A Brief History of Professional Baseball’s Major Leagues: Part One

Bless You Boys

With a new season ahead of us, it seemed like a good time to look back at the origins of the game as an organized sport. Typically we tell the story of the game in terms of specific players and teams, but the organizing structures, the clubs and leagues of pro baseball’s early years, formed a sort of scaffolding on which the professional game would be built

The National Association of Base Ball Players was founded in 1857 to foster the game as an amateur sport and to define a common set of rules for the game. Some of the more serious and well financed clubs wanted to take the game to a professional level, so they formed the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players in 1871. The Association, as it was often called, had a membership fee of $10 per club.

The National Association of Professional Base Ball Players (NA for short) was formed and operated from 1871-1875. It is believed to be the first professional sports league in North America, although Major League Baseball does not recognize it as a major league. The organization’s members were clubs, and not players as the title may suggest.

The Association was off to a rocky start due to domination by one club; the Boston Red Stockings, as well as interference by gamblers, poaching of players, inconsistent pay, and lack of any uniform schedule. Some clubs played in markets too small to support a professional franchise, so teams would come and go, frequently folding. A core group of clubs in the largest cities then formed the National league.

The National League began play in 1876 with eight charter franchises in Chicago, Boston, St Louis, Philadelphia, New York, Brooklyn, Cincinnati, and Louisville. The first six of these were members of the NAPBBP, while the latter two were independent clubs. They played a uniform schedule of 66 games, with Chicago winning a league-high 52 games.

After five seasons, only two of those original franchises — Boston and Chicago — were still in operation, although the league has survived to the present. After the inaugural season, the Mutuals of New York and the Philadelphia Athletics, teams located in the league’s two biggest markets, were expelled because they refused to travel to western cities to fulfill their schedule obligations. Six teams played the league’s schedule in 1877 and 1878.

Following the season in 1877, the Louisville Grays, St Louis Brown stockings, and Hartford Dark Blues were removed from the league due to a gambling scandal involving game fixing. The Milwaukee Grays, Indianapolis Blues and a club from Providence were promoted from smaller independent leagues to the National league. All three of those replacement franchises lasted just one season, folding after the 1878 campaign.

After the 1880 season, the Cincinnati Red Stockings were expelled because they played games on Sundays and sold alcoholic beverages at games, in violation of league rules. They would be replaced by a Detroit franchise the following season.

The two remaining franchises, the Chicago White Stockings (now the Cubs) and the Boston Red Stockings (later the Boston Beaneaters, Boston Braves and finally the Atlanta Braves) are still playing in the National League today. Their roots can be traced back to the National Association. There is some irony in the fact that teams that began in the national league as the Chicago White Stockings and Boston Red Stockings are the two oldest major league baseball franchises; the Cubs being the oldest to remain in one city.

Fifteen franchises would join the National League over the next several seasons, but just two of them would remain. The New York Gothams, later named the Giants, and the Philadelphia Quakers, who would become the Phillies, joined the circuit in 1883.

Quite often, a franchise would fail and another would be promoted from a smaller league, or a former franchise host city would take its place. The new teams had new franchise owners rather than franchise rights and player contracts being sold. The league managed to keep at least eight teams on board every season from 1879 through 1891.

Here are the National League Franchises from 1876 to 1889

National League Franchises, the early days

TEAM Name Second City Third City
TEAM Name Second City Third City
Chicago White Stockings, 1876 Colts 1880
Orphans 1898
Cubs 1903
Boston Red Stockings 1876 Beaneaters 1883
Doves 1907
Rustlers 1911
Braves 1912, 1941 Milwaukee 1953 Atlanta 1966
Bees 1936- 1940
New York Mutuals 1876 Expelled 1876
Philadelphia Athletics 1876 Expelled 1876
Cincinnati Reds 1876 Expelled 1880
Hartford Dark Blues 1876 Hartfords of Brooklyn 1877 Folded
Louisville Grays 1876-1877 Folded
St Louis Brown Stockings 1876- 1877 Folded
Providence Grays 1878 Folded
Indianapolis Blues 1878 Folded
Milwaukee Grays 1878 Folded
Cleveland Blues 1879- 1884 Folded
Syracuse Stars 1879 Folded
Troy Trojans 1879- 1882 Folded
Buffalo Bisons 1879- 1885 Bought by /Detroit
Worcster Ruby Legs 1880- 1882 Folded
Detroit Wolverines 1881- 1888 Folded
New York Gothams 1883 Giants 1885 San Francisco 1958
Philadelphia Quakers 1883 Phillies 1890
St Louis Maroons 1884- 1886 Folded
Kansas City Cowboys 1886 Folded
Washington Nationals 1886- 1889 Folded
Indianapolis Hoosiers 1887- 1889 Folded
Current franchises in bold

23 franchises, excluding those that jumped from the American Association. played in the National League from 1876 to 1900, Just four of them were playing in the league by 1901. Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia Phillies, and New York Giants would join teams who came from the American Association.

