This article was written by Stephen R. Keeney
This article was published in Baseball’s Business: The Winter Meetings: 1901-1957
The 1936 Winter Meetings were not the most exciting session. At the time, it seemed as though little history was made during those three days, but some of the changes made did have an important impact on the game, and some of the smaller changes are still in use. The 1936 meetings gave us innovations to the game and equipment, action on perennial issues that would change the future of the game, and, as always, player trades. The most anticipated event of the 1936 meetings was Commissioner Kenesaw M. Landis’s decision on the status of Bob Feller, which threatened to create a “baseball revolution” by team owners.
The National Association (the minor leagues) held its sessions on December 2-4 at the Mount Royal Hotel in Montreal. The schedule included business sessions each morning and organized activities like brewery visits, hockey games, and sightseeing each afternoon. More than 600 people registered for the meetings, and about 800 attended various events.1
The convention highlighted the growth of the minor leagues during the year. Minor-league rosters listed 2,258 active players, despite 12 teams not submitting their rosters in time.2 The National Association announced that all five leagues started in 1936 had survived to the end of the season, and that preliminary work was under way to start 18 more leagues.3 Attendance and exhibits increased at the school of instruction sessions, in their second year of existence. The sessions spotlighted new ideas for marketing and promotion, including how to partner with businesses, civic groups, and other organizations. The sessions taught that winning was not, in fact, “a primary essential to a successful season.”4
Delegates voted on 20 changes to the Association’s constitution, far fewer than the previous year’s 100.5 They approved higher player limits for teams in all classifications; ending automatic ineligibility for players for failing to report 10 days after the start of the season; and rules strengthening the territorial rights of both leagues and clubs. They rejected proposals to eliminate the Association’s commission on trades in which no cash changed hands, and to require players to have five years at Class-AA before they could be drafted. Probably the most important change was allowing major-league teams to recommend the signing of certain players to minor-league teams. The minors did, however, vote down a proposal that all such recommendations be sent to the commissioner’s office.
Trading among clubs was heavy at the minor-league meetings. More than 100 players6 were swapped among the minor leagues and between minor- and major-league teams. Most were players for players, rather than cash for players. One of the most noteworthy deals was the trade of outfielder Vince DiMaggio, brother of Joe DiMaggio, from the minor-league San Diego Padres to the Boston Bees of the National League; the Padres received right-handed pitcher James “Tiny” Chaplin, utilityman Rupert “Tommy” Thompson, and cash.
The major-league meetings were held December 8-10 in New York City. On the first two days, the National League met under President Ford Frick at the Waldorf-Astoria while the American League met under President Will Harridge at the Commodore. On the final day the two leagues met together before Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis at the Roosevelt.
Some of the new ideas introduced at the meetings never had much chance of making it to the professional level. One proposal that failed was the no-pitch intentional walk. New York Yankees business manager Ed Barrow suggested that “pitchers be allowed to tell the umpire to send a man to first when an intentional pass is intended, and thus save the time lost with four bad pitches.”7 National League President Frick proposed that for part of the season all Sunday dates be doubleheaders, with teams taking Mondays off. Instead it was decided that teams by agreement could change a Sunday-Monday schedule to a Sunday doubleheader with Monday off.8
Cubs president P.K. Wrigley proposed that teams be allowed to sell tickets for children at the reduced price of 50 cents. That plan was left to the discretion of individual teams.9
The one innovation of the 1936 meetings that still exists in today’s game was the addition of black beveled edges to home plate. Called “the most radical move”10 of the second day of the National League meetings, the change was adopted by the joint session the next day. The new design was created by Cubs vice president John O. Seys. (A month before the meetings he applied for a patent for the design, which he assigned to the Seamless Rubber Company.) Home plates at the time were buried in the ground so that the top of the plate was flush with the ground. However, as the dirt was moved around, the top edges of the plate became higher than the surrounding dirt. Players sliding into home often faced injuries (and ripped pants). The new design gave home plate five spikes — one for each corner of the “home” shape — which secured it into the ground, and a beveled edge of dark rubber that eliminated the sharp edges but allowed the white of the plate to be above the dirt and visible to players and umpires.11
“The Hardy Perennials”
The 1936 meetings gave the club owners another chance to decide on what New York Times sportswriter John Drebinger dubbed “the hardy perennials” — issues for years before and after the 1936 meetings.12 They were night baseball, radio broadcasting, and the ball itself.
