Sunday, March 1, 2015

Review: The Outlaw League ... (2014)

By Daniel R. Levitt

It's probably not possible to send an anniversary card to a defunct baseball league. Who would you send it to? And where would it be delivered?

Still, we're in the middle of a relatively significant baseball anniversary, especially in the business sense. The Federal League fielded teams in 1914 and 1915, and is the last on-field competitor to Major League Baseball as we know it. Its remaining legacy in terms of baseball is Wrigley Field in Chicago, which was first built to house a Federal League team.

The tale of the Federals pointed baseball, and in some ways all sports, down a particular path in the years to come. Thus a complete story of the Federal League's tale from creation and demise is worthwhile from an historic perspective.

Daniel R. Levitt has written that book. It comes complete with a very long title, "The Outlaw League and the Battle that Forged Modern Baseball." Come to think of it, the book and its title both have plenty of detail.

A little history lesson: The Federal League started as a minor league in 1913, but had the idea to try to join the American and National Leagues the following year. Owners were found, parks were built or leased, and players were pursued. The league did indeed open on time in 1914.

But its two years of operation was a constant battle. Everyone involved took a financial hit, mostly in the form of decreased attendance and higher salaries. The legalities of contracts were open for question, depending on the judge, and some players initially jumped to the Federal League only to jump right back. Finally, the Federal League worked out a settlement with the majors, and we returned to one baseball operation. It has stayed that way until the present day.

The settlement's most interesting part led to a lawsuit with huge legal implications. Baltimore was left out of the "merger," and filed an anti-trust suit. This is the one in which the Supreme Court decided that baseball was not interstate commerce and not subject to anti-trust laws. That has affected operations for more than 90 years, even though the reasoning for the decision puzzled scholars and lawyers then and now.

Levitt obviously spent lots of time doing research, which shows on every page. There are tons of stories about how the leagues were formed, and how contract negotiations took place. Some court testimony is used effectively to tell how negotiations at critical stages went. If someone wants to call this the complete business recap of the Federal League, I'll agree fully.

There is a problem associated with all of this, at least in a sense. There's no baseball in it. The pennant race of 1915 is briefly covered, and that's about it. You don't get any flavor about what the game or individual teams were like in that era. Levitt obviously set out to write the business site of the story, and he followed through on that.

Still, I have the feeling that only a small part of the baseball-loving public will find this overly interesting without the weaving of games and seasons involved. In other words, this won't be popping up on any beaches for reading this year.

Be warned, then, that "The Outlaw League..." will be a little too dry and scholarly for many. But those who like this sort of material will learn a lot as they read it. 

Four stars

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