Federal League Park in Indianapolis, looking in from the right-field fence. (Indianapolis News, January 27, 1917)

Federal League Park (Indianapolis, IN)

This article was written by Bill Lamb


Federal League Park in Indianapolis, looking in from the right-field fence. (Indianapolis News, January 27, 1917)Federal League Park in Indianapolis, looking in from the right-field fence. (Indianapolis News, January 27, 1917)

 

Specifically constructed in 1914 to serve as the home field for the Indianapolis Hoosiers, Federal League Park was a state-of-the-art steel and concrete stadium with a seating capacity in excess of 20,000. Only three years later, the handsome new ballpark was a memory, demolished to make way for a railroad freight terminal. Its brief existence, however, was not without some distinction. Built upon a former cemetery location, Federal League Park is perhaps the only ballpark in major league history where the game was played upon grounds that likely held human remains. Federal League Park is also a rarity in that in its lone season as a big-league venue, it hosted a championship club: the pennant-winning Indianapolis Hoosiers of the Federal League. After the Hoosiers were relocated to Newark for the 1915 season, Federal League Park served as the occasional home field of a renowned black club, the Indianapolis ABCs, and was the site of a pre-Negro Leagues championship series. The paragraphs below recall this short-lived, now long-forgotten ballpark.

Baseball in Indianapolis

A Midwestern manufacturing and transportation hub, Indianapolis is located in the center of Indiana and serves as the state capital. Following the Civil War, the city enjoyed a spurt of growth and prosperity, affording its middle and working classes time for leisure activities, including baseball. In 1877, an Indianapolis club became a member of the National League surrogate League Alliance.1 But Indianapolis proved not quite large enough to sustain a major league baseball team, seeing National League (1878) and American Association (1884) franchises succumb after single seasons. A subsequent enterprise, the John T. Brush-led Indianapolis Hoosiers, survived three seasons of National League play before being liquidated by league decree as a strategic measure in the run-up to the Players League War of 1890. Thereafter, Indy found its footing in late-19th century minor leagues, capturing Western League crowns in 1895, 1897, and 1899. Squeezed out of the circuit when the American (née Western) League assumed major league status in 1901, a reorganized Indianapolis club, now called the Indians, became a cornerstone franchise of the high-minor American Association early in the new century.

These first Indianapolis ball clubs played at a variety of locations until the Indianapolis Indians settled into a permanent home at Washington Park II in 1905. The Indians would remain stationed there until midway through 1931. In 1913, however, a competitor arrived upon the scene, the Indianapolis Hoosiers of the newly formed Federal League, a six-club Midwest minor league circuit operating outside the National Agreement.2 The outlaw Hoosiers found a site at Riverside Beach Park and set about building a spacious 16,000-seat ballpark there.3 The club then delighted supporters by capturing the inaugural FL pennant.

Against the odds, the Federal League not only survived its maiden campaign, but was intent upon expanding to the East Coast and declaring itself a major league for the 1914 season. With a population now topping the quarter-million mark, Indianapolis was bent on stepping up to major league status as well. But for reasons now obscure, Hoosiers brass made the decision to abandon Riverside Beach Park and seek new grounds.

From Cemetery to Ballpark

Located near the White River that winds through downtown Indianapolis, Greenlawn Cemetery was a venerable seven-acre graveyard in which many of the city’s earliest inhabitants were interred. Greenlawn was also the final resting place of Civil War casualties. In 1907, a small section of the cemetery was acquired by the Vandalia Railroad, a freight carrier needing space to expand its nearby repair shop and roundhouse facilities.4 This necessitated the disinterment of generations-old corpses. But with many long-deceased and without a grave marker, an untold number of dead were likely undiscovered and remained where they had been buried.

