The History of the MLB is a monument to the fact that baseball isn’t like anything else. For the first hundred years, there was no such thing as a baseball player, and there was no such thing as a baseball team.
The first team was formed in 1903, when the owners of two teams in the American League formed a new team called the Boston Americans. They had the same manager, coaches, and players as the other two teams, but they were much better—which meant they would be able to charge more for tickets. The owners hoped to make money while they were still getting established; it may have been cheaper to hire only one team than three. But they hadn’t reckoned on baseball’s long-term habit of not staying still.
With their new team, the Americans could no longer get away with calling themselves “the Boston Baseball Club.” That name wasn’t exclusive enough; it left out New York and Chicago and St. Louis. So they became “the Boston Americans,” which was an improvement over “the Boston Baseball Club,” but still not good enough. Eventually they settled on just “the Americans”—a name that didn’t make any sense at all if you weren’t from Boston or knew anything about baseball history.
The league also approved a change
Major League Baseball was formed in 1903 as a professional league. The year before, the National League (NL) had been formed, and the American Association had been folded. Two years later, the NL merged with the American Association to form the present-day National League (NL). In 1914, the AL was formed after a dispute between several owners of NL teams.
The first two decades of MLB were extremely volatile. Many teams folded and reformed many times, and some new teams were formed for both leagues, including the Cleveland Spiders of 1901-1937; today’s Philadelphia Phillies are descended from this team.
MLB is far from being a stable league: since its formation there have been over 100 different franchises, 19 of which have existed at only one point or another since then.
In the early days of baseball, the only teams were a couple of barnstorming outfits, and they didn’t even play each other. The first game was played on May 16, 1866. It was an exhibition game in New York between two sides of amateurs: the “New York Nine” and the “New York Ten.”
The league that eventually came to dominate the sport was founded in 1901. That year there were twelve teams; a few more joined over the next few years, and then another round of expansion began in 1903.
Sixteen teams appear to have been the limit for a long time. In 1924 there was talk of splitting into two leagues, with eight and ten teams respectively. But it didn’t happen.
The first organized baseball league was the National Association, which was formed in 1871. The National League was formed in 1876, and the American League in 1901.
The first official baseball game was played on April 22, 1846 between the New York Knickerbockers and Boston Red Stockings at Elysian Fields in Hoboken, New Jersey. It resulted in a 6-4 win for the Knickerbockers. At this time there were no teams and it was not a championship game, so there is no winner.
The National League was the first to form its own playoff series, instead of having some sort of drawing to decide who played who. In the early years of the 20th century it was considered to be “The Best of Baseball,” while the American League was considered inferior due to its amateur-only rule. In 1903, Henry Chadwick created what is known as The MLB: A Single Sheet of Paper that includes all of the leagues current records (only one sheet printed) with box scores dating back to 1884 (and containing errors).
I’m not suggesting we should copy history. I’m saying that baseball is a good model for the way we think about history.
The early days of baseball were chaotic, with no rules, no standings, and a lot of cheating. It was impossible to know who was winning the pennant: it depended on whether you had the best players, or the luckiest, or the most money to throw around. The Boston Red Sox in 1876 won 102 games; the Philadelphia Athletics won just one more game all season.
It took a couple decades for things to settle down into an orderly system. First came the first major league: the National League, which was dominated by New York and Philadelphia teams. Then came a second league: the American League (a copy of what everybody else had). And then there was a dispute between two leagues over which of them got to be called “National League” – and eventually they decided to call themselves “American League”, because there was no signposting saying “We are not the National League”.
Last week, I wrote about how there is a difference between baseball and other sports. Baseball came later than basketball and football, and it was just one of many sports that were invented in the 19th century. But it was still an invention, an idiosyncratic invention. It was not invented to be a sport; it was invented as a kind of gambling game.
In the 19th century, people bet on things all the time. Sometimes they bet on things that don’t even have names yet, like horse races or boxing matches. Sometimes they bet on things that don’t exist yet, like a United States senator or a new product line or a new stock market index. A lot of this betting took place in places where people couldn’t go to watch themselves bet: at racetracks, at cockfights in bars, at dog tracks and horse races and boxing matches and so on. The only people who could go out and participate in these events were gamblers from elsewhere – gamblers who had to travel long distances to get there. And they were betting on things that didn’t even exist yet: horses nobody had seen before, fights nobody had heard of before – with names like “Daily Double” or “Bare Stake” or “Ace against King”.
Players are recruited by teams, but managers are hired by teams. This is not how most people would describe their job, but they don’t look down on marketing managers.
Many people who work in teams have other roles in the organization. Most of them have titles like “vice president”. But this is a misleading term. It implies that there is one person with the title and several people doing the work for him or her. As it happens, executives have titles because they are expected to be able to handle many tasks simultaneously. We use other titles because we want to keep track of some things and not others.
For example, if you are a vice president of sales, you are responsible for sales, but not for scheduling sales meetings; you may also be responsible for customer service, but if your job were to make coffee every morning, you wouldn’t call yourself a director of coffee-making.