Q&A with Daniel R. Levitt, winner of 2013 Larry Ritter Book Award

Editor's note: Daniel R. Levitt was recently announced as the winner of the 2013 Larry Ritter Book Award, for "The Battle That Forged Modern Baseball: The Federal League Challenge and Its Legacy," published by Ivan R. Dee. The award is given by SABR's Deadball Era Research Committee for the best book related to the Deadball Era published in the previous year. In this Q&A originally published in the Deadball Committee's May 2013 newsletter, Bill Lamb asks Dan Levitt to elaborate on matters covered in his superb chronicle of the Federal League.

Bill: Dan, congratulations on winning the Ritter Award. How did you get started writing about baseball and what was your first published piece?

Dan: I’ve always been interested in baseball history and had been an avid consumer of the Baseball Research Journal for many years. Around 1995 I came across an entry in an old sports encyclopedia that credited Ferdie Schupp with the single season ERA record of 0.90 in 1916, more recently usually credited to Dutch Leonard for his 0.96 ERA in 1914. After further research it was clear that Schupp was the acknowledged leader at the time and for many years thereafter. Based on the tenet that we don’t retroactively re-award titles because of changes in the qualifications for league leadership, only actual errors in the playing record, I concluded that Schupp should still be recognized as the ERA leader for 1916 and consequently, the single season record holder (Schupp pitched only 140 innings that season). I decided to write up my findings and submit the article to SABR. It was a thrill when my article was published in the 1996 BRJ.

One of the great things about SABR is all the friendships one forms. Over the next several years I corresponded with Mark Armour, whom I had met at a convention, on various aspects of team building — why some teams are successful and some aren’t. After a year or two, we thought we might have the makings of a book. We put together a couple of chapters on specific teams we thought were interesting and contacted Christina Kahrl, the sports editor at what was then Brassey’s. We knew Christina a little through SABR, and Mark also knew her through Baseball Prospectus. Essentially we asked Christina to review our work and let us know if she thought we had the makings of a publishable book. And if so, did she have any advice on how to proceed. Fortunately, not only did Christina think we had a book, she said Brassey’s would publish it. That submittal eventually became Paths to Glory: How Great Baseball Teams Got That Way, which came out in 2003 (editor's note: it won the TSN-SABR Baseball Research Award.)

Bill: What prompted you to select the Federal League as a book subject?

Dan: My book really focuses the struggle between the Federal League and Organized Baseball, which I believe is both an interesting and significant story. As the last league to challenge major league baseball as a major league, the Federal League posed a real and substantial challenge to baseball’s prevailing structure. The existing American and National leagues, along with the minor leagues, fought back furiously in the press, in the courts, and on the field, making for many fascinating and fun-to-read stories. Moreover, this bitter struggle was consequential: it represented the last chance that baseball’s organizational structure would develop along a different path. After the final settlement with the Federal League, baseball’s monopoly and hierarchical structure never again faced more than a token challenge.

Players from the Chicago Whales ride in a parade to celebrate the opening of the 1915 Federal League season.Players from the Chicago Whales ride in a parade to celebrate the opening of the 1915 Federal League season.Bill: Robert Peyton Wiggins’s excellent work The Federal League of Base Ball Clubs won the Ritter Award in 2010. To what extent, if any, were you influenced by Wiggins’s work and how would you distinguish your account of the Federal League from his?

Dan: I like Wiggins's book and recommend it for anyone wanting an authoritative account of the Federal League. My book looks not so much at the Federal League itself and what happened on the field — except as it relates to the overall story — but on the struggle between the leagues. It spends as much time in the board rooms of Organized Baseball as it does within the Federal League. To this end too, I look at a long story arc, introducing the battle with background dating back to the introduction of the first sports leagues in the mid nineteenth century. Another book I strongly recommend is Marc Okkonen’s book on the Federal League published by SABR in 1989, especially for its photographs, rosters, and park diagrams.

Bill: As a financial expert, how would you have rated the Federal League’s prospects for long-term success in the Spring of 1914? Would you have advised a client to invest in the FL? Why/why not?

