BASEBALL ‘94: Going, Going. . .Gone : In a Way, It’s 1904 All Over : History: Ninety years ago, the World Series was not played because of a personality feud between the sport’s power brokers.

Share via

Baseball has withstood scandal, broken the color barrier and persevered through two World Wars and George Steinbrenner. Yet, for the second time this century, the bickering boys of back rooms have lowered the curtain on a national pastime’s final act.

Author Benton Stark once wrote: “So many wounds, so many raw nerve endings, so many distended egos--Just too many for there to have been a World Series . . .

” . . . in 1904.”

A familiar ring?

After 90 years without interruption--a span in which Halley’s Comet has twice come and gone--the Fall Classic has again fallen victim to baseball’s orbital hardheadedness. Donald Fehr, meet Ban Johnson. Richard Ravitch and Bud Selig, meet John T. Brush and John McGraw.


Selig, Ravitch and Fehr are this year’s Fall guys.

In 1904, it was self-righteous vindictiveness among the towering baseball figures of the day--Johnson, Brush and McGraw--that denied fans the second modern-era World Series.

In his 1991 book, “The Year They Called off the World Series,” Stark writes, “These men were able to get away with their decision because they were within their rights as understood in their era.”

Like today, the controversy in 1904 took center stage in New York. It was not a labor dispute, as such, but rather a no-holds-barred, egomaniacal feud that evolved over time.

Like today, the welfare of the fans did not seem of paramount concern.

In 1904, there was even a sportswriter to blame.

Today’s principals don’t quite measure up to the 1904 characters, particularly to McGraw, the foul-mouthed, cantankerous, legendary manager of the New York Giants.

In the biography, “John McGraw,” by Charles C. Alexander, an umpire was convinced McGraw “ate gun powder every morning and washed it down with warm blood.”

The 1904 World Series was not played because McGraw, the Giants’ manager, and Brush, owner of the National League pennant winners, held deep-seated contempt for Johnson, president of the upstart American League.


Publicly, McGraw and Brush claimed the American League was merely unworthy of the competition. “They’re a bunch of . . . bush leaguers,” McGraw is quoted to have said.

An interesting statement, considering McGraw had played and managed in the AL, and that these “bush leaguers” had won the first modern World Series of 1903, when the Boston Pilgrims defeated the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Ban Johnson had formed the rival American League in 1901 and soon raided the established National League of talent. One of his biggest coups was McGraw, who jumped leagues to manage a new AL franchise in Baltimore.

But the McGraw-Johnson relationship soon soured, so McGraw returned to Brush’s National League Giants and turned the team into a powerhouse.

McGraw’s Giants coasted to the 1904 NL pennant. Johnson, who desperately wanted to establish an American League foothold in New York, had seemingly done so with the Highlanders, forerunners to the Yankees, who contended until the final day.

Brush and McGraw, however, made it clear early on that the Giants would not give the fans what they wanted--a New York World Series.


“Neither would risk giving Ban Johnson his greatest triumph,” Benton Stark writes.

In July, Brush announced the formation of a postseason world tour involving members of the Giants and Chicago Colts, sabotaging any plans of a World Series.

Two men--Brush and McGraw--held the baseball world hostage. It mattered not that 10,000 New Yorkers signed a petition demanding a championship series.

Johnson countered that McGraw and Brush were afraid of losing, an idea that had merit.

The newspapers crucified Brush.

The Chicago Tribune wrote: “If he was any kind of sportsman, he would play the series if he expected to get licked, rather than face the charges of quitting. But Brush does not think the Giants can win.”

How three men ended up in New York’s caldron of 1904, and how two men came to despise one, is a tale of power, ego and betrayal.

Brush’s hatred for Johnson can be traced to 1890. John Tomlinson Brush, born in 1845, orphaned at 4, made his fortune in the clothing business. In 1887, he was the 42-year-old owner of the Indianapolis franchise, one of the National League’s weaker teams.

In 1890, Brush went to New York to help rebuild the Giants, devastated by defections to the Players League.


For his rescue efforts, Brush was rewarded with a new franchise in Cincinnati.

However, the sports editor of the Cincinnati Commerical-Gazette had lobbied hard for another owner and ripped Brush in print at every opportunity.

The scribe?

A 26-year-old visionary named Byron Bancroft (Ban) Johnson.

Brush retaliated by pulling Johnson’s press credential.

In the 1890s, McGraw was busy establishing himself as one of baseball’s most notorious and belligerent players. John Joseph McGraw was only 5 feet 7 and 155 pounds, but as third baseman for the legendary Baltimore Orioles, he probably caused more grief than any player before or since.

For McGraw, known as “Little Napoleon,” baseball was a life-and-death affair. He grew up hard, in Truxton, N.Y., the son of an unskilled laborer. In the winter of 1884-85, he lost his mother, two sisters and two brothers to diphtheria.

John Heydler, an umpire of the era who later became NL president, described McGraw’s Orioles as “mean, vicious, ready at any time to maim rival players or umpires if it helped their cause.”

As a strategist, McGraw was a practitioner of “Little Ball.” The Orioles scrapped for runs with their choked-up bats, perfecting a style of hitting that came to be known in lore as “the Baltimore Chop.”

Ban Johnson, meanwhile, was forging his own legacy.

