Was the Federal League a Major League?

This article was written by Emil Rothe

This article was published in the 1981 Baseball Research Journal


Was the Federal League of 1914 and 1915 a major league? Baseball authorities interested in the answer have been, and still are, divided in their opinions. Could a six-team independent league in 1913, generally regarded as no better than Class D, become an eight-team organization of major league quality a year later? The odds suggest that even the thought was preposterous. And yet, the historical background suggests that we ought not reach hasty, unwarranted conclusions.

In simplest terms that historical background began in 1912. That year two attempts were made to start independent leagues without the blessings of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues. The United States League, composed of eight eastern cities, survived only a month and the Columbian League, made up of cities in the Midwest, didn’t even open the season.

In 1913 the United States League opened the season but folded after only three games. The midwestern organization, rechristened the Federal League with John T. Powers as its president, not only opened as a six-team league but completed a 120 game season. Chicago, Cleveland, Covington, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis had teams in that loop. When the Covington club was unable to attract the attendance that had been anticipated, the franchise was transferred to Kansas City 41 games into the season. Competing head-to-head with major league teams in four of the six cities proved to be a serous financial strain and there was talk of dissolution of the league.

Later in the season, however, James A. Gilmore, a Chicago manufacturer, was appointed temporary president of the league when Mr. Powers was given a “vacation.” Mr. Gilmore proved to be a dynamic leader and was certainly not of a mind to give up the venture. His positive enthusiasm convinced the owners to continue their league in 1914. He interested Charles Weeghman, a wealthy Chicago restaurateur, in the Federal League and with him as an ally, attracted strong financial backing in other cities: Phil Ball and Otto Stifel in St. Louis; Robert B. Ward, president of the Ward Baking Company in Brooklyn; and in 1915, the multimillionaire oil tycoon, Albert Sinclair. Earlier Weeghman and Ball had both sought to purchase major league franchises but had been turned down. Their eagerness to own a baseball club of stature made them even more enthusiastic when the Federal League proclaimed itself a major league. Initially the established leagues ignored that boast but when the Federal League began to sign some of the stars of Organized Baseball and when eight new ball parks began to take form, the National and American Leagues realized that a Baseball War was indeed in the offing.

Early in January of 1914, Gilmore had stated that clubs in this league would respect existing major league contracts but that players who were merely on the reserve list were fair game. The Feds quickly signed many major leaguers. The first to “jump” was Joe Tinker who doubled his Cincinnati salary when he agreed to manage and play shortstop for the Chicago Feds. Following Tinker’s defection, other established major league standouts including Otto Knabe, Three Finger Brown, Hal Chase, and Russ Ford signed FL contracts.

In its February 7, 1914 issue, Literary Digest reported that the Federal League had 40 major league players in the fold but, jocularly, “the American and National leagues still had 250 left.” The same article pointed out that the Feds sought to have at least five players of major league stature on each of its teams.

As the Federal League was evolving, another phenomenon was also developing. In October 1912, David L. Fultz, a former outfielder with the Athletics and Highlanders (Yankees) and subsequently a lawyer, organized the Baseball Players’ Fraternity. By 1913 he had a membership of 700 and, as a consequence of that impressive number, he was able to command respectful attention when he presented a set of 17 “demands” and 17 “requests” to the National Commission to improve conditions for those playing in the major leagues. The impact and consequences of Fultz’ actions is another story but the net results were improvements in players’ rights and an improved salary structure.

On March 3, 1914 Dave Fultz stated that a league must be judged as a major league on the basis of the salaries it paid and “the Federal Leaguers are paying unlimited salaries.” He freely admitted that the Feds had done more for the players than his Fraternity or anyone else. Thus, Fultz did the Federal League a favor when he tacitly recognized it as a “major” league. However, he may have hurt the Feds as a result of being instrumental in improved pay and better working conditions offered by the existing major leagues. It is conceivable that many more stars might have responded to offers from the Feds if those improvements had not been made. Another deterrent to jumping to the Feds was the fact that men who did sign Federal League contracts were blacklisted by the National Commission.

