1915 Winter Meetings: Peace Time for the National Pastime

This article was written by Rich Bogovich

This article was published in the Baseball’s Business: The Winter Meetings: 1901-1957


The 1915 season had been a tough one for Organized Baseball, and murky moods were probably spread widely across the sport as the annual meetings approached in November and December. As noted in a Sporting Life preview of the four-day meeting of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues (NAPBL), membership had plunged from 47 minor leagues a year earlier to 22.1

Meanwhile, the National and American Leagues played the entire season under the dark cloud of the antitrust suit that had been filed in January.2 There was talk that the majors were pursuing a settlement with the rival Federal League, including at a meeting in Cincinnati in early November, but The Sporting News threw a wet blanket on that, telling its nationwide readership all it needed to know in the headline of its November 11 edition — “Little Likely to Come Out of All This Talk of Peace.”

Nevertheless, interest in the NAPBL gathering in San Francisco should have been heightened because Federal League franchises had provided stiff competition in four top minor-league cities. The International League had continued to lock horns with the Federal League in Buffalo but had moved out of Baltimore before Opening Day and out of Newark by midseason, while the American Association battled a Federal League team in Kansas City throughout 1915.

Another reason for interest in the meeting from November 9 through 12 was highlighted in Sporting Life: Rebels were going to try supplanting NABPL leaders at some point during the four days. Conversely, the leadership was considering a plan to expand the duties of the NAPBL secretary by tacking on those of the president; Michael Sexton, a former head of the Three-I League and the Western League, had become the second president in 1909 but had already announced his disinterest in running for re-election. Among the few bright spots forecast was the attendance “by representatives of the Carranza government, looking for a franchise for a base ball league in Northern Mexico next year, under the auspices of Organized Ball.”3

One important firsthand account of the goings-on was decidedly unkind. “The National Association convention of 1915 will go down in the records as that which compelled the delegates to travel farthest, at which the sessions were prolonged over more days, and at which less of real moment was accomplished than at any previous meeting of the minor leagues,” wrote Al C. Joy, sports editor of the San Francisco Examiner.4 Still, the two weeklies devoted a full page each to the NAPBL proceedings, despite their being closed to the general public for the first time in their 15 years. Reports indicated that business would be expedited, if the public was kept away.5

The only prominent attendee from the major leagues was president Charles Ebbets of Brooklyn’s NL team, though scouts from other teams were noticed. On the first day, Sexton was one of several dignitaries who offered opening or welcoming remarks.

“For several years I have been convinced that it would take a catastrophe such as we have suffered to bring the owners to their senses and make them realize that they have thrown their money away,” he said. “Not alone in salary limits, but in other expense accounts, such as cutting down of spring training, can we reduce.”6

Contrary to the wishes he expressed before the event, Sexton was re-elected president on the final day (and remained in the post through 1931).

The NABPL made at least tentative decisions on some important topics, including adjustments to salary regulations, restrictions on drafting players from lower leagues, and punishments for playing with an ineligible or disqualified player, but neither weekly found those developments worthy of much ink.

However, The Sporting News did offer commentary and analysis on a few fronts. For one, it reported that due to the ample use of proxies, too few club owners and managers were actually in attendance to pull off many player deals. The most significant exception was the sale of four Milwaukee players to Oakland. The paper explained the absence of the delegation from the Mexican government as a misunderstanding of an effort by John J. McCloskey, who was attempting (without success) to revive the Rio Grande Association, which had folded in July during its inaugural season, and he wanted territorial rights in northern Mexico for additional teams.

The owners and managers present apparently didn’t sugar-coat the sorry state of the minor leagues, but they avoided blaming or giving credit to the Federal League, whose triumphs in Baltimore and Newark seem to have been ignored in favor of the minor-league representatives from Kansas City and Buffalo bragging about having dealt major blows to the Federal League franchises in their two cities.7

The National and American League meetings were more than a month away, but the Federal League meeting happened to overlap with the start of the NAPBL’s conference. The Federal League magnates met in Indianapolis on November 9, amid speculation that upon adjournment the leaders would hasten to a resort in French Lick, 100 miles to the south, for more discussions with their major-league rivals.

