Independent Baseball in the 1920s, Part One
One of the things I have come up across very often is the resistance to including independent leagues in the whole scheme of minor league baseball. The other thing I come across is the belief that independent ball came about with Miles Wolff in the 1990s.
In the early days, every minor league was an independent league. Then the National Agreement came into effect, which only protected signatories’ contract from poaching by other signatories. Most leagues remained independent (non-signatory) or outlaw (meaning that they did not respect contracts of other leagues). Then in 1902, the National Association was formed, which created Organized Baseball for the first time. Independent baseball remained strong, and continued that way up until the First World War. That brings up to what I consider the first real threat to Organized Baseball, beginning with the end of World War One. And I would also like to make a comment on are salaries of the early to mid-1920s. From what I've seen, salaries must have gone up over 50% by 1923 or 1924, primarily driven by industrial league teams, but also by the inflation of the post-WWI period, which drove up salaries in all sectors.
When I was compiling statistical data for players included in The Historical Register who spent time in independent leagues around the country, I was surprised to find out much money was being thrown around by those teams and leagues. To give one example, Hippo Vaughn's salary with the Cubs in 1921 was $3,500 or $4,000; for 1922, he signed a contract with the Beloit team (sponsored by the engine maker, Fairbanks-Morse) calling for a salary of $7,500. By the time he pitched his last season with the Beloit Fairies, he had become what they called in those days, A Ten-Thousand-Dollars-A -Year Man. (By the way, for all you Black Sox fans, Dickie Kerr also in the appeared in the league that year.) As a matter of fact, in 1922, the Midwest League had 52 major leaguers on the rosters of the six teams during the season (and the other roster spots seemed to be filled by Association players). The number two pitcher for the Beloit Fairies was Dave Davenport. Patsy Gharrity did the catching. The Midwest League had teams sponsored by Nash Motors, Simmons Mattress, etc., later years had teams sponsored by Spencer Coal in Chicago, Chicago Steel Mill, Studebaker, etc. The Midwest League played well over hundred games a season. Most of these companies also supported football teams in the fall, and basketball teams in the winter. This, the Midwest League, was only one league. In Central Illinois there was the Central Illinois Industrial League that had baseball teams like the Decatur Staleys (with Joe McGinnity, Chuck Dressen and George Halas, and whose football team-- "managed" by Halas— became the Chicago Bears), the Springfield Watch company, and Sinclair Oil's Havolines among others. (The Beloit football team was so loaded one season, that they knocked off one of Curly Lambeau's Packer teams.)
In Ohio, the tire companies had teams and leagues. In Pennsylvania, the steel companies had the Steel League, where they would hire the likes of a Joe Harris off the Senators' roster. In Arizona and northern Mexico, they had the Cooper League— where all the 1919 dumpers wound up except Joe Jackson, who tried to hold out— and the Mining League around Cananea, Sonora. In California, they had the San Joaquin Valley League, whose teams looked like veritable Coast League All-Star teams, and supported by agricultural interests. Frank Shellenback, the great minor league pitcher, couldn't hold on to his roster spot after Fresno brought in Hub Leonard for two years, before the major leaguer returned to Detroit in 1924. Shellenback when down a rung to the Raisin Belt League. Sailor Stroud pitched for Hanford in 1921 or 22. After Hardrock Lane of Salt Lake couldn't match the salary of that San Joaquin Valley League club, Lane turned around and sold Stroud's contract to the Yankees. Stroud, as explained by the Bakersfield Daily Californian, refused to report to New York because he didn't want to take a cut in pay playing for the Yankees.
The West Texas oil fields is another area where ballplayers wound up, and should prove a veritable gold mine for researchers. If one looks at many of the records of minor league stars of the 1930s, most of those players seem to disappear from the scene for several years.