Monday, February 23, 2009

Happy Birthday!

Since the inception of Major League Baseball, there have been few challenges to the sport that were traumatic or had a lasting impact. However, in a nearly forgotten chapter of baseball's history, such an event occurred 95 years ago with the forceful addition of the Federal League to the already established American and National Leagues. The Federal League was an in-your-face outlaw league that was created specifically to challenge major league franchise owners.

In the Beginning...
The Federal League began it's life as a minor league organization (called the Columbia League) created by Chicago entrepreneur John T. Powers. Seeing the potential for large profits in baseball, Powers and a hand full of other wealthy elite created six teams: the Chicago Whales (or Chi-Feds), St. Louis Terriers, Cleveland Spiders, Pittsburgh Rebels, Indianapolis Hoosiers, Covington, Kentucky Blue Sox (who, after playing only six weeks, moved to Kansas City and became the Packers). This league distinguished itself by offering contracts only to free agents of the American and National Leagues.

The Challenger Emerges
The Columbia League proved to be commercially successful, and so it was decided that the teams take it to the next level. In 1914, the league's contributors replaced John Powers with James Gilmore. Gilmore changed their moniker to the Federal Baseball Club, billed the league as the third major league and "declared war" on the American and National Leagues. He also brought in some heavy hitters with money to burn, including Harry Sinclair of Sinclair Oil, and Robert Ward, a Brooklyn millionaire and owner of Tip-Top bakery. The newly minted Federal League expanded to eight teams: the Brooklyn Tip-Tops (named for Ward's business) and the Buffalo Blues (a.k.a. 'Buffeds') were added, while the Cleveland Spiders moved to Baltimore and became the Terrapins. Four new stadiums were built, including Weeghman Park in Chicago (we know it as Wrigley Field).
The most insidious change, however, was that Gilmore refused to honor the hated reserve clause of the other two leagues. The Federal League had significant advantages: small size, deep pockets, and a desire to see their franchise become successful. Almost immediately, major and minor league players, past and present, began signing up. Among the most famous were Joe Tinker (the first to sign), future Hall of Famer Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown, Frank "Home Run" Baker, Solly Hoffman, Danny Murphy, Howie Camnitz, Al Bridwell, Mikey Doolan, Doc Crandall, Russ Ford and Claude Hadix. Ty Cobb and Walter Johnson almost joined, but were lured back into their respective teams with wads of cash. This is the Federal Leagues first major impact on baseball - the competition of players and owners for large sums of money. Things were getting pretty serious for the Major League who eventually issued an ultimatum: any player defecting to the Federal League would be banned from Major League Baseball for life.

The Seasons
On April 13, 1914 the Federal League began their first season with the Buffalo Blues playing against the Baltimore Terrapins to a crowd of 27,140 people. These numbers remained consistent throughout the season, culminating in the championship game where the Indianapolis Hoosiers beat Chicago Whales by 1.5 games. Several stars emerged, including Benny Kauf, Dutch Zwilling, and Edd Roush. The 1915 season saw the Indianapolis team move to Newark, NJ and become the Peppers. Other Major League stars joined the league including, Eddie Plank, Chief Bender, Ed Konetchy, and Lee Magee. This season ended with the closest pennant race in baseball history with Chicago winning by .001 (or 1/10 of 1%) of a point over the St. Louis Terriers, and .004 over Pittsburgh.

End of an Era
The ultimatum issued by the Major League prompted the FL to file suit against them claiming that the reserve clause was a violation of anti-trust laws. Presiding over the case was Federal Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis (who would, in 1921 become baseball's first commissioner). Landis encouraged all three groups to negotiate a deal, which they eventually did. The resulting settlement allowed Charles Weeghman, owner of the Whales, to buy the Cubs, while Phil Ball, owner of the Terriers to purchase the St. Louis Browns. The other owners were offered $600,000 in cash. The players themselves were sold to the highest bidders. Meanwhile, the Blatimore Terrapins refused to settle. They filed a separate anti-trust suit against organized baseball and the former Federal League owners. The Supreme Court ruled in the case Federal Baseball Club v. National League (1922) that due to the fact that baseball was a game, it was not subjected to the same interstate commerse laws that governed all other businesses. To this day, Major League Baseball is the only organized sport to have anti-trust exempt status.


Baseball Reference
Baseball's Third Major League
Historic Baseball
Baseball Almanac

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GM-Carson said...

Very informative article, thank you. I learned something today.

npbcardguy said...

One other side effect of the Federal League was that due to competition from the Terrapins playing across the street from his ballpark, the owner of the Baltimore Orioles International League team was forced to sell the local pitcher that he had discovered to the Red Sox - Babe Ruth.

GM-Carson said...

Babe Ruth, why does that name sound so familiar?

Mr. A-Hole said...

I read this entire post hoping there was a joke to be had at the end, but there wasn't.

Burton said...

Joke's on you then! At least you read it. Sorry to disappoint.

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