled the AL to dominate in the early years of the All-Star Game.
Ban Johnson continued as the autocrat of the American League until 1927, but his control over all of baseball slipped after the Black Sox scandal led to the appointment of Judge Landis to the new office of Commissioner. The peace settlement back in 1903 had included the founding of the National Commission, a triumvirate composed of the AL and NL presidents and Cincinnati owner Garry Herrmann that decided disputes between clubs and between clubs and players. Johnson had been able to dominate this board but met his match in Landis. It didn’t help that the scandal also precipitated a break between Johnson and Comiskey. Johnson resigned when it became apparent to him that he was never going to remedy the situation. Ernest S. Barnard became AL president, but he died in 1931 and was succeeded by Will Harridge, who lasted a record 28 years.
Meanwhile, the Yankee dynasty that Ruth had started shared power with such mini-dynasties as the Senators (1924-25, ’33), the Athletics (1929-31), and the Tigers (1934-35); New York won 14 AL pennants between 1921 and 1943. The Yankees also won the World Series ten times in that period; four additional AL victories added to American League domination of the postseason. In the tradition of Ruth, the AL was a hitters’ league, and offense drew in the fans in numbers the NL couldn’t match. In Boston, owner Tom Yawkey and general manager Eddie Collins paid dearly for West Coast stars Ted Williams and Bobby Doerr, and the Red Sox became respectable for the first time since Harry Frazee had sold off Ruth and others to pay the debts on his Broadway shows. But the two Hall of Famers brought Boston only one pennant (1946).
Yankee hegemony reached its peak after the war: from 1947 to 1964 they won fifteen AL pennants and ten World Series, including a record five straight under manager Casey Stengel (1949-53). This new Yankee dynasty was built around Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, and Whitey Ford and featured strength at every position and the solid pitching of the “Big Three”: Allie Reynolds, Vic Raschi, and Ed Lopat. GM Ed Barrow and farm director George Weiss had put together the AL’s best minor league system, and the dynasty seemed self-perpetuating. Al Lopez was elected to the Hall of Fame as a manager largely on the strength of being the only manager to take the flag away from New York in the 1950s, winning in 1954 and 1959. Managing Cleveland from 1951 to 1956 and Chicago starting in 1957, he finished second every other year in the decade.
The first AL franchise move in 50 years came when the St. Louis Browns moved to Baltimore for the 1954 season. Harridge’s reign ended in 1959, and former All-Star Joe Cronin succeeded him as AL president. The 1960s brought more change, and (eventually) the end of the Yankee dynasty. The AL jumped the gun on expansion to get a California franchise (the Los Angeles Angels) and to let Calvin Griffith get out of Washington. Griffith’s original Senators became the Minnesota Twins and a new franchise took their place in Washington. The ten-team structure required a 162-game schedule, which instantly led to controversy. Roger Maris, having adapted his swing to the short right-field porch at Yankee Stadium, hit 61 HR in 1961 to break Ruth’s season record. But Ruth had hit 60 in only 154 games. Commissioner Ford Frick, a former ghostwriter and drinking buddy of Ruth’s, ruled that Maris had to match or set the record in the same 154 games; after that span of time, Maris had 59 HR. The infamous asterisk that Frick placed next to Maris’s record was later overturned by the rules committee.
The biggest change in baseball was not the length of the schedule or the location of the franchises. In 1962 the Player Development Plan was adopted to deal with the troubled minor leagues, which had been losing money and teams for years. A plan to distribute the talent to stock the minors (and eventually, of course, the majors too) followed in 1965 with the introduction of the annual free-agent draft. The Yankee franchise had already developed the problems that would bring it crashing down to last place in 1966 after a sixth-place finish in 1965, but their inability to buy up all the young talent in the future doomed them to a lengthy stretch of mediocrity. The Yankee collapse ended the last vestiges of AL dominance. New York had lost the last two World Series, and the NL was winning the All-Star Game almost every year; AL teams had been slower than their NL counterparts to sign up minority talent, and the imbalance was great. AL attendance dropped off radically in 1965. As the Yankees lost their attraction, the NL drew five million more fans than the AL.
