This day in baseball: Federal League founded

On March 8, 1913, John Powers founded the Federal League.  Just a year previous, Powers had the Columbian League, which had failed before a game could even be played.  The new Federal League established teams in Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, St. Louis, and Covington, Kentucky.  The league did not abide by the National Agreement, earning it the nickname the “outlaw league,” which allowed it to recruit players from established clubs.

Federal_League_logo

Federal League logo (Wikipedia)


The Dead Ball Era

“Smoky” Joe Wood (Wikimedia Commons)

The Dead Ball Era, as the name suggests, was a period in baseball history characterized by low-scoring games and a lack of home runs.  This age in baseball began in 1900 and lasted until Babe Ruth came onto the scene as a power hitter in 1919.  Prior to Ruth, the game was more strategy-driven, featuring hit-and-run plays and base-stealing over hitting for power.  In 1908, the lowest-scoring year, teams averaged only 3.4 runs per game.  “Small ball,” as it’s known today, relied more on speed and quickness than on brute strength.  Players like “Smoky” Joe Wood, Eddie Collins, and Sam Crawford flourished during this time.

Many baseball fields of the age were much larger than modern ballparks.  Chicago’s West Side Grounds, for example, measured 560 feet to the center field fence.  Huntington Avenue Grounds in Boston measured 635 feet to the center field fence.  By comparison, most ballparks today don’t measure much more than the requisite 400 feet to dead center, which makes a huge difference for a player’s ability to swing for the fences.

Huntington Avenue Grounds (Wikimedia Commons)

The state of the baseball throughout the game also contributed to the lack of home runs.  The same ball was used throughout the game — unlike today, when even a tiny smudge on a ball calls for a new replacement.  As the game would go on, the ball would become dirtier and dirtier, making it more difficult for hitters to see and hit.  No doubt the extra dirt also contributed to the dynamics of the baseball’s movement.

Speaking of which, during the Dead Ball Era, pitcher could still legally throw a spitball.  “Doctoring” the baseball in this way would alter the physics of the flight of the pitch, causing it to break or move in unexpected ways and making it more difficult to hit.  Naturally, pitchers took advantage of this concession.  And it wasn’t just the spitball: the emery ball, shine ball, mud ball, so on and so forth.  Got any creative ideas for defacing a baseball?  Give it a whirl and see what it does!  The umpires won’t stop you.

On top of low-scoring contests, during these years, professional baseball also experienced turbulence through the births of baseball organizations outside of the National League.  In 1900, the American League, which had been a minor league prior to this year, declared itself a Major League.  Refusing to continuing recognition of the terms of the National Agreement, the AL now moved teams into cities already claimed by the NL, such as Philadelphia, Boston, and Baltimore.  By 1902, the NL realized it would be better off accepting the American League, rather than fighting against it.  A three-man National Commission was created to resolve the disagreements between the two leagues.  Major League Baseball prospered and the World Series was born.

The birth of the Federal League in 1913 threatened this new-found prosperity.  It launched an anti-trust lawsuit against the AL and the NL, which drained the two leagues of resources.  Like the AL before it, the FL moved into already-established Major League territory, seeking to carve out its own place in Major League Baseball.  In the end, however, the level of play in the FL did not match that of the other two leagues, and FL teams merged into the other Major Leagues.

The outbreak of World War I also proved detrimental to baseball.  Baseball became viewed as a frivolous, non-essential activity, and seasons were shortened due to the wartime atmosphere.  Attendance at ballgames dropped and the leagues lost money.  The resulting drop in player salaries made them more susceptible to the promises of gambling, and created an environment in which things like the Black Sox scandal could take place.

The end of the Dead Ball Era came with the end of the factors that contributed to its existence in the first place.  The elimination of the spitball in 1920 had a profound effect on players’ ability to hit the ball, as pitches became less lively.  The death of Ray Chapman in August 1920 changed the rule about the same baseball being used throughout a game, and clean baseballs became a staple in order to ensure the safety of players.  Naturally, clean baseballs were also easier to hit.

Additionally, the rise of Babe Ruth as a power hitter resulted in a change of attitudes in baseball.  Ruth proved that a man could be successful in baseball by hitting home runs, and that the game was no longer restricted to “small ball” play.  From 1900 until Ruth’s emergence, there were 13 seasons in which the league leader in home runs collected fewer than ten dingers.  In 1919, Ruth hit 29 home runs — a league record.  Other players followed his lead, and baseball scores steadily increased as the years went on.

Frankly, the title “Dead Ball Era” seems a bit unfair to me.  In today’s game, fans have come to expect home runs.  If a player isn’t at least collecting extra-base hits on a regular basis, he receives little or no recognition.  However, it seems that a game driven by strategy would be much more captivating than the slug fests of today’s contests.  Bunting, the hit-and-run, and base stealing would have their due as meaningful parts of the artistry of a baseball game.  Baseball would be more like a chess match and less of a display of muscle and power.  Furthermore, because they were so rare during the Dead Ball Era, home runs, when they did happen, were surround by a greater sense of excitement than they are today.

