This article was written by Zak Schmoll
This article was published in Baseball’s Business: The Winter Meetings: 1901-1957
Introduction and Context
In 1937, both the National and the American Leagues held their Winter Meetings in Chicago, while the National Association met a few days earlier in Milwaukee. Rumors aplenty swirled around these gatherings, but very few teams actually pulled the trigger and made significant deals. The deals that did take place, however (and even a few that did not), created quite a bit of debate and controversy.
From December 1-3, the National Association met in Milwaukee’s Schroeder Hotel. Milwaukee had a rich baseball history and had always fielded a team somewhere in Organized Baseball. (It was one of the original eight cities in the American League when it was established in 1901.) Because of these deep roots, the city was a clear choice for the National Association meetings.
On December 6 and 7 the National and American Leagues met separately in Chicago, at the Palmer House and the Congress Hotel respectively. The leagues then came together on the 8th, when Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis convened a joint session.
One of the biggest questions surrounding the 1937 meetings was whether right-hander Van Lingle Mungo would be traded away from the Brooklyn Dodgers and manager Burleigh Grimes.
In 1937 Mungo had missed significant time to injury. It began relatively simply with a strained side, but Grimes continued pitching Mungo throughout the season. Mungo claimed that Grimes did not give him enough time to heal, but Grimes countered by saying, “When Mungo complained of a lame arm, I used him in a few games to see whether he could pitch despite his condition. I know that I had a lame arm all one year and yet managed to win 19 games that season.”1
The difference of opinion on Mungo’s injury led to greater tension. While Mungo claimed that he wasn’t given time to properly heal, he also was not attending the prescribed diathermic therapy sessions that would help him heal more effectively.2 As a result, Grimes suspended Mungo until he got himself into shape and was ready to play.
That never happened because Mungo simply left the Dodgers and went home. This action was the final straw, and most people around baseball assumed the pitcher would be traded before spring training.
Yet despite this tension, the 26-year-old was not traded that winter, primarily because the Dodgers were looking for a king’s ransom in return for their three-time All-Star. “Mel Ott of the Giants would have been acceptable,” one sportswriter suggested, adding, “So would Frank Demaree of the Cubs. Or Arky Vaughan, the Pirates shortstop, who would have been converted to an outfielder had Brooklyn obtained him.”3
This type of blockbuster offer was never forthcoming, and Mungo was never the same pitcher after that year. He pitched for parts of seven more seasons, but he never made another All-Star Team and fashioned a modest 27-32 mark over that time.
While this deal never materialized, the Detroit Tigers and manager Mickey Cochrane did make a trade that generated its fair share of bad feelings in the Motor City.
The Tigers swapped their extremely popular outfielder, Gerald “Gee” Walker, plus infielder Marvin Owen and catcher Mike Tresh to the Chicago White Sox for right-hander Vernon Kennedy, outfielder Dixie Walker and infielder Tony Piet. In 1936 Gee Walker had hit .335 with 18 home runs, 113 RBIs, and 23 stolen bases.
Cochrane knew that this would not be a popular move, but he decided that acquiring Kennedy, a 21-game winner in 1936, to strengthen their pitching staff was worth the sacrifice of the veterans Walker and Owen, along with the relatively promising prospect Tresh. “I knew I was putting myself on the spot,” said Cochrane, “but I had to do something to strengthen our pitching. … We had to have somebody who figures to win 18 or 20 games, if we are to improve our position. In my opinion, Kennedy will give us the needed help.”4
The reaction was moderated somewhat when Walker himself came out in support of the trade. “Don’t be too harsh on Mike. He had to have a pitcher. … I’m sure he did what he thought was best for the club.”5 Regardless, the trade was still quite unpopular in Detroit.
If the fans had their way, Mungo would have been traded and Walker would have not. However, that is not what happened in 1937, and their situations became the biggest player-movement stories of the winter.
The Business Side
The main business at the National Association meetings in Milwaukee reflected a mood of caution. In his keynote address, Association President William G. Bramham cautioned teams about taking on too much payroll. In the previous season, a record 13,500,000 people had attended National Association games. While this was obviously a cause for celebration, Bramham did not want teams to begin spending recklessly simply because they suddenly had some more money in the till.
