This article was written by Joe Marren
This article was published in the
Introduction and context
It is a tale of precedent set and precedent broken. While the combined majors and minors confab would one day be called the winter meetings, minor-league meetings were first actually held in October, so Buffalo was among the first Northeastern cities to host the meetings in December (December 5, to be precise), which is definitely winter in Buffalo. Also, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, chosen the sport’s first commissioner on November 12, 1920 (although he didn’t formally take charge until January 12, 1921), attended his first set of winter meetings in Buffalo in 1921. An interesting sidelight is that the first winter meetings without him also occurred in Buffalo; they began on December 6, 1944, less than two weeks after Landis died on November 25, 1944, in Chicago.
When representatives from 21 of the 26 minor leagues formally opened the business meeting in Buffalo’s Lafayette Hotel on Monday, December 5, the economy of the leagues and the teams was at the very top of the agenda. (Not in town were representatives from the Western Canada, Florida, West Texas, Cotton States, and Alabama-Tennessee leagues.) Another main point to be deliberated was a new plan to reinstate a player draft from the minors to the majors. But all that business took a back seat to the news that the new commissioner had fined and suspended New York Yankees slugger Babe Ruth and two teammates, outfielder Bob Meusel and pitcher William Piercy, for defying an order that prohibited barnstorming by players from World Series squads (the New York Giants had defeated the Yankees, five games to three, in the 1921 fall classic). Piercy was part of a six-player swap with the Boston Red Sox just two weeks later.1
So it was finances and personalities that dominated the 1921 winter meetings. Michael Sexton, president of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, said near the start of the meetings that economy would be at the top of the agenda since operating expenses had increased 200 percent since 1914 and, therefore, reductions were needed to save the “little fellows.”2 In short, Sexton said, executives at the meetings were going to have to figure out a way for baseball to curb expenses. He thought the best way to do so would be to cut salaries and player expenses for travel and meals, as well as to cut the number of players allowed on rosters. He also said he wanted to use just one umpire per game.
What was also on the minds of the major-league moguls was a way to get the minor leagues to agree to a draft. News reports said that while minor-league owners and managers opposed a new big-league draft, players in the American Association, the Pacific Coast League, and the International League favored it because it could help their careers.
The majors and minors had reached agreement on a seven-year player-movement plan at the 1920 winter meetings, and voted to approve the arrangement on January 12, 1921. But there were grumblings about the accord almost as soon as the ink was dry. In fact, the International League voted not to submit to the draft and waived its rights to draft from lower classified leagues. As The Sporting News noted, there were hints that the issue would come up at the winter meetings. Therefore, the paper editorialized, it would be best if all minor- and major-league executives and owners would meet together in one hotel in one city and talk until there was an agreement: “…but the majors and minors have yet to advance to the stage where they can bunch their meetings in one confab.”3
Perhaps one of the reasons why people weren’t meeting at the same place and at the same time was the differences over what was formally known as the Minor-Major Agreement, or more popularly known as the selective clause or draft. President Ban Johnson of the American League announced that he would fight to restore the old draft plan at the meetings in Buffalo. Even though the players supported a draft, the minor-league club bosses would fight against one, according to The Sporting News. Part of the issue came down to money: The minors wanted $7,000 for each player drafted by a big-league team, but the majors said that was too much for an untested player and thought $5,000 per player was more reasonable.
Landis also favored a new draft plan (there had been a draft until 1918), but said that the price for a player was not the issue. Rather, hindering a player from moving up the ladder and furthering his career was akin to placing “a stone wall” in front of a player, and Landis was hoping to break down that wall.4
No formal action was taken at the close of the meetings in Buffalo. But reading between the lines, it can be seen that the minor leagues were uneasy about what they termed “raids” by their major-league brethren. The minor-league personnel selected to attend the meeting hosted by the majors later that December in New York City5 were all against a draft: American Association President T.J. Hickey, International League President John Conway Toole, and Pacific Coast League President William H. McCarthy. Indeed, at its December 12 meeting in the Hotel Commodore in New York City, the International League voted 6 to 2 to support the current seven-year agreement with the majors rather than negotiate a new plan that would include a draft.
