BY TOM EMERY
Had it survived, the World Series may have become a three-way affair. And the Cubs may not be playing in Wrigley Field.
This season marks the 100th anniversary of the Federal League, an attempt to challenge the established National and American leagues. Though the Federal League lasted for only two seasons, its impact remains today.
Officially known as the Federal League of Base Ball Clubs, the effort was the work of John T. Powers, a flamboyant sports promoter who had unsuccessfully tried to form an independent baseball league in 1912. That venture fell through, but Powers tried again and in 1913, the Federal League was born as a minor-league circuit. It declared itself a major league the next year.
The new league placed teams in four cities that had big league teams – Chicago, Brooklyn, St. Louis and Pittsburgh. The other four – Baltimore, Buffalo, Indianapolis and Kansas City – were top minor-league towns. Nicknames were unusual, reflective of the era. The St. Louis team was called the Terriers, while Baltimore sported the name Terrapins and Brooklyn went by Tip-Tops.
The Federal League made overtures to raid National and American League rosters, and 50 major-league players were lured away. Dan Levitt, author of the acclaimed “The Battle that Forged Modern Baseball: The Federal League Challenge and its Legacy”, notes the rest of the Federal League’s players were less talented.
“Of the 186 players in the league in 1914, 70 were from the high minors, and 40 were from the low minors,” said Levitt, a member of the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR). “The remaining 26 were free agents, from independent teams and that sort of thing.”
Among those that jumped were six future Hall of Famers, including pitchers Chief Bender and Mordecai “Three-Finger” Brown as well as Bill McKechnie, who won nearly 1,900 games as a major-league manager. Also joining the upstart league was Joe Tinker, part of the legendary Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance double-play combination of the Chicago Cubs from a decade earlier.
Tinker became player-manager of the Chicago Whales, who played in a brand new ballpark on the city’s north side – Weeghman Park, named for Whales owner Charles Weeghman. Tinker nearly duplicated his success of the Cubs, keeping his team in the race until falling to Indianapolis by one and a half games.
The champion Hoosiers moved to Newark to become the Peppers for the 1915 campaign, the only franchise shift in the league’s two years. Attendance was roughly 50-60 percent of National and American League totals.
Though half the teams were in dire financial straits, there was remarkable parity on the field. No less than five teams were in the 1915 pennant race, captured by the Whales by a mere .001 point over the Terriers, with Pittsburgh a half-game back.
By then, however, it was clear the Federal League would not last. The Kansas City franchise was bankrupt, and a buyout of the league was negotiated by the American and National leagues. The sale of Federal League players brought in more cash.
Two Federal League owners were permitted to buy into the established circuits. Terriers owner Phil Ball, a tycoon in the ice market, took over the St. Louis Browns, while Weeghman, who made a fortunre in the lunch-counter trade, bought the Chicago Cubs. He moved the Cubs into his new ballpark for the 1916 season. Two years later, Weeghman sold the team to William Wrigley, who renamed the ballpark Wrigley Field, which has since become one of baseball’s iconic stadiums.
The home of the long-suffering Cubs is not the only memorial to the Federal League. In 1916, the Baltimore team filed a conspiracy suit against both competing leagues and a variety of other defendants. The case evolved into an antitrust suit that went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in 1922 that major-league baseball was an entertainment venture, not interstate commerce, and therefore exempt from the Sherman Antitrust Act. As a result, there have been no successful attempts at a third major baseball league in the century since.
“There are really two effects of the exemption,” Levitt said. “One is the farm system, which would not exist if the exemption were not in place. In addition, the other major sports did not have the exemption to take advantage of, like baseball did. Competing ventures like the American Football League and the American Basketball Association arose because the NFL and NBA did not have the tools that Major League Baseball had to protect itself.”
In 1968, Major League Baseball officially recognized the Federal League as a third major league, though researchers debate whether that designation is deserved.
“Certainly, the quality of players in the Federal League was not as good as the National or American leagues,” Levitt said. “But to the degree that the league saw itself as a major league, and that the fans, media, and competition also viewed it that way, the Federal League was certainly a major league.”
Tom Emery is a freelance writer and researcher from Carlinville, Ill. He may be reached at email@example.com.
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