When does a franchise end?

Next week, I’ll be attending the annual convention held by the Society for American Baseball Research. There will be many updates, both during my travels and once I’m there. This will be my 23rd SABR Convention, as I’ve missed only two since my first in 1990.

One great thing about the SABR Convention? It’s one of the few places in the world where a majority of the people in the room will care about something like this …

Monday, Baseball-Reference.com made a significant revision to its historical record. As Mike Lynch wrote:

Baseball-Reference has made the move to dissociate the New York Yankees franchise from the 1901 & 1902 Baltimore Orioles (not connected to the current Baltimore Orioles franchise). This adjustment allows us to fall in line with the Yankees franchise itself and most references including Total Baseball, edited by MLB’s official historian, John Thorn, who authored an interesting history of the move …

–snip–

This move was precipitated by the BAL/NYY joint record approaching the milestone of 10,000 wins, which caused a reassessment of how we approach this move.

Now, a few things here that get my alarm bells ringing.

One, Baseball-Reference.com is an independent and highly influential source; the Yankees should be taking their cue from B-R.com rather than the other way around. Two, the last edition of Total Baseball was published quite some time ago. Why wait until now? And three, maybe the answer is because of that milestone … but should the timing of a data-driven policy change hinge upon an impending milestone?

None of which means it’s bad policy. Just ill-timed. I actually came across this news on a website called I Hate JJ Redick, which might tell you something about the blog’s management. Anyway, the writer’s a Baltimore guy (probably a guy, anyway) who has quite a parochial take on the matter.

Granted, reasonable people can disagree about this thing. But some of the game’s leading historians have taken the position that the two franchises should be considered separately. Here’s the basic story …

When a strong-willed fellow named Ban Johnson formulated his plans for a new major league, he fully intended to place a franchise in New York. Thanks to various political machinations, though – the New York Giants’ owner was tight with Tammany Hall – suitable playing grounds were not available. So the league’s eighth franchise was instead placed in Baltimore.

John McGraw, once a great player with the National League’s defunct Baltimore Orioles, now managed these new Orioles in the American League. But McGraw had been assured that he and his club would, at the first opportunity, be shifted to Gotham. McGraw wanted to be there, presumably because that’s where the money was.

Alas, Johnson and McGraw didn’t get along, which shouldn’t have been a surprise, considering Johnson trumpeted his organization as the “clean” league and McGraw was famous for playing (and managing) dirty. As McGraw (or more likely his ghostwriter) would say 20 years later, “Our Baltimore club had been playing but a short while when I discovered that I could not get along with Johnson.”

In their first season in the major American League, the Orioles finished just above .500 and drew only 142,000 customers. No, that doesn’t sound like many customers … but the Milwaukee Brewers (soon to become the St. Louis Browns) and the Cleveland Blues (later to become the Cleveland Block-C’s) fared even worse at the turnstiles.

The next season went even worse for the O’s. McGraw got ejected on Opening Day, was suspended for five games a few weeks later, and in late June he drew an indefinite suspension tormenting yet another umpire. As Thorn writes, “McGraw never wore and Orioles uniform again.”

McGraw later told historian Fred Lieb that he’d been promised a piece of an American League franchise in New York. But upon learning that Johnson was going to freeze him out, McGraw orchestrated his ouster from the Orioles, with a commitment already from the owner of the New York Giants. Just a few weeks after leaving the O’s, McGraw managed his first game with the Giants (his employer for the next few decades).

But wait, it’s even more complicated. The owners of the Giants and Reds had purchased a controlling share in the Orioles, and shifted some of that club’s best players to their own franchises. Which left the Orioles so short of players, they had to forfeit a game. At the same time, the owners forfeited the franchise to the league. The Orioles did finish out the season in Baltimore, with a largely restocked roster, but the impending move to New York had already been announced. Johnson eventually found a couple of politically connected New Yorkers, grounds in Upper Manhattan were procured, and the New York Highlanders debuted in 1903.

So should those Highlanders/Yankees be considered a continuation of the American League’s Orioles. Hint: There’s no right answer. Everybody’s going to come with an answer according to different criteria. But it seems to me there are three key elements in this equation:

1. Players
2. Ownership
3. Location
4. Team Name

With the players, I think, counting for about three times as much as everything else combined. The Nationals are still the Expos because it was mostly the same roster. The ownership part is squishy, because — just as with the Orioles and the Highlanders — the league controlled the franchise for a spell.

In the case of the Orioles and Highlanders, though, most of the players changed; very few of the Orioles’ players in 1902 remained with the New York club in 1903. Does it really matter whether the original franchise was actually disbanded, or instead was simply transferred? How you answer that question should determine your side in this teapot tempest.

Personally, the lack of continuity in evidence, with ownership but especially players, suggests to me that disassociation is merited in this case. And so I applaud Baseball-Reference.com for making this decision, however ill-timed.

Now I just wish they would really show some gumption and decertify the supposedly “major” Federal League.