Baltimore became the new league dynasty thanks to their fine farm system and to the wise acquisition of Frank Robinson from the NL’s Reds. Robinson won the Triple Crown in his first AL season (1966) and led the Orioles to their first-ever World Championship, something their precursors, the Browns, had never won. Baltimore became truly dominant after the second expansion in 1969 when the 12-team league was split into two divisions. They won three straight AL flags (1969-71), with division titles in 1973-74, and added another AL pennant in 1979.
The move to divisional play was an effort to get around the problem of too many losers each season. With two divisions in each league, more teams could contend, and do so later in the season. The newly minted Pilots lasted just one season in Seattle, moving to Milwaukee in 1970. The Kansas City Royals, better judges of young talent, became a Western Division dynasty later in the decade. Kansas City was available for an expansion franchise because Charlie Finley, the maverick owner of the Athletics (whom he rechristened the A’s), had moved his team to Oakland in 1968 in an effort to duplicate the attendance success of the Dodgers, Giants, and Angels on the West Coast. He failed at that, but he succeeded in building one of the most exciting teams in the league. Based on the superstar talents of Catfish Hunter, Vida Blue, Reggie Jackson, and Rollie Fingers, the team won five consecutive division titles (1971-75) and three straight World Championships (1972-74) and led the league each year in clubhouse vendettas and player-owner squabbles. Just to make sure they got attention, Finley literally changed the face of baseball by offering them rewards for growing mustaches, and also outfitted them in a variety of green, gold, and white uniforms.
Meanwhile, the league dealt with continuing attendance problems by approving a radical rule change, the designated hitter (DH). Allowing another player to bat for the pitcher perked up offense and attendance. This step was taken in the last year of Joe Cronin‘s administration. In 1974 Lee McPhail (the son of former owner Larry McPhail) took over the AL presidency.
What broke up the A’s, and revived the fortunes of the Yankees, was the advent of free agency. Hunter showed the shape of things to come when he became a free agent after Finley reneged on part of his contract. George Steinbrenner, the New York owner, acquired Hunter’s services with an unheard-of $3.5-million-dollar, five-year contract in 1975. Pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally challenged the reserve clause that year and won. Thereafter, players could, with varying restrictions, sell their services to the highest bidder after fulfilling certain requirements as to length of service. Finley’s players hated him and seized the chance to escape. Finley saw trouble coming and traded or sold his best players when he could. Jackson and Ken Holtzman were traded to Baltimore for Don Baylor and Mike Torrez (although Finley was unable to hang onto Baylor and traded Torrez to the Yankees after less than two seasons). The sales of Joe Rudi and Rollie Fingers to the Red Sox and Vida Blue to the Yankees, for a million dollars each, were voided by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn “in the best interests of baseball.”
The Yankees, besides signing many former A’s – in addition to Hunter in 1975, they got Jackson and Ken Holtzman for 1977 – assumed the characteristics of those Oakland teams: internecine feuding ameliorated by common opposition to the owner. They also had the success typical of the A’s, winning three straight league titles (1976-78) and two World Series (1977-78). At the end of the 1980s, they were still the last team to repeat as World Champions.
Free agency is seen as a major factor in the new era of parity, with almost every team winning at least one division title, the exceptions in the AL being Cleveland and Texas. The Texas franchise has largely continued the losing tradition of its ancestors, the Senators. The team moved to Arlington, Texas after the 1971 season, bringing about a league realignment, with Milwaukee and Texas switching divisions. But the biggest change came in 1977, when the AL expanded again (this time without corresponding expansion by the NL). The addition of the Toronto Blue Jays and Seattle Mariners gave the AL 14 teams, and it adopted a much-criticized balanced schedule that resulted in each team playing more games outside its division than within it. At the time, the Western Division was considerably weaker than the East, and the Western clubs wanted more home dates against the East’s more established and better-drawing teams.
Interest in baseball boomed after the 1977 expansion, linked by many observers to the fact that almost every team had a turn at winning (the Mariners joined Texas and Seattle as the have-nots, but Toronto won its division in 1985). Dr. Bobby Brown, a former Yankee star and former part-owner of the Texas club, succeeded McPhail as AL president in 1984.