At the conclusion of the 1913 season, Hoosiers officials surveyed the city for a suitable site for the erection of another brand-new ballpark. Designation of the site was a matter of some urgency, as Federal League club owners had placed an October 31 deadline on announcement of ballpark relocations for the 1914 season.5 Taking a cue from the Vandalia Railroad, club management quickly set its sights on another swath of Greenlawn Cemetery.6 The management’s target was not without critics bemoaning the further desecration of a historic local burying ground.7 And if the Vandalia Railroad precedent was any guide, unmarked graves would remain undiscovered, leading to baseball games being played atop human remains. But the location of Greenlawn Cemetery – within walking distance of downtown and with a trolley line running right past the grounds – made it an ideal spot for the Hoosiers’ new ballpark. With the deadline looming for playing site selections, club officials revealed that they had just secured a “lease with privilege to purchase” on Greenlawn Cemetery.8 For the short term, the cemetery property was not purchased, but leased for $4,200 per year, and not by the club, but by its shareholders, who signed a five-year lease, with an option to buy within that time span for $76,000.9

The Hoosiers’ latest home embodied features of a modern ballpark. As designed by architect Victor H. Winterrowd, Federal League Park was a concrete and steel stadium akin to those recently opened in Philadelphia and Boston. The ballpark blueprint called for an L-shaped grandstand behind home-plate anchored by latticed steel columns set in concrete, which was to seat 8,800 spectators.10 Unlike recently-constructed twin-tiered ballparks such as Fenway Park, Weeghman Park (later Wrigley Field), and Ebbets Field, the new Indianapolis ballpark was primarily a one-story structure, much cheaper to build. A small second-story enclosure housing five boxes for club officials and the press was placed directly above the home plate grandstand. Well-heeled fans were accommodated by 62 front-row boxes ringing the infield.11 The main ballpark entrance as well as three exits were also located in the grandstand. Even with all this, the grandstand came with a relatively economical $75,000 price tag,12 while construction costs in total probably inched above the $100,000 mark.

Overseeing construction was general contractor Lynn B. Millikan, himself a major shareholder in the Hoosiers franchise and a member of the club board of directors.13 The new ballpark’s grandstand was roofed and extended past first and third base. Open bleacher sections continued further down the foul lines and extended into left and left-center field, with a separate entrance for automobiles and ample parking placed behind the third base and outfield bleacher sections.14 When completed, the seating capacity of Federal League Park would approach 23,000.15 The playing field dimensions – LF: 375; CF: 400; RF: 310 – were appropriate for the late Deadball Era.16 To discourage freeloaders and other non-paying spectators from eavesdropping on game action, the entire grounds of Federal League Park were encased in a 12-foot-high fence.17

The new ballpark’s inhabitants were direct competitors of the city’s established ball club, the Indianapolis Indians of the American Association. Nonetheless, the local establishment readily embraced the outlaw Hoosiers. Turning over the first shovel of dirt when Federal League Park construction began in late January was no less an official personage than Indianapolis mayor Joseph E. Bell.18 Hoosiers club president J. Edward Krause, Federal League dignitaries and nearly 1,000 spectators attended the groundbreaking, the ceremony briefly marred when the crowd turned on two Hungarian immigrants who had arrived seeking highly coveted ballpark construction jobs.19

Site excavation exposed crumbling grave markers and human remains,20 but doubtless other burial plots remained undiscovered and intact as the ballpark took shape. No matter. Of more concern to club officials and construction contractors was a Bethlehem Steel Company plant production slowdown that kept steel from reaching the job site until late February.21 With the Hoosiers beginning the season on the road, workers scrambled to have the new ballpark ready for the April 23 home opener. Improvements included a complete sodding of the playing field and the installation of amenities for the fans – particularly the ladies, who would enjoy lavish (for their time) restroom facilities.22 Well-heated dressing rooms and showers with instant hot water awaited the players.23 Just prior to the season’s start, the grounds were unveiled to thousands attending “Inspection Day.” As the throng looked on, the sodding of the playing field was completed and the skin portion of the infield rolled smooth and gradually sloping away from the pitcher’s mound.24 About all that awaited was delivery and erection of the 70-foot center field flag pole ordered by club business manager Bill Watkins.25

