SABR

Warren Giles

This article was written by Mark Armour.

Warren Giles’ half century in professional baseball was highlighted by 18 years of service as president of the National League, a period of both considerable turmoil and much success for the Senior Circuit. He left behind many friends, especially the club owners whom he loyally defended and fought for over his career.

Warren Crandall Giles was born May 28, 1896, in Tiskilwa, a small village in North Central Illinois. His parents, William and Isabel, had five children, Warren being the third child and only son. When he was five years old, the family moved to Moline in Western Illinois, where his father worked as a general contractor. Warren attended high school at Staunton Military Academy in Staunton, Virginia, and starred in football, basketball, and baseball. He then attended Washington and Lee University, located about 40 miles from Staunton, for one year and starred on the freshman football team.

His academic and athletic careers were interrupted by the Great War; a few weeks after America’s entry into the war in 1917, Giles enrolled in officer’s training school at Ft. Sheridan, Illinois, and came out a second lieutenant in the US Army. By the fall he was serving in a replacement mortar regiment in France, and was promoted to first lieutenant.1

Discharged in March 1919, Giles worked as a tradesman in Moline with his father. His involvement running a local football team led to being invited to a meeting called that November to save the Moline Plowboys, a locally-owned baseball team in the Illinois-Indiana-Iowa (Three-I) League. Giles attended the meeting, and surprised himself by speaking out about how the team needed to be run. In response, the group named Giles the team president. Giles later lamented that he must have been “out of his mind,” because the job had no salary and he already had a job.2

The Moline club had finished in the cellar in 1919, and Giles’ first move was to hire Connie Mack’s son Earl Mack as the team’s manager. Giles later said he simply thumbed through a recent issue of The Sporting News and saw that Mack had just lost his previous job. “I had long been an admirer of old Connie, so I thought I couldn’t go wrong by engaging his son. Connie did send us a few players too.”3 In the second year of their partnership, Moline won the Three-I championship.

After the 1922 season Giles moved to St. Joseph, Missouri, which had a team in the Western League, eventually buying a stake in the club. In an oft-told tale from 1924, the St. Louis Cardinals optioned an outfielder named Taylor Douthit to St. Joseph, but Branch Rickey, the Cardinals’ general manager, mistakenly failed to recall him at the end of the option period. The promising outfielder now belonged to St. Joe, and other major league clubs soon contacted Giles with large offers. Giles called Rickey and gave him the chance to rectify the error, and claim his former player. Rickey did so, and did not forget Giles’ integrity in handling the matter.4

During his years running minor league teams Giles also worked as a basketball and football referee in the Missouri Valley Conference, traveling as far away as Yankee Stadium to officiate. He later claimed that this experience helped him sympathize with the plight of baseball umpires, with whom he would work often in the coming years.

After the 1925 season, Rickey offered Giles the chance to run the Syracuse club in the International League, which at that time was a Double A circuit. The Cardinals were the first major league team to create a “farm system” by owning multiple minor league teams, and Syracuse was their top club. Giles spent two years in Syracuse and moved to Rochester in 1928 when the Cardinals chose that city’s Red Wings as their chief affiliate. The Red Wings won four pennants in a row from 1928 to 1931, managed primarily by Billy Southworth and fielding stars like Ripper Collins and Pepper Martin, who would help the Cardinals win three pennants in the 1930s.

In 1931 Giles married the former Jane Skinner, whose father was the three-time mayor of Moline and whose great-grandfather was John Deere, the founder of the farm implement company that dominated the city. The couple had one son, William, born September 7, 1934 in Rochester.

Giles remained with the Red Wings through 1936, while also taking on an expanded role in organized baseball. In 1933 he was named chairman of the Minor League executive committee, charged with adopting policies to serve the entire minor league system. He was vice-president of the International League for a few years, and was appointed president in 1936 even as he was running one of the stronger clubs. He signed a five-year contract that summer to remain with Rochester, though another opportunity soon pulled him away.

