In the 1901 baseball season, for the first time in a decade, there were two major leagues. Two years were to pass before they learned to coexist peacefully. In the meantime, it was all-out war -- over ticket sales, over player contracts, and over the hearts and minds of the fans.
The American League opened for business in Milwaukee, Cleveland, Washington, Baltimore, Detroit, Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago, the latter three franchises located on prime National League turf.
Fortunately for the upstarts, the National League was bitterly divided into two factions, one led by New York's Andrew Freedman and another by Chicagoan Al Spalding. In 1901, they couldn't even get together to elect a president, much less mount an effective defense against the new league.
Refusing to respect National League contracts, Ban Johnson and the American League owners ruthlessly raided National League rosters. More than 100 players, dissatisfied with the low salaries and dictatorial policies of 1890s National League management, gladly jumped at the chance to change leagues. Among the biggest names were John McGraw, Cy Young, Clark Griffith, Hugh Duffy, and Jimmy Collins.
Stars such as these lent legitimacy to the American League, and fans came out in droves to see ex-Cardinal Cy Young win 33 games for Boston with a 1.63 ERA, as well as ex-Cub Clark Griffith, who crossed town to go 24-7 for the Chicago White Sox.
But the brightest star of all was second baseman Napoleon Lajoie of Connie Mack's Philadelphia Athletics. A good player but no superstar in five seasons with the Phillies, Lajoie led the American League in nearly every offensive category in 1901, including the Triple Crown stats. He batted .426 (the highest mark in the 20th century), drove in 125 runs, and hit 14 home runs; he slugged .643.
Though Lajoie was playing under essentially expansion conditions and without the foul-strike rule (which was not implemented by the American League until 1903), his batting average was still 86 points higher than runner-up Mike Donlin's .340. Lajoie's 145 runs scored are among the most in history, but were surpassed only once between 1900 and 1920.
The A's won their attendance war with the Phillies, but in spite of Lajoie's heroics, finished 9 games back of a running White Sox club that stole 280 bases, led the league in runs and ERA, and finished 83-53, 4 games ahead of Boston.
For the first time in the National League, foul balls were counted as strikes (before the count reached two strikes), and offense suffered across the board. Total runs dropped by almost 800. The league batting average fell from .279 to .267. Even stolen bases were affected, as at-bats were shortened and strikeout totals skyrocketed.
A relatively intact Pittsburgh Pirates team won that city's first-ever pennant in 20 years of major league status, compiling a 90-49 record on the strength of pitchers Jack Chesbro, who finished 21-10; Deacon Phillippe, who went 22-12; and three-time 20-game winner Jesse Tannehill, who won the ERA title at 2.18.
The Pirates' attack consisted of outfield duo Ginger Beaumont and Fred Clarke, both of whom scored well over 100 runs and batted over .320, and of course Honus Wagner. Wagner stole a league-high 49 bases, batted .353, and drove in 126 runs.
Brooklyn's Jimmy Sheckard slugged .534 to lead the league, hammering 19 triples and 11 homers. In New York, 20-year-old rookie Christy Mathewson went 20-17 with a 2.41 ERA, the first of his 13 20-win seasons.
Another future star, Wahoo Sam Crawford, played his first full season and hit .330 with a league-leading 16 home runs. And 32-year-old Jesse Burkett, an 1890s legend who twice hit .400, won his final batting title at .376 for fourth-place St. Louis.
Continue to the next page for details on some of the baseball happenings that made headlines in 1901.
To learn more about baseball, see:
- 1902 Baseball Season
- Baseball History
- How Baseball Works
- How the Baseball Hall of Fame Works
- How Minor League Baseball Teams Work
- Babe Ruth