This article was written by Justin Mckinney
This article was published in the Spring 2018 Baseball Research Journal
In 1915, the Chicago Tribune announced a contest to find the three best amateur baseball players in Chicago. The prize for the three youngsters would be a chance to join each of Chicago’s major league teams, the American League White Sox, the National League Cubs, and the Federal League Whales. The contest’s origins, execution, and ultimate success were the result of a series of circumstances unique to Chicago in that era.
On May 23, 1915, something unprecedented happened in the history of major league baseball. On that day, the Chicago Daily Tribune announced a contest to find the three best amateur baseball players in Chicago. The prize for the three youngsters would be a chance to join each of Chicago’s major league teams, the American League White Sox, the National League Cubs, and the Federal League Whales. The contest’s origins, execution, and ultimate success were the result of a series of circumstances unique to Chicago in 1915, including the city’s vibrant amateur baseball scene, the Tribune’s active role as an ambassador of amateur and semipro baseball, and the heightened competition for talent and attention brought on by the team from the new Federal League.
Chicago was home to a large amateur baseball scene and the Tribune provided coverage and printed box scores from numerous semipro and amateur leagues each week. As an example, the August 10, 1914, issue included the box scores of 25 semipro and amateur games from around the city. The influence of the regular reportage on the city’s baseball scene was commented on by Joe Tinker, manager of the Whales, who stated that the “amateur scores printed in The Tribune every Monday morning are the greatest boost ever given baseball.”1
It was this commitment to covering and promoting amateur baseball that provided the impetus for the contest. On February 2, sportswriter Harvey T. Woodruff reported on a meeting organized by the Tribune that brought together Chicago’s amateur baseball leaders to discuss plans for boosting the game.2 Despite the fact that Chicago was home to countless amateur and semipro teams, Woodruff lamented that only 5,000 fans had attended the national amateur title game the previous fall, while a crowd of an estimated 90,000 had attended one of the preliminary amateur contests in Cleveland.3 The newspaper saw that something needed to be done to promote the game and increase interest in amateur baseball.
The Chicago Tribune Amateur Contest was first announced on May 23 under the headline: “Here’s Chance to Become Sox, Cub, or Whale.” Author Woodruff detailed the grand prize, in which the three winners would get the opportunity to travel on the respective teams’ final road trips and “be a real member of the team for several weeks.”4 Offering an authentic major league experience both on the field and off, Woodruff explained that the winners would be “actual players while they are with the club. They will occupy the same sleeping cars, quarreling about upper or lower berths, be assigned to rooms in hotels, eat with the players, wear a uniform in the field, and perhaps get a chance to act as substitute if any of the regulars are injured.”5Woodruff proclaimed that the contest prize is an “offer unparalleled, so far as known, either in baseball or the newspaper field.”6
Equally unparalleled was the cooperation between all three of Chicago’s major league teams. Woodruff acknowledged that the contest was only able to function through the “approval and sympathy” of President Charles H. Thomas of the Cubs, President Charles A. Comiskey of the White Sox, and President Charles Weeghman of the Whales. What would prompt three competing magnates to participate in this contest? In order to answer that question, it is worth examining the impact of the Federal League and the Chicago Whales upon baseball in 1915 in Chicago.
It is clear from looking at attendance figures for the Cubs and the White Sox that the Federal League’s presence in Chicago had a drastic impact. The White Sox saw their attendance drop from 644,501 in 1913 to 469,290 in 1914 (the Whales’ second year, and the first in which the Federal League competed as a “major” league), while the Cubs had it even worse: Their attendance was cut in half from 419,000 in 1913 to 202,516 in 1914.7The newly formed Chi-Feds—who lacked a formal nickname in their first year and were also known as the Federals—meanwhile drew the most of any Federal League team, with 200,729, though the club’s owner, Weeghman, later claimed a first-year attendance of 312,000.8
In addition to increased competition for Chicago’s fans, there was an increase in competition for baseball talent. On April 1, 1914, when the Federal League published its rosters, 59 major league players had defected to the new major league. Over the course of the 1914 and 1915 seasons, 172 players with AL or NL experience had appeared in the league. In the Federal League’s two seasons as a major league, 286 different players appeared.9 Although many of the players who appeared in the Federal League were of questionable caliber, the fight for new baseball talent was clear.
