Seeing John Deere green on a field is a familiar sight, whether it’s a tractor in a cornfield or a mower on the baseball diamond. You don’t have to look very hard to find John Deere turf mowers, field rakes, and Gators™ caring for the world’s greatest ballparks. However, you might be surprised to know that in the history of baseball, the company’s connection to the sport doesn’t end with equipment.
It started with Charles Deere, John Deere’s son and second president of Deere & Company. Charles joined his father’s company in 1854 at the age of 16 as a new graduate of Bell’s Commercial College in Chicago. He began working as a bookkeeper for the company and put in long hours. One of Charles’ preoccupations away from school and work was baseball. Henry Ainsworth, a longtime business associate, remembered his first meeting with Charles was on the baseball field in the late 1850s when Deere’s team from Moline, Ill., travelled to nearby Geneseo, Ill., to play a game.
Early Factory Baseball Leagues
In the early 20th century, factory baseball leagues began to spring up across the country, and brought employees from different companies together socially and competitively. In the Tri-Cities (now the Quad Cities on the Iowa-Illinois border) the Factory Baseball League of 1914 included 12 teams, six of them representing Deere. The following year, Deere & Company won the league championship.
In 1919, Melvin Linden, who worked in the corporate offices, was the “prize hitter of the Deere & Company players” with a batting average of .417. In 1920, members of the Factory Baseball League included six teams, four of them representing John Deere. They included Harvester Works, Deere & Company, Marseilles Works, and John Deere Wagon Works.
Two other teams rounded out the league: the Velie Motor Company and the Moline-Universal Tractor Plant. The season opened May 1, and consisted of 15 games. In that year, John Deere’s grandson and director of Deere & Company, Willard Velie, Jr., presided as commissioner of the Factory Baseball League. John Deere’s Athletic Association represented the company teams. Players paid $1 in association fees for the year to participate in activities including bowling leagues and tennis.
Other John Deere factories also had teams that competed in their own factory leagues. The Waterloo Gasoline Engine Company, which Deere acquired in 1918, played in a local factory baseball league, and their competitive spirit sometimes resulted in trips to the Tri-Cities. This was the case when the Waterloo squad traveled to East Moline to compete against Marseilles Works.
If you were attending a company picnic during that time, chances are that between the sack races, tug-of-war, shot put, and 100-yard dash events, you found time to either watch or play in a pick-up baseball game. The Factory Baseball League was a small chapter in the history of baseball and eventually folded, but baseball and softball games are still enjoyed by employees at John Deere, with many of them playing in leagues throughout the summer.