A Federal Case: Measuring the Federal League Against the Other Majors

Kaiser Wilhelm was a pitcher in the Federal League for the Baltimore Terrapins. (via Sporting News)

It’s been a little more than a century since the National and American Leagues have faced an active challenge on domestic soil by another baseball league. There was the Mexican League in 1946, flashing big money to tempt players to cross the border, an unsustainable attempt that soon crumbled. In the late 1950s came the proposed Continental League, headlined by Branch Rickey, that was undercut by expansion before it could play a game. The most recent serious challenger, though, was the Federal League of 1914-1915.

The Federals, of course, didn’t last. Its owners threw in the towel after two seasons, and a lingering lawsuit against the other leagues ended with MLB getting its famed antitrust exemption. All else it left behind was the question of whether it was a bona fide major league.

The MacMillan Baseball Encyclopedia in 1969 listed it as one, a decision thought at the time to be as authoritative as that seminal work. Skepticism would arise, though, in defiance of that reputation. The major status granted by that tome to the Union Association of 1884 was judged a gross mistake. Some saw its decision on the Federal League as another.

The Federal League was almost certainly inferior, building itself from nothing and not luring all that many players away from the established circuits. But it was a different era, with scouting still rather primitive and not geographically comprehensive. There probably was enough unclaimed talent in America to form a league that could match the American and National*. Not that the Feds necessarily found that talent, but it existed to find.

* This doesn’t even count Negro League players, which is another matter entirely and beyond the scope of this piece.

I have pondered the Federal League’s quality for a while. I even encouraged a baseball-knowledgeable friend to tackle the problem himself, but real work kept his efforts preliminary. Impatient for an answer, I took the task back from him to finish myself.

That’s how I sought to determine how much inferior the Federal League was to the American and National Leagues of its day and whether that inferiority disqualifies it as a major league. Others have asked and answered this question before, but I wanted to reach my own conclusion.

Between the Leagues

One cannot make a direct comparison, as the established teams never played against the “outlaws,” but a method does emerge at one degree of separation. One can compare how players performed in the Federal League to how they performed when they returned to the established majors. The 1915 and 1916 seasons provide the test case, as 59 Federal League players moved into the AL and NL in 1916 as the Federal League went under.

(One could do it the reverse way, looking at players who appeared in the AL/NL in 1913 then jumped to the FL in 1914. I preferred the later dates because the Federal League was almost certainly at its strongest in 1915, producing the most meaningful comparison.)

My data gathering began in a familiar strain. I used Baseball-Reference’s Play Index to find all the players in the three major leagues in 1915, and in the two major leagues in 1916. I took note of plate appearances and innings pitched, and naturally their WAR scores.

It was in reviewing the WAR, however, that I discovered Baseball-Reference had beaten me to the punch of judging the Federal League’s comparative competitive strength. bWAR carries an adjustment of replacement value based on the quality of the league. Not only is the 1915 Federal League’s composite WAR lower than the AL’s and NL’s, but the 1915 American League is given a significant advantage over the 1915 National League.

(I did not investigate how these adjustments were calculated, though I’m sure the information is available. My aim was to test the hypothesis, not to absorb a pre-made assumption, and digging into those details would give that assumption a better chance to take root.)

This was a problem. I couldn’t test for a difference in quality between leagues using a system that has already assumed such a difference, given it a value, and baked it into the numbers. Fortunately, Baseball-Reference isn’t the only game in town. FanGraphs’s WAR system does not make league-quality adjustments, so I shifted to fWAR for my “raw” data.

Using FanGraphs’s numbers, I tracked players’ offseason movements between several categories. The FL, AL, and NL made up three categories, for people playing exclusively in each of those leagues during a season. The ML category counted the smattering of players who played in more than one league in a year (usually NL and AL, though in 1915 there were two players who worked in both the Federal League and one of the established majors). Then there is the null category, for those who weren’t in the majors during a season.

