The following article first appeared in the Spring 2020 edition of the Society for American Baseball Research’s (SABR) Baseball Research Journal. The original article can be accessed at sabr.org by CLICKING HERE.
In 1877, an auburn-haired 20-year-old from St. Louis, Missouri, took the field for George McManus’s St. Louis Brown Stockings, becoming the 362nd player to debut in professional baseball. The career of baseballist Thomas Joseph “Tom” Loftus parallels the story of the first 35 years of pro ball. Born on November 15, 1856, Loftus was a minor- and major-league baseball player, team captain, scout, manager, league organizer, club owner, and magnate.
Over his career, Loftus helped develop numerous players in the minors whom he would go on to coach, manage, or play against in the majors: Hall of Famers Charles Radbourn, Charles Comiskey, and Rube Waddell, and other players like Tom “Sleeper” Sullivan, Joe Quinn and Billy Sullivan, to name but a few.
Toward the end of Loftus’s career, he stood shoulder to shoulder with Ban Johnson and Charles Comiskey during the rise of the American League and was at the center of some of the most pivotal events during that first critical year in 1899. He is the American League’s forgotten founding father.
Loftus’s name has been lost in time and history because he quit major league baseball in 1904 and died in 1910, four years before Babe Ruth’s major league debut. Johnson and Comiskey would live two decades longer than Loftus and their eventual falling out, and larger-than-life egos, ended up bumping Loftus’s name from the front-page box score of history. It did not help Loftus’s legacy that he lived in Dubuque, Iowa, a small Midwestern city without a major-league team or a large media spotlight. A review of newspapers of the era shows that Loftus’s life in baseball was significant and warrants the same recognition now that was afforded him by his peers and contemporary sportswriters.
Loftus’s major-league career included two years as a player for the National League’s St. Louis Brown Stockings late in the 1877 season and the American Association’s St. Louis Browns at the beginning of the 1883 season. Loftus appeared in nine games over his MLB career going 6-for-33 for a batting average of .182. In and around those two cups of coffee, Loftus would play in the semi-pro and minor leagues for about a decade. Loftus started his major-league managing career in 1884 with the Milwaukee Brewers of the Union Association, which was only in existence for that one year. In 1885, Loftus and Ted Sullivan founded the Western Base Ball League.
Loftus would guide the Cleveland Blues of the American Association in 1888, then migrate the Cleveland club into the National League for the 1889 season. In 1890 and 1891, Loftus managed the Cincinnati Reds.
During a stint as owner-manager of the Western League’s Columbus Senators from 1896-1899, Loftus aided in the creation of the American League. Loftus sold his AL Cleveland club and became manager of the Chicago Orphans of the NL for the 1900-1901 seasons. And finally, Loftus, part owner of the Washington Senators, managed his AL team in the 1902-1903 seasons. In all, Loftus managed 1,055 games in MLB going 454-580 for a .439 won-loss average.
Loftus had stepped away from the big leagues after the 1891 season because of the rising mean-spiritedness in all aspects of major league baseball that would come to undermine baseball in the 1890s. In November 1895, Loftus joined back up with Johnson and Comiskey when he became owner of the Columbus Senators in the Western League. From 1896-1899, the Western League continued to grow in popularity, profits, and power in the baseball world. But not all was well with our national pastime.
By 1898 baseball was at a crossroads that could either lead to its further demise and a baseball war or could turn the pastime around and send it into a new era of prosperity, ensuring the game’s survival for future generations. MLB no longer consisted of multiple leagues, and the struggling NL grew to a 12-city circuit with the collapse of the American Association in 1891. Club owners had become complacent with their monopoly over their industry and their players, and the quality of play on the field was more rowdy and vulgar than it had been in the prior 30 years. Fan attendance was down in NL cities, while attendance was rising in Western League cities.
By mid-1899 men in baseball circles, initially led by Al Spink, founder of the St. Louis Sporting News, were quietly suggesting the time was right to form a successful rival league to the NL. Their efforts would lead to the second attempt in five years to revive the American Association, which operated as a major league from 1882-1891.
At the same time the threat of a revived American Association was rising against the NL, the powers in the Western League started to see their long-awaited chance to migrate their minor league into major-league status in direct competition with the NL. They knew the process would be difficult, fraught with risk, and would take more than one or two seasons to accomplish.
Before the Western League could transform into the American League in 1900 and declare itself a major league in 1901, it had to overcome several critical issues that existed within and between the National and Western Leagues.
