This article was written by Bob Ruzzo
This article was published in the Fall 2013 Baseball Research Journal
For years, the convention has been to view the Federal League, the last challenger to actually take the field against Organized Baseball, as having been doomed from the start, ultimately suffering an “inevitable collapse.” Upon closer examination, however, the events of the Federal League war demonstrate once again that certainty is most expertly determined in hindsight. For while the distance of a century cloaks the demise of the Federal League with an air of dreary predictability, its struggle against the baseball establishment was, like so many other “wars,” determined to a significant extent by chance and circumstance.
“War is the Province of Chance.”
— Count Carl von Clausewitz
THE FOG OF WAR
Even a bloodless, but nonetheless bitter “war,” such as the two-year (1914–15) battle between the outlaw Federal League and Organized Baseball proves Clausewitz’s point.[fn]For the purposes of this article, the term “outlaw” or “outlaw league” is intended to refer to a baseball enterprise operating outside of the National Agreement that encompassed the American League, the National League and minor league operations, commonly known as “Organized Baseball.”[/fn]
For years, the convention has been to view the Federal League, the last challenger to actually take the field against Organized Baseball, as having been doomed from the start, ultimately suffering an “inevitable collapse.”[fn]Jack Kavanaugh, Walter Johnson: A Life (South Bend: Diamond Communications, Inc., 1995), 106.[/fn] After all, there is no immediately recognizable vestige of the Federal League in modern baseball, no “Federal Division,” no long-simmering rivalry between the Chicago Whales and the Saint Louis Terriers.[fn]While Wrigley Field is certainly recognizable, its Federal League roots are not; indeed, if not for its upcoming centennial, the park’s original incarnation as “Weeghman Park” would, for non-Cubs fans, qualify as the answer to a moderately challenging trivia question.[/fn]
Upon closer examination, however, the events of the Federal League war demonstrate once again that certainty is most expertly determined in hindsight. For while the distance of a century cloaks the demise of the Federal League with an air of dreary predictability, its struggle against the baseball establishment was, like so many other “wars,” determined to a significant extent by chance and circumstance.
The Federal League’s impending centennial has already generated renewed interest in and re-evaluation of the outlaw league’s rise, its downfall and its subsequent disappearance. Both Robert Peyton Wiggins, winner of the 2010 Larry Ritter Book Award, and Daniel R. Levitt, the 2013 Ritter awardee, add substantially to the depth and quality of modern understanding of the Federal League.[fn]Daniel R. Levitt, The Battle That Forged Modern Baseball (Lanham, Maryland: Ivan R. Dee, 2012).[/fn], [fn]Robert Peyton Wiggins, The Federal League of Base Ball Clubs (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2009).[/fn] Each of these entertaining works builds upon the pioneering effort of Marc Okkonen.[fn]Marc Okkonen, The Federal League of 1914–1915 (Garrett Park, MD: SABR, 1989).[/fn] Contrary to the conventional wisdom, these recent analyses acknowledge that the magnates of the Federal League gave it a pretty good go, presenting a well-organized and well-financed challenge to Organized Baseball. Even such generally favorable assessments as these, however, may understate both how close the Federals came to leaving a much more visible imprint on the face of the national pastime and the extent to which sheer fate played a role in the demise of the Federal League.
Three critical events described below—two involving mortality, and one based in morality— were instrumental in barring the path to success for the Federals. Quite naturally, the war between the Federal League and Organized Baseball must properly be viewed as a drawn-out and complicated affair with many significant chapters. A number of these inputs may, in retrospect, be seen as potential “pivot points” in that struggle, each with its own set of intricacies. For example, many important skirmishes were fought in the courts an d were characterized by the well-established processes and finely honed reasoning that characterize high stakes litigation. Other events, in closed rooms and at the negotiating table, were marked by the strategic imperatives of complex business decision-making.
The three events described below are not like that. Each one was attributable solely to human frailty. The deaths of two men and the change of heart of another were simple but crucial events occurring in the midst of a sea of complexity.
These three events also eerily demarcate the phases of the Federal League war, occurring as they did, just after Opening Day of the outlaws’ inaugural major league season (the death of Charles C. Spink, publisher of The Sporting News); second, during the offseason between the league’s two years of operation as a major league (the vacillation of legendary pitcher Walter Johnson); and, third, only after the final thrilling Federal League pennant race had been concluded (the passing of Federal League vice president Robert B. Ward).
It is, of course, impossible to argue that, had these misfortunes not occurred, the Federal League would have triumphed, perhaps because it is so fundamentally difficult to determine what “winning” would have meant and what form of victory would have been acceptable to whom. Nonetheless, because the Federal League challenge to Organized Baseball was so substantial, it merits a closer examination of how these three wholly unexpected twists of fate derailed an alternative outcome.