In November of 1913, Charles Comiskey and John McGraw took the Chicago White Sox and the New York Giants on a World Tour. The teams were actually conglomerates. Only seven had been members of the White Sox and only five Giants made the trip. The balance of the two squads were bolstered by players from other teams. The tour ended in New York on March 5, 1914, and the Federal League was there to meet them, offering contracts to Tris Speaker, Sam Crawford, Ivy Wingo, Mickey Doolan, Steve Evans, Lee Magee and others. The last three named accepted the offers, the others did not. Many other players of rank, among them Walter Johnson, Ty Cobb, and Christy Mathewson were approached by agents of the Federal League but they chose to stay with their clubs when their salaries were substantially upgraded.

The first legal battle of the Baseball War began when the Chicago Whales obtained the signature of Bill Killifer on a Federal League contract on January 14, 1914 and paid him a $500 advance. Reindeer Bill had been a catcher for the Phillies since 1911 but, as of that January 14 date, was not under contract to the Philadelphia club. Less than a week later (January 20), he had second thoughts and signed a contract to play with the Philadelphia Nationals in 1914. Two clubs in different leagues now claimed his services. The Federal League claimed that the sanctity of a contract was the fundamental issue at law. Philadelphia lawyers took the position that the seducer of an employee should not be entitled to equity in the courts. On March 18 the Chicago Feds filed suit in the United States District Court of Western Michigan to prevent Killifer from playing with any team other than the Chicago Federal League Club. Judge Clarence V. Sessions was assigned to the case. Final arguments were heard on April 4.

Manager Joe Tinker of the ChiFeds said, “We can’t lose. If our contract is good, we’ll have Killifer and Fred Blanding and George Kading (those two had also signed Chicago FL contracts while on the Cleveland reserve list though not under contract to that club). If the decision is adverse, baseball contracts will no longer have validity, enabling us to offer inducements to major league stars even if they are under contract to National or American league teams.”

Judge Sessions handed down his decision on April 10. He denied the Federal League petition on moral rather than legal grounds and castigated Killifer as one whose pledged word could not be relied upon. He ruled that the contract of January 14 with the Chicago Feds and the one of January 20 when he jumped back to the Philadelphia Phillies were both valid. Organized Baseball claimed victory by virtue of the fact that the Federal League petition had been denied. The Feds claimed victory because the judge’s ruling of “moral rather than legal” invalidated the reserve clause and fans could expect open war between the rival leagues and players from the established leagues will “jump right and left.”

Following Sessions’ ruling, the picture changed. Gilmore sent wires to his clubs to go after any player whether he was under con tract or not. Ban Johnson, president of the American League, responded with, “I don’t care a rap what the Feds do and I would just as soon have war as not.” Those were brave words considering he fact that the Federal League was backed by very wealthy men to the tune of $50 million (a considerable sum in those days).

While it is difficult for us, today, to sense the intense emotions generated on both sides by player raids and counter-raids and by legal actions by both sides against organizations and players alike, we could judge the depth of feelings in those days by reading the front page headlines of the 1914 Sporting Life. Sporting Life was a tabloid baseball weekly that was considered “must” reading for anyone interested in baseball. From before the start of spring training in 1914 until a week before the start of the World Series between Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics and Boston’s Miracle raves, EVERY page one banner headline that season contained a reference to the Baseball War to the exclusion of any other event of interest that might have occurred in Baseball the preceding week. The headline of the March 14, 1914 issue illustrates the extent and intensity of the confrontation: FEDERAL WAR PLANS — The Independent Stirred into Reprisals by Personal Attacks — Prepare to Prosecute the War Vigorously — By Legal Proceedings, Establishment of Minor Alliances, and Wholesale Capture of Players. Similar “war” announcements appeared each week until World Series time.

Just before teams headed south for spring training, Sporting Life opined that the National and American leagues would not know the full extent of the Federal League inroads until players actually reported. When, on April 1, the Federal League published the 1914 rosters for its clubs, 59 players had jumped, 39 from the National League and 20 from the American. The Feds had made good their threat to have at least five major leaguers on each of their clubs; they averaged a little better than seven per team. Of the 39 National League defectors, Philadelphia lost nine men while Brooklyn lost only two. American losses ranged from one (Danny Murphy of Philadelphia) to four from the New York Yankees. The original jumpers were augmented by additional deserters all through the 1914 season. More major leaguers made the crossover for the 1915 season.

