The Federal League War (1914)

Part 3 of our series on Important Moments in Team Building.  See introduction, and up-to-date list.


In the spring of 1913 the Federal League began operation as an independent (unaffiliated with Organized Baseball) minor league in several large Midwestern cities. Since the AL-NL peace agreement a decade earlier, Organized Baseball had generally left these typically small independent leagues alone as long as they didn’t try and infringe on any established contracts or agreements. If they did, even in the slightest, Organized Baseball, often led by American League President Ban Johnson, descended on them aggressively.

At first, the Federals had little desire to challenge the establishment, mostly signing top local semi-pro players and a few aging ex-Major Leaguers and minor league journeyman. As the 1913 season wore on, however, some of the Federal League owners began considering a major league challenge, as the AL had done successfully in 1901.

Acting quickly, in late summer the FL brought in Jim Gilmore, a glib, well-connected Chicago businessman, as league president and began looking for wealthy league owners. Gilmore had an early success when he induced Chicago restaurateur Charles Weeghman to take over the Chifeds. During the fall the league made a few marginal player signings, but nothing that would generate any real buzz. Weeghman changed this.

TinkerJoeAfter the 1913 season the Cincinnati Reds sold player-manager Joe Tinker, the shortstop of the Cubs famous Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance infield but no longer a star player, to Brooklyn for $25,000, a huge amount for the time. Under normal circumstances Tinker would have had no leverage. But with the FL threat afoot he demanded a $10,000 bonus and a three-year contract at $7,500 per year. Brooklyn agreed to the $10,000, but only a $5,000 annual salary at the time when top stars made roughly $9,000 – $12,000 and a mid-level regular around $3,000.

On December 27, 1913 Weeghman shocked the baseball establishment by signing Tinker to one of the largest contracts in baseball history, $36,000 for three years with $12,000 up front. The Federals had loudly signaled that they were ready to sign any player whose contract with Organized Baseball had expired. Over the next several months the Federals pursued many of baseball’s top stars and many from the high minors. They did not land many, but changed the market for all major league players.

A primary goal of any Organized Baseball team in 1914 was now simply to prevent the Federals from poaching its players. NL and AL owners resorted to underhanded tactics that would have been illegal under federal antitrust law, including blackballing players who jumped to the upstart league. More importantly, the new competition required Organized Baseball to nearly double its salary scale over the next couple years. In fact, only a handful of recognizable names jumped, several of whom were past their prime and became managers, such as pitcher Three Finger Brown and first baseman George Stovall. The Phillies lost the most players, including shortstop Mickey Doolin, second baseman Otto Knabe, and pitchers Ad Brennan and Tom Seaton.

During its first major league season in 1914, Federal League owners struggled to show a profit, with several clubs losing huge amounts of money. Once secret peace negotiations broke down in early November, the FL went back on the offensive, signing several significant players away from the major leagues, such as pitcher Pol Perritt, catcher Ivey Wingo, and first baseman Ed Konetchy.  But they still longed for a true superstar, and set their sights on Washington’s Walter Johnson, baseball’s best pitcher. Although Johnson had rebuffed them during the previous summer, he had seemed willing to listen.

JohnsonWalterWeeghman sent his manager Tinker, the Federal’s best spokesman, to Coffeyville, Kansas, to woo Johnson to the Chifeds. Tinker’s timing just happened to be perfect. After Johnson returned to Coffeyville that October he had received a contract in the mail from Senators owner Ben Minor offering just $12,500. When Tinker showed up on December 3, it took the two only 20 minutes to agree to a three-year contract at $17,500 per year. The Federals had finally made their game-changing signing and appeared to have materially changed the dynamic between the leagues.

Organized Baseball counterattacked swiftly. Washington manager and minority owner Clark Griffith hustled out to Kansas to meet with Johnson.   After a long grueling meeting in which he alternately called on Johnson’s loyalty and emphasized the negatives of the Federals, Griffith cajoled Johnson to disregard the contract he had signed with the Federals and re-sign with the Senators. Organized Baseball similarly managed to corral several other recent jumpers back into the fold.