Dan: I think that from the perspective of early 1914, one could have reasonably believed in the Federal League’s eventual success — defined as being either partially or fully absorbed or recognized within Organized Baseball’s structure. Previous new leagues had succeeded with some regularity, and America had seen huge urban growth over the previous 40 years. The number of cities with over 300,000 people grew from three in 1870 — New York (lumping Brooklyn and New York together), Philadelphia and St. Louis — to eighteen in 1910. Moreover, the Federals had lined up a pretty solid group of owners and had a reasonable expectation that they would receive some protection under the federal antitrust statutes.

Bill: In your estimation, who were the most competent FL executives/club owners? Who were the weakest?

Dan: Interestingly, ownership of Federal League franchises fell into two distinct classes based on the location of the team. Those teams competing directly with major league franchises — Brooklyn, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and St, Louis — were principally owned by wealthy individuals. The wealth of these owners compared favorably with those in the major leagues, and all were aggressive in signing players and establishing respectable ballparks. Robert Ward in Brooklyn and Charlie Weeghman in Chicago were particularly aggressive in fielding quality teams in quality ballparks. Weeghman saw an opportunity for a team on the North side and its 800,000 or so residents (at the time the Cubs played on the old West side). He built a nice facility (now Wrigley Field) and probably outdrew the Cubs (In the book I discuss the various estimates of Federal League attendance and my educated guesses). Unfortunately for Ward, though, the Dodgers consistently outdrew his Tip Tops, and he could never really differentiate his squad. The other two, Phil Ball in St. Louis and Edward Gwinner in Pittsburgh, were both engaged and capable.

On the other hand, the four teams located in cities with only minor league franchises — Baltimore, Buffalo, Indianapolis, and Kansas City — were initially owned by large syndicates of several hundred smaller investors. Many residents of these cities felt that their city was “major” and should be represented by major league baseball. Moreover, in those days before the Securities and Exchange Commission, all sorts of claims could be made regarding how investing in a team could lead to great wealth. One prospectus used Charles Comiskey as an example of how a person could amass wealth owning a baseball team. Unfortunately, this method of capitalization left little margin for error. When the teams lost more money than anticipated, they ran through their meager reserves quickly and were left with no obvious avenue to raise more funds. The small investors had little interest in putting up more money as the losses mounted. In fact, Robert Ward funded much of the deficit for Kansas City, Indianapolis, and probably Buffalo, in addition to his own team. Baltimore drew the best of these teams and was also the best capitalized; it was the only one of the four that was still solvent at the end in 1915.

Bill: American League President Ban Johnson looms large in your account of the FL’s struggle for survival. Can you give us a thumbnail sketch of the role that Johnson played in the FL’s demise?

Dan: Ban Johnson took as a hard a line against the Federals as anyone in Organized Baseball. First of all, he actively enforced the blacklist. For example, in one instance he sent an obscure newspaper clipping from a small town newspaper to National Commission chairman Garry Herrmann noting a minor leaguer playing with Federals.    He included a note reminding Herrmann to make sure that player was put on the ineligible list. Johnson was also outspoken in the press, publicly touting the Federal’s weaknesses, that they had no chance of success and should just be ignored.

Johnson also deserves most of the credit for Organized Baseball’s brilliant legal strategy relative to player contracts. In previous battles Organized Baseball went into court to keep players from jumping — even those who had expired contracts — by claiming that they were still bound to their existing team by the reserve clause. Organized Baseball almost universally lost these cases, as the courts ruled the reserve clause non-binding. Johnson did not want to give the Federals the moral boost of having the courts again declare the reserve clause non-binding. He discouraged distraught Organized Baseball owners from suing over the reserve clause to pursue any players they had lost. Instead, he counseled a strategy of simply ignoring Federal League contracts and re-signing any player that had signed with the Federals — by offering more money, telling the player the Federals were doomed to failure and threatening the blacklist. This worked in a surprising number of cases and forced the Federals to be the ones to initiate the court cases against the players for jumping their contracts. The players who re-signed with Organized Baseball often did better in court than one might have expected given the facts of the cases, due to generally better lawyers and the ostensible moral standing of the big leagues. Johnson’s legal strategy significantly limited the potential damage from player defections.

Bill: Late in the 1914 season, challenges for a post-season match were issued by various baseball organizations, with the Federal League being challenged by both the Double AA American Association and Rube Foster. How would you handicap a seven-game series between the FL champion Indianapolis Hoofeds and the AA Milwaukee Brewers? How about the FL Chicago Chifeds against Foster’s American Giants?