In the two years of its existence as a self-appraised major league, a total of 286 men appeared on the rosters of the Federal League during 1914 and/or l9l5. It is reasonable to assume that to qualify as a major league, a baseball organization must put on the field men who are recognized as having major league talent. What is that talent if it is not the skill to perform for teams in the National or American Leagues? If that assumption is valid, the next logical step is to analyze the rosters of the Feds. Almost 60 percent of the FL players had had previous NL or AL service 172 players by actual count.

Many of those, it is true, sensed that their major league careers might soon come to an end and they welcomed the generous Federal League offers as well as a chance to extend their playing days at top dollar. At the other end of the scale were those who had played only a year or two as fringe hangers-on.

Those who deserted their teams in Organized Baseball for a fling with the Feds varied in big league experience from the 14 years that Danny Murphy starred, mainly with the Athletics in the first decade of the century, to the one inning that Estey Chaney pitched for the Boston Red Sox in 1913. Incidentally, Chaney didn’t do much more for the Brooklyn Feds in 1914 (one game — four innings).

All in all, 101 men who had worn uniforms of an NL or AL team and then had jumped to the outlaw league ended their days as major leaguers with the Federal League. When the Federal League died so did their careers as major leaguers.

Another group that attracted the attention of the Federal League were those players who had already called it quits as big league performers, voluntarily or by request, BEFORE the 1913 season. Sixty-one men were lured out of retirement to don again a baseball uniform with a major league logo on the shirt. Thirty of them had last played in the bigs in 1912; eight had closed their careers in 1911; seven dated from 1910 and seven more from 1909. The Feds even signed four from the retirement class of 1908 and four from the year before that. Charlie Carr, who had last played for Cincinnati in 1906, was resurrected to play 11 5 games at first base for the Indianapolis Federals in 1914.

For 71 of those 172 with previous major league experience, the time they spent in the Federal League proved to be merely an interlude. When the terms of settlement dissolving the renegade league included the canceling of the blacklist that had been established for those who had deserted, they were able to return to the sites of their former employment. Most of them returned in time for the 1916 season. When the United States entered World War I, major league clubs lost some men to the draft or by enlistment. Those vacancies were filled by another 24 players who had not been signed in 1916 but were called back, seven in 1917 and 17 in 1918. For some the return was hardly worth the bother. Fred Jacklitsch, with ten years in the big time and two more with the Feds, got into one game with the Boston Braves in 1917 and didn’t even get to bat. Benny Meyer, who had played the outfield in 309 games in 1913-15, didn’t appear in a major league lineup again until 1925 and then it was for only one game with the Phillies. He did get one AB, hit a double, and is in the records with a BA of 1.000 for that year.

Of all the men who ever appeared in a Federal League game, only 89 of them never played with a National or American league club. The Federal League did unearth some rookies who demonstrated enough ability to attract the attention of the big league clubs. Twenty-five men who had their rookie experience with the FL later signed on with the surviving major organizations. Twelve made it in 1916 while the others surfaced in the next three years. Pitcher

Dave Black had to wait until 1923 when he landed employment with the Red Sox. For one FL rookie, Frank “Sugar” Kane, the return was for only one game for the Yankees in 1919.

A summary of the foregoing might be useful:

  • 286 — Played in the Federal League in 1914 and/or 1915
  • 172 — Had previous major league experience
  • 101 — Who had played in the majors before, ended their careers with the FL
  • 71 — Played in the majors both before and after their FL sojourn
  • 89 — Never played in the majors before or after their FL days
  • 25 — Were FL rookies who later signed with major league Clubs

Four leagues and triple occupancy in two cities made Federal League scheduling difficult. The Chicago Whales and the St. Louis Terriers each faced competition from two major league clubs. The Brooklyn Tip Tops and the Pittsburgh Rebels had NL rivals. The Kansas City Packers and the Indianapolis Federals (sometimes Hoosiers) were confronted by established American Association clubs and the Buffalo BufFeds and the Baltimore Terrapins had firmly entrenched International League teams to contend with.