The American League’s response was tepid. Owners voted to ask for a meeting of baseball’s Advisory Council to seek a way to revise the agreement signed in January. The National League’s response was at first more boisterous. Brooklyn owner Charles Ebbets wanted the league to boycott the signing of any player from any minor league not in favor of a new draft plan (which were the three AA leagues plus the Three-I [Class B and the Western[Class A). But in the end the National League also voted to go to the Advisory Council to ask for an amendment to the Minor-Major Agreement to re-establish a draft.6
What the Advisory Council came up with was a two-step proposal that Commissioner Landis announced on December 17:
- One player from each AA or A club would be eligible for the draft after the close of his minor-league season. The major-league club that picked him would pay an AA team $5,000 and an A team $4,000. If the player was released within one year after being drafted, then the AA or A team that he played for had the right of first refusal on re-signing him and would have to pay the major-league club half of the draft price.7
Predictably, the minor-league bosses did not like the plan and Pacific Coast League owners went so far as to threaten to form a rival major circuit on the Coast. To avoid being labeled an outlaw league, Dr. Charles Strub, president of the San Francisco team, said, the league would first apply for big-league status with the Advisory Council and, if denied, would then sever relations with Organized Baseball.
Even though he had only been baseball commissioner for about a year, Landis faced down Babe Ruth after the slugger’s record-setting 59-homer season of 1921. Before coming to Buffalo for the winter meetings, Landis had announced he was suspending and fining Ruth, Meusel, and Piercy for their direct violation of a 1911 rule that banned barnstorming by players who had played in the World Series.
Shortly after Game Eight of the Series on October 13, a 1-0 Giants win that clinched the Series, Ruth and the others embarked on the tour.8 Ruth had told the new commissioner that he would violate the seldom-enforced rule about barnstorming “and I don’t care what you do about it.”9 Eventually, however, Ruth abandoned the tour and slightly less than two months later Landis handed down the verdict. Each player was fined a percentage of his World Series check (in Ruth’s case, $3,362) and suspended until May 20, 1922. They were being punished not just for violating the rule, but also for “a mutinous defiance, intended by the players to present the question: Which is bigger – baseball or any individual in baseball?”10
Ruth’s reaction was to refuse comment except to say, “There’s one thing, I’m not worrying, and it won’t spoil my vaudeville act.”11 Landis also refused comment when he got to the meetings in Buffalo. (Meusel, though, said Landis could “go jump in the lake.”)12 Baseball writers supported the commissioner’s action and quoted baseball executives as saying that what Landis did was right for the game.13
There was speculation that the rule would be repealed at the winter meetings, but it wasn’t formally discussed. In June of 1922, the National League owners upheld the rule while the American League clubs rewrote it to say that no barnstorming could go on past October 31.
The winter meetings were traditionally known for the back-and-forth dealings between clubs, and 1921 was no exception, though some of the deals reported in the press were more speculative than real.
John McGraw of the Giants started things off by sending veterans George Burns, a 32-year-old outfielder who had played 149 games that season with a .299 batting average and a league-leading 80 walks, backup catcher Mike Gonzalez, and cash to the Cincinnati Reds for third baseman Heinie Groh, who had batted .331 in 97 games. This deal wasn’t exactly a surprise since Groh had said during the 1921 season that he wanted to play in New York and had been suspended for part of the season because he refused to play any longer for Cincinnati, where he had manned the hot corner since 1913.
But McGraw wasn’t done after the Groh deal. He also purchased the contract of left-handed outfielder Jimmy O’Connell, 19, from the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League for $75,000. The papers called O’Connell the “Babe Ruth of the Pacific Coast,” and reported that he was also coveted by the Yankees and Chicago Cubs.14 But the press also said the price was exorbitant since at the time it was the highest amount ever paid for a minor leaguer.15 In fact, at the time of the transaction only the deals for Babe Ruth and Heinie Groh had been in the $75,000-to-$100,000 range. Terms of the contract allowed O’Connell, from the University of Santa Clara, to play with San Francisco through the 1922 season. Some writers thought that the short right-field stands at the Polo Grounds (just 258 feet away from home plate) were made to order for O’Connell. In the event, he played only two seasons in the big leagues, both for the Giants (87 games in 1923 and 52 games in ’24) and had just eight career home runs. He was accused of being part of an attempt to fix games late in the 1924 season and was banned from the game for life.
