1946 Winter Meetings: Tranquility and Turbulence

This article was written by Jerry Nechal

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


Punctuated by Enos Slaughter’s mad dash around the bases in Game Seven of the World Series, the 1946 season saw major-league baseball back on the upswing. Total attendance had climbed to more than 11 million, a 71 percent increase over the previous season. The total also well exceeded the prewar 1941 figure of 9.7 million. Stars like Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, and Bob Feller returned from wartime military duty to dazzle their fans. The National League produced a thrilling pennant race between the Brooklyn Dodgers and St. Louis Cardinals, ultimately settled in a playoff. The World Series was an exciting one, going the full seven games. Slaughter scored the deciding run in the eighth inning of the final game on a play that would be talked about for decades to come.

As the major-league owners headed into their December 5-7 Winter Meetings in Los Angeles, harmony seemed to be the prevailing mood. Although they had been apprehensive about Commissioner Happy Chandler when he succeeded the despotic Judge Kenesaw M. Landis in 1945, and there had in fact been some early conflicts between Chandler and the owners, he now seemed to have solidified his standing and support. He was “now regarded far and wide as an able administrator. … Club owners, managers, and players seek his counsel.”1 Commissioner Chandler himself declared, “My prediction is that this will be the best meeting ever.”2

This upbeat frame of mind seemed prevalent despite that fact that the owners were only a few months removed from two historic controversies that had occurred during the season. In August they had met in Chicago to address player defections to the Mexican League, and the threat of a strike by the Pittsburgh Pirates over collective-bargaining rights. After that meeting, it was rumored that the owners in secret had voted 15 to 1 against Jackie Robinson’s entry into the major leagues.3 Purportedly, a report had been distributed at the meeting that stated, “(T)he use of Negro players would hazard all physical properties of baseball.”4

However, on the surface, attitudes were upbeat. Chandler optimistically stated, “Naturally we have problems — every business has, but I don’t think you will find any serious controversies arising.”5

In reality, below the surface the 1946 meeting marked the first time that the owners had ever been forced to respond to the organized demands of the players. Negotiating with the players was a new phenomenon for owners who in prior years had for the most part dictated the terms of employment.

Two 1946 events were responsible for this change. Several players had migrated to the new Mexican League, and the threat of further defections loomed over the owners. At the same time, labor lawyer Robert Murphy had attempted to organize the Pirates. Although a vote by Pirates players to unionize had failed and a threat to boycott a game against the New York Giants had dissipated, the owners responded by acknowledging the players as a group, and they negotiated several concessions to major-league players as a whole. These included a guaranteed minimum salary of $5,000, a limitation on pay cuts to a maximum of 25 percent, $25 per week in living expenses during spring training, and the creation of a pension plan. Ralph Kiner from that Pirates team recalled that “It was a matter of money. … The minimum salary was nothing.”6

At the Winter Meetings, the players continued to make demands that received the attention of the owners. The players complained about the owners’ “gentleman’s agreement”7 that allowed them to hoard and keep talent in the minor leagues. Owners had been able to retain players put on waivers. If they were claimed by another team, the owner could revoke the waiver call. A new rule stated that a claiming club got the player on the third call. Another player demand approved at the meetings was a ban on scheduling a doubleheader after a night game. Finally, the owners began to work out the details of the pension plan. The plan was to be funded by each player contributing $250 per year, a sum that would be matched by his owner. Also, and more important in the long term, the proceeds from World Series broadcasting and the All-Star Game would go to the pension plan.8

The setting for the meetings was also unique and added to the drama that would play out in the coming days. The 1946 major-league meetings shared the limelight with the minor leagues. In this pre-television era, the minor leagues provided an attractive local offering to baseball-starved fans. Collectively, the minors were a large and thriving business. For the first time in three years, both the major-league owners and the minor-league National Association were meeting at the same time and in the same location. The National Association, the governing body for all professional baseball teams affiliated with major-league baseball through their farm systems, faced two important tasks. The first was the replacement of William G. Bramham, who was retiring after having served 14 years as president. The second was the negotiation of a new agreement with the major leagues.

Known as “The Major of the Minors,” Bramham had ruled the National Association since 1932.9 The former judge had shepherded the minors from bankruptcy and only 11 leagues at the beginning of his reign to a peak of 44 leagues in 1940.10 At age 72, however, he was dealing with health concerns and had decided to retire. Going into the 1946 meetings, there was speculation about the potential of a bitter fight to replace Bramham, with as many as 12 candidates being mentioned.11 Nevertheless, George M. Trautman, executive vice president of the Detroit Tigers, emerged as the leading candidate. Initially there was some apprehension about his close connection with the major leagues and the potential of a “dictatorship.”12 In the end, however, opposition dissipated and Trautman was unanimously elected president.

Trautman was a protégé of Branch Rickey, having gained entry into minor-league baseball when The Mahatma made him president of the Columbus Red Birds in 1933. His tenure there was a success and Trautman was subsequently elected president of the American Association in 1935. He had been with the Tigers only one year, and was being groomed as the successor to general manager Jack Zeller. As the president of the National Association, Trautman was given a five-year contract at $25,000 per year.

