SABR

Henry Killilea

This article was written by Dennis Pajot.

Henry J. Killilea is one of those men who were important in their time and are almost forgotten today. If he is mentioned at all in baseball circles, it is usually to credit him with putting together the first World Series of the twentieth century. But Henry Killilea was involved in baseball as an investor, an owner (twice), and trusted legal counsel. In addition, he was considered one of the best criminal and civil lawyers in his hometown, Milwaukee.

Henry’s parents, Matthew and Mary [nee: Muray] Killilea, were born in Ireland and immigrated to the United States in 1849, settling at the town of Poygan in Winnebago County, Wisconsin. On June 30, 1863, a son—Henry James—was born. The Killileas had three other children, John, Matthew and Mary. Henry grew up working on the family farm and attending the district schools. After graduation from high school Henry taught school in Clay Banks (Door County, Wisconsin) and Oakwood (Winnebago County).

In the fall of 1882 Henry entered the law department of the University of Michigan. During his time at Michigan he was the manager, center, and forward (rusher) on the football team, a wrestler, and captain of the baseball team. Years later a Milwaukee lawyer commented: “No one would ever surmise that Henry J. Killilea was at one time one of the crack baseball pitchers in amateur circles, but I can remember the time when he pitched for the University of Michigan team that he was one of the most effective twirlers in the West. He was strategic and skillful, possessed of considerable speed, and was a nervy young man, and when other teams played against the Varsity, Henry generally bowled them over.”1 It was said he had rejected an offer from the Detroit Tigers.2

Killilea graduated from the University of Michigan in 1885 and was admitted to the Wisconsin bar in September. He soon gained national fame defending activist labor leaders and politicians, and winning an acquittal of a teacher accused of murdering a student. He became a corporate lawyer for some of the city’s largest industries, and was active in the Democratic Party.

On December 6, 1888, Henry married Louise Meinderman, a native of Michigan, who had just graduated from the University of Michigan. The marriage produced two children, Florence and Harry.

Killilea remained active in amateur sports as a player, umpire, and referee. He owned trotting horses and pacers. He was an investor in the Milwaukee franchise in Ban Johnson’s new Western League, organized in late 1893. His younger brother Matthew was the club’s president. In the fall of 1899 Ban Johnson, Charles Comiskey, and Milwaukee manager Connie Mack met at Henry’s house at 1616 Grand Avenue, changed the league’s name from Western to American, put a team in Chicago, and laid the groundwork to challenge the National League’s monopoly on major league baseball. The articles of incorporation for the new Chicago Baseball club were written up in Killilea’s law offices in the Republican House Hotel, and notarized by Killilea.3

Matthew Killilea was still president of Milwaukee’s 1901 American League team, but late in the season he became ill, and Henry became directing head of the Brewers. After the season Ban Johnson announced the transfer of the Brewers to St. Louis, despite the Killileas’ objections. Henry sold his interest to a St. Louis syndicate for a reported $40,000; Matthew retained his share of the club, but died in July 1902.

Nevertheless, Henry Killilea was not completely out of American League baseball. In February 1902 he headed a group that purchased the Boston club from Charles Somers for about $60,000. Killilea retained Jimmy Collins as manager and hired Joseph Gavin as business manager.

For the 1902 season Killilea made improvements to the Huntington Avenue grounds and put Collins in charge of hiring players. Because of his law interests in Milwaukee, Killilea was definitely a “foreign” owner, seeing but a half dozen games in Boston. However, this did not seem to bother the Boston fans. Killilea made himself clear on his baseball philosophy: “I am perfectly satisfied to remain in the game in a financial way and let the men who follow the profession more closely attend to the managing end of the sport.”4 His Americans finished third with a 77-60 record. It was reported the Boston club made about $60,000. In the spring of 1903 Killilea said he had been offered $100,000 for the franchise, but had no intention of selling.

During the off-season a peace agreement was hammered out between the National League and American League. It was later said that next to AL president Ban Johnson, Henry Killilea was the principal factor in the peace agreement. Two years later Sporting Life called him “the godfather of the American League.”5 As the American League was placing a team in New York for the 1903 season, there were reports Killilea was interested in taking over that franchise. However, Henry immediately denied this, telling the press: “It is too ridiculous to consider. You can say for me that I have no more interest in the New York club than the man in the moon.”6

With the baseball trade war over, most clubs were cutting salaries. But Killilea gave Jimmy Collins carte blanche to put another strong team on the field in 1903. And Collins did, spending in the neighborhood of $56,000 on player salaries, and winning the American League pennant with a 91-47 record.

Talk of a championship series between Boston and NL champion Pittsburgh began in September. Killilea and Pirates owner Barney Dreyfuss made arrangements for a nine-game series beginning October 1, with the winning club taking 75 percent of the receipts, the losing club 25 percent. Immediately there were problems between Killilea and his players. The players’ contracts ran through September 30, and they refused to accept Killilea’s offers of either extending their contracts to October 15 or a division of the receipts with exemptions from expenses. The players wanted both a contract extension and a share of the receipts. Killilea rejected this and declared the series off. Negotiations between the players and Killilea resumed, and a settlement was reached. The players’ contracts were extended, and they would receive 50 percent of the club’s receipts to split.