First, there was the 1899 sale of the St. Louis Browns and a related move of the NL Cleveland club players to St. Louis, which would free up Cleveland for the American League in 1900. Second, an attempt to revive the American Association and the desire of both the Association and the Western League to place a team in Chicago in 1900 posed a threat to the NL. And finally, the abandonment of the existing National Agreement between professional baseball leagues, including the arbitrary National and its junior league partner, the Western League, would ensure a costly baseball war for owners and clubs between the two leagues.
The Western League triumvirate central to resolving these critical issues were league president Ban Johnson, St. Paul, Minnesota club owner Charles Comiskey, and Columbus, Ohio club owner Tom Loftus. These three were not alone in working through the multitude of issues associated with founding and sustaining the AL. Other giants of the era who played pivotal roles included: Henry and Matthew Killilea of Milwaukee and John Bruce of St. Louis, who provided the AL executive leadership with legal advice critical to the progression of the league. Their opinions weighed heavy in decisions made regarding the sale of the NL St. Louis club in 1899 and the sale of the AL Detroit club in 1900.
In addition, Jim Manning of Kansas City (1894-1900) and Washington (1901) and Charles Somers, who owned the Cleveland AL club, were also critical the success of the AL. Somers would be the AL’s financier and have investments in several ball clubs in the league besides his Cleveland Indians.
Loftus, Johnson, and Comiskey started charting the course that resulted in the AL when they took full control of the Western League executive leadership in the fall of 1896, with Loftus and Comiskey elected to the league’s Board of Directors. A week after being elected to the board, the three met in the Hotel Julien in Dubuque, Iowa, to discuss their plans to develop a reputable league to rival the NL. They wanted a league that played clean ball for the love of the game, a league in which a mother and her children could attend a game without offense, a reputation the NL lacked.
Loftus and Comiskey had history in the legendary baseball town of Dubuque. Both men had played professional ball there in the late 1870s and early 1880s, before going on to play for Chris Von Der Ahe and the St. Louis Browns of the American Association. Both men married Dubuque women, and both lived and had children in Dubuque. Loftus lived there his entire adult life, while Comiskey would frequently visit Dubuque family and friends after moving back home to Chicago in 1891.
When Comiskey left the Browns in 1890 to play for the Chicago Pirates of the newly formed Players League, Loftus went from managing the 1889 Cleveland Spiders of the NL to managing the 1890 Cincinnati Reds. During Loftus’s time in Cincinnati, he got to know Johnson, the Cincinnati Commercial Gazette’s sports editor, quite well. Johnson admired the older business-minded Loftus and would accompany Loftus and his Reds on road trips, referring to him respectfully in the Gazette as “Sir Thomas” or warmly as “Tommie” Loftus.
After the 1891 season, Cincinnati’s new owner John T. Brush replaced Loftus as the Reds manager with Comiskey. It was while managing the Reds that both Loftus and Comiskey got to know Johnson. It was at Comiskey’s urging, and with Brush’s reluctant support, that a reconstituted Western League hired Johnson as their league president in 1894. Comiskey would enter the Western League in 1895 as owner of the St. Paul club, and Loftus would do likewise in 1896 as the Columbus club’s owner. Johnson would come to personally know and respect Loftus and Comiskey—both men Johnson’s senior and early mentor—for their sage advice.
The problems facing professional baseball as it neared the 20th century were complex and not always public. With back-room deals and different factions vying for power and monopolistic control of major league baseball, the stakes for the magnates who owned the clubs and controlled the leagues had never been higher.
In December 1898, the NL let Johnson and the Western League in on their plans for 1899, which included Frank and Stanley Robison of the Cleveland NL club buying out Chris Von Der Ahe of the St. Louis NL club and moving their Cleveland players to St. Louis, essentially abandoning Cleveland and freeing it for Loftus’s Columbus club to move in. Loftus worked for the Robisons as manager of Cleveland in 1888 and 1889, when the brothers moved their club from the American Association into the NL. The brothers, however, did not wish to vacate Cleveland to the Western League free and clear…emphasis on free!
The Robisons had built a ballpark in Cleveland and felt they were treated poorly by the fans the last few years through low-game attendance, making Cleveland a poor financial performer. The Robisons, therefore, wanted Loftus and the Western League to compensate them for the Cleveland club, even though the Cleveland players would be moved to St. Louis if the Robison brothers purchased Von Der Ahe’s club at public auction.
