This article was written by Frederick C. Bush
This article was published in the Baseball’s Business: The Winter Meetings: 1901-1957
In January 1942, one month after the attack on Pearl Harbor had made the United States a combatant in World War II, Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis wrote a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt in which he had inquired “whether professional baseball should continue to operate.”1 Roosevelt’s famous reply, now known as the “green light letter,” stated, “I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going” so that Americans could have access to recreation and respite from their wartime labors.2
Baseball had thus persevered through the 1942 season. As the December 1942 winter meetings in Chicago approached, however, the sport was facing manpower, transportation, gas, and tire shortages, and there were still a few people– including Cleveland Indians president Alva Bradley — who believed that all play should be suspended for the duration of the war.
Bradley was concerned that fans would heckle ballplayers for playing games rather than serving in the military, and he claimed that he did not want to subject his players to such criticism. A Sporting News editorial took Bradley to task for his “apologetic” attitude, asserting, “When a guy isn’t in service, his government knows why, and is satisfied,” and “A player so yelled at may have a better reason for not being in the Army than the yelling fan has.”3 Bradley, who had said that he would rather close his park than “invite the cries of the wolf pack,” eventually had to concede, “I suppose the fact that I received so few replies indicates that there is no strong public opposition to the game under war conditions.”4
Indeed, support for baseball’s continuance during wartime came from all corners. Before the game’s magnates descended upon his city, Chicago Mayor Edward J. Kelly wrote a letter of welcome, published in The Sporting News, in which he echoed Roosevelt’s opinion that baseball provided “an effective and wholesome outlet of recreation during this period of turmoil and strife.”5 The Sporting News also published a letter from Private Gerald C. Bohnen of the Army Air Forces, who had played minor-league ball in Clovis (New Mexico) and Duluth (Minnesota) in 1942, who wrote, “As a ball player, I am interested in seeing the game go on. It is a morale builder for the nation in time of war.”6
Powel Crosley Jr., the president of the Cincinnati Reds, compared baseball’s role in the nation’s war effort to that of the military’s noncombat service units. He summed up baseball’s cooperative spirit with wartime restrictions and regulations as he stated his confidence that baseball could continue to be played while asserting, “It must, of course, be secondary to matters directly affecting the war effort, and we must forget profits for the duration.”7
Baseball’s winter meetings normally had the goal of improving the game in order to maximize profits, so the idea of having to forgo them was an unfamiliar one. More significantly, the manpower shortage was creating a scenario in which many minor-league teams would be forced to suspend operations despite their desire to continue to play. As both the major- and minor-league club leaders held their meetings in Chicago, manpower was the issue most vital to all concerned.
The major-league clubs held their meetings first, the American League on December 1 and the National League on December 2 at the Palmer House hotel. The major leagues’ joint session on December 3 was held at Judge Landis’s hotel of residence, the Ambassador West, to accommodate the commissioner, who was convalescing after a recent operation. Though there were, as always, disagreements about various issues, these were now “subordinated to the welfare of all, so that the game can carry on.”8
Both disagreement and compromise were in evidence as the loss of players to the military and to defense jobs caused the clubs to examine the player limit. The scope of the losses was brought to the fore by St. Louis Cardinals president Sam Breadon, who reported that since the conclusion of the 1942 baseball season a mere two months earlier, the Cardinals and their minor-league affiliates had lost 67 players to the military.9 In light of such losses, New York Giants owner Horace Stoneham wanted to increase the player limit from 25 to 27, while New York Yankees president Ed Barrow wanted an increase to 30 (but no fewer than 28) so that the clubs might still have a viable roster once their inevitable losses took place. Philadelphia Athletics owner Connie Mack, on the other hand, proposed a reduction to 21 in the belief that this number of players would be sufficient and that all the clubs would be able to maintain it.
In the end, all attempts at increasing or decreasing the player limit were defeated, and the clubs agreed to keep the same 25-man maximum that had been allowed over the past several seasons.
