1916 Winter Meetings: The Minors and Players are Restless

This article was written by Rich Bogovich

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


Major-league attendance surged nicely in 1916 without Federal League franchises competing with six NL and AL teams in four cities, Chicago, St. Louis, Brooklyn, and Pittsburgh. The combined attendance of 6.5 million — up from 4.8 million in 1915 — was only returning to 1911 levels, but major-league magnates had to be relieved that the recovery occurred promptly.

Though the Cardinals’ attendance slipped slightly, the other five major-league teams in Federal League cities — the Cubs, White Sox, Browns, Robins (Dodgers), and Pirates — saw their combined attendance increase by about 775,000, or close to half of the total increase in major-league baseball.

In addition, the two teams bought by Federal League owners, the Cubs and Browns, saw their attendance more than double. Nevertheless, there were several significant controversies and threats looming over Organized Baseball as the leagues’ annual meetings drew near in November and December. 

New Orleans hosted the annual conclave of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues (NAPBL) for 1916, from November 14 through 16. The Boston Globe had the benefit of a preview provided by its own Tim Murnane, who doubled as the NAPBL’s vice president, elected a year earlier by virtue of his league leadership in the Northeast. Murnane began by focusing on a big negative. He noted that in 1914 the major leagues had paid $300,000 into the minor-league treasury for purchasing and drafting its players. Complications caused by the Federal League’s existence apparently prevented any such deposit in 1915, but during the fall of 1916 the payment was less than $100,000, due to the many signings of former Federal Leaguers in the AL and NL, in place of minor leaguers, to round out rosters. 

Murnane highlighted a second potential agenda item that involved the two major leagues:  making a minor-league representative a fourth member of the National Commission, the body that had governed baseball since 1902. There was also talk of a fifth member who would represent the players.

The National Commission had always consisted of the AL and NL presidents plus a member on whom they mutually agreed. From the onset, that third member was Cincinnati Reds president August “Garry” Herrmann. American League President Ban Johnson, however, was reportedly finding it difficult to work with National League President John Tener, who was finishing his third year in that position.

The elimination of the Federal League must not have changed the relationship between the AL and NL at its core, as Murnane declared, “No matter how pleasant everything may look on the surface, the fact is that the magnates of the two major leagues look on each other with suspicion.” Murnane also commented that in recent years the NL, AL, and NAPBL had “worked together in the most friendly manner.”1 The implication was that, assuming no desire by the NL to replace Tener on the commission, adding a minor-league representative may have been the most promising cure.

It wasn’t until he wrote a shorter preview two days later that Murnane brought up an aspect of the NAPBL discussions likely to be of greater interest to fans, under the headline, “Many Trades Are Expected,” but he didn’t elaborate in the article.2

NAPBL President Michael Sexton circulated a letter shortly before the meeting that was reminiscent of his call for frugality during his opening remarks a year earlier. As it turned out, a family illness kept him back home, so Murnane served as chairman. That afforded him the opportunity to refer to himself in the third person in his account of the first day.

At the time of the NAPBL meeting a year earlier, its membership consisted of 22 leagues, and it had grown to 26 by the time of the gathering in New Orleans. However, a few had experienced or were continuing to cope with complications, most notably the Canadian League. Its teams didn’t play at all during 1916 due to Canada’s participation in the Great War across Europe. In fact, the league would never resume play.

Murnane also framed some labor intrigue scheduled for the next day, in the form of a presentation by major leaguer-turned-attorney Dave Fultz, leader of the four-year-old Fraternity of Baseball Players. “It is well known that all the minor league players have signed an agreement to withhold their signatures from new contracts until after March 1 or until notified by Fultz that all is well,” Murnane wrote. “The minor league magnates will not worry very much if they are forced by the players to close their ball parks until Memorial Day. It would cost the leagues nearly $20,000 each season to meet the demands of Mr. Fultz, who has asked the convention to make it a law requiring the clubs to pay for the transportation of players to and from home.”3 

Fultz did prove to be the big story of the second day, and as a result the specter of a strike surfaced. The NAPBL’s leaders voted unanimously to table indefinitely each of four demands presented by Fultz, essentially rejecting them. Those demands were to prohibit certain contractual clauses that allowed teams to stop paying injured players, to permit unconditionally released players to sign immediately with other clubs, to provide players with travel money to attend spring-training camps, and to revise procedures of the minor leagues’ National Board when it heard claims filed by players. NAPBL Secretary John Farrell, its only paid employee, asserted that the first demand had been met three years earlier but argued against the other three demands.4

Decisions on the NAPBL’s third and final day included submitting a request to the two major leagues to form a second National Commission that would include minor-league representation and act only on appealed rulings of the minor leagues’ National Board. As formulated, the new panel would have two minor-league and two major-league slots, plus a member selected by the other four.

