1930 Winter Meetings: The Judge and the Mahatma Debate the Chain Store System

This article was written by Gary Levy

This article was published in the


Prologue

The American National Leagues each held individual annual meetings on December 9, 1930, in New York City. Although the National League was bound by its constitution to meet in New York City, its American League counterpart had originally planned to meet in Chicago. However, league President E.S. Barnard later changed this arrangement so the AL’s annual meeting would be in New York City on the same date as the NL meetings. The two leagues’ annual joint winter meetings took place later in the week, on December 10-12, also in Gotham.

 

National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues Convention


The annual convention of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues (NAPBL) was held in the frosty hinterlands of Montreal over December 2-5, 1930. Although the long trek to Canada might have been viewed as peculiar, the fact that the United States was in a state of Prohibition (which would be repealed in 1933) but its neighbors to the north were not may help to explain it. “Montreal is a long rumble from St. Louis (where The Sporting News was headquartered) … and cold …14 under 0… but numerous antifreeze stations are convenient.”[1]

The National Association comprised 21 minor leagues, representing “nearly every club in the minor leagues which is embraced by Organized Baseball.”[2] National Association Secretary J.H. Farrell reported at the opening event of the convention that 8,937 players had been employed in minor-league baseball the summer before, and that during the 1930 season the association had encompassed 23 leagues involving 165 cities and towns across North America, although two of the leagues had since disbanded. Farrell reported total income of almost $2.9 million, with most revenues coming from contract assignments: from minors to majors ($1,377,250), from minors to minors ($768,758), and from majors to minors ($460,901).[3] Since player transactions accounted for more than 80 percent of the revenue for minor-league teams and the National Association, this would foretell later issues involving the major leagues’ great desire to ensure a “universal draft” of players from the minor leagues.

The Pacific Coast League (Class AA) was deadlocked on the election of a league president: Incumbent President Harry Williams and J. Cal Ewing of the Oakland club each had four votes. International League (AA) met and discussed the coming 1931 season. Charles Knapp of Baltimore was re-elected president, Lawrence Solman of Toronto, vice president, and William T. Manley of New York, secretary-treasurer. Tom Hickey was reappointed president of the Class-AA American Association, and later had his pocket picked of $180, but before the meetings concluded he purchased a “stylish new derby” nonetheless.[4]

As in the recent past, the annual convention of the National Association revolved greatly around the need to renew the agreement between the minors and majors, most specifically the so-called “universal draft.” Major-league owners wanted this draft because it allowed them to obtain players from any minor-league team (or from high schools or colleges, for that matter) for as little as possible and at a set amount. This last point was important – owners had no love for bidding wars, where small-market teams could be outspent by teams in larger markets. Another concern from major-league owners was that if they could not draft talent cheaply, they would have to hold onto higher-paid veteran players longer, at a cost to their bottom line.[5] Minor-league teams argued that they developed player talent and so should benefit financially when their player was drafted by a major-league team.[6] If minor-league teams were exempt from the universal draft, they would be able to charge more for drafting their players. These pressures, brewing since the late nineteenth century, led some clubs to begin to build their own farm systems to avoid draft expenses. Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis greatly disliked what he termed this “chain-store” model of ownership.[7]

Rumors had been circulating that the major and minor leagues had settled questions regarding the draft prior to the December meetings, but accounts seemed to indicate that neither NL President John Heydler nor AL President E.S. Barnard had agreed to such a settlement.[8] The overwhelming sentiment of the meetings was that there would be a minimal number of transfers – maybe even none at all! – between minor- and major-league teams until a new agreement regarding the player draft was established.[9]

Making matters worse, there existed substantial confusion and controversy as to whether the player draft and related issues of player option and control practices would remain in effect, or whether it was time for renewal of the current agreement as long as Commissioner Landis held office. If the current understanding regarding the player draft continued, then the majors planned to move forward with their mutual understanding with minor-league teams that allowed them to sign college players. If, however, any minor-league teams decided to disregard the current selection rules, major-league teams declared they could sign any free agents, “be they college players, semi-professional players or Independent players.”[10]

Perhaps because of the draft issue being primary on owners’ minds, fewer high-profile trades were made during the meetings. Although many trades and sales of players were apparently begun during the National Association meetings, most went unfinished by the time the meetings ended on December 5. “While the business of tossing about the draft ultimatum progressed in the convention chambers, the majority of magnates stood around hotel lobbies with their hands clutched around bank rolls, and with check books and fountain pens securely fixed in their pockets,” The Sporting News wrote. “Fewer player transactions were competed than at any National Association meeting in many years.”[11] The paper also reported, “There was not a trade of any importance between a major and minor club. That never happened before. There have been some big deals made now and then at the meetings of the minors … this year not one.”[12]

Shortly after the close of convention business, NL and AL Presidents Heydler and Barnard announced that the major leagues rejected the minor leagues’ request to revise the draft “provided that the majors would first withdraw their ultimatum in reference to not transacting any business with non-draft leagues.”[13] They asserted that major-league baseball teams would not engage in player transactions with non-draft teams after December 1.