Johnson’s defection back to Washington, along with many of the other players, devastated the FL’s owners. They felt like they had been fighting fair, generally going after players controlled only by the reserve clause, while Organized Baseball disdained the Federals, treating their contracts as if they did not exist. The Federals went to court to try to enforce the Johnson contract and several others, and to defend themselves from Organized Baseball’s own legal attacks, but these cases were costing the Federals tens of thousands of dollars.

The Federals decided to use the largest legal hammer they had, suing Organized Baseball for violating federal anti-trust laws. The FL’s attorneys wanted a sympathetic judge, and elected to file in Chicago in the court of Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, known as a trust buster. But despite Landis’s unspoken belief that Organized Baseball was acting in violation of antitrust laws, he refused to rule against them. In fact, he refused to rule at all. He simply sat on the case for all of 1915. At the end of the year, the Feds threw in the towel and reached the best settlement they could, receiving about $700,000 from the major league baseball owners and folding their league. Several owners, including Weeghman, were allowed to buy into major league teams. The NL and AL owners remembered Landis five years later when they named him baseball’s first commissioner.

After the Federal League folded, the power to completely control player movement returned to the clubs and salaries returned to their pre-FL levels. Had Walter Johnson and a few of his fellow major leaguers followed through on their contracts with the Federals for 1915 the league may have survived several years longer. If the FL had still been around a couple years later when America’s entry into the Great War dramatically cut into baseball’s profits, Organized Baseball may have been willing to cut a deal with the Federals that would have left a substantively different major league structure. One thing is for certain: like in 1903, the major leagues would not have allowed the salary explosion caused by the new league to stand.

For more on the Federal League Battle with Organized Baseball see this book.




The AL-NL Peace Agreement (1903)

Part 2 of our series on Important Moments in Team Building.  See introduction, and up-to-date list.


Whatever one might think about the quality and style of the baseball played in the 19th century — the great players, the exciting pennant races, the personalities, the stories, the romance — we should all agree on one thing: for the historian interested in team management or roster building, it was a bit of a mess. There were five different major leagues (counting the National Association, whose major league status is disputed); there were teams that moved cities (including in the middle of a season), disbanded, or merged with other teams. There were owners who controlled multiple teams and swapped players between them at will. There were minor league teams that joined major leagues in mid-season. Some of these teams played only a handful of games in their history, but are still considered “major league” teams today, and their players have the same status in the record book as Willie Mays.

After the American Association folded in 1891 (technically a merger, and four of its teams joined the NL), the National League enjoyed the first stable period of its existence, and exploited its status as the only recognized major league. From 1892-1899, the single 12-team league had the same teams in the same cities, and enjoyed some of its more famous seasons. The Baltimore Orioles and Boston Red Stockings of the 1890s were legendary clubs.

In 1900 the National League dropped its four weakest franchises, providing the

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AL President Ban Johnson

opening for the American League (a strong minor league at the time) and its imperious president, Ban Johnson, to vie for major league status. The 1901 American League (now a self-described “major league”) would be made up of a mix of current NL cities (Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago), and former NL cities (Baltimore, Washington, Detroit, Cleveland) plus Milwaukee. Within two years they moved into New York and St. Louis.

The NL still had the best players, and the reserve clause meant that a challenge would be a tough slog. The AL respected the NL’s contracts, but not the reserve clause, and spent the 1900-1901 offseason traveling the country trying to sign NL players whose contracts had expired. Since nearly everyone had one year contracts, this offered a large field. For their efforts, the AL owners landed many of baseball’s top stars –including Jimmy Williams, Nap Lajoie, Jimmy Collins, and Cy Young—players who had never before known competition for their services.

Within a year it was obvious that the AL was a serious competitor – it was well capitalized, its franchises were in big cities (matching the NL in attendance for the 1901 season), it had good players, and it was unified under a powerful and competent president. Much more unified, in fact, than the constantly feuding and self-interested NL owners.

