1906 Winter Meetings: Gradual Détente, Growing Pains

This article was written by Christopher Matthews

This article was published in the Baseball’s Business: The Winter Meetings: 1901-1957


Introduction and Context

By the time the National and American Leagues had held their winter meetings in New York and Chicago, respectively, the internecine trade war that had transpired between the two had been over for three years. Though formal conflict between the two leagues had been extinguished, rivalries between the individual team magnates still remained. In the more established National League, one of these conflicts broke out over the presidency of the league. Harry Pulliam had been president of the National League since the National and American Leagues had called a truce, and full major-league status was granted to the latter, in 1903.1 The truce led to more economic stability for both leagues by limiting the competition for fans and players. With the passage of more than a century, reliable information about team finances at that time is now hard to verify, but at the 1906 meetings Pulliam claimed that the previous season had been the most financially successful ever for the league.2 Team owners were no doubt happy with such fiscal stability, and the relative health of each franchise led to many owners having little reason to part with their best players. Conditions were therefore right for many unsuccessful cash bids to be made for star players.

Though the truce had stabilized baseball’s finances, the young major leagues still had to suffer through many more growing pains. Resentment remained between owners of the two leagues, especially between owners located in the same city, and those National League owners whose players had been poached from them by their upstart counterparts. These conflicts manifested themselves most saliently at the 1906 meetings through disagreements over scheduling. In the years after the two leagues joined forces, they would continue to compete over Sunday and holiday dates in cities with more than one team, as well as doubleheader dates, the start and end of seasons, and the number of games that should be played.3 The number of games to be held in the regular season and postseason was an annual disagreement between the two leagues, with many owners from the American League wanting to shorten the regular season from 154 games and add games to the World Series. National League owners, on balance, wished to pack as many games into the schedule as possible, with some wanting to add games to both the regular season and the World Series.4

Conflict wasn’t limited to owners in opposite leagues. Intraleague scuffles were commonplace, and they often sprang from league presidents’ attempts to reinforce the authority of umpires and promote proper conduct of team personnel through fines and other measures. Public and often vulgar denunciations of umpire decisions were much more common, and both Pulliam in the National League and Ban Johnson, president of the American League, fought this behavior. John T. Brush, owner of the New York Giants, campaigned vigorously in 1906 and beyond to oust Pulliam from his presidency because of a fine and suspension Pulliam had levied on Brush’s manager, John McGraw.5 In addition, a temporary reconciliation between Johnson and White Sox owner Charles Comiskey received a great deal of attention in the newspapers during the 1906 winter meetings.6 The genesis of this particular quarrel (the two had a chronically rocky relationship, spanning many years) was Johnson’s fining one of Comiskey’s players for using foul language.7

Player Movement

In advance of the winter meetings, the newspapers buzzed with excitement over what promised to be eventful sessions, with many players changing hands. In fact, few players were traded, but it wasn’t for lack of effort on the part of owners trying to improve their teams. Healthy finances meant owners had cash to throw around, and several large offers were indeed made.

The top two National League teams, the Chicago Cubs and New York Giants, were illustrative of this dynamic, as they began a bidding war for two of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ best players. Chicago’s 1906 squad won 116 games, but owner Charles Murphy wasn’t content with such a historically good squad. He offered $10,000 in cash and three players — pitcher Ed Reulbach, utilityman Solly Hofman, and outfielder Jimmy Slagle — for Brooklyn’s star outfielder Harry Lumley, who had led the league in slugging average in 1906. The New York Giants countered with an offer of $25,000 for Lumley and Brooklyn’s other star, first baseman Tim Jordan, who had led the league with 12 home runs.8 Many other rumors filled newspaper columns in the days leading up to the meetings, but nearly all of them amounted to nothing. Explaining the lack of movement in the American League specifically, Johnson said, “Any one of the eight clubs would be willing to unbelt from $25,000 to $30,000 in a minute at this meeting to strengthen its team, but a bank roll cuts small figure in the talk of trades and only playing material of experience or excellent promise has any temptation for the men who control the clubs.”9 Such a dynamic could surely be attributed to the National League as well.

The one major move that did take place went through due to unusual circumstances. Infielder Ed “Batty” Abbaticchio was traded by the Boston Beaneaters to the Pittsburgh Pirates for outfielder Ginger Beaumont, pitcher (and occasional outfielder) Patsy Flaherty, and infielder Claude Ritchey. Abbaticchio was under Boston control in 1906, but had not played because he was living in Pittsburgh and tending to a hotel. The Pirates, naturally, were the only team Abbaticchio was willing to play for, so the Boston club wisely worked out a deal that netted it something for a player who was no longer willing to don its uniform.10

Business and Politics

Perhaps the most conspicuous difference between the two leagues was in the strength of their presidents. The American League was Johnson’s creation and many American League owners came to own their teams through his machinations. In the National League, however, the presidency was far weaker, and the owners kept its power in check by, at least initially, granting Pulliam one-year terms.11 Even so, Pulliam managed his post assertively and made honest efforts to control what was known as “rowdyism,” or coarse language and behavior, from players and managers toward each other and the umpires.

