April 20, 2024

The United States Baseball League

January 8, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

A look at a quickly failed attempt to add a third major league in 1912.

On March 15th, 1912, a group of businessmen from across the country met at the Imperial Hotel in New York City. On the agenda was the finalization of the new baseball league that hoped to compete with the American and National League. Seven teams committed to the new league during the meeting, including five from existing major league cities. Charles White was at the meetings representing a franchise in New York but he had not yet secured grounds to play on in the city. If he couldn’t find a place to play in New York, the eighth franchise was rumored to go to Chicago.

The five teams placed in major league cities were: Brooklyn, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Washington. The other two franchises were placed in Richmond, VA and Reading, PA – the latter franchise being owned by league president William Witmann. The league would play a 126-game schedule beginning on May 1st. A potential major draw for the league was that they had received approval from four cities to play baseball on Sundays.

After a nine-hour meeting, the league had been formalized. Witmann spoke to reporters afterwards, stating his intent to not start a war with the two existing major leagues. He also said he wanted to work within the guidelines of the National Commission and would not allow players to jump contracts to play in his league. He would later say, however, that the league would not include reserve clauses in players’ contracts, bringing an end to “slavery in baseball.” Here was Witmann’s statement:

“We do not regard ourselves as outlaws, and if we are left alone we will get along without any friction with the other leagues. We will make no effort to secure players who have contracts with other clubs, neither will we form a haven for dissatisfied or suspended ballplayers…if any war is started it will have to be against us, rather than by us. I see no reason why another league cannot be carried on in perfect harmony with the leagues already in the field.”

However, within the new few days, the National Commission rejected Witmann’s perceived peace agreement and branded the newly-named United States Baseball League with the dreaded ‘outlaw’ tag. Still, the league did not need the label of being outlaws to lose early credibility – no, they did that themselves. While some teams secured ball diamonds quickly and began trying to build fan bases, a few teams began to unleash wild rumors. Owners began to float possible player signings to the media anonymously in hopes to gain attention for the league. Some of the names that were reported were former major leaguers Tommy Leach, Lave Cross, and even 60-year-old Cap Anson.

The league ended up securing a few former big league ballplayers as managers for their clubs. Ex-Pirate hurler Deacon Phillippe would manage Pittsburgh while former Giant George Browne would manage the Washington entry. Jack O’Connor, who managed the St. Louis Browns in 1910, would manage Cleveland in his first baseball gig since being informally banned for life in the major leagues for his role in the 1910 batting race between Ty Cobb and Nap Lajole.

Still, the league lacked players with names that were recognized by fans. In fact, the eight clubs had problems bringing aboard players with any major league experience and the rosters mostly consisted of college and semi-pro players. Seven-year major league veteran Jack Cronin was perhaps the biggest name in the league, having signed with the Reading franchise. However, the pitcher last appeared in a major league game back in 1904 and it was hard to tell how much gas he had left in his tank.

The league began on May 1st with all eight teams in action, including a game between New York and Reading, played in front of 2,500 patrons at the Bronx Oval. With the score tied at 7-7, the two teams went into extras, where in the tenth, both teams tallied up three runs before umpire Tone called the game due to darkness around 6:30 local time. President Witmann attended the game and declared the opening game to be a success.

The success would not last very long. Three weeks after the season opened, the Forest City Ball and Amusement Company announced it was folding its Cleveland franchise. According to the owners, they were fed up with the conditions in the league’s other seven cities and also cited poor attendance as a reason for folding the club. A day later, the Washington ownership group also announced it was pulling out of the league for financial reasons.

The league was able to salvage the Cleveland team, brokering a deal between previous ownership and St. Louis brewer Otto Steifel to move the team to the Gateway City. However, despite interest from businessmen in Buffalo to purchase the Washington club, no deal could be struck and Washington would disband.

The final dagger came one week later, when Cincinnati manager Hugh McKinnion sent his team home after a poorly-attended Memorial Day game in Reading. Cincinnati ownership told the Reading franchise, led by President Witmann, that they could no longer afford to send their players on the road with little return from sparse crowds. Witmann ended up announcing that Reading would move into Indianapolis immediately and the league would continue, but several things started working against the league.

Led by Cincinnati, the league’s western-based clubs announced their intentions to withdraw from the league and play out the remainder of the season amongst themselves. Attendance wasn’t as bad in the west than it was back east and the western owners thought they could salvage the season by reducing travel. The players, though, smelled the internal trouble and many began signing on with local semi-pro leagues. The league halted play and convened for an emergency meeting on the first day of June in Pittsburgh. Five days later, the league announced it was ceasing operations. The final standings appeared as so:

Pittsburgh 19 7 .731
Richmond 15 11 .577
Reading 12 9 .571
Cincinnati 12 10 .545
Washington 6 7 .462
Chicago 10 12 .455
CLE/STL 8 13 .400
New York 2 15 .118

By the time the league finally stepped on the field in May, it never stood a chance. Attempts by owners and Witmann to legitimize the league at the onset were met with ridicule by high ranking members of the National Commission. The backlash against the USBL hit the public and interest in the league waned early. That, coupled with wild, non-credible rumors the league unleashed and lack of big name players, would end up doing the league in at the end. Still, the league’s failure is said to have had a positive impact on the Federal League when it would debut two years later.

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