Long-forgotten KC Packers will take center stage at Wrigley Field for centennial

No need to adjust the television during Wednesday’s Cubs-Diamondbacks game.

Sure, the players will look a tad different — the Cubs will wear uniforms of the Chicago Whales, the team that played the first game at what is now known as Wrigley Field, while the Arizona Diamondbacks will be dressed as the Kansas City Packers, who helped christen the ballpark on April 23, 1914.

What you won’t see is a re-creation of how the first pitcher was removed from that game a century ago. It was likely a first for baseball and one that hasn’t been repeated since.

Kansas City’s George H. Johnson was pulled not because of poor performance. Or fatigue. Or for a pinch hitter.

No, the KC pitcher was served an injunction on the field by deputy sheriffs and legally couldn’t pitch after the second inning.

Formed in 1913 as a six-team minor-league baseball organization, the Federal League was in existence for just three seasons.

But it left quite an impression on baseball, particularly in Kansas City.

In June of that year, the team in Covington, Ky., moved to KC. By year’s end, new president James Gilmore added two teams and declared the circuit a third major league that would challenge the American and National leagues for top players.

Offers were made to — and subsequently rejected by — stars such as Ty Cobb and Walter Johnson. However, the Chicago Whales hired Joe Tinker — of Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance fame — as their player/manager.

The Packers, in turn, hired George Stovall as their first baseman/manager. Stovall, who was born in Leeds, Mo. — now part of Kansas City — left St. Louis for the job after a two-year stint with the Browns, who’d had enough of him after he spat tobacco juice on an umpire.

Rough edges aside, Stovall’s 10 years as a major-league player made him quite a catch here.

Packers president Charles Madison told The Kansas City Times on Dec. 30, 1913: “There are some people who don’t believe we will get players from the big leagues for Kansas City, but these men will be shown next April.”

How fired up was Kansas City for professional baseball?

There was this nugget from The Times: “Gordon and Koppel Field will be remodeled next spring. Extra stands may be built on the field and the grounds will be rolled. The big hole near the east side of the fence also will be filled in.”

New Packers player/manager George Stovall was proud of his Missouri heritage, particularly growing up on a farm.

He told The Baseball Magazine in 1911: “I worked long hours and the only amusement I had was to play baseball on Saturday afternoon and Sunday. I used to slip into town (Kansas City) on those days and play with the other kids.”

A biography of Stovall noted that he once played for a team called the Leeds Train Robbers. Legend had it that teammates included descendants of Jesse James.

As part of the new outlaw Federal League, Stovall had no problem stealing from the established major leagues.

“He went to Kansas City and one of the things these teams looked for in a manager was the ability to grab players off of major-league teams,” said Daniel Levitt, author of “The Battle That Forged Modern Baseball: The Federal League Challenge and Its Legacy.”

“He told Kansas City that there were a number of players who were dissatisfied in St. Louis and would sign with Kansas City. In fact, he thought at one point he lined up six players, but organized baseball stole back all six.”

Stovall was so brazen that he spent two days in March at the Browns’ spring training camp in Florida, Levitt said, flashing rolls of cash and calling to his former teammates.

To the chagrin of the Federal League owners, players willingly received contract offers to switch allegiances, but teams in the established major leagues usually matched or exceeded those figures. Few jumped ship.

Those who did sometimes didn’t stay for long. Pitcher Earl Hamilton, who had signed a three-year, $21,000 contract with a $5,000 cash bonus, was one of the Packers’ big signings. But he got cold feet. On the eve of the season opener, Hamilton took the train to Oswego, Kan., under the pretense of visiting family.

Instead, Hamilton met there with the Browns owner and agreed to return to St. Louis.

“I can go out and get these ball players, but I can’t chain ’em down,” Stovall told the Kansas City Times.

The defections didn’t stop Kansas City from enthusiastically embracing the Packers on opening day, April 16, 1914.

The Kansas City Times reported that the Packers’ first game was preceded by the “customary motor car parade, in which rival athletes displayed themselves in their new scenery.”

The convoy started at City Hall and ended at Gordon and Koppel Field, located at what is now the southeast corner of 47th and Tracy streets. Dignitaries included Kansas City mayor Henry Jost, Kansas City, Kan., mayor C.W. Green and Gilmore, the Federal League president.

“Preceding the game, the players of the two clubs marched across the field behind a marching band while the moving picture man shot them from all angles,” The Times reported. “Mayor Jost mounted the dome to peg the first pill. Mayor Green spurned the catcher’s glove, figuring possibly that Mayor Jost didn’t have speed enough to worry him. President Gilmore played the umpire in this little skit with Joe Tinker, a regular Thespian, edging in as close as possible.