In other player deals:
The Reds bought the contract of third baseman Babe Pinelli from Oakland of the Pacific Coast League for $10,000. Pinelli, 26, had played part of the 1918 season with the Chicago White Sox and part of the 1920 campaign with the Detroit Tigers. He stayed with the Reds through 1927 and eventually returned to the big leagues as an umpire, serving for 22 years. (He was behind the plate for Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series.)
The Detroit Tigers bought the contracts of Syl Johnson and Herman Pillette, two minor-league pitchers from Portland, for $40,000 and several players to be named after spring training. The St. Louis Browns picked up journeyman outfielder Chick Shorten, 29, from the waiver wire for $2,500. Shorten’s major-league career began with the Red Sox in 1915, and he was traded to the Tigers in 1919. He would last only a year with the Browns before finishing his career with the Reds in 1924. The Browns also acquired left-handed pitcher Dave Danforth, 31, from Columbus of the American Association. Danforth broke in with the Philadelphia Athletics in 1911 and pitched for them and the Baltimore Orioles of the International League in 1912. After more time in Baltimore, and also in Louisville, he resurfaced in the majors with the Chicago White Sox in 1916,becoming an early relief specialist for four years before spending two seasons in Columbus. He finished his major-league career with the Browns, pitching in St. Louis from 1922 to 1925. The Browns sent to Columbus right-handed pitcher Bill Burwell (8-8 in two seasons), left-handed pitcher Lou Lowdermilk (who had last pitched in the majors in 1912), lefty pitcher Emilio Palmero (who would finish his five-year career with a 6-15 record with four teams), second baseman Bill Gleason (who played 40 games over three seasons), and seven players to be named later.
The Economy of Baseball
All the dealing for players and high prices paid for rookies and minor leaguers might indicate that baseball was playing in ballparks located on Easy Street. But minor-league executives saw serious financial troubles and, in spite of the prices paid for players at the winter meetings, league officials said frugality would have to be the watchword of the future.
John H. Farrell, secretary-treasurer of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, said that the 28 leagues represented 191 cities and towns in the United States and Canada. Those teams had 5,401 players under contract and paid an average $700,000 per month in salaries.16 It cost about $101,000 annually to run a Class-A club over a six-month season; between $34,000 and $53,000 a year for a Class-B club in a 4½-month season; and between $22,000 and $39,000 a year in a four-month Class-D season. Class-C clubs did not make an annual expense report, Farrell said. About one-third of the costs involved salaries, another third was paid out in taxes and to visiting teams, and the final third went to cover remaining expenses. NAPBL President Sexton said that expenses could easily be reduced, especially since there were predictions that there would be 35 leagues below the major-league level in 1922, by watching travel expenses and reorganizing spring training.
Sexton’s other proposed austerity measures included shedding unprofitable teams, like the International League’s Jersey City Skeeters, and finding a way of capping sums paid for minor leaguers. It was even briefly thought that the Syracuse team of the International League would be able to get a better lease on a stadium by moving to Montreal, but Syracuse owner Ernest C. Landgraf announced in Buffalo that his club had signed a new lease with the stadium owners, who would be picking up the tab for refurbishing the park. Despite their free-spending ways in Buffalo, the majors also had an idea to save money. Predictably, National League President John A. Heydler called upon the minor-league club owners to accept more “reasonable prices” for players or, he warned, the majors would find different and cheaper ways of developing talent.17 Yet Heydler’s pronouncement was a bit bizarre, considering the deals made in Buffalo. The New York Timesweighed in on the matter by noting that the money the Giants spent on acquiring their new players “caused many baseball men to shake their heads. Time may justify such expenditures, but at this stage it is difficult to figure along lines of baseball value.”18
Heydler even went so far as to propose that the major leagues should develop a school for players to help save on the costs of dealing with minor-league owners. At the start of the New York City meetings, he had said that there should be a cap in place when the contracts of minor leaguers were bought – “putting on a roof instead of allowing the limit to be the sky.”19 And then in Buffalo he said: “A training school under the management of several former big league stars could do wonders with a class of bright, ambitious candidates who were eager to play on the big circuits. The various clubs could select their nominees, place them in such a camp for six or eight months of intensive training under the proper instructors, and at the close of the course players would be available who, in most cases, would be as far advanced in the science of professional baseball as the average minor leaguer under the old drafting system.”20
In the early years, the National and American Leagues could be counted on to oppose each other on almost every issue. The 1921 World Series, both on and off the field, had been the latest example. Since the entire series was played in the Polo Grounds between two New York teams, the Yankees and the Giants, it was thought that something should be done to enliven things for other fans. One fix would be to shorten the Series, which was then a best-of-nine affair. (The Series had been a best-of-nine for the first one, in 1903, and then again from 1919-21. All other series were best-of-seven.)