According to Murnane, “many baseball men” favored offering that fifth seat to federal Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis of Chicago, who in 1914 had been assigned to preside over the Federal League’s injunction suit against the NL and AL. An internal decision made was to a repeal the year-old regulation under which the NAPBL set player and salary limits for all of the minor leagues. As a result, each league would again set its own limits.5

The NAPBL apparently didn’t take seriously a major proposal floating around Organized Baseball at the time: to form a new American Association as a third major league. At a minimum, the plan was endorsed by AL President Johnson. The idea was to combine Milwaukee, Indianapolis, Toledo, and Louisville of the existing American Association with Baltimore, Buffalo, Newark, and Toronto of the International League. One vision for a reformed International League had existing franchises in Providence, Rochester, and Montreal joined by Syracuse, Albany, Utica, and Binghamton, with Jersey City possibly supplanting Richmond. IL President Ed Barrow rejected the concept upon his return from New Orleans, though it had been discussed.6

On November 23, about a week after the NAPBL’s labor decisions, Dave Fultz responded publicly:

The National Association simply must grant these requests; that is all there is to it. We have pledges from virtually all our players not to sign contracts unless they get word from officers of the Fraternity.

I am more sure than ever that we have the majority of the players behind us on this issue. Since the minor leagues conference ignored our requests in New Orleans, I have received letters from dozens of players asking that we “sit tight.”7

That, in turn, provoked a prompt warning from none other than NL President Tener:

Should the major league players declare a sympathetic strike because of the refusal of the National Association to grant certain requests of the Baseball Players Fraternity it will be a strike not against the National Commission but against the very game of baseball itself.

I cannot conceive that young men like our players can talk of attempting to tie up their business over such a trivial matter as is involved in the dispute between the Players Fraternity and the minor leagues. A strike of this kind would simply mean that big league players would have to bear the entire brunt of it. The Class AA and A minor leagues could easily pick up 16 men for their teams, while the big leagues were idle.

Everything that has been accomplished for the benefit and advancement of the player has come through the national commission. Mr. Fultz says the commission has always been fair and just. I will go farther than that and say that in disputes between the players and club owners the commission always has leaned toward the player.8

Fultz, on behalf of a Fraternity membership reported at 1,215, publicly rebutted Tener about two weeks later and took issue with a particular adjective that the NL leader used:

These minor league matters are not trivial and are of as much importance to major league players as they are to the men in the minors. There are about 5,000 minor league players and only 360 major leaguers. And sooner or later every one of those 360 men will drift back to the minors or retire from the game. That is why the failure of the National Association to recognize the Fraternity’s just requests involves the major league player as well as the minor league player and why he is willing to go to any length to support the minors. Furthermore, of what use would the Fraternity be if its members failed to band together in such times as these?”9

Meanwhile, on November 24 it was announced that a special meeting of the National Commission was called for December 1 in Chicago, on changes to the form of players’ contracts.  Tener’s fellow members both had public comments to offer. “There will be no renewal of high salaried ‘war’ contracts,” Ban Johnson said a few days before the meeting, alluding to the inflation caused by competition with the Federal League.10 That position couldn’t have come as much of a surprise to observers of the game.

