Thursday, April 30, 2009

Random Thursday: Ben Harris

At 3:30 this afternoon, The Common Man received a call from The Boy's daycare asking me to come and pick him up. It seems that purveyors of childcare do not want two-and-a-half year olds with a 102.7 fever around their other kids, no matter how full of good humor they may be. So The Common Man packed up his stuff, picked up The Uncommon Wife, and drove to get his virus-addled progeny. Now, The Common Man isn't stupid enough to think that his boy has the pandemic-that's-not-really-a-pandemic that's not sweeping our country. However, a fever of almost 103 is nothing to, ahem, sneeze at, and so The Common Man is naturally concerned.

So much so that he almost forgot to write tonight, though The Boy has been asleep since 8:30 or so.

But perhaps that's fitting, since the baseball community has largely forgotten about the Federal League, the subject of this weeks' offering to the Janus, the Roman god of chaos and randomness. Actually, that's not entirely accurate, fortune's wheel landed on Ben Harris this week, a disappointing reliever for the Kansas City Packers of the FL in 1914 and 1915. But The Common Man had trouble finding, really, anything of value to say about Harris, whose 7-7 record hid an ugly 4.09 ERA, 25% worse than the league average, and the mediocre club for which he played.

The Federal League declared itself a rival to the major league system in 1914, when it refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Big Leagues' reserve clauses and attempted to sign away many of the Majors' biggest stars. And indeed, in many respects, the Federal League succeeded in its goals. Big names bolted from its rival. Eddie Plank, Chief Bender, Three Finger Brown, Joe Tinker, Ed Konetchy and more jumped to the new league. They smartly stayed away from the MLB's traditional power base in the Northeast (especially in the first season), only going head-to-head with the Majors in cities that could potentially support another team: St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Brooklyn, and Chicago. The rest of the league was spread out around the West, in old, abandoned American Association and 19th Century NL towns (Indianapolis, Kansas City, Baltimore, and Buffalo).

Bill James, in his New Historical Baseball Abstract, writes, "The Federal League was a well-organized, well-financed, well-thought-out effort to construct a new league. I am inclined to believe that, had the Federal League been born at any other time, it might have well have [sic] become established." In particular, the league had to deal with overall uncertainty over brewing war in Europe, and baseball was suffering the effects of consumer uncertainty then just as it may be now.

In addition, the Federal League, like any third league, created inherent challenges for itself. It caused huge salary increases across the leagues, and down into the minor leagues as well. James argues that "the salaries forced Jack Dunn, owner/manager of the minor league Baltimore Orioles, to put his 19-year-old star pitcher, Babe Ruth, up for sale (otherwise Ruth would have spent several years, perhaps even a decade in Baltimore). What's more, subsequent research has made it clear that the Federal League's quality of play was incredibly low for a major league. Marginal major league talents, and past-their-prime pickups like Three Finger Brown thrived in the new league, dominating their inexperienced and untalented competition. What league organizers wanted, like the Players' League wanted in 1889, was to get the biggest stars from the majors. Instead, the leagues held onto the best of the best, letting 30-something veterans like Plank and Bender try for one last big payday in the FL.

And so, when the Major Leagues offered to buy out the FL owners to get rid of this new nuisance, Federal League owners didn't have a promising enough outlook to rebuff the offer. Instead, strong owners in Chicago and St. Louis were allowed to buy the Cubs and Browns respectively and the rest (save the Baltimore Terrapins owner, who refused to settle without being given a Major League team to operate from Baltimore) were bought out and their players distributed.

The Federal League, 95 years later, has left us with two enduring legacies. The first, thankfully, is Wrigley Field. Initially built to house the Chicago Whales, owner Charles Weeghman moved his new Cubs team into the stadium after being allowed to purchase it. Weeghman only owned the team for five years before it was sold to the good people of the Wrigley Chewing Gum Company.

The second legacy is much more of a mixed bag and stems from the anti-trust lawsuit filed by the Terrapins owner in 1916. Eventually, the case ended up before the Supreme Court in 1922, when the Court ruled that baseball was not considered Interstate Commerce, and in essence condoned the league's monopoly status, and has been used by Major League Baseball resist inquiry and interference, and baseball has jealously guarded its status ever since.

For further reading, check out Roberth Peyton Figgins' new book, The Federal League of Base Ball Clubs: The History of an Outlaw Major League, 1914-1915, or the late John Brittain's excellent article in the 2007 Hardball Times Annual that's around here somewhere but The Common Man can't find it for the life of him.


Bill said...

Hmm...your description of the, let's call it, "story arc" of the Federal League almost perfectly describes that of the Michael Scott Paper Company. Someone should ask Michael Schur/Ken Tremendous about that...

Bunk said...

This is my first time to your site. I did a search for "blogs on mahood" and found yours.

I am very impressed with the substantial information found in this post. I never knew anything of the Federal League and reading this makes me want to look into its past a bit more. Thank you for sharing information that is actually worth reading.

And I hope your son is feeling better by now.

Keep up the great work!