Grave Story: Henry Killilea

Here lies Henry Killilea, one of the founders of the American League and the owner of the Milwaukee Brewers (1901) and Boston Red Sox (1902-4). He helped to organize the first ever World Series, though not without some pretty rough negotiations.

Killilea was born in Winneconne, Wis., about 100 miles north of Milwaukee. Killilea was an athlete in college, playing on the football team, pitching on the baseball team and participating in track and field events, but his future in professional sports would be strictly off the field. He graduated from Michigan University’s law school in 1885 and established a law practice in Milwaukee, Wis. under the name Wiel & Killilea. He married Louise Miendermann in 1888, and his reputation was already beginning to extend past law. He was known as a fine orator and, in a nod to his sporting background,was occasionally a college football umpire.

As the 1800s came to a close, Killilea became less known for his legal affairs and more known for his sporting ones. By 1894, Matt Killilea, his brother, had acquired the Milwaukee Brewers of the Western League, and Henry was an investor in the team. By 1899, the brothers had started conversations with other baseball magnates about a plan that would shake up the baseball world. They would make the Western League a major league, one that could stand equal to the National League without quickly faltering.

There have been competitors to the National League. The Union Association and Player’s League each lasted a year, and the American Association hung on for a decade, though it was never considered the equal to the NL. The behind-the-scenes work involved pretty powerful baseball people. By February 1899, it was reported that Matt Killilea had visited Ban Johnson in Chicago, though the Brewers owner denied it.

“It must have been Loftus in Chicago, and for a joke he palmed himself off on some new reporter to me,” he said, possibly referring to big-league manager Tom Loftus. Eventually, it was understood that Henry Killilea was the one in Chicago that day.

Source: The Courier-Journal, January 25, 1929

The Western League changed to the American League prior to the 1900 season and announced plans to place a franchise in Chicago. That franchise, owned by Charles Comiskey, was the Chicago White Stockings, and they finished first in the AL in 1900, followed by the Killilea’s Brewers. The Killileas, Johnson, Comiskey and Milwaukee manager Connie Mack made for a powerful alliance, and they rejected a notion by NL President John Brush that the AL serve as one of two 8-team minor leagues, subservient to the NL.

“I cannot see where the national agreement ever benefited the Milwaukee Baseball club in any way; or, in fact, has benefited the American (Western) league,” Matt Killilea scoffed. “The National league clubs swooped down on our clubs whenever they pleased and took what players they wanted.”

The American League, in a sense, won. They were recognized as a major league for the 1901 season and debuted as a part of what would be known eventually as Major League Baseball. The two leagues aren’t really thought of as separate entities anymore, especially with the consolidation of power in the commissioner’s office that took place in the 1990s. But they were truly separate leagues with no love lost between them. The designated hitter rule is about the only remaining relic of the time when the NL and AL were governed separately.

There would be some casualties along the way. The Milwaukee Brewers scuffled to a 48-89 record in 1901. Led by player-manager Hugh Duffy, the team finished last in the standings and seventh in attendance, with just 139,034 spectators. That December, the Killileas sold their interest in the club to investors in St. Louis, who moved them and turned them into the St. Louis Browns. Henry Killilea decided not to remain in ownership if the franchise wouldn’t remain in Milwaukee.

Matt Killilea was in poor health and would die soon after relinquishing the Brewers, but Henry was just getting started. In January 1902, it was announced that he had acquired all but one share of the AL’s Boston Americans. He had come to the financial aid of former owner Charley Sommers the year before and later paid about $45,000 for 5/9 of the stock. He also bought the remaining 4/9 from Sommers, leaving him with one $10 share so he could maintain the role of president. It seems that Killilea’s acquisition was done without the knowledge of AL President Ban Johnson, so maybe there was some bad blood between the two men after Johnson pushed for the Brewers to move to St. Louis.

The Red Sox were managed by Jimmy Collins, who also played third base. He guided the team to a third-place finish in 1902 and then a first-place finish in 1903. Donald Hubbard wrote in his book The Red Sox Before the Babe: Boston’s Early Days in the American League, 1901–1914 that Killilea and Collins got along well, and Killilea gave him the budget to buy a championship-caliber team.

With two leagues operating more or less in peace, the end of the season gave way to other interesting possibilities. As in, a World’s Series between the Americans and the NL champ Pittsburgh Pirates. Killilea and Pirates owner Barney Dreyfuss began going over the details in September; the only question was whether or not Killilea could entice his players to play. This would amount to the first official MLB postseason — the exhibition games between the NL and the AA notwithstanding — so this was all new territory for everyone.

Killilea offered to give the players one-half of Boston’s share of the gross receipts of the entire series. The players, through Collins, countered by asking for all of Boston’s share, with ownership left to pay expenses. The owner in turn stuck to his original offer and threatened to cancel the Series if the players declined. When they didn’t respond in time, Killilea did just that, announcing the cancellation of the Series on September 25. And you thought the talks between the commissioner and player’s union today were strained. Two days later, the Americans backed down and agreed to play Pittsburgh. They decided that half of something was better than all of nothing, and the Series went on as planned.

The Series lasted 8 games and was won by Boston, 5 games to 3. Boston as a team batted only .246, but the pitching of Cy Young (2-1, 1.85ERA) and Bill Dinneen (3-1, 2.06) led the way.

Not long after the Series ended, a couple of separate rumors popped up. One stated that Killilea was tiring of baseball and was in negotiations to sell the Americans to a local investor. A second one stated that a group from Milwaukee was looking to acquire the Detroit Tigers and move them to Wisconsin. The timing seems very coincidental. Could it be that Killilea was looking to sell off the Americans in order to get a baseball team back to his Milwaukee home?

The Tigers never moved, of course, but the rumor about the Americans proved true. On Opening Day, Killilea watched Boston’s Jesse Tannehill shut out the Senators, 5-0. He then sold the team to John I. Taylor, 29, the son of Boston Globe editor Gen. Charles Taylor. The price was believed to be slightly less than $135,000. It was actually the second deal to buy the team, but Killilea’s agreement to sell to John F. Fitzgerald was quashed by Ban Johnson. Unfortunately for the Fitzgerald family, they never did get the chance to become baseball moguls. They did pretty well in politics, though.

Killilea stayed behind the scenes as an advisor to Johnson and handled some legal matters for the AL. He became the solicitor general for the Milwaukee Railroad in 1907, a role he maintained for the rest of his life. He made his final foray into baseball in January 1928 when he purchased the Milwaukee Brewers, of the American Association, from Ruby Borchert, widow of former owner Otto Borchert. Killilea would hold onto the Brewers for just a short time, which was a sad trend in his family.

Henry Killilea was hospitalized on January 7, 1929. While still in the hospital, he suffered a heart attack and paralysis. He died a week later, on January 23, at the age of 65. He is buried in Calvary Cemetery in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, not too far from Miller Park.

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