1904 Winter Meetings: Power Play
This article was written by Steve Weingarden - Eric Frost
This article was published in Baseball’s Business: The Winter Meetings: 1901-1957
At the 1904 winter meetings, power was the common theme, as the National League, American League, and minor leagues continued to fight for their positions within Organized Baseball. Topics receiving ample attention and dissension included the reserve clause, the foul-strike rule, the length of the schedule, postseason play, syndicate ownership, and unpopular ownership. Most notably, though, a plan for a consistent World Series emerged from these sessions.
The 1904 season had been notable for a few reasons. Future Hall of Famers Ed Walsh and Miller Huggins made their playing debuts, as did Phillies star Sherry Magee. Dan Brouthers and Jim O’Rourke, both also later bound for the Hall of Fame, played their final games. Most conspicuous, however, was the absence of a World Series. After the first modern World Series had been played in 1903, one of the pennant winners was unwilling to play in 1904. Discussions and agreements at the 1904 winter meetings ensured that future World Series would be run by the National Commission rather than being left to the whims of the qualifying teams.
Once these issues were solved, there were even a few notable trades. In addition, a struggling major-league team was purchased, ensuring its survival as a franchise.
The Minor League Meetings
The National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, the minor-league organization, held its fourth annual convention at the Victoria Hotel in New York City. The first high-stakes dispute involved a minor-league pitcher named Skel Roach. Roach posted a 22-9 record for the Butte Miners of the Pacific National League in 1903. He moved to the Portland Browns of the Pacific Coast League in 1904, claiming that he had a written agreement releasing him from Butte’s control. During the season, however, Butte reclaimed Roach even while he was pitching for Portland. The National Association, through its Board of Arbitration, turned down Roach’s request to be freed from Butte. On appeal, the National Commission, Organized Baseball’s highest court, decided Roach did not belong to Butte. At the New York meeting, the issue reached a head on October 25, when the Minor League Board rejected the National Commission’s decision. In fact, the decision was made by the minor-league magnates as a group.1 A slight modification was made, and plans were instituted to have the Board of Arbitration reopen the situation through a conference with the National Commission in Cincinnati on January 2.
Perhaps the partial reversal stemmed from the implications associated with the case. Roach reached out to American League President Ban Johnson, who sharply criticized the National Association for its action. Johnson declared that the minors were in violation of the National Agreement regarding the Roach case as well as in other instances involving fiduciary claims. Johnson noted that the National League was especially upset with the minors, but he kept his comments focused on the importance of the minors adhering to the National Agreement and the potential consequences of continuing violations. “The National Commission and the Major Leagues have no interest in this player aside from a desire to see that he gets the justice due him under the National Agreement,” Johnson said. “It is a matter of indifference to both Major Leagues whether the minors keep this agreement or break it. For the two years of its operation it has worked all in favor of the minors, and if they want to go it alone that will suit the American and National League.”2
The January 2 conference was later moved to January 9. National League President Harry Pulliam, a member of the National Commission, was ill on the day of the rescheduled meeting and was ordered to stay in bed, but the matter was still resolved as scheduled. Johnson and Garry Herrmann, the other two members of the National Commission, strong-armed the minor leagues into accepting its decision on Roach and rulings on other players, including Pat Flaherty, Lee Tannehill, and Dave Brain. The Commission said that it would not allow minor-league officials to appear before it unless they accepted the validity of all National Commission rulings.3
Johnson and major-league officials may have been angered by comments made at the National Association banquet, when P.T. Powers, the president of the association, suggested that the National Association was really more national in scope than either of the major leagues. Major-league representatives, including Frank Farrell, John I. Taylor, and Clark Griffith, were among the approximately 150 guests at the banquet.4
The minor leagues’ most significant action may have been the creation of a new classification, AA. Previously, minor leagues were classified as A, B, C, and D. The argument in favor of the new classification centered on the contention that too many good players were being drafted by the major leagues from high-level minor-league clubs.5 A new, higher classification allowed for the introduction of higher posting fees. For about a week, there was apprehension about the potential major-league response to these increased costs.