Night baseball expanded from the National League to the American League at the 1936 meetings. The NL allowed teams to play up to seven night games per season at home as long as the visiting team agreed. The AL followed suit in what was thought to be a favor to the new owners of the St. Louis Browns, who were trying to increase attendance and revenue, and whose plan for a nighttime exhibition with the Cardinals had previously been denied. All American League teams except the Yankees and the Tigers agreed to at least one night game against the Browns in St. Louis. The two leagues did not come up with a rule for night baseball, but both had the same optional rules for all teams.13
As for broadcasting, radio broadcasts of games had been around long enough for teams to form opinions on their impact. The teams seemed to be split regionally on whether the broadcasts were good or bad for business. The Chicago, Cincinnati, and St. Louis clubs14 all saw broadcasting as a way to drum up public interest in the game, while the New York clubs saw radio as a drain on attendance and thus on profits. Neither league reached a consensus and the clubs were allowed to decide for themselves whether to broadcast games. The American League assigned former Browns business manager L.C. McEvoy to draft contracts between AL clubs and broadcasters that would ensure “provisions for censorship and adequate compensation for the clubs.”15 The National League discussed a similar move, but instead allowed clubs to work out the details themselves.16
The last of the “hardy perennials” was the baseball itself. Calls to change the ball were to some degree started by St. Louis Browns manager Rogers Hornsby, echoed by baseball fans, and endorsed by the Boston Red Sox. As a result of changes to the ball over the last few years, the 1936 season had the worst ERAs and the most runs scored per game since 1895 with the exception of the 1930 season, which featured the “jack rabbit” baseball.17 Batting averages, slugging percentages, and home runs per game were higher than they had been since the end of the jack-rabbit era. After 1930 the leagues moved to a less lively ball, only to move back to a livelier ball for the 1934 season. At the 1936 meetings it was decided to make the ball slightly “deader” once again.18 The only team resistant to the change was the Yankees, who had led the AL in runs, home runs, RBIs, and slugging percentage in 1936. But they did not protest much after seeing the overwhelming support for a change and learning that no changes would be made until the 1938 campaign anyway. 19
The adjustment could not be implemented immediately because almost all the balls for 1937 had already been produced. The league presidents were assigned to work with the manufacturer to design a new ball. Different variations would be tried during spring training, and the new ball would be selected. The ball, the leagues decided, would no longer be labeled with the league’s name, but would be stamped “Official Major League Baseball,” to allay fans’ suspicions that each league had a different level of “liveliness.”20 One person disappointed with the new balls was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who wrote to the annual baseball writers’ dinner in February that he got “the biggest kick out of the biggest score” and that his favorite games had at least 15 runs with one team winning by a single run.21
Trades and Transactions
Trading at the 1936 meeting was disappointing in both volume and impact. Coming on the heels of the minor-league meetings in Montreal, where 12 of the 16 major-league clubs had swapped over 100 players, everyone expected many trades to be completed in New York. Cubs owner Philip K. Wrigley said he was open to trading any player on his roster, and said the Cubs had contacted every major-league team except the Phillies about potential trades.22
The biggest trade bait offered up was Dizzy Dean. The Cardinals right-hander was one of the best pitchers of his era. In 1936 he led the majors in innings pitched, WHIP, and strikeout/walk ration, while finishing second in strikeouts and fifth in ERA. Cardinals owner Sam Breadon and general manager Branch Rickey, however, decided that Dean’s clubhouse and media antics resulted in more damage than his talent was worth.23 Dean and his brother and teammate Paul once trashed the Cardinals’ locker room and ripped their uniforms after being fined for missing an exhibition game.24 When reporters got into the locker room to take pictures of the scene, the brothers obliged by doing it all over again. Despite these pranks, such a valuable starter coming onto the trade market in the reserve-clause era was rare, and many teams were interested. The Cardinals expected a “stampede” of teams clamoring for Dean’s services, despite the fact that in October Dean, without being asked or prompted and without having been given an offer for 1937, told reporters that whatever the Cardinals were going to offer him, he was going to reject it because he wanted more.
