Academic journal article Base Ball

"Two-Bit Baseball": Walla Walla and the Pacific Interstate League, 1891

Academic journal article Base Ball

"Two-Bit Baseball": Walla Walla and the Pacific Interstate League, 1891

Article excerpt

Local fans ("cranks" in the contemporary idiom) established the first professional team in Walla Walla, Washington, in April 1891. Three nearby Oregon towns-Pendleton, La Grande, and Baker City-then joined Walla Walla to form the Pacific Interstate League, the inaugural minor league in the interior Pacific Northwest. The new league established a standard admission price of "two bits" at a time when two bits meant 25 cents rather than a measure of computer memory. Although the nascent league failed to survive its initial season, it nonetheless illustrated the role of baseball in promoting civic pride in American towns and cities. The league's story also exemplifies the financial difficulties inherent in minor league baseball at the end of the 19th century.

Other leagues which may arguably be termed minor emerged in 1877 in response to the establishment of the National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs, the selfproclaimed "major" league, in 1876. Minor leagues quickly moved professional baseball out of the large cities of the eastern seaboard and spread the sport to the smaller cities and towns of the American hinterland as the frontier moved farther and farther west. Even though the American Association (1882-1891), Union Association (1884), and Players' League (1890) went on to join the National League as major leagues in the century, the Reach Base Ball Guide argued in 1891 that "the life of the game" continued to depend on minor leagues.1

The Sporting News cited no less than 17 minor leagues preparing to play the 1891 season. These leagues represented virtually every region from New England to the Pacific Northwest. This geographical diversity provided convincing evidence, the publication stated, that "base ball is still the national game."2

In this period of expansion, however, teams and leagues rose and fell like pop flies. In fact, The Sporting News identified five leagues that had played in the 1890 season but had failed to survive into 1891.3 The primary cause for this problem was operating capital. Because wealthy owners rarely invested in baseball outside of the urban major leagues and no farm system yet existed, teams had to depend on community rather than indi- vidual ownership. For example, the Seattle Base Ball Association sold $25,000 worth of stock to baseball cranks at $50 a share to fund its entry in the Pacific Northwest League in 1891.4 Such community investment did not always succeed, as intercity rivalry often superseded financial prudence. To compete with its competitors, a team would occasionally spend itself into insolvency as it sought to outbid other teams for the services of the best players. Although teams would begin the season with careful investments of capital, the Reach Guide noted that they quickly violated "self-imposed laws of economy" and, "in their mad desire to strengthen their teams, [spent] clear beyond their means." As spending outstripped revenues, teams and even entire leagues collapsed before the scheduled end of their regular seasons.5

Financial issues notwithstanding, baseball continued to expand, particularly into the West and Northwest. For example, the popularity of the Pacific Northwest League (Seattle, Tacoma, Spokane, and Portland), which played its inaugural season in 1890, induced an editorialist for the Spokane Review to note in May 1891 that "base ball fever seems to be catching [on in] all the towns in the Northwest, and that a locality is hardly worth the name of city which does not possess one or more clubs."6 This confirmed comments by the Reach Guide, which noted that "a peculiarity about the minor league organization is that they seem to be largely located in the West, while but a few years ago the East almost had a monopoly on them."7

The Bunch Grass League

Seeking to emulate the recent success of the Pacific Northwest League, smaller towns in the interior Northwest pursued their own league for the 1891 season. Thus "base ball enthusiasts" in four towns-Walla Walla, Pendleton, La Grande, and Baker City-made plans to form the Bunch Grass League, provisionally named for the ubiquitous local vegetation. …

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