1917 Winter Meetings: War? What War?

This article was written by Paul Hensler

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


Introduction and Context

Now fully invested in the Great War taking place in Europe, the United States was burdened by a shift in its political and economic conditions that demanded a sharp focus on a mobilization of the nation’s armed forces. 

On the home front, Americans were implored to sacrifice for the good of the war effort, and the national pastime was absorbing some of the impact of those perilous times. Even with the demise of the Federal League, attendance was down in both the National and American Leagues, and with no end to the war in sight, more men joined the military, either voluntarily or through conscription, thus siphoning an increasing number of players from the rosters of major- and minor-league teams.

Baseball entered the late autumn of 1917 cloaked in a pall of uncertainty. One month after the Chicago White Sox’ six-game victory over the New York Giants in the World Series, Brooklyn Dodgers owner Charles Ebbets tried to counter fears over a possible suspension of the 1918 campaign by claiming, “The public will require recreation during the continuance of the war.”1 Ebbets intended those recreational endeavors to include baseball, even at the cost of a proposed schedule reduction to 140 games and the addition of a federally mandated 10 percent tax on tickets that would likely discourage more people from attending games.           

As autumn wore on, several leagues met in various locations to chart a course intended to provide the game with guidance for the coming season.   

The Business Side

Among the first issues to be addressed was the sorry state of the minor leagues. Convening in Louisville, Kentucky, the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues sought to form a new league in an effort to coalesce several of its member franchises into a new Union League. 

Great interest was shown by the major-league clubs in the proposed new association, because without a stable minor-league base from which to draw new major-league talent, “disruption … and disintegration of the minors would mean too much to the big league club owners.”2 This concern over the viability of baseball’s lower ranks was rooted in the fact that only 11 of 22 minor leagues completed their 1917 schedules, and trepidation over a collapse of the system underpinning “the foundation of the American and National [L]eagues” was not just idle fear-mongering.3

Creation of a new league by redistricting those still in existence was thought to be a rational way to address the impending crisis. But the proposal was fiercely opposed by most franchise owners — those in Louisville, Indianapolis, and Toledo among the most vocal — and on November 14 the National Association voted resoundingly against such a plan.4                 

The backdrop of the war remained increasingly ominous, and on December 11, officials of the National League and the minor leagues met in New York to consider their options for 1918. The good news was that baseball would resume in the spring, but front offices were faced with the stark realization that “the game cannot go along rousing its usual interest with public attention centered on how things are going among the thousands of American soldiers in Europe.”5

The possibility of a reduced schedule grew more likely as interstate transportation logistics were expected to emphasize military-oriented objectives rather than civilian needs. This meant that railroads, which provided the majority of such transit services, “will be compelled to move more troops and supplies than they did this year, [and] conditions may be such as to interfere with the quick jumps of the baseball clubs [from city to city].”6

The NL magnates agreed to confer with American League owners later that week to discuss the best strategy for the coming season, although this issue was controversial in its own right. August “Garry” Herrmann, the chairman of the National Commission, had already scheduled a joint meeting of the two major leagues in Chicago without the official consent of the National League clubs, and many of those team officials questioned the wisdom of rushing into a session with the AL before all of the National League’s affairs could be given necessary attention during the session in New York. 

Senior circuit representatives also tended to other baseball-related business by re-electing John Tener as league president, reappointing J.H. Heydler league secretary for another four-year stint, and officially awarding the 1917 pennant to the New York Giants. In a move designed to share “part of the world’s series receipts” among more teams, the National League approved splitting the fall classic’s gate with all clubs except the one finishing the season in last place.7

The league declared that during the 1918 campaign one day’s gate receipts at every ballpark would be donated to Clark Griffith’s Ball and Bat Fund, a charitable venture that supplied baseball equipment to American troops at home and abroad. And in a matter of internal jurisprudence, the league’s constitution was amended to preclude the appeal of large fines levied against players or managers for “scandalous conduct on or off the field.”8

The measure was implemented as a corrective for a case during the 1917 season in which Giants manager John McGraw appealed the $500 fine and 16-day suspension he drew for his role in a brawl with umpire Bill Byron.9                 

With the plenary session of the National and American Leagues just ahead, a meeting of International League owners in New York let it be known that they did not want to set policy for 1918 in too hasty a fashion, and for good reason. With the new season still months away, there was angst among “the more conservative owners and officers,” who feared that improved conditions in the war might obviate some contingencies baseball may have committed to, among them a shorter schedule or rosters trimmed to 18 players.10

The IL meeting was also punctuated by the decision of league President Edward Barrow to step down in February 1918. Barrow tendered his resignation in response to the slashing of his salary by the team owners from $7,500 to $2,500. 