A DIFFERENT KIND OF MUSHROOM
Part of the difficulty facing the Federal League lay in the failures of its immediate predecessors. Noted baseball chroniclers Professor Harold Seymour and his wife Dorothy documented the de-fanging, defeat or disappearance of no less than six minor league “outlaws” in the years between 1903 and 1912.[fn]Harold Seymour and Dorothy Seymour Mills, Baseball: The Golden Age (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971), 197–99.[/fn]
Subsequently, two higher profile but nonetheless failed ventures had the effect of pushing the dramatic success of Ban Johnson’s American League further back in time than a look at the calendar might suggest.[fn]Johnson’s gambit had been greatly aided by the National League’s own incompetence, particularly its dramatic contraction that left a number of rapidly growing cities hungering for a return to “major league” status.[/fn] In 1912 John Powers organized the Columbian League outside the purview of the National Agreement. The venture was suspended after early financial backers pulled out. Thereafter, the United States League, an outfit that placed a number of its eight teams in major league cities, managed to get off the ground, but faltered in less than two months. Efforts to revive that venture in 1913 swiftly ran to ground.[fn]Wiggins, The Federal League of Base Ball Clubs, 6; Levitt, The Battle That Forged Modern Baseball, 34–35.[/fn]
After the failure of his Columbian League venture, John Powers redoubled his efforts and launched the Federal League, initially operating in six cities in 1913. The Seymours observed that, in view of more than a decade strewn with failures, Organized Baseball had “no reason to assume that the Federal League would do anything except disappear, like so many of its ‘mushroom league’ predecessors;” consequently, the magnates of Organized Baseball initially “adopted a passive policy toward it.”[fn]Seymour and Mills, Baseball: The Golden Age, 199–200.[/fn] In August 1913, the Federal League declared its intention to compete as a “Major League” after less than a full year as an outlaw, albeit minor, league.[fn]“Federals For A Fight,” Sporting Life (August 9, 1913): 1.[/fn] By the time the 1914 season opened, the Federal League consisted of franchises in four major league cities—New York, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Chicago—and four cities with established minor league franchises operating in the International League and the American Association: Buffalo, Indianapolis, Kansas City, and Baltimore.
In the run-up to the 1914 season, the Federal League had already proven itself to be a more formidable challenger. Some in Organized Baseball still did not get the message. Perhaps the most colorful example of this occurred when Charles W. Murphy, the erratic owner of the Chicago Cubs, declared before spring training: “Why my corns are giving me more trouble than the Federal League. I fail to see where they will ever be able to open the season.”[fn]The New York Times, February 10, 1914: 7.[/fn] Had Murphy paid less attention to his corns, he may have observed that Charles “Lucky Charlie” Weeghman and his partner William Walker were planning a first class baseball plant on his city’s North Side that would later be described as “an Edifice of Beauty.”[fn]Wiggins, The Federal League of Base Ball Clubs, 84.[/fn] Not surprisingly, a sale of Murphy’s Cubs to Charles Taft (half brother of the former President) was successfully engineered before the month of February was out. While Murphy now had ample time and money to address his corns, American League President Ban Johnson and his allies were already implementing further countermeasures against the outlaws.
Public perception at the time of the Federal League challenge was shaped on a national basis by three sporting publications focusing on baseball. Two were weeklies, The Sporting News—self-identified as the “Organ of Organized Baseball” and operated by the Spink family out of St. Louis, and Francis Richter’s Philadelphia-based The Sporting Life—“Devoted to Baseball and Trap Shooting.” Baseball Magazine, headed by F.C. Lane, was published on a monthly basis. These national publications augmented the highly competitive general circulation newspaper industry that operated on a scale that was several orders of magnitude larger than what we know today.
