Shoeless Joe Jackson (BLACKBETSY.COM)

Bethlehem Steel League

This article was written by Brian McKenna

Shoeless Joe Jackson (BLACKBETSY.COM)Organized Baseball faced challenges on several fronts during World War I. Naturally, the able-bodied men employed in baseball were also wanted and even expected to perform in the service, like other men throughout the country. While it is true that many ballplayers performed in battle and other essential tasks, some were placed with their athletic skills in mind and used mainly to play ball and entertain the troops. Thus, Uncle Sam in essence became a competitor for top baseball talent.

Another, more controversial, competitor for baseball talent was the Bethlehem Steel League. Given the choice to ‘work or fight’ by the Secretary of War, some ballplayers chose to work in a war-related industry. Thus, the circumstances were set for the next big threat to Organized Baseball, the industrial leagues of the World War I era. The game’s executives were still reeling from the recent Federal League threat and a consequently strong players union. Of all the industrial leagues nationwide, the Bethlehem Steel League posed perhaps the biggest threat. It attracted dozens of past, current and future major leaguers plus a strong contingent of men with minor league experience.

Bethlehem Steel, an industrial giant, established an internal baseball league among six of its east coast plants in 1917 to entertain its growing workforce during World War I. The rosters were initially filled out by local workers but a few old-time pros and failed minor leaguers were mixed in. The 1917 season opened on May 11 and continued for twenty weeks through Labor Day, September 2, only playing on Saturdays and holidays. The otherwise unskilled ballplayers worked in the plant during the week tightening screws or performing other tasks.

By the following year, local plant executives started bringing in ringers to stock their club’s against league rivals. They hired professional scouts and managers to recruit the finest talent available. About the same time, major and minor league players were receiving draft notices to join the war effort. Ballplayers had to either enlist or find employment in a war-related industry.

The Bethlehem Steel Corporation was reorganized in 1904 by Charles M. Schwab, an Andrew Carnegie protégé at Carnegie Steel, who had recently left the presidency of U.S. Steel. In the mix he formed a shipbuilding division with the acquisition of the Harlan and Hollingsworth Shipbuilding Co. in Wilmington, Delaware. In 1913, Beth-Steel added the Fore River Shipbuilding Co. of Quincy, Massachusetts. Three years later with soaring profits during the war, the company purchased the Maryland Steel plant at Sparrows Point near Dundalk and the American Iron and Steel Manufacturing Co. which had plants in Lebanon and Steelton in Pennsylvania. These shipyards and plants formed the crux of the baseball league.

In 1914, Beth-Steel employed about 15,600 individuals. That year, war broke out in Europe and orders flooded into the Pennsylvania-based conglomerate from Great Britain, France and Russia. By 1917, Beth-Steel was the third largest industrial company in the United States employing over 35,000. It produced the lion’s share of the artillery used by the allies throughout the war, including over one billion pounds of ammunition to just Great Britain and France, not to mention supplying much of America’s needs after it entered the fight in April 1917. The company’s profits increased over 800% during the war.

To amuse and entertain his growing workforce, Schwab initiated social organizations, choir groups and sports clubs. Beth-Steel financed a professional soccer team from 1914-30 which was among the most successful of the era, winning eleven national trophies, and still ranks among the all-time greats. In 1917, a baseball league was started. A competitive rivalry among plant executives led to an encroachment on organized baseball in 1918. Early in the year, they started offering untold bonuses and perks to professional ballplayers, bringing in ringers to stock their nines.

The teams of the Bethlehem Steel League represented the six main plants on the east coast: Bethlehem, Lebanon, Steelton, Wilmington, Fore River and Sparrows Point. The league president and treasurer worked in the Bethlehem plant. Each team was administered by plant executives. Typically, a middle manager monitored expenses, organized affairs, coordinated the schedule and kept track of each player’s draft and playing eligibility. Joe Kennedy, father of the future U.S. President, performed these tasks as an assistant manager at the Fore River facility.