But neither the Cardinals nor any of their potential trade partners would make the deal at any price. The Cincinnati Reds reportedly offered $200,000 in cash plus players for Dean, but the players offered were not the right ones, according to Rickey. At various times reports came out that the star hurler had been dealt to the Reds, the Giants, the Pirates, and the Cubs, each of which involved the buyer sending $150,000 to $200,000 plus players to the Cardinals. In the end, however, no deal was completed, leaving the Cardinals with the difficult task of re-signing a player they had publicly denounced and tried to move out of town.
With the top prospect for a swap going nowhere and the Cubs’ fire sale unattended, the 1936 Winter Meetings ended with nothing but disappointment in the trade department. A piece in The Sporting News summed up the mood of the baseball world:
Over-cautious club owners and managers turned what was expected to be an active player mart at the major league meetings into practically a stalemate. There was plenty of talk and rumors, but when sifted down to realities, little in the way of exchange of talent was accomplished. It is possible that the groundwork was laid for future deals, but viewed in the light of actual results, there is little basis for belief that the demand for new faces on a number of teams is being met.25
Those words essentially held true — there was not much player movement and as a result there was almost no movement in the standings. In the National League, not only did the Giants win the pennant in both 1936 and 1937, but the top four and bottom four teams remained the same in both seasons (though in a slightly different order). In the American League, the Yankees won the pennant both seasons, going 102-51 in 1936 and 102-52 in 1937. Both seasons ended with the Yankees defeating the Giants in the World Series in six (1936) and five (1937) games.
Despite the disappointing lack of high-end, impactful trades, there was some player movement during those three days in December. The Phillies sent third baseman Lou Chiozza to the Giants for $25,000 and rookie shortstop George Scharein. The Philadelphia Athletics traded third baseman Pinky Higgins to the Red Sox for utilityman Billy Werber. A three-team trade in the American League sent left-handed pitcher Earl Whitehill from Washington to Cleveland, lefty pitcher Thornton Lee from Cleveland to the White Sox, and right-hander Jack Salveson from the White Sox to Washington.
The Bob Feller Case
By far the most anticipated story line of the meetings was the status of rookie sensation Bob Feller. Feller had made his major-league debut during the 1936 season for the Cleveland Indians at age 17. He pitched in 14 games and finished with an ERA of 3.34 and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 1.62, which would have ranked second and fourth in the American League had he pitched enough innings to qualify.26
The controversy involved the way Cleveland obtained Feller’s contract rights. At the time — almost three decades before the first amateur draft — the majors and minors had an agreement under which major-league clubs could acquire players only by signing college players or purchasing players’ rights from minor-league clubs. All other players were labeled “sandlot” players and were off-limits to major-league teams. The Indians was not supposed to be able to sign the 17-year-old Feller directly because he was still in high school.
The case against Cleveland was brought by the Des Moines Demons of the Class-A Western League, which had tried to sign Feller. The question for Commissioner Landis was whether this was an elaborate ploy by Cleveland to avoid the rule against major-league teams signing sandlot players. Feller was from Van Meter, Iowa, about 20 miles from Des Moines. Cleveland scout Cy Slapnicka had arranged for Feller to be signed by the Fargo-Moorhead Twins of the Class-D Northern League. Fargo-Moorhead immediately assigned Feller to the Class-A1 Southern Association team in New Orleans, but Feller never reported to either team. New Orleans, which had a working agreement with Cleveland, “retired” Feller so that he could pitch in an exhibition for Cleveland against the St. Louis Cardinals. Feller performed so well that he was reinstated by New Orleans and immediately transferred to Cleveland.27
Leading up to the meetings, the Feller case and Landis’s decision were hugely important topics that hung heavy over the game. Just before the minor-league meetings, Landis had ruled on somewhat similar cases involving two Cincinnati Reds players. Landis ruled that Cincinnati had improperly used the Toronto minor-league club to do its bidding in the signing of infielder Lee Handley and catcher John Peacock, and declared both players free agents, free to sign with any club except Cincinnati.28 This decision invalidated a trade the Reds had made with Brooklyn that had included Handley.29
For the Indians, there would be no such finality before the meetings. Speculation by major-league clubs at the minor-league meetings was divided, with some expecting the Indians to retain Feller’s services while others thought they would lose his rights and also face a fine. Regardless of how teams felt, Cleveland was handcuffed by Landis’s delay. Even if they kept the rights to Feller, they could not negotiate any deals involving him because other teams feared such a trade would be invalidated by Landis, just like the Cincinnati-Brooklyn deal.