The Sporting News had been instrumental in the rise and survival of the American League; indeed Ban Johnson “always acknowledged his debt to the Spink family, admitting he would have been unable to establish the American League if the paper had not been on his side.”[fn]J.G. Taylor Spink, Judge Landis and Twenty-Five Years of Baseball (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1947), 258 (the Spink book republishes in its entirety a June 20, 1942 Saturday Evening Post article by New York Post sportswriter Stanley Frank entitled “Bible of Baseball” from which this quote and other material in this article is derived).[/fn] With respect to the Federals, the established view of these three publications is that The Sporting Life was “fair” if not actively pro-outlaw, Baseball Magazine, which cherished its independence from organized baseball prided itself on a more considered, generally neutral analysis, and The Sporting News was vehemently opposed to the Federal insurgents.[fn]Henry W. Thomas, Walter Johnson: Baseball’s Big Train (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995), 138.[/fn], [fn]Seymour and Mills, Baseball: The Golden Age, 216; Okkonen viewed Sporting Life as “more objective and fair in its coverage.” Baseball Magazine was “neutral” and The Sporting News presented the Federals as “a bad joke.” Okkonen, The Federal League of 1914-1915, 7. Wiggins shares a generally similar assessment. Wiggins, The Federal League of Base Ball Clubs, 4–5.[/fn]
As one might expect, the truth was substantially more complicated than that. While Sporting Life took on a pro-Federal League slant over time, initially it was entirely skeptical of the new enterprise. Indeed, it editorialized in November 1913 that there was “no public or press demand for a third major league… [nor] enough players of major league caliber to equip such a league… [nor enough] first class cities available to form a balanced circuit….” The Sporting Life concluded that for these and other reasons it saw “in the Federal League movement not one element of success,” predicting that “should it reach the stage of actual expansion its ultimate failure will be only a matter of time, contingent upon the depth of the purses of the promoters of the venture.”[fn]Sporting Life (November 8, 1913): 4.[/fn]
The monthly Baseball Magazine was necessarily a more detached observer of larger trends, but it, too, seemed to move over time. In the early days after the Federals announced their plan to “go major,” an article in Baseball Magazine caustically dismissed the boasts of the Federals. William A. Phelon sarcastically denigrated grandiose Federal predictions of the collapse of the established leagues: “Too bad, too bad— we have always liked those older leagues, and we will weep bitterly as they are trodden underfoot and the remnants sold for old brass at the junk yard.”[fn]Wm. A. Phelon, “Changing Styles in Baseball,” Baseball Magazine (October 1913): 37.[/fn] By the following Spring, however, Baseball Magazine’s pages were already allowing that, “This season it is safe to say, the Federal League and its work will be watched with keen interest.”[fn]James A. Ross, “The Champion Club of the Federal League,” Baseball
Magazine (May 1914): 21–22.[/fn] While Baseball Magazine would continue to publish neutral fact-based pieces (such as “Who’s Who in the Federal League?”) by early 1915 it had gravitated toward publishing more openly pro-Federal pieces such as “Eventually There Will Be A Third Big League Why Not Now?”[fn]Baseball Magazine (June 1915): 63.[/fn], [fn]Baseball Magazine (April 1915): 25.[/fn]
The most interesting case by far, however, is the attitude of the acknowledged industry leader, The Sporting News (The Sporting Life was, after all, devoted to both “Baseball and Trap Shooting”). Much of that fascination stems from the timing of the first of our three unpredictable events. On April 16, 1914, Charles Spink attended the Federal League’s opening day festivities at Handlan’s Park in St. Louis. He fell ill shortly thereafter and never again returned to his office, dying some days later.[fn]Steve Gietshier, “Famous Firsts,” The Sporting News (April 24, 1995): 8.[/fn]
Charles Spink’s sudden passing warrants close attention because of the accepted notion that the father and his son, J.G. Taylor Spink, broke over the issue of the Federals.[fn]Wiggins, The Federal League of Base Ball Clubs, 4; Seymour and Mills, Baseball: The Golden Age, 216.[/fn] In 1942, the New York Post’s Stanley Frank endorsed that view in The Saturday Evening Post when he wrote that “[m]ounting differences between father and son came to an angry boil in 1914 with the formation of the Federal League. Old Charlie Spink believed baseball was ready to embrace a third major circuit. Taylor opposed the Federals….”[fn]Spink, 261. Levitt, on the other hand, postulates that Charles Spink saw the war as an opportunity to “augment his status with Organized Baseball.” Levitt, The Battle That Forged Modern Baseball, 111.[/fn] While this thesis supports the view of this article, it actually seriously overstates and oversimplifies the case.
The pages of The Sporting News in early 1914 hardly ring with an endorsement of a third major league. In February, The Sporting News editorialized that “[t]he Federal League may exist for a day, a month or a season but it is built on a foundation of sand and neither it nor what it stands for will have any permanency.”[fn]The Sporting News (February 5, 1914): 4.[/fn] Similarly in April, just before the season opened, it declared: “The Federals can proceed on [their way]—as moral and legal outlaws, and by no means should there ever be any other status accorded them. It is our opinion still that their way will be brief and that its end will be disaster.”[fn]The Sporting News (April 16, 1914): 4.[/fn]
These and other similar editorial views expressed in early 1914 do much to refute the notion that father and son were diametrically opposed in their views of the Federal League. Despite this record, however, there is nonetheless strong support for the proposition that the loss of Charles Spink and the passing of baseball’s pre-eminent weekly news organ to his son dealt a considerable blow to the fortunes of the Federal League.
While Charles Spink’s editorial criticisms of the Federals were indeed numerous, at 51 he was a fully formed man, one capable of seeing subtlety and secure enough to criticize his allies. For example, The Sporting News blasted the Philadelphia Phillies and the Boston Braves for suing the Federals, decrying their decision to fight the new league “in the law courts instead of at the turnstiles.”[fn]The Sporting News (April 22, 1914): 4.[/fn] Despite the anti-Federal League views The Sporting News expressed, Spink would still accept an invitation from his friends to attend the Federal League opener, being shrewd enough to jest that he was doing so because “they [were] paying for the box.”
