1943 Winter Meetings: War on the Home Front

This article was written by Nick Klopsis

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


Introduction and Context

Baseball’s 1943 winter meetings were held in New York City from November 29 to December 3. The minor leagues and the major leagues took care of their business at the New Yorker Hotel, marking the first time in 24 years that both the majors and minors sat down together in New York.

The overall theme of the meetings could be summed up in three simple letters: war. World War II efforts continued to hit baseball particularly hard, with many of the game’s stars trading in their baseball uniforms for military fatigues. As a result, several major-league clubs were looking for new talent while holding on to the few star players they still had. Meanwhile, the minor leagues were bracing themselves for one of the most heated battles baseball had ever seen — the re-election of National Association President William G. Bramham.

Player Movement

Despite the fact that many teams came into New York looking to replace men who were now serving in the war, player movement was surprisingly slow. Empty trade rumors filled the halls of the New Yorker Hotel, as teams were reluctant to deplete their rosters any further. The possibility that more players could continue to be lost to the military meant that general managers would consider a trade only if they were blown away by an offer.

The main example of this was the trade whirlwind surrounding Cleveland Indians pitcher Jim Bagby. The right-hander had just come off his second consecutive All-Star season, starting a major-league-high 33 games while posting a 17-14 record and a 3.10 ERA. But Bagby was at odds with player-manager Lou Boudreau, stemming from an incident in September in which Boudreau fined Bagby $100 for not taking a warmup run before a night game in Washington. Bagby told reporters that he participated in warmups before Boudreau arrived at the ballpark. Boudreau did not lift the fine, and Bagby demanded to be traded. The Indians did not field any offers for Bagby during the season, with Boudreau saying that he “would rather have a disgruntled winner than a happy loser.”1

But at the outset of the winter meetings, the Indians reversed their stance and began listening to potential trading partners. Cleveland wanted an outfielder in exchange for Bagby, and three teams were rumored to be in the running, the Detroit Tigers, the Chicago White Sox, and the Washington Senators. The Tigers, who were preparing to lose pitcher Tommy Bridges to the draft after the meetings, offered aging All-Star center fielder Doc Cramer, while the White Sox were rumored to be willing to part with either right fielder Wally Moses or center fielder Thurman Tucker.2 The Senators reportedly offered a package that included outfielder Bob Johnson, right-handed pitcher Bobo Newsom, and shortstop John Sullivan in exchange for Bagby, infielder Russ Peters, and left fielder Jeff Heath. However, the Indians suddenly pulled Bagby off the trading block late in the meetings when their left-handed ace, Al Smith, was reclassified by his local draft board as 1-A. The reclassification meant that Smith was immediately eligible to serve in the military should the government select him. Boudreau said that any deals would have to wait until March, when each team knew where it stood concerning players serving in the military.

The only big-name deal that occurred took place very late in the meetings. The Senators, who failed to get Bagby from the Indians, sold Bob Johnson to the Boston Red Sox about five minutes before the meetings officially closed. The Red Sox, who had bid for Johnson’s services in 1942, paid an undisclosed amount of money to Washington. The sale marked the end of the 37-year-old Johnson’s disappointing one-year stint with the Senators. Although the outfielder was named to his sixth All-Star team and finished fifth in MVP voting, injury brought about career lows in batting average (.265), home runs (7), and RBIs (63). Despite this, the move was lauded not only by Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey, but also by Senators owner Clark Griffith (ironically, he would later declare the deal to be the worst he ever made), A’s skipper Connie Mack (who managed Johnson in Philadelphia), and even Yankees manager Joe McCarthy (who noted that Johnson would greatly benefit from Fenway Park’s short left-field wall).

Meanwhile, New York Giants ace Carl Hubbell retired to become the team’s new farm-system director. Affectionately nicknamed The Meal Ticket, Hubbell spent his entire 16-season career with the Giants and finished with a 253-154 record, a 2.98 ERA, and 1,677 strikeouts. Hubbell, who was known for his devastating screwball and would be elected to the Hall of Fame a few years later, had previously expressed a desire to stay involved in baseball and mentor younger players once his days on the mound were over.

