Executives: Ban Johnson

The man behind the AL — more on that tomorrow.

Byron Bancroft Johnson was born January 5, 1864 in Norwalk, Ohio. He first went to Marietta College to study law, but he would not complete his degree. Instead, Johnson went to work for a paper in Cincinnati and eventually became the sports editor. While in Cincinnati, he became friends with Charles Comiskey and Reds owner John Brush. After seeing his intelligence, the two suggested he be the next commissioner of the faltering Western League. A few years later, the Western League, a minor league, was the best-run league in baseball.

How did he do it? Well, Johnson wasn’t a fan of the National League. He hated the atmosphere which drove away families and women. In response, he supported his umpires and fined players and managers who disrespected umpires. Johnson would also fine players and managers who used foul language. This created an atmosphere of obedience to a sport without any, and the additional crowds brought in more money.

Johnson, however, still despised the National League, and working with Comiskey, the two set out to make another major league. In 1900, he renamed the Western League the American League, and a year later, he removed the Western League from the National Agreement, which was an understanding between the National League and the other minor leagues. This effectively made the American League a professional league. Johnson placed teams in Baltimore, Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C. in order to directly compete with the National League, and when the NL capped salaries at $2,400 in 1901, Johnson pounced. AL teams began to offer larger contracts, and players jumped from the NL to the AL. The AL would win those attendance wars in the big cities and forced the NL to come to an agreement. In the new National Agreement, the NL made the AL a co-major league.

That would be the high point of Johnson’s career. Possibly because of his overconfidence in office, Johnson took full control of the American League and would even refuse certain people to join if they disagreed. This caused a rift between the league’s teams. Teams began to defy Johnson, and the final straw came in 1920. He refused to believe Comiskey’s warnings that the White Sox were fixing the World Series, and when it was discovered, the two leagues decided for another leader to head the two leagues. Kenesaw Landis became that man and took the reins as the first Commissioner of Baseball. Johnson and Landis butted heads, but because Johnson had already caused trouble in the AL, Landis won the battle, officially transforming baseball from Sparta (two kings) to Macedonia (one king).

Johnson was officially pushed out in 1928, but he would still be elected into the Hall of Fame in 1937. An interesting note — he died on my birthday (March 28) in 1931.

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2 Responses to “Executives: Ban Johnson”

  1. lar Says:

    A little note: The AL officially came into being in hotel in downtown Milwaukee. There’s a plaque marking the place, as the building was torn down long ago. The location is now taken over by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

    You can see a good picture of the plaque here.

  2. tHeMARksMiTh Says:

    I realize I kind of glossed over that, but stay tuned.

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