Monday, January 16, 2017

Counting Down

The solstice is past, the days begin to lengthen and preview magazines are soon to appear. Opening Day is 76 days from the day of this post, but in the meantime we can still read about the great variety of experiences and history of humanity's greatest achievement -- baseball.

OK, that's hyperbole, but still, I'd like to see a chimp or a bonobo figure out how far the pitcher's mound should be from home plate.

About a hundred years ago, organized baseball weathered the last serious challenge to the two-league structure that has dominated it through most of its history as the Federal League played two seasons with major-league caliber players -- some even swiped from the already-existing American and National Leagues. Even though it only played two seasons, the FL's demise set the stage by which baseball as we generally accept it today is organized. It also bequeathed the holy site of Wrigley Field, which was originally the Chicago Whales' Weeghman Park before being taken over by the National League's Cubs.

Financier Daniel Levitt -- a baseball fan, member of the Society for American Baseball Research and historian -- examines the courtroom, financial and ownership sides of the FL's history in 2012's The Outlaw League and the Battle that Forged Modern Baseball. Levitt's own financial background and long history with SABR equips him for a good and thorough explanation of how the Federal League began and some clues as to why and how it ended. A modern perspective may consider the two existing leagues sort of co-eternal, but when the Federal experiment began in 1913 the American League itself was less than 15 years old. Plenty of good-sized cities had a hankering for major-league quality play, and FL organizers found individuals and groups with pockets deep enough to supply stadiums and the start-up capital for eight teams. Initially operating without athletes on the majors' rosters, the FL in 1914 decided to grab for the big time, using those deep pockets to pay star players well above what the existing leagues would offer and trying to bust the reserve clause by which AL and NL teams kept players tied to their rosters.

Unfortunately the revenue didn't materialize, and the owners of the National and American League combined to hold the line against the upstarts' incursions. A lawsuit filed by the FL against the owners of the other teams was left to languish by Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis until finally decided in 1922, and its holding that baseball as an entertainment wasn't subject to the Sherman Antitrust Act allowed for the current two major leagues and several minor leagues as feeder or farm teams. By then the FL had folded, with several of its teams bought out by AL and NL owners and at least one owner allowed to buy an NL team.

Levitt's style is a little dry over the course of 267 pages, but his research is thorough and his understanding of some of the ins and outs of financing and legal matters top notch. He leaves a few questions open, such as whether the Federals considered using players from existing Negro League teams such as the Chicago American Giants or All-Nations traveling team that would become the Kansas City Monarchs. Had they done so, they might have been able to expand both fan base and revenue, as well as challenging the so-called "gentlemen's agreement" not to hire African-American players. Of course, there may be no records reflecting that the FL owners ever considered the move, but it could have been good for Levitt to have touched on the matter.

Small questions like that aside, though, Outlaw League is still a very good account of more than just the brief history of the Federal League, measuring its impact as well and demonstrating how those two short seasons more than a century ago still affect the sport of baseball today.

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