Baseball recruiters were hired to lure the talent. Charles “Pop” Kelchner, football and baseball coach at Albright College and later a scout for the St. Louis Cardinals and Browns, put together the Lebanon team. George Cockhill, a former National League umpire, helped for the Steelton club. Lehigh University coach Tom Keady oversaw the Bethlehem nine. Fred Payne, former Syracuse manager, worked for Wilmington and minor leaguer John O’Hara helped form the Fore River team. Top players reportedly earned $200 to $250 a game plus a hefty weekly salary which far outweighed their actual experience and contributions on the work floor. Some also received bonuses under the table.

Eddie Plank was the first big name landed by the league, on April 22. He had retired from the St. Louis Browns the previous August. That didn’t stop the Browns from trading him to the New York Yankees in January 1918. Plank wouldn’t report, tired of the traveling a professional ballplayer had to endure. At 42 years old, he didn’t need a draft deferment and wouldn’t be working in a plant. Plank signed with Steelton because it was only forty miles from his home in Gettysburg. He could oversee his automotive business during the week and just play ball on the weekends.

Before the 1918 season started, Beth-Steel lured a few active major leaguers such as pitcher George Mogridge who jumped his Yankees’ contract. Organized Baseball was thrown for a loop though on May 13. That day, the reigning World Champion Chicago White Sox lost their star left fielder Joe Jackson. He was recently upgraded by his local draft board at Greenville, South Carolina to 1A-status, the top eligibility. Fearing imminent induction into the military, he left the White Sox to work in the Wilmington plant. Part of the lure was obviously the opportunity to play baseball.

Never one to hold his tongue, American League president Ban Johnson blasted the ballplayers in the press following Jackson’s departure. He prefaced his statements, “The American League does not desire to impugn the motives of players who have gone into this [industrial] work…” Then, he proceeded to impugn them, “Some of them are patriotic. But if there are any of them who are Class 1A, I hope Provost General [Enoch] Crowder [administrator of the Selective Service Act] yanks them from the shipyards and steel works by the coat collar and places them in cantonment to prepare for future events on the western front…The American League does not approve of players trying to evade military service.” Obviously, Organized Baseball was getting more and more concerned about the rising threat of the industrial leagues. F.C. Lane of Baseball Magazine eloquently stated baseball’s case, “…a new danger has risen to threaten the national game…Disguised in the false colors of patriotic service, it seeks to undermine the financial structure of organized baseball…This peril, in brief, is the widespread campaign of certain manufacturing concerns, to lure away professional players from their contracts, ostensibly to work at government work and thereby claim exemption from the draft, but in reality to serve as drawing cards on the baseball clubs maintained by these companies…so notorious has this practice become that it merits the serious attention of the Government officials who have this matter in charge.”

Four days after the Jackson signing, the Yankees lost another pitcher, Ed Monroe, to Sparrows Point. The Maryland plant would ultimately claim several other New York ballplayers, including Chick Fewster, Hugh High and Allen Russell. Another Yankee, Wally Pipp, joined Fore River. In mid-May, pitcher Al Mamaux left the Brooklyn Dodgers for Fore River. After Mamaux jumped, teammate Jim Hickman threatened the same, but the Dodgers came up with some extra cash and he stayed. Irate, club owner Charles Ebbets appealed to the federal government to shield Organized Baseball from the industrial leagues’ onslaught, the first formal request to do so. Major League Baseball also threatened to ban the offending ballplayers, as did American Association president Thomas Hickey after desertions by more than a few of the league’s players.

Ban Johnson appealed directly to Charles Schwab for relief. He supposedly gained concessions from Schwab that Bethlehem Steel wouldn’t contact players under contract to club’s in Organized Baseball. In truth, Schwab had more pressing concerns. In April 1918 at the behest of President Woodrow Wilson, Schwab was named Director General of the Emergency Fleet Corporation, a government entity overseeing shipbuilding affairs during the war. Schwab was no longer concerned with such trivial matters as a recreational league; he was the Chairman of the Board and had turned over the presidency and day-to-day operations of the company to Eugene Grace in 1916. Grace, based in Bethlehem, was a big baseball fan and a former star shortstop and captain for nearby Lehigh University, Class of 1899. Upon graduation, he was offered a contract by the Boston Braves but turned it down claiming that he didn’t spend four years in college to become a baseball player. He still loved the game though and was a driving force behind the acquisition of the professional players.