Von Der Ahe had gotten into financial trouble over the prior four years and his Browns suffered for it. Von Der Ahe’s refusal to sell his St. Louis interests to the Robisons to resolve his personal financial problems, while strengthening the league and the Browns’s financial position, delayed the NL and the Robisons’ plan. Von Der Ahe chose to fight off his financial creditors in court in an effort to save his ball club, which ultimately led to Judge Spencer issuing a court-ordered public sale of the Browns. And because it was not a private sale, it opened the door to outside interests with the result being the NL owners could not dictate who ultimately bid on or bought the club.
In late February 1899, John T. Brush, powerful owner of the Cincinnati Reds, released a statement pronouncing on behalf of the NL magnates that no undesirable person or persons could be forced upon the league through the mere purchase of the St. Louis Browns organization at the sheriff’s auction on March 14, 1899. Brush’s public statement was directed at Loftus, his former employee, who shocked the baseball world earlier by announcing his intention to bid at the public auction.
Loftus, Johnson, and Comiskey had been meeting on a frequent basis in January, February, and March leading up to the sale of the Browns, trying to figure out how to leverage the opportunity the forced public sale of the St. Louis club presented them.
On February 3, 1899, the Dubuque Daily Times proclaimed, “President Ban Johnson is Here for Conference with Tom Loftus.” The article stated, “Men in a position to know the ins and outs of base ball (sic) politics declare that Johnson, Loftus, Manning, Comiskey and other Western league magnates will meet in Dubuque today and indulge in the luxury of a secret conference.” The primary topics of discussion were the sale of the Browns and the completion of the Western League circuit for 1899. The public announcement coming out of this meeting of magnates was that “President Johnson and Manager Loftus will not announce the eighth city of the Western League until the National League has placed its teams.”
On Thursday, February 16, Johnson and Comiskey met in Chicago with president Jim Hart of the Chicago NL team. That Saturday, the two men boarded a westbound train for Dubuque to meet in conference with Loftus for another week of Western League strategic planning. The primary topics were the sale of the St. Louis Browns and the league’s desire to move Loftus’s Columbus club into Cleveland and Comiskey’s club into Chicago, part of the Western League’s effort to become a rival league by having teams in major-league cities. The magnates also needed to decide how they wished to address the group of baseball men, many of them personal friends, who wished to revive the American Association.
While the Western League executives held their second February conference in Dubuque, John T. Brush released his statement on behalf of the NL in response to Loftus’s announced intentions to bid on St. Louis.
The Western League’s response was to publicly clarify the legal reasons why the NL could not prevent the purchaser of the St. Louis club from entering the league. This response was drawn up by the elder Killilea brother of the Milwaukee Western League club, who was a brilliant legal mind and practicing lawyer:
“The National League must recognize the purchase of the St. Louis franchise, as it is a corporation, and a corporation is simply an artificial being created by the supreme authority of the State, is invisible, intangible and endowed with perpetual existence. The corporate rights of the St. Louis Club being sold at a public sale make the obligation binding on the National League accept the purchaser, who while unable to secure by purchase the players held by the St. Louis Club, can acquire the reserve to the players now held by the corporation of which Chris Von Der Ahe was President.”
Johnson, Comiskey, and the Killilea brothers were not helping Loftus so he could become an NL magnate, although on the surface they all denied there was any ulterior motive in Loftus bidding on the Browns. Loftus, Johnson, and Comiskey knew they would need to start moving some of their smaller ball clubs into major-league cities. Going into the 1899 season, the Western League had clubs in Milwaukee, Detroit, Kansas City, Minneapolis, Buffalo, Indianapolis, St. Paul, and Columbus. Only Buffalo was in the top 10 in U.S. population. The three most desirable cities for the Western League to migrate into first were Cleveland, St. Louis, and Chicago.
St. Louis, the fourth largest city in the U.S., was desirable for a variety of reasons. First, St. Louis was a great baseball city that could financially support a well-run major-league team. Second, Loftus was born in St. Louis and started his major league career playing for the Brown Stockings of the NL in 1877, and again for the Browns of the American Association in 1883. Third, Comiskey had been player-manager of those same Browns for most of its existence, and had won four league pennants and a World Series against Cap Anson’s Chicago White Stockings. And finally, St. Louis presented a potential pathway into Cleveland, free and clear.
If Loftus lost St. Louis to the Robison brothers, the Western League could still move Columbus into Cleveland once the latter was vacated by the Robisons. During numerous private conferences in Dubuque among Loftus, Johnson, and Comiskey, the three league field marshals carefully laid out their plans to move Loftus’s Columbus team to Cleveland and Comiskey’s St. Paul team to Chicago. Chicago would present a bigger problem, so they first decided to focus on Loftus, Cleveland, and the sale of the St. Louis Browns.
