On this date in 1914 the first Federal League game was played in Baltimore, where the Terrapins defeated the Buffalo Buffeds 3-2. A crowd estimated at 27,000 watched the first big league game in Baltimore since the Orioles left for New York to become the Highlanders and then, the year before, the Yankees.
Wait, major league game? In Baltimore, before the current Orioles team moved there from St. Louis in the 50s? Was the Federal League a major league?
Yep, it was. A short-lived one, but one whose legacy is still very much with us today. Let’s talk about it, shall we?
After a lot of chaos, turmoil and shaking out of upstart leagues and teams in the late 19th Century, baseball, as a business, was doing quite well by the early 19-teens. The National League and American League had had a decade or so of peaceful and organized co-existence, the World Series was well-established and big stars were becoming national, as opposed to merely local, celebrities. Against that backdrop a couple of efforts were made to form competitor leagues to get in on some of that action.
In 1912 something called The United States League began play, primarily on the east coast. It lasted three games and then folded. At the same time, a man named John T. Powers started the Columbian League, primarily in the Midwest. That actually lasted a whole 120-game season. In 1913 he reorganized it as the Federal League. It began play that year a six-team minor league with clubs in Indianapolis, Chicago, Cleveland, St. Louis, Kansas City and Pittsburgh. The league expanded to eight clubs for the 1914 season, with clubs in Baltimore, Brooklyn, and Buffalo (Cleveland was folded). In advance of the 1914 season Powers proclaimed the Federal League a major league and declared war on the NL and AL.
And it was pretty successful for a while. Federal League clubs lured away some stars from the established leagues including Joe Tinker, Mordecai “Three-Finger” Brown, Hal Chase, Eddie Plank, Chief Bender, Ed Konetchy, and Lee Magee. They almost got Walter Johnson too, before Senators owner Clark Griffith personally traveled to Big Train’s home in Kansas and outbid the Feds.
The league was financially stable, at least at first. This is because the league’s backers included millionaires such as the ice magnate Phil Ball, oil baron Harry Sinclair and the industrialist George Ward. The Federal League drew pretty good crowds, too, and enjoyed two years with exciting pennant races. Unlike some other upstart leagues in the past, they had some nice facilities too. Particularly in Chicago, where Charles Weeghman, the owner of the Chicago Whales, built Weeghman Park. You may be familiar with that park under its current name, Wrigley Field.
The 1914 Federal League season a pretty successful one on the field as well. It featured a decent pennant race which was not concluded until the last weekend of the season when the Indianapolis Hoosiers secured the pennant, besting the Whales by a game and a half. The Hoosiers lineup featured star outfielder Benny Kauff, who led the league in hitting (.370) and stolen bases (75). Dutch Zwilling hit a league leading 15 home runs for the Whales, and his teammate Claude Hendrix led the circuit with 29 victories.
Still, there were some problems. Due to cash flow problems, in 1915 the Hoosiers had to sell off Kauff and had to move to New Jersey, where they became the Newark Pepper. The league was feeling the squeeze from the NL and AL as well, and in 1915, the Federal League filed a lawsuit in Illinois against organized baseball, claiming that it was colluding in violation of the federal antitrust laws in order to undermine the Federal League’s business. The judge on that case: Kennesaw Landis. The case before Landis went nowhere, as he strongly encouraged the parties to settle. Landis, of course, would become baseball’s first commissioner a few years later, primarily because Major League Baseball was thankful for and admiring of his calculatedly slow work here.
As the suit remained pending, the Federal League played on. The 1915 season featured a close three team pennant race that, again, was not decided until the final day of the season, with Chicago ending up winning the title, mere percentage points ahead of second place St. Louis and just a half game ahead of third place Pittsburgh. Kauff again led the league in hitting (.342) and stolen bases (55). Buffalo’s Hal Chase had a league-high 17 home runs, and the Whales’ George McConnell led all pitchers with 25 wins.
Something else happened in 1915, though: after the season concluded — and as the lawsuit sat idle — Major League Baseball bought out most of the Federal League owners while letting two of them join the big league club themselves. Specifically, Charles Weeghman of the Whales was allowed to purchase the Chicago Cubs and move them into his new park at the corner of Clark and Addison. Phil Ball, the owner of the St. Louis Terriers, was allowed to buy the St. Louis Browns. All the other owners, save one, agreed to buyouts and all of the players were auctioned off to Major League clubs. The Federal League was, effectively, bought out of existence. There would be no 1916 season. The lawsuit in front of Judge Landis was dropped.