After the meeting, Garry Herrmann’s public comments mentioned Fultz at least three times. “The new contract, adopted today, means that a player, if injured, will be paid in full and the contract cannot, under any circumstances, be terminated until it expires. The clause is the most beneficial that could possibly be arranged for the player, and I am sure it will more than satisfy the contentions of the Players’ Fraternity,” Herrmann concluded.11

On November 23 The Sporting News had printed a long editorial about these labor issues that was critical of Fultz, but in other commentaries, both before and after the November 23 piece, the paper instead blasted the NAPBL on the governance issues it was pushing. In the first, the weekly predicted doom for any continued effort to add a minor-league representative and a players’ counterpart to the National Commission: “Quick to denounce Dave Fultz and his Fraternity for manufacturing ‘grievances,’ the minors themselves with an inconsistency that is amazing to those who have followed baseball administration closely, conjure up ‘grievances’ of their own against the majors and the Commission that are as baseless as anything Fultz ever imagined in his most radical nightmare.” In the other editorial minor-league magnates were scolded for not stomaching the National Commission’s ability to set aside rulings of the minors’ National Board.12

It may be that these stances influenced subsequent coverage, and made at least some sportswriters view the NAPBL’s positions as a bigger deal. An extreme example came out of the New York bureau of the Los Angeles Times on December 11, the day of the International League’s annual meeting in New York: “Organized baseball peace is once more seriously threatened,” the dispatch said. “The minor leagues are ready to secede and rid themselves of the yoke of the national commission.”13

Thus, there was plenty for National League magnates to discuss at New York’s Waldorf Hotel from December 12 through 14, and for AL leaders in Chicago on the latter date. On the NL’s first day, President Tener made his annual report, in which he endorsed Herrmann’s idea of diverting some of the World Series money currently allocated to the pennant winners’ players to all of the other players in the two leagues. Secretary John Heydler’s report followed, and it included the calculation that 14,744 baseballs were used during the season, an increase of 1,526 over the previous year.14

After these talks the league took some action regarding roster limits, abolishing the “disability list” and increasing by one, from 21 to 22, the number of players that a team could carry from May 15 to August 31. The Cubs and Giants were the lone votes in favor of increasing rosters to 25 during that span.15

The magnates then heard three representatives of the NAPBL press their case for a new counterpart to the National Commission. The trio consisted of Murnane, Pacific Coast League Vice President J. Cal Ewing, and Eastern League President Dan O’Neil. Afterward, the presidents of the three Double-A leagues—Edward Barrow of the International League, Thomas Hickey of the American Association, and Allen Baum of the PCL—requested that drafting players from their leagues be eliminated. The NL leaders decided to wait two days before taking any action on these matters.

On the second day the NL leaders discussed and debated but did little deciding. Pittsburgh’s Barney Dreyfuss was largely successful in fending off attempts by the Giants to allow exceptions to the 22-player limit, though the issue was ultimately referred to the Committee on Constitution. Similarly, though a suggestion by Phillies’ president William Baker to prohibit trades after August 1 was popular, the alternative date of August 15 advocated by Brooklyn’s Charles Ebbets caused the matter to be sent to the same committee. It was expected to make recommendations in time for another league meeting in February.

Two hours on the third day were spent discussing possible rule changes. Boston Braves president Percy Haughton advocated changes that would increase scoring, including awarding a walk after three pitched balls and banning the spitball. Various suggestions were referred to the Joint Rules Committee. The magnates referred the two requests from the minor leagues to the National Commission, though according to Sporting Life, the NL delegates announced their endorsement of a new counterpart to that board.16

The National Commission was also asked to address a concern about the contractual framework it had developed on December 1. Someone noticed that it contained a clause that allowed a player to appeal his salary directly to the commission, which owners argued would place far too much authority in the commission’s hands.

The NL added a fourth day of discussions, and an early controversy was Dreyfuss’ unsuccessful attempt to push Herrmann off the National Commission in favor of someone unconnected to Organized Baseball.The league later sent to the National Commission a new scheme for drafting minor leaguers. The major change supported was to give the earliest picks to the poorer performing clubs rather than those at the top of the two leagues’ standings. 

Only one significant deal was made between teams during the NL’s conclave, but it was an unusual one. In an effort to replace Joe Tinker as manager, the Cubs traded outfielder Joe Kelly plus cash to the Boston Braves for coach Fred Mitchell, who became Chicago’s new skipper.

In the meantime, the American League was able to confine its meeting to December 14. One new policy approved applied to World Series games played in AL parks. The price of tickets could only be doubled, meaning that bleacher seats would cost no more than 50 cents. An exception allowed for a $5 tax on box seats.