The Robison brothers did not want to just give up Cleveland, and yet they planned on securing St. Louis and transferring their Cleveland players there. So, it became the strategy of the Western League magnates to have Loftus make it known that he was going to St. Louis to bid on the Browns, having the effect of driving up the cost for the Robison brothers. Loftus ultimately worked out a deal with the Robisons, if it had not been the plan all along (as some had suggested), that he would not bid on St. Louis if the Robisons would clear the way for Loftus and the Western League to move a combined Columbus-Grand Rapids club into Cleveland.
Frank Robison, with assistance from John T. Brush, ended up purchasing the St. Louis Browns organization through a local partner, Edward C. Becker. Loftus and Robison worked out a deal to allow Loftus to move his team to Cleveland after the 1899 season.
As the dust settled from the St. Louis sale, the respective leagues prepared for their 1899 championship seasons. Because of the short time between the sale of the St. Louis team and the start of the season, the NL did not vacate Cleveland until after their 1899 record-setting season, going 20-134. Loftus’s club moved Cleveland for the 1900 season.
In the summer of 1899, word came out of Chicago and Dubuque that the Western League was planning a new rival league. The announcement made such a stir in the baseball world that Johnson, Loftus, Comiskey, and the other league magnates immediately started walking back the announcement.
The storm arose when newspapers ran a story from a statement released by Johnson on July 15th from the league’s Chicago office. The Indianapolis News headline read “Rival Baseball League – President Ban Johnson Makes the First Authoritative Announcement.” The statement said, in part, “There will be another baseball organisation (sic) next year, a rival of the National League, and the Western League will be affiliated with It. In fact, it will practically be a Western League merged into a national organization. The conditions of baseball are such at present that a rival organisation is bound to spring up, and for business reasons the Western League must go in with It.”
Johnson went on to suggest the new league circuit would include St. Louis, Chicago, Milwaukee, and Detroit in the West, and New York, Boston, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia in the East. At the time, the Western League only had clubs in Milwaukee and Detroit. Clearly the league needed to move into more top-10 cities in the United States if they wished to declare themselves a major league.
The article went on to say that Loftus, Comiskey, Jim Manning of Kansas City, and Matt Killilea of Milwaukee would be the leading magnates identified with the new league, with Johnson as the probable league president. It was also stated for the first time, but not for the last, that Loftus would move his Columbus club into the South Side of Chicago, while Comiskey would take his St. Paul team down the Mississippi River in a return home of sorts to St. Louis. Killilea would keep his team in Milwaukee and Jim Manning would take his Kansas City team to Boston.
The following day a sports page story showed up in the Cincinnati Commercial Tribune and newspapers across the nation that read, “Dubuque, IA, July 15 — It is stated here that Ban Johnson, Jimmy Manning, Charles Comiskey and Tom Loftus are planning for a new baseball league for next season. In distribution it is said Loftus is to be given Chicago, and he will have the park on the South Side. In an interview tonight Loftus admitted there was something in the scheme, and arraigns the National League, pronouncing its policy narrow and arbitrary.”
The Cincinnati Commercial Tribune and Chicago Daily Tribune ran another syndicated article with more detail that came from the same Loftus interview referenced in the story with the Dubuque dateline. Here again, it was suggested that Loftus “Will Head (an) Opposition Baseball League Team In Chicago.” It was again suggested Comiskey would be back in St. Louis, where the man and the city had great memories and great chemistry with one another. Consideration had long been given to finding a place in the league for team ownership for Connie Mack, who had been a loyal league man and team manager of Killilea’s Milwaukee Brewers. Mack would have to wait until the 1901 season before he would get his own team, the Philadelphia Athletics.
The Dubuque Daily Times printed a different story that was also being published around the nation at the same time: “Chicago, July 15 — Ban R. Johnson (sic), president of the Western League, made the following announcement in part today: ‘The Western league (sic) as a body has no idea of fostering a proposition to organize a rival to the National league (sic) and institute a fight against the present major organization. It would be suicidal for the western league to attempt to foster an organization on the lines of the old brotherhood for the simple reason it could not possibly hope for success.’” The article went on to state that Cap Anson was certain a new league would be created, and Johnson and Anson agreed a new league could be successful against the NL.