For about two years, major league players had options. Those who did not switch leagues – men like star shortstop Honus Wagner – could at least bring a little more leverage into negotiations with their current club.

The low point in AL-NL discord came in 1902, and ultimately led to the destruction of the AL’s Baltimore franchise. The Orioles (not the same as the 1890s Baltimore NL club that had folded) were managed by John McGraw, an NL star from the 1890s whose brand of umpire-baiting and general ruffianism put him at odds on a near daily basis with President Johnson, who wanted his league to be a cleaner, more respectable affair. Sensing an opening, the two most scheming NL owners decided to pounce. Cincinnati owner John Brush convinced McGraw to quit the Orioles and move back to the NL to manage the New York Giants in the middle of the 1902 season. Giants owner Andrew Friedman, Brush, and confidants then followed up by purchasing a controlling interest in the Orioles and releasing many of the best players. McGraw quickly directed many of his former charges to re-sign with him and the Giants.

Johnson had been itching to challenge the NL in New York. With the Orioles now decimated on the field and with a muddled ownership, Johnson had his chance. He soon announced that the AL would replace the Orioles with a new franchise in New York City, competing directly with the Giants. Freedman, who didn’t really like baseball anyway, sold the Giants to Brush, who in turn sold the Reds to local Cincinnati businessmen. The new Reds owners named August Herrmann as team president. The resultant National League – losing Freedman and gaining Herrmann — proved to be one of the more important upgrades in league history.

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Barney Dreyfuss

Without Freedman, a remarkably divisive figure, the remaining NL owners – led by Pittsburgh’s Barney Dreyfuss – soon agreed to peace talks with the American League. The resultant agreement essentially recognized the AL as an equal partner. The leagues remained separate legally, but once they agreed to recognize each other’s reserve lists the leagues were effectively a single monopoly that controlled the careers of its players. The emergent two-league 16-team setup made no changes to its map for 50 years, not until the Boston Braves moved to Milwaukee in 1953.

Sealing the partnership, at the end of the 1903 season the NL champion Pittsburgh Pirates and the AL champion Boston Americans agreed to play a series of games to determine baseball’s true champion. This became an annual event — the World Series – and has been played in 113 of the past 115 seasons.  The major leagues, as all of us came to know them, truly came into existence in 1903.



The Reserve Clause (1879)

Part 1 of our series on Important Moments in Team Building.  See introduction, and up-to-date list.


Arthur Soden

Boston Red Stockings owner Arthur Soden had a problem. He and the other National League magnates, who had set up their new league just a few years earlier, were losing money. Over the NL’s first three seasons no team turned a profit, and in 1879 only Providence had made money. It was not supposed to be this way. When their league was established in 1876, the NL owners thought they had addressed the flaws of its predecessor, the National Association. Under the leadership of Chicago owner William Hulbert, the man who should really be considered the father of American sports leagues, at its start the NL agreed on four principles soon taken for granted.

First and foremost the owners took control over who could be a member, creating what we now refer to as a “franchise”. No longer could ten guys from Keokuk, Iowa — who might have ponied up a dollar each for the $10 entry fee — compete with established teams from Boston and Philadelphia (as had happened with the National Association). Secondly, the owners granted territorial exclusivity to their member teams. Also, the league created a common schedule so that teams played a similar amount of games against the other teams in the league – the National Association left it up to their member teams to schedule games as they wished, meaning that some teams played vastly more games than others. Lastly, the league registered player contacts with a central office so that teams could not poach players under contract to other teams.

Nevertheless, it was not enough. Most significantly, with most players on one-year contracts, once a season concluded teams would lure players from their competitors by offering higher pay or other perks. Salaries in those early NL years consumed nearly two-thirds of a team’s operating budget. Not surprisingly, having players “revolve” between teams also hurt fan interest. As the financial losses piled up, teams disbanded on a nearly annual basis. Only the fact that some new hopeful would pop up to take their place kept the league from folding.