Meanwhile, officials of the American League, meeting in Chicago at the same time as their National League counterparts in New York, expressed a desire to keep their squads staffed with 25 players. One of the most vocal owners, Colonel Jacob Ruppert of the Yankees, curiously opined that teams needed a full complement of players, citing a “[necessity] to carry undeveloped minor leaguers [who are] scared to death, and it requires time for [them] to wear off [their] stage fright” after being called up to the big-league club.11 The league also endorsed continuation of spring training in its accustomed format with no accommodations like travel or schedule alterations to be made for wartime conditions.                         

The convention of AL owners on December 12 re-elected Charles Comiskey vice president and presented him with the 1917 league pennant. The junior circuit’s board of directors was installed, its new members being team presidents Phil Ball (St. Louis Browns), Frank Navin (Detroit), Benjamin Minor (Washington), and Ben Shibe (Philadelphia Athletics). Discussion of a possible split of World Series ticket receipts among the top four American League teams yielded no agreement, as most clubs voiced the opinion that only the league champion was entitled to the proceeds. And in a show of sympathy for the passing of a local baseball scribe, the owners sanctioned an exhibition contest between the two Philadelphia teams with all funds raised to be given to the widow of William G. Weart, baseball writer for the Philadelphia Telegraph.       

With league-specific matters put to rest for the time being, executives of the National and American Leagues convened December 14 at the Congress Hotel in Chicago, “the first joint session held in years,” said the Chicago Tribune.12    

Noting the rivalry very much present between the two circuits as well as the National League’s perceived superiority over the American, the Tribune told its readers that the junior circuit owners hesitated to take action to alter the length of the 1918 season or its starting date. “On important issues of the day the American Leaguers begged to be excused until they had had an opportunity to talk these over with the Nationals,” but in terms of realistic expectations for dealing with the current dilemma, “[t]he real purpose of the joint meeting is to form some sort of working agreement between the two major leagues so that baseball can be carried on next season regardless of war conditions.”13  

The power of ownership — as vested in the reserve clause — was manifest in the intention of teams to trim their payrolls as a way to cut costs. “There is going to be some wonderful salary dipping in the next few months,” the Tribune reported, “and naturally some stories following of players refusing to sign because of mistreatment.”14 Ban Johnson, president of the American League, further proposed the inclusion of a “war clause” in players’ contracts that would not only “absolve [club owners] from all salary obligations in the event a player enlisted or is drafted” but also deem players returning from military service “still bound to the club with which he last signed.”15

Debate over another kind of expense that could not be reduced was also on the agenda. Payments were owed to a pair of ownerships of the defunct Federal League, $50,000 to the old Pittsburgh group and $60,000 to the former Brooklyn franchise. As a means of settling controversies that erupted during the brief tenure of the Federal League, both the NL and AL were expected to endorse the remittances. 

When the joint session was finally held, on December 14, the team owners collectively expressed little regard for any war considerations previously discussed. Finding “no cause for alarm about baseball at present … [t]hey agreed that if the war forces them to retrench it will be time enough to adopt a war policy when they actually face conditions.”16

The only concession to the war effort was to delay the opening of the 1918 season by one week, and the campaign itself was to consist of the full 154-game schedule, although the American League unsuccessfully lobbied for a 140-game slate. This stunning display of myopia came at a time when the need to call men to the colors was reaching a most critical point. As the historian David Kennedy noted in his detailed study of the period, “Men’s willingness to come forward, so tensely relied upon in the spring of 1917, was less certain than ever [by the autumn of that year].”17

It is incredulous that club owners who, like the rest of the American populace at large, were exposed to the dunning of organizations such as the Committee on Public Information for the purchase of war bonds — to say nothing of the incessant orations of Four-Minute Men drumming up all manner of support for the war effort — could believe that baseball on any level would be able to continue normal operations. In an era during which “100% Americanism” and “slacker raids” also painted the landscape of the United States, the moguls of the national pastime were deluding themselves if they thought that baseball would function as idyllically as it did in peacetime.18    

Also meeting in Chicago and acquiescing to contemporaneous war demands, American Association club owners adopted a 1918 schedule beginning in May and reduced from the standard 154 contests to 140. They further sanctioned the use of two umpires per game rather than one and unanimously voted to outlaw “the spitball, ‘shine’ ball, ‘emery’ ball, and all other similar deliveries.”19   

But as printed in its December 20 edition to recap the joint AL-NL session, The Sporting News reported, “[T]he two majors, called together to decide on a general war policy, made no departures from previous regulations whatever, so far as was disclosed to the public.”20 Forced by the government to impose an admissions tax on tickets, the owners conceded that such a surcharge would be implemented, but this was the only indication of a straying from baseball’s steady course.  The Sporting News suggested that the “bold front” shown the public by the owners was a testament to the grandeur of the game as “an institution not even the greatest of wars can do damage to.”21              

Optimism as exuded by the owners, in the hope of playing a pat hand while the rest of the country made increasing sacrifices, eventually darkened. The reality of the conflict in Europe in 1918 would cause baseball to close down its regular season in early September and play the World Series well ahead of schedule.   