One holdout ownership group, however — that of that Baltimore Terrapins team which debuted on this date in 1914 — held firm, though not necessarily out of principle. They wanted to be admitted to the National or American League as a big league club, but the Major League owners didn’t think Baltimore was a suitable market, primarily because they thought the city was too small. They also thought Baltimore had too large of a black population, which was something that isn’t surprising from baseball’s segregation-era owners.
Having been rebuffed at joining the American or National Leagues, the Terrapin owners wanted a bigger buyout. MLB’s owners offered to buy out the Terrapins for $75,000 but the Terrapins considered that an insult and they sued. This time they decided to avoid Landis’ courtroom and sue in the District of Columbia instead. The primary allegation: that Major League Baseball was perpetrating an illegal conspiracy in violation of the Sherman Act. The lawsuit: Federal Baseball Club v. National League.
The trial court agreed with the Baltimore Terrapins’s theory of the case, allowed it to proceed to trial and, after a trial, the Terrapins received an award of $80,000 which, per the terms of the Sherman Act, was tripled to $240,000. It was a big, big win for the sole remaining Federal League club. Organized baseball appealed, however, and the decision was reversed, with the Court of Appeals holding that baseball was not subject to the Sherman Act at all because baseball was not, legally speaking, “interstate commerce,” which meant that the federal antitrust law did not apply.
How could baseball not be interstate commerce when the NL and AL consisted of 16 teams from seven states and the District of Columbia? Because, the court reasoned, any one game is only played in one place — a game is “local in its beginning and in its end,” the court said — so there’s nothing “interstate” about it.
That’s an absolute bonkers interpretation of the law, one that willfully ignores how the business of baseball actually works, but it’s what the Appeals court and then the U.S. Supreme Court, led by Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes, decided. Probably, most legal scholars have reasoned since then, because Holmes, basically, just wanted to do a solid for baseball owners given baseball’s extraordinary prominence and national importance at the time. Indeed, Landis himself gave that away when he said, when talking about the case when it was initially before him, “any blows at . . . baseball would be regarded by this court as a blow to a national institution.” As a result of Federal Baseball Club v. National League, Major League Baseball was, and remains today, exempt from the antitrust laws.
Despite the Federal League getting wiped out of business, it did not get wiped out of existence. In 1968 Major League Baseball convened a group called the Special Baseball Records Committee, whose purpose was to “draw up a code of rules governing record-keeping procedures” for baseball’s century-long existence. A lot of their work was statistical in nature, dealing with how to account for things like batting averages when, at one time in history a walk counted as an at bat and at other times in baseball history it did not. That sort of thing.
One other thing it did, however, was to determine which of the many leagues, apart from the obvious National and American Leagues, should be considered “major leagues” for record-keeping purposes. The committee’s list:
- National League, 1876 to the present;
- American League, 1901 to the present;
- American Association, 1882–91;
- Union Association, 1884;
- Players’ League, 1890; and
- Federal League, 1914–15
As such, the Federal League was the last “third major league,” to ever take to the field.
Also today in baseball history:
1954: Forty years after the Terrapins debuted, Major League Baseball returns to Baltimore, as the American League’s new Baltimore Orioles — formerly the St. Louis Browns — begins play. Well, technically it hadn’t returned to Baltimore just yet. They opened on the road in Detroit and lost 3-0.
1963: Pete Rose records his first major league hit, a triple off Pittsburgh’s Bob Friend;
1984: Pete Rose records his 4,000th major league hit, a double off of Philly’s Jerry Koosman;
1988: The season of balks arrives when, Oakland’s Rick Honeycutt becomes the second pitcher in two many days to tie the a nearly 30-year-old balk record by committing four balks in a single appearance. This is not a product of Honeycutt’s sudden inability to pitch properly, however. It’s a product of after umpires are instructed by the league to interpret the “complete stop” portion of the balk rule more strictly. It will lead to a major league record 924 balks being called during the season.