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Goodbye for now.

I counted up the WAR accumulated by players in each combination of categories (such as FL to NL, AL to AL, NL to null, and so forth). I also tallied the plate appearances for position players and innings pitched for pitchers. This was crucial because a simple WAR count for 1915 and ’16 would be misleading. Federal League players who migrated to the established majors lost a good deal of playing time, 39 percent for batters and 44 percent for pitchers. AL and NL players staying in their leagues also lost playing time, to a much lesser extent, as competition increased for the reduced roster spots.

I produced rate stats for pitchers, WAR per 200 innings, and position players, WAR per 600 plate appearances. In rare cases when a player acted as both, George Sisler being the prime example, I classified them as pitchers if they threw significant innings in 1915. (Sisler and Sam Rice did; Charlie Jamieson and Socks Seibold did not.) Though I did groupings by specific leagues, I can show the general shape of things more directly if I sort them by Federal and “established” leagues first.

(Unfortunately, I had to exclude those few multi-league players.)

Batters’ WAR Rates by Federal/Established Leagues
League ’15-’16 #Players ’15 PA ’16 PA ’15 WAR/600 ’16 WAR/600 Diff.
Est’d-Est’d 208 73737 65324 2.39 2.35 -0.04
Fed-Est’d  39 16840  9997 3.16 1.65 -1.51
Pitchers’ WAR Rates by Federal/Established Leagues
League ’15-’16 #Players ’15 IP ’16 IP ’15 WAR/200 ’16 WAR/200 Diff.
Est’d-Est’d 118 18606.1 16714.1 2.21 2.07 -0.14
Fed-Est’d  20  5153.2  2897.0 2.56 1.66 -0.90

The holdovers in the established leagues gave away a bit of value year to year. It’s debatable whether that’s due to the aging curves of the players or tougher competition due to the concentration of talent in 16 teams rather than 24. But the WAR they lost is a pittance compared to what those coming over from the Federal League lost.

If we take the holdovers as a baseline, Federal League refugees lost, year-to-year, 0.76 WAR by pitchers and a whopping 1.47 WAR by position players. Some part of this could be due to age, as the migrating Federals were roughly two years older than those who played in the established leagues both seasons. But the general hypothesis is well supported: Federal League players were weaker than their AL and NL counterparts.

(Why would the Federals be older? It was those left out of the established majors in 1916, as well as those who found places, who averaged older, so it wasn’t just the majors picking more experienced players. The Federal League would have been recruiting players who had stalled out in the minors, couldn’t get through the door in the established majors, and so took their chance with the “outlaw” outfit. Also, when the Federals raided the AL and NL, they would have been targeting well-regarded veterans, for marquee appeal. I’ll mention a couple in my conclusion.)

We can use the same method to test for the possible qualitative difference between the American and National Leagues. Granted, there were few players who moved between those leagues between 1915 and ’16, as waiver rules and lingering inter-league animosities suppressed the numbers. That means stats for the incoming Federal Leaguers will be the primary gauge.

Hitters’ WAR Rates Moving Into Established Leagues
League ’15-’16 #Players ’15 PA ’16 PA ’15 WAR/600 ’16 WAR/600 Diff.
AL-AL 105 37020 34216  2.45 2.36 -0.09
FL-AL  12  5176  2727  2.81 0.97 -1.84
NL-AL   3   114   110  1.05 1.09 +0.04
AL-NL   1   444    41 -0.81 4.39 +5.20
FL-NL  25 11027  7134  3.41 1.94 -1.47
NL-NL  95 35569 30599  2.37 2.37  0.00
Pitchers’ WAR Rates Moving Into Established Leagues
League ’15-’16 #Players ’15 IP ’16 IP ’15 WAR/200 ’16 WAR/200 Diff.
AL-AL 63 9088.2 8567.1 2.37 2.02 -0.35
FL-AL  6 1538.2  949.1 3.44 2.06 -1.38
NL-AL  0                              
AL-NL  3   59.2  171.1 1.01 1.40 +0.39
FL-NL 14 3615.0 1947.2 2.19 1.46 -0.73
NL-NL 52 9458.0 7975.2 2.07 2.15 +0.08