The two majors and two minors announced their schedules well before the Federal League published its dates. There were 264 game conflicts with Organized Baseball. The greatest problem was in St. Louis where a total of 70 conflicts were discovered. The Whales in Chicago were home on the same dates as the White Sox 24 times and were attendance rivals with the Cubs on 28 occasions. In Pittsburgh there were 27 days when the Pirates and Rebels were in town the same days. The Brooklyn Feds were head-to-head with the Brooklyn Nationals 21 times but if the Giants’ and Yankees’ schedules were included, the entire season would have found two and sometimes three games in greater New York each day of the baseball year. The American Association was in conflict on 34 dates in Kansas City and 20 in Indianapolis. The International and Federal schedules clashed in Baltimore and Buffalo on 20 dates in each city.

In mid-May John Tener, president of the National League, announced that the Federal League was not hurting any city in his league except in Chicago where the Whales of Joe Tinker were more popular than the Cubs of Hank O’Day.

By the end of June, Buffalo and Baltimore of the International League were in trouble and appealed to the National Commission for financial assistance and suspension of the draft rule to enable them to compete with their Federal rivals for the baseball fan dollar. Both appeals were denied. Ban Johnson, American League president, proposed consideration of another major league composed of the better cities in the International League and the American Association. The idea was applauded by both of those organizations but the Pacific Coast League objected to any change in status that did not include it. Their position was based on the Organized Baseball Agreement of 1903. NL President Tener remained noncommittal and Federal League prexy James Gilmore said, “We’re too busy planning to obtain more players to worry about another major league.” By July the idea had lost appeal although Sporting Life reasoned that eventually there would be a third and maybe a fourth major league regardless of what might happen to the Feds. As we now know, the expansion that Sporting Life foresaw took the form of more TEAMS in the two existing leagues rather than more leagues.

Indianapolis won the 1914 FL championship. Chicago finished second, 1½ games out. In June, President Gilmore had said there would be a “world series” the winner to play an All Star team selected from the other seven teams — but that event never materialized. Benny Kauff of Indianapolis was the batting champ with .370. The Feds led the other two leagues in homers with 295 and Dutch Zwilling of the Whales was the individual leader with 16. The Nationals managed 266 with Cactus Cravath of the Phillies hitting 19 for top honors. The Americans fell far short with only 148 and the best individual record was eight. Late in April, Otto Knabe, manager of the Brooklyn Tip Tops, had predicted heavy hitting in the Federal League. “I told President Gilmore that our ball was too lively but Joe Tinker said it wasn’t lively enough so nobody listened to me. In spring training I noticed how our guys hit the ball. I had trained on the same grounds when I was with the Phillies. My boys were hitting 25-30 yards farther than Art Wilson, Dode Paskert, and other long distance Philadelphia hitters.”

Russell Ford of the BufFeds posted a 21-6 W-L mark. Claude Hendrix, Chicago’s standout mound ace, won 29 games. Ed Lafitte pitched the only FL no-hitter that year. He beat Kansas City, 6-2, on September 19. The two runs were the result of his own wildness. Indianapolis amassed 24 hits in a 21-6 conquest of Pittsburgh and the Hoosiers also ran up a consecutive win streak of 15 games.

With all teams in the three leagues suffering financially, August Herrmann, Chairman of the National Commission, offered to meet a representative of the Federal League early in November. Charlie Weeghman represented the Feds and they met for two days with Ban Johnson and James Gilmore also on hand. The meetings proved to be fruitless and early in December the Feds called a halt to further proceedings.

In January 1915 the Federal League instituted an anti-trust suit in the U.S. District Court in Chicago before Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis. Judge Landis endeared himself to Organized Baseball when he successfully “sat” on the case by legal delays until the following December when the suit was dropped because then there no longer was a Federal League.

In February Gilmore announced that the Federal League would put a team in the Bronx or in Newark for the 1915 season. He had Pat Powers and Harry Sinclair poised to buy the Kansas City franchise and move it to the New York area. Later that month Kansas City obtained an injunction to prevent such a move. At a “peace” meeting in New York, arrangements were made to move the Indianapolis franchise instead. Newark was selected as the site for the new FL member.

The 1915 season was played with continued animosity between Organized Baseball and the Federal League. While some of the action was still conducted in the courts, there was not nearly as much legal maneuvering as in 1914. The Federal League anti-trust suit was still pending; Benny Kauff sued the New York Giants for a promised $5000 bonus; and the St. Louis Terriers won the Armando Marsans case (The Cincinnati Reds claimed that Marsans ran out on a contract but the judge ruled the document was not binding).

