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.
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.
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
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