From the Federal League players, we do see a difference. For batters, Federal-to-American movers lost 1.75 WAR compared to those staying in the AL, while Federal-to-National movers gave up 1.47 WAR compared to NL stay-at-homes. That makes a 0.28 WAR superiority of the AL to the NL. For pitchers, ex-Federals lost 1.03 WAR compared to stand-pat AL’ers, and 0.81 WAR to those staying in the NL, putting the American League 0.22 WAR up on the senior circuit.

There are also the few players switching between established leagues to add to the equation. My method here was to weight the various categories by the number of PA/IP by the players in them, using the lower of the two years’ numbers (which was usually 1916). As an example, the hitters going Federal to American/National were weighted by 9861 PA, while the American-to-National/National-to-American hitters were weighted by 151 PA. Thus, that single AL-to-NL batter spiking his WAR rate over 11 PAs in 1916 (his name was Paul Carter) won’t utterly skew the results, but he will have a notable effect.

The revised margins come out as a 0.35 WAR/600 PA superiority of AL hitters over NL, and a 0.175 WAR/200 IP edge for AL pitchers over NL pitchers. Measured against the 1.47/0.76 margins of the established leagues over the Federals, this means AL players of both stripes had a little under a quarter of the advantage over the NL that the two together had over the FL.

I can compare this to the adjustments Baseball-Reference made to the various leagues’ WAR totals. In 1915, B-R gives the American League 51.8 more WAR than the National. It gives the Federal League 142 fewer WAR than the mean between the AL and NL, but the mean isn’t the proper way to measure that. Many more players went FL-to-NL than FL-to-AL. Going by playing time, counting 600 PA or 200 IP as a “full” season, it’s a 70/30 ratio between NL and AL. The average that produces (245.5 WAR) is 131.6 WAR higher than the Federal League.

That ratio of AL-over-NL against ML-over-FL is close to two-fifths, as opposed to the under one-quarter that my work produced. Either B-R has overcompensated or my method has undercounted (or perhaps some of both). The figures are close enough, though, that one can be fairly confident they are measuring the same significant effects.

F-major or F-minor?

The Federal League was clearly weaker on the field than either of the two established leagues that it unsuccessfully fought. The question still pending is whether the margin of inferiority was great enough that the Federal League should not be considered a major league.

What comparative level of performance makes a league a minor instead of a major? At a minimum, if it cannot outperform all the acknowledged minor leagues, that would make it a minor league. That provides us, if not a clear dividing line, at least a hard floor.

We don’t have comparative measures for the minor leagues of a century ago—the record-keeping for the minors in the 1910s simply isn’t up to the task—but we do have them for the current day. Clay Davenport pioneered the practice with his Davenport Translations, and while he is no longer at Baseball Prospectus to promulgate them, he still produces them every year. I found the most recent ones at his eponymous website, and took them as a starting point.

Davenport rates the 2016 National League as the lesser of the two majors, receiving a rating of 1.0. The 2016 American League comes in at 1.107, meaning a run scored in the AL is worth 1.107 runs scored in the NL. The top minor league by his translations is the Triple-A International League at 0.802. Their runs are worth 0.802 NL runs and 0.802/1.107 = 0.724 AL runs.

This doesn’t lead us too far, since there are no Davenport Translations for 1915 (that I know of). But we can compare Davenport’s method to the method Baseball-Reference uses to compare today’s major leagues to each other, the one that gave the 1915 AL more total WAR than the 1915 NL. It turns out B-R also judges the 2016 AL to be superior, getting 531.8 total WAR against the NL’s 472.1. Divide those numbers by the 15 teams in each league, and the AL team average is 3.98 WAR greater than the NL average.

