During the nineteenth century, it was common for leagues to pop up, raid players, and quickly fold due to investors pulling out their funds, owners switching their teams to leagues with better chances or survival, or teams simply closing their doors. By the start of the twentieth century, the battle was on for “Major League” supremacy. The “Senior Circuit”, as the National League is oftentimes called, is the oldest remaining of all major leagues in professional baseball. It rose from the ashes of the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players, and was founded on February 2nd, 1876. The problem with the former, was that the league struggled for overall central authority, mismanaged scheduling practices, and the relative ease to do as they pleased, since fees for league entry were so low ($10).
William Hulbert, long time owner of the Chicago White Stockings, had a better plan, and that plan involved taking the strongest of clubs, and forming a league that had more overreaching authority, and a more “above board” way of signing players. Hulbert himself, had signed several players under questionable circumstances compared to some of the other teams in the original league. A handful of his signings were facing exile from the current league for agreeing to those contracts with Hulbert. From that, came the National League.
A quarter century later, rose the “Junior Circuit”, or the American League. Originally a minor league known as the Western League, The American League received their chance to gain “big league” status only after the American Association folded. Even then, the newly-minted AL had issues with the National League, because of the attitude and business dealings of their president, Hall of Famer, Ban Johnson. Even though the American League came into being in 1901, it wasn’t until 1903 that the two leagues came to an agreement to have each of their respective league’s champions face-off in the fall to play the modern incarnation of “The World Series.” The co-existence of the two leagues did have some bumps along the way, as their was no World Series in 1904, due to New York Giants’ manager John McGraw, refused to participate in anything involving AL President Johnson.
McGraw believed in his heart, that the “new” American League, were far inferior to his National League champion Giants, and that his team were already the champions of baseball. Unfortunately, even going back to the “World Championship” sets involving the NL and the American Association, there remained no central, governing body to enforce the basic rules and agreement of a series between the champions of each league. With the National League’s disdain for Ban Johnson, and no commissioner yet in place, the rules of the World Series were played loose, thus allowing one team to “refuse” to participate without risking the forfeiture of a so-called “World Series” champion.
Fast-forward a decade or so, and established major league franchises (both National and American Leagues), were flexing their muscles on the playing field. Around 1913, came a man named John T. Powers, and he, like many labor organizers before him, challenged the iron-fisted rule of the owners of the existing NL and AL teams in Major League Baseball at that point. Powers believed that players were but laborers, who possessed absolutely zero bargaining power in where, and for how much they would play. Players up to this point, fell under the guise of the famous “reserve clause”, which kept players tied to their teams–and ultimately their owners, for as long as a team wished to keep that player around, without giving him an opportunity to go to the team that was willing to pay the most for his individual services. An owner would “reserve” his team’s roster’s service from year to year, and in the process, keep a player’s salary artificially low. If a player refused to play, he would soon be blacklisted, and without a union to represent him against the owners, he was subjected to play for whatever the team that owned him was willing to pay.
Powers, along with several other businessmen, wished to challenge the stranglehold of the two major leagues, and created a third league, often referred to as the “Outlaw” league, for luring away players who were under contract, from established big league teams: an enticing option for a player who was literally “owned” and paid whatever his owner wished. Players in this new league, were also given the right to free agency, something completely unheard of in organized professional baseball during the early years of the twentieth century. Aside from offering free agency, salaries were higher than those of their NL and AL counterparts, and truly showed how quickly players’ salaries would rise if free agency were to be commonplace throughout Major League Baseball.
The result of Powers’ organizational and promotional skills, came the formal name of this outlaw league: The Federal League. Teams in six cities including St. Louis, Chicago, Cleveland, Covington, Pittsburgh, and Indianapolis were the basis for building this third league to compete with the NL and AL. The Federal League did not recognize the National Agreement–binding players to their teams under the reserve clause. During their first season of operation, Powers served as the league’s president, but a year later, was replaced by James Gilmore. It was Gilmore who declared The Federal League to be a direct competitor, and third major league.
