SABR

Frank "Shag" Shaughnessy

This article was written by Charlie Bevis.

Frank Shaughnessy was an outfielder who played nine major-league games in 1905 and 1908, compiling a .281 batting average in 32 at-bats. After more than a quarter-century in the minor leagues as a field manager and then business manager for several clubs, Shaughnessy was elected president of the International League in 1936. He served in the post for 24 years until his retirement in 1960.

Shaughnessy was an unconventional thinker who often proposed novel changes to baseball. His most famous idea was a system of postseason playoffs that was implemented in minor-league baseball in 1933, dubbed the Shaughnessy Plan. This system revolutionized how leagues determined their champions, and led to a radical change in how owners, players, and fans viewed success in professional sports. Abandoned in the Shaughnessy Plan was baseball’s longstanding sacrosanct philosophy that a first-place finish or having the best won-loss record was an absolute requirement to achieve success. Instead, surviving a short series of playoff games was deemed to be the pinnacle of success.

Francis Joseph “Shag” Shaughnessy was born on April 8, 1883, in Amboy, Illinois, the youngest of the five children of Irish immigrants Patrick and Nora Shaughnessy.1 He attended school in Amboy, played high-school football, and played baseball for the local town team. He attended the University of Notre Dame, where he played baseball and football from 1901 to 1904 while he earned two degrees, one in pharmacy and the other in law. In 1904 Shaughnessy was captain of the football team and established a still-standing (as of 2012) Notre Dame record for the longest fumble return, with a 107-yard return against Kansas (the field was then 110 yards long).2

Shaughnessy’s unconventional thinking began in college, during the summer breaks, when he played minor-league baseball rather than in the summer-resort leagues where college players normally played. However, he did not report his summer earnings from professional baseball to the Notre Dame authorities; this would have ended his amateur status and made him ineligible to play college sports. In 1903 he played for Sioux City in the Class D Iowa-South Dakota League. In 1904 he played under the name of Shannon for the Cairo, Illinois, team in the Class D Kitty League.3 When he signed a major-league contract in December 1904 to play for the Washington Senators of the American League, Shaughnessy ended his college athletic eligibility, although he continued to attend classes to complete his law degree.

Shaughnessy’s stint with the Washington Senators was very brief; he appeared in just one game, on April 17, 1905, when he went 0-for-3. Washington then farmed him to Montgomery of the Class A Southern Association, where he played in only seven games before he was released. Shaughnessy returned to the North, where he played for the Montpelier-Barre team in Vermont’s independent Northern League.4 There he began a preference for outlaw leagues that were not part of Organized Baseball rather than the conventional minor leagues.

Two aspects of Shaughnessy’s brief experience with Washington had a significant impact on the future course of his life, though. First, during Washington’s spring training at Charlottesville, Virginia, he met football coach Bob Williams, who set him up with his first football coaching job, at Welsh Neck Academy in South Carolina, during the fall of 1905.5 Shaughnessy would spend several years in the South as a football coach. Williams also helped Shaughnessy eventually secure his first managerial position in minor-league baseball, in Williams’s hometown of Roanoke, Virginia. Second, while playing baseball in Vermont, Shaughnessy attended a church function in Ogdensburg, New York, where he met Katherine “Kitty” Quinn, the daughter of an Ottawa, Canada, hotelier, who was attending a Catholic school in Ogdensburg.6 Kitty Quinn was the future Mrs. Frank Shaughnessy.

After returning to South Bend, Indiana, in 1906 to finish his law degree at Notre Dame, Shaughnessy played a few games for the South Bend team in the Class B Central League. He then headed back to the independent Northern League for the summer of 1906 to play for an expansion Ottawa team. His romance with Kitty Quinn blossomed. Shaughnessy went to the West Coast for the summer of 1907, playing for the San Francisco team in the Class A Pacific Coast League, before returning to the South in the fall to coach football at Clemson College (where he followed in the footsteps of Bob Williams).

For the spring of 1908, Shaughnessy played in the outlaw Union League, which consisted of franchises in Washington, Philadelphia, Brooklyn, and several smaller cities in Pennsylvania. He was a standout outfielder on the Washington team, but the shakily financed league disbanded in early June.7 Connie Mack, the manager of the Philadelphia Athletics, signed Shaughnessy. Shaughnessy played in eight games and batted a respectable .310, but injured his arm and Mack sent him to Reading in the Class B Tri-State League.8 At the age of 25, Shaughnessy found his career as a major-league ballplayer was over.

