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Quality of Play in the American Association

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  • Quality of Play in the American Association

    This topic got started in the "Tip" O'Neill thread (in the Hall of Fame section and took on a life of its own there. The following few initial posts are from there - at the beginning of each post I'll identify the speaker since it will fall under my signature.

  • #2
    From Fuzzy Bear:

    The question becomes this: Was the AA a major league or not?

    If it was not, then we need to designate as such; a minor league, and stop crediting AA ballplayers with major league service.

    If the AA was PERMANENTLY below the NL and the Players League (for as long as it lasted), that's an argument against O'Neill, but it's also an argument against a whole lot of guys. If we stop calling the AA a Major League, how can we say that O'Neill has 10 years of major league service? How many other 19th century candidates would lose credit for 10 years if this designation were retroactively applied?

    How did the AA of the 19th century compare to the National League, in terms of talent? What's the modern analogy?


    • #3
      From leecemark:

      --I don't suggest calling the AA a minor league. I do believe that it was the weaker of the 2 major leagues - and that is going to represent pretty poor quality at such an early stage in the evolution of MLB. It was perhaps somewhere along the same qualitative standards of the NA or FL? Even if O'Neil had played his entire career in the NL and out up the same numbers he would be a questionable case at best though. He only had 5 years where he was an above average player.


      • #4
        From jjpm74 responding to leecemark:

        In terms of quality of players, I'd put the AA statistically similar to the MLB during WWII. Not quite minor league, a handful of stars, but not much above it either.


        • #5
          From Paul Wendt:

          The institutional answer is that after 1882 the American Association and National League were major leagues like the AL and NL after 1902, perhaps until the abolition of the League offices by Bud Selig. At least like the AL and NL under Frick, Eckert, and Kuhn, when then were partners in sometimes unfriendly competition

          The AA and NL with the Northwestern League created organized baseball in 1883. They drafted and signed an agreement to cooperate against other professional ballclubs (in leagues or otherwise) and not to compete much among themselves. They did it with rules that only hint at one practical reality: AA and NL major, NWL minor. In this the analogy breaks down but by 1886(?) they had torn it up and re-started with the AA and NL sharply distinguished from all other parties (ballclub leagues) who would sign up.

          The AA-NL agreements (or organized baseball) did not establish a unified champion, so the World Series of 1884-1890 were arranged by the two pennant-winning clubs. That analogy is perfect but it matches only 1903-1904, when Pittsburgh played Boston and New York avoided the same. The AL and NL agreed on arrangements for a postseason championship series in 1905 and the central organization gained strong control of that quickly.

          What happened in 1890-1892 is akin to the National League going out of business during the late teens, after taking a heavier hit from the Federal League. That episode would have covered 1914 to something like 1917 or 1919, probably involving the Players' Fraternity, general economic pessimism, and WWI. Imagine government order shutting down pro baseball in summer 1917 instead of 1918. In 1919 the AL resumes business with Cubs, Reds, Pirates, and Giants incorporated in a 12-club "monopoly".


          • #6
            What is the basis for arguing that the American Association was weaker?


            • #7
              From Paul Wendt:

              AA discount, supposed to be conservative


              I'm not sure what leecemark means by the NA and FL reference points here, but I guess it is a comparison across one or three decades of baseball history much more eventful than in our times. Can that be useful when there is no agreement about the AA's contemporary NL in relation to those leagues? We need to know what those reference points mean to him.

              The stipulated discounted is zero.

              Here IMO is a conservative discount for assessment of ballplayers, such as a discount on AA win shares against contemporary NL win shares@, rounding to the nearest 10%.
              (minus, percent) 1882 = 30 20 20* 0 0 0 0 0 20# 20 = 1891
              Ten percent greater would be a liberal discount for most seasons, I think.

              *1884, the Union Association season. That is 20% against NL1884, itself weakened by UA competition. The AA took the heavier hit by expanding from 8 to 12 teams. I guess the discount might be 10% for the established clubs and 40% for the expansion clubs.

              #1890, the Players League season. That is 20% against NL1890, itself weakened by PL competition (and close to the PL) but strengthened by the admission of the two strongest AA clubs. The NL took the heavier hit, losing most of its star players and many others, while the remaining AA clubs lost only a few players to the PL. But the AA lost four clubs and almost all of their players.