Bethlehem Steel was by no means the only threat to Organized Baseball. Other industrial leagues throughout the nation were adding professional athletes on a weekly basis, including former and current stars from the majors such as Russ Ford and Ed Reulbach to name only two. Beth-Steel also had California plants in Alameda and San Francisco. They participated in a four-team shipyard league. Alameda boasted Swede Risberg, while San Francisco played old-timer Harry Krause and up-and-comers Lefty O’Doul and Willie Kamm. Buzz Arlett, Carson Bigbee, George Cutshaw and Oscar Vitt also played in the league.

The Bethlehem Steel League continued its assault on Organized Baseball, especially in June and July as the ballplayers were receiving notices from their draft boards and were awaiting a clarification of the ‘work or fight’ ruling by Secretary of War Newton Baker. Baker first issued the ruling on May 23 but baseball officials were working their political connections to avoid its implications and appealing individual cases. In essence, Baker expected able-bodied men of draft age to serve their country or to maintain employment in a war-related industry. Baseball men had feared this for well over a year. Capitalizing on this since shipbuilding was an essential occupation, the BSL sent representatives to major league parks and hotels to recruit talent. Meanwhile, the individual cases were slowly filtering up to Baker. In response to Washington Senators’ owner Clark Griffith’s appeal in the case of Eddie Ainsmith, Baker clarified his previous ruling on July 19. He formally declared that baseball was a non-essential occupation and, thus, ballplayers were expected to comply. Organized Baseball was thrown into a panic. Various minor leagues started to shutdown as the summer wore on and after further negotiations Major League Baseball also curtailed its season, ending by Labor Day.

In June mass defections from the Minneapolis club of the American Association and Bridgeport of the Eastern League seriously compromised the franchises. On June 3 Boston Red Sox pitcher Dutch Leonard tossed a no-hitter against Detroit. Soon thereafter, he jumped the club to join Fore River. On the 12th, pitcher Lefty Williams and catcher Byrd Lynn left the Chicago White Sox for Wilmington. Team owner Charles Comiskey, still upset over Joe Jackson’s defection, irately terminated the two players’ contracts and demanded the return of his uniforms. Also in June, pitcher Jeff Tesreau made a dramatic exit from the New York Giants for Bethlehem after feuding with manager John McGraw. Bethlehem especially hit the Giants hard, also claiming Fred Anderson and Walter Holke.

Tempers ran high in July. On the 2nd, Happy Felsch, the White Sox centerfielder, left the club after arguing with manager Pants Rowland. Fearing he was heading to the BSL, Comiskey finally blew his stack, berating his players in the press, “The government ought to get after baseball slackers like Williams, Lynn and Joe Jackson. They should be put into the Army where they rightfully belong.” The press picked up on the sentiment. When Ed Monroe was drafted in July, one headline read, “One Slacker Chased from Steel League.” Perhaps Comiskey’s public slacker comment led in part to the disloyalty shown by some of the White Sox players the following season in the throwing of the World Series.

About this time Rabbit Maranville, currently in the Navy, gave an interview in which he attacked the character of his brother ballplayers that chose to work instead of fight. He harangued, “It not only injures the king of sports, but also shows the jumpers [to industrial leagues] possess a very poor brand of patriotism. Ballplayers who are in the draft age and quit their clubs for positions in the steel and shipyard leagues are not doing baseball a bit of good. Neither are they helping Uncle Sam any. They are not skilled enough to be of much use as workmen and their one and only object is to play baseball. Fans will remember the players who shunned their duty, and after we have won the war and those players attempt to come back they will find themselves in great disfavor.”

At least one Bethlehem Steel League player, Bud Weiser, enlisted in the Navy in August to avoid further scrutiny. It should be noted, however, that the same practice that drew Maranville’s ire occurred in the military; some ballplayers in the service were predominantly used just to play ball and entertain the troops.

BSL recruiters approached but failed to sign Jimmy Austin, Happy Felsch, Hans Lobert, Rogers Hornsby, George Sisler and Alan Sothoron. In late July, Walter Holke, Giants first baseman, was ordered before his draft board and instructed to either enlist or seek essential employment. He chose Bethlehem where he could also play ball. Other players noticed the demand placed on Holke and left their clubs for the industrial leagues before their name was pulled for enlistment.

