Prior to the 1903 season the Pirates were not hard hit by players jumping to the newly formed American League like some National League teams were. That all changed following the 1902 season despite the fact they had just completed their best season in team history.
The Pirates had actually learned about their players signing 1903 contracts with the New York Highlanders (Yankees) before the 1902 season even ended, a practice common back in those days. They immediately released two of the players, Jack O’Connor and Lefty Davis. Those two losses didn’t have a huge effect on the team. O’Connor, who was considered responsible for talking the other players into leaving, was a 36 year old backup catcher at the time. Davis had a good season for the 1901 Pirates but in 1902 he was the 4th outfielder on a team with three all-star caliber outfielders ahead of him.
They also lost Wid Conroy, a light hitting infielder who has played shortstop for half of the 1902 season. His move meant that Honus Wagner would be the 1903 shortstop after years of mostly playing right field.
While these three players were all serviceable players, they were not key players in the overall scheme of things so they were fairly easy to replace, especially on a team as deep as the Pirates were back then. There were however two key losses that set the team back, Jack Chesbro and Jesse Tannehill, two of their four best starters.
Chesbro had just completed back to back 20 win seasons including an incredible 28-6 season in 1902. Tannehill had spent six seasons in a Pittsburgh uniform going 116-58 including four 20 win seasons.
These losses left the team with Sam Leever, Deacon Phillippe and surprising newcomer Ed Doheny, who went 16-4 despite never showing any previous success while with the New York Giants for seven seasons. The three of them would combine for nearly two-thirds of the teams innings pitched in 1903 as the Pirates went with a mix of unspectacular rookies and veterans to fill the rest of the innings. The team was a combined 66-24 when Phillippe, Leever and Doheny pitched in 1903 and 25-25 when they didn’t.
Now you would ask how a team could just let these caliber of players leave without fighting it. The Pirates owner at the time, Barney Dreyfuss, who was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2008, had a very good reason for just letting these players leave. He had heard from sources in Pittsburgh that the American League president was discussing a possible move of their Detroit franchise to the steel city. Dreyfuss believed that two teams would have trouble existing in the town financially and he was likely correct although if they were able to both operate, it would at least cut severely into his profits.
Even in the 1902 season when the Pirates dominated the National League, they were only able to draw 243,000 fans to their 71 home games. That was a decent total for the day but only the 3rd best overall in the NL which was being outdrawn by its new competitor.
Dreyfuss instead of fighting the departure of his star players decided that the best overall strategy for his franchise’s well-being was to use the defections for his own good. The AL and NL decided to sit down and settle their differences reaching a peace agreement in January of 1903. One of the stipulations was that the Highlanders could keep Chesbro and Tannehill in exchange for the American League not moving a franchise to Pittsburgh.
What looked like a huge loss on paper to the Pirates was actually a win for the overall strength of the franchise. Had another franchise been placed in the same town it is very likely the two teams would’ve competed for the same fans thus cutting heavily into the profits and making it hard to keep all of the stars of the team including Honus Wagner, who commanded a considerably high salary for the day from 1908 until his retirement.
The Philadelphia Phillies in 1902 probably served as a great example of why Dreyfuss dreaded having two teams in one city. In 1901 the Phillies drew 234,000 fans, down by over 67,000 from the previous year when they were the only major league team in town. The Philadelphia Athletics were part of the original 1901 AL group which obviously helped cause that decline. When the Athletics proved to be a good team by 1902 not only did they outdraw the Phillies, who had been around since 1883 in the NL, but the Phillies attendance was cut more than in half that season. They drew just 112,000 fans in 1902. Five times in the 1890’s the Phillies had the highest attendance in the NL only to fall to last among all 16 major league teams in 1902.
Also prior to the treaty teams in the same city wouldn’t coordinate their schedules so it was possible that teams just blocks apart were playing at the same time leaving fans to choose between who they wanted to see that particular day. That could really have an affect on teams playing doubleheaders on the same day in the same town when the profits were already being cut into by a lost home date.
You would have to wonder though, just what the 1909 World Series would’ve been like if that Detroit Tigers franchise with Ty Cobb on it did actually make the move to Pittsburgh. The discussions about who was the better hitter between Cobb and Wagner already existed with the two teams playing two states away from each but imagine the heated discussions that would take place if the two star players were just miles apart in the same city. The Pirates and Dreyfuss were more than happy that this scenario never actually played out.