The major-league clubs were so concerned about their personnel that only one trade took place during the meetings, with the Cincinnati Reds sending shortstop Eddie Joost, pitcher Nate Andrews, and cash to the Boston Braves for shortstop Eddie Miller. There was also one managerial shift, with Steve O’Neill, the former skipper of the Cleveland Indians who had run the Beaumont team in the Texas League in 1942, taking over the Detroit Tigers, who had fired Del Baker after two consecutive sub-.500 seasons following their 1940 World Series appearance. So few potential deals had even been discussed that Branch Rickey, now the president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, made what was humorously called “the most startling announcement of the convention” as he notified the press, “I wish to announce that I have nothing to announce, although I was willing enough to make some deals.”10
The hardships facing baseball at the moment also led to an agreement to extend the current Major-Minor Agreement to January 12, 1944; it was the second extension granted to the pact, which had expired on January 12, 1942. Though the spirit of cooperation again prevailed via the extension of the agreement, the major leagues voted down the South Atlantic League’s proposed amendment to the agreement, which would have frozen the contracts of players who had last appeared with now-disbanded clubs.
The clubs did approve a proposal by Breadon that called for revising the draft rules in regard to payment of the selection fee for players on the National Defense, voluntarily retired, and suspended lists. In the past, clubs had not had to pay the selection fee until the player reported to the team, but they would now have to pay the fee when the player was selected. Teams would have to draft more cautiously as this new rule “plac[ed] the responsibility of the performer reporting, or being available, on the club making the selection.”11
A brief but controversial episode that occurred during the major leagues’ joint session also involved personnel — or rather potential personnel — for major-league ballclubs and also involved one of the more complex aspects of Landis’s legacy as commissioner. On December 3, 10 representatives from the Chicago chapter of the CIO (the labor organization whose full name was the Congress of Industrial Organizations) gathered outside the clubs’ meeting room at the Ambassador West Hotel and “demanded a hearing in behalf of Negro players, claiming ‘discrimination against employment of Negro players by major league clubs.’”12 The representatives threatened to take the issue before the fair practices board of the union if they were denied a hearing, but Commissioner Landis nevertheless refused them an audience at the meeting.
Landis had already had to deal with baseball’s race issue in July, after Dodgers manager Leo Durocher had made reference to a “grapevine understanding”13 (more commonly referred to as baseball’s “gentleman’s agreement”) that kept blacks out of baseball. Landis met with Durocher, after which the Dodgers skipper claimed he had been misquoted, and Landis subsequently issued the following statement:
Negroes are not barred from organized baseball by the commissioner and never have been in the 21 years I have served. There is no rule in organized baseball prohibiting their participation and never has been to my knowledge. If Durocher, or if any other manager, or all of them, want to sign one, or twenty-five Negro players, it is all right with me. That is the business of the managers and the club owners. The business of the commissioner is to interpret the rules of baseball, and to enforce them.14
In spite of Landis’s assertion that black ballplayers were not barred, it would take until April 15, 1947, when baseball was under the auspices of Commissioner Happy Chandler, for Jackie Robinson to break the major leagues’ “color barrier” when he took the field at first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field.
As for the brief commotion caused by the Chicago CIO members, Terry Kandal, the chairman of the group of 10 and president of Auto Workers Local 719, conceded that they had acted improperly that day but asserted that they would continue to pursue the matter through a formal request with Landis’s office.
While the matter of who would actually be able to play baseball as the war continued was of greatest concern, the baseball itself also was addressed at the meetings. Cincinnati Reds general manager Warren Giles had planned to propose at the meetings that the National League ask baseball manufacturers to arm their game with a livelier ball. Hitting and scoring had been on a dramatic decline over the past few years and Giles, propounding an outlook that continues in baseball circles into the twenty-first century that “baseball’s chief appeal comes from hitting,” was concerned that “unless the decline is checked, the fans are going to lose some of their interest in the game.”15
During the meetings, there was no discussion of a livelier ball; however, the specifications for the ball still had to be addressed due to wartime materials shortages. A new center for the ball would have to be used, and Landis instructed the two league presidents to reach an agreement at a later date regarding which of two products they would use to replace the cork center that had been used in the past. The alternatives involved either a core of reclaimed rubber or a core that consisted of a smaller cork core that was increased to baseball size by encasing it in reclaimed balata, which was the substance used for golf-ball covers. The latter option was developed by Spalding and was favored by the American League; however, as there was still disagreement between the two leagues, further tests were to be done and the results to be presented to Landis and the two league presidents before a decision was made. In the meantime, it was also agreed that clubs would use their remaining supplies of 1942 balls until they were exhausted.16
One additional factor concerning play was the number of night games allowed, which remained at 14 games per team, except for Washington, which was permitted to play 21. Cincinnati determined that it would play only seven night games due to poor attendance at such contests in the 1942 season. Dimout regulations were likely to preclude New York and Brooklyn from holding night games, and it was uncertain whether the Philadelphia Athletics or Phillies would be permitted by the government to play under the electric lights at Shibe Park.