Shaughnessy married Kitty Quinn in October 1908. They raised a family that would eventually number nine children. With a wife and family to support, Shaughnessy moved up from being merely a ballplayer into management. In the spring of 1909 he and Kitty moved to Roanoke, Virginia, where the 26-year-old Shaughnessy used his connections with Bob Williams to secure his first job as a player-manager, with Roanoke in the Class C Virginia League. Shaughnessy led Roanoke to the pennant in 1909. During the offseason in Roanoke, he opened a law practice (he had found time to pass the Virginia bar exam), operated a cigar store, invested in an automobile agency, and coached the freshman football team at nearby Washington & Lee College to produce a sufficient income to support his growing family. After three years in Roanoke, a homesick Kitty Shaughnessy and her two children returned to live in her hometown of Ottawa, while during the summer of 1912 her husband was player-manager of the Fort Wayne, Indiana, team in the Class B Central League (where he led the team to the pennant) before settling in Canada himself.

In the fall of 1912 Shaughnessy went to Montreal to be the first paid football coach at McGill University. He introduced American football tactics like the lateral pass to Canadian football, which was more like rugby at the time. A wire service story published in various US newspapers in December 1912 advanced Shaughnessy’s proposal that “the ideal game could be produced by combining the Canadian and the American game.”9 He was later a staunch advocate of legalizing the forward pass in Canadian football.

Back in Ottawa in the winter of 1913, Shaughnessy became the business manager and de facto bench coach of the Ottawa Senators team in the National Hockey Association (forerunner to the NHL), which had a rich history of contending for the Stanley Cup championship. However, as Shaughnessy readily acknowledged at the time, “I didn’t know anything about the game and, in fact, hadn’t even seen hockey.”10 But the owners wanted Shaughnessy for his ability to manage men and organize a winning team. Unbeknownst to Shaughnessy, his Stanley Cup experience in ice hockey would be the key ingredient to his future legacy in baseball.

Shaughnessy’s Ottawa team contended for the Stanley Cup championship in the winter of 1915. This was the first year in which the traditional challenge-match format for the Stanley Cup – the team holding the Cup took on all challengers – wasn’t employed; instead the champions of the two recognized professional leagues automatically battled for the Cup. The Vancouver Millionaires of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association won the Stanley Cup that year, sweeping Ottawa in three games.

In a 1960 review of Shaughnessy’s career, sportswriter Joe King characterized the hard-working Shaughnessy as a “man of all trades,” based on his managerial exploits in three sports—baseball, football, and hockey—while also conducting other business on the side. “I worked hard because I liked it,” Shaughnessy told King, “and if I needed a better reason, I had a big family and had something of a grocery bill every week.”11

As both player-manager and business manager of the Ottawa Senators baseball team in the Class B Canadian League, Shaughnessy experienced tremendous success on the field, winning three consecutive pennants from 1913 to 1915, as well as turning a profit for ownership. After the Canadian League disbanded following the 1915 season, Shaughnessy managed the Warren, Pennsylvania, team in the Class D Interstate League in 1916. During the World War he was an artillery captain in the Canadian Army. After the war, he managed the Hamilton, Ontario, team in the Class B Michigan-Ontario League in the 1919 and 1920 seasons.

In 1921 Shaughnessy moved his family to Montreal, where he attempted to settle down as a family man and entered the insurance business, while still coaching the football and ice hockey teams at McGill University. Midway through the 1921 baseball season, though, he was hired to manage the Syracuse Stars in the International League. Even with a working agreement with the St. Louis Cardinals, where Branch Rickey was managing and working to create a farm system, Shaughnessy had only mediocre finishes in the league standings. In 1925 he resigned to briefly join Rickey as a coach for the Cardinals.12 However, after Rickey was bumped into the front office to act as business manager so that Rogers Hornsby could be field manager, Shaughnessy returned to the International League to manage the Providence team for the rest of the 1925 season.

After a few years scouting for the Detroit Tigers, Shaughnessy left baseball in 1928 (as well as his coaching duties at McGill) to work as a stockbroker in Montreal. During the snowy evenings in Montreal, he no doubt watched a number of hockey games played by the Montreal Canadiens of the National Hockey League, who were the Stanley Cup champions in 1930 and 1931. The NHL was now the only pro hockey league, so the Stanley Cup format was very different from the version that had been used in 1915 when Shaughnessy’s Ottawa team had contended for the Cup (and was radically different from today’s format). In the early 1930s the eight-team NHL used two divisions of four teams each and had six of its eight teams qualify for a five-stage playoff process to determine the Stanley Cup champion. The philosophy, a vestige of the Cup’s historical challenge-match format, was to determine the best first-place club among the two divisions to play the best of the second-place and third-place clubs.