The Cincinnati Reds were run for several years by the mercurial Larry MacPhail, who had improved the long-dormant organization while also bringing night baseball to the major leagues. By the middle of the 1936 season the Reds were on their way to finishing fifth, with a 74-80 record. MacPhail wasn’t getting along with owner Powel Crosley, and suddenly resigned near the end of the season. Crosley offered the job to Giles, who at first declined because of his contract with Rochester. Crosley approached Rickey and Cardinal owner Sam Breadon, who said they would not stand in Giles’ way.5

“I met Powel Crosley at an All-Star Game in 1935,” Giles later recalled. “He was familiar, of course, with our winning record at Rochester. We seemed to hit it off immediately, and the following year, when he was looking for a successor to Larry MacPhail, he thought of me.”6

The Reds had a few fine players, including catcher Ernie Lombardi, outfielder Ival Goodman, and pitcher Paul Derringer. Giles’ 1937 team finished last, but his 1938 club improved to 82-68, just six games behind the first place Chicago Cubs, the Reds’ best finish since 1926. The 1938 club is most famous for the back-to-back no-hitters hurled by Johnny Vander Meer that June, but Giles also made a number of key moves that would pay big dividends over the next two seasons. In February he purchased second baseman Lonnie Frey, who starred for the next five years. He also made two mid-season trades, landing outfielder Wally Berger from the Giants and pitcher Bucky Walters from the Phillies. Berger had a fine 1938 season, while Walters was one of the team’s best players for the next decade. For his work in 1938, Giles received the Executive of the Year Award from The Sporting News.

Before the 1939 season, Giles made another great move, purchasing third baseman Billy Werber from the Athletics. Keyed by great seasons from Walters (27-11, 2.29) and Derringer (25-7, 2.93), the Reds won 97 games and their first pennant since 1919. Alas, they were swept by the great Yankees in the World Series. Led again by great pitching in 1940 (Walters and Derringer won 22 and 20 games, respectively), the Reds won 100 games, waltzed to another pennant, and then defeated the Tigers in a seven-game World Series.

“After it was over,” recalled Giles, “everybody was cheering and waving and kissing everybody. My son Bill went to his mother and said, ‘Well, the Reds did win, didn’t they?’ She said, ‘Why yes.” And he said, “But daddy’s crying.’”7

Just three years after the high point in his baseball career came the low point in his life. In June 1943 Warren underwent an emergency appendectomy. Just days after his discharge, Jane, who had been experiencing headaches, suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. She was rushed to the hospital in an ambulance, but died the next day, July 10, with Warren at her side.8 Warren Giles never remarried, but grew ever closer to son Bill, who began spending more time at the ballpark.

The Reds remained competitive, without winning any pennants, through the early 1940s but finished in the second division in 1945 and remained there for several years. Giles assumed the additional role of team president in 1947. Though he had not repeated his early successes, Giles remained a respected figure in baseball. In later years, he recalled some of the poor deals he made, like his trade of Hank Sauer and Frankie Baumholtz to the Cubs for Harry Walker and Harry “Peanuts” Lowrey.9

In 1951, the baseball owners chose not to renew the contract of Commissioner Happy Chandler, and he formally resigned his post on July 15. The magnates considered several external candidates to replace him, including Generals Dwight Eisenhower and Douglas McArthur, along with Giles and NL President Ford Frick. The magnates met to vote for the new Commissioner on September 20, and after two ballots only Frick and Giles remained. Giles withdrew his name after the 16th ballot. Frick was duly elected, and five days later the NL owners chose Giles as their president. Giles moved the league offices from New York to Cincinnati so as not to disrupt son Bill, who was in high school. Giles took up residence high in the Carew Tower, overlooking the Ohio River and Kentucky. He inherited the office and desk that Chandler used while he was commissioner.

League presidents worked for the eight (at that time) club owners, who made the most important decisions. Giles presided over league meetings and used his platform to influence or persuade the owners, but he did not ultimately have a vote. Giles was often accused of taking his direction from the Dodgers’ Walter O’Malley, who wielded tremendous power within the league. Giles’ other duties included hiring and managing umpires (16 in 1952, and more as the league expanded), meting out discipline to players or managers for significant behavioral problems, and managing the league’s finances. He usually had a staff of three to five people in the league offices.

Under Giles’ watch, the NL soon became the more successful of the two leagues. The NL, thanks largely to its top-flight black stars, enjoyed an obvious advantage in talent during the 1950s and (especially) the 1960s. The NL clubs, led at first by the Dodgers, Giants, and Braves, aggressively scouted and signed black players from the Negro Leagues and the amateur ranks who soon came to dominate the game. This trend began before Giles became president, but it accelerated during his term.