Dan: I think the Federals fell somewhere between the majors and top minors in terms of playing strength, and the Hoofeds would likely have beaten the Brewers. I’m not enough of an expert on Black baseball from the era to predict how the Chifeds would have fared against Foster’s club. My guess is that it would have been a pretty good series.

Bill: In your opinion, did the Players Fraternity fumble the chance to advance its interests presented by the arrival of the Federal League? If so, what accounts for that?

Bill McKechnieBill McKechnieDan: The major league owners feared the existence of the FL at least as much for its boost to the players union as to the economic impact of the new league itself. With the demise of the FL, Organized Baseball could turn the full weight of its financial and moral authority against the union. The first major clash came in the 1916-17 offseason when union leader Dave Fultz threatened to have the players — both major and minor leaguers — strike over what were essentially minor league work rules. It is hard to understand Fultz’s decision to risk a strike over these demands. Many of the major league players had absorbed large pay cuts and may have been willing to take some sort of collective action, but it would only have been over issues directly affecting their pocketbook. To expect major league players, unaccustomed to collective action, to strike against prepared employers for several uninspiring demands was naïve. Fultz also completely misread the intransigence of the owners. When they rejected the players’ demands, the players quickly caved, and the owners effectively repudiated their previous recognition of the union.

As I discuss in the book, I believe it unlikely the Players Fraternity could have survived as a viable entity even if run differently. The baseball magnates, like owners in other industries, despised and feared collective action by employees, and without meaningful competition for player services the owners had little to fear from hard-line tactics. And as Marvin Miller proved in the long incubation period he believed he needed to solidify the players, sports are a particularly difficult arena in which to build the solidarity necessary for collective bargaining. Because of an ingrained loyalty to team and a heightened sense of individual accomplishment, players need a sustained organizing campaign to prepare them for the rigors of collective action. All that being said, the major league owners and the National Commission still paid lip service to the union in 1916. Had the Fraternity concentrated solely on the most egregious individual cases of player exploitation at the major league level and stayed away from unimportant confrontations, it is just possible that some sort of independent union could have survived.

Bill: In retrospect, is there anything that you think the FL could have done – in terms of player recruitment strategy, choice of venues, litigation tactics, etc. – that might have enhanced its chances to succeed? Or was the Federal League doomed to failure from the start?

Dan: Previous leagues that had succeeded — again, defined as being either partially or fully absorbed or recognized within Organized Baseball’s structure — did so relative quickly. I think that one of issues for the Federals was that they did not realize the full enmity or solidarity of Organized Baseball. The National League had been a much more fragile and fractured entity when the American Association and American League respectively achieved recognition. The Federals needed to prepare for a longer battle, though in fairness, with the undercapitalized ownership syndicates in the minor league cities, this may never really have been possible. The Feds also suffered a huge blow when Robert Ward died in October 1915. Had Ward survived the Feds might have held out for another year or two and put a team in New York.

The lack of antitrust protection also hurt the FL. They would have had a much better chance at success had Organized Baseball not been able to implement a blacklist, publicly denigrate their product and chance of survival and virtually ignore their contracts. The last was not only an antirust issue; the courts were often surprisingly generous to Organized Baseball in their interpretation of the contract disputes.

Bill: It has been almost 100 years since the Federal League departed the baseball scene and since that time, random plans for another third major league have never gotten off the drawing board. In your opinion, is there a third major league anywhere in the foreseeable future?

Dan: I don’t really see how. All the largest cities have teams and population growth has slowed. A third major league would have to succeed by placing second teams in established major league cities. The biggest issue here would be playing venues. Teams and their host governmental bodies have spent hundreds of millions of dollars building stadiums. Any new team would be relegated to a substandard location. Moreover, finding players would be much more difficult. Now that players are paid their market wage with the advent of free agency, they would have much less incentive to jump to the new league.

It would be a long shot, but the only new league I could envision would be an international one. If several very wealthy investors, the majority from offshore, looked at a league with one or more teams in some of the middle and upper income baseball hungry countries, such as Mexico, Venezuela, Japan, Korea, several cities in the US, and potentially some other South American, Asian or even European cities, they might get some traction.

Daniel R. Levitt of Minneapolis oversees capital markets for a national commercial real estate firm and is the author of several acclaimed books on baseball.

This page was last updated May 21, 2013 at 4:10 pm MST.

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