The Phillies had a greater problem to consider than whether or not they would be able to play night games, namely what was to become of the franchise. The Phillies’ fate turned out to be another matter that was much discussed without any resolution being reached. Though it was reported that four different propositions were made to Phillies president Gerald Nugent and National League President Ford Frick, none was adopted. Frick emphasized that whatever was eventually decided at a later date, the Phillies would not move to Baltimore or anywhere else, as he declared that “clubs are not moved to other cities anymore.”17
The final key issue to be addressed at the major-league meetings, which was of vital concern both to baseball and to the US government, was travel. Military transportation needs were now so great that passenger travel by rail could no longer be fully accommodated. Joseph B. Eastman, the government’s director of defense transportation, wrote to Commissioner Landis, NL President Frick, and AL President Will Harridge to request that baseball curtail its travel, and he even offered some solutions to the transportation problem.
Eastman first addressed spring training, suggesting that “travel to spring training might be minimized [by] the selection of a training site as near as possible to the permanent headquarters of the team,” and that preseason exhibition schedules should be eliminated or “drastically curtailed.”18 Second, he advised that “long duplicate trips must be avoided during the regular season.”19
Baseball complied with Eastman’s request by revamping schedules, eliminating side trips for exhibition games, and allowing two days for travel between certain series, all of which reduced travel by 46,000 mile. Most teams were unwilling to change their spring-training sites, citing commitments already made to those communities, but they did agree to take no more than 30 players to spring training sites in the South instead of up to 50 as they had done in previous years. Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith declared, “We’re going to try to skeletonize (travel) in every way possible. … I believe the ODT will have reason to feel pleased the way Organized Ball co-operates.”20
A team’s desire to retain its current training site was apt to become a moot point, however, when after the winter meetings teams that intended to train either in California, Texas, or Florida were advised by Eastman to have alternate locales in mind because the military intended to use campsites in those states. Eastman informed both leagues that they would know whether they could train in any of those three states by February 7, 1943.
As the major-league meetings came to an end, baseball also demonstrated its support for the war effort in other ways. It was agreed that all of the receipts from the July 7, 1943, All-Star Game in Philadelphia would be donated to the Ball and Bat Fund to provide equipment for military personnel; an additional $2,500 from each league and $20,000 from the commissioner’s treasury were also given to the fund. Each team also agreed to donate the proceeds from one of its home games to the Army, Navy, or some other war service branch. Baseball also offered its services to the Office of War Information in the preparation of shortwave radio broadcasts for the armed forces abroad.
In the wake of the major-league meetings, the National Association met in Chicago, the city of the organization’s birth in 1901, for the sixth time, on December 4-5. The NA’s member clubs obviously faced the same primary issues as the major-league franchises, but the situation was far direr for the cash-strapped minor-league teams, and the likelihood that most teams would be able to operate throughout the course of the war was in doubt.
First and foremost on the agenda was the manpower shortage, although tire and rubber rationing, dimouts, and transportation issues were additional factors working against the continuation of minor-league play. Of the 26 minor leagues that had completed the 1942 season, 24 declared their intentions to play in 1943; however, the shortage of players made it likely that “the number starting next season would be between 12 and 14, with the former figure the most likely.”21
In spite of the major leagues’ defeat of the plan to freeze player contracts, a proposal was made to put the NA on record as being in favor of “freezing of all except active players to the rosters of disbanding clubs,” but as was the case with the big-league clubs, the move was voted down.22 It was decided, however, that the territories of disbanded clubs and leagues could be frozen for the duration of the war and that clubs from disbanded leagues that wished to continue play could temporarily join other leagues “through mutual agreement between the two loops concerned, or with the approval of the president of the National Association.”23 Amid such circumstances, the trade market in the minors –just as had been the case with the major leagues — was understandably stagnant.