Taylor Spink, still in his mid-twenties, was on the other hand “enthusiastic to a fault”[fn]Steve Gietshier, “The Sporting News,” The Baseball Biography Project,
http://sabr.org/bioproject.[/fn] and his relationship with American League President Ban Johnson “practically amounted to idolatry.”[fn]Spink, 259.[/fn] Charles Spink, the father, had on the occasion of his final professional game, “complimented the Federals on their neat park,” had spoken of “the crowd and the men he had noted in it,” and had like a true fan lamented the fact that the home team lost. Even his son had to remark in his father’s obituary, that his father “could enjoy the Federal’s game on the field because deeper than all thoughts of policy or politics or base ball, he was a lover of the game for the game’s sake.”[fn]The Sporting News (April 30, 1914): 1.[/fn] The son, while a lover of the game to be sure, was not as idealistically imbued.
Further evidence that Charles Spink’s death made a significant difference in the editorial path of The Sporting News is garnered from a more nuanced reading of some of his criticisms of the new venture. Many of them evidence a classic Missouri “show me” attitude. For example, early on in the Federal League war, the weekly declared: “In Saint Louis, the Federals are honest enough to admit that there is but one chance for the League—a park that will be as attractive as those of the major league clubs and a team that will include players known to the public as major leaguers— and there is no prospect of either.”[fn]The Sporting News (November 13, 1913): 4.[/fn]
A few months later came the editorial pronouncement: “[I]t is an undeniable fact that the fan is going to see the game where the best ball is exhibited, and as President Johnson aptly remarked, the battle with the Federals will simmer down to a fight of the turnstiles.”[fn]The Sporting News (January 15, 1914): 4.[/fn] As we have seen, one of Charles Spink’s last mortal impressions was a favorable one relating to Handlan’s Park, the home of the St. Louis Terriers. Unfortunately, he did not live to see the 1915 Federal League pennant race, nor did he have the chance to assess its impact upon the “fight of the turnstiles.”
While Terriers attendance sagged badly as the 1914 campaign turned bleak, the team’s fortunes improved the following year. Indeed, Baseball Magazine pointed out that the “habit of winning has been responsible for the firm establishment of Federal League baseball in St. Louis.”[fn]Howard B. Tyler, “The Federal League Race,” Baseball Magazine (September 1915): 28.[/fn] One July doubleheader between St. Louis and Baltimore featuring a matchup of Eddie Plank and Chief Bender drew some 9,000 fans while a mere 300 attended the competing game between the Browns and the Yankees.[fn]Ibid.[/fn] Baseball Magazine believed such support proved “St. Louis fans [would] rally to the support of the deserving, whether it be Federal or other League baseball.”[fn]Ibid., at 100.[/fn] The Browns were found to be particularly undeserving, as their attendance dropped from 244,714 in 1914 to 150,358 in 1915.[fn]http://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/SLB/1915.shtml (retrieved 9/7/13). Cardinals attendance dipped slightly by some 3,433 fans, dropping the team’s attendance ranking from third (of eight teams) to fifth. http://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/STL/attend.shtml (retrieved 9/7/13).[/fn]
The Federal League pennant race went down to a last thrilling weekend while the Cardinals and the Browns both sank well below .500.[fn]In the end, the Chicago Whales benefited from two rainouts that were not made up to win the pennant race by .00854 percentage points. Wiggins, Federal League of Base Ball Clubs, 274–5.[/fn] Given the civic pressure in a city starved for on-field success and the fact that the Terriers had successfully met at least some of the challenges that Charles Spink had issued to them, there is ample reason to conclude that, had he lived, The Sporting News would have, like The Sporting Life and Baseball Magazine before it, migrated towards a more favorable view of the Federal League. With Taylor Spink, Ban Johnson’s leading fan at the helm, no such possibility existed.