When the winter meetings shifted from Buffalo to New York City, the American League voted in favor of a seven-game series; predictably, the National League voted in its separate meeting to keep it as a best-of-nine.
Yet when the two leagues met together in Manhattan’s Hotel Commodore on December 15, the owners informally voted 9 to 7 to switch to a shorter series, with the Chicago Cubs siding with the American League. But since each league formally voted as a single unit, the result was a tie, so Judge Landis cast the deciding vote in favor of a shorter series.
Baseball on Trial
Landis became commissioner after gamblers had fixed the 1919 series, when Cincinnati beat heavily favored Chicago, so baseball was keenly aware of its public image and looked for all opportunities to show it was clean. Such an opportunity came in Buffalo when Sexton told reporters that public confidence had returned “with the election of Judge Landis as baseball commissioner and the penalty he inflicted upon the three American League players [barnstormers Ruth, Meusel, and Piercy for disobedience of the rules.”21
Landis told the conferees in Buffalo that baseball was still being judged by the public and that it was up to the leaders of the sport to lead by example. “Baseball has got to be better in its morals than any other business,” he said, “and it is up to the majors and minors alike to keep that thought constantly in mind.”22
To get to that Edenic place that Landis envisioned, the National League decided to crack down on concessionaires and make them more accountable. In other words, it passed the buck to vendors to make sure that fans didn’t throw soda-pop bottles onto the playing field or, as a report in the New York Times put it, “make such persons at least imitate human beings.”23
Wrapping Up and Looking Ahead
Buffalo, which was the 11th largest city in the country in 1920, wanted to shine in its time on the baseball stage. The mayor came out to meet the magnates, arrangements were made for day trips to nearby Niagara Falls, programs in the shape of a catcher’s mitt offered complimentary tickets to theaters, and other sundry items were given to each attendee. Sexton said it was the best winter meeting he had ever attended, and newspaper reports said it was the busiest with constant meetings.
Perhaps the praise was hyperbole, but there was one problem: Who would foot all the bills? The Buffalo Bisons of the International League wound up picking up much of the tab, but Buffalo newspaper reports complained that the American Association would often chip in for part of the cost when one of its cities hosted a winter meeting. The reports also said that the National Association would consider paying a larger share in the future.24
And finally, although Hamilton, Ontario, lobbied to get the 1922 winter meetings, Louisville of the American Association was awarded the prize. Manager Joe McCarthy of Buffalo had skippered Louisville to the 1921 interleague title. Delegates said that Louisville had a richer baseball history, and that Hamilton was just a little too close to Buffalo. Although Hamilton is, indeed, about 70 miles from Buffalo, the roads in winter in 1922 would not have ensured it was just an hour or so drive down the highway.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author also consulted these sources:
“American League Evasive On Draft,” New York Times, December 15, 1921.
“Ball Men At Smoker Meet New Mayor,” Buffalo Express, December 7, 1921.
“Baseball Clans Gather,” New York Times, December 5, 1921.
“Baseball Vanguard Here For Meetings,” New York Times, December 12, 1921.
“Coasters Will Ask Rating as Major,” The Sporting News, December 22, 1921.
“Coast Ball League Is Ready to Fight,” New York Times, December 25, 1921.
“Col. Ruppert Admits Judge Is a Talker,” Buffalo Express, December 8, 1921.
