The Connection Between the 1882 Troys and the 1883 New Yorks
This is by our newest guest author, Richard Hershberger, one of whose interests is 19th-century baseball. Feel free to suggest topics for additional posts in the comments.
I recently mentioned in the comments to an unrelated thread that I study early baseball, up to about 1885. This raised a surprising amount of interest. One question caught my attention in particular, for the most excellent reasons that it is both a good question and that I know the answer: What, if anything, was the connection between the 1882 Troy club and the 1883 New York club?
This is a good question because the standard sources disagree. You can find some that will tell you that the New York club, which went on to eventually become the San Francisco Giants, is a continuation of the Troy club. Other sources will deny any connection whatsoever. To further confuse the matter, there are similarly mixed claims about the 1882 Worcester club and the 1883 Philadelphia club, which stayed put to become the modern Phillies. The icing on the cake is that some sources will claim the Troy/New York connection but not the Worcester/Philadelphia. Confusion reigns!
To sort this out, first let’s look at the National League in 1882. Its member clubs were, running from west to east, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo, Troy, Worcester, Providence, and Boston. Did that list make you do a double take? If not, go back and look at it again. Troy? Where is Troy? (In upstate New York, near Albany.) Worcester? (It is an outer suburb of Boston.) What are these towns doing with major league clubs? Even weirder are the cities missing from the list, especially New York City, Philadelphia, and Brooklyn, then the three largest cities in the country.
Next look at the list from 1876, when the NL was founded: Chicago, St. Louis, Louisville, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, New York City, Hartford, and Boston. This is a far more reasonable collection of cities. True, Louisville and Hartford are no longer major league cities. (Frankly, Hartford shouldn’t have been even then, but it was the center of the insurance industry and therefore rich.) The rest of the list, however, are modern major league cities, and the overall geographical footprint of the 1876 NL roughly matches that of the majors in the first half of the 20th century.
How did the NL get from its reasonable 1876 lineup to its absurd 1882 roster? There are two explanations, the one specific to NYC/Brooklyn/Philly, and the other general to the country as a whole.
The general issue was that the national economy was in a depression. The economy boomed following the end of the Civil War, but overextended. The crash came in 1873 with the failure of the investment bank of Jay Cooke & Co. The transcontinental railroad had been a great success, so Cooke floated bonds to finance a second one, the Northern Pacific Railway. The bond issue failed, and Cooke declared bankruptcy, taking the US economy down with it. The ensuing depression lasted through 1879. The depths of a depression is, it turns out, a lousy time to run a baseball league.
Organized baseball arose in the New York metropolis in the 1850s, and found its second home in Philadelphia in the 1860s. As a result, a baseball establishment was firmly embedded in both. It also grew thoroughly corrupt, including such luminaries as William “Boss” Tweed and John Morrissey (a bare-knuckle boxer, Tammany enforcer with the Dead Rabbits gang, and two-term U.S. Congressman). Corruption in a sporting context means thrown games, or at least the rumor of thrown games. This is death to a spectator sport relying on gate receipts to keep itself afloat.
The upshot was that New York and Philly, with their established baseball cliques, were particularly hard hit. The fields needed a few years to lie fallow, with the corrupt elements moving on to other things. In the meantime, Chicago and Boston did reasonably well. The economy did better in Chicago than in most of the country, it being the great transportation hub of the west. The city of Boston was hit pretty hard, but the Boston Club was very well run, both competitively and financially, and was able to at least break even. The rest of the NL didn’t do so well, with clubs dropping out every year. The replacement clubs were chosen with travel expenses in mind, eventually resulting in the NL being a string of cities running from Chicago to Boston, like a strip mall with a supermarket at one end and a chain drugstore at the other, and pizzerias and dry cleaners in between.
Baseball began to show signs of recovery late in the 1880 season. New clubs started popping up. Central to our story are the Metropolitans of New York. The money man was John B. Day, a local cigar manufacturer, while the baseball man was James Mutrie, who had been running various financially marginal clubs. They leased a piece of land at the northern end of Central Park that had been previously used by the Manhattan Polo Association, keeping the name Polo Grounds. This was the first professional ballpark in Manhattan, with previous nominally New York clubs actually playing in Brooklyn.
The baseball recovery became a baseball boom. The Metropolitans in 1881 handily won the championship of the new Eastern Association, a transitional proto-minor league. Following the season various clubs, including three from the Eastern Association, met to form the American Association. The new AA aspired to equality with the National League. It included St. Louis, Louisville, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia, forming a tier of cities to the south of the NL cities.
