Book Review: ‘The Battle That Forged Modern Baseball’

The Battle That Forged Modern Baseball: The Federal League Challenge and Its Legacy

By Daniel R. Levitt

Ivan R. Dee, 2012

List Price: $39.95

Had the Federal League succeeded in its pursuit of Walter Johnson, Joe Jackson, and Rube Marquard, it might conceivably be preparing for a grand centennial celebration instead of having long ago been relegated to a footnote in baseball history. The renegade third “major” league threw money at virtually every significant player in 1914-15, even inking a number to contracts only to see them slip back into the clutches of their former clubs.

The American and National Leagues were not about to let players the caliber of Johnson and Marquard jump without a battle. Both were among the Federal League’s headline-grabbing recruits in December 1914. By the time the 1915 campaign opened, however, Johnson and Marquard were back with the Nationals and Giants, respectively.

Jackson, disgruntled with the cash-strapped Cleveland Indians, nearly jumped to Chicago in the Federal League late in the ’15 season before caving to pressure from his wife and Cleveland owner Charles Somers, who signed Shoeless Joe to a below-market extension and later swapped him to the White Sox.

Any of the three would have given the Feds a badly needed boost of credibility—and likely emboldened a host of players to follow. Superstars Eddie Collins, Tris Speaker, and Ty Cobb all parlayed offers from the fledgling league into significant pay raises from their old clubs. While the new circuit landed a handful of established names, it never achieved critical mass and eventually ran out of time and money to keep trying.

In the early 20th century, outlaw leagues were hardly an unusual occurrence. Most failed, fading from memory without ever putting a significant scare into Organized Baseball. The Federal League, as Daniel R. Levitt explains in “The Battle That Forged Modern Baseball: The Federal League Challenge and Its Legacy,” was better organized than most and was backed by several deep-pocketed owners who were willing to pour money into the experiment for the opportunity to join the ranks of major league ownership—at least up to a point.

It didn’t begin as a threat to the established big leagues. The circuit opened in 1913 as a Midwestern loop featuring mostly local semi-professionals, competing only with lower-level minor league clubs for talent. Late in their first season, the owners decided to gamble on an upgrade in both players and venues for 1914.

Their pursuit of players was largely frustrated by baseball’s reserve clause, which many legal scholars of the day felt was invalid. The established major leagues were reluctant to engage in a direct battle over the wording of the clause, fearing a disastrous result in court. Instead they threatened to blacklist potential jumpers, who would not be allowed back in Organized Baseball. Several cases did wind up in the courts, with the Federal League winning a couple of battles, but eventually losing the war.

Despite the full-court press from the American and National League clubs, the upstarts did manage to land a handful of significant players, including Hall of Famers Chief Bender, Eddie Plank, Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown, and Joe Tinker. All were on the downsides of their careers by that time, but they helped make the Feds attractive at the gate for a brief while. Play began with strong crowds in 1914, with Opening Day attendance reported at 27,000 fans in Baltimore, 20,000 in Pittsburgh, and 21,000 in Chicago. The Chifeds, as they were known, put serious pressure on the Cubs, who were unable to match their draw on occasion.

Chicago today is home of the longest-lasting monument to the Federal League, Wrigley Field, born in 1914 as Weeghman Park. Chifeds owner Charles Weeghman later purchased the Cubs as part of the Federal League’s negotiated settlement with Organized Baseball following the 1915 campaign. He then moved his new club into the park, which bore his name until 1920. Weeghman was one of several wealthy owners frequently tapped for cash to help prop up struggling teams in Buffalo, Kansas City, and Indianapolis. This unsustainable business model inspired a series of negotiations to wind down league operations, ultimately leading to a settlement everyone found acceptable, with the exception of the Baltimore franchise, who wound up with nothing but a 40-year wait for another major league entry.

Levitt found a gold mine of material in the National Archives dating from the landmark anti-trust case between the leagues, presided over by Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who several years later would assume the position of baseball’s first commissioner. A later case, pursued all the way to the Supreme Court by the Baltimore Federal League club, provided another rich trove of documents, as did a collection of papers held by the Hall of Fame that were originally compiled by Garry Herrmann, the longtime president of the Cincinnati Reds and chairman of the National Commission at the time the Federal League was fighting for acceptance. Levitt weaves these original documents into a compelling tale of back-room dealings both in the formation and conclusion of the league.

The only thing that’s missing is a full account of the product on the field. While the Feds may have aspired to major league status, the quality of play certainly fell short of that, though it’s hard to gauge exactly where on the spectrum it landed. Levitt mentions Benny Kauff on several occasions, citing him as the “Ty Cobb of the Federal League,” and noting he later signed with the New York Giants. Kauff hit .370 for Indianapolis in 1914 and .340 for the Brooklyn Tip-Tops the following year. While he enjoyed some success in the National League from 1916-20, it was nothing to the scale of his two Federal seasons, suggesting the talent surrounding him may have been more suited to a high minor league than a major one. While most of the league’s drama may have taken place in the board rooms, it would have been nice to see more about the races, both for team and individual honors.

Of course, who won the batting title or the Federal League pennant isn’t the true legacy of the circuit. The league’s failure to break through into major league status helped cement Organized Baseball’s stronghold on the game. Never again was a serious attempt made at forming a competing league, and the majors held firm at 16 teams until expanding half a century later. With apologies to all the books out there that claim a particular season “changed baseball forever” (and there seem to be as many as there are years in the history of the game), here’s one about a two-year span that really did.

James Bailey reviews books for Baseball America. His novel, The Greatest Show on Dirt, is now available. He can be contacted at jamesbailey@baseballamerica.com.

Majors | #2012 #Book Guide

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