Pittsburgh, PA

In 1915, Pittsburgh’s Federal Leaguers Needed Extras To Defeat A Semipro Squad

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Today, we travel back to relive a 1915 Federal League exhibition game.Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

By Bill Pearch

With his team tied atop the Federal League standings, Pittsburgh Rebels player-manager Ennis Telfair “Rebel” Oakes faced a dilemma. After enduring a 10-5 loss to the Chicago Whales at Weeghman Park on Sunday, June 6, 1915, Oakes’ team had a week-long hiatus dubbed as “an odd turn of the schedule” by the Kansas City Star. Oakes pondered a strategy to keep his players sharp while they remained idle from regulation play. He arranged a series of exhibition games against teams of disparate talent along the Rebels’ route to Handlan’s Park and their next official game on the road against the St. Louis Terriers.

On Monday, June 7, the Rebels were knee-deep in the 1915 Federal League pennant race, tied with the Kansas City Packers. They were also in ankle-deep mud squaring off against the F.L. Smiths, a semiprofessional outfit from Dwight, Illinois.

Known primarily for the Keeley Institute’s unorthodox treatment of alcoholism, Dwight was the home of a baseball team owned and sponsored by Col. Frank L. Smith. Smith’s legacy is complicated. He served one term as a congressman and was chairman of the Illinois Commerce Commission. Following his election as an Illinois senator, Smith never assumed the role due to evidence of campaign fraud and corruption. At the time, he was a local banker with aspirations of earning the Republican nomination for Illinois’ 1916 gubernatorial election. As a devoted baseball fan, Col. Smith had a knack for attracting professional teams to his hometown’s West Side Park. Located approximately 60 miles southwest of Chicago, Dwight fell firmly within Oakes’ sights.

That afternoon, despite a fifty-cent price of admission, the biting wind and soggy conditions limited the crowd to a spattering of enthusiastic rooters. In its issue the following morning, the Pittsburgh Post noted that “the field was three inches deep with mud” which perhaps motivated Oakes to rest most of his regulars. Facing a squad of semipros, he assigned pitching duties to Charles Bunn “Bunny” Hearn. Hearn, a 24-year-old lefthander who bounced around various professional ranks since 1910, would oppose a 27-year-old righthander determined to sign another pro contract. Eddie Higgins, a Dwight native who enjoyed a fleeting stint with Roger Bresnahan’s St. Louis Cardinals in 1909 and 1910, handled mound duties for the locals.

Higgins demonstrated flashes of his days dominating the Three-I League as a rookie starting pitcher with the 1908 Bloomington (Illinois) Bloomers, but shoddy defense—ten errors—proved problematic. He blanked the Rebels until Steve Yerkes, starting second baseman and Rebels regular, crossed the plate courtesy of two singles and an error in the third inning.

Hearn’s last Federal League action came in a seven-inning losing effort against the Brooklyn Tip-Tops on May 26. Was he hamstrung by the adverse conditions? Maybe he underestimated his opponents as he surrendered five early runs with two in the first and three in the second. After composing himself, Hearn allowed an additional run in the bottom of the fourth inning.

Despite a five-run deficit, Oakes refused to make substitutions and jeopardize his regulars. Yerkes whittled away at the semipro’s lead and clubbed a two-run home run off of Higgins in the fifth inning. The F.L. Smiths maintained a 6-3 advantage while both teams hung zeroes on the scoreboard during the sixth and seventh innings. Third-string catcher Orie Kerlin, who debuted with the Rebels one day earlier against the Whales, singled off of Higgins. When third baseman Jimmie Savage stepped to the plate, he singled and plated Kerlin to make the score 6-4.

Three outs away from an improbable defeat, left fielder Cy Rheam singled to open the ninth inning. First baseman Hugh Bradley knotted the score at 6-6 when he hammered a Higgins fastball for a mammoth home run over the left-center field wall. The Rebels held the F.L. Smiths scoreless in the bottom of the ninth to force extra innings, and neither team plated a run in the 10th.

With two outs in the top of the 11th inning, Lewis reached first due to an errant throw. He proceeded to steal second base, then advanced to third on an O’Connor single. With Kerlin at the plate, Lewis and O’Connor attempted a double steal. Higgins tried to nail O’Connor at second base. Knight, Dwight’s shortstop, fired the ball home to nail the lead runner but his throw was low and skipped off of home plate and landed in the crowd. Both baserunners scored giving Pittsburgh its first lead of the game. Hearn sealed the F.L. Smiths’ fate in the bottom of the 11th inning to win, 8-6.

Although he benched a majority of his star performers, Oakes awoke to criticism from his home media. On June 8, the Pittsburgh Press chastised the manager’s plan noting that “the chances were too great to be taken with a club fighting for first place” in suboptimal playing conditions and the slightest mishap “might put one player out of the game for the remainder of the season.” Armed with that knowledge, Oakes’ team packed up and headed to Morris and Springfield, Illinois to close out the week.

Bill Pearch, a lifelong Chicago Cubs fan, serves as newsletter editor for SABR’s Emil Rothe Chapter (Chicago). He has contributed to SABR’s publications about old Comiskey Park, the 1995 Atlanta Braves, and is currently writing the biography of William Riddle “Doc” Marshall. Follow him on Twitter: @billpearch.

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