Federal League Could Never Get Foothold in Cleveland

For two brief years, the Federal League tried to make a go as a major league.

It challenged for supremacy in cities like Brooklyn and Chicago that already had major league teams, but also tried to grow in cities like Baltimore and Indianapolis, cities without major league representation.

But it could never get a foothold in Cleveland – because it could never find a place to play.

The Federal League, like the American League a decade earlier, began play as a minor league in 1913. Its Cleveland entry was the Green Sox. The team was managed by Ohio native (and Cleveland fan favorite) Cy Young. Its owner was Matthew Bramley, who had made his fortune by organizing one of the world’s first paving companies (asphalt, a petroleum byproduct, was in vast supply, thanks to Cleveland’s oil refining industry).

Bramley also owned Luna Park, an amusement park on the city’s east side (where the Woodhill Homes housing development was built in the 1940s), which served as the Green Sox’s home field in 1913. But with the entry into the major leagues, the league needed to find financial stability – something lacking in Cleveland, where the Green Sox finished in the red.

Plain Dealer sportswriter Henry P. Edwards said that the city – then growing in population to the sixth biggest in the country – could support two baseball teams, provided there were no schedule conflicts.

The Federal League never got a chance to prove that. The city was left out of plans for the Federal League’s 1914 season – and then another blow was landed when Naps owner Charles Somers announced on February 16, 1914, that the Toledo American Association team (owned in part by Somers, who had his hand in several major league and minor league teams over the preceding decade) would relocate to Cleveland to play on off days for the Naps.

“Somers will not admit that the possibility of the Federal league coming into Cleveland actuated him in transferring the Toledo club to Cleveland, thus making the proposed invasion of this city by the Feds a more serious problem,” Edwards wrote. “It is believed, however, that he was aided in making a decision by the fact the Feds are seriously considering entering Cleveland. By moving the Toledo club here, he is not smoothing the way for the new organization.”

Bramley continued undaunted, and at one point, had an option for a piece of property on Euclid Avenue between East 47th and East 49th streets. Once part of the city’s millionaire’s row (described by Mark Twain as one of the finest streets in America), the wealthy men who made their homes there were starting their migration east into Cleveland Heights. But the financial difficulties of building a new stadium – along with coming up with a franchise fee – stymied him, and Cleveland remained without a Federal League team.

It might have been a blessing in disguise for Bramley. After the 1915 season, the Federal League gave up the ghost. Most of the ballparks that had been built quickly fell into disuse, with two notable exceptions: the ballpark in Baltimore was used for another 30 years for the minor league Orioles, and the ballpark on the North Side of Chicago built for the Whales and named in honor of owner Charles Weeghman, became the home field for the Cubs, which Weeghman bought into. The field was renamed for its new owner, P.K. Wrigley, a decade later and remains home to the Cubs.

The other lasting contribution of the Federal League, indirectly, was baseball’s antitrust exemption. The Baltimore Terrapins sued Major League Baseball, alleging the league was a monopoly and thus in violation of antitrust laws. A jury agreed, but an appeals judge reversed the verdict. That ruling was appealed to the Supreme Court, and no less a legal authority than Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. ruled that baseball was not interstate commerce.

The appeals judge who reversed the jury’s verdict was a well-known baseball fan named Kenesaw Mountain Landis. Four years after his verdict – and two years before the Supreme Court finally ruled – Landis was named baseball’s first commissioner.

There was one more casualty of the war between Major League Baseball and the Federal League: Charles Somers. The war between the two leagues sent salaries soaring. Somers, already facing losses in his business interests, couldn’t afford to own the team any longer and, in 1916 – the year after the Federal League folded – sold the team to Jim Dunn.

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