The Business Side

While player transactions were lukewarm at best, league business exploded on the very first day of the meetings. The minor leagues held the floor at the New Yorker for the first three days, and they wasted no time in providing instant drama. William G. Bramham, the 69-year-old president of the National Association, who was credited with pulling the minor leagues through the Great Depression, was up for re-election, but his bid for another term would not be a cakewalk by any means. If Bramham, already in office for 11 years, wanted to remain president, he would have to go up against threats of secession that would throw the entire structure of baseball into chaos.

The seeds of rebellion began even before the meetings convened in New York. Due to the war, only nine of 25 dues-paying leagues operated during the 1943 season.3 In addition, Bramham had spoken out earlier in the year against two amendments proposed by the top-level AA leagues (American Association, International League, and Pacific Coast League). One amendment would reformat the voting system to give more voting power to higher leagues, and the other would remove the stipulated prices that higher leagues would have to pay to lower leagues for drafting territorial rights.

In response to Bramham’s public opposition to the amendments and the lean state of the minor leagues, the International League nominated its president, Frank J. Shaughnessy, to run against Bramham on the first day of the meetings. Upon nomination, Shaughnessy seemed to have a 5-4 majority, thanks to the backing from the three AA leagues, plus the Piedmont League and the Pony League. However, the decision to nominate Shaughnessy was about more than removing Bramham from power; it was also the minor leagues’ chance to revolt and become their own independent entity. If Shaughnessy was elected, the minor leagues would not renew the major-minor league agreement that tied the two organizations together, effectively breaking free from the control of Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis.4

Bramham was faced with a near-certain ouster. In a final effort to remain in power, the president cited Section 34 of the National Association agreement, which allowed the 16 suspended leagues to vote because they had paid dues. What made the ruling especially controversial was the fact that Bramham and the nine active leagues had voted during the season that suspended leagues had no voting rights, which at the time caused an uproar among the 16 currently inactive leagues. Bramham’s ruling in New York was a complete reversal of that earlier decision.

Thankful for their new lease on life, the reinstated leagues overwhelmingly backed Bramham and he scored a landslide victory and a new five-year term at $25,000 per year. The insurgent leagues cried foul, questioned the legality of the reinstatement, and appealed the decision to Commissioner Landis — the very man whom they were trying to break away from just a day earlier. Landis upheld Bramham’s decision, putting a definitive end to the rebellion.

Then, on the final day of the three-day minor-league affair, both of the amendments at the heart of the rebellion were vetoed. Bramham closed out the minor-league agenda by lashing out at his opponents, saying that the owners “are sitting on a barrel of TNT and should not try to create discord.”5

Once the fireworks from the minor leagues died down, the remaining business came and went with little fanfare. Both the American and National Leagues approved a recommendation by the Baseball Writers Association that called for All-Star rosters to be decided via War Bond sale. Every fan who purchased a War Bond between the beginning of the season and June 15 would be able to cast a ballot for the 1944 All-Star Game, which was scheduled for Forbes Field in Pittsburgh.

The New York Yankees’ proposal to increase roster sizes from 25 to 30 was rejected, while the Senators won the right to have unlimited night games (as opposed to 14 for every other team). In addition, the minor leagues vetoed a proposal from Landis’s office that aimed to restrict the use of minor-league parks for exhibition games 10 days after the end of the season. If the amendment had passed, minor-league clubs would be deemed liable if an exhibition game was played at their stadium, and the team would have to pay a fine. The minor-league teams did not want to serve as “play policeman” for Landis, so they turned down the proposal.6

A few front-office changes were made as well, with the most notable being the Philadelphia Phillies naming former Yankees left-hander Herb Pennock as their general manager. Known as the Squire of Kennett Square during his Hall of Fame career, Pennock had been serving as the farm director for the Red Sox. Meanwhile, the Yankees re-signed Joe McCarthy to a three-year deal, ensuring that the skipper who had brought them seven World Series titles and eight American League pennants would be back.