Clubs and leagues began taking steps to prevent the uncertainty of Cleveland’s situation from occurring in the future. In Montreal the minor leagues adopted the “Baltimore amendment,” which allowed major-league clubs to “recommend” to a minor-league club that they should sign a “sandlot” player.30 Landis tried to get the clubs to also agree to require that all such recommendations be filed with the commissioner’s office, but that idea was voted down. The next week in New York, major-league clubs similarly agreed to the “recommendation” amendment, and also rejected the “Landis rider.”31
Some wondered whether a decision against Cleveland would cost Landis his job. Some argued that by rejecting the “Landis rider,” the owners were signaling their intent to Landis. But others argued that this was just the latest of several times during his now 15-year reign when many thought Landis was about to be fired. Some suggested that if Landis ruled Feller a free agent, the owners would revolt out of fear of the uncertainty of their player rights.32 Most owners felt that Cleveland should retain Feller’s rights even if they did break the rules.33 Despite all this uproar, at least one reporter noted that
Among the more keen and cool-headed observers, however, there is the feeling that regardless of what the commissioner’s final decision is, the result will be the same as it has been ever since the post was created for Landis in 1921.
There may be some undercurrent grumbling, but all eventually will express satisfaction with the verdict whether they like it or not, for always it is generally understood the commissioner holds the whip hand.34
So a baseball revolution was unlikely, but a decision had to be made. And Landis’s ruling proved to be intriguing, inasmuch as it contradicted itself.
It was fair to assume that Landis would either rule Cleveland had violated the major-minor agreement, thus making Feller a free agent and possibly resulting in a fine for the Indians, or that Cleveland had not violated the rules and would be able to keep Feller. The result was neither. Landis ruled that Cleveland did in fact violate the agreement, but he also decided that the “recommendation” amendment, voted on just the day before, prevented him from making Feller a free agent.35 This of course was not true — he should have applied the rules as they existed at the time of the incident.
In the end, practicality won the day. Landis worked for the owners, who thought that Feller should stay with Cleveland, and Landis thus obliged his employers. He also noted that invalidating Cleveland’s claim to Feller would not really help Des Moines, because Feller would sign with a major-league club, not with Des Moines. Instead, acknowledging that Cleveland had broken the rules, Landis made the Indians pay Des Moines $7,500 — the amount the Des Moines club had offered Feller for his services.36 The ruling was also inconsistent with Landis’s rulings in the Cincinnati cases just weeks before. But everything was all right because, ultimately, the decision was the one that major-league owners wanted. Or, as one writer put it, “[T]he Feller decision looks inconsistent, is frankly retroactive, but since it is satisfactory to baseball, it is accepted without further comment here.”37
One person who lost out was Feller himself. He was happy to still be playing for Cleveland, but he was also disappointed at what could have been. Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey and Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert reportedly said that if Feller became a free agent they would be willing to offer him $100,000 to sign.38 As it was, Feller tried to sign with Cleveland for $20,000. He ended up signing for $14,000 for the 1937 season, and did not make $20,000 until the 1939 season.
The experience of the 1936 Winter Meetings likely had a major impact on Feller. Upon his death he was hailed by some as a “union activist,” and he was always a staunch advocate of player rights.39 Feller was a big fan of barnstorming and even ran barnstorming teams as a side business.40 He believed players in the Negro Leagues weren’t getting a fair chance to show what they could do, and his barnstorming teams helped give them that chance.41 In 1945 Feller persuaded Commissioner Happy Chandler, Landis’s successor, to increase the number of barnstorming games players could appear in during the offseason.42 In 1956 he was elected the first president of the Major League Baseball Players’ Association, and was the first star player to advocate against the reserve clause. He once told Mike Wallace that the arrangement was “medieval” because “you’re obligated to the ball club for the entire life of your baseball career, but the ballclub is obligated to you for 30 days.”43 While the 1936 Winter Meetings may not have been the busiest or most impactful session, they played a large role in the legend of Bob Feller.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author also consulted Baseball-Reference.com and the following materials:
Drebinger, John. “Indians Will Keep Rookie Mound Ace,” New York Times, December 11, 1936.