So as the 1915 season began, all three of Chicago’s major league teams were battling for fans and talent. Thus the participation of all three clubs in the Tribune Amateur Contest is not entirely surprising since the contest had the potential to be mutually beneficial to both the Tribune and the teams. The Tribune could provide a free and powerful platform for the clubs to locate new talent while giving them valuable ink. If the contest was a success, the newspaper would benefit from increased sales and notoriety, and the clubs would get new baseball talent and a possible uptick in fans.
The announcement on May 23 also provided the criteria by which players would be judged: on their baseball skill and deportment on the field, with the specific admonition that “no umpire baiters are going to chosen.”10 Only players under 21 years of age could enter. Woodruff noted that Tinker, Cubs manager Roger Bresnahan, and Ed Walsh of the White Sox all expressed interest in helping out with the contest.
As May ended, the contest had yet to take on a formal structure. The May 31 Tribune provided scouting reports for various players culled from across the city, with only the scouts’ initials provided, so as to preserve their anonymity. At this point, however, there was no indication of what the next phase of the contest would be. The initial plan seems to have been for scouts to attend games and compile a list of players who would then be scouted further, but the Tribune soon recognized the folly of this plan. On June 6, Woodruff reported that the Tribune had been “fairly swamped with ambitious youngsters, anxious to learn more of the details of the plan.”11 The response was so overwhelming that more scouts needed to be added and a cutout coupon was published, so that young players could formally enter the contest. There would be scheduled tryouts, which would include games between teams chosen from among the entrants. The three winners would come from a group of 40 finalists.
On June 8, more scouting reports were published that highlighted some of the strong play from around the city. Shortstop James Cerny of the Weisskopfs was compared by scout J. C. to Rabbit Maranville, while scout E. F. L. noted that third baseman McInerney’s strong play for the Meteors meant that “Comiskey needn’t worry about that third corner any longer.”12 In contrast to the rave reviews, scout A. G. was so disgusted by the umpire baiting and wrangling in a game between the Marines and Iolas that he left early, stating, “These fellows are out of it because of their tactics.”13 On June 13, the first list of 42 entrants was published, ranging from 12-year-old O. Jones, a shortstop for Holy Grail, to 21-year-old M. C. Miller, a strapping 6-foot-2 pitcher for East Gary. Applicants from fraternal leagues, high school teams, and the sandlots were represented.
On June 22, former Chicago Colts star Jimmy Ryan was named as chief of scouts for the contest.14 Scouting reports continued to appear for various amateur games around the city and a contest close date of July 15 was announced. On July 4, the first official tryout was announced for the following week with approximately 50 entrants. At seven o’clock in the morning on Sunday, July 11, the first tryout took place at Weeghman Park, home of the Whales. Luminaries such as Ryan, Tinker, Weeghman, American League utility umpire Clarence Eldridge, and members of the Whales were in attendance. Pants Rowland and Roger Bresnahan were unable to attend the tryout. Despite the tryouts not being open to the public, demand was so high that a crowd of 1,000 was eventually admitted by Weeghman. Heavy rains nearly canceled the tryouts, and of the 54 players scheduled to be tried out, only 30 or so were in attendance.
Of those who appeared in the initial tryouts, 10 were deemed worthy of moving on the final round. The most notable of this first wave of aspirants was a future National League MVP. Robert O’Farrell Jr. was the 18-year-old catcher for Waukegan High School. In the tryouts, he had two hits, scored two runs, and had 13 putouts and one assist. In less than two months, he would make his major league debut with the Cubs. O’Farrell was chosen as the first-string catcher and paired with another finalist, pitcher Johnny Simmons, who struck out 11 batters. O’Farrell was described as the best hitter of the lot and also impressed with his catching and throwing. Bob O’Farrell was so impressive that on July 25, he was signed by the Cubs at the behest of their manager, the legendary backstop Bresnahan.
When the final entry date for the contest passed on July 15, there were nearly 400 entrants from Chicago and its suburbs. The next tryouts took place on July 17 at the Chicago American Giants Park. Approximately 50 youngsters appeared at the tryouts and A.L. umpire Eldridge noted that the quality of player was lower than that of the first tryouts and that outfield stars were especially lacking.15 Perhaps this is the reason only five finalists were named.
