1940 Winter Meetings: Judge Landis’ Final Reign

This article was written by Bill Nowlin - Nick Waddell

This article was published in the Baseball’s Business: The Winter Meetings: 1901-1957


The 1940 major-league winter meetings, held at Chicago’s Palmer House on December 10 and 11, saw a number of proposals fail to be adopted. Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis voted for the status quo in most instances, though in a couple of notable votes he sided with the National League in one case and the American League in another. In terms of productive work being accomplished, the New York Times wrote that “the baseball magnates set a new low” — and they adjourned, “scattered as though some one had droped sic a time bomb in their midst.”1

Convening in Chicago represented a move back to the norm, as the previous year’s meeting had been held in Cincinnati (to celebrate baseball’s purported 100th anniversary) instead of the usual New York City or Chicago location.

Landis did benefit personally; he was unanimously re-elected as commissioner for four more years, with his term now set to expire on January 12, 1946, at an annual salary of $65,000. Should he have completed this extended term, he would have served a full 25 years as commissioner.2

1940 Minor-League Meetings

The National Association’s minor-league meetings took place in Atlanta at the Ansley Hotel on December 4-6. The Coca-Cola Company sponsored a banquet at the Piedmont Driving Club on the eve of the conclave. There were 892 registrants for the meetings, with many others also in attendance. Commissioner Landis spoke to those gathered, the first time he had done so in eight years. He talked about the likelihood of war, and alluded to the problems baseball had faced after the conclusion of the First World War, with a call to maintain high ideals and integrity.

The so-called Baltimore Amendment was a hot topic. A variation of the 1939 amendment would allow major-league clubs the ability to assign players to affiliated minor-league clubs. The NA passed again, for the second year in a row, the “legislation that caused controversy at Cincinnati” in 1939.3 It was expected that the true opposition to the amendment would not be shown until after the meetings and instead it would surface at the minor-league meeting scheduled for January 6, 1941, in Louisville. That meeting was expected to be followed by a joint conference between the major and minor leagues in March. There was general discussion on a number of points but most were referred to an executive committee meeting the following day.

The minor leagues sought more autonomy over their teams and actions; they also wanted to act in concert to help stabilize the minor leagues economically after to a decline of around 33 percent in attendance, although only one league (the four-club, Class-D Arkansas-Missouri League) had been forced to disband, while four new leagues had been formed. J. Walter Morris, president of the East Texas League, proposed a “stabilizing fund” of $151,000 that could be loaned to clubs in need; National Association President W.G. Bramham proposed to up the ante to $250,000.4

An indication of the complexity of work being done at National Association headquarters in Durham, North Carolina, may be found in the figure of 14,268 contracts processed by the office, part of a total filing (including option notices, assignments, players released, etc.) of 36,779 transactions.5

Hanging over all meetings was the awareness that, as The Sporting News editorialized, “the threat of war remains and there is a likelihood of the game losing some of its players under the national selective service draft.”6

In general, though, while “some of the past conventions have produced bitter debates — and that of 1939 was no exception — there seems to be no serious issue in the offing that will stir up any acrimonious battles on or outside the convention floor.”7

That said, it’s not as if there weren’t some topics up for discussion. For instance, there was a move to limit the commissioner’s ability to suspend players “for conduct detrimental to baseball.” Feeling that the phrase was “too sweeping,” many minor-league representatives sought to change the language to read “for moral turpitude.” 8 In all, some 30 amendments to the Major-Minor League Agreement were proposed. Many were custodial, such as the idea of assigning serial numbers to players to better help with record keeping (defeated), a requirement that players take a physical examination (not adopted), and the way in which championships in the various leagues were to be determined (this was left to the individual leagues).9 The same salary limits were left in place. The agreement was due to expire in mid-January of 1942.

As for draft of players into military service, an initial proposal by the National League would have placed these players on a voluntarily retired list.10 This proposal was withdrawn. All agreed that the player drafted would be placed on the voluntarily retired list, but agreement on other matters (such as the proposed refund of money paid for such players who had been recently acquired) proved much stickier, and the matter was referred to committee, to be discussed during the joint major-league meetings in Chicago.