The Metropolitans and the Brooklyn Atlantics attended the meeting, but in the end did not join. Brooklyn didn’t have the financing, and was replaced at the last minute by Baltimore. The Metropolitans are a more interesting case. Day attended the AA meeting, then traveled to Chicago and met with William Hulbert, the NL president. We can infer that Hulbert induced Day to keep out of the AA with the promise of the next open slot in the NL. The Metropolitans remained as essentially an independent team in 1882. They played a pennant series with Al Reach’s new Philadelphia club (which is not to be confused with the AA Philadelphia Athletics) but otherwise let professional clubs come to them for exhibitions. This was a sweet deal. The New York market had revived and provided ample crowds to attract visiting teams, while the Metropolitans themselves had virtually no travel expenses.
Now we get to the fate of the Troy club. The NL in 1882 had a problem. It wanted to get rid of Troy and Worcester. They had filled a need during the dark years, but now they were taking up valuable slots that the NL wanted to fill with New York and Philadelphia. The problem was that a rising tide lifts all boats. In the dark years teams had dropped out routinely, but the boom was enough to keep the Troy and Worcester clubs alive. The 1882 NL lineup was the same as it had been in 1881, which was a first, and 1883 promised to be the same. The NL’s solution was to hold a special meeting and kick out the Troy and Worcester clubs. They had no cause, in the legal sense of the word. They simply decided. They then turned around and gave the newly vacated slots to John Day’s Metropolitans and Reach’s Philadelphias.
In the meantime, Day managed the neat trick of playing both sides. He got entrance into both the NL and the AA. The two teams initially both played on the Polo Grounds, with a fence dividing it into two fields. The result was that he had two teams, but only one team’s worth of players. He needed to sign a team’s worth of major league talent, and he had to do it fast. Fortunately, Troy was conveniently close, and its players were newly unemployed. So Mutrie made the trip and signed the Troy players en masse. He combined them with the current Metropolitan players, forming a single large pool, and then divided them up again, giving the NL team the better half. The AA team kept the Metropolitan name. Within a few years the NL team was commonly known by the nickname of the “Giants.”
So what to make of this? Notice the word I have avoided using: “franchise.” They sometimes used the word at the time, but they didn’t mean the same thing by it as we do. A franchise today, whether sports or fast food, is a contractual right to operate a business within defined terms. Were you to buy a McDonald’s franchise, you would be buying the right to operate a McDonald’s restaurant within a certain geographical area. You might buy a physical building and the equipment inside it, but these are incidental, and the franchise has monetary value apart from the value of any physical property associated with it. The same is true of a sports franchise. The franchise is the right to have a team in the league, and this, along with player contracts and reserve rights, is where its value lies. To put it another way, what would the Dodgers be worth if they were ejected from MLB?
This concept of sports franchise as a property right was not yet formed in 1882. Up to that point membership in the NL arguably held negative value. This was changing, but when Troy and Worcester were kicked out, they were simply gone. The owners were not compensated for the loss of the franchise, nor did they retain the reserve rights to their players. When Mutrie signed the Troy players, he was not buying their contracts or reserve rights from the Troy ownership. The players were free agents. Signing them as he did was merely a matter of convenience. Day did not buy any franchise rights from Troy. Troy had no such rights by that time. Similarly, there was no sale from Worcester to Philadelphia.
So there isn’t really any meaningful sense in which the Troy franchise was moved to New York, nor Worcester to Philadelphia. People have long assumed the Troy-to-New York move because they looked at the player rosters for the two years, and interpreted this in light of how franchise transactions took player in later years. Since they interpreted a Troy-to-New York move, many also took a Worcester-to-Philadelphia move by default. Others noted that no players made the Worcester-to-Philadelphia jump, and therefore deny that connection while accepting Troy-to -New York, without quite explaining the exact nature of either.
The franchise as property right would be established a few years later, again involving the Metropolitans. They were bought by one Erastus Wiman, whom the other AA owners mistrusted. They voted the Metropolitans out of the AA. The owners of the Troys and the Worcesters had grumbled and muttered about legal action, but nothing had come of this talk. Wiman was a different matter. He sued and he won. Metropolitan Baseball Association v. Simmons, et al. is a case few have ever heard of, and which arguably is the most important legal case in the history of American professional team sports. But that is a story for another post.