A new agreement between the Association and the majors had in the past proved itself to be an elusive goal. The existing major-minor contract was now 25 years old (it had been extended numerous times).13 Previous committees had made recommendations on a new pact, but no action was ever taken due to various objections by one party or the other. Finally, at the 1946 Winter Meetings both sides accepted the recommendations of the current committee. As a compromise, a shorter duration was proposed; the new agreement would last for five years, with options to renew for additional five-year increments. Receiving the most attention was the language granting “veto power” to the minor leagues.14 The majors appeased the minors by giving them greater autonomy, granting them the right to terminate the major-minor agreement with an affirmative vote of three-fourths of the Association’s members.

In the new agreement, language was also changed regarding the power of the commissioner over the minors. Language that had allowed the commissioner to unilaterally rule on items “detrimental” to baseball was removed.15 In a series of new clauses, these powers were reduced. The new language was similar to what had been adopted at the major-league level after the death of Commissioner Landis and the appointment of Chandler.

Retiring National Association President Bramham did not go quietly into the night, giving a final passionate speech to the Association. He spoke out strongly against the evils of wild spending on bonus money to attract players.16 Likewise, he vehemently cautioned the audience on the presence of gambling in the minors. “These roaches have become a menace to the game, Bramham declared.”17 He went on to mention the “moral laxity among certain officials, players and fans, public gambling, intimidation of players by thugs … collusion between players and bookmakers …”18

Commissioner Chandler was quick to respond to Bramham’s gambling concerns. “Certainly the public doesn’t question the integrity of the game,” he said. “We are proud that in the majors last season not a single player, coach, manager, or umpire was under suspicion. However, we will continue to exercise every precaution to merit the confidence and will assist all leagues to that end.”19 Bramham’s successor, Trautman, was quick to piggyback on Chandler’s response, promising to stamp out gambling in minor-league parks.20

On bonuses for players, Bramham asserted that the “scramble for their services had gone far beyond reason and set a pace that the poorer clubs cannot maintain and stay within their incomes.”21 The annual report of the National Association revealed that more than $2 million had been paid to players in the 1946 season. There were also reports of minor-league teams whose attendance had doubled but who still lost money because of bonus payments. The delegates took these concerns under advisement.

The new Major-Minor League Agreement established a classification labeled Bonus Players for both the major and minors. The designation was assigned to newly signed players who were paid bonus money above defined amounts. The fixed minimum amount that would trigger a bonus classification ranged from $600 in Class D to $6,000 in the majors. A Bonus Player would retain the label for his career. If he was optioned to a lower classification or playing level, he would be subject to an unrestricted draft.

The Los Angeles meeting location was also significant on a couple of other fronts. It was the first time the major-league and minor-league groups had met in a minor-league city. (The Pacific Coast League was seeking major-league status at the time.)22 At the same time, the minor leagues, including the PCL, were seeking formal protection against intrusion into their territories by the major leagues.

Approaching the Winter Meetings, PCL officials were adamant in their determination to protect their territory and in becoming a third major league. With the two large markets in Los Angeles and San Francisco, the PCL was also concerned that a major-league owner could move a team there and severely disrupt their league. Within the past year there had been rumors that singer/actor Bing Crosby, a part-owner of the Pirates, would buy a team and move it to the West Coast.23 Accordingly, just prior to the meetings, Pacific Coast League members adopted a resolution calling for major-league status for the PCL immediately.24 The resolution was consistent with their efforts in recent years. The majors had also previously appointed a committee to discuss this request. Beyond major-league status, the West Coast league and the rest of the minor-league teams also sought formal veto power against the invasion of their territory.

The Pacific Coast League was again unsuccessful in its demands for major-league status. After listening to the plans of PCL President Clarence Rowland and the advisory committee, the National and American Leagues did not act, but again “took the subject under advisement.”25 However as a concession, it was agreed that in the event of expansion into their territory, the affected minor league would be “entitled to adequate compensation through an arbitration board.”26

As they still are, the Winter Meetings were of interest to the fans because of the possibility of player trades. Before the 1946 meetings, Branch Rickey had raised expectations in this area. He predicted, “There will be a lot of action. Maybe we will set a record for that kind of activity. … The pot is boiling, and when it steams, you can believe that something is on its way.”27 With five new big-league managers and two new owners, this sentiment did not appear far-fetched.