The onset of the Great Depression during the 1930s challenged the economic viability of the minor leagues, whose financial fortunes were directly tied to ballpark attendance. While many clubs installed lights to play night baseball during the week and played doubleheaders on most Sundays, attendance still dropped precipitously and many minor leagues went out of business. Since the Depression also hurt the stock brokerage business, Shaughnessy left his stockbroker job in 1932 and returned to baseball as the business manager of the Montreal Royals in the International League to try to reverse the financial fortunes of that bankrupt ballclub.

After Newark was a runaway winner of the 1932 pennant in the International League, the league rethought the viability of the conventional winner-take-all approach to the pennant that was conducted over the course of the regular season. “Most of the teams in the league were losing money,” Shaughnessy recalled in October 1933. “One of the clubs was way out front and the fans were losing interest. We had to find some way to make it worthwhile for the players to hustle, and to keep the fans interested.”13

The unconventional Shaughnessy hatched an idea to maintain the integrity of the regular season but still encourage spectators to come to the ballpark after the Fourth of July holiday. It became known as the Shaughnessy Plan; but contrary to baseball legend, there was not simply one Shaughnessy Plan but rather three incarnations, which were dubbed versions 1.0, 2.0, and 3.0 in a 2011 article “How the Shaughnessy Plan Redefined Success in Sports.”14 Version 3.0 is what we now recognize as the standard playoff format in sports: The team with the best won-loss record squares off against the playoff-eligible team with the worst record, with the other teams matched up accordingly. However, there were two earlier formats of the Shaughnessy Plan that were used before the third version became the standard playoff format.

Because he saw how successful the Stanley Cup format was in the NHL, Shaughnessy initially pitched an exact replica of the NHL approach to International League club owners in December 1932. However, they decided that six of eight teams qualifying for the playoffs was too radical, so they sent Shaughnessy back to the drawing board. In January 1933 he presented another proposal to the owners that contained three alternatives: (1) his earlier proposal, the replica of the NHL format, where in the words of one newspaper “the three leading teams in each division would get together in a sort of cockeyed round-robin series”; (2) a duplicate of the earlier-announced American Association plan, in which only the first-place clubs in each division met; and (3) “an elimination tournament between the first-division clubs [where] the first and fourth clubs would play while the second and third clubs were meeting, with the winners to play for the title.”15 The third alternative is, of course, version 3.0 of the Shaughnessy Plan, but it was decidedly Shaughnessy’s third choice in trying to persuade the International League to adopt a playoff system.

In his quest to institute change in the IL, Shaughnessy enlisted the help of Jack Zeller, an associate from his days with the Detroit Tigers, to persuade the Texas League to adopt a playoff system using the Shaughnessy Plan. Shaughnessy leaked the three-alternative proposal to Zeller, who represented the Beaumont club, to present at a Texas League meeting on January 7, just a few days before Shaughnessy was to meet again with International League owners. The Texas League agreed to use the Shaughnessy Plan concept during the 1933 season, opting for alternative number three, since the Texas League clubs were nowhere near any NHL franchise and had no reason to consider the Stanley Cup format.16 The third alternative in the three-alternative discussion document may have been planted precisely to offer the Texas League a viable structure to adopt at its January 7 meeting, to provide Shaughnessy with some momentum in that the plan was desired by another minor league. Ironically, though, the Texas League-adopted format shortly became the standard format for the Shaughnessy Plan, not Shaughnessy’s preferred concept.

On January 10, 1933, the International League owners agreed to implement Shaughnessy’s Stanley Cup-inspired format for the 1933 season, but with one modification: only four teams would qualify for the playoffs.17 The league split into two divisions, and the two first-place finishers as well as the two second-place finishers qualified for the playoffs. In this version 1.0 of the Shaughnessy Plan, the two first-place finishers played in one series while the two second-place finishers met in another series; the winners of those two series met in the playoff finals to determine the league champion. Bizarrely, one first-place finisher was immediately eliminated and one second-place club was guaranteed to advance to the final round.