Given the competitive circumstances, it should have come as no surprise that after receiving reports from the eight clubs during its internal session, the Federal League issued a statement declaring that “after consideration of all the facts, we were well rewarded for our operations in 1915.”8 The leadership did not avoid public comment on the situations in Kansas City and Buffalo. The Indianapolis Star printed details provided by the league:

The franchises of Kansas City and Buffalo were forfeited for certain defaults upon their respective parts. The Kansas City franchise will be transferred to New York city and the team will be strengthened to the extent of making it a representative New York club, which will surely merit the support of New York fans. It is believed that the Buffalo situation later will be properly taken care of by the citizens of that community.

The grounds on Manhattan Island have been obtained, plans have been drawn for the stand to seat 55,000 people and we will be ready for operation in New York city at the beginning of the season of 1916.9

But was the talk about New York mostly posturing, pointed squarely at the other two major leagues? Star sports editor Ralston Goss suggested as much, when his account began, “With an olive branch in one hand and a hand grenade in the other, Federal League magnates who met here yesterday moved down to French Lick Springs last night, there to continue the peace negotiations begun in Philadelphia early in October and renewed in Cincinnati last week.”

Goss also quoted from a “private conversation” with an unnamed Federal League magnate “who has been foremost in the peace negotiations,” who said, “There are so many angles in a deal of the magnitude we are undertaking, though, that one can not say what will come of the negotiations. I think both sides are actuated by a sincere motive to get together and that the experience we have gained since the peace negotiations of a year ago has taught us that it would be folly to continue the war if it is possible to obtain peace with honor.”10

Alas, as the New York Times reported, the only owner from the two established major leagues to meet with Federal League potentates in French Lick was Jacob Ruppert, the relatively new owner of the Yankees. Given the Federal League’s new announcement about New York, that may have had more significance than the Times perceived. In any case, there was also apparently speculation that Barney Dreyfuss of the Pirates was at the resort, but the Federal League representatives didn’t report seeing him.11

The most significant developments relating to the peace negotiations during the remainder of November centered on the Federal League’s scheme for New York. The front page of The Sporting News on November 25 reported on those plans for Manhattan in three separate articles. In the second column was a short article saying that Federal League officials had just spent time on the island but they wouldn’t reveal anything about the site of the new ballpark.

Meanwhile, the entire fourth column was devoted to word that an unnamed Boston millionaire would be the new club’s key funder. The topic was also covered in the first column in an article primarily about the American League. In the paper’s first article a week later, Joe Vila, sports editor of The Sun in New York, suggested that the Federal League effort was stalling. Regardless, in the weekly’s first article of its December 9 edition, it provided AL President Ban Johnson with a forum to comment at length about the situation:

If the National League takes any action in regard to the Feds that is up to them. We won’t attempt to dictate to the National League. The American League stands where it always has stood on the Federal League question. We consider them a failure. They batted into baseball as a business venture and they have discovered they made a big mistake. They are ready to quit, so why should we bother about them. The Feds have defeated themselves and are responsible for their own mistakes.

So far as putting a team in New York is concerned, that is one monumental bluff. They simply want to scare somebody to get out as cheaply as possible and save something from this wreck. Prospects for a successful season in the American League next season are bright so why should we bother about the Federal League?12

And with that setting the tone, the AL’s magnates headed to Chicago for their annual meeting on Wednesday, December 15. The NL had convened the day before but finished one day after the AL. Chicago’s unusual ad-free daily tabloid, The Day Book, didn’t exactly roll out the red carpet for the American League dignitaries on that day when it opined:

Maybe peace is in sight. Maybe it isn’t. It is something that gets no red-faced cheers from us and really makes little difference to the great fan family. Reorganization may bring better baseball, but in the past with two leagues the magnates never showed any especial consideration for the public which makes baseball possible. Their very indifference gave the Feds their opening.13

Despite this attitude, in that edition the paper wrote at length about the peace talks. In the midst of the NL’s internal sessions in New York, Federal League leaders were dialoguing with their counterparts there.

