1929 Winter Meetings: Let’s All Play by the Same Rules

This article was written by Frederick C. Bush

This article was published in the


Introduction

The National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues (minor leagues) and the National and American Leagues held their annual winter meetings one week apart in December 1929. Though there were different points of contention for both the minors and majors, some issues were relevant to all the organizations and leagues. The draft, the signing of college players, and major-league clubs’ ownership of minor-league franchises – called “common ownership” but derisively referred to as “chain store”[1] baseball by Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis – were all discussed, though few important agreements were reached.

There was abundant trade activity among the NAPBL clubs during the December 4-6 meetings in Chattanooga, Tennessee, but little else of note was accomplished. The most compelling event of the meetings was the dual hearings of the cases of Rochester Red Wings second baseman George “Specs” Toporcer and manager Billy Southworth, with the fiasco surrounding their situation leading Branch Rickey to plead on behalf of Toporcer.

The National and American League meetings were held in New York City on December 10-12 and also lacked major developments, with only one noteworthy trade taking place and few policy changes, so that they were best summarized as “three loquacious but unfruitful days.”[2] Attendance at major-league games in 1929 had been outstanding for most clubs, especially in the National League, which had attendance figures that were second only to 1927, so there was little desire for any drastic changes. Thus, as was the situation at the NAPBL meetings, one of the more noteworthy items involved a debacle, in this case the war between the two ownership factions of the National League’s Brooklyn Robins that would determine the fate of Wilbert Robinson as the club’s president and manager.

 

NAPBL Meeting

Nearly 1,000 baseball personnel, including the presidents of 21 minor leagues, convened in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on December 4 for the NAPBL’s annual meeting with the dual goals of making trades to improve their clubs and addressing issues vital to the leagues in order to reverse the trend of increasingly lower attendance.

The draft was expected to be foremost on the owners’ minds since it had been discussed at length at the previous year’s meetings without any resolution, but the NAPBL did not give serious consideration to this issue in 1929 because, perhaps, as one reporter observed, “A curious feature of the draft question is that scarcely anyone understands it.”[3] The lone effort concerning the draft was a proposal by William Bramham, the president of the South Atlantic Association as well as the Piedmont and Eastern Carolina Leagues, “that a player shall not be subject to draft until he has been credited with participation in 200 games, for all players except pitchers.”[4] The proposal failed; it won the support of two-thirds of the NAPBL’s membership but needed a three-fourths majority.

The delegates did approve a new rule dealing with the scouts who evaluated talent, whether for the draft or other means by which players were obtained. It stated that the NAPBL “would not recognize a claim presented by any person acting as a scout for a member club of the National Association, unless a written contract between the club and scout should be filed with the secretary of the association.”[5]

Scouts often signed college players. Byrd Douglas, Princeton University’s baseball coach, asked the convention to declare the practice unethical. In response, the NAPBL adopted a ‘hands-off’ policy toward college athletes, agreeing that clubs should wait until the players had completed their studies before signing them to professional contracts. It declared that it was “the sense of this association that any attempt on the part of organized baseball to induce directly or indirectly any college or schoolboy athlete to sign a contract or give an option on his services for pay while he is still enrolled or in the process of his education at any institution should be deprecated.”[6]

The NAPBL did nothing to improve the fortunes of the minor leagues. Ideas that might have extended the reach of the minors or improved attendance were usually presented in vain.

Havana, Cuba, had applied for a franchise in the Southeastern League, which could have expanded the market for that league. Air travel was still in its nascent stages, though, and some players were afraid to fly. The NAPBL’s Board of Arbitration declared that it would not sanction the suspension of players who refused to travel by airplane, saying it regarded airplane travel as safe but considered the question “a matter for individuals to pass upon. It would not countenance a blanket rule requiring the players to fly.”[7] Thus, the potentially lucrative Cuban market remained out of reach.

Rather than making a foray into a new market, E.L. Keyser, the president of the Western League’s team in Des Moines, believed that his club could succeed in a new time slot and intended to try nighttime baseball. He cited the success colleges had experienced with night football, asserting that “schools that used to be poor now have money” and saying he believed it would “offset the use of the auto and give the working man a chance to attend.”[8]

Beyond Keyser’s plan, no one else seemed to have any money-making ideas. Outdoor advertising was discussed; however, the norm at these meetings prevailed and nothing was decided. One money-saving idea, proposed by the American Association’s Louisville club, that the price to option a player be reduced from $100 to $1, was rejected.