Before and during the meetings, the St. Louis Cardinals sold a considerable number of players, a process that had begun in the summer with the trade of Joe Medwick to the Brooklyn Dodgers for four players and cash thought to be $125,000 to $150,000. In separate deals on November 25 and December 3, 4, and 5, the Cards sold or traded (receiving cash as well) infielder Joe Orengo, infielder Stu Martin, catcher Mickey Owen, and right-handed pitcher Bob Bowman. “Sure, we took money in those deals,” said Cardinals owner Sam Breadon. “We had to have money. You can’t run a big organization like ours on a home gate of 332,000 admissions.”11 The Brooklyn Dodgers were the biggest spenders at the meetings.12

Much of the doings at the meetings was reported over WSB radio by Ernie Harwell, with a number of notables (Connie Mack, Ford Frick, Will Harridge, Bill McKechnie, Rogers Hornsby, Joe Cronin, and many more) appearing on the program.

After the meetings concluded, The Sporting News praised Atlanta for unprecedented hospitality, but concluded that “no change” was the overall result. “Despite the number of amendments offered, discussed and passed upon, the policy of the National Association remained the same on a majority of important points,” the paper said.13

Many deals were consummated at the minor-league meetings, both between major-league clubs and by minor-league clubs.14

Many of those attending the minor-league meetings traveled directly from Atlanta to Chicago for the major-league meetings. The leagues met separately for two days, then met jointly on the third day.

American League Meeting

The AL named Clark Griffith (Washington), Don Barnes (St. Louis Browns), Connie Mack (Philadelphia A’s), and William Briggs (Detroit) to its Board of Directors.

“Yankee Law”

After the Yankees won four consecutive pennants (1936-1939), the American League adopted a “nontrading rule” barring the defending champions from making a trade with any other club in the league except via waivers. Despite his team now being the one forbidden to trade, the president of the 1940 pennant-winning Detroit Tigers, Walter Briggs, voted to uphold the so-called Yankee Law. The Yankees, Browns, and Red Sox were in favor of abolishing the prohibition.

National League Meeting

Ford Frick was re-elected National League president for a four-year term, with a “substantial” but undisclosed raise. Cardinals president Sam Breadon was named vice president and member of the board of directors. Cincinnati president Powel Crosley, Brooklyn president Larry MacPhail, and Philadelphia president Gerry Nugent were also named to the board.

Bill Klem, a 36-year veteran of umpiring, was named umpire-in-chief for the National League, charged with supervising umpires. Klem succeeded Ernie Quigley. Klem would umpire as needed, but was formally replaced on the active umpire roster by former American Association umpire Jocko Conlan.15

Joint Meeting

The Baltimore Amendment

In something of a surprise, the so-called Baltimore Amendment was adopted in Chicago, rather than referred to the later meetings. The amendment allowed teams to sign players for the purpose of assigning them to a minor-league club, with two caveats: The assignment must be between affiliated clubs, and all assignment transactions were to be reported to the commissioner.16

The amendment was first raised during the 1936 National Association meeting in Montreal. Commissioner Landis insisted that assignment transactions be reported to him and the president of the National Association; failure to do so could result in a fine from $50 to $250. The minor leagues rejected Landis’s proposal, claiming that reporting was too detailed, and that violations were not clearly explained.

This amendment was again a point of contention at the 1939 Winter Meeting in Cincinnati. As a result, the commissioner met with representatives from the American League, National League, and minor leagues at Belleair, Florida, in February 1940 to discuss the provisions of an acceptable amendment. The Pony League raised the issue at the National Association convention, which led to the discussion at the 1940 Winter Meetings. The Sporting News noted that the adoption of the amendment could lead to an increase in the number of scouts for major-league teams instead of minor-league teams. The adoption of the amendment, in combination with the extension of the commissioner’s term in office, was said to embody “a fitting and timely demonstration of Organized Ball’s national unity.”17

Night Games

Another hot topic was the number of night games a team could play. The discussion centered on how many games would be prudent, seven or 14. The National League voted to limit the number to seven, while the American League voted 5-3 to have fewer than seven. Commissioner Landis evened out the league vote, and seven became the maximum. Many teams had reasons for wanting more games. The St. Louis Browns had played 14 night games the previous year, and wanted to do so again, as about 50 percent of their attendance of 240,000 came to those games.18 The Washington Senators had just installed a lighting system at Griffith Stadium, and the Philadelphia Athletics also saw attendance increased by lights. The National League had maintained a seven-game limit ever since lights were introduced in Cincinnati in 1935. The American League argued that it should be able to dictate the rules for its clubs. The leagues argued for over an hour and a half, until Landis stepped in and sided with the National League.19

All-Star Game/Cooperstown Game

During spring training in 1939, the league held a Spring All-Star Game in Tampa, Florida. The league voted to abolish that game for a variety of reasons, mainly the possibility of player injury. Another issue was travel, as not all of the teams trained in Florida. Instead, the league decided to hold an annual exhibition game in Cooperstown, New York, beginning in 1941. The first game would be between Cleveland and Cincinnati. The 1941 All-Star Game, meanwhile, was awarded to Detroit.