The same day that Johnson released his initial statement, Matt Killilea suggested Johnson was misquoted. “I honestly believe that Mr. Johnson was either misquoted or that he did not talk for publication,” Killilea told a Milwaukee reporter. Killilea, like many others, believed a new league would result in a baseball war of financial attrition that would ultimately be won by the NL due to superior financing. Johnson was likely speaking off the record and not for publication, for everything he stated would come to pass as foretelling. It could also have been his way of testing the temperature of the NL to gauge how big a fight they would have on their hands as they proceeded ahead with their plans laid out in January and February.
Within two days of Johnson’s initial statement and the conflicting newspaper reports published on July 16-17 around the country, Johnson, Loftus, Comiskey, and all the Western League magnates were proactively adamant in their denials a new league was being planned. Johnson clarified his statement, saying that if a new league were to be formed, alluding to the rumors of a revival of the American Association by Al Spink and friends, some of the individual club owners in his league may be inclined to join that new association, but the Western League was not interested in being part of any new organization. The Indianapolis News concluded, “It is thought from the qualifying statements which Johnson has made since Saturday that someone has advised him to go slow.” Johnson and the league pulled back on their public talk of forming a new league for a couple of months.
The NL magnates met in Chicago for an unscheduled meeting on July 27-28 to undoubtedly discuss their strategy to address the formation of a potential rival league. John T. Brush, Jim Hart, and Frank Robison had been meeting in Indianapolis to discuss the matter prior to the league meeting in Chicago. Comiskey and Johnson were in conference in Chicago on July 26-27 also discussing the matter. Comiskey spent part of the day on July 27 in conference with Brush.
The Cincinnati Commercial Tribune zeroed in on what appears to be nearer the truth than any of the other stories regarding a new league published that July, apart from Johnson’s original statement that started the storm. The Tribune’s July 28th story on the NL meeting in Chicago summed up the reality of the situation in a single paragraph:
“The magnates declare they are not meeting to discuss the league situation, yet from all over the country come stories of the forming of a rival league. It is said the National League magnates have decided to form the rival league themselves, splitting the twelve-club circuit and, with the assistance of Western League magnates, forming two eight-club leagues. Comiskey and Loftus, of the Western League, are close to the National League promoters. Both are anxious to get into a bigger circuit, and Comiskey has been with the magnates all week.”
A month later, Ban Johnson wrote Spink that he still needed to speak with Loftus and that he had recently spoken with Ted Sullivan, another promoter for a new league. Spink was still trying to get the Western League to join his group of Association revivalists, which included Sullivan, Von Der Ahe, John McGraw, and Cap Anson. Spink was trying to persuade Johnson and the Western League to attend the American Association’s first official meeting in hopes of them joining the Association in taking on the NL.
On September 17, 1899, the American Association had its first meeting as a new organization in Chicago to elect officers. The Western League magnates were invited to attend. Loftus and Johnson had been elected to represent their league at the meeting.
It just so happened that during these two league meetings in Chicago, Frank Robison was in town and held a long meeting with Loftus. On September 16th, the day before the Association’s official organizing meeting, the Western League announced its circuit for 1900: Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Kansas City, Indianapolis, Detroit, and Buffalo, all teams that were in the 1899 circuit, along with relocated teams in Chicago and Cleveland. It was again suggested Loftus was to move into Chicago and this time Comiskey would take Cleveland, and not St. Louis.
Loftus was the only representative of the Western League to attend the September 17th meeting of the American Association. He sat quietly and listened, and before the end of the first day’s meeting, he informed the Association the Western League would not be joining their new organization and left it at that. This effectively killed the chances of a revived American Association for the 1900 season.
The suggestion the Cincinnati Commercial Tribune made on July 28 that the NL League would address the rise of the rival Association by creating its own rival league by working with the Western League magnates was true. In 1900 both the American League and the National League would have eight teams, the National League being down from 12 the year before. And key was Hart of the Chicago National League permitting a team in Chicago and Robison of the Cleveland-St. Louis clubs officially abandoning Cleveland as NL territory, opening those major league cities to the soon-to-be renamed American League.
The Western League formally changed its name at an October 11, 1899, meeting in Chicago. The AL would still be a minor league in 1900, but it was accomplishing a lot of what it set out to do when they started planning their move in January and February of 1899. Loftus was able to skillfully deal with Robison and the St. Louis Browns sale, ultimately forcing the NL’s hand and freeing up Cleveland for the AL in 1900. Loftus was also instrumental in getting Comiskey and the AL into Chicago.