Two more tryouts were scheduled for the next day, July 18, one in the morning at Comiskey Park and one in the afternoon at West Side Park, the Cubs’ home field. The morning tryouts were canceled due to rain, to be rescheduled at a later date. The afternoon tryouts took place without a hitch. Lanky fireballer Henry F. Rasmussen was one of the standouts. Engel noted that Rasmussen showed a “world of speed,” allowing only four “bingles” in nine innings of work, and also banging out a triple and a single.16 Diminutive shortstop James Cerny was described as a “second edition of Maranville,” while two outfielders were finally selected, Robert Swenie and Frank Baker. First sacker Leo Gronow and catcher George Dowling, described as a “Bresnahan type,” rounded out the six finalists from the tryout.
The next tryout was scheduled for West Side Park on July 24 but was canceled due to the tragic sinking of the SS Eastland on the Chicago River, which killed 844 passengers. The Tribune announced that the entire receipts from the final tryout scheduled on August 1 at Comiskey Park would be donated to benefit the relatives of those who lost their lives in the Eastland disaster.17 One of the eventual finalists, Charley Pechous of the Western Electric company team, narrowly missed boarding the SS Eastland after his family neglected to wake him in time to take the ship to a scheduled game in Michigan City.18 The following day saw two more tryouts, one at Weeghman Field and one at West Side Park. Over 100 players appeared that day and 14 more finalists were selected. Third baseman Julian Mee was one of the finalists, and Eldridge noted that he was one of five third-base playing brothers, including Tommy Mee, who had played in the infield (mostly at short) for the St. Louis Browns in 1910. Pechous disappointed with the bat, but demonstrated his “usual flashy game” in the field and “showed his fielding superiority over all other infield candidates.”19 Shortstop Johnny McKittrick was another standout selected for the finals.
The positive buzz generated by the tryouts and the O’Farrell signing was noted by the semipro Chicago City League. On July 29, an open letter from the 12 managers of the circuit, published in the Tribune, offered spots to the top 12 finalists who failed to land contest trips. The letter expressed the belief that the contest was “affording the amateur ball players of Chicago a great opportunity to progress in baseball” while also promoting “amateur and semi-professional baseball in Chicago.”20
That same day, the Tribune provided further details on how the winners would be selected. The four judges, Eldridge, Ryan, umpire Charles A. Reading, and Chicago semipro booster Frank McNichols, would utilize the so-called Chalmers systems, used by the American and National leagues to select their Most Valuable Player. Each judge would create a ballot awarding 12 points to the best player, 11 to the next best, and so on down the list. The top three players would be selected for contest trips and the next 12 would get recommendations for the City League.
Going into the final weekend of the contest, 34 finalists had already been selected (35 minus Bob O’Farrell, who was ineligible after having signed with the Cubs). That left a potential six additional spots remaining. On July 31, a makeup tryout was scheduled for the July 24 session canceled by the Eastland disaster. Taking place at DePaul University, the tryouts would yield seven more finalists, bringing the field to 41 players for the August 1 finals.
On the eve of the finals, the Tribune commented on the overwhelming success of the tryouts thus far, noting that over 90 percent of the 400 applicants had participated and boldly proclaiming that no “sporting event for the prairie lot players has created as much interest.”21 The attention garnered by the final contest spread to baseball’s minor leagues as well. American Association president T. M. Chivington indicated that he would attend the finals at Comiskey Park in hopes of “finding material suitable for his league.”22 He was given authorization by league managers to provide a list of prospects. Western League president Tip O’Neill, White Sox secretary Harry Grabiner, and former Cubs owner Charles W. Murphy also attended the August 1 finals.
The final tryouts took place in a doubleheader that allowed all 41 finalists ample chance to showcase their abilities. The judges selected three unanimous victors: third baseman Charley Pechous, pitcher Henry “Hans”/“Heine” Rasmussen, and shortstop John McKittrick. The 6-foot-5½-inch, 190-pound Rasmussen was picked to join the Federal League Whales amid some controversy over his age. The young giant promised to provide the appropriate documentation to show he was under 21 and joined the Whales for their road trip on August 3.23 Pechous was selected for the Cubs based on his spectacular fielding, and McKittrick was slated to join the White Sox for their final road trip in September.
