1923 Winter Meetings: The Battle of Avalon

This article was written by Mike Lynch

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


Baseball’s Business: The Winter Meetings: 1901-1957, Volume 1

As November rolled into December 1923, Organized Baseball found itself with much on its plate, including a National League owner who had been indicted for perjury by a federal grand jury in the E.M. Fuller & Company bankruptcy case,1 and a Pacific Coast League president who had been ousted by a controversial majority vote but refused to go down without a fight.

Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, commissioner of baseball, checked into New York’s Commodore Hotel on December 1, although his reason for being there was left to conjecture, including that of one reporter who admitted “the purpose of the Judge’s errand was something of a mystery.”2 Speculation was that Landis was to meet with NL President John Heydler to discuss the possible retirement of New York Giants owner Charles Stoneham, whose indictment had embarrassed baseball.3 (Stoneham was accused of giving false testimony to investigators of Fuller’s collapse.)

Landis was also believed to be interested in the sale of the International League’s Newark Bears, owned by William Ashton of Baltimore, who allegedly bought the team with money he received from Baltimore Orioles owner Jack Dunn. Ashton was alleged to be acting as a figurehead for Dunn, who was eventually accused of “syndicate baseball,” a practice of holding stock in multiple teams that clearly represented a conflict of interest and a competitive advantage.4 A group of Montclair, New Jersey, men, led by Mayor Howard F. McConnell, made a failed attempt to purchase the club in late November and Landis was said to be keeping an eye on the situation.5

Another arrival was William H. McCarthy, who had served as president of the Pacific Coast League from 1920 until November 11, 1923, when he was overthrown and replaced by longtime Los Angeles Times sportswriter Harry A. Williams.6 McCarthy had accused William Wrigley, owner of the Chicago Cubs and the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League, of supplying the money used to purchase the PCL’s Seattle club, and was thereby also guilty of syndicate baseball.7 Wrigley was part of an anti-McCarthy faction within the league that had spent months working on a plan to replace him, and they sprang their surprise on McCarthy during the league’s annual meeting in California.

In what would become known as “The Battle of Avalon,” named for the Catalina Island city in which the coup took place, Williams was elected president of the PCL by a 5-3 vote, receiving support from the Salt Lake City, Los Angeles, Oakland, Portland, and Seattle clubs.8 McCarthy refused to acknowledge Seattle’s right to vote and called for a second ballot since the five votes needed for election hadn’t been attained. Salt Lake’s Bill Lane, who was on the verge of becoming co-vice president of the circuit, ignored McCarthy and announced that Williams was the new president of the Pacific Coast League, much to the chagrin of the Sacramento, San Francisco, and Vernon magnates who supported McCarthy.9

Despite his insistence that his detractors failed to garner the required votes to unseat him, McCarthy had little hope of being reinstated as head of the PCL by Commissioner Landis, but hoped that an investigation into the purchase of the Seattle club would uncover evidence that Wrigley was behind it.10

At the big-league level, American League President Ban Johnson moved the date of the AL meeting so as not to collide with the major-league meeting taking place in Chicago on December 10.11 Still, some speculated that Johnson and Landis, combatants in a power struggle that had begun even before the latter became baseball’s first commissioner, would “indulge in a test of strength.”12

Among the issues that needed to be addressed at the major-league meetings were Landis’s power to hear appeals in claims and salary disputes involving major-league umpires and a proposal to exclude coaches from the 25-man roster limit in force between June 15 and August 31.13 There were also a few superstars who were rumored to be on the trading block, most notably St. Louis Cardinals four-time batting champ Rogers Hornsby, who was coveted by the Chicago Cubs; Eddie Collins, the AL’s premier second baseman and, to that point, a .331 career hitter, who was expected to go to the Washington Senators as player-manager; and St. Louis Browns ace right-hander Urban Shocker, who had been suspended toward the end of the 1923 season and wanted Landis to declare him a free agent.

