Sunday, April 23, 2017


In 1912, baseball promoter John T. Powers assembled an independent circuit known as the Columbian League. Though it crashed and burned before opening day, Powers was able to generate enough interest to construct a new league the following year. Considered an “outlaw" organization, the Federal League began play in 1913 as a six-team minor circuit. Powers served as president during its inaugural season, but ended up stepping aside to make way for entrepreneur James A. Gilmore. Under Gilmore’s leadership, the Federal League declared itself a major league and began to compete directly with the AL and NL.

There were plenty of major leaguers willing to make the jump to Gilmore’s circuit. Seduced by lucrative contract offers, future Hall of Famers Joe Tinker and Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown left their respective clubs behind. In the early stages of his career, fellow Cooperstown inductee Edd Roush suited up for the Feds as well. In late-June, Hal Chase--the game's premier defensive first baseman--defected from the White Sox. Attendance at games was respectable and the pennant race was tight. The Indianapolis Hoosiers waited until the last day of the season to clinch the pennant over the Chicago Feds. Heralded as the “Ty Cobb of the Federal League,” outfielder Benny Kauff—who had previously played for the New York Highlanders—carried the Hoosiers to the top with the finest effort of his career. He paced the circuit in nearly a dozen offensive categories, including batting average (.370), runs scored (120) and total bases (305--a lofty figure for the Deadball Era).

With the relative success of the 1914 campaign, several other players of note joined the Federal League, among them Cooperstown-bound hurlers Eddie Plank and Chief Bender. The 1915 season featured a slightly different assortment of clubs. The Hoosiers disappeared and the Newark Peppers made their debut. Two other teams changed their nicknames. The Chicago Feds became known as the Whales while the Buffalo Buffeds played as the Blues. The campaign saw five different teams seriously competing for top honors. Again, the pennant race came down to the last day of the season with the Chicago club emerging victorious. Benny Kauff continued to dominate offensively, winning a second consecutive batting crown. He also led the league with 55 stolen bases.

In the 1914/15 offseason, Federal League owners filed an anti-trust suit against the American and National Leagues. The case found its way to the desk of future baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. It remained in limbo as Landis tried to bring about a peaceful settlement. In the meantime, the Federals began to flounder financially. After the 1915 slate, baseball’s third “major league” disbanded. Whales owner Phil Weeghman bought the Cubs and moved the club into Weeghman Park (later known as Wrigley Field). Terriers owner Phil Ball purchased the Browns. Other owners were offered cash settlements. The Federal League was the last serious challenge to the monopoly of the American and National Leagues.     

Sunday, April 9, 2017


Baseball has had its share of unusual characters and Pete Browning was undoubtedly among the most colorful. Born in Louisville, Kentucky, he had a troubled childhood. Afflicted with a rare disorder known as mastoiditis, he lost a majority of his hearing and dropped out of school. He remained semi-literate throughout his life. Making his formative years even more difficult, his father was killed in a cyclone, leaving his mother to raise eight children alone.

An excellent athlete, Browning aspired to the major league ranks in 1882 with the Louisville Eclipse of the American Association. His medical affliction caused him to suffer from crippling headaches. At some point, he began to self-medicate with alcohol, telling one reporter: “I can’t hit the ball until I hit the bottle.” Tales of his epic hangovers abound. He once literally fell asleep while leading off of second base. On another occasion, he was in such a daze at first, he allowed opposing pitcher Dave Foutz to wander over and tag him out. 

Browning was obsessed with his eyesight. He referred to his eyes as “lamps” or “peepers” and believed that it improved his vision when he stared into the sun for extended lengths of time. On at least one occasion, he held his head outside the window of a moving train to cleanse his eyes and ended up getting cinders in them. He was also known to soak his “peepers” in buttermilk.

He demonstrated a host of other eccentricities as well, fielding fly balls on one leg, refusing to slide into bases and never failing to touch third on his way to his outfield position. He was a monumentally poor fielder, committing 269 errors in 998 outfield assignments—an average of one miscue for every four appearances. Players didn’t use mitts in Browning’s era, but that was no excuse. His lifetime fielding percentage was a dozen points below the league average. One of Browning’s managers allegedly complained that the team would be better off with a wooden cigar store Indian in the field since there was an odd chance that a batted ball would hit the statue and bounce back toward the infield. 

Despite his shortcomings, Browning was an outstanding batsman. He hit for the cycle twice during the 1880s and won three batting titles in a ten-year span. He had above average power for the era, gathering more than 400 extra-base hits over portions of thirteen seasons. He kept a running tally of his batting averages on his shirt cuffs and would sometimes declare himself the current batting champion when he stepped to the plate. He retired with a lifetime .341 average.

Browning is best known for putting Hillerich and Bradsby on the map. He was the first to purchase bats from the company, popularizing a product that would later be named the “Louisville Slugger” in his honor. Browning established a personal relationship with each of his bats, talking to them and giving them names—often of biblical figures.

After his retirement as a player, Browning’s physical and mental health deteriorated. In 1905, he was briefly committed to a psychiatric facility. He died in September of that year due to a host of ailments, among them cancer, cirrhosis and alcohol-related brain damage. He received some consideration for the Hall of Fame but ultimately fell short.