In response to the defections, the National Commission, baseball’s ruling body, approached General Crowder and informed him of the predicament, placing the departed ballplayers in the poorest possible light. The commission issued the following statement, “It was represented to him [Crowder] that the purpose of such players is primarily to continue to play ball…which enables them to escape active service under the work or fight order…The Provost Marshall General expressed indignation at this condition, which had never been called to his attention.” It was undeniable that some of the ballplayers were doing quite well financially with their arrangement, while producing little for the war effort. This often caused hard feeling among the other plant workers. The ballplayers drew hefty paychecks with little to no work skills and being minimally productive. Some of them even drove automobiles to work, in essence rubbing their wealth in the common worker’s face. They lucratively played ball on Saturdays and often found another profitable game on Sunday outside blue law states.

Quite a few past, current and future major leaguers joined the BSL, as well as a great many minor leaguers. Some plants fielded multiple teams which competed in multiple leagues and also participated in profitable exhibition contests. For example, the Harlan facility in Wilmington also fielded a team in the Delaware River Shipyard League. They would switch their players, such as Lefty Williams, Joe Jackson, Patsy Gharrity and George Dumont, between the two leagues to field the best possible nine on any given day. Williams, for one, performed mainly in the river league.

Among the BSL season highlights was a doubleheader at Lehigh Stadium on July 13 pitting Bethlehem and Fore River. Dutch Leonard of Fore River struck out eighteen batters to defeat Jeff Tesreau 2-0 before 4,000 fans. The afternoon game saw Al Mamaux square off against Stan Baumgartner before 18,000. On July 27, Eddie Plank of Steelton ceded only three hits on his way to defeating Dutch Leonard (who only gave up 4 hits) 1-0. Leonard walked in the only run of the game in the eighth inning. At the end of July, Steelton was leading the circuit with a 10-5 record. In Wilmington on August 31, the final weekend of the season, Joe Jackson hit two home runs. The Baltimore American commented, “The first, the longest ever seen in these parts, was hit over the scoreboard in deep centerfield…”

Two days later on Labor Day, the season ended. Jeff Tesreau of Bethlehem defeated Mamaux 6-1 while Steelton lost 5-0 to Dutch Leonard of Fore River to end the season with tied for first place. The standings:







Sparrows Point




Fore River


The next day, league officials decided on a three-game playoff system to settle the championship. Game #1 of the playoffs took place on September 7 in Steelton. George Pearce of Steelton tossed a five-hitter over Jeff Tesreau for a 2-1 victory. In the second game on the 14th, Pearce and Tesreau faced off again before 5,000 anxious Bethlehem patrons. Four umpires were hired to oversee the contest. Tesreau struck out ten and didn’t cede a run until the 8th inning. Pearce was pulled after seven in favor of Eddie Plank. After nine innings, the scored was tied 2-2. Steelton pulled ahead in the tenth on a two-run triple by future Hall of Fame manager Joe McCarthy. Bethlehem scored once in the bottom of the inning but lost by a final score of 5-3. Plank claimed the victory. Beth-Steel president Eugene Grace presented each member of the Steelton club with gold watches for claiming the championship.

The Bethlehem Steel League teams continued to play exhibition games into October. Several major leaguers joined the BSL, specifically Lebanon, such as Del Pratt, Steve O’Neill and George Hale. Pratt, a trained mechanical engineer, purchased a house in Lebanon and decided to settle down with his wife and children. He later changed his mind, returning to the Yankees in 1919. After the World Series, Sam Agnew and Babe Ruth of the champion Boston Red Sox joined Lebanon for a few games. Ruth showed up one weekend and played first base. He soon disappeared and was found playing ball near his family home in Baltimore. Soon thereafter, he contracted the flu and was laid up. Dave Roth, pitcher and left fielder for Sparrows Point, wasn’t as lucky as Ruth. He contracted the Spanish flu and died at his home in Baltimore in October.

As the industrial baseball season closed, so did many of the players’ interest in maintaining their employment in the industry. Many scattered, seeking employment closer to their hometown. Others like Dutch Leonard, Al Mamaux, Wally Pipp, Larry Kopf, Patsy Gharrity and Eddie Fitzpatrick were drafted into the service. A few like George Cockhill, Shorty Miller, Steve Yerkes and Bobby Clarke stayed put and continued working at a steel plant.