Soon after the initial establishment of the six franchises, the league grew to eight teams each season, with cities such Baltimore, Buffalo, Brooklyn, and Kansas City would soon play host to Federal League teams. One of the first established big league stars who attempted to “jump” to a Federal League team, was the Big Train, Walter Johnson. He initially signed a three-year deal to play in Chicago, in their brand new ballpark, which was later renamed Wrigley Field. Weeghman Park was originally home to the Chicago Whales. Senators’ owner Clark Griffith made a last minute plea to Johnson to remain in Washington, and he obliged.
The failure to bring Johnson to the “Outlaw” league did not stop their team’s owners from snatching up established big league talent to play. Players such as Jack Quinn, Doc Crandall, and Hal Chase all made the jump to teams in pursuit of more personal freedom within their industry, and to of course, make more money. Fans enjoyed the highly-competitive league, as during both seasons of operation, witnessed two very tight pennant races. The Federal League, not receiving one ounce of love from either the National or American Leagues, decided they were prepared to tackle the ultimate challenge: the antitrust agreement that big league baseball had yet to be subjected to. The league filed their lawsuit in federal court during the winter of 1914-15, and was titled Federal Baseball Club v. National League.
As an omen of things to come in baseball history, the case landed in the courtroom of one Kenesaw Mountain Landis–the future first Commissioner of Major League Baseball. Landis highly urged both leagues to try and come to some semblance of an agreement that both sides could live with, but neither plaintiff nor defendant were willing to give an inch. Instead of making a quick ruling, Landis chose to do nothing. He allowed the case to sit and gather dust, hoping he would never have to make one of the most difficult labor decisions in United States’ history.
Unfortunately for the Federal League, the longer the case sat, the more expensive it became to continue litigation. This new league after all, was less than four years old, and didn’t have the deep financial resources as owners, that the more well-established owners of the National League possessed. In a coup of sorts for the National and American Leagues, they further weakened the bargaining positions of the owners of the Federal League, when during the off-season following the 1915 season, owners from both the NL and AL, purchased stakes in several Federal League teams, in an attempt to shut them down.
In return for allowing National League and American League owners in the door, a handful of Federal League owners were allowed to purchase franchises in the established big leagues that were struggling. Charles Weeghman, owner of the Whales, and who constructed the field in which the Chicago Cubs would later call home, took over the Cubbies. Phil Ball, owner of the St. Louis Terriers, purchased the Browns. To weaken the Federal League further, both owners merged their Federal League teams into the established teams they had purchased. The walls were closing in quickly on the Federal League at this point.
To make matters worse, the lawsuit filed by the Federal League continued to sit on Landis’ desk, the Kansas City team went bankrupt and had to be supplemented by the league itself, and the owner of the Baltimore franchise refused the offers made to him, and failed to win an individual lawsuit against the National League himself. When the dust settled, the Federal League was no more, unable to withstand the growing financial burden of keeping teams intact as the league was raided by the two more-established big leagues. In 1922, the U.S. Supreme Court finally ruled in Federal Baseball Club v. National League. The lawsuit continued to be pushed by one of the teams that hadn’t been purchased or relocated, and in their ruling, cited Major League Baseball as entertainment, and did not fall under the rules of the Sherman Antitrust Act. What’s amazing, is that close to 100 years after that ruling, Major League Baseball still enjoys this “entertainment” protection.
While the Federal League only last three seasons, it was the last legitimate challenge to break the stranglehold of the National and American Leagues. The Continental League attempted to organize in 1959, but failed to even play a single game. As for Judge Landis, not only did he make his initial impact on Major League Baseball by not ruling one way or the other, but he ensured that the two established leagues, who had more purchasing power, would remain as the sole beneficiaries of elite professional baseball, until he came to power as the first Commissioner of Major League Baseball, and ruling against the Black Sox, banning eight members for throwing the 1919 World Series.
As for the remnants, aside from Wrigley Field remaining the home of the Chicago Cubs, a chunk of Washington Park III, where the Brooklyn Federal League team played, an outfield wall stood until demolition commenced on the site, where a storage facility now stands. Only one-third of the outfield wall remains, but has been built to be a part of the storage facility for Con Edison in Brooklyn. The Federal League is but a footnote in the history of our grand game, but pieces of it remain all around us today.