We can thus conclude that 3.98 WAR/team is equivalent to 0.107 in Davenport Translation figures—if we are very careful about how much weight we lay on that equivalence. Davenport and Baseball-Reference are not using the same methods to reach their conclusions. This can work as a starting approximation, not as a precise match. But with the error bars in mind, let’s proceed.

Back in 1915, the WAR margin between the American and National Leagues was 51.8, as given by B-R. That works out to 6.475 per team, a gap over 60 percent wider than in 2016. Turning that into Davenport numbers, the 1915 AL would have been 0.174 ahead of the NL*. That gap in 1915 is nearly as wide as the current gap between the NL and the International League.

* Assuming the Davenport scale is linear rather than geometric, logarithmic, or other. This is not the safest assumption, so widen the error bars.

As a brief aside, the American League’s superiority was observed at the time. From 1910 to 1918, the AL won eight of nine World Series, and the lone NL victors, Boston in 1914, were hailed as the “Miracle Braves.” This expectation was why the 1919 Chicago White Sox were strong favorites over the Cincinnati Reds in that World Series—and perhaps why it was so tempting to exploit those odds by fixing the Series.

How far behind the 1915 National League, the lagging established major, was the 1915 Federal League? The B-R numbers put the NL at a combined 230.0 WAR and the FL at 113.9 WAR. The difference works out to 14.51 WAR per team. Assuming again a linear relationship between WAR and the Davenport Translation numbers, that would put the ‘15 Federals at 0.610.

Not only is 0.610 below where modern Triple-A leagues are (0.802 and 0.759), it falls below Double-A leagues (0.667 to 0.697) and even below the independent Atlantic League. The Federals would be a smidgen ahead of the indy Canadian-American League and fairly clear of the High-A leagues in the upper 0.500s.

Those are Baseball-Reference’s numbers. My numbers, you will recall, said that the AL/NL gap was about a quarter the size of the ML/FL gap. Apply that to the Davenport numbers, and the Federal League would come in not around 0.6, but around 0.3. On a modern scale, that would come in a little below the Rookie leagues.

At this point, I take it as effectively proven that the Davenport Translations do not follow a linear scale. It has to involve an asymptotic curve that as the WAR falls away makes an ever-shallower dive toward zero. If that took away, say, half of the drop in the Davenport Translation, the Federal League would stand somewhere around 0.65, or 0.8 if going by B-R’s numbers.

There may be other mitigating factors. The higher mean age of Federal players re-entering the established majors could well indicate that part of their falling WAR is due to the aging curve biting them harder than the stay-at-homes. Also, mapping contemporary minor league classifications onto those in the mid-1910s is perhaps iffy. (The minors went from Double-A to D at that time, very roughly equivalent to our Triple-A to short-season A.) It may have been a longer leap at that time from the high minors to the bigs.

All these factors taken together might be enough to lift the Federal League out of the zone of the minors. But if we need so many “ifs” and need to widen the error bars that far to reach that conclusion, odds are it isn’t there to be reached. I am compelled to determine that the Federal League did not reach the level of a major league.

In Closing

I was hoping I wouldn’t reach this conclusion. I have a bit of a soft spot for the Federal League making the last serious challenge against the dominance of the major leagues we know today. Also, were this verdict to become generally accepted, there would be a lot of tedious rewriting of baseball statistics (largely figurative, as the various websites would simply remove the superfluous numbers).

This rewriting wouldn’t affect just non-entity players, or just statistics. Several Hall-of-Famers played in the Federal League, including pitchers Chief Bender and Eddie Plank, who abandoned the dynastic Philadelphia A’s for bigger paydays. Their defections spurred Connie Mack to the epic teardown of his powerhouse A’s, leaving them a ghastly husk of a team for years to come. It changes the tenor of this story, a crucial part of baseball history in the Deadball Era, to say Bender and Plank triggered the collapse of a dynasty to go play in the minors.

