Originally posted on Midwest Sports Fans  |  Last updated 11/18/11

Yesterday Major League Baseball announced that, as part of the Houston Astros‘ sale to Jim Crane of Crane Capital Group, the team will be switching leagues, moving from the National League Central to the American League West in 2013.

New Astros owner Jim Crane during yesterday's press conference. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

The Astros will have the distinction of being the only team to move from the National League to the American League. They will be one of only two teams to play in both leagues. The other is the Milwaukee Brewers, who jumped from the American League to the National League in 1998.

The purpose of the Brewers’ move was to ensure that both leagues had an even number of teams. When the Devil Rays joined the American League and the Diamondbacks the National, both leagues had 15 teams. In a 15-team league, on any given day of the season, one team would have to be idle or play an inter-league game. Such an arrangement wasn’t acceptable in 1998, so the Brewers made the switch (after the Royals decided they didn’t want to).

Apparently, Major League Baseball has overcome its aversion to season-long inter-league play—or has decided that league symmetry is more important. And now the Astros get to use a designated hitter.

Interleague Realignment Before 1900

The realignment that sent the Brewers to the National League in 1998 was the first inter-league realignment since the American League was established in 1901. Prior to that time, jumping from one major league to another wasn’t uncommon. Four of the 8 teams that comprised the National League’s roster from 1900 until 1952 joined the National League from the American Association.

The American Association (not to be confused with any minor league that has since used the name) was a major league established in 1882. Between 1887 and 1892 8 American Association teams—including 5 charter members—moved to the National League. The AA had major league talent and, from 1884 through 1890, its champion met the National League champion in an early version of the World Series. But the National League was older, better established, and more financially secure. And if the Senior Circuit wanted an AA team, it was in that team’s interest to switch leagues.

The Pittsburgh Alleghenys in 1887 were the first AA team to leave for the National League. The Alleghenys, who became the Pirates in 1891, are the team that we today associate with Roberto Clemente, “We Are Family,” and 19 consecutive losing seasons. Two years later the AA’s Cleveland Spiders joined the National League. The Spiders had a couple nice years in their new league but folded after their disastrous 20-134 1899 season.

League Park, home of the Cleveland Spiders

In 1890 the National League acquired two more AA franchises, both of which still live today: the Cincinnati Reds and the Brooklyn Grays, who would eventually become the Dodgers.

The loss of the Alleghenys, Spiders, Reds, and Grays was one of the main causes (perhaps the main cause) of the league’s demise.

League-switching today happens with the approval of owners in both leagues. There is nothing hostile about it. For all intents and purposes, the American and National Leagues today are two conferences in one 30-team league. They share a commissioner, a players’ union, a draft, and a collective bargaining agreement. In the late nineteenth century, when the major leagues were autonomous, poaching a franchise from a rival league was a way of weakening the competition. (It was similar to what is going on with conference realignment in major college sports today.)

The American Association folded in 1891, but not before absorbing two squads—the Boston Reds and the Philadelphia Athletics—from the short-lived Players’ League (which is also recognized as a major league). Both of those teams died with the American Association, and there is no connection between the AA Philadelphia Athletics and the American League Athletics team that started in Philly and currently plays in Oakland.

In December 1891 the National League announced at its winter meeting in Indianapolis that it would absorb four more AA franchises: the Baltimore Orioles, Louisville Colonels, St. Louis Browns, and Washington Senators. Three of the four share names with later American League teams, but there is no connection between these AA/National League teams and their namesakes. (The American League St. Louis Browns and Baltimore Orioles are actually the same franchise.) Three of the 4 1892 additions folded in 1899, along with the Spiders. Only the Browns survived. They would later become the Cardinals. For much of the 1890s, the National League had a monopoly on major league baseball.

League-jumping actually predates the defection of the Alleghenys and other American Association teams. The Union League, yet another short-lived major league from the 19th century, played a single season before disbanding in 1884. The Union League champion St. Louis Maroons joined the National League the following season. In 1887 the Maroons moved to Indianapolis and became the Hoosiers. The Hoosiers played three seasons before folding.

The 1888 Indianapolis Hoosiers

Three teams have the distinction of winning pennants in two different major leagues. Last month the Brewers nearly became a fourth.

  • The Cincinnati Reds won an American Association pennant in 1882. They won National League pennants in 1919, 1939, 1940, 1961, 1970, 1972, 1975, 1976, and 1990.
  • The St. Louis Browns/Cardinals won American Association pennants in 1885, 1886, 1887, and 1888. They won National League pennants in 1926, 1928, 1930, 1931, 1934, 1942, 1943, 1944, 1946, 1964, 1967, 1968, 1982, 1985, 1987, 2004, 2006, and 2011.
  • The Boston Reds won a Players’ League pennant in 1890 and an American Association pennant in 1891.

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Josh Tinley is the author of Kneeling in the End Zone: Spiritual Lessons From the World of Sports. Follow him at twitter.com/joshtinley or send him an e-mail.

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