The Detroit Wolverines played in the National League from 1881 through 1888. Owner Frederick Kimball Stearns was not afraid to spend money to acquire players. After the 1885 season, he acquired the Buffalo Bisons franchise in order to get their star players and the Buffalo franchise was shut down. The Detroit club won the pennant in 1887 with a record of 79-45, and defeated the St Louis Browns of the American Association 10 games to 5 in a best of 15 game postseason series.

The American Association began play in 1882 with six teams. The St Louis Brown Stockings (now the Cardinals), Cincinnati Red Stockings (now the Reds), Pittsburgh Alleghenys (now the Pirates), Louisville Grays, Baltimore Orioles, and Philadelphia Athletics were the charter franchises. All of those clubs continued to play professional baseball through at least 1890, with five of them playing until the turn of the century.

Unlike the more puritanical minded National League, the American Association had no qualms about playing games on Sundays nor selling alcohol at games, and were in fact referred to as “The Beer and Whiskey League.” They also sold tickets for just 25 cents while most National League clubs were charging twice as much.

Ladies were generally discouraged from attending baseball games due to the raucous crowds and foul language, particularly with the introduction of alcohol to the bill of fare. In 1883, American association owners decided to make Thursday a ladies’ day to attract women to the ball park.

The Brooklyn Atlantics, who would eventually become the Dodgers, joined the American Association in 1884, and the Washington Statesmen, who would become the Senators, joined in 1891. A dozen other franchises would come and go during the Association’s ten-year history. Clubs would often be located in cities where the National League had teams that did not take root.

Here are the franchises of the American Association


Pittsburgh Alleghenys 1882- 1890 Pirates 1891 NL 1887
St Louis Brown Stockings 1882 Browns 1893- 1891 NL 1892
Perfectos 1892- 1898
Cardinals 1900- Present
Cincinnati Red Stockings 1882- 1889 RedLegs 1954- 1958 NL 1890
Reds 1890- present
Philadelphia Athletics 1882- 1890 Folded
Baltimore Orioles 1882- 1899 NL 1892- 1899 Folded
Louisville Eclipse 1882- 1884 Colonels 1885- 1899 NL 1892- 1899 Folded
New York Metropolitains 1883- 1887 Folded
Brooklyn Atlantics 1883 Grays 1885- 1887 NL 1890
Bridegrooms 1888- 1898
Superba 1899- 1913
Robins 1914- 1931
Dodgers 1932- present Los Angeles 1958
Columbus Buckeyes 1883- 1884 Folded
Toledo Blue Stockings 1884 Folded
Richmond Virginians 1884 Folded
Indianapolis Hoosiers 1884 Folded
Washington Nationals 1884 Folded
Cleveland Blues 1879- 1884 Folded
Cleveland Blues 1887- 1888 Spiders 1889- 1899 NL 1889- 1899 Folded
Washington Statesmen 1891 Senators 1892- 1899 NL 1892- 1899 Folded
Kansas City Cowboys 1888- 1889 Folded
Columbus Solons 1889- 1891 Folded
Brooklyn Gladiators 1890 Folded
Toledo Maumees 1890 Folded
Rochester Broncos 1890 Folded
Syracuse Stars 1890 Folded
Cincinnati Kelly’s Killers 1891 Milwaukee Brewers mid 1891 Folded
Current franchises in bold

The National League agreed to have its champion play the winner of the American Association in a postseason series from 1884 through 1890 that would be from three to fifteen games. This was a precursor to the modern day World Series. National League teams won all but one of these series.


While the American Association was able to maintain a core group of franchises each season, they were hit by defections of clubs to the rival National League. Pittsburgh defected in 1887, and the Cleveland Spiders took the place of the Detroit franchise in 1889. A year later the Brooklyn and Cincinnati clubs would defect. The National League was, of course, willing to take on the most successful franchises from its rival league.

The Great Merger was more of a slow migration than a single transaction. To finish off the Association, four clubs from the American Association agreed to merge with the rival National League. The uninvited clubs were bought out. The bigger and stronger National League began play with 12 teams for the 1892 season, and those 12 would continue playing through 1899. Eight of the 12 clubs traced their origins to the American Association, while four clubs began play in the National League. The revamped league allowed local teams to set ticket prices, alcohol sale policies, and play on Sundays.