The negative (to the Federals) reverberations caused by the ascension of the younger Spink were further compounded by the biting prose of correspondent Joe Vila of the New York Daily Sun. While working for his father, Taylor Spink had originated the idea of recruiting correspondents in every vital location. Joe Vila was among his correspondent corps. After Charles Spink’s death, his son was inclined to lean heavily on the fruits of this innovation. Vila, for his part, had been given a bad tip by a Federal League source in the early days of the new league and when the information proved bogus, a natural skeptic was transformed into an obsessed critic. Vila embraced that role, telling an Organized Baseball magnate that he “intended to roast the Federal League from hell to breakfast hereafter.”[fn]Levitt, The Battle That Forged Modern Baseball, 111.[/fn] The breakfast reference was particularly appropriate, as Vila incessantly referred to the Feds as the “Flap Jack Circuit” or the “Lunchroom League.”[fn]Wiggins notes with some irony that Organized Baseball’s “voracious campaign” against the Federal League in the press (and the courts) “gave credibility to the newcomers.” Wiggins, The Federal League of Base Ball Clubs, 7. This author believes that, however much the level of curiosity among members of the general public may have increased initially because of such insults, the long-term effect of this press pounding was ultimately corrosive.[/fn] This insult was Vila’s “clever” way of reminding folks that Chicago Federals owner Charles Weeghman had made his money largely by operating a number of lunchtime restaurants in the Chicago area.[fn]Wiggins also states that this was intended as an insult to the Ward brothers, owners of the Brooklyn Federal franchise. The Wards had made their fortune as bakers. Wiggins, The Federal League of Base Ball Clubs, 92.[/fn]
Much of Vila’s writing can only be characterized as shrill, and even then only if one is kind-hearted. Take, for example, the November 19, 1914, issue of The Sporting News in which Vila (incorrectly) trumpeted the collapse of the Federal League. He advised Federal supporters that if there were a “big hole” near at hand “these misguided individuals [should] crawl in without further delay.” He of course had predicted, based on his 25 years of experience, that “the third league could not succeed.” Vila then declared: “[b]ecause I told the truth about this crazy baseball scheme, pin heads who didn’t know what they were talking about wrote me in bitter terms….”[fn]The Sporting News (November 19, 1914): 1.[/fn] Presumably, some if not all of these “pin heads” were readers of the Daily Sun and The Sporting News.
The incessant pounding provided by Taylor Spink, who bought ink by the barrel, and Vila, who possessed enough venom to stop a regiment in its tracks, constantly whittled away at the credibility of the Federals. Money was unquestionably the most decisive factor in recruiting players from Organized Baseball, but the source of that money also had to be—and be perceived as—stable, durable, and professional: a real “Major” League. The virulent antipathy of The Sporting News could not help but undermine the Federal League’s efforts to sway players as they assessed their options. Had Charles Spink survived, he would likely have been unable to restrain Vila from his chosen course; nonetheless, his maturity and his professionalism suggest that he would have declined to bash the upstarts in such a frankly reckless manner.
ACT TWO: “A HUMILIATING POSITION TO BE IN”
Battered by the unrelenting hostility of The Sporting News, the Federals continued to struggle in their effort to sign true marquee talents despite the skills of Joe Tinker, Fielder Jones, and others as salesmen, the deep pockets of Federal League ownership, and that ownership’s willingness to spend money. The Federals were also plagued by a recurring habit of sending mixed, if not blatantly contradictory, messages to the press. As Daniel Levitt noted, “several leading executives did not know when it was best to keep their mouths shut.”[fn]Levitt, The Battle That Forged Modern Baseball, 170–71.[/fn] Amongst the Federal League executives afflicted in this manner was league president James Gilmore. In November 1914, Gilmore proclaimed that the Federals “would no longer go after the higher-priced stars of Organized Baseball” and would instead adopt an approach of upgrading the overall level of talent playing for their teams.[fn]Wiggins, The Federal League of Base Ball Clubs, 168.[/fn] Notwithstanding this pronouncement, after peace talks with the magnates of Organized Baseball faltered, the Federals renewed their efforts to sign new talent.
The first few days of December 1914 may be seen as a high water mark in this regard. Connie Mack, stung by bitterness after being swept by the upstart Boston Braves in the 1914 World Series, and under the pressure of increasing salaries, decided to waive the leading lights of his pitching staff: Jack Coombs, Chief Bender, and Eddie Plank.[fn]Levitt, The Battle That Forged Modern Baseball, 171.[/fn] Coombs joined the Brooklyn Nationals, but the Federals were able to sign both Bender and Plank to contracts for the 1915 season. In New York, meanwhile, the well-financed Brooklyn “Tip Tops” obtained the signature of Rube Marquard of the New York Giants on both an affidavit certifying that he was indeed a free agent and a new Federal League contract. But the real triumph for the outlaws came when Walter Johnson, the pre-eminent American League pitcher of the day, put pen to paper at player-manager Joe Tinker’s urging and joined the Chicago Federals (soon to be known as the Whales).
Johnson’s decision to sign with the Federals rocked the baseball world, although The Sporting Life insisted that the signing of Johnson (and Plank) did not “create the sensation that the signing of Marquard did” because of the longstanding rumors that “these two would eventually line up with the new league.”[fn]Sporting Life (December 12, 1914): 9.[/fn] Johnson, however, was exactly the kind of superstar drawing card that the newcomers had sought for so long. In the view of the Boston Herald as re-presented in The Sporting Life: “[t]he securing of Johnson is about the biggest card that the Federals could have played at this time…. Getting Johnson means several things to all hands at interest. It means, primarily, that the Federals are not yet down and out as Organized Ball has so everlastingly proclaimed…. The fact that Johnson has been willing to make the jump will probably make it easier for the Federals to get other men whom they are after…. And in addition to everything else, Johnson will not only prove a drawing card, as he always has been, but should also win a lot of games for his new employers.”[fn]Sporting Life (December 19, 1914): 12.[/fn] The prospect of rising gate receipts thus also provided at least some hope for undercapitalized Federal teams in Buffalo, Baltimore, and Kansas City.