While ideas were being rejected and trades were being made, high drama was taking place at a joint hearing for player George “Specs” Toporcer and manager Billy Southworth of the International League’s Rochester Red Wings in their appeal against penalties arising from their actions in the ninth and final game of the Little World Series between Rochester and the Kansas City Blues of the American Association. At an earlier hearing in Chicago, Toporcer had been fined $200 and suspended for one season, while Southworth had been fined $500. They complained that they had not received notice to appear at the Chicago hearing, and a second hearing had been granted by NAPBL President M.H. Sexton.

The fines and suspension stemmed from an incident in the game of October 13, 1929, won by Kansas City. Toporcer objected too vigorously to a called third strike by home-plate umpire Larry Goetz and was ejected from the game. As Sexton described the events in his official decision, Toporcer’s actions “consisted in a vehement protest, some profanity and gesticulations of a character which led to commotion and an outbreak by the spectators, which verged very closely upon a riot and mob scene.”[9] Manager Southworth was fined for further inflaming the situation.

Since Rochester was the St. Louis Cardinals’ International League affiliate, Branch Rickey, the Cardinals’ general manager, came to Chattanooga and – “inundating the National Board with his eloquence”[10] – testified on Toporcer’s behalf. Rickey portrayed Goetz as being hot-headed himself, asserted that Toporcer’s punishment did not fit the crime, and said it was unfair to make Toporcer sit out an entire season. Weighing Rickey’s arguments along with the fact that Toporcer “was not guilty of any physical attack upon the umpire” and had heretofore maintained “a clean and honorable record.” Sexton rescinded the suspension but increased Toporcer’s fine from $200 to $500.[11] Sexton made it clear that Toporcer had to pay the fine himself by March 1, 1930; it could not be paid by the Rochester club.

Commenting that Southworth “was remiss in his effort to quell the disturbance, but I do not find that he incited the crowd,”[12] Sexton reduced the manager’s fine to $200.

The only other controversy at the meetings was stirred up by Commissioner Landis, the principal speaker at the NAPBL’s banquet on December 5, who gave his opinion about the rise of “common ownership” – the farm system – in which major-league clubs purchased minor-league franchises to develop their players. Landis said all baseball clubs should be individual interests rather than what he termed “chain store” baseball operations. He asserted, “We must solve the problem of the little fellows,” and predicted the complete demise of minor-league baseball unless “a remedy can be found to restore baseball to its former high favor.”[13] Landis derided the farm system as a bane to the minors, and said he believed it was “a contributing factor to the despondency in which the game rests in many sections of the country today.”[14] The following week’s major-league meetings, however, indicated that Landis had no intention of trying to end common ownership. In fact, the “do-nothing” approach of the NAPBL’s convention would infect both the National and American League meetings as well.

 

Major-League Meetings

Landis fired an opening salvo against common ownership on December 10, the opening day of the major-league meetings, with a proposal that both major- and minor-league clubs be required “to file official notification with baseball authorities upon acquiring control of a smaller baseball property.”[15] He reasoned that since clubs were required to provide notification when they purchased a player, they should have to do the same when they purchased a franchise.

American League President E.S. Barnard believed that the farm system “was not a success and was on its way to dying a natural death,”[16] and that it was not a matter for concern. Thus, while the National League supported Landis’s measure, the American League favored restoration of the universal draft instead; the fact that Landis would cast the deciding vote in the event of a tie guaranteed that the commissioner would prevail.

Landis’s primary objection to farm teams appeared to be his belief “that fans in minor league towns resented alien ownership,”[17] which was why he thought the farm system had contributed to declining attendance in the minors. St. Louis Cardinals president Sam Breadon, whose team owned nine minor-league clubs at the time, read telegrams from the presidents of minor-league teams throughout the country that indicated they endorsed major-league ownership of minor-league franchises

Contrary to Landis’s objections, Breadon’s evidence showed that the benefits of farm systems were becoming clear to an increasing number of owners. Minor-league cities saw better players when they had a major-league club developing its top prospects on their squads; this was more likely to raise attendance rather than lower it. Also, many minor-league franchises had folded for lack of financial support, a situation that could be avoided if the club were owned by a major-league team. It was evident “that practically the only clubs hurt by ‘chain store’ ownership are those in major leagues which can’t afford to go into the business on a big scale.”[18]

In the end, Landis’s proposal was a mere potshot, rather than a barrage that ended the practice of common ownership, and no more was said or done about the matter at these meetings.