Rasmussen’s major league adventure garnered the most attention of the three. Almost immediately, he was cast as an overgrown man-child, having only started pitching the previous year and never having traveled east of Chicago nor having slept in a sleeping car before. After being tricked into taking the upper berth on the Whales’ train to Brooklyn, Rasmussen showed a modicum of self-awareness, proclaiming “I’m no Ring Lardner busher” and boasting that he wouldn’t fall for any tricks.24 His naiveté was further exposed when he downed three meals in one sitting, going into debt on his per diem and complaining that he was still hungry when he went to bed that night.
Manager Tinker commented on Rasmussen’s inexperience, noting, “The kid doesn’t know anything about pitching, but he certainly has a sweet delivery. . . . He seems willing and anxious to learn.”25 Rasmussen continued to be the subject of his teammates’ jokes, but was noted to “take the attempted joking in the right spirit.”26 Young Heine stated that he was hard to fool since he had “read all Ring Lardner’s busher stories. . . . If they want to get me they’ll have to spring some new stuff.”27 Rasmussen’s exploits in New York City appeared on August 10 under the headline “Tribune Amateur sees nothing new on Gay White Way.” Heine was not impressed by Broadway, saying, “We have all this stuff in Chicago.” The proud youngster was well aware of his newfound fame and volunteered to advise the Tribune of any noteworthy material regarding himself while expressing disappointment that he had only received two letters from girls since he’d left home.28 It was later reported that Heine’s plea was met with one letter a day from a girl back in Chicago.29
On August 11, Rasmussen entered the record books officially, as Tinker brought him in to face Newark in the eighth inning with the Whales down 6–0. The nervous hurler was touched for two runs in his sole inning of work and struck out in his only at-bat. Regardless of his underwhelming results, the Tribune expressed that he showed a “dandy display of nerve” and was of the belief that he was a “real ball player.”30 Tinker was cautiously optimistic: “If the big youngster sticks to the game he may make a headliner among the hurlers.”31 Rasmussen took the mound again for the second and last time on August 13, once again facing defending champion Newark. Displaying more cool than in his debut, Heine allowed one run in his sole inning of work. Rasmussen remained with the club for the remainder of their trip, drawing more attention for his coaching antics in an August 17 game against Baltimore, which resulted in a $25 fine. He was released at the end of the road trip. Rasmussen signed on with the Cubs in mid-September but did not appear in another major league game. He played briefly with Terre Haute in the Central League the next year to end his professional career.
Infielder Pechous joined the Cubs on August 16 for an exhibition game in Toledo, where he went hitless but made several nice defensive plays. This would be Pechous’ only in-game experience with the Cubs in 1915. He finished the road trip and was offered a contract for $1,800, but did not sign with the Cubs, choosing instead to finish school. In mid-September, however, he joined the Whales and made his major league debut at third base on September 14 against Baltimore. Pechous would appear in 18 games for the Whales, batting a dismal .176 but showing a solid glove. Pechous played for the Cubs in 1916-17 as a substitute and lasted another six seasons as a “good field-no hit” infielder in the American Association.
The third winner, McKittrick, joined the White Sox for their trip east in September. McKittrick did not appear in any games with the club, perhaps owing to the strength of the eventual 93-game winner. He signed with Terre Haute of the Central League in early 1916, but his career in professional baseball appears to consist of a stint in 1916 with the Johnsonburg Johnnies of the Interstate League.
Another Tribune contestant appeared in the majors that year: first baseman Joe Weiss, who also played for the Whales in September 1915. Weiss was declared ineligible from the contest because he had appeared with Green Bay of the Wisconsin-Illinois League in 1914. He would play in the minors into the early 1920s.
Of the nearly 400 contestants who entered the 1915 Chicago Tribune Amateur Contest, four played in the major leagues in 1915. Another contestant, Doug McWeeny (entering the contest as L. D. McWeeney), later pitched for the White Sox, Brooklyn Robins, and Cincinnati Reds. In addition, more than 30 participants played minor league baseball, with many being signed as a direct result of their participation in the contest.