Unfortunately for the Federals, the high tide of early December soon receded. Marquard, after some wrangling, was returned to the Giants to complete the two years that did, in fact, remain on his contract. Marquard’s reputation as a bit of a risky proposition had been presaged by his wooing of fellow vaudeville star Blossom Seeley, much to the dismay of Blossom’s then-husband, Joseph Kane. According to press accounts, Mr. Kane, accompanied by two detectives, had on one occasion arrived too late (at 2:00AM) to his wife’s hotel room because “by that time the two occupants had gone out walking. They left at a brisk, athletic pace by way of the fire escape.”[fn]The New York Times, November 9, 1912: 11.[/fn] Walter Johnson, by contrast, was a paragon of American baseball virtue, whose decision to execute a “double flop,” renounce his Chicago contract, and return to Washington, had to have come as a complete shock to the Federals.
The long wooing of Walter Johnson, the momentary triumph of his signing, and Johnson’s rapid change of heart stands out as the premier human drama of the Federal League war, one so richly textured that it would be difficult to do it justice in a mere few paragraphs. What matters most for the purposes of this account is that Johnson succumbed to the pleas of Fred Clarke, the manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, to return to the fold of Organized Baseball. Clarke was acting as an emissary for Clark Griffith, a man who had developed a strong bond with Johnson over the years. One Johnson biographer described their bond as “part father-son relationship, part mutual professional admiration, and the rest genuine friendship.”[fn]Thomas, Walter Johnson: Baseball’s Big Train, 108–9.[/fn] Griffith hurried from the nation’s capital to Kansas City to follow up on Clarke’s breakthrough and return Johnson to Washington’s roster.
The re-signing of Johnson capped a series of mounting frustrations for the Federals. Those frustrations, coupled with the passage of sterner federal antitrust legislation in late 1914, led to the Federals’ decision to sue Organized Baseball in the court of Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis in January 1915. Landis famously delayed taking any action for the duration of the calendar year. While Landis dithered, purposefully, the Federal League withered.
Many of Johnson’s contemporaries also changed their minds and executed a reverse jump, and still others had their private decisions upended in a court of law. It can safely be said, however, that none of these other vacillators possessed as talented a right arm. Neither were they as roundly respected, nor as capable of drawing customers to the park. The final crucial aspect of Johnson’s change of heart was its timing.
Had Walter Johnson not committed his famous “double flop,” the potential for a vastly different outcome of the war comes into view. The Federals may have restrained their litigious instincts, preferring instead to fight on at the contract negotiating table rather than the plaintiff’s table in court. Even allowing that such a suit was inevitable, as the Seymours would have us believe, Judge Landis would have been hard-pressed to simply take no action in light of the prospect of Walter Johnson regularly taking to the mound before large crowds for Weeghman’s Chicago Whales.[fn]Seymour and Mills, Baseball: The Golden Age, 203. The Seymours relate that as early as the 1913 signing of Joe Tinker, Federal League attorney Edward E. Gates was proclaiming that an antitrust action would be brought against Organized Baseball.[/fn]
For his part, Johnson seemed genuinely distraught by the entire affair. In a lengthy piece appearing in Baseball Magazine under his name entitled “Why I Signed With The Federal League,” Johnson said he struggled with the choice between “doing an injury to the Federal League” and having “to injure Washington instead.” He conceded: “[i]t is a humiliating position to be in, and has no doubt hurt me with the public.”[fn]Baseball Magazine (April 1915): 62.[/fn] Johnson had been blasted even before his initial signing by the Federals under such headlines as “Almighty Dollar Johnson’s Ideal.”[fn]Seymour and Mills, Baseball: The Golden Age, 207.[/fn] Then, upon his “double flop” The Sporting Life criticized him for his “very elastic conscience,” surmising that “his moral sense [was] not a mate to his wonderfully strong right arm.”[fn]William G. Weart, “One More Hurt to Base Ball,” Sporting Life (January 21, 1915): 9.[/fn] Johnson was concerned enough about his future to attend the opening session in Landis’s court, inconspicuously clad in a sweater and cap.[fn]The New York Times, January 20, 1915: 10.[/fn]
When no ruling from Judge Landis was forthcoming, he reported, late, to Washington’s spring training camp, prompting one reporter to note that the “Big Train” that carried Johnson was arriving behind schedule. This was the first reported usage of the Hall of Famer’s most enduring nickname.[fn]Ted Leavengood, Clark Griffith: The Old Fox of Washington Baseball (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2011), 110.[/fn]
How did Johnson’s reputation fare? The Big Train, it appears, need not have been so concerned. The public rapidly forgave him this transgression, a testament to both his overall character and his enormous talent. How forgiving was the public? Well, one recent book refers to Johnson as a “divine” hero, and one Johnson biography echoed a columnist’s conclusion (written at the time of Johnson’s death) that “the only man of the past to whom Walter Johnson could be compared was Abraham Lincoln.”[fn]Ira Berkow, Beyond the Dream: Occasional Heroes of Sports (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008), 45.[/fn], [fn]Kavanaugh, Walter Johnson: A Life, 287.[/fn] Apparently, none of the former Federal League magnates were asked to comment.