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“1900-1919: The Dead Ball Era.”  Historic Baseball: Bringing Baseball History to Center Field.  Web.  Accessed 24 February 2014.  http://www.historicbaseball.com/fea/era_deadball.html

“Deadball Era.”  Baseball Reference.  Sports Reference, LLC, 2013.  Web.  Accessed 24 February 2014.  http://www.baseball-reference.com/bullpen/Deadball_Era

“The Faces and Voices of Baseball’s Deadball Era.”  World News, Inc., 2014.  Web.  Accessed 24 February 2014.  http://wn.com/dead-ball_era

Hannon, Tom.  “The Dead Ball Era.”  The Baseball Page, 2012.  Web.  Accessed 24 February 2014.  http://www.thebaseballpage.com/history/dead-ball-era


Breaking ground on the farm: The development of the minor league system

There is a certain undeniable charm to Minor League Baseball. Young, aspiring ball players in their late-teens and early-twenties, running out every ground ball as if his life depended on it. Spending their lives on the road in cheap motels, dreaming dreams of castle-like stadiums, celebrity fame, and million-dollar paychecks. One summer, a good friend and I took a road trip to Omaha to watch the Triple-A Royals (now the Storm Chasers) as they won a thrilling game with a walk-off home run. The tickets were cheap, the sun was hot, and the bleachers were uncomfortably hard, but it was still cool to sit there and think that each one of those players was a potential future Kansas City Royal.

The minor leagues as a farm system for major league teams, however, didn’t start out that way. Young players did not start their professional careers by signing with a major league team and then working their way up through their minor league structure. Rather, the minor leagues started out as entitites of their own; dozens of lower-level professional leagues out of which any major league ball club could scout promising talent, and attempt to persuade those players to join their particular big-league team. In other words, playing for a given minor league team did not obligate a player to join a specific major league club when they were ready to take the next step up.

What we know as the Minor Leagues today originally started out as the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues. During a meeting at the Leland Hotel in Chicago, minor league executives formed the NAPBL on 5 September 1901. The executive elected Patrick T. Powers the first president of the association. During its first season, in 1902, the NA consisted of fourteen leagues and ninety-six teams. By 1909, those numbers increased to thirty-five leagues and 246 teams. Even united under the NA, however, major league teams played no direct role in the growth and development of future big-leaguers. The concept of farm teams was not born until the 1920s.

Branch Rickey joined the St. Louis Cardinals as president in 1917, moving over from the St. Louis Browns. He recognized early on that the city of St. Louis wasn’t quite large enough to adequately support two major league teams financially. Meanwhile, the National Agreement of 1921 exempted players in five of the leagues in the minors (including the top three of these leagues) from the annual player draft. The leagues, therefore, could hold onto players as long as they wished, or even hold out until a major league team offered the right price for a player. This had allowed the minor leagues as a whole to thrive, but it also resulted in disgruntled minor league players and hurt those Major League teams, such as the Cardinals, that did not possess fat checkbooks.

In order to ensure that the Cardinals could compete with teams like the Yankees and the Cubs, Rickey convinced the team’s majority owner, Sam Breadon, to purchase a controlling interest in the International League’s Syracuse team, the Texas League’s Houston club, as well as a string of other lower-level minor league teams. By 1930, seven minor league clubs were owned by or had close working agreements with the Cardinals. This allowed the organization watch and develop their own future players, molding them to become major leaguers.

In addition to developing the farm system, Rickey increased the number of scouts he hired and sent them out to sign as many young prospects as possible for as little money as possible. Out of the larger pool of ball players, the Cardinals were able to develop and discover quality players more consistently. On the flip side, of course, many promising young players opted for better-paying careers, rather than risk an attempt with baseball, which started out paying next to nothing.. Nevertheless, as a result of Rickey’s innovative system, the Cardinals quickly became one of the top clubs in the Majors, winning the World Series in 1926 over the Yankees, then securing another pennant in 1928 (only to lose the championship to the Yankees in a sweep).

The Detroit Tigers were the first to begin emulating the minor league farm system during the 1920s, and by the 1930s, all Major League teams were following suit. It was, you might say, an early form of Moneyball, a system that gave clubs with a financial disadvantage a fighting chance at competing with big money teams. Over time, the system grew and developed into the Minor League Baseball organization that we know today.

 

Present day logo of Minor League Baseball

 

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Sources:

Alexander, Charles C. Breaking the Slump: Baseball in the Depression Era. New York: Columbia U P, 2002.

“The History & Function Of Minor League Baseball.” MiLB.com. Minor League Baseball, 2013. Web. Accessed 22 March 2013. http://www.milb.com/milb/history/general_history.jsp

Riess, Steven A. Touching Base: Professional Baseball and American Culture in the Progressive Era. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood P, 1980.

Sullivan, Dean A., ed. Early Innings: A Documentary History of Baseball, 1825-1908. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1995.