The Phillies Strike Back

The Phillies Strike Back

April 21, 1902

Philadelphia may be the city of Brotherly Love, but at the turn of the century, its two baseball teams were at each other’s throats. In 1901, the Philadelphia Athletics had lured Nap Lajoie, the Phillies’ top star, to the upstart American League. A year later, the Phillies struck back.

Both teams lost.

Rival leagues weren’t a worry in 1893, when the National League instituted a salary cap of $2,400 a year per player. Nevertheless, some teams managed to keep their top players happy with under-the-table deals, like the agreement reached before the 1900 season between the Philadelphia Phillies and their two top stars — slugger Ed Delahanty and graceful second baseman Nap Lajoie.

Lajoie and Delahanty had threatened not to sign with the Phillies unless they were paid more than the league maximum, and the Phillies agreed to bend the rules for both players. They signed Lajoie to a $2,600 deal and told him that Delahanty would receive the same amount. But when it became known that Delahanty had been inked to a $3,000 dollar contract, a furious Lajoie immediately demanded that the team add another $400 to his salary.

The Phillies didn’t budge, but the A’s of the new American League saw a golden opportunity to pad their roster. Athletics owner and manager Connie Mack offered Lajoie and Delahanty $4,000 each to switch leagues. Well-compensated by the Phils, Delahanty stayed in the National League. Less impressed by his old employers, Lajoie accepted the Athletics’ offer. Along with Lajoie, the A’s lured four former Phillies across town: pitchers Chick Fraser, Strawberry Bill Bernhard and Wiley Piatt and infielder Joe Dolan, who came over after the start of the season.

Unhappy with this cross-league migration, the Phillies hired a prominent Philly lawyer to prevent Lajoie from playing for the Athletics. The A’s armed themselves with two lawyers and a court battle was underway. The first ruling came from the Philadelphia Common Pleas Court, which threw out the case on the grounds that the standard baseball contract lacked “mutuality”: a National League club could terminate the player’s deal after giving ten days notice but the player had no such luxury. Undeterred, the Phillies appealed the case to the state Supreme Court.

As the litigation raged in 1901, the Athletics’ investment in Lajoie paid off. Nap won the Triple Crown his first year in the American League, leading the league with a .422 batting average, 14 home runs, and 125 RBI. His charisma and on the field prowess helped the team draw more than 206,000 fans. The Phillies — Philadelphia’s senior team — drew 234,000. It was a sign that the A’s, as young as they might be, were a force to be reckoned with in Philly.

The fast-rising Athletics snatched up even more Phillies players after the 1901 season. Soon outfielder Elmer Flick, pitcher Bill Duggleby and shortstop Monte Cross were wearing the crisp white jerseys of Connie Mack‘s A’s. The Phils also lost the prized Ed Delahanty to Washington, who also grabbed third baseman Harry Wolverton and pitchers Al Orth and Jack Townsend.

On April 21, 1902, the Phillies finally caught a break. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court finally handed down is decision in the case of Philadelphia Ball Club, Limited v. Napoleon Lajoie et al. Reversing the lower court’s decision, the judge agreed with the club’s argument that Lajoie was a one-of-a-kind player, who could not easily be replaced. In conclusion, the court said that they could not make Nap play for the Phillies, but since he was in violation of his contract they could keep him from playing for any other team.

The baseball world was stunned by the decision, but Connie Mack remained calm and in control, announcing that “the American League and the Athletics are here to stay, whether Lajoie is with us or not.” When the Phillies directed their former players to return to the team “at once,” Mack insisted that other players were not affected by the Court’s decision and that he would play them until the Court said that they could not.

Meanwhile, the Phillies’ lawyers stayed busy, immediately applying for an injunction against Lajoie playing for any club but the Phillies. And on April 23rd — Opening Day — their efforts were rewarded with a temporary restraining order that prevented Lajoie from taking the field for the A’s. The news didn’t reach Connie Mack until the ninth inning, at which point he sent a new second baseman to finish the game.

The end result? Since it was unclear whether the decision of a Pennsylvania Court applied in other states, the American League transferred Lajoie to Cleveland, where he made such an impact on his new team that for a short time they were known as the “Naps”. While Danny Murphy took over at second base for the Athletics and hit .313 as Connie Mack‘s club took the American League pennant, the Phillies finished in seventh place, 46 games behind the Pittsburgh Pirates. Their second baseman was Pete Childs, who hit just .194.