The contest was held again in 1916, with nearly 600 entrants taking part in the summer-long tryouts. Five winners were drawn from a field of 83 finalists, with the Cubs and White Sox getting two players each and the fifth winner awarded the special Ban B. Johnson prize, which included a trip to that year’s World Series to provide special reports for the Tribune. None of the five winners (John Simmons and Albert Hoffman joined the Cubs, Andrew Norman and Daniel F. Cunningham traveled with the White Sox, and John Berry won the Johnson prize) would appear in the majors.32 However, future major league stars Marty McManus and Johnny Mostil were among the year’s contestants.33 In addition, more than 20 of the entrants would play professional baseball in the coming years.
Just as the contest appeared set to become an institution, World War I brought the proceedings to a halt. The 1917 edition of the contest was announced, but on April 15, nine days after the United States declared war on Germany, the Tribune announced it would be canceled for the time being, so as not to interfere with the war effort. After all, the Tribune noted, the contest was targeted toward young, able-bodied men of the right age to serve in the military.34 The newspaper said the contest would resume, better than ever, at a later date.
That later date never came. The war consumed the 1918 baseball season and had effects reaching into the shortened 1919. No announcement was made for a new contest, and it would never resume—for reasons that remain a mystery, though several possibilities can be ascertained. The recent on-field success of the White Sox and Cubs, the 1917 World Series winners and 1918 National League champions, respectively, may have made both clubs leery about adding distractions to their pennant pursuits. The demise of the Federal League de-emphasized the competition both for the fan’s attention and for baseball talent. Another factor to consider is the financial struggles of the 1917 and 1918 seasons stemming from the war, which left both of Chicago’s ballclubs looking to cut any non-essential costs, including room and board for a young contest winner. Regardless of the reason, the Chicago Tribune Amateur Contest was dead.
The impact of the contest has largely been forgotten. The Milwaukee Journal, clearly inspired by the success of the Tribune contest, held a similarly structured competition in 1919. Players from the area competed in tryouts throughout the summer, with the winner getting a chance to join the American Association’s Milwaukee Panthers. That contest’s winner was Fred Klevenow, a 19-year-old catcher, who would end up playing several seasons in the minor leagues.35 Several other contestants would also play minor league baseball.
In the 21st century, the Indian reality television show Million Dollar Arm embodied the spirit of the Tribune contest. The show sought to find potential baseball pitching talent among the country’s cricket-playing population, offering a $1 million prize to any cricket bowler who could pitch three balls at over 90 miles per hour. The contest winners, Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel, eventually signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates organization and would play in the minor leagues.36
The bold and ambitious Chicago Tribune Amateur Contest had the potential to create a new avenue for player discovery, but unfortunately, world events and changes in the baseball world conspired to end the concept just as it was starting to gain traction. The legacy of the contest can be seen in the talent discovered. Four major league careers, however brief, began as a direct result of the contest, in addition to numerous minor league careers. Several other future major league players and many more future minor leaguers were contestants. As a source of talent discovery, the contest was low cost and low risk. As a means of promotion, it was ingenious and served the triple benefit of giving publicity to the newspaper while providing free advertising for Chicago’s professional teams and galvanizing and garnering attention for the city’s amateur baseball community.
JUSTIN MCKINNEY lives in Ottawa, Ontario, and writes about strange baseball history, including that time Rube Waddell got bit by a lion, at medium.com/@baseballobscura. He is an active contributor to the SABR Pictorial History Research Committee and has located images of over 80 previously missing players and counting for the Player Image Index. He is currently working on a book about the Union Association. Growing up in Calgary, he attended numerous Calgary Cannons games and became a Baltimore Orioles fan thanks to their cool logo and Cal Ripken Jr. He still laments the loss of the Montreal Expos.
1 J. J. Alcock, “Tinker Lauds ‘Tribune’ Plan; Amateurs to Help ‘Pro’ Game: Says Prairie Scores and Trip with Majors Will Boost Sport,” Chicago Daily Tribune, May 27, 1915.
2 Harvey T. Woodruff, “Want All Nines to Take Park,” Chicago Daily Tribune, February 2, 1915.
3 Woodruff, “Want All Nines to Take Park.”
4 Woodruff, “Here’s Chance to Become Sox, Cub, or Whale: Three Amateurs to be Re-warded for Their Skill and Deportment,” Chicago Daily Tribune, May 23, 1915.
