[Braham Dabscheck is an industrial relations scholar, sports writer and enthusiast, and author of Reading Baseball: Books, Biographies, and the Business of the Game, published April 2011, by FiT. He has written extensively on many aspects of sport, and he continues with that tradition today by offering a review of The Battle That Forged Modern Baseball: The Federal League Challenge and Its Legacy, as well as The Federal League of Base Ball Clubs: The History of an Outlaw Major League. Dabscheck is a man proper from Down Under, and out of respect for his Australian English, no edits have been made to his vernacular.]

Daniel R. Levitt, The Battle That Forged Modern Baseball: The Federal League Challenge And Its Legacy, Ivan R. Dee, Lanham (Maryland), 2012, hp. xvi + 314, pb, US $30.98.

Robert Peyton Wiggins, The Federal League Of Base Ball Clubs: The History Of An Outlaw Major League, 1914-1915, McFarland & Company, Jefferson (North Carolina) and London, 2011 (First Published 2009), pp. vi + 362, pb, US $40.00.

 

Economics focuses on the operation of markets and the competition that exists between those associated with the production and consumption of various goods and services. Focusing on the production side, economics predicts (tautologically as it were) that those entities which are the more efficient and resourceful will prevail over those that are less efficient and resourceful. Competition here has a hard edge, with the less efficient and able being destroyed and/or driven out of the market. The insights of economics are nowhere better illustrated than in the two volumes being reviewed here, which examine an unsuccessful attempt by a group of baseball entrepreneurs, under the umbrella of the Federal League, to take on Organized Baseball in 1914 and 1915. The incumbents were more resourceful in terms of cash, knowledge and strategic verve, in striking out the upstarts.

American baseball was the first professional sport to develop a formal league structure with a regular fixture between competing teams in the form of the National League in 1876. English football formed the Football League in 1888. It had earlier developed a knock out competition in the form of the FA Cup in 1871. Following its formation, the National League was challenged by a number of rival leagues: the American Association (1882-1883), the Union Association (1883-1884), the Players League (1890), a second round with the American Association (1891), and the American League (1900-1903). The National League either defeated or merged with the more financially secure clubs of the challengers. The American League, under the leadership of its president Ban Johnson, constituted the most serious challenge to the National League. In the end, the two leagues decided to merge and form the current two league structure, with the champions of both playing off in a World Series, which has continued to this very day. In turn, these two leagues entered into arrangements with minor leagues and formed a ‘structure’ that became known as Organized Baseball.

The period after the Civil War to World War I was one of extensive population growth, urbanization, and economic expansion in America. It resulted in an increase in a stream of rich men outside ‘established,’ well-heeled families, what might be called nouveau riche, who were looking for new opportunities to advance themselves onto a more public stage. Baseball was such a vehicle for these new men of substance. One of the strengths of Daniel Levitt’s The Battle That Forged Modern Baseball is how he situates the rise of this new breed of entrepreneurs as they searched for their place in the American sun.

In 1913, a group of entrepreneurs formed the Federal League, which operated in the Midwest as a minor league. It hardly attracted the attention of Organized Baseball. In the period from 1900 to 1918 there was constant fluidity in the number of minor leagues that started and finished a season. [1] After a reasonably successful season, Federal League owners decided that they would seek to take on Organized Baseball and operate as a third major league.

The Federal League faced two major problems in this quest. The first was to find and/or build ballparks that would be regarded as being of major league caliber. Stadium construction, at this juncture, was in the process of being transformed from wooden to iron and concrete structures. The Federal League experienced problems in finding locations convenient for potential spectators and were faced with high capital costs in building ballparks; returns on which would only accrue in the long term.

The second problem was attracting players of appropriate caliber to its ranks. The Federal League experienced major problems on this score. Only a small number of major league players, on the margins or at the end of their careers, found their way to the Federal League. Organized Baseball had deeper pockets and was more resourceful and calculated than the Federal League in battles over players. Organized Baseball combined the carrot and the stick in keeping its hold on players. It offered higher salaries and threatened blacklisting to players who were tempted to jump ship. It also relocated players to other clubs who were motivated to move to The Federal League because of ‘run ins’ or poor treatment from their managers or owners, often at higher rates of pay. In Ban Johnson, Organized Baseball had a master tactician who employed injunctions and court cases to dissuade players from joining the upstart league. Mounting such cases and pointing out to players the potentially negative consequences of an adverse decision served to persuade those who had signed with Federal League clubs to hold on for a while, before they moved on. This in turn served to take the wind out of the sails of the Federal League, which was seeking to develop some momentum in attracting quality players and establishing its major league credentials. Johnson was also assiduous in choosing which battles to fight and which to leave alone, and in maintaining discipline within and between the National and American Leagues. The Federal League lacked anyone with the experience and ‘smarts’ who could counter Johnson.

There were falls in the attendance, income and profits of clubs of Organized Baseball in 1914. Attendance picked up somewhat in 1915. Competition drove up player salaries. The Federal League struggled in 1914, with all clubs losing money in 1914. Things were worse in 1915, with a rain-interrupted season and lower attendances. Both sides, especially the Federal League, bled money.

After the 1915 season, both sides sued for peace. A deal was worked out whereby some of the Federal League owners could buy out or merge with teams from Organized Baseball, while others would be absorbed into higher-grade minor leagues. The deal did not include the Baltimore club. It challenged Organized Baseball and the agreement as being inconsistent with the 1890 Sherman Antitrust Act. In 1922, the United States Supreme Court found that baseball did not constitute trade or commerce under the meaning of the Sherman Act, [2] and gave baseball, in distinction from other sports, an exemption from antitrust actions.

Levitt sees this league war as ‘forging modern baseball.’ It did not, in two senses. First, the battle did not change baseball in any meaningful sense. All it did was confirm the status quo that had been established when the National and American Leagues had merged in 1903. Second, the modern game, as it has been played since the mid-1970s (which is almost four decades ago and is more recent than 1915!) is significantly different from the way it was in the aftermath of the Federal League war. Threats from rival leagues in the 1950s and 1960s induced Organized Baseball to move teams westward to take advantage of new markets (and later southward) and to expend the number of teams that competed. What was once a 16-team competition has expanded into one of 30 teams. Second, the Major League Baseball Players Association has combined legal strategies and industrial action to substantially change the employment rules of baseball. Players, who once they signed with a club were unable to negotiate with other clubs, reduced to ‘mere chattels,’ found a way to force Organized Baseball to agree to a system of free agency (after six years of service) with concomitant increases in their economic freedom and income. [3]

These two books approach the Federal League war from different perspectives. Levitt’s The Battle That Forged Modern Baseball focuses on the off-field battles that occurred between the various protagonists. He not only examines the machinations that occurred between Organized Baseball and the Federal League but also the tensions that occurred within the respective leagues. Wiggins’s The Federal League Of Base Ball Clubs is more concerned with what happened on the field of play in the Federal League. He provides an essentially descriptive account of the highs and lows of teams and players and biographical information concerning players, managers, owners and other relevant personnel. His material is not as well organized and written as that of Levitt and is of less interest. Nonetheless, these two books together provide a comprehensive account of a major league war that occurred in American baseball almost a century ago.

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