Hart had been courting Loftus for the prior two years to become manager of the Orphans, since Anson’s departure after the 1897 season. The two men had known each other just a little over a decade, going back to 1888 and the forming of the reconstituted Western Association, when Loftus managed the St. Louis Whites and Hart the Milwaukee Brewers. The following year the two men managed against each other in the NL, Loftus with Cleveland and Hart with Boston. Hart said, “Loftus I consider the best manager in the league, banning none.” Chicago sportswriters agreed, saying Loftus was “the shrewdest man in the game.” Hart saw his opportunity to finally sign Loftus in November 1899.
Hart feared the American Association moving into Chicago more than he did the Western League. The Western League was still governed by the baseball laws established in the National Agreement. The American Association was not. And Anson was still wildly popular in Chicago and was said to be backed by millionaires who already had land for a new ballpark.
Both the Western League and American Association had announced their intention to move into Chicago for the 1900 season. Hart preferred Comiskey and the Western League in his territory competing against his Orphans for fan and fare over Anson and the Association. Hart and Comiskey were friends and Comiskey would presumably be less ruthless toward him than Anson, who did not see eye to eye with Hart. Comiskey told Hart, Brush, and the other NL magnates, “Let us start this American League of ours and we’ll put the American association (sic) beneath the daisies before spring comes around.”
Hart agreed to allow Comiskey and the AL into Chicago if Loftus would manage the Orphans. Hart had wanted Loftus and preferred the Western League over the Association in Chicago, and Comiskey and Loftus relished competing against each other with different teams in the same city, like they did in 1888 when they both managed teams for Von Der Ahe in St. Louis.
Hart met with Loftus, Comiskey, and Johnson at a Western League meeting in Chicago on November 18, 1899. Loftus told Hart he would manage his Orphans if he had full control of the team and players and his friend “Commy” be allowed to move his St. Paul team to Chicago. Hart told the triumvirate it was alright to place a ball club in Chicago and to go ahead and make the announcement, pre-empting the Association.
The November 29, 1899, Chicago Daily Tribune announced to the baseball world, “Loftus Succeeds Burns.” “Loftus has been one of the most successful baseball managers in the business since the game started. His success has been uniform wherever he had a club.” The Tribune also made mention in the middle of the article that, “Another interesting announcement was made when President Ban B. Johnson (sic) of the American league confirmed the report that Comiskey would manage a Chicago American league club, a rival of the National league organization.”
The AL and Comiskey finally had Chicago, Hart finally had Tom Loftus, and Loftus and Comiskey got to manage against each other in arguably the best baseball city in the world. Now all the two leagues needed to do was play well together and sign a new national agreement without getting into a war.
By late winter of 1899-1900 things were coming together for the AL. Tom Loftus and Ban Johnson were able to get the Columbus team, which merged with the failing Grand Rapids team and moved into Cleveland for the 1900 season under new local ownership. Comiskey was able to move into Chicago as promised, despite Hart’s efforts to renege on his word in early 1900.
In January 1900, some NL magnates were expressing their dislike for the idea of allowing the AL into major league cities, criticizing the Chicago deal. Feeling the pressure, Hart joined in, saying he never consented to allow the AL into Chicago. Comiskey fought back in early March. “If we were good enough to get permission to run here when the Anson crowd and the American Association threatened President Hart’s territory,” he said, “we are good enough now.” Comiskey went on to say, “Certainly, we got it [Hart’s permission]. Didn’t he come to our meeting at the Great Northern and assure Johnson it was all right for us to place a club here and to go ahead and make the announcement? It would be absurd for us to invent any such a story.”
Loftus stepped in, bringing all parties together to mediate a resolution. The Indianapolis News reported, “A Meeting Held and a League War May be Averted. A telegram received this morning Indicated that an agreement had been reached between President Johnson and Charley Comiskey, of the American League, and James A. Hart, of the Chicago club of the National League, by which the American League can place a club in Chicago this season. … It is a fact that, through the friendly offices of Tom Loftus, the three men were brought together Tuesday, and were in conference for over two hours. The report is that both sides made concessions.”
Once the question of Chicago was finally put to rest on March 14, the AL had two of its four major hurdles cleared. Besides placing teams in Cleveland and Chicago, they were able to change their name and brand from the regionalized Western League to the nationwide American League.