However, after the International League’s experience with the Shaughnessy Plan in 1933, the scheme was nearly scuttled after just one year of existence. When Newark was eliminated in the first round, after finishing with the best record during the season, and Buffalo was crowned champion by winning the playoffs after finishing the regular season with a sub-.500 record, the Shaughnessy Plan was roundly criticized as a joke, since the worst team among the four teams in the playoffs was crowned champion. Buffalo, however, led the IL in attendance. Shaughnessy defended the system based on its beneficial financial impact. “The best defense of the play-offs … will be found in the receipts during the month of August and early September among the contending clubs,” he declared in October 1933. “The public is sold on the play-off idea even if some of the magnates suffered disappointment,” in that a so-called “inferior” team won the championship.18

For his playoff scheme to continue in 1934, Shaughnessy had to appease the league owners by modifying it to increase the odds that the team with the best won-loss record would also be the playoff winner. The IL reverted to an eight-team standings approach, and instituted version 2.0 of the Shaughnessy Plan, under which the first-place and third-place teams met in the first round while the second-place and fourth-place teams squared off, with the winners of the two rounds meeting for the title. That way one of the two best teams in the league would not automatically be eliminated in the first round. Additionally, Shaughnessy had to abandon the concept that the playoff winner would be declared the pennant winner and official league champion, as Buffalo had been in 1933. The team with the best record in the regular-season would be the pennant winner. This created “champion confusion,” since the playoff winner advanced to the Little World Series against the American Association champion and was perceived to be the “champion.” To help resolve the confusion over exactly which team was considered to be the International League champion, the Governors Cup was introduced in 1935 as the trophy that the playoff teams competed for (similar to the Stanley Cup in hockey).

The Shaughnessy Plan format was widely adopted by the minor leagues during the 1930s. By 1936 the three top minor leagues all used the format, with the International League and American Association using version 2.0 (in the first round the first-place team played the third-place team and the second-place team played the fourth-place team; the two winning teams met in the finals) while the Pacific Coast League adopted version 3.0 (the four-team format that had “best” and “worst” teams meeting in the first round). By 1939, when the IL adopted version 3.0 for its playoffs, the Shaughnessy Plan was nearly a universal component of every minor league.  

In October 1936 Shaughnessy was elected president of the International League. During his first dozen seasons as president, 1937 to 1948, he successfully guided the league to have mutually beneficial relationships between the International League clubs and the major leagues. The league had a strong Northeast geographic base: Montreal and Toronto in Canada; Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse in upstate New York; Newark and Jersey City in New Jersey; and Baltimore in Maryland. A large part of the league’s success was its own niche in the baseball landscape, since there was little overlap with major-league baseball, even though Newark and Jersey City were located in suburban New York City. The league played mostly night games during the summer months, while the New York Yankees played exclusively day baseball until lights were installed at Yankee Stadium in 1946 and the New York Giants played just a few night games at the Polo Grounds each year beginning in 1940. These two teams also had limited radio broadcasts of their games, only those at home (mostly during the day) and none for their road games.

The stature of the International League was also elevated in the postwar period when Montreal, a farm team of the Brooklyn Dodgers, signed Jackie Robinson in 1945 to be the first black ballplayer in Organized Baseball since the 19th century. Branch Rickey of the Dodgers had a supportive ally in Shaughnessy based on their days working together in the 1920s. Robinson helped lead Montreal to the IL pennant in 1946 and the Governors Cup title while leading the league in batting, before going on to a Hall of Fame career with the Dodgers.

However, the good days for the IL and minor-league baseball in general began to collapse with the 1949 season, when the major leagues decided to expand their radio broadcasts into minor-league markets and also experiment with television broadcasts. Shaughnessy was very outspoken about the negative impact of radio and television broadcasts of major-league games on the minor leagues, calling the major leagues shortsighted in damaging their sources of player development. He served on many committees seeking an equitable radio and television policy that would assist both the major and minor leagues.

The Newark and Jersey City clubs, owned by the Yankees and the Giants, respectively, were the first International League clubs to suffer significant declines in attendance. After the 1949 season, the Yankees sold the Newark franchise to the Chicago Cubs, who relocated it to Springfield, Massachusetts. This was the first franchise shift in the International League since Shaughnessy became its president. The following year the Giants moved the Jersey City team to Ottawa.

After the Boston Braves were moved to Milwaukee for the 1953 season, Shaughnessy preached expansion of the major leagues rather than a haphazard approach to moving existing franchises into minor-league cities. In November 1953 he pitched his latest unconventional proposal to improve baseball, when he suggested the creation of two 12-club major leagues each with two divisions, east and west, whose winners would meet in a playoff to determine the participants in the World Series. While it was basically an extension of his Shaughnessy Plan of the 1930s, Joe King in The Sporting News called the 1953 proposal “an imaginative and ingenious scheme” and “the first thoughtful, comprehensive attack on the problem of realignment of the majors.”19 However, it would take another 15 years before Shaughnessy’s novel solution would actually be instituted in the major leagues.

