1950 Winter Meetings: The Happy Dagger

This article was written by Nick Klopsis

This article was published in the


Introduction and Context

The 1950 winter meetings were held in St. Petersburg, Florida, from December 3 to December 13. It was the third time in history that the Sunshine State played host to the winter meetings – they were in Jacksonville in 1941, while Miami was the site in 1947.

At first, it was expected that the meetings would come and go rather quietly. The war between North Korea and South Korea had begun nearly six months earlier and the United States and United Nations were now becoming increasingly involved. The New York Times reported at the onset of the meetings that only a handful of teams were open to trades, fearing the loss of their players to a possible World War III1 In addition, league business initially appeared to be pretty straightforward, with the only headlining issues being the potential elimination of the oft-criticized bonus rule and the high-school rule. Not too many people in attendance, then, would have predicted that the owners would suddenly turn against Commissioner Albert B. “Happy” Chandler and refuse to extend his contract.

Player Movement

As is customary, the first few days of the meetings brought rumors but no action. Several newspapers had reported that New York Yankees general manager George Weiss and Chicago White Sox general manager Frank Lane were seen talking details of a possible trade involving Chicago first baseman Eddie Robinson. The White Sox were in need of an outfielder and were willing to part with Robinson, a former All-Star who had hit .314 in 119 games on the South Side after being acquired from the Washington Senators at the end of May. The Detroit Tigers were also rumored to be in the running for Robinson, but eventually no deals came to fruition and Robinson stayed put. The lack of early trades was summed up best by Giants manager Leo Durocher, who had 14 infielders on his roster and was looking to trade a few of them. Durocher told John Drebinger of the New York Times, “I have been here for three days, ready to listen to anybody with a reasonable proposition. You would think plenty would come to us. … Yet up to this moment not a single club has come to us with anything resembling an offer for a trade. You can frisk me for the answer.”2

The first deal of the meetings came over the weekend, when owners and general managers were not formally scheduled to meet. After the Robinson talks fizzled, the White Sox traded right-hander Ray Scarborough and left-hander Bill Wight to the Boston Red Sox for outfielder Al Zarilla and two pitchers, righty Joe Dobson and rookie southpaw Dick Littlefield. For the Red Sox, acquiring Scarborough was a classic case of “if you can’t beat ’em, make a trade to get ’em.” Scarborough had been a continual thorn in Boston’s side, beating the Red Sox in crucial pennant-deciding games in both 1948 and 1949 as a member of the Senators. The Red Sox initially wanted left-hander Billy Pierce in the deal but settled on Wight, who had gone 10-18 with a 3.53 ERA for the White Sox in 1950.  Meanwhile, the White Sox filled their need for an outfielder with Zarilla, who hit a career high .325 with Boston in 1950; they also cured a hex of their own by obtaining Dobson, who had gone 14-4 in his career against them.

The Red Sox continued trying to reshape their roster. Toward the end of the meetings, Boston was rumored to be close to purchasing catcher Mike Guerra from the Philadelphia A’s. The rumors surrounding Guerra struck a bit of a nerve with Senators manager Bucky Harris, who sought Guerra for reasons other than his catching skills – he wanted him because of his fluency in Spanish. Cuban pitchers Connie Marrero, Sandy Consuegra, Carlos Pascual, Julio Moreno, and Rogelio Martinez all appeared in games for the Senators in 1950, and Harris wanted a backstop “who can make these pitchers understand what I want them to do.”3 Some outlets reported that the Red Sox would then turn around and trade Guerra to the Senators for catcher Al Evans, but such a deal never materialized. Guerra’s sale to the Red Sox was finalized five days after the meetings concluded, and he eventually was traded to the Senators for catcher Len Okrie and cash after the start of the 1951 season.

To prepare for the eventual purchase of Guerra, the Red Sox sold catcher Birdie Tebbetts to the Cleveland Indians. The 36-year-old became a source of friction on the Red Sox squad after calling several Boston pitchers “juvenile delinquents” and “moronic malcontents” following their late-season collapse.4 After hearing the news of the sale, Tebbetts said he would consider retiring to sell insurance full-time, but ultimately decided to stick around for a couple more years before embarking on a second career as a scout, manager, and front-office executive.

The Business Side

By far the big moment of the meetings came when the 16 owners surprisingly voted against renewing Commissioner Happy Chandler’s contract. Coming into the meetings, it was widely expected among media members and owners that a new contract would merely be a formality. After all, Pirates owner Frank McKinney, a close friend of Chandler’s, had tried to introduce a resolution to renew Chandler’s contract during the 1949 winter meetings. However, such a resolution was illegal – as per the commissioner’s current contract, Chandler had to be notified at least a year in advance whether or not he would be retained.5 Chandler had signed a seven-year contract in 1945 after replacing Kenesaw Mountain Landis, so any surprise resolutions (or re-elections) would not be possible in 1949. As such, they had to wait until this year’s meetings before they could revisit the issue – his contract officially was set to expire April 15, 1952, so the coming 1951 season would represent the necessary one-year advance notice. 