The last two hurdles would have to be addressed after the first season as the AL in 1900 was over. First, they had to be declared a major league, which required some additional reorganization. That happened on January 28, 1901, with expansion occurring in 1901 and 1902, during the “baseball wars” that lead to the final hurdles to peaceful coexistence, the combining of rules, agreement on schedules and the creation of a new national agreement. Loftus managed the Chicago NL club for the 1900 and 1901 seasons. It became immediately clear Hart was not going to give Loftus the control of the club as he had promised. It also became clear Loftus was still connected to the AL when Loftus failed to extend his contract with Hart and bought into the ownership of the Washington Senators of the AL in the fall of 1901. Kansas City owner Jim Manning, a stalwart of the Western League, moved his club to Washington as part of the expansion into additional major league cities for the 1901 season. Manning, with Johnson’s support, decided to sell his interest in the Washington club after its inaugural 1901 season to Loftus and Fred Postal of Detroit. Loftus was immediately announced as the new Washington manager for the 1902 season.
In December 1902, the news out of the AL related to placing a team into New York City. And the man chosen by the league magnates to take on the job of managing the New York Highlanders was Tom Loftus. The AL was planning on moving the Baltimore Orioles club, which joined the League in 1901, to New York for the 1903 season. The move would satisfy two needs. First, it brought a ready-made team, a familiar Eastern team, into the largest baseball market in the world. Second, it removed any potential negative effects on the Washington club of having a nearby franchise competing for fans and fare.
Loftus relished the chance to manage a ball club in New York City. His co-owner in the Washington Senators was not as thrilled. When Loftus insisted he was taking the New York club, Postal threatened to sell or move his club out of Washington if he lost Loftus as club manager.
Loftus had built a solid reputation as a player’s coach and manager over his twenty-five-year professional baseball career. Although his managerial won-loss record in the Major Leagues is not impressive at 454-580, Loftus’s genius in the early days of building up the national game was in providing organizational structure and discipline on and off the field that led to financial success. As a manager, Loftus was a team coach first, a field manager second, and not uncommon in the day, the general manager of the club responsible for overall operations. Loftus was a successful businessman outside of baseball and his skill was in financially stabilizing clubs and selecting quality players who in turn bring fans into the ballpark, which provides financial capital to make the whole operation economically viable. Baseball, while a game, was a business at the major league level, and Loftus was recognized as a shrewd baseball businessman. And Loftus wanted New York.
Postal dug in. Loftus and Johnson desired to keep the peace and recognized it would not be hard to find a manager for New York. So, they gave in to Postal’s demand and Loftus stayed in Washington for the 1903 season. New York would go on to be managed over its first six seasons in the American League by one of Loftus’s former players on the Chicago Orphans, Hall of Famer Clark Griffith.
By the end of the AL’s second MLB season in 1902, it became clear to both leagues that the baseball war needed to end so all could prosper, or most would fail financially. A peace agreement came at a joint American-National League conference in Cincinnati on January 10, 1903.
The terms called for both leagues to agree to clauses related to player contractual issues, such as honoring the player reserve rule, and a prohibition on two clubs in the same city consolidating players. The agreement also called for the creation of a Rules Committee and a Schedule Committee to work out the particulars for peaceful coexistence. The clauses of the peace agreement and the resulting work of the Rules and Schedule Committees would be used to formulate a new national agreement, paving the way toward long-term peace within major league baseball.
On January 30, 1903, President Ban Johnson appointed Loftus, Benjamin Shibe of Philadelphia, and John Bruce of St. Louis to the joint American-National League Rules and Schedule Committees. President Harry Pulliam of the National League appointed Hart, Barney Dreyfuss of Pittsburgh, and Charles Ebbets of Brooklyn to the Schedule Committee. Pulliam also appointed Hart, Julius Fleischmann of Cincinnati, and Ned Hanlon of Brooklyn to the Rules Committee. The meeting of the committees was the next step and direct result of the peace treaty negotiated by the two leagues in Cincinnati twenty days earlier.
The day Johnson appointed Loftus to the Rules and Schedule Committees, Loftus was in conference with Charles Comiskey in Dubuque. Loftus was still vying for the New York club. And there were rules up for debate as the leagues standardized the game with a uniform baseball code.
Baseball’s rules had varied between leagues through the years since the establishment of the Knickerbocker Rules in 1845. Rules were different among the NL, the AL, and the different minor-league organizations that wished to participate in a new national agreement in 1903. Rules up for consideration included a designated hitter rule, establishing a standard height for the pitcher’s mound, requiring the first and third base foul lines to be level, determining whether to make foul balls strikes, and whether to ban baseball mitts with pockets or webbing used to scoop the ball “as one would scoop a butterfly.” Over time, the pitcher’s mound continued to get higher, and no two fields had it at the same height. Some grounds keepers were also building up the foul lines along first and third base so bunts rolling foul would be pushed fair.
