1933 Winter Meetings: The Sell-off

This article was written by Jason C. Long

This article was published in the


Introduction and Context

Some of the best players in baseball traded places at the 1933 winter meetings. The meetings opened amid optimism, with a feeling that baseball was recovering from the Depression and could “be expected to gain steadily” as it moved forward.[1] During 1933, all 14 minor leagues that began the season completed it; most teams did not suffer the expected losses; and a few even earned a profit. Nevertheless, at the minor-league meetings, the business focused on ousting “shoestring operators” to further ensure team and league solvency. As the action shifted to Chicago for the big leagues, big moves were rumored. Teams did in fact deal star players, including future Hall of Famers like Mickey Cochrane, Chuck Klein, and Lefty Grove. But in contrast with the optimistic atmosphere, the teams that traded away those players did so for financial reasons. 

 

Blue Laws Lifted

Contributing to the optimism heading into the meetings was Philadelphia and Pittsburgh lifting their “Blue Laws.” These laws had prohibited Sunday games. National League President John Heydler welcomed the change, saying that it “would do much to stabilize our circuit, especially in the case of the Phillies, who always have suffered under a heavy financial burden because they were unable to play their Sunday games at home.”[2] The change ensured that, for the first time, all major-league clubs could play at home on Sundays.

 

The Minor League Meetings in Galveston

Eight days after those votes, the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues (NAPBL) met on November 15 in Galveston, Texas, at the Buccaneer Hotel. Attendees were advised to bring their bathing suits and be ready for deep-sea fishing and a cruise on the US Coast Guard cutter Saranac. 

 

The Business Side

When business began, the delegates considered proposed amendments to the National Association and Major-Minor Agreements. In general, these were minor and technical, although Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis had recommended a provision to forfeit owners’ rights to their teams if the teams fell into receivership. The Southern Association and American Association led the opposition to this provision; they questioned its legality and reasoned that the receiverships in place were helpful and should not be discarded. Apparently the other delegates shared this opposition, as they rejected the provision without a single vote in support.

Other business saw NAPBL President William G. Bramham assailing “shoestring” operators. He identified these as team owners who capitalize on civic pride to raise funds, then stall players and other creditors, and in some cases abscond with the funds.[3] The delegates adopted a rule to constrain these “bootleggers of franchises,” as Bramham put it, by stipulating that any compensation due to a team owner or operator must first be transmitted through the NAPBL office. The NAPBL office could apply the funds to claims due, before the owner or operator could then receive the income.[4]

Bramham also spoke out against Shaughnessy playoffs, so called because Montreal Royals general manager Frank Shaughnessy devised the system for the International League. The system – familiar today – provided for the top four teams in a league to face off in postseason series, with the first- and fourth-place finishers and the second- and third-place finishers playing in the first round, followed by  the winner of each series facing off for the league championship. In addition to the International League, the American Association, the Texas League, and several other leagues had adopted this system in 1933. Shaughnessy himself was “one of the busiest men at the convention,” dealing not only with his club’s business but also defending his playoff plan.[5] He insisted that no league that had adopted his plan would drop it for 1934. Bramham, on the other hand, said that playoffs were “not a test of real merit. It is commercializing the sport to a degree that must inevitably meet with popular disfavor.”[6] 

The meetings further saw Bramham warn against “chain store” operations, the beginnings of the modern minor-league system, in which teams in different leagues were owned by the same person or group, including big-league clubs. This made it easy to move players between them. Though prohibited by many leagues, it was still practiced via secret agreements and other violations that Bramham sought to punish with “severe penalties, which include free agency” for the players.[7] Indeed, heading into the meetings, the American Association resolved to prohibit any of its teams from using a player who had played for any team that had common ownership with the Association club. Otherwise, rules prohibiting chain-store systems were already in place, so the meetings offered only admonitions for teams to comply.