After four years of this, Soden had a solution. He recommended that each team be allowed to “reserve” five of their contracted players (which was about half of the team) for the next season—no other team would be permitted to sign them. On September 30, 1879 Soden’s scheme was secretly adopted by the National League. Once implemented, the system had its desired effect. Salaries fell dramatically, profits rose, and the league’s franchises became much more stable. The reserve system proved so successful for the owners that they eventually made it public and expanded it to nearly all the players.

With no competition for their services, reserved players had little recourse other than to hold out – to refuse to sign their contract. The associated threat that the player would retire to some other line of work was hardly more than a hopeful bluff. In a period of less than a decade players had gone from being able to jump from team to team for better salaries to being tethered to whatever team held their contract, effectively forever. The launch of the American Association as a competing major league in 1882 offered new competition for the players, but the respite was short lived as the two leagues quickly agreed to respect each other’s reserve lists.

John M. Ward

The players had one brief stab at power a few years later under the leadership of John Montgomery Ward, a star infielder with New York. Ward organized the first real players union, the Brotherhood of Professional Baseball Players, in the mid-1880s. In 1890, with backing from wealthy investors, the players launched their own league, the Players League. Once again salaries soared, but this time the National League fought back in the courts, arguing that the reserve clause, now inserted into the players’ contracts, legally prohibited players from negotiating with any other team. The NL owners did not win any of these challenges, and the Players League landed many of the top stars.

In the end, however, it didn’t matter. The Players League folded after just one year; the National League and American Association continued to agree to respect one another’s reserve lists; and the players once again had no leverage. Owners and GMs could go about their team building with only the most cursory concern over the desires and needs of their players.

The reserve clause remained a bedrock principle of the major leagues for the next 85 years. Even after an arbiter, and various collective bargaining agreements, chipped away at the scope of the clause beginning in the 1970s, most major leaguers (all those with less than six years service time) are bound by the clause to this day.

Today, much of the hot stove talk is around where various free agents are likely to land and their impact on a team’s chances in the coming year. Under the reserve clause regime there was no way to access significant mid-career players other than through trades or outright purchases from other teams. The former obviously required surrendering one’s own talent while the latter was only available under unique financial circumstances. For nearly a century, Soden’s 1879 brainstorm defined player-owner relations and narrowed teams’ roster options.


Important Moments in Team-Building

Three years ago, as our book was getting ready to launch, we wrote a blog series to count down the 25 best GMs in baseball history.

As our paperback is going to be released this spring, we are writing a new blog series to discuss 25 “Important Moments in Team Building.”  This series will run chronologically and, if read in order, will provide a broad history of the changes to the game that have effected player movement and the general manager.

The series wills start on Monday, January 29, and (hopefully) will run for 25 consecutive week days.  Thanks for reading!

1.  The Reserve Clause (1879)

2.  NL-AL Peace Agreement (1903)

3.  The Federal League War (1914)

4.  The Sale of Babe Ruth (1920)

5.  The Trade Deadline (1922)

6.  The Anti-Trust Exemption (1922)

7.  Branch Rickey’s Farm (1925)

8.  The Farm System Goes Legit (1932)

9.  Chasing Pennants in Boston (1935)

10.  Jackie Robinson (1947)

11.  Bonus Rule (1953)

12.  Interleague Trading (1959)

13.  Amateur Draft (1965)

14.  Collective Bargaining Agreement (1968)

15.  Free Trade (1971)

16.  Binding Salary Arbitration (1973)

17.  Catfish Hunter (1974)

18.  Andy Messersmith (1975)

19.  Pat Gillick and the Rule 5 draft (1977)

20.  Free Agent Compensation Draft (1982)

21.  Collusion and Tim Raines (1987)

22.  Albert Belle (1996)

23.  “Moneyball” (2003)

24.  The Theo Epstein Effect (2004)

25.  The Latest CBA (2016)

Mark and Dan