I walked into the Cubs Store in Wrigley Field, and made an unusual request.
“Do you have a Chicago Whales cap?” I asked the clerk.
“We had a shirt years ago, but it was a one-time-only thing,” he replied. “It was a ‘C’ with a whale inside.”
Across Addison Street, at Sports World, there was just one Whales cap for sale, among the hundreds of Cubs designs.
The Chicago Whales only existed for three years, as part of the Federal League, a renegade baseball outfit that challenged the American and National leagues from 1913 to 1915, before abruptly going broke. The team is barely a footnote in baseball history, but it played an important role in Chicago history, because it brought the game to the North Side, which is why tens of thousands of Big Ten graduates live there today. The Whales were the first team to play baseball at the corner of Clark and Addison, and the first to win a championship there, in 1915 — 101 years before the Cubs did it. Yet I could find nothing commemorating them at Wrigley Field.
Charles Weeghman, the team’s owner, was a wealthy restaurateur who paid $26,000 to buy a controlling share of a Federal League franchise. He would end up spending a lot more money on his baseball fantasy. Weeghman’s new team didn’t have a ballpark. They played their first season on a borrowed field at DePaul University. So Weeghman decided to build one. The White Sox had just moved into the new Comiskey Park, on the South Side. The Cubs played in West Side Park, at Taylor and Wood streets. The North Side seemed like the place to go.
“They wanted to be far enough away from the White Sox and Cubs to build their own identity and not suffer in comparison to the existing parks,” wrote Stuart Shea in Wrigley Field: The Long Life & Contentious Times of the Friendly Confines. “In addition it made plenty of sense to claim this expanding part of the city…In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the power of the city lay on the South Side, and some North Siders felt like second-class citizens.”
Weeghman would help turn that relationship around. He wasn’t the first baseball man with the idea of playing on the North Side. In 1909, the owners of two franchises in the minor-league American Association bought a lot in Lake View, with hopes of putting a team there. The Cubs and Sox quashed that plan. But the Federal League didn’t care what the Cubs and Sox thought. Weeghman leased the land for $16,000 a year, and immediately began throwing up a stadium, which he christened Weeghman Park. It was designed by Zachary Davis, who had recently completed work on Comiskey Park. Weeghman broke ground on March 4. By April 23, the grandstand, the bleachers and the pavilion were ready for the Opening Day game against the Kansas City Packers, which drew 21,000 fans. (More than the Cubs drew on Wednesday night, I can assure you.)
“Chicago took the Federal league to its bosom yesterday and claimed it as a mother would claim a lost child,” reported Sam Weller in the Tribune. “With more frills and enthusiasm than ever prevailed at a baseball opening here Joe Tinker and his Chifeds made their debut before a throng of fans that filled the new north side park to capacity.”
That was the same Joe Tinker who had ruthlessly pricked our gonfalon bubble, along with Johnny Evers and Frank Chance. The Federals were competing with the AL and NL for talent, driving up salaries in all three leagues. The Cubs had traded Tinker to the Cincinnati Reds, but Weeghman knew how popular he was in Chicago, and lured him back with a $12,000 salary to play shortstop and manage the team. (That’s $346,000 in today’s money, in case you think ballplayers worked cheap then.)
At first, Weeghman’s team didn’t have a nickname. Sportswriters referred to them as the “Chifeds,” the Federals, or sometimes the Buns — a reference to Weeghman’s restaurant business. Chicago Buns is an embarrassing name for a major-league baseball team — even a team in a minor major league. So before the next season, Weeghman held a contest. The winning entry was submitted by D.J. Eichoff, 1451 W. Hood St. His rationale for the name:
- The most commercially valuable whales are found in the frozen north, meaning that the North Side should have the best team.
- Whales lash and drub their opponents.
- Anything marked a “whaler” is large and extraordinary.
There are no whales in Lake Michigan, but neither are there bear cubs in Illinois. It’s the image that counts.
For the 1915 season, Weeghman signed an even bigger star than Tinker: Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown, the greatest Cubs pitcher ever, hero of the 1908 World Series. Brown was 38 years old, but he went 17-8, and the Whales won the Federal League pennant by one percentage point over the St. Louis Terriers. Weeghman tried to arrange a playoff with the World Series winner, but the established leagues weren’t interested. Ring Lardner, the Tribune’s “In the Wake of the News” columnist, mocked the team’s empty title:
The Whales have copped the Federal flag
As experts knew they’d do
And now that they have copped the rag
Whom can they sell it to?
That was the last season for the Whales, and the Federal League. Most of the owners were losing so much money that they accepted a $600,000 payoff from the AL and the NL to go out of business and go away. Weeghman, though, negotiated a deal to buy the Cubs for $500,000. He moved his new possession out of tumbledown West Side Park and into Weeghman Park, beginning its history at Clark and Addison. When Juicy Fruit inventor William Wrigley Jr. gained control of the Cubs, he renamed the park after himself and his company — baseball’s first example of corporate naming.
The Cubs wore Chicago Federals uniforms in 2014, for the 100th anniversary of Weeghman Park’s opening, and gave away jerseys to fans. Today, the only place to buy those is from Ebbets Field Flannels, which reproduces vintage baseball jerseys. The company sells the 1914 Federals jersey, and the 1915 Whales jersey. That’s all we have to remember a baseball team that changed Chicago.