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The Federal League Challenges the Reserve Clause
By Patrick E. Mears

"Weeghman, Weeghman, Federal man
Make me a contract as fast as you can,
Pad it and sign it and mark it O.K.
And I'll go to the majors and ask for more pay."

—Anonymous jingle, inspired by the Killefer litigation

All of the elements of high courtroom drama were present in the late winter and early spring of 1914 in what is now known as the Cook Auditorium on the second floor of the Grand Rapids Art Museum. Charles Weeghman and his partners, owners of the Chicago Whales baseball team in the "outlaw" Federal League, commenced an action in equity in the United States District Court for the Western District of Michigan to enjoin William "Reindeer Bill" Killefer from playing catcher for the Philadelphia Phillies of the National League during the upcoming season. Killefer had originally signed a contract with the Phillies for the 1914 season that contained a "reserve clause" but then jumped leagues when the Whales made a more lucrative offer. Not to be outdone, the Phillies enticed Killefer to rejoin the team with an even better contract offer, leaving the Whales beached without a catcher.

The Reserve Clause and Organized Baseball
When professional baseball teams began to be organized into leagues in the decades after the Civil War, team owners became concerned about losing their star players to other ball clubs that offered higher salaries and other enticements. To stop this player jumping, the owners created a National Agreement in 18891 that included a reserve clause in every player's contract. This clause has been described as follows:


A singular part of the contract between the baseball clubs and their employees was the reserve clause. It gave the club an exclusive and perpetual option on the player's services. Furthermore, every club in Organized Baseball agreed not to employ or try to employ any player reserved by any other club. They also agreed not to play any team that employed a player who had broken the reserve clause, or even to allow their ball parks to be used by such a team. Their agreement not to compete with each other for players enabled the employers to exercise monopoly control—that is, a buyer's monopoly—over their men.2


Over the years, the specific language of the reserve clause changed, but its impact on professional ball-players remained constant. Players were joined at the hip with the team they first signed with until they were traded or retired from the game. As expected, the reserve clause generated severe criticism from ballplayers and from a number of judges who were asked by owners to enforce this clause. One of the most extraordinary players in baseball's premodern era, John Montgomery Ward, described the impact of the reserve clause on ballplayers: "Like a fugitive slave law, the reserve rule denies [the player] a harbor or a livelihood, and carries him back, bound and shackled, to the club from which he attempted to escape." In 1949, the noted jurist Jerome Frank of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, continued this theme when writing his separate opinion in Gardella v. Chandler, 172 F.2d 402 (2d Cir. 1949):


[W]e have here a monopoly which, in its effect on ballplayers like the plaintiff, possesses characteristics shockingly repugnant to moral principles that, at least since the War Between the States, have been basic in America, as shown by the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution condemning "involuntary servitude," and by subsequent Congressional enactments on that subject.3


The New York State Supreme Court also condemned the reserve clause in a suit filed by the Chicago White Sox to prohibit their starting first baseman, "Prince Hal" Chase, from jumping to the Buffalo Blues of the Federal League.4

Lurking behind all of this litigation was the issue of whether the reserve clause constituted a "contract," a "combination," or a "conspiracy, in restraint of trade or commerce among the several States" prohibited by Section 1 of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. This issue was raised in the Chase litigation, where Judge Herbert Bissell of the Supreme Court of New York, Erie County, declined to find such a violation, although he dissolved a temporary injunction previously obtained by the White Sox on other grounds:


I cannot agree to the proposition that the business of baseball for profits is Interstate trade or commerce, and therefore subject to the provisions of the Sherman Act. . . . The defendant urges that under the National Agreement baseball players are bought and sold and dealt in among the several States, and are thus reduced and commercialized into commodities. . . . We are not dealing with the bodies of the players as commodities or articles of merchandise, but with their services as retained or transferred by contract. . . . Baseball is an amusement, a sport, a game that comes clearly within the civil and criminal law of the State, and is not a commodity or an article of merchandise subject to the Regulation of Congress on the theory that it is interstate commerce. (86 Misc. at 459-60; 149 N.Y.S. at 16-17)


