Anatomy of a Murder: The Federal League and the Courts, Part 2

Baseball Magazine, Federal League

Baseball Magazine, Federal League

Gary Hailey’s article continues from yesterday (http://goo.gl/GyXEQI).

JOHNSON FIGHTS BACK

Walsh never wrote to American League president Ban Johnson, as Lichtenheim had suggested. But only two weeks after Lichtenheim had written to Walsh, Johnson made his opinions known. In a March 5, 1914, interview with a New York Evening Sun writer, Johnson “declared war” on the Federal League.

There can be no peace until the Federal League has been exterminated … [W]e will fight these pirates to the finish. There will be no quarter.

Yes, I’ve heard that peacemakers are at work, but they are wasting their time. The American League will tolerate no such interference ….

This Federal League movement is taken too seriously, why, the whole thing is a joke. They are holding a meeting once a week to keep from falling to pieces. Quote me as saying that the Federals have no money in Buffalo, Indianapolis, and Pittsburgh. They have no ball parks in any of their cities, except an amateur field in Kansas City and a ramshackle affair in Pittsburgh. There are some wooden bleachers put up on Hanlon’s Park in Baltimore, I believe.

We hear from day to day that the Feds have millions behind them. If that is true they ought to build half million dollar stadium[s] in a few weeks. But getting down to brass tacks, they have neither grounds nor players that amount to anything. 

Ban Johnson

Ban Johnson

When the list of players is finally announced the baseball public will realize what a bluff these fellows have been putting up. They have many unknown players, taken offthe lots[,] and a bunch of Bush Leaguers with a sprinkling of big fellows. But the American League will lose not more than ten men ….

We are going to cut and slash right and left from now on. We intend to show up the four flushers and the bluffers in the proper light.

The Johnson interview appeared in print the day before fifty-odd major leaguers returned to New York on the “Lusitania” after an around-the-world trip. According to the plaintiff, Johnson’s tough talk was intended to frighten those players away from the Federal League as well as to destroy the new circuit’s credibility with the public.

THE 1914 SEASON

In spite of Organized Baseball’s opposition, the Federal League opened the 1914 season confident of success. Opening day attendance was high, with Baltimore’s home opener attracting a standing-room-only crowd of 19,000.

The 1914 pennant race was a close one: Indianapolis, led by outfielder Benny Kauff (who hit .370, stole 75 bases, and scored 120 runs) and pitcher Cy Falkenberg (a 25-game winner with a 2.22 ERA and 9 shutouts), edged Chicago by one and a half games, with Baltimore a close third. Still, total Federal. League attendance did not approach that of either the American or National League. The Chicago Federals led the league in attendance, but drew fewer fans than the sixth-place White Sox. The established leagues suffered as well; AL attendance fell from 3.5 million in 1913 to 2.75 million in 1914.

The players were not complaining about the competition between the rival leagues. The Federal League eventually signed 81 major leaguers and 140 minor leaguers to contracts, nearly all of them at much higher salaries. Other players used the threat of jumping to get more money from teams in O.B. Several players–including Ray Caldwell, Walter Johnson, “Reindeer Bill” Killefer, and Ivy Wingo–signed contracts with Federal League teams but were persuaded to jump back to their former clubs. Caldwell made $2400 in 1913, but the Yankees gave him a four-year contract paying $8000 annually to bring him back into the fold. Killefer’s and Wingo’s salaries also more than doubled while Johnson’s went from $7000 to $12,500.

Hal Chase, Buffalo Federal League

Hal Chase, Buffalo Federal League

Several times, disputes over who had rights to a player ended up in court. Organized Baseball did not take legal action against players who were reserved but not under contract, but it did go to court to restrain players who had signed contracts for the 1914 season from jumping leagues. Early that season, pitchers Dave Davenport and George “Chief’Johnson and outfielder Armando Marsans of the Cincinnati Reds jumped to Federal League clubs. A Missouri federal judge granted the Reds’ request for an injunction against Marsans, but a court in Illinois refused to issue a similar injunction against Johnson because the contract lacked “mutuality.” On similar grounds, a New York court denied a White Sox request for a court order to prevent first baseman Hal Chase from jumping to the Buffalo Federals.

The tables were turned in the Killefer case. Killefer’s 1913 Phillies salary was $3200. On January 8, 1914, he signed with the Chicago Federals for $5800; only twelve days later he signed a new Phillies contract for $6500. A federal appeals court refused to order Killefer to stand by the contract with Chicago on the grounds that the Federal League team, which had induced Killefer to ignore his reserve clause, came into court with “unclean hands.” George Wharton Pepper, who represented O.B. in that case as well as in the Baltimore Federal Club litigation, persuaded the court that while the reserve clause was not legally enforceable by Philadelphia, the Chicago Federals had no business luring Killefer away before the Phillies had a fair chance to sign him to a contract for the 1914 season.

On January 5, 1915, the Federal League took the legal offensive by filing an antitrust suit against Organized Baseball. The Chicago federal judge assigned to hear the case was none other than Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who had the reputation of being a committed trustbuster. The trial of that case ended on January 22, and the Federal League hoped for a quick decision from Judge Landis. But the future commissioner seemed to be in no hurry to act. In March, Brooklyn Federals owner R.B. Ward approached Ban Johnson and again asked O.B. to allow its rival to become a party to the National Agreement.

