Ban Johnson

The American League is Johnson’s gift to baseball. Others were present at the creation, but it was Johnson’s driving force, shrewd business sense, rigorous standards, and lively imagination that made the league a success.

He gave form and definition to the emerging role of baseball executive. After studying law but falling short of a degree at Marietta (Ohio) College, he became sports editor for the Cincinnati Commercial-Gazette. After Johnson’s friend Charlie Comiskey was fired as Reds manager after the 1894 season, they took over the faltering Western League, with Ban as president. It soon became known as the best-run circuit in baseball. A name change (to the American League) in 1900, combined with a series of swift, opportunistic maneuvers, outflanked the established NL, and by 1901 Johnson’s league claimed major status. After some fine-tuning of franchises, the AL achieved the structure it held until 1954. In 1903 the NL was forced to accept its parity and agree to a World Series between league champions.

As boss, Johnson found no task too large or too small to merit his attention. He located millionaires to bankroll his teams, came down hard on rowdies and roughhousing on the field, appointed managers, arranged trades, and apportioned players. He arranged schedules to spread travel costs equitably, interpreted rules, levied fines and suspensions, issued statistics, and even recruited William Howard Taft as the first president to throw out an Opening Day ball. One of his most important contributions was to enforce respect for umpires as symbols of baseball’s integrity.

He did it all with little grace and no humor. Johnson was hot-tempered, bullheaded, imperious, and uncompromising, not unlike many other tycoons of his time. But he was successful. His owners voted him $25,000 a year and his presidency for life.

During his term on the National Commission (the triumvirate, including the AL and NL presidents, that ruled ML baseball from 1903 until 1920), he was thought of as baseball’s czar, but his downfall was inevitable. New AL owners were less willing to accept his high-handed decisions affecting their investments. Old friends were angered. Comiskey had once said, “Ban Johnson IS the American League!” But when he lost pitcher Jack Quinn to the Yankees on a Johnson ruling, the White Sox owner thundered: “I made you, and by God I’ll break ou!”

Indirectly, he did. The Black Sox scandal caused the abolition of the National Commission and the establishment of Judge Landis as Commissioner of Baseball. Johnson’s era had ended. He remained AL president, but Landis limited his duties, curtailed his power, and ultimately humiliated him. After promoting an investigation concerning charges that Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker had been involved in gambling fixes in 1919, he was persuaded to resign on October 17, 1927.