Invasion of the Body Snatchers: Here Come the Federals!
In 1912, the Federal League was founded as the Columbian League with only three teams as members. The next season, the league changed its name and expanded to six clubs located in the following cities: Chicago, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis. Ironically, the league's initial plan included a team in Grand Rapids, but that city was later abandoned as a prospect. At first, the league's owners claimed that they would only sign free agents as players. Before the 1914 season began, however, the Federal League announced that it had become a third major league and thus would be fielding teams in direct competition with American and National League clubs in Brooklyn, Pittsburgh, Chicago, and St. Louis. Franchises were also placed in Kansas City, Baltimore, and Buffalo, homes of strong minor league teams. The new league began poaching ballplayers from the existing AL and NL clubs by offering higher salaries and refusing to respect the reserve clause written into the players' contracts. Before the Federal League was disbanded at the end of the 1915 season, it had signed future Hall of Famers Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers, "Three-Fingered" Brown, Eddie Plank, Chief Bender, Edd Roush, and Bill McKechnie. The league had tried mightily, but failed, to sign Ty Cobb of the Detroit Tigers and Walter "Big Train" Johnson of the Washington Senators.

One of the reasons for the Federal League's aggressive behavior was the character of its team owners. Harry Sinclair, who was later implicated in the "Teapot Dome" scandal of President Warren G. Harding's administration, had organized the Indianapolis Hoosiers, later moving the franchise to Newark for the 1915 season. Philip Ball, the "ice king of St. Louis," manufactured ice-making machinery and formed the St. Louis Terriers. Robert Ward and his brother, George, owned Ward's Bakery in Brooklyn, makers of "Tip Top Bread." Not surprisingly, their team was christened the Brooklyn Tip-Tops. The most interesting of these owners, however, was Charles H. Weeghman, the owner of the Chicago Whales.

"Quick Lunch King" Weeghman was born in Richmond, Indiana, on March 12, 1874, and had made his fortune by creating a chain of fifteen restaurants in the Chicago area. These establishments were properly described as "lunchrooms" and, to save space, diners would be seated at one-armed school desks. In early 1914, Weeghman engaged the architect who designed Comiskey Park for the White Sox, Zachary Taylor Davis, to construct Weeghman Park on Chicago's North Side. This project was begun in February 1914 and was completed in only two months at a cost of $250,000, just in time for Opening Day. Before the season opener, however, Weeghman set his sights on Reindeer Bill Killefer, a catcher for the Philadelphia Phillies, as a potential recruit for the new league

The Killefer Litigation
The first question that might come to the minds of baseball fans is why all this fuss about Bill Killefer? During the 1913 season, Killefer batted only .244 with just 17 extra-base hits in 120 games. What made Killefer important to the Phillies, however, was the fact that he was the catcher of choice for the team's pitching ace, Grover Cleveland Alexander. "Pete" Alexander wrote in 1915 that he "worked best with Killefer. He understood me and knew how to handle my peculiarities."5

At the end of the 1913 season, the Phillies exercised their reserve clause over Bill Killefer and offered him a contract for the next season. Killefer, who had been approached by Weeghman, rejected this reservation and, on January 8, 1914, signed a three-year contract with the Chicago Whales for a yearly salary of $5,833.33. The signing generated great publicity, with the Chicago Daily Tribune announcing the event in a story entitled, "Four Stars Sign With Joe Tinker for Chicago Feds," published in its January 10, 1914 edition. The author of this piece rhapsodized about Killefer's talents:


In this quartet, Manager Tinker has corralled one of the best catchers in the National League, and a youngster at that. Killefer already has made reputation enough under "Red" Dooin in the last two seasons to provoke the prediction that he would become, with experience, the leading backstop artist of the old league.


Twelve days later, however, Killefer reneged on this contract and signed a three-year contract with the NL Phillies for $6,500.00 per year. As a consequence, Weeghman and his partners filed a lawsuit in the United States District court for the Western District of Grand Rapids to stop Killefer from playing for the Phillies.

To read the rest of this story, click here to order a copy of the Spring 2005 issue.


PATRICK E. MEARS lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and is a partner with the law firm of Barnes & Thornburg, LLP. He has been a baseball fan all of his life. His most vivid baseball memory is watching Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, and Whitey Ford play in Yankee Stadium during the wild and woolly 1961 season.

© 2005 Patrick E. Mears


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