The Major Leagues
Since the last offseason, ownership of American League clubs in Detroit and Washington had changed, leaving only Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Chicago with their founding owners from four years earlier.6 Actually, ownership in Washington remained an unsettled issue, although it was considerably improved from the previous season, when the league financed the team. It became a topic of discussion at the major-league meetings on December 7 at the Auditorium Annex in Chicago. The Washington club, it was felt, had too many stockholders, preventing it from making decisions. Ben Minor, who was both American League attorney and secretary of the Washington club, wanted to take over the franchise. Minor noted that the club had incurred expenses exceeding $22,000 in 1904 through relocating its “plant” and ending its old lease, but he said the team had managed to cut those expenses significantly, leaving room for optimism.7 “I can’t say definitely that the present deal will go through, but I feel confident it will, and if so the club will be in the right kind of hands next year, with every prospect of better success,” Minor said.8 He was hoping to complete the sale soon after the winter meetings, and even left the meetings early in hopes of closing the deal.
Other topics occupied day one of the meetings. The American League opposed the increased draft prices proposed by the National Association.9 The magnates unanimously opposed Garry Hermann’s proposal for a round-robin series involving all clubs of both leagues, an early suggestion of interleague play. American League owners favored a 140-game schedule followed by a postseason series between the two pennant winners. National Commission secretary Bruce suggested that scheduling be left to the two league executives instead of two committees. Pulliam expressed hope that by letting the league executives work through the schedule, some of the friction from playing-date conflicts could be avoided.10
Discussions also started the first day on the possibility of eliminating the foul-strike rule. The Chicago Tribune had recently advocated for its repeal. Its article said the original intent of the foul-strike rule had been to shorten the length of games, which had been growing. The rule succeeded at this, but also had markedly decreased offensive production, the Tribune said, while it had made games almost too short to satisfy fans.11 The deliberations on the fate of the rule carried over to the following day. The underlying issue involved creating enough offense and rhythm to keep fans engaged. Charles Comiskey opposed a rule change, saying, “I didn’t see any indication at my gates or in the returns from other cities where my club played that the public was sore on the rules of the game. … My public didn’t show me it was aching for a change.”12 Others, including Joe Cantillon and Nap Lajoie, offered possible alternative ways to increase offense.
In a final vote, American League owners deadlocked, 4 to 4, over whether to change the foul-strike rule. They did agree on another change: the size of the strike zone. While the previous strike zone spanned the area between the knee and shoulder, the new rule cut it in half, dictating that a “pitched ball must pass between the hip and shoulder in order to make it a strike.” The magnates also created a new waiver rule designed to prevent major-league teams from waiving a newly drafted player. Up to then, clubs could draft a player simply to prevent other clubs from selecting him, and could waive the player right after the draft.
The American League magnates voted by acclamation to raise Johnson’s salary to $10,000 a year. The vote reportedly turned into more of a college yell, setting the stage for a toast at 6:00 P.M. to league success.13 Johnson had been elected president in 1900 for the 10-year life of the American League agreement. Granted a raise to $10,000 in 1903 with a $5,000 bonus, he refused the bonus and accepted the $10,000 salary only for 1903 because he believed the league might not remain prosperous enough to maintain the salary. The 1904 vote established the $10,000 salary for the remaining six years of Johnson’s contract. These events may have highlighted one distinction between Johnson and his minor-league counterpart: Powers received no salary for his role as the National Association president. National League President Pulliam may also have benefited from Johnson’s raise; his salary was also raised to $10,000.
Controversy also surrounded actions by the New York Giants and by John Hart, owner of the Chicago Cubs, over actions involving the still-infant World Series. The first modern World Series in 1903 had been arranged between the champions of the two major leagues, the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Boston Americans. In 1904 the manager of the National League champion New York Giants, John McGraw, who disliked Ban Johnson, refused to play Boston, which had repeated as American League champion. Though the refusal violated the National Agreement, McGraw asserted that the Giants should be considered the world champions because the National League was, in his view, the only authentic major league. In July Johnson released a scathing statement denouncing McGraw and Giants owner John T. Brush for their reluctance to participate in a world championship series. The statement also denounced Hart, saying, “At a meeting of the joint schedule committee of the American and National leagues last spring, a motion that a world series be played this fall was put by President Hart of the Chicago National Club, and was carried unanimously. Recently, however, Mr. Hart and his associates have shown little inclination to live up to this agreement.”14
Hart may have compounded the controversy that surrounded him by making some controversial statements about a player just before the winter meetings. He alleged that pitcher Jack Taylor had thrown some games while pitching for Chicago. Comiskey encouraged the National Commission to investigate the charges. Taylor had been traded to St. Louis before the 1904 season. The pitcher said that before the trade, Hart had confronted him with accusations of dishonesty based on some misunderstood comments he had made after the 1903 season. Taylor was offended at the suggestion of impropriety and refused to play for Hart anymore, prompting the St. Louis trade. The National Commission later found insufficient evidence to support the allegations against Taylor.