Besides the verification of Williams as PCL president, the minors were mostly concerned with the draft and modifying a system that their three largest circuits — the American Association, International League, and Pacific Coast League — had abandoned in 1919 when they refused to observe rules established under the National Agreement. The three were said to be open to “some sort of agreement sufficiently satisfying to the big fellows to induce them to re-establish buying and selling operations.”14

Before any business was conducted, however, the baseball convention was stunned by the news that popular pitcher and manager Wild Bill Donovan had been killed when the train he was riding on, the Twentieth Century Limited, smashed into an abandoned car in Forsythe, New York. The train had three sections, each powered by its own locomotive. Donovan was in the second section and had survived the initial crash, but died instantly when the third section barreled into the second in an attempt to catch up after having fallen behind.15

The 47-year-old Donovan had spent 18 years in the majors, winning 185 games as a pitcher and 245 as a manager, and was attempting a comeback. He had spent the 1923 campaign with the New Haven Profs of the Class-A Eastern League, where he went 1-0 with a 2.65 ERA in five games while serving as the team’s skipper. Speculation was that if Clark Griffith couldn’t pry Eddie Collins from the White Sox, he was going to name Donovan his manager.16

The meetings got under way on December 10 at the Congress Hotel in Chicago. The National League spent the day discussing issues such as the use of rosin and other foreign substances on the ball, the frequency with which new balls would be introduced into games, contract bonuses, and eliminating the rule that credited a batter with a home run on a hit that bounced into the stands.17

The American League’s board of directors voted to continue aiding former catcher Lou Criger in his recuperation from tuberculosis by paying for a trip to Arizona, and named George Sisler and Babe Ruth the most valuable players of the junior circuit for their work in 1922 and 1923, respectively.18

Minor-league business included a board of arbitration that listened to each side in the dispute over the PCL presidency, considering a player-draft plan that would benefit all sides, and electing John D. Martin president, secretary, and treasurer of the Southern Association.19

Despite all the fanfare surrounding Hornsby, Collins, and Shocker, only two deals between teams were struck on the first day of the convention. The Philadelphia Athletics purchased second baseman Max Bishop from Baltimore of the International League, and the Buffalo Bisons of the IL purchased catcher Dewey Hill from the Toronto Maple Leafs. Bishop went on to star for Connie Mack for 10 years, drawing 1,046 walks in 1,181 games with Philadelphia, which earned him the nickname “Camera Eye.” Hill, on the other hand, spent all 12 of his professional seasons in the minors.20

Day Two of the meetings featured a “big political move,” a definitely preemptive strike by the commissioner as NL owners “passed a resolution of support of Judge Landis and officially commended the commissioner for his work for the good of the National game.”21 Landis knew that an endorsement from the senior circuit — though unnecessary, according to Mel Webb of the Boston Globe – would significantly weaken the attack rumored to be coming from the AL, and he was right.

League directors were elected — Frank Navin of Detroit was named vice president of the American League and placed on the board of directors with Bob Quinn of Boston, Jacob Ruppert of New York, and Phil Ball of St. Louis. The NL elected to its board of directors Christy Mathewson of Boston, Barney Dreyfuss of Pittsburgh, Bill Veeck of Chicago, and Charles Stoneham of New York, which seemed to indicate that he had no intention of retiring in the wake of his indictment.22 (Stoneham was convicted on the perjury indictment in 1925 and was assessed a stiff fine, but given no prison time.)

The National Board of Arbitration finally settled the question about the presidency of the Pacific Coast League by backing Williams and stripping McCarthy of any rights he once had. Otherwise, no other news made much of a splash, with the possible exception of Yankees hurler Carl Mays being sold to the Cincinnati Reds and Brooklyn’s Charles Ebbets offering the Cardinals $275,000 for Hornsby, which Webb reported as “the one big laugh of a dull day.”23

The third day of the meetings, December 12, had Landis addressing both major leagues, and he started off with a bang. Whatever war Johnson and the American League magnates planned on waging against Landis was quickly quashed when the commissioner quickly took the offensive and stated loudly and in no uncertain terms that he was baseball’s sole governor.24 “Those standing sentinel without,” reported the Los Angeles Times, “heard harsh words and strong language” that included an accusation that his opposition was “acting like a lot of swine.”25

The New York Times reported that Landis had heard rumors that Johnson and the AL owners were going to take the fight to him, although not everyone was on board. 26 Yankees owner Ruppert made an impassioned speech in Landis’s favor that brought applause from his fellow magnates and “did much to bring the meeting back to solid earth again.”27

Still, Landis offered to walk away from his position without compensation for the remainder of his contract if the owners weren’t satisfied with how he was running their business. He received unanimous praise from all 16 clubs, however, and the matter was put to rest.