All three leagues enjoyed unusually close races in 1915. Almost all the teams except the Athletics (Connie Mack had dismembered his AL champs) had early season pennant fever. Three teams battled for the AL championship almost to the last week. The NL was so well balanced that the ultimate pennant winner had the lowest ever winning percentage and the team in last place had the best won-lost record ever achieved by an eighth place club. The FL had six teams in the fight. In the last series of the season the title was still on the line and the first four teams were in head-to-head competition, Chicago vs Pittsburgh and Kansas City vs St. Louis. In the very last game of the season the Chicago Whales defeated Pittsburgh while the St. Louis Terriers beat the K. C. Packers and Chicago claimed the flag. St. Louis finished second and Pittsburgh was third and only five percentage points separated the trio.

Besides an exciting 1915 race, The Feds had four no-hit games. Frank Allen of Pittsburgh posted the first on April 24 against St. Louis. Three weeks later, May 15, Chicago’s Claude Hendrix made Pittsburgh the victim. On August 16 Alex Main of K. C. pitched one against Buffalo. Dave Davenport of St. Louis hurled the fourth in a game with Chicago on September 7.

Kauff repeated as the batting champ with a .342 mark and Hal Chase, Buffalo first baseman, captured the home run crown with 17. Eddie Plank had a solid 2.08 ERA and a won-lost mark of 21 and 11. Chicago’s George McConnell won 24 and lost 10.

In spite of the close races, only three National League clubs showed a small profit; four teams in the American League posted heavy losses; and, in the Federal League, only two clubs ended in the black — just barely. The exciting pennant races should have been profitable but weren’t. Schedule conflicts that placed two teams in the same city on too many days hurt. Economic depression threatened; the cost of living was on the rise; our relations with Mexico were unstable; the war in Europe was a grave concern; and there were other competitors for surplus dollars — movies, the automobile, and other sports like golf and tennis. But, the main problem was the persistent challenge from the Federal League. Continuing the war was senseless.

President Tener of the NL initiated conferences with representatives from the Feds in the fall of 1915. Other conferences followed without progress until in mid-November the Federals announced that they intended to place a team in Manhattan. That stirred Tener to renewed activity and his league and the FL finally reached a tentative agreement in mid-December. It was presented to the American League which promptly approved and a committee was set up to work out details. In Cincinnati, on December 22, the most costly baseball war came to an end. The main issues of the settlement included reinstatement of all players who had been blacklisted. Charles Weeghman, owner of the Chicago Whales, was permitted to buy the Chicago National League Club and Phil Ball, owner of the St. Louis Feds, was allowed to purchase the St. Louis Browns. Federal League players except those from Chicago or St. Louis were to be sold to the highest bidder. The Federal League withdrew its anti-trust suit. While there were other stipulations, these are the main ones that ended the conflict.

From the 1915 rosters of the Feds, the National League teams selected 39 men for the 1916 season and the Americans added 20. The Chicago Cubs, in effect, were half Cubs and half Whales, with 17 of the latter. The St. Louis Browns and the Terriers also became a single unit (12 Feds were included). For one reason or another the St. Louis Cardinals did not add one player from the dissolved league. Three American League teams, Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia, also passed up the opportunity.

With all the movements of players between three different leagues during the two-year Federal League interlude, only two men in all baseball history can claim to have played in three different leagues in the same city and both names start with Z! Rollie Zeider, an infielder, and Dutch Zwilling, an outfielder, each started with the Chicago (AL) White Sox in 1910, joined the Chicago (FL) Whales in 1914, and, finally, in 1916 they played for the Chicago (NL) Cubs.

It must be noted that six Federal Leaguers were eventually inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Not, of course, on what they accomplished in their Federal League stint, but one or two of their baseball years were spent with the Feds. The selectees included three pitchers, Chief Bender, Mordecai Brown and Eddie Plank, plus Bill McKechnie, Edd Roush, and Joe Tinker.

If the Federal League was not a major league, there is room for conjecture that in 1914 and 1915, with the drain of quality players from the established leagues, maybe, in those days at least, there existed three high level minor league organizations instead.

 

*Assisted by Richard L. Burtt

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