The American League came to be in 1900. It was formed by joining together several minor league teams (and not by splitting off from the National League).
In 1900, Ban Johnson (president of the Western League, the strongest of the minor leagues) and Charles Comiskey (who owned the Chicago White Sox franchise) wanted an open competition with the National League. So, they created the American League.
The American League joined the majors in 1901, and the Chicago White Sox won the very first American League pennant. Winning the Pennant in either league was the pinnacle of success as the two leagues did not compete against each other in the World Series until 1903 when each league sent one team - the one that won their respective Pennant - to the World Series. That practice continues until today (with the exception of two years - 1904 and 1994.
Why the leagues are named so similarly "American" and "National" remains a mystery; "American League" may be a throwback to the previous NL competitor, American Association. The American league is Yankees, Rangers. The Nationals league is Phillies, Mets, Braves, Giants, Nationals, Redsox, Cardinals and Pirates.
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