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Ban Johnson

Ban Johnson

The founder of the American League, Ban Johnson helped bring the national pastime to a new level of prosperity during the first two decades of the 20th century. A true visionary who possessed the temerity to challenge baseball's established doctrines, Johnson was endowed with the determination, shrewd business acumen, rigorous standards, and lively imagination that made the league a success.

The founder of the American League, Ban Johnson helped bring the national pastime to a new level of prosperity during the first two decades of the 20th century. A true visionary who possessed the temerity to challenge baseball's established doctrines, Johnson was endowed with the determination, shrewd business acumen, rigorous standards, and lively imagination that made the league a success.

Yet, it was also Johnson's iron will and dictorial nature that ultimately led to his downfall. Born in Norwalk, Ohio on January 5, 1864, Byron Bancroft Johnson studied law and played baseball at Marietta College in Ohio. After failing to earn his degree, Johnson became sports editor for the Cincinnati Commercial-Gazette. While serving in that capacity, Johnson befriended Charles Comiskey, who was managing the National League's Cincinnati Reds at the time. Following the firing of Comiskey as Reds manager at the conclusion of the 1894 season, the two men took over the faltering Western League, with Johnson being appointed as the minor league's president.

Johnson's first order of business as new league president was to create a more orderly environment than the one that existed in the major leagues during the late 1800s. Johnson frowned upon the National League's rough-and-tumble style of play and rowdy atmosphere, which he felt was driving away families and women. To make the game more friendly to both factions, he gave his umpires unqualified support and displayed little tolerance for players or managers who failed to give them their due respect. Johnson also fined and suspended players who used foul language on the field. Before long, the Western League gained recognition as the most efficiently-run organization in all of baseball. Johnson's drive and ambition, coupled with his distaste for the National League, filled him with even higher aspirations, though. When the National League contracted from 12 to eight teams in 1900, Johnson saw an opportunity to challenge the senior circuit for preeminence in the baseball world.

He renamed his organization the American League, declared it to be a major league, began expanding into eastern territories abandoned by the N.L., and proceded to raid teams in the senior circuit of many of their top players by offering them much higher salaries. When the new league opened in 1901, 111 of its 185 players had National League experience. And Johnson achieved his ultimate goal within a just a few short years, establishing the junior circuit as the stronger of the two leagues. Johnson ruled the American League with an iron hand, becoming involved in every aspect of its operation. He located millionaires to bankroll his teams, interpreted rules, levied fines and suspensions on players and managers who failed to adhere to his rules, appointed managers, arranged trades, arranged schedules to spread travel costs equitably, and even had ownership interests in certain teams at different points during his administration. Perhaps Johnson's greatest contribution was his insistence that umpires be respected as symbol's of baseball's integrity.

Johnson later said, "My determination was to pattern baseball in this new league along the lines of scholastic contests, to make ability and brains and clean, honorable play, not the swinging of clenched fists, coarse oaths, riots, or assaults on the umpires, decide the issue."

Viewed very much as baseball's czar during his administration, Johnson used his influence to eliminate men he didn't like from the American League. When Harry Frazee bought the Boston Red Sox in 1917, Johnson tried to drive him out almost immediately since Frazee had not been hand-picked by him. Johnson also drove Baltimore manager John McGraw back to the National League, since he detested McGraw's rambunctious nature and rowdy style of play.

Johnson's dictatorial ways eventually worked against him, causing him to alienate many of the league's owners. Old friend Charles Comiskey once said, "Ban Johnson IS the American League!" But when his Chicago White Sox lost pitcher Jack Quinn to the Yankees on a Johnson ruling, Comiskey declared, "I made you, and by God I'll break you!"

The beginning of the end for Johnson as a baseball power took place when the Black Sox scandal prompted the hiring of Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis as Commissioner of Baseball. The equally egocentric Landis agreed to accept the appointment only if he was granted unlimited power over the game. Clashes between Johnson and Landis were inevitable, with both men taking every possible opportunity to criticize the other publicly.

Longtime umpire Bill Klem observed, "The hiring of Landis was the thing that turned Johnson into a screaming harridan and had Ban been just a little less arrogant he might have saved himself the crushing burden of dealing with the equally arrogant Landis."

The final nail in Johnson's coffin came when he criticized Landis for granting Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker an amnesty after evidence surfaced that they had fixed a game in 1919. Landis demanded that the A.L. choose between him and Johnson, and the league owners subsequently reduced Johnson's powers before finally persuading him to resign on October 17, 1927. Johnson passed away on March 28, 1931, six years before he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1937. Following Johnson's passing, Earl Obenshain wrote in The Sporting News, "The voice of the lion is stilled. They say the lion was getting old, that his roar had become a mumble. It may be so. But never, maybe, will be heard again such a voice. The roar that struck terror to evil doers, in high estate or low, and thrilled to new encouragement those who had ideals and the vision Ban Johnson had."

Johnson's longtime enemy, John McGraw, called his adversary "a great fighter and organizer" and said the American League was "a monument to his genius."

Will Harridge, who succeeded Johnson as American League president in 1931, summed up Johnson's legacy by saying, "He was the most brilliant man the game has ever known. He was more responsible for making baseball the national game than anyone in the history of the sport."

By Bob_Cohen

 

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Tagged:
1937 Hall of Fame, American League President, Hall of Fame, National Commission, Western League
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