5 Woodruff, “Here’s Chance to Become Sox, Cub, or Whale.”
6 Woodruff, “Here’s Chance to Become Sox, Cub, or Whale.”
8 Robert Peyton Wiggins, The Federal League of Base Ball Clubs: The History of an Outlaw Major League (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2008), 163-164.
9 Emil H. Rothe, “Was the Federal League a Major League?” SABR Research Journal, 1981. Accessed February 5, 2017. http://research.sabr.org/journals/federal-league-a-major-league.
10 Woodruff, “Here’s Chance to Become Sox, Cub, or Whale.”
11 Woodruff, “Coupon Out for Ball Aspirants: Entries Will Enable ‘Tribune’ Scouts to Cover the Ground Better,” Chicago Daily Tribune, June 6, 1915.
12 Otto A. Engel, “Tribune Scouts Make Report on Future Greats: Visit Local Ball Parks and See Candidates for Sox-Cubs-Whales Trips Play,” Chicago Daily Tribune, June 8, 1915.
13 Engel, “Tribune Scouts Make Report on Future Greats.”
14 Engel, “Ryan Locates Amateur ‘Find’ in First Try: Jimmy, Scout for ‘Tribune,’ Discovers Young Star in Ted Coutre,” Chicago Daily Tribune, June 22, 1915.
15 Clarence E. Eldridge, “Five Amateurs Survive Tests For Ball Trips: ‘Tribune’ Board Holds Trials at American Giants’ Park; McNicholls Helps,” Chicago Daily Tribune, July 18, 1915.
16 Engel, “Six More Boys Picked for Amateur Finals,”Chicago Daily Tribune, July 19, 1915.
17 Engel, “Boys to Play for Charity in Trip Tests: ‘Tribune’ Tryouts at Sox Park Will Help Eastland Fund,” Chicago Daily Tribune, July 27, 1915.
18 Engel, “Native Sons Win Trips Amateur Stars,” Chicago Daily Tribune, August 3, 1915.
19 Eldridge, “Scouts Select 14 More Stars For Last Game: Excellent Material Found in Tryouts at Cub and Feds Parks,” Chicago Daily Tribune, July 26, 1915.
20 Engel, “City League Asks ‘Tribune’ For Recruits: Semi-Pro Clubs Will Take Twelve Boys Who Fail to Land Trips,” Chicago Daily Tribune, July 29, 1915.
21 Engel, “‘Tribune’ Test at De Paul Field This Afternoon,” Chicago Daily Tribune, July 31, 1915.
22 Woodruff, “Intercity Scouts to Watch ‘Tribune’ Amateur, Contest,” Chicago Daily Tribune, July 30, 1915.
23 Eldridge, “Rasmussen, M’Kittrick and Pechous Win Trips,” Chicago Daily Tribune, August 2, 1915.
24 Alcock, “Amateur Given Bit O’Real Life with Federals,” Chicago Daily Tribune, August 5, 1915.
25 “Joe Tinker Says Rasmussen has Sweet Delivery,” Chicago Daily Tribune, August 6, 1915.
26 “Joe Tinker Says Rasmussen has Sweet Delivery.”
27 “Joe Tinker Says Rasmussen has Sweet Delivery.”
28 “‘Tribune’ Amateur Sees Nothing New on Gay White Way,” Chicago Daily Tribune, August 11, 1915.
29 Alcock, “Tinker Departs to Bait Whales from O.B. Ranks,” Chicago Daily Tribune, August 16, 1915.
30 Alcock, “Rasmussen Gets First Trial; Whales Beaten by Newfeds, 8-0,”Chicago Daily Tribune, August 12, 1915.
31 Alcock, ““Rasmussen Gets First Trial.”
32 Eldridge, “Five Winners Chosen in ‘Tribune’ Tourney,” Chicago Daily Tribune, July 31, 1916.
33 Tryout lists, Chicago Daily Tribune,June 4 and July 4, 1916.
34 Woodruff, “‘Trib’ Tourney Gives Way to War’s Demand,” Chicago Daily Tribune, April 15, 1917.
35 “Milwaukee’s Best Amateur Ball Tossers,” Milwaukee Journal, September 2, 1919.
36 Duncan White, “Million Dollar Arm: The True Story,” The Telegraph (UK), August 29, 2014. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/11063420/Million-Dollar-Arm-the-true-story.html.