1931 Winter Meetings: Baseball Gets a Taste of Depression

This article was written by Ted Leavengood

This article was published in the


As the major-league ownership gathered in Chicago, Illinois from December 8 through 10, 1931, the Great Depression was a silent partner to the discussions.  Unemployment rose dramatically in 1931, topping out at 16 percent and showing no signs of relenting. Attendance dropped at almost every ballpark during the 1931 season, and overall attendance for the major leagues fell by 17 percent.  In 1930 three teams — the Dodgers, Yankees, and Cubs — had all topped the one million mark in attendance, but only the Cubs exceeded that mark in 1931 and they lost almost 400,000 fans.  Baseball was a powerful antidote to the bad economic news that beset the nation and the sport was still in relatively robust financial condition, but the effects of the worst fiscal downturn in American history were being felt even by the National Pastime as Americans curtailed their attendance at games, and those that could afford a trip to the ballpark had far less money to spend. 

The annual gathering of baseball executives began with the meeting of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, with the 16 existing minor leagues gathering at the West Baden Springs Hotel and Resort in southern Indiana from December 2 through 4.  The hotel was known as the “Eighth Wonder of the World” and the resort featured a mineral spring spa similar to its European counterpart in Baden Baden, Germany. A casino, race track, and baseball field were part of the attraction, but as baseball magnates perambulated its posh hallways and meeting rooms, the hotel was actually in desperate straits and would close for good early the next year. 

The setting was perfect however, given the focus of the minor-league leadership on their worsening economic conditions.  The 1930 season had ended with 22 leagues but only 19 were able to open in 1931 and just 16 had completed their seasons; in addition, a number of teams had been forced to fold throughout the year.  Preliminary meetings had been held to discuss the failures of teams in Toledo, Ohio and Mobile, Alabama, both of which had been relocated.  Major-league officials in general attended the meetings, but Branch Rickey, who was deeply invested in the viability of the minors as a “farm” system for his Cardinals ballclub, attended these preliminary meetings.  More than anyone, Rickey was a prime mover in the affairs in West Baden. 

The hot topics for the meetings included reducing National Association staff and consolidating its offices to curb overhead expenses, and electing a new leader to replace Michael Sexton, who was viewed as partially responsible for the economic overreach of the organization. Sexton had become the salaried president of the association in 1920 and he had expanded its financial commitments, all of which were on the table in 1931. Secretary-Treasurer John Farrell, who had been with the association since its inception, was retained for a year.[1] 

Five men jockeyed to succeed Sexton at the meetings and eventually a five-person executive committee, rather than one man, was chosen to replace Sexton.  The group included Warren Giles, president of the Rochester team in the (Class-AA) International League (and future National League president), Joe Carr from the St. Paul club of the (Class-AA) American Association, Alvin Gardner, president of the (Class-A) Texas League, Ross Harriott of the Terre Haute club in the (Class-B) Three-I League, and W.G. Branham, president of the (Class-C) Piedmont League and eventual successor to Sexton, and they were charged with studying conditions and governing for one year and reporting their findings and recommendations back to the NAPBL at the 1932 Winter Meetings.[2]  Branch Rickey was said to have been a major actor in the re-organization of the minor leagues and these personnel changes.  He noted for the New York Times that the minor leagues had been reduced from 52 leagues in 1922 to the 16 operating in 1931 and he said of the new minor-league regime, “We don’t expect the committee to work wonders,” but he believed that progressive action was needed.[3]  The word “progressive” dominated the descriptions of the meetings and what was needed to right the ship of baseball’s lower levels. 

In addition to the re-organization, a new collective agreement was reached in which player salaries were lowered and various unsavory practices, such as signing players under assumed names and aliases, would be abandoned, but ultimately little comment was offered on the promise made going into the meetings to ask Commissioner Landis to set aside funds to assist the minors in moving back into many of the small towns where teams had recently failed.  The most common source of cash for minor-league teams—purchase of their players by major-league teams—was far less common in 1931, a sure sign that the pinch was being felt by all.[4]  Rickey was less active in personnel matters affecting his own team, but did pay $12,500, one of the highest sums ever, for an outfielder, Nick Cullop, who broke the American Association home run record in 1930 would play for the Cardinals affiliate in Columbus, Ohio. 