A few changes were aimed at play on the field as well. One that caused some discussion was the Southern Association adopting a new rule that allowed runners to advance on an intentional walk with two outs. A fan first suggested the rule, which provided that if there were two outs and the pitcher threw four consecutive balls to a batter, the batter was entitled to first base and any baserunners could advance two bases, except if runners were on second and third, in which case the runner on third would score but the runner on second would move to third. Officials of other leagues, including Frank Shaughnessy, exclaimed that the Southern Association had done “something great,” but suggested that the rule should not apply if the pitcher threw a strike.[8]

 

Player Movement

In contrast with 1932, there was significant player movement during the minor-league meetings.  Early on, the Cardinals and Phillies announced a trade of catchers, with Spud Davis heading to St. Louis in exchange for Jimmie Wilson. Both were well-regarded backstops: Davis hit .349 with nine home runs in 1933, while Wilson, noted for his defense and coming off an All-Star Game appearance (the first All-Star Game had been played during the season), hit .256. This was the second time the two catchers were dealt for each other: On May 11, 1928, they moved in opposite directions in a trade that occurred during a game. Wilson caught two innings of that game for the Phillies and was then told of the trade.[9] He went to the Cardinals’ clubhouse, changed, and sat on their bench for the rest of the game. The 1933 trade also included the Cardinals acquiring infielder Ed Delker. The Phillies had acquired Delker from the Cardinals during the 1932 season, but he played poorly and was rumored to be injured. Reports were that the Phillies insisted that the Cardinals take him back for the same price that the Phillies had paid for him in 1932 as a condition of the Davis trade.[10] 

Other trades saw the Browns and the White Sox swapping catchers, with St. Louis sending Mervyn Shea to Chicago for Frank Grube, and the Pirates acquiring right-handed pitcher Red Lucas and outfielder Walter Roettger from the Reds for outfielder Adam Comorosky and infielder Tony Piet. The Pirates were looking to bolster their staff, and Lucas had posted a 3.40 ERA in 219 innings in 1933. For the Reds, second baseman Piet was the prize, having hit .323 in 107 games in his third big-league season. The Reds traded infielder George Grantham to the Giants for righty Glenn Spencer, primarily a relief pitcher. The Dodgers and Cubs added to their teams as well, purchasing players from the minors during the meetings, while many minor-league players were traded or sold between minor-league clubs.

 

Summary

The Galveston meetings were described as the “most active player trading mart in years,” which was attributed to the “the changed attitude toward the immediate future of the game – one of optimism.”[11] With the location in Galveston, attendance had been expected to suffer, but registration unexpectedly reached 350 delegates. The sense of better times on the horizon led not only to the active trade market, but also to the minors increasing roster limits, player salaries, and executive salaries, while planning for several new leagues in 1934. And though all reports praised Galveston as host, the NAPBL sought a more central location for the 1934 meetings and chose Louisville, Kentucky.

 

The Major League Meetings in Chicago

Almost a month later the action shifted to Chicago for the major-league meetings. The big leaguers were expected to address topics including a uniform ball, radio broadcasts, the All-Star Game, and possibly extending Commissioner Landis’s contract. There were also rumors of star players being moved; many expected the two Philadelphia teams to be most active at meetings anticipated to bring “the biggest turnover of talent in many years.”[12]

 

The Chuck Klein Trade

The meetings were scheduled to begin on December 12, but the Phillies continued with their head start on trading. They followed up the Spud Davis deal by sending another key piece of their lineup, future Hall of Fame outfielder Chuck Klein, to the Cubs. The 1932 MVP and reigning National League batting champion (.368), Klein had also hit 28 home runs. Phillies president Gerald Nugent regretted that economics made Klein’s trade necessary, but commented,

“… We are forced to make the trade through continued and heavy loss of money, not only last season but the season before as well.[13]

In exchange, the Phillies received first baseman Harvey Hendrick and infielder Mark Koenig from the Cubs, left-hander Ted Kleinhans from Atlanta of the Southern Association, and cash “in the neighborhood of $100,000.” Nugent acknowledged that it “may appear that the Cubs are getting the better of the deal,” but asked fans to “remember that the players coming [to Philadelphia] aren’t our only profit from the transaction.”[14] 

