Federal League baseball pitcher Knetzer made history on the mound
A brass marching band led a parade through crowd-lined Downtown streets, over the Sixth Street Bridge and to the gates of the North Side's Exposition Park for baseball's season opener.
Pittsburgh's mayor threw out the first pitch before Elmer Knetzer took the mound.
One hundred years ago on Monday, Knetzer gripped the white ball with red and blue stitching and delivered the first pitch of the short-lived Federal League — the last real challenger to what became Major League Baseball.
Knetzer, an Allegheny County native known as “Pretzel” and “The Baron,” lasted for 10 innings before the Pittsburgh Feds lost 1-0 to the Brooklyn Tip-Tops, named for the famous bread brand of a New York baking empire that started in East Liberty's Bakery Square.
Much of what happened during the league's only seasons in 1914 and 1915 has been lost to history.
About five years ago, Joe Knetzer received a baseball card, an issue of Sporting Life magazine and a newspaper clip featuring his great-great-uncle, whom he had met once. He never knew about his full baseball past.
“He seemed like he was more mythical,” said South Park native Knetzer, 51, of Dalton, Ohio. “You heard of Elmer Knetzer, and I knew he was related to me. But I didn't know his impact on sports.”
The Heinz History Center's Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum displays two “Pittsburgh Federals” cards, but not Knetzer's.
“These two cards are the only artifacts we have relating to the Rebels,” as the team came to be known, said curatorial assistant Craig Britcher.
The only remaining link between the Federal League and the major leagues is Wrigley Field, which opened as Weeghman Park in 1914 as home of the Chicago Whales. Team owner Charles Weeghman later bought the Cubs with gum magnate William Wrigley Jr. and moved them into the stadium.
“The Federal League shaped what has come since,” said Dan Levitt of Minneapolis, author of “The Battle that Forged Modern Baseball: The Federal League Challenge and its Legacy.”
Another legacy, Levitt said, was a 1922 Supreme Court ruling that arose from a lawsuit brought by the Federal League, and later by its Baltimore franchise. The justices ruled that the National and American leagues were not in violation of the country's antitrust laws.
“A lot of fans have heard of baseball's antitrust exemption,” he said.
The fact that no other league ever took the field to threaten organized baseball is another legacy, Levitt said.
Local kid makes it big
Elmer Ellsworth Knetzer, born in July 1885 in Carrick, jumped from the Lawrence Colts of the New England League in 1909 to debut with the National League's Brooklyn Superbas, later the Dodgers.
A baseball card from his Brooklyn days noted the righty pitcher was a rare major leaguer of Polish descent and said he was “a celebrated curveball artist and can also deceive with the spitball.” Knetzer cut his 1912 season short because of a family illness.
When Brooklyn lowballed him in the next season, Knetzer refused to sign his contract. That June, he signed with Pittsburgh's squad in the then six-team, independent Federal League. “Knetzer Joins Outlaw Team,” a New York Times headline announced.
Several former National and American league players had signed with Fed teams. But Knetzer became the first active major leaguer to join.
He would not be the last.
Shaping today's MLB
Before the 1914 season, the Federal League declared itself a third major league and expanded to eight cities — Pittsburgh, Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City, Brooklyn, Buffalo, Baltimore and Indianapolis, whose team later moved to Newark.
Deep-pocketed owners offered lucrative contracts to lure marquee talent. Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson and “Shoeless” Joe Jackson flirted with Federal League teams but ultimately declined offers.
Mainly, players at the beginning or end of their careers joined. More than half of the nearly 300 Fed players had played in the American or National League.
“They validated the league a little bit,” Levitt said.
Seven eventually became enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Among them was Wilkinsburg native Bill McKechnie, namesake of the Pirates' spring-training stadium in Bradenton, Fla., who made his managerial debut in the Federal League. He later managed the 1925 World Series champion Pirates.
Owners of the three leagues in December 1915 reached a “peace agreement,” largely negotiated by National League President John Tener, an Irish-born, Western Pennsylvania-raised former pro player who had just finished a four-year term as Pennsylvania's governor.
Organized baseball bought out the Federal League, its owners splitting roughly $600,000 and the rights to buy two major league teams. The Rebels received $50,000 and sold Knetzer's contract to the Boston Braves.
He pitched for the Braves and Cincinnati Reds through 1917, when his major league career ended with a combined record of 69-69. He continued to play for minor and semi-pro teams until he was almost 50, last pitching in 1934 for the Springfield Pirates of the Middle Atlantic League, according to his 1975 Sporting News obituary.
“The stats say he was an average pitcher, but this is really part of baseball history. This is when Major League Baseball was taking shape,” said Joe Knetzer, who played college and semi-pro baseball. “The passion he had and what these guys had to go through just to play ball, it's kind of a cool legacy for our family to have.”
Jason Cato is a Trib Total Media staff writer.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Leetsdale council accepts resignation of police chief
- Broken water main causes sinkhole that swallows truck in Overbrook
- Pittsburgh police seek dark blue BMW that hit cyclist in East Liberty
- New interim director to take over VA regional office in Pittsburgh
- Pittsburgh airport improvements noted as CEO tries to expand activity
- Dormont Council approves fire inspection program
- Developers share their vision for Garden Theater block on North Side
- 1 injured in backhoe accident in Polish Hill
- Roman Catholic Church in midst of culture clash over gays
- Volunteer tutors boost adult literacy in Allegheny County
- School credit ratings a problem for several in Western Pennsylvania