Personnel Dealings

Accounts in the press in late 1917 reported the traditional offseason swapping and purchasing of players, although included in this reportage was the disclaimer that in some cases such transactions could be voided or restructured if a player was drafted into the armed forces. Nonetheless, Baseball Magazine reported, “Despite the worrisome uncertainty of the war — the lik[e]lihood that many of the men who might be traded would be carried off for martial service — more deals were made than were ever recorded during a similar period.”22  

The deal garnering the most attention was the trade on December 11 of catcher William Killefer and star hurler Grover Cleveland Alexander from the Philadelphia Phillies to the Chicago Cubs for right-handed pitcher Mike Prendergast, catcher William “Pickles” Dillhoefer, and a substantial cash payment, variously reported as between $55,000 and $80,000.”23 Cubs owner Charles Weeghman looked to retool his lineup by purchasing some new players and was prepared to spend lavishly; he was rumored to have $250,000 available to do so. By adding the right-handed Alexander, one of the best pitchers of the day, to his staff, Weeghman evinced his willingness to open his coffers.    

Joining the spree was Boston Red Sox owner Harry Frazee, who had unsuccessfully pursued several players on the Philadelphia Athletics roster for most of 1917. Finally, on December 14, he consummated a trade with A’s owner Connie Mack that delivered to Boston a trio of “great stars who did so much for the Mackmen in the days that used to be”: catcher Wally Schang, outfielder Amos Strunk, and right-hander Bullet Joe Bush.24 In return, Boston parted with southpaw Vean Gregg, catcher Chet Thomas, and outfielder Manny Kopp, plus $60,000. The Cleveland Indians had hoped to acquire Bush, but owner Jim Dunn lost out in his bid. As the joint meetings came to a close, the St. Louis Browns sent outfielder Burt Shotton and shortstop Doc Lavan to the Washington Senators for right-hander Melvin “Bert” Gallia and $15,000. 

As trading continued past the end of 1917 and into the new year, the Cubs remained active as they swapped outfielders with the Phillies on December 29, Fred “Cy” Williams heading east and George “Dode” Paskert moving west. One week later, Chicago sent second baseman Larry Doyle, catcher Dutch Wilson, and $15,000 of Weeghman’s funds to Boston for Braves southpaw George “Lefty” Tyler.

During the course of January 1918, four other deals were also finalized. Having expressed his desire to leave the Giants, infielder Buck Herzog anticipated a trade during the meetings, but it was not until January 8 that he was sent to the Boston Braves for the just-acquired Doyle and right-hander Jesse Barnes. The next day, the Brooklyn Dodgers traded second baseman George Cutshaw and outfielder Casey Stengel to Pittsburgh for shortstop Chuck Ward and a pair of right-handers, young Burleigh Grimes and two-time 21-game winner Al Mamaux.

On January 10, first baseman Stuffy McInnis became yet another former Athletic when Connie Mack dealt him to the Red Sox for three players to be selected at Mack’s option.25  Lastly, the Yankees traded what Baseball Magazine termed “most of their ball club” to the Browns for second baseman Del Pratt and future Hall of Fame left-hander Eddie Plank, in addition to $15,000.26 The Yankees surrendered catcher Les Nunamaker, right-hander Urban Shocker and southpaw Nick Cullop, as well as two infielders, Fritz Maisel and Joe Gedeon.            

Observing that the early December trades boded well for the sport, The Sporting News opined stoically, “The big deals put through will revive interest in the national game and cause the public to realize that the magnates are of the [mindset] that war is not going to put an end to the National pastime.”27             

Summary

Much bravado was exuded by major-league baseball after the 1917 season in the hope that the Great War — now devolved into a stalemate — could somehow be brought to a conclusion. Bold headlines proclaimed baseball’s disregard for “wartime retrenchment” and the importuning of “war economists” while team owners plunged ahead making “big player deals [that] indicate confidence in the future.”28 Had a settlement been reached to end the conflict, baseball doubtless would have fared well.