 

The League Meetings

The formal meetings opened on Tuesday, December 12, with the American and National Leagues scheduled to hold their own meetings Tuesday and Wednesday, and the joint meeting set for Thursday, all at the Palmer House hotel.  In the American League meeting, one of the first priorities was re-electing Will Harridge as league president, secretary, and treasurer for a five-year term. This contrasted with Harridge’s previous one-year terms and was considered a tribute to his operations in trying times. On the topic of the uniform baseball, for instance, Harridge said that uniformity would both improve the game and save money:

A uniform baseball for all organized baseball not only would improve the game but would result in the saving of vast sums of money now wasted. … For years club owners have been wasting big sums of cash on players who are permitted to compile staggering and dizzy batting averages with unusually live baseballs.[15]

Despite the American League having a livelier ball, the AL owners took no action to change their ball; they were confident that the National League would adopt their ball. Finally, the delegates at the AL meeting unanimously supported continuing the All-Star Game.

In contrast, the National League did not achieve much unanimity. Some teams opposed continuing the All-Star Game. President Heydler solicited a vote on a uniform ball, and five teams supported adopting a livelier ball like the American League’s. Only Bill Terry, manager of the World Series champion Giants, voted against it. The Giants’ pitching led to their championship and they did not want a change. Neither the Phillies nor the Reds voted on the issue. 

Each league voted to extend Commissioner Landis’s contract for seven years and one month, so that he would remain commissioner through the end of the 1941 winter meetings. A committee consisting of Harridge, Heydler, Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert, Giants owner Charles Stoneham, Indians owner Alva Bradley, and Braves owner Emil Fuchs was authorized to present the extension to Landis as “a token of the owners esteem, gratitude,” and “confidence in his administration.”[16]

 

The Joint Session

Commissioner Landis then presided over the joint meeting, which lasted for three hours. The owners agreed to adopt a uniform ball, although they did not simply adopt the American League version, but authorized Harridge and Heydler to meet with manufacturers and settle on a ball for both leagues. Afterward, Heydler said it was “a little difficult to talk intelligently as to the exact texture, cover, and qualities of the ball,” but noted that the differences in the American and National League versions were in the “stitching and thickness of the cover.”[17] He acknowledged that the ball would be livelier than the version the NL had used in 1933, but was prepared for that:

Maybe we won’t have such marvelous pitching records in the National League next season, but it will be fair all around, and the good pitchers will rise above the mediocre ones as always.[18]

The big leagues also intended to persuade all minor leagues to use the same ball.

Although some National League teams opposed continuing the All-Star Game, the majority of all clubs prevailed and a 1934 game was planned for New York. There was no formal vote to continue the game permanently, but there was an understanding that the game would become an annual event and that Cleveland would host in 1935. [19]

Doubleheaders were another topic, with the leagues agreeing to prohibit “synthetic” doubleheaders on Sundays – i.e., twin bills created by postponing weekday games– until after June 15. This was a compromise between AL and NL owners, as some clubs wanted to prohibit planned twin bills. The leagues resolved that they would study the impact of the June 15 rule, and if it appeared that planned doubleheaders were unnecessary to bolster attendance, then each league would be permitted to place further restrictions on home clubs’ discretion to schedule them.[20]

In other business, the leagues altered the practices governing counting players on option toward team limits and salary responsibility for optioned players, but left intact the rules governing radio broadcasts.[21] The existing rule allowed each club to decide for itself whether to broadcast its games. Only Cleveland and the two St. Louis clubs were selling broadcast rights at that time, with most of the other teams wanting no part of such an arrangement, believing that it cut into attendance. Finally, A’s vice president John Shibe received permission to recruit an all-star team for a world exhibition tour after the 1934 season. His team would have to come from the American League; the NL declined to participate.

