April 25, 2018

The Chicago Feds Spring Training Adventure

February 16, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

There is still much to learn about Federal League. One element of the league which is often glossed over is their Spring Training activities. Major League teams themselves did not keep track of their various spring time activities until recently. Sometimes it is easy to trace the history of a team and its spring training incarnation. The Phillies, for example, have been wintering in Clearwater, Florida, for sixty-four years, the longest such relationship in the National League. Dodgertown in Vero Beach, Florida, which closed this year, was the Dodgers last link to its team’s origins in Brooklyn.

Today spring training is itself a multi-million dollar industry and towns throughout Florida and Arizona compete to lure big leaguers and their monies with lucrative tax-payer deals that are miniature versions of the sweet heart deals these same teams get from their home cities.

But where did the Federal League’s teams prepare for their assault on the American and National Leagues? The answer was, anywhere they could on short notice. Not all of the Federal League Teams were new. Several of the clubs dated from 1913 when the Feds were established as an outlaw circuit. But in 1914 the President of the Federal League, James A. Gilmore, announced open warfare on the established majors and half of the Federal League teams were relocated to AL and NL cities to compete with them head on.

Perhaps no team in the league cut as high a profile as the Chi-Fed of Chicago. Like several Fed operators, Charles Weeghman, owner, or in the preferred phrase of the day, the “magnate” of the Windy City franchise, was in the food business. His lunch counters supplied food for the thousands of workers who toiled in Chicago’s factories and stockyards. In Brooklyn, the Fed owners ran the Tip-Top Bakery, the borough’s biggest pie vendor. In short order the Brook-Feds were dubbed the Tip-Tops, baseball’s first corporate name arrangement. Japan’s Nippon Ham Fighters have nothing on these guys.

To give you an idea of the wealth of the new league, its owners erected five new stadiums over the course of two years. There was little civic support and no tax-payer give away to build these stadiums. Income tax itself was brand new having been instituted in 1913. American’s who made the generous salary of $5,000 a year paid Uncle Same $6.25. Those like Weeghman who made over $10,000 a year owed the government $45.83. The Fed magnates had no problems spending their own cash to secure a home park for their team.

When it came to spring training the Feds relied upon the model that the established leagues used, namely going anywhere in the southern United States that offered the team the best deal. Very few National or American League teams had regular Spring Training sites. The most famous of those relationships was probably Marlin, Texas, established spring home of the New York Giants. For spring of 1914 the Chicago Cubs were wintering in Tampa, Florida while the White Sox were in their second season at a new locale, the California hamlet of Paso Robles.

For the established majors even a new location like Paso Robles meant at least a year of preparation. The Federals did not have the luxury of time. Some of their stadiums went up in a matter of weeks, this left little time for such niceties as cushy spring training digs. Further compressing things was the fact that Spring Training was far briefer in 1914 than it is today. For today’s baseball fans there is no more sure sign that winter will end then that announcement in the paper or in the electronic media that “pitchers and catchers report in two weeks.” In 1914 Spring Training ran about a month depending upon the club.

The Chicago Federals worked out an arrangement with the city of Shreveport, Louisiana, and that town could not have been happier. The one common link between Spring Training, no matter what the era it occurs in, is the pride that host cities take in hosting their respective ball clubs. The ball clubs brought in money and jobs of course, but what was more important was the presence of the players themselves. America in the teens had just begun to elevate ball players as heroes and every city wanted to bask in their glory.

Shreveport put on the dog for the Chi-Feds. “The grounds which will serve as the conditioning field is inside a mile track at the Louisiana state fairgrounds and beneath a concrete stand which will accommodate 7,500 persons. The local workmen have installed thirty-five lockers, six shower baths, rubbing boards and all the other equipment of a club house.” The field was in good shape once the outfield was flattened by a steam roller. To house the players, the Hotel Youree, an eighteen minute trolley ride from the race track, opened its arms. At the time there was no racing at the track because horse racing had been outlawed in Louisiana in 1908. It would not return until 1915.

There would even be someone to scrimmage against. The town of Monroe, Louisiana, was hosting the St. Louis Feds and their manager Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown. Monroe was only a short train ride away.