Nevertheless, Rickey’s predictions failed to materialize. Despite some provocative rumors that made it into the press, there were no blockbuster transactions involving prominent players. Perhaps the most significant rumor held that slugger Hank Greenberg would move from the Tigers to the Yankees. The Tigers, however, were reluctant to let Greenberg go, except on very favorable terms. Detroit owner Walter Briggs reportedly demanded from New York infielder Snuffy Stirnweiss, the 1945 batting champ; catcher Aaron Robinson; and another unnamed player. The Yankees quickly rejected this proposal.28 In another failed attempt, the Cardinals vetoed an exorbitant offer of $150,000 from the Phillies for outfielder Enos Slaughter.29

In the absence of blockbusters, there were a number of deals involving lesser-known younger players and/or older veterans on the decline. Some of the lesser-known players would go on to prominent moments or careers in the big leagues. In what was considered a major swap, the Yankees traded outfielder Hal Peck, left-handed pitcher Gene Bearden, and right-handed hurler Al Gettel to Cleveland for second baseman Ray Mack and catcher Sherm Lollar. Bearden, a previously unheralded knuckleballer, went on to have a career year with the Indians in 1948, posting 20 wins, including the victory in the one-game AL championship playoff game with the Red Sox. Lollar played 17 more years in the majors with the Yankees, Browns, and White Sox, was named to seven All-Star teams, won three Gold Glove awards, and drove in five runs as the White Sox lost to the Dodgers in the 1959 World Series.

Pittsburgh obtained outfielder Gene Woodling from Cleveland in exchange for veteran catcher Al Lopez. Future Hall of Famer Lopez was at the tail end of a 19-year playing career, and the 24-year-old Woodling ultimately played 17 years in the majors with seven teams, including five world championship seasons with the Yankees. The Phillies purchased veteran right-handed pitcher Dutch Leonard from Washington, the White Sox bought utilityman Jack Wallaesa from the Phillies, and the Cardinals sold right-handed pitcher Charlie “Red” Barrett to the Boston Braves.

The predictions of consensus and tranquility at the Winter Meetings had prevailed. A new agreement had been reached with the minors. The National Association had selected a new president with minimal discord. The issue of excessive bonus payments had been dealt with. Baseball appeared well positioned for the future. The next 10 years would later be seen by many as baseball’s Golden Age.

On the other hand, new or unaddressed issues loomed. At least one significant item was not publicly discussed: In a few months the major leagues would have their first modern black player, with Commissioner Chandler helping to pave the way for that event, to the dismay of several owners. On another front, the issue of West Coast major-league expansion remained unresolved. Finally, for the first time, the players had been dealt with at the bargaining table by the owners. This scenario was an early preview of coming attractions.

 

Notes

1 Arch Ward, “In the Wake of the News,” Chicago Tribune, December 5, 1946: 47.

2 “Chandler Happy California Site of Diamond Meet,” The Sporting News, December 3, 1946: 6.

3 John Paul Hill. “Commissioner A.B. ‘Happy’ Chandler and the Integration of Major League Baseball: A Reassessment,” NINE: A Journal of Baseball History and Culture 19 (1) (Fall 2010): 28-52

4 Ibid.

5 The Sporting News, December 3, 1946: 6.

6 Ibid.

7 Dan Daniel, “Players Win New Concessions From Majors,” The Sporting News, December 11, 1946: 1.

8 “Majors Draft Pension Plan,” The Sporting News, December 11, 1946: 2.

9 E.V. Mitchell, “Bramham: The Major of the Minors Since ’32,” The Sporting News, December 11, 1946: 7.

10 Ibid.

11 Edgar G. Brands, “Minors Elect Trautman as New Head,” The Sporting News, December 11, 1946: 3.

12 Ibid.

13 E.G. Brands, “Veto Powers for Minors in New Pact,” The Sporting News, December 4, 1946: 1.

14 Ibid.

15 “Majors Delay P.C.L. Boost,” Los Angeles Times, December 11, 1946: 10.

16 Edgar G. Brands, “Wild Spending Threating Minors — Bramham,” The Sporting News, December 4, 1946: 2.

17 Al Wolf, “Bramham Raps Baseball Gambling,” Los Angeles Times, December 5, 1946: 10.

18 J.G. Taylor Spink, “Bramham Gambling Warning in 1927 Recalled,” The Sporting News, December 11, 1946: 2.

19 Arch Ward, “Majors Vote All-Star Game to Cubs’ Park,” Chicago Tribune, December 7, 1946: 21.

20 Ibid.

21 “Wild Spending Threating Minors — Bramham.”

22 Edgar G. Brands, “Minors Meeting on West Coast for Third Time,” The Sporting News, December 4, 1946: 9.

23 Edgar G. Brands, “Coast Loop in Dither Over Invasion by Majors,” The Sporting News, November 27, 1946: 2.

24 Al Wolf, “P.C.L. Presses for Major Rating,” Los Angeles Times, December 3, 1946: 6C.

25 “Coast Fails to Gain Major Status,” The Sporting News, December 11, 1946: 12.

26 Ibid.

27 Dan Daniel, “Pot Boiling for Record Swapping Season,” The Sporting News, November 27, 1946: 1.

28 John Rosengren, Hank Greenberg, The Hero of Heroes (New York: New American Library, 2013), 296.

29 Stan Baumgartner, “Rivals Fearing Phillies, Refuse Tempting Deals,” The Sporting News, December 11, 1946: 12.

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