Nonetheless, there was some modest player movement activity as Wichita outfielder Woody Jensen, batting champion of the Western League, and a teammate, catcher Jack Mealey, were purchased by the Pittsburgh Pirates, along with infielders Howard Groskloss and Pep Young, and right-handed pitchers J. Bernard Walter and Clay Mahaffey, who were all considered “recruits” and would be going to Wichita. Big Boy Walsh, the son of famed former White Sox pitcher Ed Walsh, was set to break camp with the New York Yankees after spending the summer with Hazleton in the New York-Penn League.[14] The Cleveland Indians picked up two right-handed pitchers, Oral Hildebrand from Indianapolis of the American Association and Howard Craghead from Oakland in the Pacific Coast League. The Detroit Tigers acquired catcher John Grabowski from St. Paul of the American Association. The Baltimore Orioles traded right-handed pitcher Jim Weaver and catcher Tom Padden to the Yankees for right-handed pitchers John Hopkins and Kenneth Holloway and cash. Cincinnati added lefty first baseman Mickey Heath from Hollywood of the Pacific Coast League for cash and two players to be named later (outfielder Marty Callaghan and infielder Pat Crawford).

The National Association changed six rules in Montreal. Five changes affected players, and the sixth allowed the group to meet in any city, not just ones that had clubs in the Association itself. (Whereupon West Baden, Indiana, was selected for the 1931 convention.)

The five new rules involving players forbade them to compete in professional boxing or wrestling; prohibited the offering of a contract to a player under 18; attempted to curb fighting by authorizing “in case of a physical attack on an umpire by a player or a player by an umpire,” suspensions of between 90 days and one year”[15]; lowered from 80 days to 15 days, the required notice of a proposed amendment change regarding league rules; and raised the roster limit in Class-C leagues from 14 players to 15 players.

Likely in anticipation of the stance by the major-league presidents, the National Association selected a nine-man committee (three from each Double-A league) and sent them to the National and American League meetings in New York City to seek agreement between the minors and majors on the player-draft issue. The committee was granted complete authority to act on behalf of the National Association. John McGraw and William L. Veeck, both of the NL, agreed to meet with the committee.[16]

The National Association delegates were shaken by the death of William Frazer Baker, owner of the Philadelphia Phillies, of a heart attack in Montreal at the age of 64. Baker was recalled by some as a miserly owner who had sold Grover Cleveland Alexander to the Chicago Cubs in 1917 rather than give him a pay raise. Over the three-year period 1915-1917, Alexander had compiled a won-lost record of 94-35. After Baker’s death Branch Rickey and Ty Cobb were quickly mentioned as candidates for purchasing the Phillies, but Baker’s will left control of the club with his widow and the wife of the club’s business manager, Gerald P. Nugent, who became the team’s acting president.[17]

 

Joint Major League Meetings

The 1930 meetings of the American and National leagues in New York City December 10-12 were characterized as “the winter of the big wind,” since the owners were apparently “too busy rushing from one meeting to another and squabbling with the minor league committee on the draft even to get together on the matter of ivory exchanges.”[18]

It was not the case that the teams didn’t want to make trades. Players often mentioned as available included star (but pricey) third baseman Willie Kamm of the White Sox (the A’s, Red Sox Indians, and Yankees were interested), veteran first baseman Lew Fonseca of the Indians (the White Sox were listening), right-handed pitchers Ed Morris of Cleveland and Danny MacFayden of the Red Sox (sought by the Yankees), colorful right-handed pitcher Flint Rhem of St. Louis (Brooklyn was interested), first baseman Jim Bottomley of the Cardinals (the Cubs were interested), and catcher Muddy Ruel of the Senators (sought by Cleveland). In addition, Braves lefty Ed Brandt was being dangled as bait for hitters, most notably utility player Harvey Hendrick of Brooklyn. Teams including the Yankees, the Giants, the Indians (needing a catcher), the Boston Braves (needing hitters), the Brooklyn Robins (in the market for pitching), the Phillies, and the Washington Senators were most vocal in their desire to swap players.[19] But it was all for naught as the most significant deals completed at the meetings were Detroit signing catcher Wally Schang (who had been released by the Athletics) and infielder Joe Dugan (released by the Braves), and the Yankees acquiring catcher Cy Perkins (released by the Athletics).[20]