On April 23, 1914, major league baseball returned to Indianapolis for the first time in 25 years. Preceding the game was a half-mile parade through downtown to the ballpark, complete with marching bands and festooned automobiles carrying local dignitaries and officials from the two opposing ball clubs.26 Upon arrival, a crowd of about 18,000 paid their way into Federal League Park to see the hometown Hoosiers face the St. Louis Terriers. Following a welcoming speech by club president Krause, Indiana Governor Samuel M. Ralston took the mound to throw a ceremonial first pitch – high and outside – to Mayor Bell.27 Those in attendance then settled down to observe a pitching duel between Hoosiers ace Cy Falkenberg and Terriers left-hander Hank Keupper. After eight scoreless frames, a final-inning Terriers rally proved the difference in a 3-0 St. Louis victory that disappointed hometown fans, but otherwise did little to detract from the success of the ballpark opening.28

Once the Hoosiers went on the road, improvements at the ballpark resumed. In early May, a large scoreboard costing $1,200 was erected atop the bleacher-less right field wall. A bulletin board prominently displaying advertisements was placed nearby, while club offices situated within the bowels of the grandstand were upgraded.29 And once the center field flagpole was in place, the Hoosiers’ 1913 Federal League championship banner was hoisted aloft.30

The opening day defeat notwithstanding, the Hoosiers thrived at Federal League Park, posting an impressive 53-23 (.697) home record. But ballpark attendance did not keep pace, with the club averaging fewer than 2,700 fans per discoverable home date.31 Thus, the club’s capture of the Federal League crown – with an 88-65 (.575) record overall – did not ensure its continued survival. To the contrary, the Hoosiers were in serious financial distress, finishing the 1914 season over $100,000 in debt.32 Nor was the club structured to absorb hefty losses.

Unlike other FL operations, the Indianapolis Hoosiers were not controlled by a deep-pocketed businessman like Charles Weeghman (Chicago), Otto Stifel (St. Louis), or the Ward brothers (Brooklyn). The Hoosiers, rather, were a stock club underwritten by almost 400 individual investors who held shares in team ownership. This structure made efforts to raise much-needed cash as the season progressed difficult, if not impossible. Indeed, only a discreet loan from Brooklyn club owners had allowed the Hoosiers to complete their pennant-winning campaign. In lieu of cash repayment, Indianapolis’s best players, star outfielder Benny Kauff (.370) and staff anchor Cy Falkenberg (25-16), were quietly ticketed for Brooklyn in 1915. A substantial debt owed by the Indianapolis club to the Federal League itself, however, remained outstanding.

During the offseason, the club’s unresolved debt problem and an unwieldy and fractious ownership group made the Indianapolis Hoosiers an inviting takeover target. And once oil tycoon Harry Sinclair’s attempt to acquire the bankrupt Kansas City Packers had been stymied by court injunction, Federal League officials anxious to have Sinclair’s fortune injected into their circuit dangled the prospect of ownership of the Indianapolis franchise before him. Unhappy but without a viable alternative, Indianapolis shareholders acquiesced to surrender of the franchise, and Sinclair was amenable to the takeover, provided a Sinclair condition was met by the FL: relocation of the Hoosiers franchise to Newark.

Among the terms that enabled the removal of the club to the Garden Sate was Sinclair’s assumption of $76,000 in Indianapolis club debt and FL agreement to pay the $4,200 rental on Federal League Park for the 1915 season.33 That closed the deal to consign the Hoosiers to Harry Sinclair and the club’s removal to Newark. And with it, the brief run of Indianapolis’s brand-new ballpark as a major league venue came to an end.

Random Use to Demolition

While the Indianapolis franchise prepared to take its leave, sporadic activity continued at Federal League Park. Occasional club football games and boxing cards were held on the grounds in autumn 1914 as the future of the ballpark remained uncertain. In March 1915, litigation instituted by a disgruntled Hoosiers franchise shareholder led to the appointment of a receiver for Federal League Park.34 For a time, Indianapolis Indians club owner James C. McGill dickered with receiver Edward W. Pierson about assuming the lease to Federal League Park for his club.35 But McGill was outbid by former Hoosiers club treasurer John A. George, who, acting in the interest of original Indianapolis franchise investors, acquired title to the ballpark at a bargain price of $16,296.70.36 Under its new ownership, Federal League Park was available “for rent for athletic contests and other events suited to the park.”37

For the remainder of the year, Federal League Park hosted amateur and semipro baseball games, high school track and field meets, boxing cards, college and club football games, and barnstorming major league aggregations. But the star attraction was the Indianapolis ABCs, the city’s renowned black club, which relocated high-profile games from its undersized home grounds to Federal League Park.38 In late October 1916, the ABCs defeated the Chicago American Giants in five games to claim the title of champion “colored team of the west.”39 The first three of those contests were played in Indianapolis at Federal League Park.40 A month thereafter, death notices were posted for the ballpark.