Many major-league teams sought to answer nagging roster concerns by purchasing minor-league standouts.  The White Sox purchased outfielder Harold Anderson from St. Paul to add to their major-league roster, which would make a later deal with the Washington Nationals possible.  Bill Veeck, Sr. of the Cubs told The Sporting News that he saw his team being aggressive at the meetings in pursuit of any talent to help the club in the 1932 season.[5]  There were similar comments from Connie Mack of the Athletics and Gabby Street of the Cardinals, but it was the Boston Red Sox which purchased two minor-league pitchers, John Michaels and Bob Weiland, in an attempt to add that elusive left-hander who might emerge and lead them back to prominence.  The Philadelphia Athletics, coming off their third American League pennant in a row, had failed to beat the Cardinals in the World Series and Mack was looking at Cleveland shortstop Eddie Morgan as perhaps the missing piece that might give them enough to win it all in 1932.

Following the death of Charlie Comiskey on October 26, 1931 the White Sox team was taken over by his son, Louis.  In his first Winter Meetings, the son hoped to establish his bona fides with an aggressive attempt to upgrade his father’s team.  The Sox had been mired in the lower division for the years following the Black Sox scandal of 1919.  He consummated the first trade of the meetings by sending outfielder Chuck Reynolds and infielder Johnny Kerr to Clark Griffith of the Washington Nationals in exchange for a pair of right-handers: 40-year-old veteran Sam Jones and young reliever Irving “Bump” Hadley (who had fallen from grace with manager Walter Johnson), and infielder Minter Hayes. Comiskey and manager Lou Fonseca expressed repeatedly that other than young prospect Vic Fraser, every other name on the existing roster was available in trade.[6]

The 1931 major-league Winter Meetings began on a Tuesday in Chicago and the news was all about the salary cuts and the tough road to hoe for ownership in confronting the economic crisis.[7]  Baseball was selling an escape from the grim realities in which far too many Americans were engulfed, but there was no escaping the overwhelming tenor of the times. The Sporting News headlines after the meetings had concluded said it all:  “Ruth’s Pay May Be Reduced to $50,000”; “Cards Not to Play Santa Claus.”[8]  Babe Ruth had been paid $80,000 annually each of the prior two seasons and Yankee owner Colonel Jacob Rupert reported the reduction.  The Cardinals were determined not to give away the newly-acquired Hack Wilson.

The meetings produced an explicit agreement that major-league rosters were to be reduced from 25 to 23 for the 1932 season, a move that was applauded by The Sporting News in an under-the-masthead summary of the 1931 Winter Meetings.  The reduction, which had to be achieved by June 15, also required the 40-man roster to be reduced to 38.  The Sporting News believed that there were too many players on the major-league rosters who did not belong there, regardless of whether or not money would be saved.  The two leagues differed on the number, with the American League preferring 22 and the National League 23.  Commissioner Landis had settled the issue by voting for 23.[9]

Whether the roster sizes were cut for monetary or aesthetic reasons, the rationale in trimming salaries was without question a bow to the winds of economic despair that gripped the country.  A formal resolution was voted to extend to all players and staff, which stated that, “by reason of prevailing conditions and the decrease in attendance at our games, it becomes necessary that the general operating expenses including salaries of ball players in both leagues, be substantially reduced.”[10]  The Sporting News opined that baseball was following the lead of the rest of American industry, but conceded that the sport could not mandate a reduction without giving impetus for a re-examination of the ruling that the major leagues did not constitute a trust in violation of American law.  Almost immediately, there was a new impetus for a new players union, and it was rumored that former players such as Ty Cobb and George Sisler were being sought to lead it.

The meetings discussed a wide range of issues, including broadcasting of games on radio (a practice that had begun a decade earlier), but which also saw some clubs deriving greater income than others.  These meetings continued the wariness of many toward the new technology, as ownership believed that radio broadcasts cut into home attendance without giving them adequate compensation.  The Sporting News warned in fact that radio would be employed at the discretion of individual owners, though there was “intimation that it would be barred in all parks in 1933.”[11]  The sentiments of the major-league owners may have been colored by the request from the minor leagues in West Baden a week earlier to tax radio broadcasts as a means of support for the farm systems being cultivated increasingly by major-league franchises.