——. “Major League Club Owners and Officers Open Winter Conclave Here Today: Verdict on Feller Due at Convention,” New York Times, December 8, 1936.
Kieran, John. “The Great Diamond Mystery,” New York Times, October 30, 1936.
——. “Uneasy Lies the Head,” New York Times, December 8, 1936.
McGowen, Roscoe. “Cards Now Likely to See Dean Antics,” New York Times, December 10, 1936.
——. “Dean’s 1937 Affiliation Is Still Deep Mystery to Baseball Men,” New York Times, December 8, 1936.
——. “Giants Get Chiozza From Phils in Deal Said to Involve Camilli,” New York Times, December 9, 193.
——. “Promise of Important Trades Unfulfilled as Meetings End,” New York Times, December 11, 1936.
Rabinowitz, Amanda. “Cleveland Pitching Great Bob Feller Dies at 92,” NPR.org, npr.org/2010/12/16/132101192/Pitching-Great-Bob-Feller-Dies-At-92.
Spink, J.G. Taylor. “‘Three and One’ Looking Them Over With J.G. Taylor Spink,” The Sporting News, December 24, 1936: 4.
“Big Leagues Agree on Livelier Ball,” New York Times, January 6, 1934.
“Brief Bits of Montreal Gossip,” The Sporting News, December 10, 1936: 8.
“Diz May Be Foolin’, But Cards Are Not,” The Sporting News, November 12, 1936: 1.
“Feller, Losing $100,000 Chance, Is ‘Glad”; Schoolboy Will Demand $20,000 as Salary,” New York Times, December 11, 1936.
“Landis’ Blue Pencil Trims Cincy Roster,” The Sporting News, December 3, 1936.
“Landis’ Decision on Feller Holds Revised Regulations Validated Acts of Cleveland,” The Sporting News, December 17, 1936: 8.
“Montreal Counting on Record Meeting,” The Sporting News, November 26, 1936.
“Players’ Group Selects Feller,” New York Times, October 2, 1956.
“Reds’ Money-Talk Isn’t Loud Enough,” The Sporting News, December 10, 1936: 2.
“San Diego Welcomes Players Received for Vince DiMaggio,” The Sporting News, December 10, 1936.
“The Biggest News at the Meeting!,” Advertisement, The Sporting News, December 10, 1936: 2.
“Wrigley’s Aces Up, But Nobody Calls,” The Sporting News, November 12, 1936: 1.
1 Edgar G. Brands, “Montreal Meet Caps Fine Year for Minors,” The Sporting News, December 10, 1936: 3.
2 “Minors’ Reserve List for 1937 Reflects Steady Comeback of Game,” The Sporting News, December 3, 1936: 8.
3 Edgar G. Brands, “Montreal Meet Caps Fine Year for Minors.”
4 E.G. Brands, “School of Instruction Plays Big Role in Promotion of Minors,” The Sporting News, December 10, 1936: 3.
5 “Minors to Consider 20 Changes in Rules,” The Sporting News, November 26, 1936: 1.
6 “Heavy Traffic Clogs Market for Players,” The Sporting News, December 10, 1936: 1.
7 “Frick for Charting Sunday Twin Bills,” The Sporting News, November 19, 1936: 10.
9 “Deadening of Ball Put Off Until ’38,” The Sporting News, December 17, 1936: 3.
10 John Drebinger, “Landis Will Rule on Title to Hurler,” New York Times, December 10, 1936.
11 John O. Seys, Base Plate for Baseball Diamonds. Seamless Rubber Company, Inc., assignee. Patent US2122266. 28 June 1938. Print. Available at worldwide.espacenet.com/publicationDetails/originalDocument?CC=US&NR=2122266A&KC=A&FT=D&ND=2&date=19380628&DB=&locale=en_EP (last accessed 12/2/2015).
12 John Drebinger, “Major League Club Owners and Officers Open Winter Conclave Here Today: Verdict on Feller Due at Convention,” New York Times, December 8, 1936.