 

Connie Mack’s Sell-off

The main attraction in Chicago did not take place in a meeting room. Instead, in the hotel’s lobbies and suites, teams hammered out deals that moved some of the best players in the game. On the first day of the meetings, an “outwardly sad” Connie Mack announced that he had traded catcher Mickey Cochrane to the Tigers; left-handed pitchers Lefty Grove and Rube Walberg and second baseman Max Bishop to the Red Sox; and right-handed pitcher George Earnshaw to the White Sox.[22] These deals dismantled Mack’s most recent powerhouse. Of the starting lineup that won three straight pennants from 1929 to 1931 and back-to-back World Series in 1929 and 1930, only Jimmie Foxx, the reigning AL MVP and Triple Crown winner, remained.

Though startling, the deals had been rumored for months. Since the end of the 1933 season, Tigers owner Frank Navin had been saying he would acquire Cochrane to lead the Tigers as player-manager in 1934. Before leaving Detroit for the meetings, he said he had scheduled “an appointment with Mack” and expected they would make a deal “without difficulty.”[23] In turn, while the deal was still only a rumor, Cochrane reportedly told a friend that he “would be happy to manage the Tigers.”[24] Mack reportedly asked the Tigers for $125,000 and catcher Ray Hayworth, but accepted catcher Johnny Pasek and $100,000. The Tigers announced immediately that Cochrane, who was at the meeting, would both manage and catch in 1934.

The deal with the Red Sox had also been churning for some time, though the principals were less explicit before Mack announced the trade. Lefty Grove had tied for the AL lead with 24 victories while sporting a 3.20 ERA (fourth in the league) in 1933. After the trade, Grove seemed pleased to be leaving the A’s, saying he was “tickled to hear of it.” He said he would be “glad to go” to Boston, which he admired as a baseball city, and was “sure [he would] have more enthusiasm for [his] pitching next year and the years thereafter than for some time.”[25] 

Max Bishop and Rube Walberg also moved from Philadelphia to Boston in the deal. Bishop hit .294 in 1933 with a stellar .446 on-base percentage. Walberg’s statistics were less gaudy; he had a losing record (9-13) in 1933 and a 4.88 ERA, with the third-place Athletics. In return, the A’s received shortstop Rabbit Warstler, right-hander Robert Kline, $125,000 for Grove, and $50,000 combined for Bishop and Walberg. Warstler, standing only 5-feet-7, was the quintessential all-glove, no-bat infielder, and the 6-foot-4 Kline had not achieved great success either, with a career ERA of 4.88 through 1933.

Connie Mack’s third deal involved another big right-hander, the 6-foot-4 George Earnshaw.  Mack traded Earnshaw and catcher John Pasek, just acquired in the Cochrane deal, to the White Sox for catcher Charlie Berry and a reported $25,000. Earnshaw had been a hero in the A’s World Series wins, but fell on hard times in 1933. Mack sent Earnshaw home early in the year for being out of shape, and again during August, telling him not to return. Mack said that the A’s clubhouse was “more congenial” without Earnshaw. The truth may have been that Earnshaw had a drinking problem.[26] In any event, the White Sox insisted on getting a catcher to replace Berry, so the A’s sent Pasek to Chicago, too. 

 

Other Player Movement

A day after acquiring Cochrane and Grove respectively, the Tigers and Red Sox continued to deal. The Tigers traded 27-year-old outfielder John Stone to the AL champion Senators for veteran outfielder Leon “Goose” Goslin. Stone was considered an improving hitter and excellent defender. In fact, the Senators tried to trade for him before the 1933 season. They offered outfielders Sam West and Carl Reynolds as well as left-hander Lloyd Brown to the Tigers, who declined. After the 1933 season, the Tigers discussed trading Stone to the St. Louis Browns for Reynolds, whom the Senators had sent to St. Louis, but no deal resulted. At the winter meetings, then, when Washington offered Goslin, who had a .325 career batting average, the Tigers agreed.  Despite Goslin’s long track record as a hitter, the Senators lauded the deal. Player-manager Joe Cronin said that the deal “materially strengthened the offense, as well as the defense. Stone’s ability to drive in runs and his youth made him attractive to me.”[27] Cronin and Goslin may have feuded during the 1933 season, which may have really made Goslin’s departure attractive to Cronin.[28]

