You could call it a story about American initiative, or a story about an underpaid workforce, or even a story about a country that had some extra money—but it's really a story about baseball.
By the turn of the 20th century, the game had established a firm grip on the American imagination. But it was also struggling. After decades-long battle for supremacy, the National League had emerged as the only game in town—baseball’s only major league.
"So they had one league with 12 teams, which meant of course, by midseason, half of them were out of the running," explained Roger Abrams, a law professor at Northeastern University and author of five books on baseball. "There were real business and personal rivalries, and really terrible business problems."
Not to mention the players were underpaid and increasingly unhappy. Plus, the games were rough-and-tumble affairs. As far as Bancroft "Ban" Johnson was concerned, there was a better way to do business.
In the 1890s, Johnson took control of a struggling minor league called the Western League, which he quickly transformed into perhaps the country's best-run minor league. In 1900, he renamed it the American League and decided that a growing country could sustain another major league.
"Johnson knew that with the problems going on in the National League, there was going to be an opportunity for a real business venture that was well organized," Abrams said.
Despite the fact that Boston already had a National League team, then called the Beaneaters (eventually the Braves), Johnson quietly sought to establish a new team in Boston for his new major league. This would come as a surprise to the owner of the Buffalo Bisons.
"It’s the first of a long line of snubs for the city of Buffalo, especially the sports franchises," said John Boutet, exhibit chairman for the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame and archivist for the Buffalo Bisons, today a AAA affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays.
The Bisons were a long-established team in Johnson’s Western league whose owner was so thrilled with Johnson’s plan to take on the National League that he recommended that Johnson be rewarded with a $1,000 raise.
"As late as January 1901, Buffalo was assured formJohnson: 'Don’t worry you guys are in,’" Boutet said.
But when the American League’s official charter was signed later that month, on January 28, Buffalo was out. Boston was in.
"Boston and Buffalo took opposite paths," Boutet said. "Buffalo started its population decline and Boston as you know burgeoned into a wonderful city with great sports heritage with multiple sports championships."
That championship heritage would start with Boston’s new American League team, known then as the Americans, thanks in no small part to Johnson’s shrewd plan for success.
"Ban Johnson sits down with the eight owners and said, ''Here’s the business plan. We are going to steal from the National League all the best players they have,'" said Abrams.
How would they do that? Pretty simple, really: Offer twice the pay.
"Well over 80, near 90 percent of all the stars from the National League jumped to the American League," Abrams said.
In Boston, that included future Hall of Famers Jimmy Collins and Cy Young—and not only did the players come. So did the fans.
"It was a great game of baseball," Abrams said. "Many more people came to see the new American League games than went to see the National League games, and finally in 1903 a delegation of owners from the National League came to visit Ban Johnson and said OK, lets make a deal."
That deal included an agreement to stop stealing players, and established an annual championship game between the two leagues, dubbed "The World Series." In 1903, the first modern World Series took place. The winner? The AL’s Boston Americans, who, in 1908, changed their name to the Boston Red Sox.