              @This discount might be appropriate against pitcher wins(?) but not against batting average, runs scored, triples, or strikeouts. The scales for those more basic records would all be different, potentially.


              • #8
                From leecemark:

                -The league only lasted 10 years and was nothing to brag about on the front or back end. Even if it had been, a player would have had to have been excellent from day 1 to the end to make it just in the AA. Otherwise he would have to have some NL years added to build a HoF career. Of course 19th century players in general have not found the doors of the Hall thrown wide open for them.


                • #9
                  From Buzzaldrin:

                  I can't stand reading some of this.

                  The AA was NOT a weak sister, a minor league, or a "barely major" league. Although there were several seasons when the NL was superior, it is not the case that it always was, and there were several seasons when the AA was the superior league- 1886 being the most prominent. From its inception until 1889 the AA outdrew the NL in attendance each and every year with the Browns most often being the biggest baseball draw in the country. At its peak (again-1886) before the Sam Barkley disaster started turning things around, the AA won the series (and do not tell me the 86 series was an exhibition- the Chicago/St. Louis rivalry was the biggest in the nation in the 19th c.), AA runner up Pittsburgh (second in the country in attendance after St. Loo) beat NL runner up Detroit in their series, AA third place Brooklyn beat NL number three New York in their series, and even last place AA Baltimore beat last place NL Washington in their series. In fact, by that point at the end of five seasons, the AA won well over half its matches against the NL (albeit they were called exhibitons, but pride is pride). If a league is more popular at the box office than another league for a given period and also outperforms it on the field during that period, i don't think it's fair to look at those league 120 years later and say that the losing league in both respects was clearly better.

                  After the 86 series, Spalding and Anson sent a public telegram stating that they knew when they were beat and the best baseball team in the USA was from St. Louis. This, mind you, coming from the team of Anson, King Kelly, and John Clarkson at their peaks (.371, .388, and 150 ERA+ respectively). The Browns beat them well- handing Chicago the worst loss in its history in game two 12-0 on a Bob Caruthers one-hitter.

                  It's very easy to say nowadays that the AA was weaker and its players were second tier, but it's not that simple. It's especially revisionist to simply dismiss the AA because...other people do.

                  AA players got as much respect from the fans as their NL counterparts did, and here's a hint- one of the best ways to judge a sports team from any era in any sport is to follow the bookies. 120 years later on, we may not be the best judges of quality, no matter what numers and stats we have, but contemporary bookmakers don't eat if they don't judge teams well overall.

                  Cut to the end of the 89 season. Boston- with King Kelly, Dan Brouthers, John Clarkson, and Hoss Radbourn- finishes second in the NL. They are beaten by New York- who feature Buck Ewing, Roger Connor, Monte Ward, Jim O'Rourke, George Gore, Mike Tiernan, Tim Keefe, and Mickey Welch. After the pennant race, the Giants have a week to rest and train before the series.

                  Brooklyn- featuring Bob Caruthers and nobody else you've ever heard of (except maybe Oyster Burns)- squeaked out their league title and had exactly one day free between season finale and series opener. They were exhausted and played the opener against the New York Hall of Fame All-Stars in Manhattan. What were the bookmakers' odds for the series?

                  Even money.

                  (Having said that it's a bit of an anti-climax that New York won.)

                  In 1890- it's questionable whether the NATIONAL league was a major league (there's a great thread on it in the 19th c. section), and the AA was certainly a cut above it- although the PL was better than both.

                  The AA and its stars deserve soooo much more credit than they've been getting here. People dismiss the AA without backing it up; just sort of assuming that it was weaker because it "failed", but here's the thing- it DIDN'T fail. It didn't fold or become "absorbed" by the NL- that's easy to assume because the consolidated name, "the National League and American Association of Baseball" was so unwieldy that it got shortened to the National League pretty quickly (did you know that the original choice for consolidated name was the American league?). Consolidation was a pure economic move to stop spiralling player salaries after the National Agreement was broken and followed by a frenzy of player raids in late 1891. Again, there are very good discussions of all this in the 19th c. section.

                  Heck, I'm ranting. I do agree, however, with whoever wrote that Charley Jones deserves to be in the hall. And I disagree with anyone who says that a ten year career is too short for consideration- if it was too short the Hall would have made the minimum eleven years (I don't have too much respect for the Hall anyhow, though, since they're the lead culprits in the "the AA was crap" game).