The first “World’s Series” was played, Boston winning five of the eight games played. Barney Dreyfuss had promised his players all the Pirates’ share of the receipts if they won, and now decided to give his players all the receipts in view of their gallant fight. According to the October 24, 1903, Sporting Life, each member of the Pirates received a check for $1316. Each player of the victorious Boston club got $1182—just what was coming to them by agreement. Henry Kililea made $6699.

Boston fans were extremely upset over the ticket situation. Prices were raised for the series games in Boston. Almost all the grandstand tickets were turned over to speculators, who reaped a “rich harvest”7 from re-sale for some. (Bad weather in the final game caused some speculators to sell their tickets under face value.) Gambling was heavy on the series, even before the games began. Suspicions arose that some games were not on the level.8

Killilea was under fire from his players, fans, and the press. As early as November 1903 there were reports in the press of a sale, which Killilea denied. But there was little doubt he would sell if the price was right. The franchise was very successful, making a profit of about $50,000 in 1903.9 Ex-congressman John F. Fitzgerald and Killilea had a tentative deal for the sale of the club in March 1904, but Ban Johnson vetoed it. Finally in April the Boston Americans were sold to John Irving Taylor. The price was not made public but was believed to be close to $135,000.10 Killilea said he sold the club due to his business interests in Milwaukee, preventing him from making the necessary time for the baseball franchise.

After his retirement from the Red Sox Henry Killilea led less of a high profile life. On January 1, 1907, he became solicitor general in Wisconsin for the Chicago, Milwaukee St. Paul Railroad (better known as the Milwaukee Road), in which capacity he served until his death. It was apparent his skills in the rail industry were well known; during The Great War Killilea turned down an offer of the United States government to be general counsel for the railroads.

However, Killilea was still involved in baseball behind the scenes. He was the legal advisor to baseball’s National Commission in 1905. The next year Killilea was on the other side of the table, acting as American Association president Joseph O’Brien’s lawyer in a ball dispute with the National Commission. He defended umpire Brick Owens, who had been accused of betting on a game in which he officiated. In 1908 and ’09 he was counsel for the American Association and the Eastern League in a classification dispute with the National Association of Minor Leagues. A compromise was found in which both leagues received a higher classification, plus better drafting and territory privileges. Killilea’s skills in these cases brought praise from Sporting Life: “Not the least of Mr. Killilea’s merits was the fact the he successfully combined aggressiveness with diplomacy; that as author of the present National Agreement he was familiar with his ground at all times; and that he possessed the acquaintance, respect, and confidence of nearly all of the major league magnates. Such advantages are possessed by no other lawyer of this generation so far as the National game is concerned, and they make Mr. Killilea the chief of the very small coterie of ‘base ball lawyers’.”11 Reports after his death stated Killilea had been the legal counsel of the American League until Ban Johnson’s retirement in 1927.

Being a friend of both AL president Ban Johnson and Chicago White Sox owner Charles Comiskey, Killilea used this influence to reconcile the two a number of times. In 1902 Commy, Johnson, and Matt Killilea were quarreling, and Henry persuaded the league president and Chicago owner to shake hands over his brother’s grave. In 1906 the two big men in the American League were again in a two-year feud, Comiskey believing Johnson had crippled his team when he suspended some of his players. Again Killilea used his influence at the winter meeting to get the two to reconcile. Once again in September 1908 the Milwaukeean brought the feuding couple together.

Henry Killilea was more than a friend to Ban Johnson. He was possibly a life-saver. In his death notice in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, United Press staff writer Bert Demby wrote: “When Johnson’s last big fight [shortly before his retirement] came on, it was Killilea who realized first that Ban’s health would not permit him to indulge in the battle. Johnson was game and refusing to bow before Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, prepared to make his hardest fight. Killilea sought to save his friend’s life by issuing an announcement pledging Johnson’s retirement. It was plain that Johnson did not like this, but he finally realized his friend was right. There are many who believe that Killilea added many years to Johnson’s life by doing what he thought best for his friend.”12

In 1920 it was reported that Killilea was being considered to succeed Garry Herrmann as chairman of National Commission. Killilea denied any interest in the position.

From 1920 to 1927 Otto Borchert owned the Milwaukee Brewers of the American Association. On April 27, 1927, Borhcert died of a heart attack, his widow taking over the club. Henry Killilea had been Borchert’s personal lawyer and continued to look after the club. On January 3, 1928, Killilea purchased the Brewers for $280,000, the largest amount ever paid for a club in the American Association. The purchase did not include Athletic Park, where the ball team played. Killilea signed a 25-year lease with Mrs. Borchert, and immediately renamed the park Borchert Field.