ACT THREE: THE PIOUS MASTER BAKER PASSES
While many figures in Organized Baseball knew enough to respect the business acumen of Robert B. Ward, the owner of the Brooklyn “Tip Tops” Federal League franchise and the League’s vice-president, they did question one thing: “What the h— does he know about baseball?” This complaint, expressed in Baseball Magazine by an unnamed American League magnate, raised the fundamental objection that Ward had made his fortune elsewhere, and not in baseball.
Ward had risen from humble beginnings to head the “Greatest Bread Manufacturing Company in the World.”[fn]Baseball Magazine devoted a truly disproportionate amount of its profile of the Ward brothers to the unique antiseptic bread manufacturing process they had developed. F.C. Lane, “Famous Magnates of the Federal League,” Baseball Magazine (July 1915): 24.[/fn] He was a devout Methodist who steadfastly eschewed Sunday baseball, despite its promise of financial gain. While Ward would have deplored the language of the anonymous magnate he was completely unintimidated by the sentiments, stating in reply, “I never knew there was any black art about baseball. Judging from some of the men I have met in the profession and the success they have made, I would not say that intelligence of the first order was necessary to a rather complete mastery of the game.”[fn]The unnamed American League magnate insisted on anonymity; however, it should be noted that due to a typographical error, the second page of the Ward profile contains the header “The Real Comiskey.” Comiskey had been profiled under that title in the February 1914 issue.[/fn], [fn]Lane, “Famous Magnates of the Federal League,” 110.[/fn]
Ward brought both his incisive analytical abilities and his bankroll to the aid of the Federal League cause. Even some of the most prominent figures in Organized Baseball were not shy about expressing admiration for what he brought to the table.
“I don’t know how he did it, but when [Federal League President James] Gilmore interested R.B. Ward in his schemes, he made a ten strike. He is the kind of man any league would go a long way to get,” remarked Charles Somers, a substantial financial backer of the American League at the time of its birth, and one who would be counted among the many financial casualties of the Federal League war. Even Ban Johnson, who was reported to have refused to discuss a possible peace proposal when Gilmore was in the same room, was willing to hold a “friendly conference” with the powerful master baker.[fn]Ibid., at 26, 110.[/fn]
Once President Gilmore had Ward and his brother George within the Federal camp, he proceeded to maximize the financial draws made upon the Ward fortune in support of the fledgling league. Ward, and Ward’s money, seemed to be everywhere. Not only did he support his own team financially, he made substantial loans to the league for the purpose of keeping other franchises afloat “including untold thousands that were never properly documented.”[fn]Levitt, The Battle That Forged Modern Baseball, 221.[/fn] Ward also financed an entire minor league (the Colonial League) virtually singlehandedly for the benefit of the outlaws as a whole.[fn]Wiggins, The Federal League of Base Ball Clubs, 228–31.[/fn]
By that time, Ward had already proven to be a steadying influence on the enterprise, particularly (in conjunction with St. Louis Terrier owner Phil Ball) in restraining the always rambunctious Charlie Weeghman of Chicago. When peace negotiations began after the 1914 season, the disparate interests of the Federal League’s ownership became readily apparent. Buffalo managing partner William Robertson spoke of a peace agreement which would “necessitate recognition of a third major league.”[fn]Levitt, The Battle That Forged Modern Baseball, 157.[/fn] For their part, the backers of the Baltimore franchise were, from the beginning, determined to return that city to the ranks of the Major Leagues.[fn]Wiggins, The Federal League of Base Ball Clubs, 68.[/fn]
Lucky Charlie was more parochial. He was major league material in his own mind. He certainly was not opposed to gaining admittance to Organized Baseball for the Federal League’s “big three” (himself included), but beyond that, he was less concerned. The bigger two of this threesome (Ball and Ward) “were not yet willing to abandon their fellow owners.”[fn]Levitt, The Battle That Forged Modern Baseball, 159.[/fn] The 1914 peace talks collapsed, leaving Joe Vila, as we have seen, once again on the wrong side of accuracy in the media.