The meetings forbade “synthetic doubleheaders” that were not scheduled officially but agreed to by owners trying to pack greater attendance into two weekend games instead of a weekday game.  Although not in a mood to structure a money-sharing arrangement with the National Association, in a show of largesse, the otherwise conservative major-league philanthropists agreed to donate $50,000 to support the American Legion tournament.  And in a final matter of business, the owners responded to rumors that the ball had been too lively in 1930 and had been replaced with something less prone to leaving the park in 1931.  The owners said in an official resolution that no changes to the ball were to be made for the 1932 season, calculating perhaps that keeping balls in the park meant less to be spent on horsehide. 

There were few trades made during the meetings in Chicago.  But the most talked about transaction occurred between two of the most notable figures of the time — Branch Rickey, who was formally named vice president of the St. Louis Cardinals at the meetings, and Bill Veeck, Sr. of the Chicago Cubs.  Branch Rickey had not sought out Lewis “Hack” Wilson, but in one of the most interesting deals of the 1931 Winter Meetings he acquired the slugging outfielder, and left-handed pitcher Arthur “Bud” Teachout from the Chicago Cubs for future Hall of Fame righty Burleigh Grimes.  In the preceding World Series, Grimes had won the decisive Game Seven for the Cardinals as they defeated Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics.  Grimes had won Game Three as well and was regarded as a hero by St. Louis fans.  Yet Rickey believed it was better to trade a player a year too early than a year too late and he told The Sporting News that he saw Wilson as an “attractive bond,” one that would bring a productive  yield in trade.[12]

Correspondingly, the Cubs’ Veeck had promised several weeks earlier he would be active in reshaping his roster, and trading Hack Wilson for Burleigh Grimes got rid of a player on the decline, and one (accurately) rumored to be drinking far too much, for a World Series standout.  Grimes had won 25 games against the Cubs over the course of his career and from the perspective of the Chicago brain trust, they could not have been happier to have him on their side for the 1932 season.  Given Wilson’s reputation for carousing and heavy drinking, it was difficult to believe that Rickey had not outsmarted himself, but no sooner had the trade hit the wires than Rickey was able to convince Brooklyn to invest $45,000 (and minor-league outfielder/first baseman Bob Parham) in Wilson, one of the few cash deals made prior to the 1932 season and made at a time when owners were not as awash in cash as they had once been.[13]

Branch Rickey was likely motivated by two external issues.  The first was the demands of a burgeoning minor-league operation matched by none.  Money to support that operation was no doubt part of Rickey’s motivation in trading for Wilson.  Additionally, Grimes was 38 years old and Rickey had the 22-year-old Dizzy Dean waiting in the wings.  Dean had first appeared for the Cardinals in 1930 in a single game that he won impressively.  But Rickey gave the outspoken Dean another year of seasoning in the minors in 1931, to which he responded by winning 26 games, throwing 304 innings and posting a 1.57 ERA. Dean was ready and he would step in for Burleigh Grimes capably from the start of the 1932 season, throwing 286 innings and winning 18 games for a team that finished sixth in the National League.  The Cubs did wind up winning the pennant, but  it was not the addition of Burleigh Grimes that pushed them to the top of the league.  The future Hall of Famer slumped and won only six games with an ERA of 4.78.  Rickey got the better end of the trade, even if the return did not manifest itself in obvious terms.

It is possible that the economic reserves of various teams served to diminish the usual trade discussions.  There was considerable discussion, for instance, that the Yankees desired to trade infielder Tony Lazzeri.  There were numerous capable infielders in the New York minor-league farm system, the most notable of which was Frankie Crosetti.  Lazzeri would weather these trade winds, however, and teamed with Crosetti in a formidable Yankee middle infield until 1938, when the then-33-year-old Lazzeri was released and picked up by the Cubs.

The most sought-after player at the Winter Meetings was outfielder Chuck Klein of the Philadelphia Phillies.  Klein had led the National League in home runs in 1929 with 43 and had followed with two more seasons at or near the top of the league in power categories.  Though the Phillies had featured Lefty O’Doul with Klein in 1929, the team had managed nothing better than a fifth place finish.  They had dropped to last in 1930 and, though they won 14 more games in 1931, concluded another losing season, this time in sixth place in the National League.  The conventional wisdom was that they would be well-served to trade Klein for a good arm, but the meetings concluded with Klein still playing in Philadelphia.