Shreveport had hosted American League teams twice before, the Tigers from 1903-04 and the Browns for 1908. The city was excited to get more baseball players to embrace. As the Chi-Feds arrived at 9:00 p.m. on March 9, 1914 the weather was a perfect 75 degrees. A crowd of thousands, estimated to be that of half the city, greeted the Chi-Feds who had amongst is members league President Gilmore himself who had come to check out the spring facilities of the various Federal League teams. Unlike the Major leagues the Feds never ventured to either Florida or California. The Feds’ eight camps were all lodged deep in the heart of the Confederacy. The Pittsburgh Rebels were the northernmost team, playing in Lynchburg, Virginia. Sharing the Old Dominion were the Buff-Feds playing in Danville. Also represented in 1914 were North Carolina, South Carolina, Louisiana, and Texas.

As he stood on the platform, James Gilmore presented a telegram, which he claimed was from a star, whom he refused to name, of the established major leagues accepting an offer from the Federal League. Whether this telegram really was in fact from a star player or was just part of Gilmore’s gamesmanship with the majors is of course impossible to determine.

Joe Tinker, manager of the Chicago Feds, used his time on the platform to say that beginning the next day he would put his squad through two-a-day drills to get them into shape for the season. He also announced a wish list of players he wanted. He named star pitchers Grover Cleveland Alexander of the Phillies and “Reb” Russell of the White Sox as players he would like to add to the Chi-Feds. The Federal League would never be successful in signing either one but both men were able to increase their salaries considerably by using their Federal League salary offers as leverage against their respective clubs.

On a lighter note, The Chicago Record-Herald related the fate of two baseball crazed youths from Chicago. Two small boys, ages not given, decided to accompany the brand new Chi-Feds to their spring abode. It did not go well. They stowed away on the team’s south bound train as it left Chicago. It was an especially harsh Midwestern winter. One of the boys was discovered in Memphis, nearly frozen, amongst the baggage. The other boy had let himself off the train at Centralia because he simply could not bear the cold any more.

The ball players they were idolizing had just over a month to get themselves into shape for the inaugural season of the newly minted league. Opening Day was April 13. As the players ran laps around the racetrack and took BP, the prettiest and largest of the Federal League’s ballparks was being erected at a record pace on Chicago’s North Side.  Weeghman Park staked out new territory in the city for baseball. The Cubs were in West Side Park and the White Sox ruled the Southern part of town. The last remaining link to Federals, it was taken over by the National League’s Cubs in 1916; today it is known as Wrigley Field.

As for Shreveport, the Chi-Feds returned to the city in 1915, there was no one to scrimmage against however as the St. Louis Terriers dropped Monroe in favor of Havana. The Federal League was the first major league to conduct spring training in Cuba. Other teams, most notably the Brooklyn Dodgers would spend part or all of their springs in Cuba’s largest city. Shreveport must have truly impressed the Chi-Feds, who were known as the Whales in 1915, because they were the only Federal League team to return to the same city for both of its spring training seasons. The Cincinnati Reds would move into the Whales digs for the 1916-17 seasons. The Browns returned in 1918 to occupy the fairgrounds facility, giving it five years of continuous use. The Yankees stayed in Shreveport for the spring of 1921.  The city would have a last hurrah as the spring home of the White Sox from 1925-1928. After that date Shreveport never hosted another spring training. Shreveport is the only Spring Training site used by all three major leagues.

Fair Grounds Race Course is still in business, although today it has “Slots” added to its name and sees most of its income generated by one-armed bandits. The grandstand has been completely rebuilt so today not a trace remains of the Feds’ training facility.

Major league teams experimented with various locales for spring training throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s.  By the 1940’s Florida and Arizona were the preferred locations of most teams. World War II travel restrictions had teams spending their springs in such balmy climes as Atlantic City, New Jersey and Wilmington, Delaware. With peacetime in 1946 just about every team went to either Florida or Arizona and the Grapefruit and Cactus leagues were created, and Spring Training as we know it was born.

Quote source: Johnson, Harold D. “Feds Arrive At Camp, Big Crowd At Depot” Chicago Record-Herald March 10, 1914 p.8.

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