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Proto Pete Rose and the Outlaw Reds

Good band name, even better story.

Believe it or not, it had happened before
Believe it or not, it had happened before
Ezra Shaw

The Union Association was a baseball league that only existed for one year in 1884. The league’s founder and president was a wealthy St. Louis resident named Henry V. Lucas. Lucas was opposed to the reserve clause (the one-sided clause in all baseball contracts until 1975 that bound the player to the team for life, unless the team chose to trade or release that player), comparing it to slavery. This alone made Lucas an extremely unusual figure in baseball. The UA didn’t respect National League or American Association contracts, and UA clubs attempted to lure the other leagues’ players away. Some NL and AA players used offers from UA teams as leverage to negotiate better contracts with their current teams, but very few legitimate major leaguers actually took the step of joining the UA.

Cincinnati had a team in the UA, which went by the objectively awesome nickname the Cincinnati Outlaw Reds. The Outlaw Reds were founded by John Roll McLean, who was also the owner and publisher of both the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Washington Post. McLean had previously been part owner of the American Association Cincinnati Reds, but had been forced out by his partners. McLean held a grudge. With the help of his managing editor, Allen Meyers, who had once been thrown out of an AA Reds game for drunk and disorderly behavior and who apparently also held a grudge, McLean used the Enquirer to make unfounded accusations of game throwing against the AA Reds’ star pitcher and current Reds Hall of Famer Tony Mullane. After an investigation, Mullane was cleared of all charges and the league challenged the Enquirer to prove the claims against him. The Enquirer never answered this challenge. McLean’s involvement with the UA was likely a further attempt to financially hurt the AA Reds, as well as a chance to force his way back into professional baseball.

The Outlaw Reds were initially led by player-manager Dan O’Leary, whose nickname was Hustling Dan. One assumes he hustled quite a bit because he certainly wasn’t very good at baseball. In his four years in the National League, he had appeared in a total of thirteen games. It’s not clear what led McLean to believe O’Leary was the man to lead his new team to glory. Baseball historian Lee Allen called O‘Leary "one of those picturesque characters of early baseball who eschewed discipline, drank beer with his players, and gambled heavily on his team’s games."

This bears repeating. In 1884, a professional baseball team in Cincinnati had a player-manager whose nickname indicated he was known for his hustle, and who probably gambled on his team’s games. Pete Rose wouldn’t even be born for another 57 years. My only regret is I probably won’t be alive in the 2080’s, so I won’t get to witness the scandal that involves the hustling, gambling player-manager of the Cincinnati Space Reds of the Galactic Spaceball League (it’s just like baseball, except space). Should be a doozy.

At the time, gambling was not the capital crime in baseball that it is today, but it certainly would have been cause for concern among owners. Perhaps his reputation is the reason why 1884 was O’Leary’s last year in professional baseball in any league. He was replaced as manager by Sam Crane after only 35 games, and played his last game ever for the Outlaw Reds in August of 1884.

The UA’s single season of existence can charitably be called chaotic. Some teams folded in mid-season, often to be replaced by minor league teams. The worst examples were the St. Paul Saints and Milwaukee Brewers, who joined the league in late September, only playing eight and twelve games, respectively. St. Paul never even played a single home game. The Chicago Browns moved midseason, becoming the Pittsburgh Stogies in August. The biggest problem facing the league, however, was lack of competitive balance. Lucas funneled all the best talent to his hometown St. Louis Maroons (and if only that name had survived to the modern St. Louis team - the jokes write themselves). As a result, the Maroons won the league with a staggering 94-19 record. The Outlaw Reds finished a respectable second at 69-36, a full 21 games back.

In the end, the Union Association couldn’t compete with the more established National League. Even the upstart American Association was far stronger at the time. Only two teams sent representatives to the 1885 UA league meeting, and one of them was Milwaukee, the city where the meeting was being held. The league promptly folded. The St. Louis Maroons were the only team to survive, gaining entry into the National League. In 1885 and 1886, they went 79-151. After the 1886 season, they moved to Indianapolis and changed their name to the Hoosiers. There they fared just as badly, and finally folded after the 1889 season. The franchise’s complete lack of success in the NL after having dominated the UA so thoroughly, combined with the UA’s habit of calling up entire minor league teams into the league when other teams went out of business, has led many historians to reconsider whether it should be considered a "major" league at all.

The Union Association’s ultimate legacy, besides hilarious and awesome team names and the two no-hitters that were thrown during its existence, may be limited to Henry V. Lucas’s distinction of being one of the very, very few owners or executives in baseball who actually believed that players had the right to sell their services to the highest bidder. It doesn’t seem like much now, but at the time, that was revolutionary. Unfortunately, Lucas’s own short sightedness, poor planning and favoritism shown toward his home team caused the league’s undoing and an opportunity for players to assert their rights was wasted.

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