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.
After 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.
Weeghman 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.