The 1930 meetings were remembered more for what did not get accomplished than for what did. Some minor issues were discussed and decided upon, such as an American League proposal to reduce the number of home runs being hit by adding 40-foot screening to the top of fences that were less than 300 feet from home plate; a 30-foot-high fence on outfield walls less than 325 feet from home plate; and a 20-foot fence on walls less than 350 feet from home plate. Not surprisingly, Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert, whose ballpark had well-known short porches, did not support the screen notion. National League President Heydler also stated his opposition. Another look at why the ball was so lively was proposed. The Giants’ McGraw acknowledged that the current ball was livelier than it once was and more than it should be.[21] Reports surfaced that the 1931 baseball would have a thicker cover and looser sewing and would be less lively.[22]

The sacrifice fly rule was scrutinized by the Joint Rules Committee. This body included three National League members (Heydler, the Cardinals’ Sam Breadon, and the Cubs’ William L. Veeck); three American League members (Barnard, the Senators’ Clark Griffith, and Philadelphia player-coach Eddie Collins); National Association President William Bramham; major-league umpires Tom Connolly and Bob Emslie; and John B. Foster, a noted baseball authority and the editor of the 1931 Spalding Official Baseball Guide. The discussion centered on getting rid of the 1926 rule under which a batter was not charged with an at-bat if his fly ball advanced any runner. National Leaguers suggested simply amending the rule so that a batter could be credited with a sacrifice fly only if a runner scored on his fly ball. The committee decided to abolish the sacrifice fly altogether, allowing a batter to be charged with an at-bat even if a run scored.[23] (The modified sacrifice fly rule suggested by the NL was enacted after the 1953 season.)

Other rules changes: Any ball hit in fair territory and bounding into the grandstand would be a double in both leagues. (The AL had adopted this rule the previous year.) The National League rule basing whether a ball is fair or foul on where it left the playing field rather than where the umpire last saw it, became a standard major-league rule.[24] AL President Barnard pressed managers to shorten game times, “as many big-scoring, heavy slugging” games were taking too long, in his opinion.[25] The National League softened its rules regarding barnstorming teams, which thus allowed a squad of major leaguers to go to Japan. The NL also approved a rule that only people in uniform be allowed on the playing field after ballpark gates were opened, and the NL Board of Directors upheld President Heydler’s decision to deny the Reds’ claim of $4,000 against the Cubs, plus the waiver price, for first baseman George Kelly. Much to the delight of the press, the American League agreed that all players would henceforth wear numbers on their uniforms.[26] Cleveland, New York, and Washington had begun wearing numbers the previous season. The NL took no action on this matter.

Two major issues loomed large as the two leagues met during what was a very cold and unpleasant December in New York City – the continued and growing anxiety about the financial (and general) health of major-league baseball as the nation entered the second year of the Great Depression; and the need for the major and minor leagues to come to an agreement regarding the player draft. Inherent in the latter matter were unresolved and increasingly unpleasant battles between the majors and minors over the ownership and drafting of players, the specifics of when a player’s options have been used up, and the ownership of minor-league clubs by major-league teams. Consternation over these issues was far from new, and had, in fact, been percolating for several years.

Concern over baseball’s financial situation was tempered by NL President Heydler’s report that 1930 had been the best year ever for the league despite the depression. Attendance was up 500,000 from 1929’s total of about 5,000,000, led by the Cubs with 1,463,624. Even Brooklyn surpassed a million in attendance. The New York Giants were the best road draw, and the Boston Braves, with a gate figure just shy of 465,000, had their best year ever despite a sixth-place finish. However, “high salaries and soaring operating expenses” were said to prevent some clubs from making any significant profits in this record-setting attendance year.