After the St. Louis Browns relocated to Baltimore for the 1954 season, thus eliminating an IL franchise, Shaughnessy responded to the challenge by expanding the footprint of his league beyond the Northeast. New International League franchises in the 1950s included Richmond, Virginia; Columbus, Ohio; Miami, Florida; and, most innovatively, Havana, Cuba. When Shaughnessy orchestrated the replacement of the Baltimore franchise for the 1954 season with one in Cuba, the International League became the first baseball league to have teams in three different countries.

Expanding the league to Havana was controversial from the beginning and reached a crisis point in 1958 when civil unrest from the Cuban Revolution, led by Fidel Castro, threatened player safety. When the Buffalo club balked at playing the season opener in Havana, Shaughnessy had to use all of his negotiation skills to convince everyone that it was safe to play baseball in Havana. Eventually, midway into the 1960 season, Shaughnessy had to relocate the Havana franchise to Jersey City, in one of his last acts as the league president.

Shaughnessy retired as president of the International League after the 1960 season. His wife, Kitty, had died two years earlier on October 25, 1958, just five days after they had celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. Shaughnessy died at the age of 86 on May 15, 1969, in Montreal. He is buried at the Notre-Dame-des-Neiges Cemetery in Montreal.

At his death, Shaughnessy’s legacy was that he had saved minor-league baseball through the creation of the Shaughnessy Plan playoff system. Several decades later, though, his legacy is now much larger in scope, as the father of the playoff system used by all professional sports. By the beginning of the 21st century, the four major professional sports leagues had all adopted some version of the Shaughnessy Plan to determine its champion. The NHL adopted version 2.0 for its 1942–43 season (and version 3.0 for the 1971–72 season), the NBA used version 3.0 ever since its inaugural 1949-50 season, as did the NFL beginning with its 1970 season and MLB commencing with its 1995 season.20

 

Sources

Charlie Bevis, “How the Shaughnessy Plan Redefined Success in Sports,” NINE: A Journal of Baseball History & Culture, Fall 2011.

Joe King, “The Frank Shaughnessy Story,” The Sporting News, December 14 and 21, 1960.

“Shaughnessy Climaxes Crowded Career in Becoming Int League’s 17th President,” The Sporting News, November 5, 1936.

“Shaughnessy, Playoff Founder and Prexy of Int, Dies,” The Sporting News, May 31, 1969.

 

Notes

1 1900 US federal census.

2 Notre Dame Athletic Department game notes of September 1, 2012, football game vs. Navy.

3 Joe King, “The Frank Shaughnessy Story,” The Sporting News, December 14 and 21, 1960.

4 “Shaughnessy Climaxes Crowded Career in Becoming Int League’s 17th President,” The Sporting News, November 5, 1936. Shaughnessy’s playing record included with this article was one of the few published that included his seasons with outlaw baseball leagues.

5 The State, Columbia, South Carolina, October 17, 1905.

6 Dave McDonald, “The First Diamond Dynasty,” Ottawa Citizen, May 4, 2003.

7 “Shaughnessy Climaxes Crowded Career.”

8 King, “The Frank Shaughnessy Story.”

9 Duluth News-Tribune, December 23, 1912.

10 King, “The Frank Shaughnessy Story.”

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid.

13 Al Parsley, “Shaughnessy Sticks Loyally to Play-Off Plan,” The Sporting News, October 19, 1933.

14.  Charlie Bevis, “How the Shaughnessy Plan Redefined Success in Sports,” NINE: A Journal of Baseball History & Culture, Fall 2011.

15  “Three Playoff Plans to Be Considered by Int. Moguls,” Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, January 10, 1933.

16 “Texas Gives Ten Clubs Chance of Qualifying,” The Sporting News, January 12, 1933.

17  “International League Adopts Play-Off System for Deciding Pennant Winner,” New York Times, January 12, 1933.

18  Parsley, “Shaughnessy Sticks Loyally to Play-Off Plan.”

19  Joe King, “Two 12-Club Majors Proposed by Shag,” The Sporting News, November 4, 1953.

20  Bevis, “How the Shaughnessy Plan Redefined Success in Sports.”

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