“Mayor Jost’s first two pitches were reckless, but his third attempt, with nothing on it, in the parlance of the athlete, split the plate. At that, Mayor Green spilled the catch and the omnipresent Tinker caught the ball before it hit the ground.”

Chicago won 3-2 before a crowd of 7,977, and the Packers finished their first home stand with a 3-4 record before heading to Chicago for the inaugural game at the Whales’ new stadium, which was named for their owner Charles Weeghman.

According to the Cubs’ website, Weeghman Park — which only later would become known as Wrigley Field — cost an estimated $250,000 to build and was constructed on grounds once home to a seminary.

Wrigley’s familiar ivy, bleachers and stadium weren’t added until 1937, but the stadium was in prime territory on Chicago’s north side. The Cubs, meanwhile, were playing farther south at what is now the University of Illinois-Chicago.

Before a pitch was thrown at the Whales’ home opener, there was plenty of action. Lawyers from the Cincinnati Reds gained a temporary injunction in Cook County Superior Court to prevent Johnson, the Packers’ pitcher, from playing for KC because he had already started a game that season for the Reds. The judge complied (although his order would be overturned four months later).

Johnson, who was of the Winnebago Tribe in Nebraska and had spent a brief time at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, had the misfortune of being identified almost solely by his Native American ancestry. That was evident from this account from the first game at what is now Wrigley Field.

“Aside from the regular characters in the game, an undersheriff played one of the supporting roles,” The Times noted. “Said undersheriff stole up to the bench, at the end of the second inning, and presented Big Indian Johnson with an injunction which said he couldn’t play any more baseball in Chicago unless he switched back to a Cincinnati uniform. So George retired and gave Dwight Stone the affair, with the Packers a trio of scores in arrears. ”

In another bit of Kansas City trivia, the first winning pitcher at the grounds known now as Wrigley Field was Chicago’s Claude Hendrix of Stilwell.

“While the injunction serving was going on,” The Times wrote, “C. Hendrix, smiling taxpayer of Stilwell, Kas., was wielding that horsehide with nice effect.”

Chicago won that game 9-1 and the Packers never got going, failing to reach .500 all season. They were in sixth place, 11 1/2 games out of first, after beating the St. Louis Terriers at home on Sept. 6.

Although there were 26 games to play in the season, it would be the Packers’ last home game of the year.

The two-year tenure of the Kansas City Packers was marred by rain. While 1915 would be worse, the first weekend in September 1914 saw torrential flooding hit Kansas City, and Gordon and Koppel Field took a direct hit after the win over the Terriers.

“Yesterday’s trouble was all due to the fact that Brush Creek got all chesty and tried to impersonate the Mississippi River,” wrote the Kansas City Times. “It succeeded to the extent that the right field fence paid a visit to the grandstand and half of the regalia belong to the Pax and the Terriers took various water excursions to parts unknown.

“Late last night it was reported that some happy youth had fished Bill Kenworthy’s home run bat out of the creek and a stray hen had made a nest in (catcher) Ted Easterly’s pet mask. But the Terriers were the heavy losers. Half of their uniforms were swept along by the rampant waters and nearly all of their gloves. The big bat bag which holds all the hitting sticks owned by visiting players was found floating peacefully about two blocks from the park and towed back. The Packs did not lose more than one or two uniforms. The traveling uniforms were not disturbed by the flood. Some few gloves, bats and shoes drifted downstream to catch on some forlorn fisherman’s hook, and the clubhouse had a foot of good old Missouri mud in it, but that was the extent of the damage.”

The deluge forced the Packers to play their final 26 games of the 2014 season on the road, and they ended with a 67-84 record, 20 games out of first.

Things would only get worse.

The owners of the eight-team Federal League were a mixed bag. Some were very wealthy, such as Robert B. Ward, one of the biggest bread manufacturers in the country, and Wheegman, a Chicago restauranteur.

As Levitt noted in his book, which was released in paperback this month, Kansas City, Baltimore, Buffalo and Indianapolis were all owned by large numbers of stockholders

“On the positive side, the large ownership base gave these teams a true community foundation, and their presidents were politically well-connected, upper-middle-class businessmen and civic boosters,” Levitt wrote. “But none of these owners had the wherewithal for a drawn-out battle against Organized Baseball with all its financial and institutional resources.”

After the 1914 season, the Federal League turned to oil tycoon Henry Sinclair, who had grown up in Independence, Kan., and spent some time at the University of Kansas pharmacy school.

In February 1915, Sinclair was given the option to buy the Packers with the understanding that he would move the franchise to Newark, N.J.

But the Packers’ directors weren’t going quietly. They acknowledged owing the league money, but disputed the figure the league made public: $38,518.45. Officials hoped to raise $100,000 by making a public plea for more investors, saying people could give as little as $5.