The last day of the meetings brought with it a very interesting case that foreshadowed the future. During the joint American League-National League meeting, Commissioner Landis invited actor and singer Paul Robeson and three black journalists, Ira F. Lewis of the Pittsburgh Courier, John Sengstacke of the Chicago Defender, and Howard Murphy of the Baltimore Afro-American, to plead their case in favor of integration in baseball. It marked the first time a black person had spoken face-to-face with the leaders of Organized Baseball about this topic.

Before the four men spoke, Landis read a joint American League-National League statement that said, “There is no rule, formal or informal, or any understanding — unwritten, subterranean or sub-anything — against the hiring of Negro players by the teams of organized baseball.”7

While all four delegates made pleas to the owners about integration, Lewis’s speech seemed to be the most intriguing. He drew parallels to other sports and entertainment outlets, noting how it had quickly become commonplace to see black athletes playing college football and black actors on Broadway. Lewis then drew Landis’s ire when he directly challenged the commissioner’s opening statement by saying, “We believe that there is a tacit understanding, there is a gentlemen’s agreement that no Negro players be hired.”8 That assertion silenced the room and seemed to draw the approval of the owners for its sheer boldness.

At the conclusion of the meeting, the owners met privately, then returned to tell the four delegates, “Each club is entirely free to employ Negro players to any and all extent it pleases. The matter is solely for each club’s decision, without restriction whatsoever.”9

After the meetings, the Courier published some of Lewis’s reported statements.

“It is also quite noteworthy that the largest football crowd to attend any game in America this past season was the game last Saturday in Chicago, between White and Negro high school teams — 85,000 people.”

“Then, gentlemen, if your investments are not jeopardized, and it is admitted that colored players will add color to the game, both figuratively and literally, and the question of travel and segregation areas are problems of the players themselves, it looks very much as though the bar against the Negro player had become an outmoded pretense.”

“I ask you gentlemen, in the name of the America we all love; in the name of the democracy that we associate with the word America, that you undo this wrong; that you do away with this mean precedent, this gentlemen’s understanding and agreement, and let our national pastime be a game for all the boys in America. I hold this to be just and fair and in keeping with the highest American tradition.”

After Lewis spoke, Howard Murphy of the Baltimore Afro-American noted four recommendations:

  1. Immediate steps be taken to accept Negro players into the framework of Organized Baseball.
  2. The process for promotion and elevation in baseball be applied without prejudice.
  3. Same system for selection of players be used.
  4. Joint statement be made by the leagues.

Summary

The three-day clash at the outset of the 1943 winter meetings helped to solidify the future of the National Association and baseball at large. With the re-election of William G. Bramham to a new five-year term, the sport avoided a scenario in which there would be three separate, independently run associations in direct competition with one another. Also, John Drebinger of the New York Times wrote that the minor-league fireworks were “a show that is not likely to make New York regret it is playing host to the national pastime’s ‘little fellows’ for the first time in twenty-four years,” hinting at the possibility that the minor leagues would be invited to join the major leagues at future meetings.10

Because of the war, there was a lack of player movement during the meetings, as teams attempted to figure out exactly who would and would not be serving military duty and decided to hold onto their players. Meanwhile, it would be another two years after the plea by Robeson, Sengstacke, Lewis, and Murphy at the joint meeting that the color barrier was broken.

 

Sources

In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author also consulted:

Associated Press. “Minor Leagues Lose Fight to Oust Bramham,” Washington Post, December 1, 1943: 18.

——. “Pennock Signs as Headman of Phillies,” Los Angeles Times, December 2, 1943: 12.

