Apr 29

The Great Fan Boycott

Washington has its fair share of bad owners, but the butcher boys from Philly were in a class by themselves.

In August 1893 the Wagner’s announce that their will transfer their home games to several cities including Chicago, Cleveland and Philadelphia. The transfer of games to Philadelphia was done without proper League approval and has generated hostility from Brooklyn, Boston, Louisville and Cincinnati.

The country is in a depression, and they hope to take advantage of the large crowds attending the Chicago World’s Fair. They also don’t really care what the fans in the District would think; there was money to be made. The transfer means Washington will be on the road for the month of September.

In early August Washington returns home for a five game home stand against Boston and Brooklyn. The fans are angry at the alien owners for their transfer of games. League owners in Brooklyn and Cleveland are against the transfer of games and are determined to prevent it from happening again.

In mid-August Sporting Life writes, “Wagner’s transfer chickens are coming home to roost. Washington’s patrons are boycotting the club, and Washington as a League City, under the present management, may be considered dead, as not only the home club but all visiting teams for the rest of the season will lose money.”

22 August Washington heads home for their last home stand of the season. The Wagner’s continue to inflame and upset the fans with their actions. The Sporting Life calls this the most deplorable and melancholy in the history of baseball. The latest rhubarb involved interviews with the afternoon paper deliberately avoiding the Washington Post which is the morning paper and not viewed as friendly towards the brothers. The Sporting Life states, “The statement meant as a defense of their management of the club was evasive and inaccurate. Attendance has been poor since the Wagner’s announced the transfer of games and explains the reason why the Wagner’s felt the need to address the issue.

Early September, an article in Sporting Life is titled, “The Ruined City.” Such is the view of baseball in the District. The article goes on to describe the fans lack of interest in the team and general apathy. “With no prospect ahead of finishing higher than a tail-end, the players have no ambition or inducement to do more than earn their salaries.

The headline in Sporting Life, Sad Results of Conducting Baseball for Revenue Only. The move by the Wagner’s brought the Washington club center stage in the baseball stage. Even newspapers from outside the District felt it necessary to comment. The Cleveland Leader, the official mouthpiece of the Cleveland club, “The most absurd statement that has been made this season is that purporting to come from the Wagner’s, in which the excuse for the transfer of games is based on the assertion that the League desired to have the games transferred in order to make all the money possible. This is not correct, and it is doubtful either George Wagner or his brother J Earl Wagner, ever read anything of the kind. It was agreed that a few games were to be transferred from Washington because of conflicting dates with other attractions, just has it had been found necessary now and then to transfer games from Cleveland to get away from the races. Not satisfied with that the owners of the Washington club, on their own responsibility, switched games enough to comprise one-third of their Washington series. It was not the Cleveland club that asked the transfer of games to this city as alleged by a local writer. The Wagner’s proposed and gave a very good reason for the transfer. Not knowing that so many games had been transferred the Cleveland club gave its consent, but would not have done so had it been cognizant of the true state of affairs.”

The Wagner’s feel that they have been abused by the press. They feel that they were just following league policy and have implicated President Young be insinuating that the games were transferred as his suggestion, and it is even hinted that Mr. Young acted upon his own responsibility.

Finally the Sporting Life adds, “The Washington public is emphatically boycotting the Washington club owned by the Wagner’s, and this boycott is to be maintained, we are told, in fact, so long as aliens control the club. It is not believed that the boycott will be raised, no matter what promises are made for “next year,” the public having at last become tied of  being fed on the League husks in return for years of patient forbearance and liberal support. This is a bad state of affairs, and deplorable- not so much on account of the Wagner’s, who deserve no sympathy – but for the fact that the other eleven clubs, who are all in a way partners of the Washington club, will suffer financially and artistically. The Wagner’s think it is nobody’s business how they run their club. This would not be true even if the equal division of gate receipts rule did not prevail, because it is to the interest of the entire League that it should have no dead weight or weak spot in its circuit.” It is instructive to remember that a bad team will not draw at home or on the road. And the owners were focused on the bottom line, making money. Now in their second year in the League the Wagner’s had not only dug a hole but established a reputation with the other clubs.

The transfer of games gave the team perhaps the most unique nickname given to a sports team in the District, “Wagners Wanderer’s.”  The amount and type of coverage given to the games transferred by the Wagner’s it is interesting to determine if the franchise suffeRed Long term from the policy. Certainly the uproar forced George Wagner into a three year exile from ball games in Washington.

It is generally accepted that attendance follows a team’s performance. It is clear that the “Washington NL” franchise did not enjoy an increase in attendance in 1894, while the overall attendance number indicates a large jump, 125,000 from 90,000; the change is due to the increase in home games, the total of home games increased by 13. The franchise averaged just 179 additional fans in 1894 then 1893.

The franchise had a more modest attendance increase in 1895, bringing in an additional 338 fans over the average for 1894 or 600 from 1893. These small increases were taking place while the team continued to lose on the field. In fact the team’s poor play only became worse, winning percentages continued to drop, 1893/.384, 1894/.341 and 1895/.336. So the correlation between team performance and attendance does not seem to be reliable.  It seems probable that fans just wanted to see baseball, the Wagner’s be dammed.  It appears that the hostility of the fans towards the Wagner’s continued into 1895.

So it appears that the Wagner’s suffered a lingering financial setback, they made money overall, by selling off players like you would a horse or alpaca farm, but not as much as they could have. It should be noted that the Wagner’s made a profit, some estimate up to $230,000, during their time in Washington.

The franchise enjoyed their greatest attendance gain in 1896 when the team had an average game attendance of 3,329 fans per game, but this quickly evaporated as the team lost just over 1,000 fans in 1897, returning to the level the team had in 1895. This also seems to be at odds with the team’s play. The team played .443 baseball in 1896 and did even better in 1897, winning close to 50% of the games, (.462).

By 1896 the fans began to respond to the play on the field and get past their angst at the so-called alien owners, but the Wagnerian business model undermined the confidence of the fan base and the attendance in 1897 dropped to what it had been in 1894.  So what caused the drop, maybe because on 1 August the Wagner’s sent the popular Bill Joyce to New York for players and cash, lots of cash.

The team was unable to reverse the trend and suffered another significant drop in 1898, down 965 fans a game, well below the 1,837 in the horrific 1893 season. The numbers for 1899 were even lower, 1,108 fans a game. By 1899 it was clear that this would be the team last in the League and the fans elected not to watch. It should be noted that the 1899 number was increased by a late surge in interest that can be attributed to the bleacher bums interest in Buck Freeman‘s home run display.

Year       Attendance           Winning

Per Game            Percentage

1893        1,837                       .384

1894        2,016                       .341

1895        2,354                       .336

1896        3,328                       .443

1897        2.288                       .462

1898        1,324                       .336

1899        1,108                      .355

*The Flynn’s have written two books about baseball in D.C.