Wartime Plans

A national defensive service list was proposed by the National League. If players were called to active military duty, they would be placed on the list, their contracts would remain with their teams, but they would not be counted against a club’s player limit. This was adopted in the joint session.20

The leagues agreed to continue an annual $20,000 gift to the American Legion for baseball purposes. The league also decided to have further discussions with the defense agencies on how to best support any war efforts. The first suggestion was to donate baseball equipment.21

Disabled List

A two-person-maximum 60-day disabled list was created for each team. The Boston Red Sox proposed the idea, which was adopted by the American League. The National League fought against it, until Commissioner Landis sided with the AL. The disabled list was 60 calendar days, except after August 1.

Doubleheaders

Washington owner Clark Griffith proposed a rule banning doubleheaders. This was nothing new; he raised the issue yearly, without support. Griffith sought to abolish doubleheaders “except on the last trip of the current season and then only in the event there is no other available date for the playing of the extra game.”22 The proposal was not adopted, and teams could schedule doubleheaders beginning with the fourth Sunday of the season (except for St. Louis, which was allowed to start them a week earlier).

Hall of Fame

The Baseball Writers’ Association of America proposed including certain writers in the Baseball Hall of Fame. This idea was tabled for a future date.

Roster Limits

The National Association submitted two amendments that had been agreed upon at its meeting. One proposed by the Southern Association limited the number of players on a Class A-1 or A roster to 32, which had to be reduced to 18 within 30 days after the season began. The roster could be increased for the last 20 days of the season. This proposal was adopted by the major leagues. The other amendment, proposed by Springfield of the Three-I League, required all players to take a physical paid by the club; any subsequent medical or dental treatment was to be the player’s financial responsibility. This amendment was defeated.23

One of the more interesting side stories of the meeting was the decision on pitcher Rufus Melton. The Phillies drafted Melton, allegedly to sell him to Brooklyn for $15,000. At issue was whether there was collusion; it was alleged that the Dodgers had given the Phillies $7,500 to draft Melton. Dodgers president Larry McPhail admitted he offered the $15,000 to the Phillies, but would not comment on the $7,500. Landis ruled that Melton would stay with the Phillies for the 1941 season, without any further penalties assessed to either side.24

Transactions

The number of transactions involving major leaguers was relatively low, and the names involved were more of the bench-player variety. The biggest trade was a three-team deal: Washington received outfielder Doc Cramer from Boston; Cleveland received outfielder Gee Walker from Washington and catcher Gene Desautels and right-handed pitcher Jim Bagby from the Red Sox; Boston received catcher Frank Pytlak, right-handed pitcher Joe Dobson, and infielder Odell Hale from Cleveland. Cramer would be an everyday player for another five seasons and have limited roles for three more. Walker played five more seasons in Ohio. Desautels had a part-time role for five more seasons, missing the 1944 season after enlisting in the US Marines. Bagby was a workhorse starter for Cleveland for another three seasons. Pytlak became the starting catcher for Boston in 1941, his last as a starter. He served in the US Navy during World War II and played in only 13 games over two seasons after he returned in 1945. Dobson would average 24 starts a year over his next 11 seasons (and would later operate the Winter Haven club in the Florida State League). Hale’s last season was 1941.

