Byron Bancroft Johnson (January 5, 1864 - March 28, 1931), usually known as Ban Johnson, was an American executive in Major League Baseball who served as the founder and first president of the American League.
The Western League
Johnson was born in Norwalk, Ohio. He studied law at Marietta College, but didn't complete his degree. He later became the sports editor of a paper in Cincinnati. During this time, he befriended Charles Comiskey, who was then manager of the Cincinnati Reds. At the suggestion of both Comiskey and Reds owner John Brush, Johnson was elected president of the Western League, a faltering minor league, at a reorganization meeting in 1893.
Johnson had criticized the National League for its rowdy atmosphere, which was driving away families and women. He set about making baseball more friendly to both. Contrary to the practice of the time, he gave his umpires unqualified support and had little tolerance for players or managers who didn't give them due respect. He fined and suspended players who used foul language on the field. Soon, the Western League was recognized as not only the strongest minor league, but the best-run league in all of baseball.
Formation of the American League
Johnson, however, had a bigger plan--another major league. With the help of Comiskey, who bought the Sioux City franchise and moved it to St. Paul in 1894 after leaving the Reds, he began an ambitious plan of expansion. He got his chance after the 1899 season, when the National League dropped teams in Baltimore, Cleveland, Louisville and Washington, D.C. Johnson moved the Grand Rapids franchise to Cleveland, where they would eventually become the Indians. He also had Comiskey move his St. Paul team to Chicago, where they eventually became the White Sox. The latter move was made with the blessing of the NL, which saw Comiskey's team as a way to head off any attempt to revive the American Association.
The 1900 season was an unqualified success, and Johnson received a 10-year contract extension. In October, he withdrew the American League from the National Agreement (the formal understanding between the NL and the minor leagues). The final step came on January 28, 1901, when he declared the American League would operate as a major league. He then upped the ante by placing teams in Baltimore, Boston, Philadelphia and Washington.
A baseball power
The NL then made a critical blunder by limiting salaries to $2,400--a low sum even by 1901 standards. Johnson, Comiskey and the other AL owners responded by raiding NL rosters, promising disgruntled players much higher salaries. Eventually, over 100 players "jumped" to the new league. After a two-year war in which the AL trounced the NL in attendance both seasons, the NL sued for peace. Under a new National Agreement, the AL was formally recognized as the second major league. A three-man National Commission was set up, comprised of both league presidents and Reds owner Garry Herrmann. Although Herrmann was nominal president of the commission, Johnson soon dominated the body.
Johnson ruled the American League with an iron hand. He brooked no criticism, and made it very difficult for men he didn't like to buy into the league. For instance, when Harry Frazee bought the Boston Red Sox in 1917, Johnson tried almost from the start to drive him out. Frazee was the first owner in league history not to be virtually handpicked by Johnson. In fact, it was Johnson who started the rumors that Frazee was Jewish and thus not fit to be part of the "noble" sport of baseball.
The Frazee dispute planted the seed for Johnson's downfall. Eventually, the league divided into two factions, with the Red Sox, White Sox and New York Yankees on one side and the other five clubs (the Indians, Philadelphia Athletics, St. Louis Browns, Detroit Tigers and Washington Senators, known as the "Loyal Five") on the other. By this time, Comiskey had become a bitter enemy of Johnson; the two men's once warm friendship had strained considerably after Comiskey lost Jack Quinn to the Yankees for the 1919 season on a Johnson ruling. Johnson's authority eroded further that year when the Red Sox traded Carl Mays to the Yankees in defiance of a Johnson order to suspend him. The Yankees got an injunction to allow Mays to play.
The final nail in Johnson's coffin proved to be the Black Sox Scandal. Johnson blew off Comiskey's claims that his White Sox may have been on the take from gamblers. However, when the scandal broke after the 1920 season, the White Sox, Red Sox and Yankees threatened to pull out of the American League and join a new 12-team National League. The enlarged league would include a new team in Detroit unrelated to the Tigers, who were owned by Johnson loyalist Frank Navin. However, Navin was in no mood for another war and persuaded the other five clubs to agree to appoint a new National Commission of non-baseball men. Federal District Court Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis was appointed as chairman. However, Landis would only accept an appointment as sole Commissioner of Baseball, with unlimited power over the game. The owners were still reeling from the damage to baseball's reputation due to the Black Sox Scandal, and readily agreed to Landis' demands.
Under the circumstances, a clash between Johnson and Landis was inevitable, and it happened prior to the 1924 World Series. Landis banned two New York Giants from the Series for attempting to bribe members of the Philadelphia Phillies late in the season. After Frankie Frisch and two other Giants stars were implicated, only to be cleared by Landis, Johnson demanded that the Series be canceled. He publicly criticized Landis for his handling of the affair, and Landis threatened to resign if the AL owners didn't rein Johnson in. After the Series, the AL owners promised to remove Johnson from office if he stepped out of line again. Johnson remained on good behavior for two years, even getting an extension of his contract to 1935 and a raise to $40,000 (he'd previously made $25,000).
However, in 1926, Johnson criticized Landis for granting Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker an amnesty after evidence surfaced that they had fixed a game in 1919. Landis demanded that the AL choose between him and Johnson. The AL owners were prepared to remove Johnson from office at their annual meeting in January 1927. However, Johnson was in ill health at the time, and the owners decided to put him on an indefinite sabbatical instead. Johnson tried to return in the spring and acted as if nothing had changed. However, the situation had become untenable, and Johnson was forced to resign at the end of the season.
is a member of
Hall of Fame
|American League president