——. “Pitcher Says Their Dislike is Mutual,” Washington Post, January 20, 1944.

——. “Sox Buy Johnson From Washington,” Christian Science Monitor, December 3, 1943: 8.

——. “Third Day of ‘Revolution’ At New York,” Christian Science Monitor, December 1, 1943: 17.

——. “Tigers Re-Engage Manager O’Neill,” New York Times, November 28, 1943: S6.

Dawson, James P. “Hubbell, Pitching Ace 16 Years, Signs as Giants’ Farm Director,” New York Times, December 1, 1943: 28.

Drebinger, John. “International Backs Shaughnessy to Succeed Bramham as Minor League Czar,” New York Times, November 30, 1943: 31.

——. “Landis Upholds Bramham Ruling, Crushing Class AA Minor Leagues’ Revolt,” New York Times, December 3, 1943: 29.

——. “Voting Coup Re-elects Bramham, Foils Move in Minors to End Landis Rule,” New York Times, December 2, 1943: 33.

Feder, Sid (Associated Press). “Fiery Session Is Forecast at Baseball Meet,” Atlanta Constitution, November 29, 1943: 16.

——. “Heated Debate Promised at This Week’s Meetings of Baseball Leagues,” Hartford Courant, November 28, 1943: C3.

Povich, Shirley. “Bagby, Heath, Peters Eyed by Nat Boss,” Washington Post, December 2, 1943: 18.

Troy, Jack. “Minor Leagues Retain Bramham as President,” Atlanta Constitution, December 2, 1943: 13.

Vaughan, Irving. “Open Baseball Season April 18,” Chicago Tribune, December 3, 1943: 29-30.

Webb, Melville. “Red Sox May Try Johnson at First,” Boston Globe, December 4, 1943: 5.

 

Notes

1 Shirley Povich, “This Morning With Shirley Povich,” Washington Post, December 1, 1943: 18.

2 According to the Chicago Tribune, Boudreau initially showed interest in trading Bagby to the White Sox for outfielder Moose Solters. However, the White Sox sold Solters to Milwaukee. See Irving Vaughan, “White Sox Bid For Bagby, Indians’ Pitcher,” Chicago Tribune, December 2, 1943: 27-28.

3 John Drebinger, “Revolt by Minor Leagues Against Landis Control Looms at Meetings Today,” New York Times, December 1, 1943: 28. The nine dues-paying minor leagues were the American Association, the International League, the Pacific Coast League, the Eastern League, the Southern Association, the Inter-State League, the Piedmont League, the Appalachian League, and the Pennsylvania-Ontario-New York (Pony) League.

4 Additionally, Jack Cuddy of the Los Angeles Times reported that if the minor leagues broke away from the majors, the lower-level B, C, and D leagues would further break away from the newly formed group and form their own “wildcat” organization in boycott of Shaughnessy and the higher leagues. Jack Cuddy, “Minors Reported Pulling Away From Landis Control,” Los Angeles Times, December 1, 1943: 10.

5 Associated Press, “Smith 1-A, So Indians Might Not Sell Jim Bagby,” Boston Globe, December 3, 1943: 26.

6 The major leagues had come to an agreement on this amendment a day before the minors vetoed it. However, they decided not to enact it until they had a chance to fine-tune its wording, specifically what would happen if a team was playing in a park that it did not own. Associated Press, “Smith’s Reclassification Blocks Jim Bagby Trade,” Christian Science Monitor, December 3, 1943: 8.

7 David K. Wiggins, “Wendell Smith, the Pittsburgh CourierJournal and the Campaign to Include Blacks in Organized Baseball, 1933-1945,” Journal of Sport History 10, no. 2 (1983): 21.

8 Ibid.

9 John Drebinger, “Cox Retracts Admissions on Betting, Gets New Hearing Before Landis Today,” New York Times, December 4, 1943: 17.

10 “Revolt by Minor Leagues Against Landis Control Looms at Meetings Today.”

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