1911 Winter Meetings: Scandal? What Scandal?

This article was written by R. J. Lesch

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


The 1911 winter meetings played out in the press as well as in the meeting rooms.

Two days before the start of the 1911 World Series, which matched the New York Giants against the Philadelphia Athletics, the newspapers in both cities noticed that large blocks of World Series tickets had fallen into the hands of known ticket speculators, even before the games were reported as sold out. None of the fans denied seats at the biggest games of the year, or forced to pay inflated prices for them, could have been angrier than AL President Ban Johnson. He vowed that after the World Series was over, the National Commission would investigate the handling of ticket sales, particularly in New York.

The ticket scandal, of course, wasn’t on the table at the National Association gathering in San Antonio November 13-18. Representatives of the 47 member leagues, encompassing 332 cities and towns across the United States and Canada,1 were more concerned about proposals to revise the 10-year-old National Agreement and suggestions for curbing gambling on baseball. Well, that and enjoying the entertainments provided by the Texas League and the businesses of San Antonio. Nearly 1,000 delegates to the convention enjoyed a military parade at nearby Fort Sam Houston, a sumptuous banquet, and an East-West All-Star Game for charity featuring such players as Jim O’Rourke, Dick “Dad” Phelan, Jack Holland, Harry Wolverton, Wallace “Happy” Hogan, and Roger Bresnahan.2 Brooklyn owner Charles Ebbets started the game as the umpire, but after he had Billy Clymer, the East’s second baseman, put out of the game, he played second base himself. The East was ahead, 6-2, when the game was called on account of darkness in the top of the sixth inning.3

Revisions to the National Agreement focused on a proposal by three of the five Class-A leagues to create a separate classification, Class AA. The Eastern League, American Association, and Pacific Coast League had grown to the point where for a while it seemed they would be able to challenge the National and American for major-league status. As measured by the census, the three leagues had teams in 17 of the 30 largest cities in the United States, as well as the two largest Canadian cities, and had been rumbling for some time about following the precedent set by the AL in 1901, going their own way as independent major leagues. Barring that, the three leagues wanted, at least, to keep the majors from taking their star players without fair compensation.

Charles Murphy of the Chicago Cubs, however, felt that the majors were the aggrieved parties, pointing to the lack of salary limits in the minor leagues. “Players come to the big leagues from the minors and grossly misrepresent the salaries that they have been paid,” said Murphy, “and as the minor leagues seem to consider information about players sacred, we are held up times without number. There is only one way to overcome this evil, and that is for the leagues to play on the square.”4 For their part, the minor leagues wanted to be able to restore the minor-league salary of ballplayers sent back to them after major-league trials. Wilbur P. Allen, president of the Texas League, proposed that a central board fix a salary limit for each league in a certain classification, and set the penalties for violations of such limits. The magnates contended that the very existence of some leagues depended upon the adoption of such a rule. Most of the November 16 business session was devoted to “the salary limit problem,” which was referred to a committee.

League officials and magnates proposed other ways to keep their hard-earned nickels from falling into the pockets of greedy ballplayers. Ebbets suggested that league presidents and club owners be bonded to ensure observance of salary limits. Michael Sexton, president of the National Association, suggested discontinuing or regulating payments of railroad fares and expenses of players and their families reporting in the spring or returning home after the season. The convention voted to include language in player contracts prohibiting ballplayers from using the uniform of any club without the club’s consent, and “at the expiration of each season he shall turn in his uniform before he receives his final pay,”5 presumably to curb barnstorming.

Meanwhile, the two smaller Class-A circuits, the Western League and Southern Association, mustered enough votes to block the proposed AA classification, mindful that the arrangement would put them into a subservient position. Some skillful parliamentary maneuvering postponed the vote on November 17, and it seems some all-hours negotiation peeled away most of the anti-AA votes. The next morning, only three leagues (the Western, Three-I, and MINK) voted against the proposal. The vote made the San Antonio gathering “one of the most important meetings ever held,” wrote the Chicago Tribune, apparently in all seriousness.6

As for gambling, much was said, but little was done. The leagues felt that they could act on open gambling in their ballparks or by their employees, but that it would take federal or state legislative action to curb the activities of pool sellers, lotteries, and other methods of gambling on baseball. The members adopted resolutions calling for federal prohibition of these devices, as well as betting via mail or wire, and left it at that.