“Comment on Current Events in Sports,” New York Times, December 12, 1921.
“Consider Revised Figures on Draft,” New York Times, December 17, 1921.
“Draft Question Still Unsettled by Magnates,” Buffalo Express, December 17, 1921.
“Extent of Penalty Is Surprise Here,” New York Times, December 6, 1921.
“Failed in Action on Barnstorming and Player Draft,” Buffalo Express, December 17, 1921.
“Fight Talk Grows as Ints. Close Meeting,” Buffalo Express, December 14, 1921.
“Have Decided to Remain In Ints’ Circuit,” Buffalo Express, December 13, 1921.
“International Will Not Permit Draft,” The Sporting News, December 15, 1921.
“Johnson Will Fight for Old Draft Plan,” The Sporting News, December 1, 1921.
“Judge Landis Is Out Strong for the Draft,” Buffalo Express, December 16, 1921.
“League Votes Not to Abandon Stand,” New York Times, December 13, 1921.
“Magnates Here for Baseball’s 1921 Sessions,” Buffalo Express, December 5, 1921.
“Major League Scouts Hover on Sidelines,” Buffalo Express, December 7, 1921.
“Minors Frown on Draft Plan,” Boston Globe, December 9, 1921.
“Minors Not Keen to Restore Draft,” New York Times, December 9, 1921.
“Minors Still Protected From Draft,” Buffalo Express, December 9, 1921.
“M’Graw Discusses Groh’s Acquisition,” New York Times, December 9, 1921.
“M’Graw Gets Groh in Deal With Reds,” New York Times, December 7, 1921.
“Nation’s Leaders of Baseball on Hand,” Buffalo Express, December 6, 1921.
“Possible Break in Ints’ League for 1922 Season,” Buffalo Express, December 7, 1921.
“Proposals For That Revision of Draft Rule,” Buffalo Express, December 18, 1921.
“Providence With Montreal After Int. Franchises,” Buffalo Express, December 12, 1921.
“Rumors, facts Hold the Baseball Stage,” Buffalo Express, December 15, 1921.
“Seek Removal of Stone Wall Minors Built,” Buffalo Express, December 15, 1921.
“Shortened World Series Decided On,” New York Times, December 16, 1921.
“Shows Progress of Our Baseball in Two Decades,” Buffalo Express, December 9, 1921.
“Syracuse to Remain,” New York Times, December 9, 1921.
“Talk Trades as Magnates Meet,” Boston Globe, December 12, 1921.
“Trip to Falls Ends Meeting for Magnates,” Buffalo Express, December 9, 1921.
“Will Refuse to Buy Players at Any Old Price,” Buffalo Express, December 14, 1921.
“World Series Is Cut Down to 7 Games,” Buffalo Express, December 16, 1921.
5 The International League was set to meet December 12 in the Hotel Commodore in New York City; the National League on December 13 in the Waldorf-Astoria; the American League on December 14 in the Hotel Commodore; with the joint meeting December 15 in the Hotel Commodore.
6 The Advisory Council was made up of Commissioner Landis, American League President Ban Johnson, National League President John Heydler, National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues President Michael Sexton, and Association Secretary-Treasurer John Farrell.
8 The tour opened in Buffalo on October 16, three days after the World Series ended. It also stopped in Elmira, New York, and Jamestown, New York, before Ruth ended it in Scranton, Pennsylvania, on October 21. He expected to make $25,000 on the tour, but ended it early when urged to do so by Yankees part-owner Colonel T.L. Huston, who convinced Ruth the tour would be a financial bust based on poor receipts.
13 “Numerous Disputes by Minor Leaguers,” New York Times, December 6, 1921; “Ruth Eligible for Exhibition Games,” New York Times, December 7, 1921; “Giants Pay $75,000 for Young Player,” New York Times, December 8, 1921; “Landis and M’Graw Combine to put Yankees in Background,” The Sporting News, December 15, 1921; “Draft Terms Named by Major Leaguers,” New York Times, December 18, 1921; and “Landis Ruling for Babe Ruth Was Big Topic,” Buffalo Morning Express, December 6, 1921.