The joint Rules Committee did not adopt a designated hitter rule in 1903. It would be another 70 years before the AL would adopt the DH. Loftus was able to get a new section added to Rule No. 1 to address his two biggest issues going into the meeting. Section 2 states: “The pitcher’s box shall be no more than fifteen inches higher than the base lines and home plate. The base lines and home plate shall be perfectly level, and the slope from the pitcher’s box toward the base lines and home plate shall be gradual.”
The Rules Committee voted unanimously to adopt the foul strike rule used by the NL. This instituted the rule throughout baseball that a foul ball is called a strike if it is your first or second strike. In the AL, you could foul off any number of pitches and not have a strike against you. The American League went into the Rules meeting against the foul strike rule, but Loftus acquiesced when it was agreed to amend the balk ball rule to include the following definition, “A balk shall constitute any delivery of the ball to the batsman by the pitcher while either foot of the pitcher is back of the pitcher’s plate.” The joint Rules Committee was able to agree to a uniform code of baseball rules. The following day, the Schedule Committee met and developed a schedule that met Hart’s one requirement, namely that all leagues must share the same opening day of the season.
The only thing left to do after the Rules and Schedule Committees met was to finalize the draft of the new National Agreement of 1903 and have the NL, AL, and the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues (NAPBL) Boards of Directors adopt and sign the new agreement. The two major leagues acted quickly. The NAPBL took the bulk of the 1903 season to agree to adopt the new agreement, finally signing it on September 11, 1903, in Cincinnati.
Loftus had started 1903 as Johnson’s pick to lead the new AL club in New York, but Loftus agreed to stay in Washington to stop Postal from selling or moving the club. Then Postal sold his 52% interest in the club on August 4, 1903, to the minor shareholders. Vice President Charles Jacobsen became the new president of Washington, while Loftus retained his 25% interest in the club and position as manager.
Both Postal and Loftus were tiring of the rapid changes occurring in baseball that continued to give team owners and managers less control over their assets and the league office more. Loftus tried to make a go of it with the new Washington executive leadership, but when the club was sold to locals Thomas Noyes and William J. Dwyer in March 1904, Loftus decided to sell his interest in the club and retire from major league baseball before the start of the season.
Loftus would contemplate a return that fall. During one of Loftus and Comiskey’s famous hunting-fishing trips into Northern Wisconsin with Johnson, sportswriter Jack Tanner, and others in October, it was stated that a place in the league in the 1905 season had been identified for Loftus, and all he needed to do was decide if he wished to come out of retirement.
However, he decided to stay engaged only in local baseball, as he re-engaged in his Dubuque businesses. In 1908, Loftus was elected the president of the Illinois-Indiana-Iowa (Three-I) League in a successful effort to prevent that minor league from going under.
In March 1910, Comiskey and his Chicago White Sox were at spring training in California preparing for the 1910 season when Comiskey received word from Loftus’s doctor in Dubuque stating that Loftus, who had been battling throat cancer, was on death’s door. Comiskey immediately left his team for Dubuque and his best friend’s bedside. Comiskey and his wife spent two days with Loftus and his wife before Comiskey had to return to California to rejoin his White Sox. Comiskey would return to Dubuque to visit Loftus again in early April, as did Ted Sullivan, the man who first brought Loftus and Comiskey together in Dubuque in 1879. Former Chicago Inter Ocean sports editor Lou Housemann also came to Dubuque to see Loftus one last time.
On April 17, headlines around the nation announced the passing of “one of the great builders-up of our National Game.” The Chicago Daily Tribune announced to a mournful baseball world, “Tom Loftus Dies in Dubuque.” The “Great Friend of Comiskey” was 54 years old.
Funeral services for Loftus were held in Dubuque on April 19, 1910, at St. Raphael’s Cathedral. Honorary pall bearers included Comiskey, Johnson, Sullivan, James “Tip” O’Neil, and Chicago baseball writer Hugh E. Keough. Future United States Senator and local newspaper editor Richard Louis Murphy served as one of three ushers at the Cathedral. The Reverend M. H. Carey officiated the funeral and the graveside absolution. Thomas Joseph Loftus was laid to rest in Mt. Olivet Catholic Cemetery in Key West, Iowa.
Loftus left behind a legacy of deep personal friendships and mutual respect for the men who built major league baseball in its first 27 years. Highlighting his role in the baseball wars between 1899 and 1903 and the rise of the American League sheds long overdue light on the American League’s forgotten founding father.
Copyright – 2020 – The Lens of History – John T. Pregler. This story cannot be published, broadcast, rewritten or distributed without prior authorization from the author, The Lens of History, or SABR.