Jacob Ruppert, president of the New York Yankees, had a more substantial plan that would affect both the major and minor leagues. He proposed two changes to the option system: Teams should be allowed to have 15 players on option to the minors, rather than the current eight; and they should be allowed to option out a player for three years rather than two. Both leagues agreed to the idea, but they would have to obtain the consent of the minor leagues before the plan could be implemented. They were prepared to make concessions in order to gain the necessary support, including the possibility of an agreement not to sign college players.

One additional policy that affected the transfer of players was the edict that players whose contracts were transferred from one club to another now had to report to their new team within 72 hours; exceptions would be made only for players who had to travel from one coast to another.

In addition to player movement, attention was also given to the rules of the game, which were not standard for both leagues. Accordingly, the Baseball Writers Association of America agreed to prepare instructions for official scorers so that the rules would be “codified, unified, and clarified.”[19]

The leagues accepted a BBWAA proposal that their presidents appoint the official scorers for each team based on the recommendations of the club presidents and local BBWAA chapters. Official scorers would be appointed to one-year terms and could be dismissed immediately if they failed “to measure up to the exacting standards of efficient scoring.”[20] Two alternates would be appointed to serve in the absence (or dismissal) of a scorer.

The standardization of both rules and scoring was one of only two agreements of any true significance reached at the meetings. The other was the shortening of the season from 176 to 170 playing days for the 154-game schedule, with a mid-April start and a September 28 finish. All other issues either turned out to be minor or failed to gain consensus for any plan of action.

The topic of radio broadcasts of major-league games had seemed important when St. Louis Browns president Phil Ball announced at the beginning of December that he would address the issue at the winter meetings. Ball believed that broadcasts of Browns games had cut into the team’s attendance in 1929, and he wanted the American League to prohibit the broadcasting of ballgames.

Ball appeared to have an ally in American League President E.S. Barnard, whose primary objection to radio broadcasts was that “broadcasters are reaping a golden harvest from the major-league clubs without any financial return to the clubs which provide the entertainment.”[21] He wanted to charge each radio station $50,000 to broadcast games, with $25,000 going to the club and $25,000 to the league, reiterating, “There is no reason why baseball should not share in the profits of a venture that it makes possible.”[22]

The Chicago Tribune asserted that some owners were opposed to radio broadcasts “because of the traditional suspicion with which some of the magnates view anything which smacks of progress,”[23] but profits were clearly the heart of the matter. In the end, the owners were unable to come to any agreement and decided to leave the issue of broadcasts to the clubs.

Whatever losses Ball thought his Browns had incurred from radio broadcasts would be offset by the new lease the St. Louis Cardinals signed to remain in Sportsman’s Park, owned by Ball’s Dodier Realty Company, for another 10 years. The new lease called for the Cardinals to pay $35,000 per year, a $5,000 increase over their previous rent. The Cardinals had announced the deal at the beginning of December to quell rumors that the team might leave St. Louis.

While a Cardinals move had been mere conjecture, the Brooklyn Robins were engaged in a legitimate controversy. Wilbert Robinson, the president and manager of the Robins, was in a power struggle over his future role with the team once his contract expired on January 1, 1930. Robinson had the continued support of Joseph Guilleaudeau, who represented the half of the franchise owned by the Ebbets estate, but he was vehemently opposed by Steve McKeever, who owned the other half of the club, and McKeever’s director, Frank York. If the deadlock over the contract continued, he would automatically remain president of the club as stipulated in its constitution, but there remained the question of who would be the manager.

National League President John Heydler conceived a plan to settle the controversy and summoned the Robins’ four leaders to meet with him and Commissioner Landis on the second day of the league meetings. None of the participants would say what was discussed during the meeting, but the New York Times wrote, “(I)t can be reported with authority that Mr. Heydler’s well-laid plans were handsomely torn into shreds.”[24] Landis admitted that he had never seen anything like the Robins’ front-office squabble and, as was the norm throughout these winter meetings, nothing was resolved.