The Red Sox also traded for an outfielder, acquiring Carl Reynolds from the St. Louis Browns. They were looking to upgrade their outfield with Reynolds, who had hit .286 with eight home runs in his only season in St. Louis. In exchange, the Red Sox gave up Smead Jolley, an outfielder with a poor defensive reputation, in addition to right-hander Ivy Andrews and an undisclosed amount of cash. 

Smead Jolley, whose unusual name was a tribute to a family friend, was not long for the Browns. St. Louis manager Rogers Hornsby immediately packaged Jolley, left-hander Wally Hebert, and shortstop Jim Levey in a deal with Hollywood of the Pacific Coast League for prize shortstop prospect Alan Strange. Strange had hit .324 with Hollywood and was considered to be excellent defensively. The Browns also purchased George Puccinelli and Ray Pepper, outfielders from the Cardinals organization, for $15,000. By heading back to the West Coast, meanwhile, Jolley was able to resume a career that made him a Pacific Coast League icon and one of the minor leagues’ all-time great hitters.

 

Rumors

Amid the trades at the meetings, there were some rumored deals that never came to fruition. The White Sox and the Yankees discussed a deal that would have sent shortstop Luke Appling to New York. Chicago apparently sought right-handed pitcher Red Ruffing, shortstop Lyn Lary, and outfielder Sammy Byrd, but nothing came of the teams’ conversations. Likewise, nothing came of a two-hour meeting between representatives of the Cubs, Braves, Pirates, and Cardinals. In that meeting the Cubs were reportedly offering right-hander Pat Malone, infielder Billy Herman, and shortstop Billy Jurges, while seeking some combination of Braves third baseman Pinky Whitney, catcher Tommy Padden and first baseman Gus Suhr of the Pirates, and first baseman Rip Collins from the Cardinals, while the Braves sought Cubs outfielder Kiki Cuyler.   The Cardinals, however, were unwilling to trade any front-line players, so no deals resulted. 

 

Summary

Most of the delegates left Chicago on Friday. The Sporting News called the meetings the “liveliest market the big leaguers had witnessed at their winter meetings for a long time.”[29] From the close of the 1933 season through the end of the winter meetings, 45 players changed teams, with the bulk of them moving between teams in the American League. 

 

Conclusion

The optimism that opened the 1933 meetings was justified in many respects. Instead of minor leagues folding, as they had in the past, new leagues were planned for 1934 and six new leagues actually formed for that year. Shaughnessy playoffs were partly responsible for providing the minors with a new source of revenue.[30] Big-league teams were also doing somewhat better under the changes adopted in 1932.

With this background, the 1933 meetings represented an active trade market. Much of the activity resulted from the A’s – a team with significantly declining attendance – selling their star players. It was widely reported that Connie Mack was under pressure from lenders and investors, but after the meetings he suggested a slightly different reason for the sell-off: The A’s could not afford the star players’ salaries any longer. Mack insisted that he “was not breaking up” the A’s, but instead had acquired “funds with which to rebuild. In fact,” he said, the team had “already spent a considerable portion for new players.”[31] Nevertheless, the A’s fell from a third-place finish in 1933 to fifth place in 1934, even with Jimmie Foxx still in the fold, and would not have another winning season for many years after the sell-off. 

Lefty Grove was viewed as a savior when he arrived in Boston, and he capitalized on that status. He did not train on Sundays during spring training, and was the only Red Sox player to have his own room on the road. But Grove developed a sore arm and scuffled to an 8-8 record with a 6.50 ERA in 1934 as the Red Sox finished exactly .500 at 76-76. That was still a marked improvement for what had been a losing team, but critics considered Grove a bust. Their analysis was short-sighted – from 1935 through 1939, Grove returned to form as one of the best pitchers in the game. 