The World Series ticket scandal would return to center stage during the major-league meetings in New York, December 10-14. Ever since the World Series, Johnson had traded “courteous and sharp” open letters with Giants owner John T. Brush on the topic.7 Johnson, in an October 30 Tribune article, insisted he would start an investigation into the matter provided the other two National Commission members, Chairman August Herrmann and NL President Thomas Lynch, would consent. Johnson claimed to have “strong evidence” that an employee of the Giants had turned over 8,000 or 9,000 tickets to brokers, who sold them at inflated prices. “I was firmly led to believe,” wrote Johnson, “that the leading ticket brokers of New York were abundantly provided with tickets, and in consecutive sectional numbers. It seemed to me that this condition could not have happened unless there was collusion between someone in your office and the scalpers.”8

Brush, in his letter, said that Johnson could proceed with his investigation at any time, with the New York club’s full cooperation. Johnson replied, curiously, that Brush himself should take up the investigation, not the National Commission. Brush responded, “You have information which I do not possess, which gives you an advantage in developing the facts,” and noted the absurdity of asking the New York club to investigate its own conduct.9 In the end the National Commission put up $1,500 to collect information on the matter, and expected Johnson to present his evidence at the New York meeting in December.

The controversy simmered in the weeks prior to the league meetings. The Sporting News correspondent from Brooklyn, Thomas S. Rice, defended the Giants, asserting that the Athletics had also let World Series tickets slip into the hands of speculators. Rice blamed “cheap, grafting, short-sighted politicians” in both cities, who blackmailed both clubs by threatening to make life difficult for the ballclubs — by building roads through the ballpark properties, for example — unless gratified. “Precisely the same conditions which existed in New York existed in Philadelphia, and for precisely the same reason. It is known of all men and an investigation could accomplish nothing except to create bitter feelings and keep alive a controversy that should be allowed to fade away.”10

Washington sportswriter Joe S. Jackson agreed that the affair would go nowhere, and wrote that Johnson was raising the scandal for less than high-minded purposes. “It is expected that President Johnson, who is forcing an inquiry, will get through a report that will make the Giants office force look bad, but that will pin nobody down.”11 If so, and if the Yankees fielded a stronger team in 1912, this might draw disaffected New York fans to the AL club, achieving one of Johnson’s long-term goals.

The main editorial in the December 21 issue of The Sporting News acknowledged the point “that the New York Club, as is every other public enterprise, is at the mercy of these vampires.” The editorial opined, however, that Brush should have gone public about the problem, especially since Brush, after a quarter-century in the game, and clearly in failing health, is retiring. “Could he have better marked that retirement than by going before the public and exposing some of the evils that he has had to contend against, with his valedictory a plea that the honest public rise up and for the good of the great national game, rescue it from the slimy clutches of Tammany graft?”12 Easy to say, of course, when you publish your paper a thousand miles from Tammany Hall.

Everyone had ideas, in the meantime, for dealing with ticket scalping. Calls were made for the National Commission to take charge of the sale and distribution of World Series tickets, and for state and local ordinances to prohibit ticket scalping. More extreme proposals aimed to extend the World Series to as many as 15 games, to dilute the value of one game’s tickets, or, conversely, to scrap the World Series entirely.

At its November 12 meeting in Chicago, however, far from scrapping the fall classic, the National Commission set the start date for the 1912 World Series as October 7. The two major leagues were expected to end their seasons before that date. This ended a two-year senior circuit experiment with Columbus Day doubleheaders, a pet project of Ebbets, which had failed dismally. Herrmann had been willing to go along, but when the Reds’ share of their 1911 Columbus Day revenues came to $68, he withheld his support, and Ebbets decided to let it drop.

Nobody expected any other controversies. The major leagues were expected to add their huzzahs to the Class-AA recommendation proposed by the National Association. The National League was expected to re-elect President Lynch, whose two-year tenure had been rocky but respectable. Murphy wanted a committee of umpires and writers to review the baseball rules, standardize the inconsistent, and weed out the archaic. The agendas held a few other routine matters, but by and large, people agreed with the Boston Globe’s Tim Murnane:

The National Commission had its troubles for several years, but finally got into a position where it could handle the disturbing element, so that now, while there is not absolute harmony, the men with large sums of money invested have come to realize that success lies only in cooperation.

With a cemented front the major leagues have now become absolute masters of the situation, and with loyal support, through the National agreement, of the 50 minor leagues, professional baseball today has become the strongest combination ever devised by man.13

The only serious spectator sport left was the ticket scandal, and by the time August Herrmann arrived at the Waldorf-Astoria on December 8, many doubted whether the investigation would bear any fruit, with Herrmann himself one of the doubters. “I have received a long communication from John T. Brush,” Herrmann told the Washington Post, “and his report certainly clears the New York club of suspicion. To date I have received no evidence damaging to the Giants or Giant officials. Whether or not the sales were regularly conducted I am not in a position to state. But so far we have no absolute proof to the contrary. The commission has detectives employed in the investigation. Additional reports are expected before Mr. Johnson arrives on Monday morning.”14

The Giants’ team secretary, William H. Gray, had resigned, though he had not been formally implicated in the ticket scandal. “We haven’t sent for him yet,” said Herrmann, “and probably will not require his presence. Mr. Brush has exonerated him.”15 Gray’s replacement was Joseph D. O’Brien, the respected former American Association president, who would represent the Giants at the league meetings, along with team treasurer John Whalen. Brush, as was his custom, was convalescing in San Antonio for the winter.