However, as the loss of players to the war effort continued, leagues on the major- and minor-league levels were to find that coping with the reality of the times was eventually going to harm the game. Attempts at a “business as usual” approach would prove to be an exercise in poor judgment by those who ran major-league baseball, and the winter of 1917-1918 became a lost opportunity for the national pastime to gird itself for the hard times yet ahead.                  

 

Sources

In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author also consulted:

Gillette, Gary, and Pete Palmer, eds. The ESPN Baseball Encyclopedia, Fourth Edition.  (New York: Sterling Publishing Company, 2007).

The Baseball Encyclopedia, Ninth Edition (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1993).

 

Notes

1 Thomas Rice, “Ebbets Outlines His Views as to Future of Baseball,” The Sporting News, November 8, 1917: 7.

2 J.V. Fitzgerald, “Baseball’s Fate During War May Hang on Meeting,” Washington Post, November 12, 1917: 8.

3 Ibid.

4 “Chiefs Meet to Make New Baseball Map,” Los Angeles Times, November 13, 1917: III-1; “Minor Leagues Against Change,” Christian Science Monitor, November 15, 1917: 12.

5 “Club Owners Face Serious Problems,” New York Times, December 9, 1917: 33.

6 Ibid.

7 “National Has Plan to Pass Series Coin Out Among 7 Clubs,” Chicago Tribune, December 13, 1917: 21.

8 “National League Will Meet American: Johnson’s Circuit Awaits Coming: Barrow Will Resign,” Hartford Courant, December 13, 1917: 14.

9 See also Wm. A. Phelon, “Stirring Times in Baseball History,” Baseball Magazine, Volume 19, Issue 4: 427-428.

10 “International Owners Gather,” Christian Science Monitor, December 10, 1917: 16.

11 “American Opposes Cutting Program,” Boston Globe, December 13, 1917: 9.  Unreported were Ruppert’s thoughts on any stage fright (or shellshock) experienced by troops on the Western Front. Notables who favored roster cuts were Branch Rickey, Barney Dreyfuss, and Charles Ebbets.

12 James Crusinberry, “Major Owners Gather Today to Prune Cost,” Chicago Daily Tribune, December 14, 1917: 15.      

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid.

15  “American League Makes No Changes,” New York Times, December 14, 1917: 10.

16 “Major Leagues to Start a Week Later,” Boston Daily Globe, December 15, 1917: 5.

17 David M. Kennedy, Over Here: The First World War and American Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 167.

18 Indeed, as Kennedy makes clear in his study of the United States during the Great War, “The quickening pace of the draft calls in the summer of 1918 and the extended registration in September revealed the growing desperateness of the military’s manpower needs.”  Over Here, 167. Other measures that year would be attempted by the owners to excuse players from wartime service, including having their players sign affidavits requesting that their draft boards grant them deferred classification. See also copy of affidavit, Papers of August Herrmann, 1887-1938, BAMSS12, National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, National Baseball Hall of Fame, Cooperstown, New York, Box 113, Folder 4.  

19 “Short Season, Late Start in Association,” The Sporting News, December 20, 1917: 1.  An experiment in which a single umpire was employed during games proved to be a failed “economizing.”       

20 “Majors’ Joint Conference Turns Down War Economists,” The Sporting News, December 20, 1917: 3. 

21 “Concerning the Joint Conference,” The Sporting News, December 20, 1917: 4.

22 Wm. A. Phelon, “Sensational Baseball Trades,” Baseball Magazine, 1918, Volume 20, Issue 2: 399.   

23 The Chicago Tribune claimed a payment of $80,000, but later figures, among them those in the Macmillan Baseball Encyclopedia, put the amount at $55,000.

24 Edward F. Martin, “Three Big Stars Sold to Red Sox,” Boston Globe, December 15, 1917: 1. A sidebar to this article noted that the sale of the three Athletics was another in a series of deals in which Connie Mack sold off 17 players over the prior three years for a total of about $175,000.   

25 Phelon, “Sensational Baseball Trades,” 400. Phelon, more than implying that playing in Philadelphia for Mack had become less than desirable, snidely remarked, “Members of the Sox are trembling in their shoes fearing that Connie’s hawk-like eye may light upon them. They have cause.” Those ultimately chosen were third baseman Larry Gardner, outfielder Tillie Walker, and backstop Hick Cady. 

26 Ibid. Citing health issues, Plank had actually announced his retirement in August, shortly after losing a 1-0 classic to Walter Johnson, and he kept his word, never reporting to the Yankees. Jan Finkel, “Eddie Plank,” SABR Baseball Biography Project, sabr.org/bioproj/person/339eaa5c

27 “Cleveland Also to Pull Off Big Deal,” The Sporting News, December 20, 1917: 3.

28 Quoted from various articles, The Sporting News, December 20, 1917: 3.

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