On November 30, 1916, the page one banner headline of the Indianapolis Star blared: “Traction Lines Buy Federal Ball Park.”41 The extensive article printed below revealed that a consortium of Indiana railway freight haulers had purchased the ballpark in order to place a $400,000 freight terminal on the grounds.42 The purchase price, however, was not disclosed. In late January 1917, the Indianapolis News published a photo of empty and forlorn Federal League Park, the only discovered image of the ballpark.43 Demolition began sometime thereafter, and by its third birthday the ballpark was gone. A century later, the one-time site of Federal League Park is home to the Diamond Supply Company, manufacturer of industrial equipment, and within a long fly ball of a new minor league ballpark (Victory Field) and an NFL stadium (Lucas Oil Stadium). But while the area remains awash with sports activity, no memento of handsome but short-lived Federal League Park graces downtown Indianapolis.

 

Acknowledgments

This story was originally published in the June 2021 issue of The Palaces of the Fans, the semiannual newsletter of SABR’s Ballparks Research Committee.

This version was reviewed by Rory Costello and Norman Macht and fact-checked by Kevin Larkin.

 

Sources

The sources for the information provided above are specified in the endnotes.

 

Notes

1 Established in 1877 by the National League as a vehicle for controlling independent professional ball clubs, the League Alliance allowed constituent members to affiliate with the NL and thereby receive recognition of their player contracts. League Alliance clubs also played random games against NL clubs as well as against each other. For more, see Robert Warrington, “Philadelphia in the 1882 League Alliance,” SABR Baseball Research Journal, Vol. 48, No. 2 (Fall 2019).

2 For a complete history of the Federal League, see Daniel R. Levitt, The Battle That Forged Modern Baseball: The Federal League Challenge and Its Legacy (Lanham, Maryland: Ivan R. Dee, 2012), and Robert Peyton Wiggins, The Federal League of Base Ball Clubs: The History of an Outlaw Major League, 1914-1915 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2009).

3 Riverside Beach Park is not to be confused with Riverside Park (aka Washington Park I), an undersized wooden ballpark also located in downtown Indianapolis and built in 1904.

4 For more on Greenlawn Cemetery, see Dawn Mitchell, “A Coffin, a Corpse and a Baseball Field: The Strange History of Indianapolis’ Greenlawn Cemetery,” Indianapolis Star, published on-line April 16, 2019.

5 Per “Hoosier Federals to Select Site for New Park Today,” Indianapolis Star, October 29, 1913: 9.

6 See Eddie Ash, “Reorganization of the Local Fed Club Next on Program,” Indianapolis Star, October 30, 1913: 10.

7 See e.g., “From Cemetery to Ball Park,” Indianapolis News, February 3, 1914: 13.

8 As reported by Ash in “Federal League Magnates Here and Ready for War,” Indianapolis Star, November 1, 1913: 11.

9 Per Wiggins, The Federal League of Base Ball Clubs, above at 189. Title holder to the real property was likely the heirs of the Greenlawn Cemetery burial plot owners. See “Suit to Quiet Title,” Indianapolis News, February 14, 1917: 11. But the identity of the owners of the new ballpark is unclear.

10 As per Eddie Ash, “Bush and Dauss Sign with Tigers,” Indianapolis Star, January 18, 1914: 15.

11 See “Outline Sketch of Main Grand Stand at Federal Ball Park,” Indianapolis News, January 23, 1914: 8.

12 Per “Club Awards Contract,” (Little Rock) Arkansas Gazette, January 18, 1914: 21. See also, Ash, “Bush and Dauss Sign,” above.