A bald truth like that probably would be an over-correction. They left the A’s not to play in the minors, but to play in an organization striving to make itself a major league (and paying them accordingly). Despite their desires and efforts, though, the level of player performance in the Federal League was not up to the necessary standard. This shortfall is surely part of the reason why the Federal League could not make a go of things as the third major league.

I don’t expect my conclusion to trigger any kind of official re-evaluation. Figures of far stronger reputation have argued the point—a point I’ll remind you has made it into both bWAR and Baseball Prospectus’s WARP—without effecting such a change. If the powers that be ever do re-evaluate the Federal League’s official status, though, there will be some real facts rather than mere AL/NL chauvinism behind it. Just don’t expect it to happen.

Besides, they really need to work on the Union Association first. That one’s an embarrassment.

References and Resources


A writer for The Hardball Times, Shane has been writing about baseball and science fiction since 1997. His stories have been translated into French, Russian and Japanese, and he was nominated for the 2002 Hugo Award.
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Paul Moehringer
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Paul Moehringer

I can only identify three players who significantly improved their stats the year after leaving the Federal League close that saw significant playing time in the FL. Armando Marsans who went from being a part time player hitting .177 to a .254 below average starter with the Browns, but quickly faded soon after. Hal Chase who went on to win the 1916 NL batting crown after leading the fL in home runs the previous season. And Claude Hendrix who put up decent numbers with the Cubs after a bad season with the Whalers, although to be fair he did lead… Read more »

Scott
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Scott

There are two separate issues to determine if a league is a major league. The first, which this article focuses on, is the level of play. In generally, a major league would be the league with the highest level of play as judged by the performance of the players. By this measure, the Federal League appears not to meet the criteria. The second way is to look at how the leagues interacted with each other. Did the upstart league compete for players or poach them from big league rosters? What cities were the franchises located in? Did the owners in… Read more »

Fireball Fred
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Fireball Fred

Maybe the Federal would have been a major league on Pluto

Rally
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Rally

I came up with the WAR adjustment to the federal league by looking at how player stats changed when moving into and out of the leagues. Typically a completely average MLB player, playing everyday, is 20 runs above replacement, or 2 WAR. For the Federal League, it’s about 10 runs. That is better than AAA. An average AAA player is going to be less than replacement level. This is true by definition, because MLB teams can call up any AAA guy they want. They call up the better guys at AAA when they need to make a replacement. I suggest… Read more »

MCT
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MCT

There are a number of leagues in different sports that have the same problem: to Scott’s point, they clearly aspired to be major leagues (e.g., placed teams in large markets, attempted to compete with established leagues for players to at least some degree), but didn’t really last long enough to become established as major leagues. Football’s WFL (1974-75) and USFL (1983-85) are in this category, as is basketball’s ABL (1961-62). Without an equivalent to the MacMillan Encyclopedia to anoint them as major leagues, these leagues are usually completely ignored in sources with NFL and NBA data. As would be the… Read more »

MCT
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MCT

I don’t know enough about 19th century MLB to comment on the Union Association, but I’ll note that in the formative eras of other major league sports, the distinction between what was a major league and what was a minor league wasn’t always clear, creating a similar situation where some leagues don’t fit neatly into either category. The early NFL, for example, arguably wasn’t really a major league by modern standards, or even the standards of contemporary MLB. It was essentially a regional league in the Midwest, and many of its teams were in very small markets. For most of… Read more »

Paul G.
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Paul G.

