Inside Pitch

March 28, 1931: Former AL president Ban Johnson dies


March 26, 2012

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. – The basic structure of Major League Baseball – the National League and the American League – has remained unchanged for more than 100 years.

The man who finalized that structure, Ban Johnson, ruled the AL with a determined hand for more than three decades. His legacy lives on through the league he helped create.

In over three decades of work, Ban Johnson helped steer Major League Baseball into an era of success and prosperity, resulting in the league setup that stands today. (National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)

Eighty-one years ago this week - on March 28, 1931 - Johnson passed away at the age of 67.

Johnson was born Jan. 5, 1864 in Norwalk, Ohio, and went on to study at Marietta College. While working in the newspaper business in Cincinnati, Johnson got to know Charles Comiskey, then the manager of the Reds. Johnson quickly became well known in baseball circles and was elected president of the Western League, a struggling minor league, in 1893.

Johnson immediately brought stability to the Western League by supporting umpires and creating a more fan-friendly environment. He renamed the loop the American League in 1900, and the next year – after the National League eliminated the Baltimore, Cleveland, Louisville and Washington, D.C. franchises – Johnson withdrew from the National Agreement and proclaimed the AL a second major league.

Two years of competition ensued, with players jumping contracts and salaries escalating. Finally, the National League agreed to a peace settlement – and a new National Agreement was signed declaring the AL to be a major league.

Aside from the short-lived Federal League in the mid-1910s, baseball’s structure as a two-league setup has remained undisturbed since then.

“Ban was the most brilliant baseball man the game has ever known,” said former American League president Will Harridge, who worked for Johnson in the AL office before assuming the presidency in 1931. “He was more responsible for making baseball the national game than anyone in the history of the sport. He was forceful, aggressive, and a brilliant organizer and he raised the money which built the ballparks and established the cities that created the American League.”

After establishing the AL as a major league, Johnson steered the league into the 1920s before a dispute with Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis and failing health ended his tenure at the end of the 1927 season.

“(Johnson’s) contribution to the game is not closely equaled by any other single person or group of persons,” said Hall of Fame general manager Branch Rickey.

Johnson was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1937.

Craig Muder is the director of communications for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

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