When Johnson did arrive, a day later than planned, the remaining enthusiasm for the investigation fizzled. He was said to have news of two ticket brokers who received large blocks of seats, as well as evidence of the sale of blocks of seats to speculators before the public sale opened.16 What evidence he had is not clearly known, but Herrmann and Lynch were even less convinced than they had been before. Neither thought the evidence would stand up in court, if it came to that, and little was disclosed to the public about what was alleged.

Most of the rest of the league meetings was given over to routine business and “an unusual number of trades and deals,” as The Sporting News noted.17 None of the deals involved star players, but Herrmann ended several days of suspense among the writers by unveiling his new manager — Hank O’Day. The umpire and former pitcher got the Reds off to a fast start in 1912, but finished in fourth place with a 75-78 record. O’Day returned to umpiring in 1913.

The National League did indeed re-elect Lynch to another one-year term. When reporters asked whether he would want a 10-year term such as the American League had given Johnson, Lynch told them he would decline such a deal. Murphy had tempered his resistance to Lynch, though he suggested that maybe the NL should simply elect Johnson as its president instead. Since Johnson controlled the league anyway, Murphy barbed, perhaps Johnson ought to be paid for the service.18

The National League also approved the sale of the Boston club to a syndicate led by John M. Ward and James E. Gaffney, pending the settlement of the estate of the recently deceased owner, William H. Russell, and agreed to most of the suggestions from the National Association’s San Antonio meeting, including setting new salary limits and draft prices for all minor leagues.

The Eastern League re-elected its president, Ed Barrow, as well, and also voted to extend his term from one year to five. More momentous, as had long been anticipated, the owners voted to call themselves the International League, the name used to this day.19

Both major leagues authorized their presidents to deal with the Class-AA proposal, and the National Commission subsequently adopted the measure at its January meeting.

While the American League completed its business “in record time,” to no one’s surprise, the junior circuit was clearly miffed by attacks in the New York press on the conduct of the Philadelphia ticket sales, and surprised everyone by passing this resolution:

Resolved, that the American League will continue to exercise its privileges and observe its obligations under the National Agreement, but will decline to have further official intercourse with the National League, except so far as may be requisite for the safeguarding of its territorial and player rights.

Be it further resolved, that the American League will not be represented in another series for the championship of the world or in any other interleague event unless accorded sole charge of the sales of tickets to games played on its own grounds, under an arrangement, and with the understanding that it shall not assume responsibility for the conduct of the business department of games at the park of the other contesting club.20

The National League held a closed-door session to discuss the American League’s apparent breakup letter, then voted to table it. Ebbets wanted to send a sternly worded reply, but for once, cooler heads prevailed in the NL. A diplomatic Lynch merely told reporters afterward, “We could not make out what it meant.”21

In the end, Johnson signed off on National Commission Decision Number 839, dated January 6, 1912. Its conclusion was that while speculators in both New York and Philadelphia had acquired large numbers of World Series tickets and sold them at exorbitant prices, “there has nothing whatever been developed, even by intimation, that would in any way implicate any of them [the ballclubs] as having been in collusion with the ticket speculators. On the contrary, it has been shown that every reasonable precaution was taken by both clubs to protect the public. Therefore, the club owners and the regular officials of each club are completely exonerated.”22 The decision went on to acknowledge that one or more club employees might have colluded with scalpers, “although such a condition was almost impossible in Philadelphia when the manner of the distribution of the tickets in that city is taken into account.” However, the National Commission decided it could not hold the clubs responsible for those actions without definite proof.

The decision also hinted at the possibility of the commission’s taking over World Series ticket sales, but stopped short of taking that step. As with the gambling issue, the commission called for state and local ordinances to prohibit ticket scalping, pointing to a Pittsburgh ordinance as a model.

On that uncomfortable perch, the matter rested.

 

Notes

1  Chicago Tribune, November 16, 1911: 6.

2  Los Angeles Times, November 17, 1911: III4.

3  Chicago Tribune, November 19, 1911: C3.

4  Boston Globe, November17, 1911: 6.

5  New York Times, November 18, 1911: 14.

6  Chicago Tribune, November 19, 1911: C3.

7  Chicago Tribune, November 4, 1911: 12.

8  Ibid.

9  Ibid.

10  The Sporting News, November 9, 1911: 3.

11  Washington Post, December 3, 1911: S1.

12 The Sporting News, December 21, 1911: 3.

13  Boston Globe, November 12, 1911: 32.

14 Washington Post, December 10, 1911: S1.

15 Ibid.

16  New York Times, December 10, 1911: part 5, 5-7.

17 The Sporting News, December 21, 1911: 3.

18 Ibid.

19  The Sporting News, December 14, 1911: 1.

20  The Sporting News, December 21, 1911: 3.

21 Ibid.

22  Decisions of the National Commission, No. 839. “In re Investigation of Ticket Sale During World’s Series,” January 6, 1912, 3-8.

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