13 John Drebinger, “Landis Will Rule on Title to Hurler,” New York Times, December 10, 1936.
14 Both Chicago and St. Louis had two teams at the time. The sources used here do not specifically mention which team from each city agreed with the “Midwest” view on radio broadcasting, but since the sources refer to a regional rather than a league-based split, it’s safe to assume the teams that supported radio were either a mix of leagues or most of the teams from these cities.
15 “Over-Caution Rules Player Mart,” The Sporting News, December 17, 1936: 4.
18 The composition and design of the ball could be changed to make the ball more “lively” or more “dead.” Livelier balls are generally harder, allowing for more “pop” off the bat, while deader balls are generally softer and less resilient to give the ball less pop off the bat. Consider the difference between a fully inflated or underinflated ball (soccer ball or kickball) or between a racquetball and a handball.
19 “Deadening of Ball Put Off Until ’38,” The Sporting News, December 17, 1936: 3; John Drebinger, “Magnates Reject Amendment Rider,” New York Times, December 9, 1936.
20 J.G. Taylor Spink, “‘Three and One’ Looking Them Over With J.G. Taylor Spink: ‘Official Major League Ball’ New Idea,” The Sporting News, December 24, 1936: 4.
21 “Roosevelt Letter Read Amid Cheers,” New York Times, February 8, 1937.
22 “Wrigley’s Aces Up, But Nobody Calls,” The Sporting News, November 12, 1936: 1.
23 Roscoe McGowen, “Cards Now Likely to See Dean Antics,” New York Times, December 10, 1936; Roscoe McGowen, “Dean’s 1937 Affiliation Is Still Deep Mystery to Baseball Men,” New York Times, December 8, 1936; “Diz May Be Foolin’, But Cards Are Not,” The Sporting News, November 12, 1936: 1.
25 “Over-Caution Rules Player Mart.”
26 The lowest number of innings pitched by a qualifying pitcher that season was 160, and the highest number of innings pitched by a nonqualifying pitcher was 148⅓. According to Baseball-Reference.com, in order to qualify for rate-based rankings a pitcher must pitch an average equal to or greater than one inning per league game that season.
27 “A Wise Decision by Landis,” The Sporting News, December 17, 1936: 4
28 “Landis’ Blue Pencil Trims Cincy Roster,” The Sporting News, December 3, 1936.
30 John Drebinger, “Magnates Reject Amendment Rider,” New York Times, December 9, 1936.
32 “Deadening of Ball Put Off Until ’38,” The Sporting News, December 17, 1936: 3; John Drebinger, “Landis Will Rule on Title to Hurler,” New York Times, December 10, 1936.
33 “Landis Will Rule.”
34 “Landis Will Rule.”
35 “Landis’ Decision on Feller Holds Revised Regulations Validated Acts of Cleveland,” The Sporting News, December 17, 1936: 8.
37 “Deadening of Ball Put Off Until ’38,” The Sporting News, December 17, 1936: 3.
39 “RIP Bob Feller, Union Activist,” TeamsterNation, teamsternation.blogspot.com/2010/12/rip-bob-feller-union-activist.html.
40 “Barnstorming Green Light for Feller,” Lewiston Daily Sun, September 12, 1945, accessible at https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=WJ0gAAAAIBAJ&sjid=OmgFAAAAIBAJ&pg=3607,4894856&dq=bob+feller+barnstorming&hl=en, and Amanda Rabinowitz, “Cleveland Pitching Great Bob Feller Dies at 92,” NPR.org, http://www.npr.org/2010/12/16/132101192/Pitching-Great-Bob-Feller-Dies-At-92.
41 Rabinowitz, “Cleveland Pitching Great Bob Feller Dies at 92,” supra.
42 “Barnstorming Green Light for Feller,” Lewiston (Maine) Daily Sun, September 12, 1945, accessible at news.google.com/newspapers?id=WJ0gAAAAIBAJ&sjid=OmgFAAAAIBAJ&pg=3607,4894856&dq=bob+feller+barnstorming&hl=en.
43 “Bob Feller: The Mike Wallace Interview,” Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, accessible at hrc.utexas.edu/multimedia/video/2008/wallace/feller_bob_t.html (last accessed December 18, 2015).