Mickey Cochrane fared much better with his new team. He hit .320 while catching and managing the Tigers, who also benefited from Goose Goslin’s .305 batting average, 13 home runs, and 100 RBIs. Despite having only two home runs, Cochrane beat Lou Gehrig, who won the Triple Crown in 1934 with a .363 batting average and 49 home runs, for the AL MVP award. Many credited Cochrane’s leadership as the Tigers broke through to the American League pennant. Cochrane could not quite get them over the hump, however, as the Tigers fell to the Cardinals in seven games in the World Series before the action shifted to New York City for the 1934 winter meetings.  

 

Notes

[1] “Baseball Men Hail End of Sunday Ban,” New York Times, November 9, 1933: 30 (quoting John A. Heydler, National League president).

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Phils Trade Davis for Wilson, Cards,” New York Times, November 16, 1933: 34.

[4] “Bramham Chosen by Minor Leagues,” New York Times, November 17, 1933: 25.

[5] “Gathered on Promenade Along Galveston Sea Wall,” The Sporting News, November 23, 1933: 6.

[6] “Phils Trade Davis for Wilson, Cards.”

[7] Ibid.

[8] “Adopt Rule to End Intentional Pass,” New York Times, November 18, 1933: 22.

[9] Gary Livacari, “Jimmie Wilson,” SABR BioProject, sabr.org/bioproj/person/e9fa0e9d#, most recently accessed December 6, 2015. Wilson thus became “the only player in major league history who was a member of two teams during one game.” Ibid.

[10] Dick Farrington, “Cards, Browns Keep Irons Hot to Forge Other Likely Deals,” The Sporting News, November 23, 1933: 1.

[11] “Trading of Players Heaviest for Years,” The Sporting News, November 23, 1933: 7.

[12] “Big Deals Loom in Major Leagues,” New York Times, December 12, 1933: 32.

[13] “Klein of Phillies Goes to the Cubs,” New York Times, November 22, 1933: 25.

[14] Ibid.

[15] “Harridge Favors Uniform Baseball,” New York Times, December 6, 1933: 32.

[16] E.G. Brands, “Uniform Ball to Be in Use Next Season,” The Sporting News, December 21, 1933: 5.

[17] “Big Leagues Vote for Uniform Ball,” New York Times, December 15, 1933: 31.

[18] Ibid.

[19] “Uniform Ball to Be in Use Next Season.”

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] “Mack Sells Grove and 4 Other Stars,” New York Times, December 13, 1933: 32.

[23] Sam Greene, “Navin to Dangle $100,000 Check as Cochrane Offer at Confab,” The Sporting News, December 7, 1933: 1.

[24] C. William Duncan, “Mickey Cochrane, Always a Fighter, Should Bring Back Detroit Tigers Scrappy Ways of Ty Cobb,” The Sporting News, December 21, 1933: 3.

[25] “‘Tickled,’ Say Grove and Bishop on Trade; Each Calls Boston a Great Baseball City,” New York Times, December 14, 1933: 30.

[26] “Mack Says He’ll Consider Bids for George Earnshaw,” Washington Post, September 1, 1933: 17.

[27] Shirley Povich, “Stone Picked to Bat Fourth for Nats,” Washington Post, February 10, 1935: 35.

[28] Shirley L. Povich, “This Morning,” Washington Post, December 14, 1933: 18.

[29] “Sales of A’s Stars Feature of Trading,” The Sporting News, December 21, 1933: 5.

[30] David Pietrusza, Judge and Jury: The Life and Times of Kenesaw Mountain Landis (Dallas: Taylor, 2001), 352. 

[31] “Mack Lays Deals to Wage Demands,” New York Times, December 19, 1933: 28.

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