James A. Gilmore

James A. Gilmore

1915: THE WAR CONTINUES

The Federal League opened the 1915 season with high hopes. Over 27,000 fans were on hand for opening day in Newark, where oilman Harry Sinclair had moved the Indianapolis Federals. But attendance fell off rapidly and losses began to mount. By the end of the league’s second season, Brooklyn’s Ward had lost $800,000; the Kansas City and Buffalo clubs were insolvent. Baltimore lost $35,000 in 1914 and almost $30,000 in 1915.

According to President Gilmore, the league’s financial ills became apparent early in the season.

A. [I]t was probably in May that some of us realized that it was going to be a very poor season from a financial standpoint, and I know along about the middle of July we started to hold meetings to discuss the situation, because previous to that time I had been called to Buffalo, and I had been called to Kansas City, in an effort to induce other people to invest money. Their overhead was far in excess of their receipts, and they were all beginning to complain.

Q. When did you say you reached the conclusion that the Federal League was doomed?

A. Along about the middle of June or the first of July…. [M]y opinion was that we were fighting a hopeless task. There were two clubs that had practically given up the fight, Kansas City and Buffalo. I had already received an opinion from the other members of the organization that they would not continue with six clubs….

Q. You had no idea from June on that the Federal League would be able to prepare for the next season at all?

A. I did not see any opportunity at all, no sir.

Q. Were you absolutely convinced of that?

A. I felt satisfied in my own mind to the extent that I began to figure out some way that we could at least save the ball players, and save our own reputations.

“IT WAS ONE BIG BLUFF”

Gilmore approached Sinclair and Ward with an audacious plan. First, they rented a suite of Manhattan offices and purchased an option to buy some vacant land at 143rd Street and Lenox Avenue. They then asked Corry Comstock, a New York City engineer and architect who was also the vice-president of the Pittsburgh Federal club, to draw up plans for a grandiose, 55,000-seat stadium. Gilmore then announced to the press that the Federal League planned to “invade” New York in 1916.

1915 Pittsburgh Rebels Federal League Ticket

1915 Pittsburgh Rebels Federal League Ticket

The purpose of all this? According to Gilmore, “[i]t was one big bluff,” a trick to force O.B. into “coming around and making some kind of offer.”

Q. Your real purpose was to get Organized Baseball to buy you out?

A. To reimburse us for some of our expenditures, yes, sir.

Q. To buy you out. Did not they have enough ball parks for the American and National Leagues at that time?

A. I presume they did.

Q. You expected them to buy you out and get rid of you as an annoying competitor; is that the proposition?

A. I think so, yes, sir.

Q. You had statements and interviews in the papers about it [the N.Y. stadium]?

A. Yes, sir.

Q. You said you were going to build it?

A. Yes, sir.

Q. And you had no idea of building it?

A. None at all. We did not know where the money was coming from unless some angel came along.

Q. You mean some devil; you were not associating with angels. Do you mean to tell this jury that you gave out interviews to the papers that you were going to build this stadium, employed an architect and manifested all of the different things that were necessary to accompany a real good faith act and had no idea of building a stadium at all?

A. It was one big bluff.

Q. That is the word you used for it?

A. Bluff, yes, sir.

Q. Might you not also characterize it as false pretense?

A. I do not know what you characterize it.

Q. Were you not engaging in false pretense?

A. We were trying to be protected to the best of our ability.

Comstock described the threatened invasion of New York by the Federal League as a “holdup”; he said there was “not a word of truth” in the announcement of the plans to build a stadium.

1914 Federal League Stock Certificate, Baltimore

1914 Federal League Stock Certificate, Baltimore

Gilmore and his co-conspirators did not tell the other Federal League owners about their scheme. According to Gilmore,

A. . .. [T]he bluff that we had formulated, the plan we had formulated, to put this thing through, was an absolute secret between Mr. R.B. Ward, Mr. Comstock, Mr. Sinclair and myself ….

Q. You were putting up a bluff on Baltimore?

A. Baltimore did not know one thing about the plan we were putting up in New York …. [W]e decided to keep it a secret from everybody. Mr. Weeghman [of Chicago] knew nothing about it. Mr. Ball of St. Louis knew nothing about it.

Gilmore’s machinations certainly fooled the Baltimore club. While he was trying to bluff O.B. into buying out the Federal League, Baltimore officials were naively making preparations for the 1916 season. Colonel Stuart S. Janney, a prominent Baltimore attorney who held stock in the team and served as its lawyer, testified that the club’s directors and stockholders had not expected to turn a profit overnight and were prepared to supply whatever additional financing was necessary for the 1916 season.

These preparations were encouraged by a series of letters Gilmore wrote to club officials in the fall of 1915, all of which contained some implication that the Federal League would be alive and well enough to operate in 1916. In an October 13 letter, Gilmore wrote:

[I] hope that your club is signing up some good talent for the coming year. I have wonderful faith in Baltimore as a Major League city, and know if you can get a fighting team there and keep it in the race, you will draw wonderful crowds and easily pay expenses.

On November 1, he wrote:

I also want to suggest that in view of your experience the last year that you make out a statement of the approximate cost to operate your club during the next season. In other words, I would like an idea of how much cheaper you think you can operate in 1916 than you could in 1915. This will be valuable information for our Board Members, and I want you to get it as accurately as possible.

On November 30, Gilmore forwarded to Baltimore club president Carroll W. Rasin a letter from a Williamsport, Pennsylvania fan recommending that the Federal League sign up for the 1916 season a local star who was a “natural-born hitter … fast on his feet; a sure catch and a ‘find.'” And on December 3, Gilmore wrote again to request the financial information that he had asked for in his November 1 letter.

More tomorrow.

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