When the NBA’s Golden State Warriors won their 20th game in a row to start the 2015-16 season, I saw this:
Warriors, now 20-0, have tied baseball’s St. Louis Maroons (1884) of the Union Association for best start across the 4 major sports leagues.
— GSWStats (@gswstats) December 3, 2015
There are a lot of baseball people (Bill James especially, Rob Neyer tangentially, etc.) who claim that the Union Association shouldn’t be considered a real major league, yet the NBA is saying it is. That’s not right. Only a baseball guy can tell you that. I’m a baseball guy, and I say it is. But on the other hand, I don’t think the Maroons’ streak is legitimate.
I believe the league is legitimate because enough players came from other leagues or else continued their career in the National League or the American Association after the UA’s only year. There were certainly fellows who only played in the UA, but that’s true for any league any year. There are plenty of guys who history will eventually show only played in the majors in 2015. Does that discredit the 2015 season? Certainly not. So why hold that against any other league?
In addition, this was 1884. The first official pro team, the Cincinnati Reds, was in 1869, and the National League had been founded in 1876. We’re talking less than a decade after the first true sports league in the world, and a mere 15 years after the first legit pro team ever. Given that context, I believe any multi-city league at the time could be thought of as a major league, because there were so few leagues at the time. The UA began with teams in St. Louis, Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, Baltimore, D.C, and Cincinnati. Those were major league cities then, and they are major league cities today.
But on the other hand, I don’t believe that the Maroons’ 20-game winning streak is legitimate. That’s because Maroons’ millionaire brewery owner founded both the league and the team, and was president of the league and the team.
As a result, the Maroons were stocked with the best players from before day one. It was like college football, when one team goes undefeated in a terrible conference. Think of the arguments when Boise State went undefeated for entire seasons playing the likes of New Mexico State and what have you. Sure, they were 12-0, but the competition was horrendous and very few people believed they belonged in the national championship discussion. That was the St. Louis Maroons of 1884. They were stacked, and the other teams had no shot.
A look at their schedule reveals this. After winning the 1st game on April 20th against Chicago, the Maroons then won eight straight against the Altoona Mountain City’s, by my estimation the most obscure team in major league history. (My list is here: http://www.sporadicsentinel.com/2015/05/12-cities-you-never-knew-had-major.html). They were a rush-order club to supply an 8th team when several cities turned down membership in the league. Detroit was the first choice, then Pittsburgh, then one-time NL landing spot Hartford, Connecticut. They all turned it down. The UA went with Altoona because it was baseball-crazy and a railroad junction. The hope was that would make it easier for teams to get there and therefore prop up the franchise. It was a miserable failure by any stretch of the imagination. Altoona was done six weeks into the season.
The Maroons then won four straight against the Washington, DC franchise. The Nationals survived for three-quarters of the season.
St. Louis then won four straight against the Baltimore Monumentals, who finished the season, and wound up in 3rd place.
Then after winning three against the Boston Reds- all games except four in Altoona were at home- the Maroons finally lost on Saturday, May 24th, a month in. The Reds also completed the season and finished 4th.
When Altoona folded a week after the Maroons streak ended, St. Louis transferred most of their second string players and eventually their manager- their freaking manager- to start a new franchise in Kansas City to help prop up the league. (Kansas City’s first-ever pro team, by the way.) Nobody had any interest in the league outside of St. Louis, because there was no chance anybody but the Maroons would win the title.
With that plainly obvious, attendance sagged throughout the league and other franchises dropped out as well. Philadelphia called it quits in mid-summer and the Association begged the Wilmington Quicksteps to come in from the Eastern League. (The Quicksteps are also on my obscure teams list.) Wilmington lasted about a month before quitting and dropping back to the Eastern League. Chicago moved to Pittsburgh and then quit, and two more teams were brought in- Milwaukee and St. Paul- to finish the season.
The Maroons on the other hand, finished 94-19, 21 games ahead of the 2nd place Cincinnati Outlaw Reds.
St. Louis became part of the National League the next season, and even with essentially the same roster quickly became a mid-pack team. They moved to Indianapolis in 1887 and folded after 1889.
Is it a big deal that the Warriors have tied the Maroons for best pro start ever? Of course. But did the Maroons face playoff teams every other night? Of course not. That’s what makes the Warriors streak more impressive- without negating the Union Association’s major league status.