As he had the previous year, Pulliam faced significant opposition during the 1906 meetings from John T. Brush and August “Garry” Herrmann, owners of the New York and Cincinnati teams, respectively. The conflict between Brush and Pulliam began in 1905 when Pulliam fined and suspended Giants manager John McGraw for publicly accusing Pittsburgh Pirates owner Barney Dreyfuss of bribing umpires. Brush tried but failed to get his fellow owners to replace Pulliam with John Montgomery Ward, a former player and player rights activist now a lawyer. When that move failed, Brush put up James A. Hart, the former owner of the Chicago Cubs. Pulliam was re-elected. Brush and Herrmann campaigned vigorously against Pulliam during the 1906 winter meetings. The final vote however, was 6 to 1 in favor of Pulliam, with Herrmann abstaining and Brush the only nay vote.12 Before the votes were cast, Brush sought to nominate A.H. Soden, the Boston owner, who was in the process of selling the club, to be president. Soden, however, wouldn’t accept the nomination and the coup was a failure.13

Besides political and personnel considerations, the winter meetings were the forum where rule changes were debated and implemented. These campaigns often amount to little, and in 1906 no rule changes were actually voted in. The two main changes that were debated were placing numbers on uniforms (at the NL meeting) and the elimination of the foul-strike rule (in the AL meeting). The owner of the Cubs, Charles Murphy, proposed that numbers be placed on the sleeves or backs of the players’ uniforms with corresponding numbers on the scorecards, so that fans could better identify the players.14 Movements to number the players date back to at least the 1890s, but this practical idea didn’t become official until the American League adopted it in 1931.15

The movement to abolish the foul-strike rule16 was indicative of the dearth of offense in the first decade of the 20th century. The 1906 Chicago Cubs, with their lusty .763 winning percentage, had no player with a slugging percentage higher than .430. The 1906 Chicago White Sox, American League and World Series champions, were known as the Hitless Wonders for their success in spite of their offensive futility.17

The foul-strike rule had only been adopted in 1901, so removing it was not such a radical option for boosting the chances of beleaguered offenses as it would seem today. Its repeal, however, was voted down in 1906,18 and the problem of defensive dominance was ameliorated four years later with the introduction of a new, livelier baseball.

Conclusion

The 1906 winter meetings were a snapshot of the gradual détente between the two leagues, and the financial success it brought to team owners. The truce, along with the reserve clause, reinstated control of players by the owners, which allowed salary costs to be controlled once again. Lingering animosity between owners led to minor conflicts, but overall the owners knew they stood to gain more by working together than through unbridled competition.

This collective spirit showed itself in the gradual strengthening of the governing bodies of the individual leagues and the major leagues as a whole. The American League was created with a strong executive already in place, but the National League had to ease itself into such a state of affairs. Owners didn’t like to see their players and managers fined, as the case of John T. Brush illustrates. Most owners, however, understood that the game benefited when law and order was imposed by strong league presidents. A modern baseball fan is used to seeing ownership generally speak with a unified voice, through the commissioner’s office, and with the 1906 meetings one can see this management philosophy in its embryonic stages.

 

Notes

1 Harold Seymour and Dorothy Z. Seymour, Baseball: The Golden Age, Vol. 2 (New York: Oxford Paperbacks) (Kindle Locations 141-142). Kindle Edition.

2 “Candidates for Pulliam’s Place,” Hartford Courant, December 12, 1906: 9.

3 Seymour and Seymour, Kindle Location 209.

4 “Food for the ‘Fans’ is Being Prepared,” New York Times, December 9, 1906: SN15;

“No Baseball Trouble Over Presidency,” New York Times, December 11, 1906: 7.

5 Seymour and Seymour, Kindle Location 383.

6 Boston Globe, December 14, 1906; Chicago Tribune, December 16, 1906.

7 Seymour and Seymour, Kindle Location 344.

8 “Bank Roll Battle On in Baseball” Chicago Tribune December 9, 1906: A1.

9 “Magnates Here to Meet” Chicago Tribune; December 12, 1906: 12.

10 “Votes Pulliam Full Approval” Chicago Tribune, December 12, 1906: 12.

11 Seymour and Seymour, Kindle Locations 363, 364. 209.

12 “Pulliam is Reelected,” Boston Globe, December 13, 1906: 9.

13 Ibid.

14 “Votes Pulliam Full Approval.”

15 Seymour and Seymour, Kindle Location 852.

16 Before adoption of the foul-strike rule (by the NL in 1901, the AL in 1903), foul balls did not count as strikes.

17 Seymour and Seymour, Kindle Location 1839.

18 “Pulliam is Reelected.”

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