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Federal League baseball pitcher Knetzer made history on the mound

Rise and fall

The top headline in The Pittsburgh Press on Opening Day 1914 exclaimed: “Crown Baseball King Today.”

The front page carried stories on two hometown teams — the Pirates and the Pittsburgh Feds.

“A lot of people were interested in the Federal League, especially that first year,” said baseball historian and author Dan Levitt of Minneapolis.

Pittsburgh fired H.H. “Doc” Gessler of Greensburg after a 3-8 start. Outfielder Ernest “Rebel” Oakes took over, and the team adopted his nickname.

The Rebels ended 1914 with a record of 64-86, finishing seventh in the eight-team league. Pitcher Elmer Knetzer, however, went 20-12 — his career best.

The 1915 Rebels reversed their fortunes and played for the championship in a double-header with Chicago on the season's final day.

Knetzer pitched the final three innings and scored the winning run in Game 1 before starting Game 2, which turned out to be the Federal League's last.

With a man on third in the sixth, two outs and two balls, two strikes, a batter drove Knetzer's pitch deep. The ball bounced off Oakes' glove and into the stands for a run-scoring double. Another double made it 2-0, and then a Texas League single 3-0.

The Rebels lost.

The final standings: Chicago — 86-66, .566; St. Louis — 87-67, .565; Pittsburgh — 86-67, .562

“It was the closest finish in the history of baseball, in terms of percentage points,” said Levitt.

Sunday, April 13, 2014, 10:40 p.m.

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.



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