The minor leagues were also scrambling to do their part to comply with Eastman’s request that baseball reduce its travel. Since it was left up to each league to decide how best to cut down on travel, compliance with the government’s request took on various forms. The Inter-State League set an example for other circuits to follow when its president, Arthur Ehlers, announced from league headquarters in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, that its member clubs would hold spring training at their home fields, believing “that better, or just as good, results will be obtained by staying at home to train.”24 In the South, the Texas League decided that its clubs would make only three road trips in 1943 rather than the usual four, which would save 15,000 travel miles.25
The dire financial straits of many franchises led to a bit of intrigue during the December 4 session in the form of an attempted “raid” on the NA’s treasury, which would have divided most of the umbrella organization’s money between the clubs that finished the 1942 season.26 The proposition failed, but it resulted in two major concessions: the abolition of the 2 percent fee on player transactions charged by the NA’s administration, and permission for cash-strapped clubs to apply for loans that would see them through the war’s duration. While the abolition of the transaction fee would provide immediate relief to all clubs, that fee made up the bulk of the NA’s revenue, which put the amount of cash that would be available for loans in doubt.
Oddly, in the midst of all the wartime hardships that had to be addressed, there was a second conspiracy — the ouster of the Southern Association’s president — that became the major story of the meetings. Major Trammell Scott, who had led the league for the previous four seasons, had angered the owners of both the Little Rock and Memphis franchises during the 1942 season, and Little Rock owner Roy L. Thompson used Scott’s delayed arrival in Chicago (yet another point of contention with the league’s club owners) as an opportunity to present Billy Evans as a replacement for Trammell.
What made the Southern Association presidential fiasco even more unbelievable was the sheer serendipity of Evans’s availability for the job. The former major league umpire and Cleveland Indians general manager was in Chicago because he expected to be named interim president of the American Association while its elected president, George M. Trautman, served in the Army; Trautman, however, resigned his military commission instead and returned to his job as league president. This turn of events suddenly had put Evans, a 32-year baseball man, out of a job when he happened upon Thompson, who then set in motion his plan to supplant Scott. The owners sided with Thompson and, though no election had been scheduled to be held, they voted in Evans as the new president in what was for all intents and purposes a bloodless coup.
The unseating of Scott was an example of how the business of baseball was quite often conducted, which was in an aggressive manner. However, in 1942 this episode was the exception rather than the norm. For the most part, owners of both the major- and minor-league clubs realized that cooperation with one another was necessary if baseball were to persevere through what was becoming the greatest military struggle in the history of mankind.
1 Gerald Bazer and Steven Culbertson, “When FDR Said ‘Play Ball,’” archives.gov/publications/prologue/2002/spring/greenlight.html, accessed September 30, 2015.
3 “Scribbled by Scribes,” The Sporting News, December 3, 1942: 4.
4 “Bradley Finds Cold Trail in Wolf Hunt,” The Sporting News, December 3, 1942: 6.
5 “Happy to Play Host,” The Sporting News, December 3, 1942: 4.
6 “Game a ‘Morale-Builder’,” The Sporting News, December 10, 1942: 3.
7 “Keynote for Chicago Meetings,” The Sporting News, November 26, 1942: 4.
8 “Chicago to Sound ‘Go’ Signal for Game,” The Sporting News, December 3, 1942: 4.
9 “Warming Up at the Palmer House,” The Sporting News, December 10, 1942: 10.
10 “From Major League Fronts in Chicago,” The Sporting News, December 10, 1942: 3.
11 Edgar G. Brands, “Mileage Reduced, Service Aid Voted,” The Sporting News, December 10, 1942: 3.
12 “Majors Arrive at Several Centers of the Ball, but Settle on None, The Sporting News, December 10, 1942: 10.
13 David Pietrusza, Judge and Jury: The Life and Times of Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis (South Bend, Indiana: Diamond Communications, 1998), 417.
14 Pietrusza, 418.
15 “Giles Wants Old Zip Put Back Into Ball,” The Sporting News, November 26, 1942: 3.
16 “Draft Price for Player in Service Due at Once,” The Sporting News, December 10, 1942: 3.
17 “Athletics to be Hosts to All-Stars July 1,” The Sporting News, December 10, 1942: 10.
18 “Travel ‘Without Waste’ Requested of Major Leagues by ODT Director,” The Sporting News, December 10, 1942: 3.
20 “40 Per Cent Slash in Travel, Aim of Majors, Says Griff,” The Sporting News, December 17, 1942: 1.
21 Edgar G. Brands, “Loans Authorized, Deal Fees Dropped,” The Sporting News, December 10, 1942: 3. In fact, only 10 leagues began play in 1943, with nine finishing the season; the Twin Ports League disbanded in July.
24 “Inter-State Clubs Expected to Condition on Home Fields,” The Sporting News, December 10, 1942: 5.
25 “Texas to Cut Mileage,” The Sporting News, December 10, 1942: 8.
26 Brands, “Loans Authorized, Deal Fees Dropped.”