The meetings were quiet in contrast to other years where numerous high-profile players changed teams.  But the sport had deepening concerns about the economy and at these meetings made important progress in meeting the challenges that beset the country.  That so many measures directly affecting players could be initiated by the owners without question or redress is unimaginable from the modern perspective, where the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) requires negotiation on issues of much less significance that minimum roster sizes or resolutions to reduce pay across the board.  Unionization became a fact of life for American industry in the 1930’s with the passage of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935, and would ultimately lead to the formation of the MLBPA 30 years later.

The roster size reductions at the major-league level were of far less consequence than in the minors, where whole leagues had ceased to exist due simply to economics.  The draconian situation facing many players at the lower levels was detailed in a piece in The Sporting News two weeks after all meetings had ended.  The Pacific Coast League particularly targeted veteran players, like Hugh McQuillan and Hank Severeid, whose big-league experience and name recognition had previously helped provide legitimacy to minor-league teams and sell tickets.  But their salaries began to outweigh the benefits and many recognizable names were given pink slips in the weeks just before Christmas 1931.[14]

The Negro National League had met January 27 to January 29, 1931 to confront the extreme economic issues that beset all professional baseball.  The league was forced to contract its size by dropping the Memphis Red Sox, Birmingham Black Barons, and Cuban Stars, and adding the Louisville White Sox and Indianapolis ABC’s.  The league memorialized Rube Foster on Opening Day of the 1931 season.  Foster, known as the Father of Black Baseball and the principal organizer and first president of the National Negro League, died December 9, 1930.  The changes adopted at the January meeting did not prevent the demise of the National Negro League that ceased to operate after the 1931 season.[15]

All of baseball was now just beginning to confront the changing economic landscape.  More would come in the seasons that followed as Connie Mack and Clark Griffith would be forced to sell off their best players just to meet payroll for the coming season.  The 1931 Winter Meetings were the beginning of a decade of change for major-league baseball, when the pain being felt by the country as a whole touched home for the National Pastime.

 

Notes

[1] Edgar G. Brands. “Minors All Set for Busy Session at West Baden Next Week, The Sporting News, November 26, 1931: 3; Brands.. “Committee of Five Assumes Administration of National Association,” The Sporting News, December 10, 1931: 3. Farrell ultimately remained as treasurer through 1937.

[2] Edgar G. Brands. “Committee of Five Assumes Administration of National Association.”

[3] Associated Press, “Minor Leagues End Regime of Sexton,” New York Times, December 4, 1931: 30.

[4] “Few Deals for Cash Made in West Baden,” The Sporting News, December 10, 1931: 5.

[5] Edward Burns.  “Veeck Promises Answers to Cubs Riddles in 1932 Within Few Days,” The Sporting News, December 3, 1931: 1.

[6] Edward Burns. “All of White Sox, Except Fraser, Put on Block For Sale or Barter,” The Sporting News, December 10, 1931: 1.

[7] Edgar G. Brands. “Economy Made Watchword of Majors at Annual Conference,” The Sporting News, December 17, 1931: 3.

[8] Joe Vila. “Ruth’s Pay May Be Reduced to $50,000,” The Sporting News, December 17, 1931: 1.

[9] “The Cut in Players,” The Sporting News, December 17, 1931: 4.

[10] “Conforming to National Conditions,” The Sporting News, December 4, 1931: 4.

[11] Brands, “Economy Made Watchword at Majors.”

[12] “Cardinals Not To Play Santa Claus By Giving Wilson Away for Song,” The Sporting News, December 17, 1931: 1.

[13] Lee Lowenfish, Branch Rickey, Baseball’s Ferocious Gentleman (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009), 220.

[14] “Coast Owners Sharpen Knives to Cut Salaries,” The Sporting News, December 10, 1931: 7.

[15] Thanks to Robert Reeder. See John B. Holway. The Complete Book of Baseball’s Negro Leagues: The Other Half of Baseball History, 2nd edition (Winter Park, Florida: Hastings House, 2001), passim.

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