The peace negotiations resumed in earnest at the end of the Federal’s second season. With another season of financial losses behind them, the outlaws were more than willing to talk. All around them lay the carnage of the baseball war, exacerbated by the challenges of a fragile national economy. Most tellingly, the ranks of the minor leagues that had already been thinned from 40 at the start of 1914 down to 29 on opening day in 1915, seemed destined for another downsizing.[fn]Ibid., at 157.[/fn] Ban Johnson might have been resolute, but a number of National League owners were wavering, as were the minor league owners, some of whom were in danger of bleeding out. Still, the National Leaguers had not yet felt enough pain to accept the Federals’ proposal of October, which envisioned the major leagues expanding to ten teams each by adding the Federal franchises in Brooklyn, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Buffalo or Kansas City, while also allowing Weeghman and Newark owner Harry Sinclair (later of Teapot Dome scandal fame) to purchase two franchises in the established leagues.[fn]Wiggins, The Federal League of Base Ball Clubs, 277.[/fn]
With the proposal deadlocked, fate played its final card in favor of Organized Baseball. On October 18, 1915, Robert B. Ward, who had been diagnosed with pneumonia the week before, died at his Homewood estate in New Rochelle, New York from heart complications at age 63.[fn]Sporting Life (October 23, 1918): 8.[/fn] Rational contemporaries were generous in observing the import of his passing. With Ward’s death, Sporting Life noted, “the Federal League, is deprived of its most powerful and yet most loved individual factor….”[fn]Sporting Life (October 30, 1915): 4.[/fn] Baseball Magazine said that “men like Mr. Ward are very, very few in baseball and their loss can hardly be replaced.”[fn]Baseball Magazine (December 1915): 15.[/fn] The New York Times observed: “The death of Robert B. Ward removes from the Federal League one of its staunch supporters. He was ever an active force in promoting the welfare of the league….”[fn]The New York Times, October 20, 1915: 13.[/fn]
The best that Joe Vila at The Sporting News could manage, however, was more tweak than teary-eyed tribute. Under a headline reading in part: “Death of Outlaw’s Angel Stiffens BackBone of Certain O.B. Men Who Were Inclined to Wobble,” Vila could only manage to concede that: “the chief owner of the Brookfeds was a game sportsman, a big-hearted, good-natured citizen who went into baseball with a limited knowledge of the business end of the game.”[fn]The Sporting News (October 28, 1915): 1.[/fn]
Ban Johnson proved to be even more petty, acknowledging that “[Ward] was the backbone of the Federal League” but then going on to say that “the blow is likely to prove fatal to the organization…. I think it was the Federal League that put him under the sod, as he could not stand the strain of worries and losses.” Federal League President James Gilmore fumed in response: “Mr. Johnson has intruded his personality into every true sportsman’s hour of sorrow,” going on to charge that “by his selfish impulses” Johnson was “slowly but surely ruining the national sport.”[fn]Sporting Life (October 30, 1915): 11.[/fn]
Gilmore’s righteous indignation did not save the outlaws, however, and within two months time peace had been reached. The peace was “far from a total victory” for Organized Baseball, however the peace terms were substantially less generous than the Federals’ October proposal.[fn]Seymour and Mills, Baseball: The Golden Age, 233.[/fn] Weeghman was allowed to purchase the Cubs and Phil Ball purchased the Browns. A large financial settlement ($600,000) was offered to many of the remaining franchises, but unlike both the ending of the American League war, as well as the resolution of more modern challenges in football, hockey, and basketball, there was no wholesale acceptance of an operating league, nor the migration of even a handful of rebel franchises into the established ranks.
The modern chroniclers agree that Ward’s untimely demise was pivotal to this ultimate result. Levitt noted that “there can be no exaggerating the impact of Ward’s death.”[fn]Levitt, The Battle That Forged Modern Baseball, 222[/fn] Wiggins concluded that when Ward passed, “much of the heart and fight of the Federal League died with him.”[fn]Wiggins, The Federal League of Base Ball Clubs, 277.[/fn]
It would be foolhardy to argue that but for the three twists of fate described above, the Federal League would have survived and, much like the American League before it, been organically integrated into Organized Baseball and be instantly recognizable a century later. Yet, each of these wrenching events altered, in a substantial way, the events that followed. The waging of the “war” was thus impacted by chance to a non-trivial extent. Even the peace agreement was impacted.
In 1989, Marc Okkonen commented with admiration on the “fascinating gamble” that was the Federal League. That gamble is made all the more fascinating when one considers that it could have ended far differently had only the fates been a little kinder.
BOB RUZZO is a Boston lawyer with considerable affordable housing and transportation policy experience. He is hopelessly obsessed with both the Federal League and how Jewel Box ballparks wove themselves into the fabric of their host cities. He has previously authored an article on Braves Field for the BRJ and is working on an article on the South End Grounds for inclusion in an upcoming book on the 1914 Miracle Braves.