Like the NL, the AL’s leaders permitted two groups of minor-league representatives to speak about the same requests. The club owners empowered Ban Johnson to decide the matters, presumably through the National Commission. “President Johnson, however, did not give the minor league applicants any positive answers,” according to the Sporting News account. “Rather he questioned them, debated with them and gave them pointers on his own ideas of the needs of baseball as a whole—then sent them on their way pondering and with ideas on new propositions expected to develop later.”17 Other than approving the contractual framework submitted with minor modifications, no other major decisions were made during the AL’s day.

Those looking for decisive action on the more important lingering issues had to wait until the National Commission met in New York on February 15, 1917. The commission did make some adjustments to how players would be drafted from the minors, but they didn’t grant the bigger wishes of the three Double-A presidents. The commission also rejected the creation of a counterpart for handling appeals of decisions by the minor leagues’ National Board, though it did decide it would involve the National Board’s secretary and the minor leagues’ president when such cases were brought before it. “This really therefore makes a board of five and gives the minor leagues representation on the Commission in all cases affecting them,” concluded Sporting Life. Alas, Tim Murnane was no longer around to comment. He had died of a sudden heart attack eight days earlier, at the age of 64.

The other major decision made on that mid-February day was a clear statement on labor matters. About a month earlier, Dave Fultz had emerged from a Fraternity meeting in Chicago to announce a potential strike on February 20. He called it off just before the National Commission meeting, but the trio still adopted this resolution:

“Resolved by the National Commission that the action of the National and American Leagues, in severing relations with the Players’ Fraternity and abrogating the agreement entered into with said Fraternity, under date of January 6, 1914, be and same is hereby ratified and approved, with the understanding that the status of all interests in Organized Base Ball, club owners, and players alike, is the same as it was before the agreement hereinbefore referred to was entered into, having in mind the preamble of the National Agreement adopted in 1903, under which the game has advanced to the position of the national institution to which we point with pride today.”18

As a result, the Fraternity gradually disintegrated, and there wouldn’t be a new surge of unionism among baseball players for about five years.

 

Notes

1 T.H. Murnane, “Minor Leagues Meet Next Week,” Boston Globe, November 12, 1916: 57.

2 T.H. Murnane, “Many Trades Are Expected,” Boston Globe, November 14, 1916: 6.

3 T.H. Murnane, “Minors Balk on $20,000 Outlay,” Boston Globe, November 15, 1916: 9.

4 “Minor Leaguers Table Demands of Fraternity,” Los Angeles Times, November 16, 1916: III1.

5 T.H. Murnane, “Minors Want New National Commission,” Boston Globe, November 17, 1916: 6.

6 “Barrow Against Third League,” Christian Science Monitor, November 21, 1916: 10. Directly above that article was one in which Johnson endorsed the scheme. The concept was detailed in the first story of The Sporting News on November 16. Subsequently, Columbus was named in place of Milwaukee in order to form a more compact circuit, according to “Third Major League Is Still Probability,” Washington Post, December 8, 1916: 8.

7 “Players to Refuse to Sign Contracts,” Hartford Courant, November 24, 1916: 17.

8 “Statement Is Given by Tener on Strike Talk,” Christian Science Monitor, November 25, 1916: 18.

9 “Fultz Calls Strike One of Principle,” Hartford Courant, December 6, 1916: 17.

10 “To Cut Players’ Salaries,” New York Times, November 29, 1916: 8.

11 “Concession to Ball Players,” Boston Globe, December 3, 1916: 17.

12 “Minors’ Plan Will Fail” and “Saved From Own Folly,” The Sporting News, November 23, 1916: 4.

13 “Minor League Magnates to Start Revolution,” Los Angeles Times, December 12, 1916: III1.

14 “The Meeting of the National League,” Sporting Life, December 23, 1916: 4.

15 “Player Limit Only Increased by One,” New York Times, December 13, 1916: 12.

16  “Concession to Ball Players.”

17 “American League Declares for Reducing Baseball Cost,” The Sporting News, December 21, 1916: 3.

18 “Important Action by the National Commission,” Sporting Life, February 24, 1917: 2.

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