                  • #10
                    From leecemark:

                    --Even if your point about the AA being as good or better than the NL at its peak we are only talking about a very short period here. It didn't start out as the NL's equal and it did not recover from the Player's League sucking most of its best talent away. So for at least half of its brief existence it was markedly inferior. And it DID fail. The league itself went out of existence and the teams that did join the National League were extremely non-competitive in their first season after making the move.


                    • #11
                      From Buzzaldrin:

                      I shouldn't post when I'm hungover, I get edgy. I'll try to be less so.

                      The teams that merged with the NL (not joined- the league/association in 92 was actually referred to as such in the sports pages) were expected to be non-competetive in 1892. Louisville and Washington finished last and second to last in the AA in 1891- who expected them to be better? However, they WERE actually better in 92- they raised their winning percentages from .394 and .326 to .414 and .384 respectively. During the player raids at the end of the 91 season, St. Louis was the hardest hit team in the country, losing pretty much its entire starting lineup and pitching AND its manager. That's not something you recover from in one off-season. The 92 Browns had five managers and did not field a single starter or starting pitcher from the 91 squad; they had been decimated.

                      Baltimore actually had a good hitting club in '92- finishing 4th in the league, but their pitching was absolutely atrocious. Charlie Buffinton, who had been 29-9 with Boston in 91, was expected to be the staff ace, with McMahon number two. Sounds good, except Buffinton retired after 13 starts and they literally had nobody to replace him. Once Baltimore had some arms to back up McMahon, they won the pennant and became the most famous pre-1900 dynasty of all.

                      My point, which I've digressed from, is that from 1885 to 1890 the AA was either equal, slightly inferior, or slightly superior to the NL- we'll never know for certain at this point, BUT this thread is about Tip O'Neill and those seasons were his heyday. It's unfair to dismiss them because of league quality (it took me forever to say that).


                      • #12
                        From Jalbright:


                        Your point that the best of the AA stands up with the best of the NL is well taken. I'm not at all convinced that top-to-bottom the AA stacks up, though. Certainly, your argument doesn't address this aspect of the comparison.


                        • #13
                          From leecemark:

                          --I think the AA attendance was based as much on their lower ticket prices, the fact they sold beer at their games and that they played on Sundays - the only day off for many working men at that time - than because the baseball was better. I am not saying they didn't play some good ball or even that there weren't a few years when they achieved parity with the NL. I am saying that it was a weak league at the beginning and end of its brief history. That doesn't leave too many good years. It is also a fact that MOST of the AA teams folded while NONE of the NL teams did and while the NL may have briefly tacked a reference to the AA onto its name it was quickly dropped.


                          • #14
                            From Fuzz Bear responding to leecemark:

                            If it was a weaker league, then there comes a point where the weaker league is no longer a "major" league.

                            To my knowledge, that formal distinction has never been made


                            • #15
                              From Gee Walker:

                              In brief, is there any significant difference between the AA and the American Basketball Association (ABA) which had ten years of existence from 1967 to 1976? It was weaker than the NBA, without a doubt, but it featured one of the best players of its time (Julius Erving) as well as other stars like George Gervin, Moses Malone, and Artis Gilmore. All except Gilmore are in the Basketball Hall of Fame.

                              The World Hockey Association (WHA) had an even better cast of players during its brief (1972-79) existence. Bobby Hull, Gordie Howe, and JC Tremblay, are just some of the Hall of Famers that played in this league. The biggest coup was signing Wayne Gretzky, age 17.

                              Interestingly, both leagues merged their best franchises into the more established leagues of the time. The NHL has never acknowledged the records of the players in the WHA, depriving Howe, Hull, Gretzky and others of some career totals - if you include their stats in the WHA these three guys would rank as the top three goal scorers of all time. The Hockey Hall of Fame has followed the NHL party line, ignoring the careers of Anders Hedberg and Andre Lacroix over some clearly lesser players.

                              Hey, the AFL was inferior to the NFL. It only lasted ten years. But there are AFL players in the Football Hall of Fame.

                              The Negro Leagues were inferior to the Majors. Needless to say, they had lots of Hall of Fame players.

                              And we're back to the point that NOBODY whose peak was spent in the AA is in the Baseball Hall of Fame.