There had also been much gossip but little action about attempting to get Commissioner Landis to change his views about major-league team owners also owning minor-league teams. Landis was vociferous in his disdain of the practice, and again tales flew that the owners might try to induce him to mellow his stance on what was termed the “chain-store” model of ownership. Sitting on the other side of the issue was Branch Rickey, vice president of the Cardinals and regarded as “King of the Chain Store System,”[27] who had loudly and frequently voiced his opposition to Landis’s claims.[28]

Word was that major-league team owners might attempt to override Landis’s ruling that owners register with the major-league office whenever they purchased a minor-league team. Meanwhile Cubs owner William L. Veeck indicated that his organization planned to sell its Reading franchise as soon as possible. “We do not want any minor-league teams on our shoulders and we want to be free to purchase or trade for any players who we believe will aid the Cubs,” Veeck said.[29]Similarly, Indians GM Billy Evans also announced that Cleveland would “abandon the chain-store program” and sell its interests in minor-league teams.[30]

Making matters worse was the fact that Branch Rickey, at the opening of the National Association convention in Montreal earlier in the week, had demanded that the minor leagues to seek resolution of the rules regarding ownership of minor-league teams by major-league clubs. Criticizing Landis’s position, Rickey maintained that the “chain-store” model was essential to minor-league baseball, and that it (and not night baseball) was the main reason small teams were able to remain in business. His remarks were viewed by some as “a slap to the face of the National Board of Arbitration and at the commissioner.”[31] Rickey expressed hope that someday there would be rules in place that would give “clubs in minor leagues … owned by major-league interests the same rights in dealing with players as independently owned clubs,” and he pleaded with attendees to make a clear and definitive decision as to whether they wanted minor-league teams to be owned by major-league organizations.[32]

Rickey contended that major-league owners sought guarantees that minor leaguers on teams owned by major-league clubs would be treated identically to players on independently owned minor-league clubs. He maintained that this arrangement would allow the moving of a minor leaguer on a major-league-owned club to another club owned by the major-league organization without the move being considered an option for a period of no more than two years. Delegates at the meeting viewed this as an effort by the major leagues to be allowed to move players among their teams indefinitely, until a player’s skills and value had diminished. Not surprisingly, Rickey’s comments received only a lukewarm reception.

Rickey was clearly speaking about Landis’s ruling that George Toporcer of the Cardinals’ Rochester team must either be sold to a minor-league team not owned by the Cardinals or put on the Cardinals’ major-league roster. Toporcer had played for the better part of eight years with the Cardinals’ major-league club. However, in 1928 St. Louis sent him to Rochester, where he spent the next several years, winning the International League MVP award in 1929 and 1930, and was player-manager from 1932 to 1934.

Apparently Leslie O’Connor, secretary to Commissioner Landis, had revealed during the major leagues’ joint meeting that St. Louis had asked Landis to “interpret the rules of the major-league agreement without discrimination against clubs which happened to have minor-league holdings.”[33] The request was taken to be a shot at the commissioner, and was withdrawn before being put to a vote.

The National Association committee of nine (with three members from each of the three Class-AA leagues) attended the meetings, and were initially scheduled to meet with delegates from the AL and NL on the first day of the gathering. The American League representatives failed to appear, so the meeting was rescheduled for the next day. When the joint meeting did convene, the outcome proved to be very disappointing for the minors – the committee from the major leagues simply refused to consider any deal regarding the drafting of players from minor-league teams. The minor leagues wanted a $10,000 draft price; the majors offered $7,500. The minor leagues wanted a ban on drafting players with less than four years’ experience; the majors countered with three years.[34]

Given the impasse, minor-league committee members suggested that these questions be submitted to Landis, but the major-league group objected, and members of both committees ended up feeling rebuffed and angry. The minor-league members left the meeting with a sense of being coerced and disrespected, and conversations began among several Double-A owners about creating their own organization, which could possibly lead to the creation of a third major league. The major-league members would not disclose the reason for their objection, and were adamant in their stance. Major-league teams were left to wonder where they could put players who did not make the major-league roster after the season began; minor-league teams wondered how and where they would be able to lure talent without the interchange with the major-league clubs. Pessimism pervaded the rank-and-file of Organized Baseball.

After the meetings, major-league owners sent to every member of the National Association a “definite statement of the proposition made to them in the last conference on the draft that was held in New York.” NL President Heydler went so far as to make certain that the letter and proposal would be published in The Sporting News, noting that “there is nothing to conceal. On the contrary we would like to have the public and all of the minor organizations know exactly where the major leagues stand.”[35] AL President Barnard asserted that he believed the entire disagreement would be cleared up in short time, and certainly before exhibition games were to begin in the spring.