James Crusinberry of the Chicago Tribune reported about the dominance of the Federal League negotiations in discussions among early arrivals for the AL meeting. That didn’t keep owners or managers of at least four of the clubs from also talking about trades. In particular, he recorded one conversation initiated by Robert Hedges, owner of the St. Louis Browns, with Chicago White Sox skipper Pants Rowland:

Once Hedges bumped into Manager Rowland of the Sox and asked the following question:

“Can you fix up a deal so that the Browns can get Schalk, Scott, and Fournier?”

“Perhaps I can,” answered Rowland. “If you can give us Pratt, Sisler, Koob, Shotton, and Austin.”

“Don’t you want me to throw in the north end of my grand stand?” concluded Hedges as he walked away.14

Hedges had expressed interest in three stars of the White Sox, including a future Hall of Famer in catcher Ray Schalk. Rowland had countered by naming three starting position players for the Browns, and wasn’t too greedy in adding pitcher Ernie Koob, St. Louis’s fifth starter. Rowland most astutely included so-so rookie George Sisler, another future Hall of Famer.

Hedges may not have been making a serious inquiry, but according to Jack Fournier’s SABR biography online, Browns manager Branch Rickey wanted the White Sox first baseman, though he wouldn’t reveal to reporters whom he dangled in exchange. Washington manager Clark Griffith, meanwhile, offered first baseman Chick Gandil for Fournier.15 Fournier ended up staying put.

In hindsight, the most interesting trade talk was probably that stemming from Chicago’s strong interest in filling a glaring void at third base. As historians Mark Armour and Daniel Levitt noted, the White Sox were so desperate in 1915 “that Rowland played outfielder Braggo Roth at third for thirty-five games. Roth’s fielding percentage of .837 is the lowest since 1910 for anyone who played in at least thirty games. Roth made an error on nearly one of every six chances.”

The White Sox pursued Yankee third baseman Fritz Maisel, coming off a .281 average in his second full season, but he ended up hitting .215 over the remainder of his major-league career. To acquire Maisel, Chicago had reportedly considered trading none other than Shoeless Joe Jackson.16 When the dust settled, however, the only steal from White Sox magnates was the new motor car parked outside the Congress Hotel by Louis Comiskey, son of the team’s owner.17

The American League did conduct some actual business during its meeting. For example, Charles Somers of Cleveland was re-elected the league’s vice president, presumably as a vote of confidence that he would remain head of his team despite financial difficulties.18 This optimism was misplaced, because in early 1916 Somers’ creditors forced him to sell the franchise to James Dunn.

The day after the meeting, Crusinberry of the Tribune described several additional votes. The moguls approved resolutions barring players from writing for newspapers or magazines (even nominally) and from barnstorming after the regular season. They also voted in support of keeping the World Series a best-of-seven format, contrary to the nine-game proposal from some NL owners.

However, Crusinberry called it “the most exciting and most mysterious meeting the American league has had since the war days of fifteen years ago” because of scuttlebutt that an agreement with the Federal League was suddenly mere days away. “The invasion of the dove of peace rather killed the talk of everything else, even including the proposed trades,” he wrote.19

Sporting Life dutifully reported on the National League’s internal decision-making from Tuesday through Thursday, including a rule interpretation declaring that a player’s bat would be considered part of him until a ball in play is fielded. Most everything else was dismissed by reporter Francis Richter as minor, with the real news emanating from fruitful negotiations on Friday and Saturday with the Federal League and the American League.20

The outcome and aftermath of those intense discussions have been well documented.21 By the middle of the following week, three days before Christmas, a full agreement was wrapped up in a bow for baseball fans. The Federal League would disband, which it did for all intents and purposes by February 7. In a nutshell, NL and AL owners bought out the owners of the Federal League franchises in Pittsburgh, Brooklyn, Newark, and Buffalo.22 More significantly, the owners of the Federal League teams in Chicago and St. Louis, Charles Weeghman and Phil Ball, were permitted to purchase the Cubs and Browns, respectively.