Killilea promised Milwaukee fans he would go the limit to put a winning team on the field. The Brewers finished third with a 90-78 record. The club was also a financial success. Again Killilea came into praise from a newspaperman, this time from the Milwaukee Sentinel’s Manning Vaughn: “A club owner whose every move is not made for commercial purposes deserves the support of the public. Killilea’s record proves that there are still men in baseball who consider the national game a sport as well as a business. Owners of this type are great rarities in these days of dollar scrambling, and Milwaukee is fortunate in having a man directing its baseball fortunes who is sportsman enough to give the customers a real run for their money.13

Unfortunately, Milwaukee fans would not have this “great rarity” to run the club for long. About two years prior to this winning season Killilea had suffered an infection on the neck while in Hot Springs, Arkansas, with Otto Borchert. He was ill for two weeks and then took a trip to South America for his health. He then was involved in an accident, suffering several fractured ribs and a shoulder injury when he dodged an automobile. In March 1928 he was hospitalized with pleurisy.

On January 7, 1929, Killilea had a heart attack in his office at the Majestic Building. He was admitted to Milwaukee Hospital and appeared to be improving, until he suffered a stroke of paralysis a week later. He soon lapsed into a coma and never regained consciousness. He died on January 23, 1929. At his side were his son and daughter, Florence—who had been with him constantly since his stroke.

The funeral service was attended by Kenesaw Mountain Landis, NL president John Heydler, AL president E.S. Barnard, Thomas Hickey, president of the American Association, Ban Johnson, Connie Mack, Phil Ball, owner of the St. Louis Browns, Michigan athletic director Fielding Yost, and numerous others. Henry Killilea was put to rest in Milwaukee’s Calvary Cemetery.

Killilea willed the Milwaukee baseball club to his daughter Florence, who was president of the club until she died at the age of 29 on June 15, 1931.

The day after Killilea’s death Milwaukee Sentinel sports editor George Downer wrote, “It was always refreshing and inspiring to meet and talk with Henry Killilea. He was unvaryingly cordial and gracious but never effusive. One felt at once that here was a man whose friendship was sincere and whose enthusiasms were genuine. Never ostentatious, he was always ready to help a friend. On one occasion he remarked to the writer that there had never been a time in the preceding twenty-five years when he was not assisting some deserving young man through the University of Michigan. Some of these boys were athletes—but not all of them. There were many whose names were never blazoned in the sport page headlines. These men were one of the gifts to the university to which he felt he owned so much….He never drank or smoked and once his heavy day’s work was out of the way, loved nothing so much as a quiet evening at home with a few friends. Few knew that he wrote excellent verse and when in a small circle of close and sympathetic friends he would recite some of his own poems.”14

 

Sources

Aikens, Andrew J., and Lewis A. Proctor. Men of Progress. Wisconsin: A Selected List of Biographical Sketches and Portraits of the Leaders in Business, Professional and Official Life: Together with Short Notes on The History and Character of Wisconsin. Madison: Evening Wisconsin, 1897.

Bentley Historical Library of University of Michigan Athletics History, undated newspaper clippings.

Berryman, John R. History of the Bench and Bar of Wisconsin. Vol. 1. Madison: n. p., 1898.

Buege, Bob. “The Birth of the American League.” SABR 31 convention booklet.

Michiganensian, (University of Michigan yearbook) 1912.

Milwaukee Journal, various years.

Milwaukee Sentinel, various years.

The Palladium (University of Michigan yearbook) 1884.

Pittsburgh Press, Various issues 1903, 1904, 1929.

Sporting Life, various issues.

Stout, Glenn, and Richard A. Johnson. Red Sox Century: The Definitive History of Baseball’s Most Storied Franchise. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004.

  • 1. Milwaukee Sentinel, March 4, 1897.
  • 2. Milwaukee Journal, September 23, 1929.
  • 3. Articles of Incorporation of the American League Base Ball Club of Chicago, March 5, 1900—as reprinted in Bob Buege’s article “The Birth of the American League” in SABR 31 booklet.
  • 4. Sporting Life, November 8, 1902, p. 3.
  • 5. Sporting Life, July 2, 1904, p. 1.
  • 6. Sporting Life, November 8, 1902, p. 3.
  • 7. Sporting Life, October 24, 1903, p. 7.
  • 8. See Glenn Stout and Richard A. Johnson, Red Sox Century: The Definitive History of Baseball’s Most Storied Franchise (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004), pp. 27-44, for details on the gambling and likelihood of thrown games.
  • 9. Ibid., p. 51.
  • 10. The source for the $135,000 price is the Milwaukee Journal April 19, 1904 and Sporting Life April 23, 1904 p. 5. Other sources give price as $125,000 (Sporting Life, April 30, 1904, p. 3), and $145,000 (Red Sox Century, p. 52).
  • 11. Sporting Life, December 19, 1908, p. 6.
  • 12. Pittsburgh Post Gazette, January 23, 1929.
  • 13. Milwaukee Sentinel, August 14, 1928.
  • 14. Milwaukee Sentinel, January 24, 1929.
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