Oliver Perry (OP) Caylor of The New York Herald came to a conclusion in August of 1892 that many have shared before and since: baseball‘s best days were behind it.
Earlier, National League President Nick Young had declared 1892—featuring an expanded twelve team circuit after the collapse of the American Association and just weeks into the only scheduled split-season in major league history—an unqualified success.
But now, into what Caylor called “A Dog Days Depression,” reality had set in.
“Much has been said since the League’s second championship season opened (the second half began July 15) about the renewed interest which was alleged to have sprung up and was keeping pace with the new season. It has taken no more than a month to prove that this so-called revival was an illusion.”
Caylor noted that there was brief uptick in attendance in games played in Eastern cities during the first three weeks of the second half:
“(B)ut before the teams started west the same old rut of passing indifference seemed to be struck. And nowhere in the west thus far has there been a sign of a promising revival.”
Caylor pointed to two cities as evidence of baseball’s bleak state;
“In Chicago, the baseball slump is what the crank would call disgusting. People of that progressive center have use for nothing but the best, and Uncle (Cap) Anson this year has not succeeded in giving them such an article in baseball. The great general has done the best possible, handicapped as he was in the beginning of the season by the poor allotment of players from the Indianapolis (Hoosiers, the defunct American Association franchise) consolidation pool.”
Caylor blamed most of Anson’s problems on a weak middle infield:
“(Jimmy) Cooney, his shortstop, turned out a sudden complete failure and he has never been able to successfully fill (Fred) Pfeffer’s vacant shoes on the nine. Any team which is weak at short field and second base is bound to be weak all over, and that is the condition of the Chicagos.
“The old man has been experimenting on new material with more or less success and less success than more. But by the time he gets his men into what he is pleased to consider championship form, the season will be so far spent that he will have no chance to arouse the chilled pride of the army of Chicago baseball ‘rooters.’”
Caylor said Anson had some optimism for “next season.”
“Maybe the Chicago club can well afford to waste this year whipping together a winning team for 1893. For next year, the World’s Fair (The World Columbian Exhibition) should be bring a small fortune to the treasury of the Chicago club if they can get a winning team together by that time. Yet there are those who will argue that the World’s Fair is bound to be a financial injury than a benefit to the Chicago club under any circumstance, and the argument is based upon baseball experience in Philadelphia during the year of the Centennial (1876).”
Caylor said even, A. G. Spalding, former White Stockings president, felt the fair “will be a financial burden” on the team.
“(T)hat for every visiting stranger who will be attracted to the ball grounds three resident patrons will be kept away by the unusual demand upon their time by excessive business.”
But Caylor said, his former home was in even more distress than Chicago:
“Cincinnati, the best-paying city of the circuit during the first half of the year, has become financially alarming.”
Cincinnati had suffered as a result of the National League’s cost cutting measure agreed upon in late June, which resulted in rosters being reduced from 15 to 13 players and across-the-board pay cuts of 30-40 percent for all players. The Reds best pitcher, Tony Mullane, quit as a result of the cuts.
“The sorry slump in baseball interest at Cincinnati is another exemplification of that old moral taught by the fable of the ‘Hen Which Laid the Golden Egg.’ I know it is modern usage to speak of the golden egg producer as a goose, but my Latin book called it a hen. As applied to the Cincinnati case it makes little difference whether we call it a hen or a goose…The Cincinnati club’s hen was laying golden eggs regularly through the first season. The newspapers put the club down as a sure winner financially. Then came the greed mentioned in the fable. The officials thought they saw a way to squeeze the old hen into more active and valuable work, and on the squeezing they killed her.”
As a result of the pay cuts:
“Cincinnati patrons became disgusted. For the sake of saving a few thousand dollars in salaries while working at a profit, this club had thrown away its chances to win the second championship. Nobody who understands human nature need wonder the result.”
Cleveland, home of the second half champion Spiders, was the only town where Caylor said the “national game is appreciated.” But even that, he said was temporary and favorable financial conditions were “a question of considerable doubt.”
The 1892 season was a disaster for Chicago—on and off the field—they finished 70-76, in seventh place, and attendance dropped by more than 72,000 from the previous season.
While Cincinnati led the National League in attendance, the club lost money.
But, contrary to Caylor’s gloomy outlook, the league—after dropping the spilt-season format—bounced back well in 1893.
In Chicago, where Anson put an even worse product on the field—the Colts were 56-71—predictions that the Columbian Exhibition would destroy attendance were wrong. Aided by the opening of a new ballpark in May, the club drew the fourth-largest attendance in the league—223,500—more than doubling their 1892 numbers.
Cincinnati’s attendance dropped by just 2200 fans despite a disappointing season where the team hovered near .500 all year and finished sixth.
National league attendance increased by nearly half a million from 1892 to 1893.
While baseball was not on a long-term decline, Tony Mullane was.
He returned to the Reds in 1893, but the 34-year-old was never the same–259-187 with a career ERA below 3.00 before his departure, he was 25-33 with a 5.74 ERA after.