The Union Association was the subject of an extensive article in The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract. I highly recommend you read it. It is both informative and entertaining. To summarize what he found, the UA was an organizational mess that was treated as somewhat of a joke by many baseball authorities of the time. Its talent level was so pathetic with the large majority of its players never amounting to anything on the major league level past this season. The few good players – and there are very few – had ridiculous seasons in the UA. (See Fred… Read more »

Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider

Interestingly, some (though not the NFL obviously) thought that some of the early AFL teams could have competed successfully in the NFL. There was talk of the 1963 AFL champion Chargers being possibly better than the 1963 NFL champion Bears. (Arguably, the Bears were a fluke; the Packers were probably significantly better but Chicago had one of those years.) The AFL seems different from the Federal League and the other sports leagues because it began harvesting a new source of players-the historically black colleges, which the NFL was much slower to do. So, arguably, the AFL was closer to a… Read more »

Tom Dockery
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Tom Dockery

Edd Roushes were far and few between in that league,as most of the players were over the hill .My grandfather took my father to a game in Harrison,NJ,the home of the Newark Peps.

Cliff Blau
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Major league status was not conferred on the Federal League or Union Association by the Baseball Encyclopedia. MLB put together a special records committee which determined which leagues would be considered major. The BE just followed their ruling.

Cliff Blau
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Chief Bender and Eddie Plank didn’t abandon the Athletics. They, along with Jack Coombs, were released, and so were free agents.

Anyway, Clay Davenport did look at this issue back in 2000, using Equivalent Average. He found the Federal League was -.26 points of EqA in 1914 and -.17 in 1915. I’m not sure how you’d translate into WAR, but for comparison’s sake, he found that in 1902 the AL was .16 better than the NL.

John Autin
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John Autin

I’m always glad to see the anti-Federal case made publicly. No matter how they tried to position themselves or what they might have become, it’s pretty clear without any heavy lifting that the general caliber of play did not deserve the “major league” status that history has granted them.

Lanidrac
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Lanidrac

I think it’s interesting that we still consider the NL and AL to be separate leagues these days. They play each other regularly during the regular season (not often, but the same is also true of inter-conference games in the NFL), the same commissioner rules them both, there are no longer separate League Presidents or umpiring crews, and on two occasions franchises have actually jumped between them. Literally, the only things keeping them separate in more than name are the DH rule and the end-of-season awards. How much longer are we going to continue with this farce? Then again, in… Read more »

mando3b
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mando3b

Well, I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a farce–there is still a strong historical sense that the AL and NL are separate entities; even with the Brewers and Astros switching leagues, they are largely the same organizations they were back when they were administered separately, had their own umpires, etc. We all know people who follow one league and not the other. (My experience of those super “knowledgeable” Boston fans suggests they have a hard time just naming the teams in the NL.) The fact that these are precisely leagues and not geographically different conferences, which is… Read more »

Bill Rubinstein
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Bill Rubinstein

There are things to be said on both sides. The only future Hall of Famer to emerge from the FL was Edd Roush (who played a few games in the old Majors before, but was essentially a rookie in the FL). Given how many players of the 1920s and 1930s are in the Hall, this is a very low number. On the other hand: the FL was highly competitive, with close pennant races- one team wasn’t dominant, as in the UA. Also, the number of Major League teams in 1916 was the same as in 1913, of course, meaning that… Read more »

mando3b
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mando3b

Very good points. No league is “major league” as we understand the term when it first starts out. The NL certainly wasn’t in the 1870s. (This still begs the question, though, about the quality of the FL in 1914-15.) Here’s something else to contemplate: could the FL have lasted longer (if not succeeded long-term) if it hadn’t tried to go up against the NL and AL in four cities (five if you count Newark in 1915 as a NY team)?

steve kantor
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Who was the big winner to come out of the FL experiment?? That’s an easy one – Kenesaw Mountain Landis. The future Commish was a federal judge who had the FL’s anti-trust suit dropped in his lap. Landis let it sit around long enough that the FL had already closed shop before he ruled. The AL and NL liked that style, and when the Black Sox scandal broke, they remembered what a good job he had done 4-5 years earlier and hired him.

More fyi…….the actual mountain and town is spelled Kennesaw.