“So the great war ended,” wrote N.W. Baxter of the Washington Post. “The present czar not only retains his autocratic powers but had them extended in several particulars, while Ban Johnson, who enjoyed czaring [sic] himself, will have to be content with what little practice he can get as president of the junior circuit.”28

The rest of the day was particularly productive as 16 of 17 rule amendments were voted on, with 14 passing, although only two were deemed “important.”29 Despite Johnson’s objections, Landis was given “appellate powers in determining a dispute over a contract or right to services” by an umpire, and it was decided that coaches shouldn’t count toward the player limit.

As the meetings progressed the likelihood of Eddie Collins going to the Senators in a deal with the White Sox became “as wet as the weather,” according to Clark Griffith, who refused to part with second baseman Bucky Harris.30

On December 13 the majors and minors agreed to draft rules. As explained by Irving Vaughan in the Chicago Tribune:

All players now going to the big leagues will be subject to draft, providing they are not recalled under options. Any big league club can put in a bid for a player who comes under this classification, but where two or more seek the same man he will go to the major team lowest in the percentage column. For every player drafted $5,000 will be paid but only one man can be taken from each club. Players not originally obtained from the majors are not subject to the annual “grab.”31

Though no major transactions took place, the Chicago Cubs made some deals that included a handful of pitchers. Percy Jones, who won 16 games for Los Angeles of the PCL in 1923, and George Stueland, who went 9-6 in 45 appearances with the Cubs from 1921-1923, went to the PCL’s Seattle Indians for 24-game winner Elmer Jacobs and 13-game winner Sheriff Blake. According to reports there were other unknown players involved and an undisclosed “hatfull” of cash that exchanged hands.32 The Cubs also sold third baseman John Kelleher to the Boston Braves.

December 14 marked the final day of the meetings and it was fairly uneventful. Both leagues agreed to start the 1924 season on April 15; the White Sox released four players to the minors — catcher Roy Graham, first baseman Bud Clancy, 18-year-old infielder Jess Cortazzo, and pitcher Paul Castner; and with that all the participants departed Chicago, including Clark Griffith, who was still without a manager and claimed he might pilot the Senators himself.33

Alas, no major trades were made. “The few real stars of the game who were slated for trades remain just where they were before the confab started,” wrote Irving Vaughan. “Rogers Hornsby is still with the Cards, Urban Shocker is still a Brownie and will not be sold, and Eddie Collins is second baseman of the White Sox.”34

 

Notes

1 Hartford Courant, September 3, 1923.

2 New York Times, December 2, 1923.

3 Ibid.

4 Boston Globe, February 9, 1927.

5 New York Times, December 2, 1923.

6 Los Angeles Times, November 13, 1923.

7 New York Times, December 2, 1923.

8 Los Angeles Times, December 7, 1931.

9 New York Times, November 13, 1923.

10 New York Times, December 2, 1923.

11 New York Times, December 6, 1923.

12 Los Angeles Times, December 10, 1923.

13 New York Times, December 10, 1923.

14 Los Angeles Times, December 10, 1923.

15 New York Times, December 10, 1923; https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/55c38ae8.

16 https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/55c38ae8.

17 Los Angeles Times, December 11, 1923.

18 Ibid.

19 Ibid.

20 Ibid.The Times reported that Bishop’s purchase price was $15,000, but it has been listed as $20,000 elsewhere.

21 Boston Globe, December 11, 1923.

22 Ibid.

23 Ibid.

24 Washington Post, December 13, 1923.

25 Los Angeles Times, December 13, 1923.

26 New York Times, December 13, 1923.

27 New York Times, December 14, 1923.

28 Washington Post, December 13, 1923.

29 New York Times, December 13, 1923.

30 Ibid.

31 Chicago Tribune, December 14, 1923.

32 Ibid.

33 Griffith’s decision to hold on to Bucky Harris proved to be a good one. As player-manager, Harris led the Senators to back-to-back pennants in 1924 and 1925, and won a World Series title in ’24.

34 Chicago Tribune, December 15, 1923.

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