The NL also took over dominance of the All-Star game, finishing 16-5 (with 1 tie) during Giles‘ time in office (there were two games each year from 1959 to 1962). Giles took the game very seriously, entering the clubhouse every year to talk to the players about the pride of the league.

National League logo, circa 1957National League logo, circa 1957Giles also created the first National League logo (said to be a “long-harbored dream”), which was adopted formally at the league’s December 1956 meeting. Among other design elements, it had eight stars to represent the league’s eight teams. He later revised the logo when the league expanded to 10 teams, and a variation of the same is in use today.10

The baseball map was dramatically redrawn during his tenure, with each league expanding from eight to twelve teams and several franchises moving to new cities. Giles’ job was often to stand up and support the owners’ decision to move, and he took a lot of arrows from the angered fans in cities that were abandoned. The NL had clubs shift to Milwaukee (1953) and then to Los Angeles and San Francisco (1958). The Braves bolted to Atlanta in 1966, but the transfer of the New York and Brooklyn teams to California, while not without considerable controversy then and later, proved to be wildly successful financially and on the field.

When the Dodgers and Giants decided to leave New York, Giles not only aggressively supported their right to move, he also promoted the shifts as good for the clubs and the National League. “You must prune dead or dying wood,” he said.11 In 1958, he publicly pressured the voters of Los Angeles to support a new stadium in Chavez Ravine, threatening that the Dodgers might otherwise leave Los Angeles, their home of a few weeks. When asked about how the league could possibly survive with no team in the country’s largest city he reportedly answered, “Who needs New York?” (Giles denied that he ever said this.) As Giles had already moved the league offices out of New York, this remark added to his poor relations with the city’s large press corps.12

Giles made a bit of news in 1963 after he ordered the NL umpires to strictly enforce the balk rule, which required that a pitcher stop his windup for one full second while pitching from the stretch. Adherence to the long-ignored rule would favor the running game, which had become increasingly popular in recent years, culminating in the Dodgers’ Maury Wills record-setting 104 stolen bases in 1962. This led some writers to suggest that Walter O’Malley had pressured Giles, his underling, to make the order.

Once the season started, league pitchers were soon being called for balks with absurd frequency. The Pirates’ Bob Friend was called for six in his first two starts, equaling the league record for a full season. In the league’s first 73 games, there were 69 balk calls, compared with two in the AL. “How long is this comic opera going to continue?” asked Houston general manager Paul Richards. On May 7, at a hastily-called meeting between Commissioner Frick and league presidents Giles and Joe Cronin, the rule was reworded to require only that the pitcher stop his windup, and the balk calls ceased13. Giles was heavily criticized for his role in all of this. Howard Cosell, opined on a New York radio station that “the Giles reign has been the stupidest leadership in the history of sports.”14

In 1965 Giles was forced to assume the role of front man for the contentious shift of the Braves from Milwaukee, their home since 1953, to Atlanta. The club had requested permission to move for the 1965 season, but the NL owners, fearing legal problems, ordered the Braves to remain in Milwaukee one more year to complete the lease on their stadium. Giles backed the team, claiming that the upper Midwest had become too crowded once the AL moved to Minnesota in 1961, and that the Southeast was a much better place for the Braves and the NL. In late 1965, both Milwaukee County and the state of Wisconsin filed anti-trust lawsuits against Major League Baseball to stop the transfer, keeping Giles and the NL in court throughout the winter and well into the 1966 season before the NL finally prevailed. The league was willing to go to the US Supreme Court had it been necessary. “We are carrying the torch for all team sports—pro football, pro basketball, and pro hockey,” said Giles.15

The toughest decision Giles ever had to make, by his later testimony, came in 1965, but it did not involve the Braves. In the heat of an intense pennant race, on August 22 the great Giants pitcher Juan Marichal, while at the plate, became involved in a heated argument with Dodger catcher Johnny Roseboro and hit Roseboro over the head with his bat. Both benches emptied, mainly to calm Marichal down and restore order.

Giles soon suspended Marichal for eight games and fined him $1750, a punishment that most observers felt was too light. Marichal was 19-9 with a league-leading 1.88 ERA at the time of the suspension, but missed two starts and was 3-4 with a 3.55 ERA after he returned. The Giants lost the pennant by a single game to the Dodgers.