After the 1899 season, the National League dropped the Baltimore Orioles, Cleveland Spiders, Louisville Colonels and Washington Senators, all former American Association franchises, citing poor attendance and inferior play. In fact, the Baltimore and Cleveland franchises in particular were among the most successful teams on the field to that point.

This left the National League with eight teams at the turn of the century.

Boston Beaneaters (Braves)

Chicago Orphans (Cubs)

New York Giants

Philadelphia Phillies

Brooklyn Superbas (Dodgers) (AA)

Cincinnati Reds (AA)

Pittsburgh Pirates (AA)

St Louis Cardinals (AA)

Four of the eight National league teams operating in 1900 had begun play in the American Association, as indicated. The Brooklyn Superbas isn’t a typo but rather a reference to a popular vaudeville show of the time. All of those eight franchises continue in operation today, although some have relocated to other cities. Each of the eight remaining clubs has been continuously in operation since at least 1884 and remained in the same city at least through 1953, when the Braves moved to Milwaukee. That’s a stretch of 70 seasons without any franchises folding or relocating.

The Players’ League began operating in 1891, resulting in many player defections, rising salaries, and yet more competition for the American Association. Although the league was in operation for just one season, the damage had been done, and the Association wrapped up operations after the 1891 season.

The Western League was operating as a minor league organization, sputtering along since 1885 until a meeting was held in Detroit on November 20, 1893. Ban Johnson was elected president, a position he would hold for 35 years. The League began play in April 1894 with the Detroit Tigers and teams in Grand Rapids, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, St Paul and Toledo. The Toledo and Grand Rapids teams would be replaced by Omaha and Columbus.

Johnson made no secret of his desire to expand the league and bring in the best players. The abandonment of the American Association and some of its franchises left an opening. Prior to the 1900 season, the Western League changed it’s name to the American League.


The American League declared itself a major league operation in 1901 with eight franchises. Franchises located in smaller markets were replaced with big city clubs, including cities where the National league had abandoned.

The American League franchises in 1901 were:


Chicago White Sox 1901- present
Detroit Tigers 1901- present
Boston Americans 1901- 1907 Red Sox 1908- present
Cleveland Blues 1901 Bronchos 1902
Naps 1903- 1914
Indians 1915- 2021
Guardians 2022- present
Philadelphia Athletics 1901- 1954 Kansas City 1955- 1967 Oakland 1968- present
Washington Senators 1901- 1960 Minnesota Twins 1961
Milwaukee Brewers 1901 St Louis Browns 1902- 1953 Baltimore Orioles 1954- present
Baltimore Orioles 1901- 1902 Folded New York Highlanders 1902- 1912
Yankees 1913- present

Each of these teams began their history in the Western league or the American league. Any team names that you see in the American league since 1901 are not traced back to franchises by the same name in the 1800’s National league, although they may bear the same team names as current franchises. Six of the eight charter franchises in the American league survived, while the Orioles folded after a year and were replaced by the New York Highlanders (later the Yankees) in 1903 and the Brewers lasted only one season, then became the new St Louis Browns and later the new Baltimore Orioles in 1954.

The Chicago White Sox and Detroit Tigers continue to play in the same cities today, with the same team names. The Boston Americans, now Red Sox and Cleveland Blues, later Indians and now Guardians, also have remained in the same cities for 122 years.

Both the American and National Leagues continued with eight franchises each for the next 60 seasons before expanding to their current fifteen team formats. Once World Series play began in 1903, there were no franchises relocated during a remarkable 50 year period of great stability through two World Wars and a great depression. This stability helped to make the game of baseball part of the fabric of the American lifestyle.


MLB franchise relocation wasn’t a thing until the 1950’s, as franchises that struggled financially didn’t have much value and the league could replace them easily enough rather than simply transferring them to new locations.

Baseball inevitably moved west to cover America from coast to coast. The Athletics moved from Philadelphia to Kansas City in 1955, then on to Oakland in 1968. The Dodgers and Giants moved to California in 1958. The Braves moved to Milwaukee in 1953 and on to Atlanta in 1966.

The major leagues began to add franchises in some of the cities where clubs had vacated, as well as in new markets. Since baseball’s second great expansion began in 1961, the leagues have added fourteen teams, and only a few have relocated.

In part two of this series, we will look at a later round of franchise movements and expansion which almost doubled the size of the two leagues.

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