By the 1890s, the staid National League had become a 12-team monopoly. Since forming in 1876, the senior circuit had fought off several challenges from rival leagues--notably the American Assn. and the Players League.


Johnson mounted his rival charge in 1893, when he took over the Western League, a foundering minor circuit, and turned it into a financial success.

In 1900, he changed its name to the American League and proclaimed it a major competitor. In a shrewd move, Johnson appeased the players’ union by not recognizing the NL’s suffocating “reserve clause,” which bound a player’s rights to his team for life.

Players jumped to the new league in droves, setting off a war.

Johnson promised his league would be free of the scourge that had soiled the NL with its high-spiked shenanigans. McGraw, of course, was Kid Scoundrel.

Johnson called his brand of play “Clean Ball” and issued edicts proclaiming profanity and bad sportsmanship would not be tolerated.

Then, unbelievably, but for obvious political reasons, he coaxed McGraw away from the National League. McGraw had been set to manage the NL Baltimore franchise, but the team was dissolved in 1900 when the league reduced from 12 to eight teams.

It was naive to think Johnson and McGraw were ever going to peacefully coexist.

Yet, at a Chicago meeting in 1900, Johnson offered McGraw the job as manager of a new AL franchise in Baltimore, also to be called the Orioles.


McGraw accepted and agreed to curb his abhorrent behavior. He also helped lead a raid on National League players.

Soon, though, he became the bane of Ban.

McGraw continued cursing umpires and stomping on their toes. Joe McGinnity, one of his pitchers, was suspended in September for shoving an umpire and soaking him with tobacco juice.

Opening day, 1902, McGraw was ejected for using foul language. A week later, he drew a five-game suspension after he was accused of inciting Baltimore fans to attack an umpire.

The Johnson-McGraw alliance quickly unraveled. When Johnson decided in 1902 to move the Baltimore team to New York, it became clear to McGraw he was not part of the plan.

Getting wind of Johnson’s intentions, McGraw struck first and began negotiations with owner Andrew Freedman to manage the New York Giants.

Claiming he was owed money, McGraw demanded out of his Baltimore contract and eventually won his release July 19.


Years later, as chronicled in Alexander’s biography of the manager, McGraw said Johnson had planned “to ditch me at the end of the 1902 season. So I acted fast.”

Johnson accused McGraw of being a traitor on par with Benedict Arnold.

The McGraw-Johnson feud had taken firm hold. Eager to get in on action was John T. Brush, an old nemesis.

As chairman of the NL Executive Committee, Brush engineered a stock-buying scheme that left Freedman, the Giants’ owner, with majority interest of the Orioles.

Freedman promptly shipped all the Orioles’ best players to New York, where they were reunited with McGraw and the Giants.

Johnson was outraged, but there was little he could do.

Brush wasn’t through. In the fall of 1902, he purchased the Giants from Freedman for $200,000 and stood poised to challenge Johnson for the valuable baseball turf that was New York City.

Other than mutual contempt for Johnson, Brush also had little in common with McGraw. In fact, it was Brush who had earlier drafted baseball’s “Purification Plan,” which had proposed to rid the game of “obscene, indecent or vulgar language.”


Then again, Brush was not about to let purification stand in the way of a vendetta.

In 1903, the National League owners vowed to make peace with Johnson and the American League. The lone dissenter was Brush.

Brush vowed to keep Johnson out of New York, but he, too, at last relented. The New York Highlanders began play in 1903.

As part of the deal, Johnson, not such a union man after all, agreed the AL would abide by the “reserve clause.”

The pieces were in place for the New York showdown of 1904.

No one is sure what might have happened had the Highlanders won the pennant and been denied a subway series.

Some suspect there would have been rioting in the streets.

Luckily, the Highlanders lost the pennant on the final day when Jack Chesbro, a 41-game-winner, uncorked a wild pitch that allowed Boston to win the title.

Brush, who had already played his hand by insisting the Giants would not meet the Highlanders, was hardly in a position to accept a challenge to play Boston.


So, no World Series.

Several Giants, most notably pitcher “Iron Man” Joe McGinnity, were livid about Brush’s decision, which cost the players a percentage of gate receipts.

“The truth is that for both Brush and McGraw, disdain for the American League upstarts was mixed with fear of losing to them, as Pittsburgh had done in 1903,” Alexander writes in his biography of McGraw.

What of Brush’s postseason plans for a world tour with his baseball team?

Never happened. It was simply a ploy to rankle Johnson.

Ironically, it was Brush who, in 1905, formulated plans for a regular World Series between the leagues, a blueprint that remains almost unchanged today.

McGraw probably didn’t have to fear losing the 1904 World Series. The next year, with essentially the same cast, his Giants whipped Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics, four games to one. Christy Mathewson threw three shutouts in the series.

McGraw went on to manage 10 pennant winners in a 30-year career. He died in February, 1934, and was among the second class elected to the Hall of Fame in 1937.

As Brush lay on his death bed in 1912, Ban Johnson paid him a visit and the two reconciled their differences.


Johnson remained a prominent figure in the game until he was forced into retirement in 1927.

When Johnson died in 1931, McGraw, putting the feud behind him, told the Sporting News that “Johnson was a great fighter and organizer,” and that the American League was “a monument to his genius.”

In 1937, the year McGraw was enshrined, Johnson was inducted into the Hall of Fame.