Simply Baseball Notebook's Forgotten In Time

The Federal League

Hilton Smith
Larry Doby
Seattle Pilots
1994 Expos
Ray Chapman
Flashes in the Pan
Steve Blass
St. Louis Browns
Wally Pipp
Rocky Colavito
Dom DiMaggio
Ellis Valentine
Bill Buckner
Jim Bottomley
The Federal League
Stuart 'Slim' Jones
Billy Hamilton
Ed Delahanty
Eddie Waitkus
George Davis
Riggs Stephenson
1920 White Sox
Luke Easter
Herb Washington
Eddie Robinson
Bobby Mathews
Jimmy Ryan
A.G. Spalding
"Dummy" Hoy
Albert Belle
Jack Quinn
Ken Williams
Al Oliver
Jack Taylor
Fred Lindstrom
Jim Thorpe

During the 1910s the owners ruled baseball with an iron fist. Players had no leverage in contract negotiations. Almost exclusively signed to one year deals, a players' options were simple: take what the owner offered or don't play. But, in 1914 the Federal League changed that, if just for a brief time.

Founded in 1913, the six team league honored major league contracts during it first season and was content to deal with minor leaguers and castoffs. But, during January 1914 Phillies catcher, Bill Killefer, signed with the Federal League's Chicago Whales. Killefer then used his new contract as a bargaining chip with the Phillies. Philadelphia eventually retained the catcher, but a war had been sparked between the leagues.

The Federal League felt their contract with Killefer was ignored by the baseball's establishment and therefore would behave likewise when it came to major league players' deals. The Feds also filed an antitrust suit against the major leagues; District Court Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, known as a trust buster, presided over the case.

Beginning in Spring Training of 1914, Federal League agents started lurking around major league ballparks. Hal Chase, Claude Hendrix, Armando Marsans, Russ Ford, and Cy Falkenberg were among the first to bolt to the Federal League, while many others parlayed the Feds' offers into bigger contracts with their major league teams.

Washington Senators pitcher Walter Johnson went 36-7 with a 1.09 ERA in 1913 and actually had the nerve to ask frugal owner Clark Griffith for a raise. When Griffith balked, Johnson signed with the Chicago Wales which prompted the owner to personally visit his ace pitchers' home. Griffith eventually persuaded Johnson to remain in Washington and his $6,000 signing bonus was returned to the Whales. Some believe the shrewd Griffith actually talked White Sox owner Charles Comiskey into refunding all or part of the bonus by convincing him that Johnson being in Chicago would financially damage his club.

Detroit's Ty Cobb, the Boston Red Sox's Tris Speaker, and Boston Brave Rabbit Maranville also received substantial raises because of Federal League offers. Speakers' salary was doubled from $9,000 to $18,000, Cobb's was bumped from $9,000 to $20,000, and Maranville's was more than tripled from $1,800 to $6,000.

Meanwhile, Judge Landis sat on the antitrust case and the Federal League kept piling up debt due to legal costs, contract offers, and the construction of new stadiums. Although Landis had the reputation as a trust buster, he was also a baseball fan and did not want to rule against the major leagues. Aware of the leagues' financial woes, Landis simply put off ruling on the case.

In December of 1915, an agreement was met between the owners of each league in which the lawsuit would be dropped, the Federal League would be disbanded, and it's owners would be compensated in a variety of ways. Once the league folded, the players lost all leverage in contract negotiations and salaries returned to their pre-Federal League levels. As for Landis, he became baseball's first commissioner in 1921.

Today the Federal League remains an interesting footnote in our National Pastimes' rich history, but to the players of that era it was a shining moment when they held cards in their battle against the all-powerful owners.

-David Zingler, February 2003

Editor's Note: Many of the facts used in this story were found on pages 67-70 of the book 1918: Babe Ruth and the World Champion Boston Red Sox by Allan Wood.


Simply Baseball Notebook

DISCLAIMER: All pictures are assumed to be in the public domain. No violation of copyright is intended here. If one of the photos above is not in the public domain, please notify us and it will be removed.