The Bethlehem Steel officials tried to reorganize with professional players in March 1919. But with the war over and the draft suspended, few in Organized Baseball were interested. The majors weren’t opposed to taking the industrial league players back into the fold after 1918 but it’s interesting that quite a few of the men finished their major league careers in 1918 or just before joining the BSL: Fred Anderson, Paddy Baumann, Johnny Beall, Earl Blackburn, Lee Dressen, Ed Fitzpatrick, George Hale, Olaf Henriksen, Hugh High, Alex Main, Ed Miller, Ed Monroe, Mike Mowry, George Pearce and Jeff Tesreau. Tesreau refused to report to the Giants, still at odds with McGraw. Instead, he coached at Dartmouth College in 1919, turning down an offer to join the Boston Braves. He continued at Dartmouth until his death in 1946, never returning to Organized Baseball. Some of these men including Monroe and Blackburn continued to play with industrial league teams for several seasons.

The industrial leagues kept trying in subsequent years to build impressive rosters, liberally throwing cash around. At times they attracted a few professional players, especially in 1920. For instance, Dickey Kerr and Hippo Vaughn joined industrial teams amid disputes with their respective teams.


The Bethlehem Steel League fielded the following talent (batting averages in the BSL, if known, are listed):


Managers: George Cockhill, Steve Yerkes

Major Leaguers:

Johnny Beall (active in 1918 with the St. Louis Cardinals)

Herb Hunter, .313

John Knight, .237

Joe McCarthy (future HOF manager), .195 in 19 at bats

George Pearce, .091

Eddie Plank (Hall of Fame pitcher), .313

Roxey Roach

Kid Stutz (didn’t make the majors until 1926), .152

Bud Weiser, .145

Steve Yerkes, .262

Steelton’s main pitchers were Eddie Plank (4-2 in 52 innings) and George Pearce.


Managers: Jeres, Pop Kelchner

Major Leaguers:

San Agnew (active in 1918 with the Boston Red Sox)

Jess Buckles, .131

George Hale (active in 1918 with the St. Louis Browns)

Tom Jones, .400 in 5 at bats

Ed Lennox

Alex Main (active in 1918 with the Philadelphia Phillies), .000 in 6 at bats

Andy McConnell, .255

Ed Miller (active in 1918 with the Cleveland Indians)

Mike Mowry, .344

Steve O’Neill (active in 1918 with the Cleveland Indians)

Norman Plitt (active in 1918 with the Brooklyn Dodgers)

Del Pratt (active in 1918 with the New York Yankees)

Hank Ritter, .125

Dick Rudolph (active in 1918 with the Boston Braves)

Babe Ruth (active in 1918 with the Boston Red Sox)

Joe Schultz, .179

Lebanon employed a great deal of major and minor league talent, more than the other clubs. Their main pitchers were Hank Ritter and Jess Buckles. One minor leaguer, Earl Potteiger, an outfielder with Worcester of the Eastern League, was a standout halfback with Ursinus and Albright Colleges. He went on to play for five teams in the National Football League from 1920-28 and coached Kenosha and the New York Giants during that timeframe. As head coach, he led the Giants to their first NFL championship in 1927.


Managers: Sheridan, Tom Keady

Major Leaguers:

Fred Anderson (active in 1918 with the New York Giants)

Paddy Baumann, .378

Stan Baumgartner, .200

Earl Blackburn, .300

Sam Fishburn (major league rookie in 1919), .295

Ed Fitzpatrick, .163

Walter Holke (active in 1918 with the New York Giants), .131

Al Schacht (future Clown Prince of Baseball, major league rookie in 1919), .125

Cy Seymour (45 years old)

Dolly Stark, .000 in 2 at bats

Jeff Tesreau (active in 1918 with the New York Giants), .230

George Twombly, .212

The main pitchers for Bethlehem were Jeff Tesreau (7-4 in 12 games) and Al Schacht. Keady recruited several of his Lehigh students to play for the club.