Brooklyn and Cincinnati swapped infielders, with Pep Young heading to the Reds for Lew Riggs. Riggs was a favorite of Brooklyn president Larry MacPhail, who had twice previously acquired him, first when MacPhail was president of the Columbus Red Birds, and again when he was general manager of the Cincinnati Reds. The New York Giants purchased outfielder Morrie Arnovich from the Reds, and signed six-time All Star and MVP catcher Gabby Hartnett for what became Hartnett’s final season. Hartnett had been the Cubs’ manager for the previous two-plus seasons, but was let go after the 1940 campaign due to player unrest. Harnett sought a two-year contract from the Red Sox to be a coach. When Boston declined, the Giants entered the picture with a one-year contract as a pinch-hitter and player-coach to be a backup catcher.25

The Richmond Colts (Piedmont League) talked with the Giants about being an affiliated club, but the Giants decided to retain their agreement with Clinton (Three-I). The Giants had lost $10,000 the previous year because of Clinton, but agreed to a continuation when the Clinton owners agreed to take on any possible financial losses themselves. Richmond did receive two rookies from the Giants, as well as exhibition games against the parent club.26

Conclusion

All in all, editor Edgar Brands of The Sporting News concluded, “[E]xcept for a few minor concessions the minors desire, it seems there now is nothing in the way of an amicable understanding over the revision of the Major-Minor Agreement.”27

 

Notes

1 John Drebinger, “Joint Session Action Limits Each Club in Majors to Seven Home Night Games,” New York Times, December 12, 1940: 38.

2 As it turned out, Landis died on November 25, eight days after being elected to his new seven-year term.

3 Edgar G. Brands, “Minors Refuse to Recede From Fixed Policies,” The Sporting News, December 12, 1940: 3.

4 Edgar G. Brands, “Bramham Proposes Minors Reserve $250,000 for Stabilizing Fund,” The Sporting News, December 5, 1940: 2. Apparently a large number of postponements (more than 2,000 games postponed, according to The Sporting News issue of November 28) had severely depressed attendance. Distribution of the fund was to be on the basis of “membership and protection fees paid in 1931-40.”

5 “14,268 Contracts Filed,” The Sporting News, December 5, 1940: 2

6 “Minors’ Thirty-Ninth Annual Gathering,” The Sporting News, November 28, 1940: 4.

7 Ibid.

8 Edgar G. Brands, “Minors Hold Fire on Limiting Landis in Pact Revisions,” The Sporting News, December 5, 1940: 1.

9 A summary of the amendments appeared in The Sporting News, November 21, 1940: 7.

10 “Organized Ball, in Harmony Move, Stands Firm Behind Landis,” The Sporting News, December 19, 1940: 5

11 Dick Farrington, “‘Had to Get Cash,’ Breadon Declares of Big Money Deals,” The Sporting News, December 12, 1940: 1.

12 Associated Press, “Dodgers Get Catcher Owen of Cards for Two Players and $65,000,” New York Times, December 5, 1940: 35.

13 “Minors Accept Challenge of the Future,” The Sporting News, December 12, 1940: 4.

14 The various deals are listed in “Shifting of Players in Deals at Atlanta,” The Sporting News, December 12, 1940: 7.

15 Reports of the separate league meetings were summarized in The Sporting News, December 19, 1940: 5, 8. See also Associated Press, “Landis’ Term Extended; Klem Becomes Supervisor,” Christian Science Monitor, December 11, 1940: 15.

16 “The Game’s Own Unity Program,” The Sporting News, December 19, 1940: 4.

17 Ibid.

18 “Decision on Night Ball Commendable,” The Sporting News, December 19, 1940: 4

19 Most of these decisions taken, including the springtime All-Star Game, are summarized in Edgar G. Brands, “Organized Ball, in Harmony Move, Stands Firm Behind Landis,” The Sporting News, December 19, 1940: 5. See also Associated Press, “Night Games Stay at Seven,” Boston Globe, December 12, 1940: 21.

20 Organized Ball, in Harmony Move, Stands Firm Behind Landis.”

21 “Majors Provide Special Status to Those Drafted Into Army,” The Sporting News, December 19, 1940: 8.

22 Organized Ball, in Harmony Move, Stands Firm Behind Landis.”

23 “Majors Provide Special Status to Those Drafted Into Army.”

24 Associated Press, “Landis Disapproves Phillies’ Offer of Melton to Dodgers,” Boston Globe, December 12, 1940: 21. Melton apparently never made it in Organized Baseball.

25 “Player Market Dull,” The Sporting News, December 19, 1940: 5.

26 “Colts Get Two Players But Fail to Arrange Tie-Up With Giants,” The Sporting News, December 19, 1940:5

27 Edgar G. Brands, “Organized Ball, in Harmony Move, Stands Firm Behind Landis.”

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