Discussion of the increase in home runs in 1929 was another case of much ado about nothing. The 1,349 home runs hit that season were cited as the major factor in 55,980 baseballs (4,665 dozen) having been used during the season, 387 dozen over 1928.[25] AL President Barnard was cold to the idea that the ball “might be wound a bit more loosely or deadened in any way” and exclaimed, “I think that beyond question the present type is the best baseball we have had in the history of the game.”[26] Not everyone agreed with Barnard’s assessment, but the only change the owners decided upon was to request that baseball manufacturers remove the gloss from the balls before they delivered them to the leagues. The rationale for their request was that home runs had decreased after umpires had begun to remove the gloss from the balls in the latter half of the 1929 season.

While trades had hit a record number during the minor-league meetings, the major-league meetings saw a dearth of deals and wound down with only one player of note being traded. The St. Louis Cardinals traded the venerable pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander and catcher Harry McCurdy to the Philadelphia Phillies for outfielder Homer Peel and right-handed pitcher Robert McGraw. Exactly 12 years previously the Phillies had traded him to the Chicago Cubs. He entered the 1930 season with 373 victories but would pitch in only nine games for the Phillies in 1930, posting a 0-3 record with a 9.14 ERA before his career was over.

As the meetings wound down, the owners agreed to make donations including $50,000 to support the American Legion Junior Baseball program, which had just completed its second season. According to a report delivered at the meetings, more than 300,000 youths participated in the program in the summer of 1929, with Illinois leading all states by fielding 1,468 registered teams.[27]

They gave $10,000 to the National Amateur Athletic Federation with part of the sum earmarked for “providing expert instruction to coaches of sandlot and school teams throughout the country.”[28]

A donation of $5,000 was given to the Association of Professional Baseball Players of America, an organization that helped former major- and minor-league players who were now invalids, indigent, or both.

To pay the $65,000 total in donations, Commissioner Landis would deduct 15 percent of the gross receipts of the 1930 World Series, an increase of 5 percent over recent years. Taking care to donate funds to these three organizations was perhaps the most prescient move of the 1929 winter meetings, as each group contributed to the well-being of baseball in its own way, thus nurturing the growth of the sport and ensuring also that there would be annual winter meetings into the future.

 

Notes

[1] Frank H. Young, “Czar Is Silent on Evils of System,” Washington Post, December 14, 1929.

[2] Brian Bell, “Robins Send Ballou to Minors,” Washington Post, December 14, 1929.

[3] John Drebinger, “Baseball Owners Set for Meetings,” New York Times, December 1, 1929.

[4] “Minor Leagues Pick Montreal,” Christian Science Monitor, December 6, 1929.

[5] “Minor League Clubs Gather,” Christian Science Monitor, December 3, 1929.

[6] “Minor Leagues End Convention,” Christian Science Monitor, December 7, 1929.

[7] “Year’s Suspension of Toporcer Lifted,” New York Times, December 5, 1929.

[8] “E.L. Keyser Urges Baseball at Night,” Christian Science Monitor, December 5, 1929.

[9] “Branch Rickey’s Eloquent Plea Lifts Toporcer Suspension; Player Fined $500 and Manager Southworth Must Pay $200,” The Sporting News,December 12, 1929: 3.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] “Minor Leagues Pick Montreal.”

[14] Ibid.

[15] “Shorter Season Gains Favor at Winter Meeting,” Chicago Tribune, December 11, 1929.

[16] Roscoe McGowen, “American League Re-Elects Navin,” New York Times, December 11, 1929.

[17] “Czar Is Silent on Evils of System.”

[18] Ibid.

[19] “Two Major Leagues Combine in Joint Baseball Meeting,” Christian Science Monitor, December 13, 1929.

[20] Ibid.

[21] “American League to Weigh Radiocasts,” Christian Science Monitor, December 6, 1929.

[22] “Barnard Favors $50,000 Broadcasting Charge,” The Sporting News, December 5, 1929: 1.

[23] “Major Leagues Ponder Closing Season Earlier,” Chicago Tribune, December 9, 1929.

[24] John Drebinger, “Landis Peace Plea to Robins Fails,” New York Times, December 12, 1929.

[25] John Drebinger, “4,925,713 at Games in National League,” New York Times, December 11, 1929.

[26] “American League Re-Elects Navin.”

[27] “4,925,713 at Games in National League.”

[28] “Two Major Leagues Combine in Joint Baseball Meeting.”

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