Manager: Fred Payne, Gallagher

Major Leaguers:

Lee Dressen (active in 1918 with the Detroit Tigers)

George Dumont (active in 1918 with the Washington Senators)

Gus Getz (active in 1918 with the Cleveland Indians and Pittsburgh Pirates), .238

Patsy Gharrity (active in 1918 with the Washington Senators)

Joe Jackson (active in 1918 with the Chicago White Sox), .393

Joe Lake, .250

Byrd Lynn (active in 1918 with the Chicago White Sox), .200

Jack Martin

Rebel Oakes

Fred Payne

Bob Steele (active in 1918 with the Pittsburgh Pirates and New York Giants)

Lefty Williams (active in 1918 with the Chicago White Sox), .000 in 0 at bats

Wilmington’s main pitcher was George Dumont.

Sparrows Point

Major Leaguers:

Chick Fewster (active in 1918 with the New York Yankees), .267

Hugh High (active in 1918 with the New York Yankees), .192

George Mogridge (active in 1918 with the New York Yankees)

Ed Monroe (active in 1918 with the New York Yankees), .200

Allan Russell (active in 1918 with the New York Yankees, brother of Lefty), .200

Lefty Russell (brother of Allan), .246

Aleck Smith, .222

Runt Walsh, .253

Two minor leaguers, Dave Roth and Donohue, were the two main pitchers for Sparrow Point. Orator O’Rourke’s son Jimmy played right field for the club, batting .317.

Fore River

Manager: John O’Hara

Major Leaguers:

Joe Connelly, .283

John Dowd

Clyde Engle, .239

Olaf Henriksen, .117

Jim Hickman (active in 1918 with the Brooklyn Dodgers)

Merwin Jacobson, .282

Lee King

Larry Kopf, .256

Dutch Leonard (active in 1918 with the Boston Red Sox), .083

Joe Leonard

Al Mamaux (active in 1918 with the Brooklyn Dodgers), .409 in 22 at bats

Ken Nash, .192

Wally Pipp (active in 1918 with the New York Yankees)

Al Mamaux and Dutch Leonard were the main pitchers for Fore River. Ken Nash, a local resident and retired from professional baseball since 1916, was a respected judge in the Quincy, Massachusetts District Court system.

League Batting Leaders (minimum 30 at bats):


At Bats



Joe Jackson





Paddy Baumann





Mike Mowry










Charles Babbington





Jimmy O’Rourke

Sparrows Point




Herb Hunter





Eddie Plank





Earl Blackburn






Allentown Morning Call, Pennsylvania, 1918

Baltimore American, 1918

Boston Globe, 1918

Bridgeport Telegram, Connecticut, 1918

Capital Times, Madison, Wisconsin, 1918

Chester Times, Pennsylvania, 1918

Chicago Defender, 1918

Chicago Tribune, 1918

Christian Science Monitor, 1918

Des Moines Daily News, 1918

Evening Independent, Massillon, Ohio, 1918

Farwell, Byron. Over There: The United States in the Great War, 1917-1918. NewYork: W.W. Norton and Company, 1999

Fitchburg Daily Sentinel, Massachusetts, 1918

Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, 1918

Fort Wayne News and Sentinel, 1918

Frederick News Post, Maryland, 1918

Frederick Post, Maryland, 1918

Grand Rapids Tribune, 1918

Hartford Courant, 1918

Indianapolis Star, 1918

Keenan, Jimmy, “Lefty Russell,” SABR Biography Project.

La Crosse Tribune and Leader-Press, Wisconsin, 1918

Lane, F.C., “A Rising Menace to the National Game,” Baseball Magazine, August 1918, p. 345.

Lesch, R.J., “Jeff Tesreau,” SABR Biography Project

Lethbridge Herald, Alberta, Canada, 1918

Lima Daily News, Ohio, 1918

Lincoln Daily Star, Nebraska, 1918

Logansport Pharos-Reporter, Indiana, 1918

Logansport Tribune, Indiana, 1918

Mansfield News, Ohio, 1918

Maurice Times, Iowa, 1918

Metz, Lance E., “Bethlehem Steel: The Rise and Fall of an Industrial Giant,”

New Castle News, Pennsylvania, 1918

North Adams Transcript, Massachusetts, 1918

Oakland Tribune, 1918

Racine Journal-News, Wisconsin, 1918

Syracuse Herald, 1918

Warren Evening Times, Pennsylvania, 1918

Washington Post, 1918

Waterloo Evening Herald, Iowa, 1918

Wisconsin State Journal, Madison, 1918