For 1916 the Cubs began playing in Weeghman’s ballpark, known widely today as Wrigley Field. There was no remnant of a Kansas City ownership to compensate, so that left the Baltimore franchise as the lone holdout. The Terrapins ownership rejected any deal, and their antitrust lawsuit (specifically naming the NL), which went up to the US Supreme Court, wasn’t resolved until 1922.

The Cubs had numerous Chicago Whales on their roster in 1916, and the Browns likewise played many former St. Louis Terriers. The agreement had reinstated all players who had been blacklisted by Organized Baseball, and men from the other six Federal League teams became available to the highest bidder among the AL and NL teams. Only the Cardinals, White Sox, Red Sox, and Athletics avoided signing former Federals for 1916. As the main headline of The Sporting News had declared on December 30, 1915, the “Way Is Clearing for Baseball to Enjoy Its Greatest Boom.”23

 

Notes

1 R.S. Ranson, “National Association Meeting,” Sporting Life, November 13, 1915: 16. This article and one a week later referred to the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues as the “National Association of Minor Leagues.”

2 This was the noted Federal Base Ball Club of Baltimore, Inc. v. National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs et al., 259 US 200), which was ultimately decided in 1922.

3 Ranson.

4 Al C. Joy, “Minor Magnates Go Far to Transact a Small Amount of Business,” The Sporting News, November 18, 1915:  2.

5 “Annual Meeting of the National Association,” Sporting Life, November 20, 1915: 10.

6 Ibid.

7 “Pickups from the Meeting of the Minor Magnates,” The Sporting News, November 18, 1915:  2.

8 E.W. Cochrane, “The Federal League Prepares for the Future,” Sporting Life, November 20, 1915: 12.

9 Ralston Goss, “Federals Threaten Invasion,” Indianapolis Star, November 10, 1915: 10.  

10 Ibid.

11 “Federal Leaguers’ Futile Meeting,” New York Times, November 11, 1915: 11. 

12 George S. Robbins, “American Hews Strictly to Its Own Line of Conduct,” The Sporting News, December 9, 1915: 1.

13 “Baseball — Sports of All Kinds — Boxing,” The Day Book (Chicago), December 15, 1915: 9.

14 James Crusinberry, “A.L. Magnates Arrive Today to Talk Peace,” Chicago Tribune, December 15, 1915: 15. 

15 Nelson “Chip” Greene, “Jack Fournier,” SABR BioProject, https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/81af331c.

16 Mark L. Armour and Daniel R. Levitt, Paths to Glory: How Great Baseball Teams Got That Way (Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, 2011), 62.

17 “Commylou Loses Car! No Peace for Him,” Chicago Tribune, December 16, 1915: 16. 

18 “The American League’s Annual Meeting,” Sporting Life, December 25, 1915: 7. The situation in Cleveland was discussed in the first column and in the article’s second column as well. 

19 James Crusinberry, “Cubs to Weeghman by Terms of Baseball Peace,” Chicago Tribune, December 16, 1915: 16.

20 Francis C. Richter, “National League’s Eventful Meet,” Sporting Life, December 25, 1915: 5. 

21 See, for instance, Daniel R. Levitt, The Battle That Forged Modern Baseball: The Federal League Challenge and Its Legacy (Lanham, Maryland: Ivan R. Dee, 2012).

22 See, for instance, Mark S. Halfon, Tales from the Deadball Era (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2014), 10; Steven A. Riess, Ed., Sports in America from Colonial Times to the Twenty-First Century (New York:  Routledge, 2015), 132.

23 “Way Is Clearing for Baseball to Enjoy Its Greatest Boom,” The Sporting News, December 30, 1915: 1.

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