There was also a discussion about who should be allowed to use National Association facilities, with President Bramham warning minor-league teams about allowing exhibition games to be played in their ballparks. He reasoned that barnstorming teams were potential competitors for talent and could draw players away from the organization. Because of this, he felt that it was best to simply not allow those teams access to minor-league parks. Not coincidentally, a delegation from the National Semi-Pro Baseball Congress, led by president Raymond Dumont, attended the meetings in Milwaukee to try to find minor-league support. In particular, they were offering commissionerships to minor-league owners over district and state tournaments, in exchange for allowing these sanctioned tournaments to be held in the National Association teams’ home fields. Obviously, this was contrary to what was being advocated by President Bramham. The National Semi-Pro Baseball Congress survives today as the National Baseball Congress and conducts a national semipro tournament annually in Wichita, Kansas. The tournament is played in a stadium shared with the Wichita Wingnuts, an independent team not affiliated with MLB.
At the joint meeting of the major leagues, it was decided that the All-Star teams would again be returned to a fan vote. American League President Will Harridge said his clubs always wanted the All-Star Game to be open to fan participation and that it was the National League that had changed that tradition a few years earlier.6 True or not, fans around the country now had the All-Star vote returned to them.
There was also a discussion regarding college athletes and their eligibility to play professional baseball. Major- and minor-league teams had for years been accused of stealing players away from colleges. National League President Ford Frick proposed that college players either have been awarded their degrees or receive a signed permission letter from the school’s president before playing professional baseball. However, the issue was essentially tabled. Even though it would be a while before any restrictions came into play, the discussion about forbidding undergraduates from leaving during their college career was already being given serious consideration and is still being dealt with today, most recently in the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement between major-league owners and the Players Association.
Finally, five people were voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame: New York Giants manager John McGraw; the original National League president, Morgan Bulkeley; talented nineteenth-century shortstop George Wright; American League founder and President Ban Johnson; and Connie Mack, one of the most recognizable figures in baseball history, who was still active as owner and manager of the Philadelphia Athletics.
The 1937 Winter Meetings focused more on business discussions and there was not very much player movement. Van Lingle Mungo was almost certainly on the move, but the Brooklyn Dodgers’ staggeringly high demands for him ended any possibility of a deal taking place.
The most significant trade proved to be extremely unpopular in Detroit because of the departure of Gerald Walker. Not only was he a great ballplayer for the Tigers, but he also had a very strong following among fans.
On the business side, the National Association delegates heard a message of caution despite their recent success. They were told not to sacrifice any competitive advantage they might have over barnstorming teams by sharing ballparks, and they were urged to keep their budgets in line.
They did decide to return the All-Star Game to the fans, elected five new members to the Hall of Fame, and opened the discussion on collegiate eligibility.
These meetings did not necessarily provide major changes, but there were some fascinating story lines that made for interesting Hot Stove discussions.
In addition to the sources indicated in the Notes, the author also consulted Baseball-Refernce.com and the following sources:
“Semi-Pros at Convention,” The Sporting News, December 2, 1937.
Associated Press. “Heavy Majority of Major League Owners Seen in Favor of Less Lively Baseball,” Hartford Courant, December 7, 1937.
Associated Press. “Trade Talk Fills Milwaukee Hotels,” New York Times, November 30, 1937.
Brands, Edgar. “Bramham Sounds Note of Caution in Optimistic Report,” The Sporting News, December 2, 1937.
——. “Registration of 1,002 Set Records for Minor League Conventions,” The Sporting News, December 9, 1937.
“History of the NBC — NBC Baseball World Series — National Baseball Congress.” NBC Baseball World Series — National Baseball Congress. https://nbcbaseball.com/nbchistory.html (accessed January 6, 2012).
Levy, Sam. “Milwaukee, Site of Minors’ Convention, Rich in Diamond History,” The Sporting News, November 25, 1937.
1 Tommy Holmes, “Mungo Steams Up and Boils Over on Grimes,” The Sporting News, November 25, 1937.
3 Tommy Holmes, “Grimes Still Seeks Mauler for Mungo,” The Sporting News, December 16, 1937.
4 Sam Greene, “Detroit Fans Deride Cochrane for Swapping Walker to Dykes,” The Sporting News, December 9, 1937.
5 Sam Greene, “Gerry Walker Comes to Defense of Cochrane for White Sox Trade,” The Sporting News, December 16, 1937.
6 Edgar Brands, “Major Leagues Split on Changing Ball and Increasing Player Limit,” The Sporting News, December 16, 1937.