Madison stepped down as president, but Charles A. Baird proved a suitable replacement. The first athletic director at the University of Michigan, Baird moved to Kansas City after his father-in-law passed away and left a nice inheritance to Baird and his wife.

“We are working to put Kansas City on the baseball map and afford good, clean, wholesome major league baseball for the diversion of Kansas Citians who have to spend the summer months in Kansas City,” team directors wrote in the Kansas City Times.

“Kansas City wants major league baseball as an advertisement for the city. It will bring people to the city and help the merchants. It will bring residents to the city and increase the value of real estate. Let us boost Kansas City. Kansas City has a major league Union Station; it has a major league park and boulevard system; it should have a major league baseball club.”

While raising funds, team officials sued the Federal League, arguing it had not been given proper notice of the league’s decision.

The courts interceeded, and Sinclair instead bought the Indianapolis franchise and moved it to Newark.

There has never been a pennant race like the Federal League’s in 1915. Despite continued efforts by Stovall, the Packers weren’t able to lure big stars from the established leagues.

Still, they were in the title hunt for most of the season.

At 64-50 on Aug. 21, the Packers held a half-game lead in the standings. But they stumbled down the stretch, going 17-22 and dropping out of the race.

One player did have a bit of good fortune: Bill Kenworthy inherited $1 million from an uncle in August. Kenworthy was already a popular player, and he was nicknamed “judge,” because he took part in an early version of baseball’s Kangaroo Court.

In their last-ever home game, the Packers beat Baltimore 3-2, scoring with two outs in the bottom of the ninth.

George Stovall wasn’t there at the end. He was ejected in the top of the seventh inning after a force-out at second base resulted in punches thrown. “The police stopped further trouble,” the Kansas City Times noted.

Although they’d been rendered unable to win the title, the Packers knew they’d still have an impact on the race as they headed to St. Louis for a season-ending four-game series.

“We’re not going to aid these birds in any pennant winning if we can help it,” Stovall said.

The Packers split a four-game series in St. Louis and Chicago won the league at 86-66 (.566), a percentage point ahead of St. Louis, 87-67, and a half-game in front of Pittsburgh, 86-67. The Packers were fourth at 81-72, 5 1/2 games back.

It seems odd that the teams didn’t play an equal number of games, but that was because of rainouts. And again, the weather wasn’t kind to Kansas City, which received 47.2 inches of precipitation in 1915, the third-most recorded at that time and still the 16th-most ever.

Nine Packers home games were rained out, and team officials lamented that lost revenue in late October when the league again threatened to take the Packers. The team admitted it lost $35,332.13 during the season.

This time, the owners waved the white flag ahead of the annual team meetings in Indianapolis.

On Nov. 9, The Times trumpeted on its cover that Kansas City was now the 15th-largest city in the United States. In the sports pages, however, one of the Packers’ controlling owners admitted the city would lose its major-league baseball team.

“I am not going to Indianapolis,” Conrad H. Mann said. “It would be useless. I probably would not be allowed to enter into the session. We owe the league $8,300 and are unable to pay it. Unless I take that amount with me the franchise probably will be forfeited as soon as the meeting starts, and in that case I would be excluded from the session at once.

“I’m sorry that we can’t go and tell them we have a million dollars. Be we haven’t the money. The directors feel that they have sacrificed enough and do not desire to call upon Kansas City to raise funds again.”

Soon after, the league announced the Packers would move to New York, where a team could seriously challenge the established major leagues. But the death of Brooklyn owner Robert Ward seriously weakened the Frontier League, which was already on thin ice.

Ward had moved forward with plans to install lights at his ballpark and would have played the first night games in baseball history. Instead, that would wait until 1935, and the Federal League never found another wealthy backer to replace Ward.

Kansas City wouldn’t have another major-league team until 1955, when the A’s moved here from Philadelphia.

What was the Packers’ legacy? Their best pitcher, Gene Packard, pitched four more seasons in the National League, but a few years after his death was accused in a 1960s book by Bill Veeck, Jr., of trying to fix the 1918 World Series (a year ahead of the infamous Black Sox scandal).

Hendrix, the Stilwell native who pitched for the Cubs, also was accused of helping fix a game in 1920, according to a biography by the Society for American Baseball Research.

And despite the amnesty, the abrasive Stovall never again played in the majors.

While peace returned to professional baseball, Kansas City’s name was mud.

“It certainly seemed like poetic justice when the Kansas City Federals went broke,” The Baseball Magazine wrote in 1916. “The Federal chiefs freely admitted that the methods followed, from the start, by the Kansas City Club had not only enraged and embittered the other leagues, but had aroused considerable resentment among the good sportsmen of their own circuit, so that they Kawfeds stood, in their own crowd, like a man with a broken leg, and were practically outlaws both in Organized Ball and in the Federal councils!”