13 A year earlier, contractor Millikan had overseen construction of Riverside Beach Park.

14 Ash, “Bush and Dauss Sign,” above.

15 Same as above.

16 Per the Indianapolis entry in Marc Okkonen, The Federal League of 1914-1915: Baseball’s Third Major League (Garrett Park, Maryland: SABR 1989), 57. The Seamheads Ballparks Database dimensions for Federal League Park are somewhat different: LF: 378; CF; 428; RF: 304.

17 “Outline Sketch of Main Grand Stand at Federal Ball Park,” Indianapolis News, January 23, 1914: 8.

18 See “Mayor Bell Will Officiate at Start of Work on New Federal League Park,” Indianapolis Star, January 23, 1914: 10.

19 As reported by Ralston Goss in “Starting Work on Federal Park,” Indianapolis Star, January 27, 1914: 10. Deep-seated hostility toward those who did not embody the WASP ideal of Americanism would place Indiana at the epicenter of the Ku Klux Klan revival of the early 1920s.

20 See again, Dawn Mitchell, above.

21 Per Ralston Goss, “Mixing ‘Em Up,” Indianapolis Star, February 19, 1914: 10.

22 See “Comfort Rooms Are Installed for Ladies at New Federal Park,” Indianapolis News, April 10, 1914: 20.

23 Same as above.

24 As reported in “Thousands Go to View New Federal Park,” Indianapolis Star, April 13, 1914: 7.

25 Same as above.

26 Per “Fed Parade Is Some Stunt with Bands and Everything,” Indianapolis Star, April 24, 1914: 13.

27 See “Feds Back ‘P.T.’ Off the Boards,” Indianapolis Star, April 24, 1914: 13, complete with photo of Governor Ralston showing his hurling form. Ralston’s second attempt to throw a strike ended in the dirt, while a third Ralston fastball cut the plate, but Mayor Bell muffed the catch.

28 As reflected in “Hoosiers Ready to Square Away after Setback in Opener,” Indianapolis News, April 24, 1914: 24.

29 See “New Score Board,” Indianapolis Star, May 6, 1914: 10.

30 Per “Sixth Pennant to Grace Indianapolis to Be Raised,” Indianapolis News, June 12, 1914: 21.

31 Attendance figures for the 1914 Federal League season were not located. But for the 15 specific Indianapolis home dates that Retrosheet provides attendance numbers for, the Hoosiers drew an average crowd of 2,677.

32 Per Wiggins, The Federal League of Base Ball Clubs, 189, citing an unidentified issue of The Sporting News.

33 Wiggins, 190. See also, Levitt, The Battle That Forged Modern Baseball, above at 202.

34 See “Delay in Hearing May Forecast Sale of Club,” Indianapolis Star, March 25, 1915: 12.

35 As reported in “Tribe Probably Will Be Playing in Federal League Park about June 1,” Indianapolis Star, April 30, 1915: 10; “Indians May Occupy Federal Ball Park,” Indianapolis News, April 29, 1915: 14.

36 Per “Tribe Does Not Get Park,” Indianapolis Star, May 2, 1915. McGill had submitted a low-ball $15,000 offer for the ballpark, a figure which the George group topped to protect their investments.

37 Same as above.

38 See e.g., “Colored Title at Stake in Federal Park Games,” Indianapolis News, August 19, 1915: 11.

39 Per “‘Colored Championship’ Series,” www.cnlbr.org/Portals/O/Rl/ColoredChampionshipSeries(1900-1919)%20 2016-08.pdf.

40 See “Colored Title Play on at Federal Park,” Indianapolis Star, October 22, 1916: 58. See also, Todd Peterson, “May the Best Man Win: The Black Ball Championships 1866-1923,” SABR Baseball Research Journal, Vol. 42, No. 1 (Spring 2013).

41 A less-prominently placed account of events was published in the rival Indianapolis News on page 14.

42 Per “Traction Lines to Build $400,000 Freight Depot,” Indianapolis News, November 30, 1916: 14; “Traction Lines Buy Federal Ball Park,” Indianapolis Star, November 30, 1916: 1.

43 See “Traction Freighthouses and Yards Proposed in South Street Will Aid in the Centralization of the City’s Shipping Facilities,” Indianapolis News, January 27, 1917: 13. An under-construction photo of Federal League Park appears in Okkonen, 57.

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