By the time of the winter meetings, the American League was united and hopeful of a world’s series being played once more, but the response of the National League remained uncertain.
The National League meeting began at 3:00 P.M. on December 13 at the Victoria Hotel in New York. The late start time occurred because the whereabouts of St. Louis owner Frank Robison were unclear; it turned out that Robison would miss the meetings because his wife had become ill. On a more positive note, the National League reported that it had overcome its $125,000 debt, assumed when the league reduced to eight clubs in 1891. Much credit went to former league President Young for managing the debt. Current president Pulliam was re-elected.
In what might have been perceived as a savvy public relations move, the National League invited the minor leagues’ attorney, Howard Griffiths, to come to the sessions and explain the minors’ position on their proposed changes in drafting fees. These were the same changes the American League had rejected earlier in the month. When Griffiths appeared, the National League decided to champion the cause of the minors. No one knows how much of the support represented a belief in the cause, but that was a moot point. To change drafting fees, and the National Agreement, approval was required by the National Association, American League, and National League. A few days after the meeting, Johnson suggested that compromise might be reached on the minor-league draft rule.
On December 14 the National League voted unanimously to play postseason games with the American League for a world’s championship:
Resolved, That the National league hereby declares in favor of having post-season contests annually between the champion teams of the National and American leagues for the championship of the world, and,
Resolved, That in order that such contests, as well as those that may be arranged from time to time between the National and American league clubs, may be conducted under proper rules and regulations, the national commission hereby be delegated with the authority to arrange all details of said contests in regard to the preparation, rules, regulations, and government of the same, such detail to be submitted to the National and American leagues for their approval.15
The devil, of course, could well be in those details.
That resolved, the National League disagreed with the American League over the 140-game schedule, deciding instead on a 154-game schedule. Johnson protested that after the players finished the lengthier schedule, a world championship might be unrealistic. To have the regular season run as late as October 10 and then play a series of postseason games, a world’s championship and/or intercity or intracity championships could extend baseball to rather late in the year.
In the National League, the Philadelphia club had fallen on financial difficulties by the end of the 1904 season and there was uncertainty over whether the franchise would continue.16 Because the Phillies did not have enough money to pay their players, the National League had assumed control of the team and had issued the paychecks. During the winter meetings, ownership of the team was transferred to the Philadelphia Ball Company, led by Bill Shettsline, a former Phillies manager. The team then became active in the trade mart, swapping utilityman Del Howard to Pittsburgh and receiving in exchange first baseman Kitty Bransfield, utility player Otto Krueger, and outfielder Harry “Moose” McCormick. Pittsburgh reportedly was motivated to move Bransfield because he had taken a swing at Honus Wagner in the Pirates dressing room. Philadelphia also made a trade with its bottom-dwelling companion, the Boston Beaneaters. Right-hander Charles “Chick” Fraser and third baseman Harry Wolverton went to Boston, while right-hander Charles “Togie” Pittinger came to Philadelphia. Pittsburgh made a second deal as well, sending catcher Eddie Phelps to Cincinnati for utilityman Henry “Heinie” Peitz.
The 1904 meetings exemplified the politics that surrounded the early years of professional baseball. The minor leagues and both major leagues fought with one another and among themselves for survival within the national pastime. Baseball executives also showed early concern for topics like the strike zone, offensive production, and the World Series, all of which would become more important to baseball’s success in later years.
1 “Major and Minor Leagues May War,” Chicago Tribune, October 27, 1904.
3 “Baseball Men Before National Commission,” New York Times, January 10, 1905.
4 “Baseballists’ Convention,” Los Angeles Times, October 27, 1904.
5 “New Class for Minors,” Chicago Tribune, October 28, 1904.
6 “Murnane’s Baseball,” Boston Globe, December 4, 1904.
7 “Baseball Men In Session,” Chicago Tribune, December 8, 1904.
9 “Two Sessions,” Boston Globe, December 8, 1904.
10 “League Owners Meet,” Washington Post, December 8, 1904.
11 “Batting Is Too Light,” Chicago Tribune, November 6, 1904.
12 “Johnson Voted a $10,000 Salary,” Chicago Tribune, December 9, 1904.
14 “Scores M’Graw and Brush,” Washington Post, August 1, 1904: 8.
15 “Long Baseball Season Planned,” Chicago Tribune, December 15, 1904: 10.
16 “Philadelphia Baseball Club in distress,” New York Times, October 7, 1904.