In an era of increased labor unrest with both umpires and players, Giles stood for the owners, as his job required. The National League umpires formed a union in 1963 and were soon earning much more than their AL counterparts (the two leagues formed a single union in 1968, part of the fallout from the AL’s firing of two umpires for trying to organize). As for the players, Giles saw nothing wrong with the way things had always been. “Warren Giles and his fellows,” wrote Red Smith, “have always regarded ballplayers as mere chattels. They actually believe it is a privilege for these bondservants to appear cap in hand before their masters and petition for reforms which they do not get.”16 Conditions would improve considerably for the players in the years ahead, of course, but after Giles retired.

Giles retired from his position at the end of the 1969 season, having overseen the league’s expansion to twelve teams and its split into two divisions and two countries. His successor was Charlie “Chub” Feeney, previously the general manager for San Francisco. “Warren Giles has done a magnificent job of building up the National League,” said Feeney. “I will be well satisfied if I can do two-thirds as good a job in my tenure. The National League is having its high point of the cycle.”17

Judging Giles’s tenure by the state of the two leagues, it was a huge success. The National League enjoyed better attendance, fewer franchise problems, won the All-Star game nearly every year and had the best players. On the other hand, the two leagues often had difficulty working together for the greater good - on such issues as expansion, game schedules, interleague trading, or interleague play (which AL and various commissioners favored, but the NL owners and Giles did not).

Giles spent his remaining years living alone at his suburban Cincinnati home. He had often entertained there while he was league president, and continued to do so when his old friends came through the city. His only son, Bill, had forged his own career in the game. He began working for the Reds in the 1950s, and had helped launch the Houston Colt .45s in 1962. Beginning in 1969 he worked for the Philadelphia Phillies, starting as vice president of business operations, and eventually becoming chairman in 1997. He was part of a group that purchased the team in 1981.

Warren Giles was a devout Episcopalian his entire life, serving as a vestryman and lay reader at different times. He did not believe that church should be involved in politics. “People take sides on political things,” such as the Vietnam War,” he said late in his life. “War is immoral and war is wrong, but I don’t think the clergy ought to bring it before the Church.” However, he did support the church becoming more diverse. “We have to bring in more black people by breaking down the feeling that some people in the parish, unfortunately, just don’t belong. They do belong.” He believed the church needed to bend on occasion, but that it would remain strong.18

Giles died on February 7, 1979, from complications of cancer. “It is a measure of his worth,” wrote Leonard Koppett, “that even those who sometimes disagreed with one of his ideas or policies found him warm, fair-minded, civilized, and in the best sense of the word, decent. His gregarious nature was one of his big assets because it enabled him to gather, and then sift, the views of other influential men.”19

 

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Paul Lukas for tracking down the details on Giles’ creation of the National League logo.

 

Notes

1 Lieb, “Flashbacks,” 10.

2 “Former N.L. President Giles Dies,” The Sporting News, February 24, 1979, 42.

3 Lieb, “Flashbacks,” 10.

4 Gerald Holland, “Honest Warren Giles: He Always Strives To Please,” Sports Illustrated, June 10, 1963, 32-37.

5 Lieb, “Flashbacks,” 10.

6 Gerald Holland, “Honest Warren Giles.”

7 Warren Giles, “’40 Series Giles’ Biggest Thrill,” The Cincinnati Enquirer, November 2, 1969, 14-C.

8 “Necrology,” The Sporting News, July 15. 1943, 10.

9 “Former N.L. President Giles Dies,” The Sporting News, February 24, 1979, 42.

10 National League Green Book, 1957.

11 Jimmy Powers, “The Powerhouse,” The Daily News, March 21, 1958.

12 Gerald Holland, “Honest Warren Giles.”

13 Official Baseball Guide 1964, The Sporting News, 166-167.

14 Gerald Holland, “Honest Warren Giles.”

15 William Chapin, “Baseball Tries to Help Its Friends,” San Francisco Chronicle, May 9, 1968.

16 Gerald Holland, “Honest Warren Giles.”

17 Official Baseball Guide 1970, The Sporting News, 298-299.

18 Steve Hasel, “Major League Layman,” The Episcopalian, September 1972.

19 Leonard Koppett, “Warren Giles: Historical Figure,” The Sporting News, February 24, 1979, 4.

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