We tend to think of baseball as a monolithic entity of 2 leagues forever unchanging. Ain’t so, team. As late as 1914 there was a major challenge to the established National and American Leagues. It was called the Federal League.
James Gilmore ran the Federal League, a minor league, in 1914. He decided that the US could use a third major league so he went out, found backing from a number of major financial players of the day like Charles Weeghman, and announced the new league would compete on an equal basis with the established leagues. There were teams in Chicago, Baltimore, Indianapolis, Buffalo, Brooklyn, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Kansas City. Additionally, Gilmore said he would scrap the reserve clause (that’s the part of the baseball contract that bound a player to a team at the team’s discretion) and significantly raise salaries.
A bunch of players immeditely bolted to the Feds. Most were marginal players looking for a higher salary, or weaker players looking for playing time. Most major players simply agreed to stay with their current clubs for substantial raises. Ty Cobb did this, so did Tris Speaker and Walter Johnson. Others like Eddie Collins and Joe Jackson got trades because their old teams couldn’t afford the looming salary increases.
A third type of player went to the Federal League. These were older guys hanging on for one last chance at glory and/or a paycheck. Players like Three Finger Brown, Joe Tinker, and Eddie Plank ended up playing in the Federal League. Most of them had short rises in their career numbers, but never became stars of the new league.
The stars were new guys. Benny Kauff became the biggest Federal League star. In 1914 he led the league in batting, stole 75 bases, and his team (Indianapolis) won the pennant. The next season at Brooklyn he again led the league in both categories and was second in home runs. Kauff’s a good way to gauge the quality of play in the new league. In 2 years with the Feds he hit 370 and 342, stole 130 bases, had 376 hits, scored 212 runs, and hit a total of 20 home runs. For the entire rest of his career he hit 281, stole 104 bases, had 585 hits, scored 309 runs, and hit 29 home runs. He was 25 when he left the Feds and played until he was banned at age 30 in 1920. So most of his good numbers come from the 2 seasons away from the NL and AL (He played 5 of 569 games for the Yankees and the rest for the Giants.). Those stats are fairly common. Pitchers like Cy Falkenburg do the same thing.
The Federal League folded after the 1915 season (Chicago won the last pennant). It just wasn’t making enough money to continue offering the salaries it was offering and the fan base wasn’t growing. Indianapolis won the first pennant and promptly folded for lack of fans. There was a lawsuit (you knew the lawyers would get involved, didn’t you?), resolved by, of all people, Kennesaw Mountain Landis. Two Federal League owners got NL or AL teams (the Cubs and the Browns) and baseball returned to its normal 2 league set up.
But the Federal League had a legacy, quite a substantial one actually. The driving up of salaries and the subsequent collapse of paychecks is considered, in some quarters, a major factor in the gambling scandals that were to hit baseball in the next 5 years, culminating with the Black Sox. It did produce one great player. Edd Roush was a centerfielder who got a cup of coffee with the White Sox in 1913 (he went 1 for 10). He went to the Feds, did well, and ended up in the National League. In 1919 he won the batting title at Cincinnati and led them into the World Series. He also led the NL in doubles once and triples once. For a career he hit 323 with a 446 sluging percentage and made the Hall of Fame in 1962. The lawsuit that ended the Federal League became the mainstay of Major League baseball’s contractual program into the 1970s. It’s the decision that ultimately led to the Supreme Court declaring that the unique nature of baseball made it immune to anti-trust laws and effectively made the players slaves to their teams.
Finally, the Chicago Federal League team (they were called the Whales) built a brand new stadium for its team. When they folded, well, there was this nice new stadium available and, you see the Cubs were playing in an outdated park, and, well, you know, it’s there and everything. The Cubs moved into the Whales park and later renamed it Wrigley Field. They still use it.