In their proposal the majors offered a new price scale: $7,000 for players drafted from Double-A $6,000 for players drafted from A leagues, $5,000 for players drafted from B leagues, $2,500 for players drafted from C leagues, and $2,000 for players drafted from D leagues. They offered these concessions – a minor-league club that loses a player to the majors is not subject to a further selection by Double-A teams; a player whose contract has never been assigned to a minor-league club by a major-league team shall not be subject to selection by Double-A teams until he has the same three-year service time that would make him eligible to be selected by a major-league team. Several other points of lesser importance were also included in the proposal.[36]

Later in the month the stalemate was broken when the American Association and Western League reluctantly accepted the proposal. The Pacific Coast League was also believed to be in favor of the universal draft language, although it had prospered financially from the previous arrangement. Nonetheless, there was no official announcement of acceptance from any minor-league clubs. The hope was that Santa might provide a special gift as the holiday season approached.[37]

 

Notes

[1] Gene Kessler, “So They Say,” The Sporting News, December 11, 1930: 3.

[2] “National Association Reserve Bulletin Lists Personnel of 142 Clubs,” The Sporting News, December 4, 1930: 6.

[3] “Farrell Makes 1930 Report at Montreal.” The Sporting News, December 4, 1930: 1.

[4] “So They Say.”

[5] Robert F. Burk, Much More Than a Game: Players, Owners, and American Baseball Since 1921 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press: 2001), 34.

[6] Neil J. Sullivan, The Dodgers Move West (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 92.

[7] “Minors Prepare at Montreal to Submit Majors Peace Pact,” The Sporting News, December 11, 1930: 5.

[8] “Majors’ 1931 Plans Ignore Draft Issue,” The Sporting News, November 27, 1930: 5.

[9] “Coast League Deadlock on President Unbroken,” The Sporting News, December 4, 1930: 2.

[10] Gene Kessler, “Picked Up in Corridors of Mount Royal Hotel during Pow-Wow at Montreal,” The Sporting News, December 11, 1930: 3.

[11] “Minors Prepare at Montreal to Submit Majors Peace Pact.”

[12] “Scribbled by Scribes,” The Sporting News, December 4, 1930: 4

[13] “Picked Up in Corridors of Mount Royal Hotel during Pow-Wow at Montreal.”

[14] “N.Y. Clubs Pry Into Trade Mart While Acting as Hosts to Majors,” The Sporting News, December 11, 1930: 1.

[15] “Minors Adopt Six Rule Amendments,” The Sporting News, December 11, 1930: 5.

[16] “Majors Agree to Hear Terms of Minors’ Offer,” The Sporting News, December 11, 1930: 1.

[17] “Many Ready to Bid for Baker Holdings,” The Sporting News, December 11, 1930: 1; “Ruch, Baker’s Heirs Will Retain Phillies,” The Sporting News, December 18, 1930: 1; “Two Women Share Baker’s Club Stock,” The Sporting News, December 18, 1930: 2.

[18] “Frank York, Seeking Pitchers, Gets Case of ‘Convention Feet,’” The Sporting News, December 11, 1930: 1.

[19] “N.Y. Clubs Pry Into Trade Mart While Acting as Hosts to Majors.”

[20] “Caught in the Draft of Corridors at Majors’ Conclave,” The Sporting News, December 18, 1930: 6.

[21] “Listening In at Majors’ Gabfest,” “Summary of Major Leagues’ Decisions.”

[22] “New York Sessions Fail to Bring End to Draft Dispute,” The Sporting News, December 18, 1930: 2

[23] “Summary of Major Leagues’ Decisions”; “The Major League Meetings,” The Sporting News, December 18, 1930: 1.

[24] “Summary of Major Leagues’ Decisions.”

[25] “Listening In at Majors’ Gabfest.” “Summary of Major Leagues’ Decisions.”

[26] “Rickey Demands Equal Rights for ‘Farms,’” The Sporting News, December 11, 1930: 7.

[27] “Majors Agree to Hear Terms of Minors’ Offer,” The Sporting News, December 11, 1930: 1.

[28] “Picked Up in Corridors of Mount Royal Hotel during Pow-Wow at Montreal.”

[29] “Indians’ Heart Set on Ruel and Kamm,” The Sporting News, December 11, 1930: 5.

[30] “Rickey Demands Equal Rights for ‘Farms.’”

[31] “Minors Prepare at Montreal to Submit Majors Peace Pact,” The Sporting News, December 11, 1930: 6.

[32] Ibid.

[33] “Browns will Start With Young Infield,” The Sporting News, December 18, 1930: 2.

[34] “Major Leagues Offer to End Strife over Draft by Agreeing to Graduate Pay Increases for Selected Players and Liberalizing of Option Provisions,” The Sporting News, December 25, 1930: 8.

[35] “Synopsis of Majors’ Draft Concessions,” The Sporting News, December 25, 1930: 1.

[36] “American Association Leads Way for Universal Draft Agreement,” The Sporting News, December 25, 1930: 1.

[37] Ibid.

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