The dominos began to fall late on December 11, when all 16 major-league club owners came together to have a trial vote regarding Chandler’s contract. With 12 votes needed for renewal, the vote found nine clubs in support of renewal and seven clubs against.6 The owners then went into formal session and held the official vote. This time, the vote was split with eight in favor and eight against. When the owners informed Chandler of their vote, the commissioner demanded a revote. The final vote came back with nine in favor and seven against.7 The final news came as a shock to Chandler, who was visibly shaken the next day at the joint major-league meeting. In his prepared statement, Chandler declared that he would finish the remainder of his term “until the last second.”8 Following this, the owners held a separate closed session in their hotel, where they voted unanimously to “select and elect” a new commissioner as quickly as possible.9 The owners did not attempt to buy out Chandler’s contract, though New York Yankees president Dan Topping said that was what the seven dissenters wanted.10 Other owners doubted the possibility of forcing Chandler out before his term was up, since it required a unanimous vote of all 16 owners to do so. The league vowed to reopen the issue at meetings to be held in New York in February. (The meetings eventually were held in March.) On the day after the winter meetings’ conclusion, the owners voted unanimously to form a committee to search for Chandler’s replacement. The committee would be headed by four owners, two from each league: Lou Perini of the Boston Braves, Phil Wrigley of the Chicago Cubs, Del Webb of the New York Yankees, and Ellis Ryan of the Cleveland Indians.11

To this day, it is still unclear why the owners, led by Fred Saigh of the Cardinals, Perini of the Braves, and Webb of the Yankees, wanted Chandler out. Some people blamed the way Chandler handled the investigation into Paul Pettit’s $100,000 “bonus baby” contract.12 Others claimed it was lingering resentment stemming from integration in 1947, or because Chandler had insisted on getting a new contract.13 Still others pointed to Chandler’s statement, at the beginning of the meetings in St. Petersburg, that baseball would fold if another world war broke out.14 Chandler himself thought it was because he voided a deal between the Yankees and the White Sox for outfielder Dick Wakefield.15 The only owner to comment at the time of the vote was Topping, who vaguely chalked it up to Chandler’s entire body of work. “I’d imagine it was an over-all thing,” Topping told reporters after the closed-door meeting. “They didn’t think he was doing a good job.”16

Despite the fallout from the Chandler vote, there was still important business to be taken care of at the joint major-league meeting, which took all of about 20 minutes. Shortly after the bombshell announcement about the commissioner, the major leagues also voted to eliminate the bonus rule, which had been the subject of great controversy throughout the previous decade. For months it had been widely expected that the bonus rule would be abolished, with the motion to repeal beginning on October 31. The bonus rule had stated that any player who was signed to a contract greater than $4,000 had to stay on the team’s 25-man roster for two years. It was designed to prevent wealthy teams from stockpiling untested talent, but became especially controversial as teams simply kept the “bonus babies” in the majors without giving them very much playing time, even though riding the bench in the majors, rather than perfecting their craft in the minors, was proving to be harmful to most of these young players. In addition, teams had (naturally) found ways around the bonus rule, often by paying players under the table. In the end, the rule was repealed immediately with no other alternatives suggested.17  

In addition to killing the bonus rule, the major leagues also voted to eliminate the controversial high-school rule. The original rule prohibited teams from talking to high-school players until they had either received their degree or their original class had graduated. This proved to be a detriment to the game as a whole, as colleges would swoop in and offer the high-school athletes a football scholarship. The rule would officially be repealed at the end of the 1951 season.18 In the meantime, both leagues agreed to create an eight-man committee of both major- and minor-league officials to create a new version of the rule, one that would most likely allow teams to negotiate with high-school players.19

Additionally, the major leagues rejected a proposal by the National Association to restrict television and radio broadcasts in minor-league territory. Previously, a major-league game could air in minor-league territory as long as it did not directly conflict with a minor-league home game. However, minor-league attendance continued to drop, as baseball fans chose to stay home and watch major-league stars on television rather than go to the local ballpark to watch ballplayers trying to work their way up to the big leagues. This was most evident with the Jersey City Giants of the Triple-A International League, who were within broadcast range of the Yankees, the New York Giants, and the Brooklyn Dodgers. According to the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, Jersey City’s attendance fell from 173,000 in 1949 to a paltry 63,000 in 1950, forcing the club to relocate to Ottawa. 

The latest proposal was a three-point plan that called for a total ban on broadcasting major-league games at any time on a day when a local minor-league team was scheduled to play, as well as more promotion of minor-league clubs and general curtailment of networks. The minor-league owners made quick work in passing the resolution, and National Association President George M. Trautman presented it to the major leagues. Big-league owners, however, naturally quite content with the revenue they were receiving from their television broadcasts, laughed the proposal off the table. Local television broadcasts brought the 16 major-league owners a total net income of $2.3 million in 1950, and they were not necessarily concerned with how those broadcasts affected the minor leagues.20

A few other notable decisions were made over the course of the meetings, though they ended up being overshadowed by Chandler’s ouster and the repeal of the bonus and high-school rules. Among them were the American League’s decision to allot two days after season’s end for any makeup games that could potentially affect the pennant race; the owners’ vote to have the 1951 All-Star Game at Briggs Stadium in Detroit in celebration of the city’s 250th birthday; Trautman’s re-election to a five-year, $35,000-a-year term as president of the National Association; and Ford Frick’s re-election to a new four-year, $55,000-a-year term as National League president.21

Summary

The surprising decision not to renew Happy Chandler’s contract sent a shockwave through baseball, with the effects of the vote continuing well into the season until Chandler finally officially resigned in July of 1951. Meanwhile, the lingering effect of television on minor-league attendance continued to fester. Despite a strong plea from the National Association, the major-league owners brushed the issue off without giving it any thought, and the problem would fester for more than a decade until it became necessary for the majors and minors to completely revamp their relationship.

 

Sources

 

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

 

Associated Press. “Major-Minor Committee Approves Dropping of Baseball Bonus Rule,” New York Times, November 1, 1950: 45.

——. “Ottawa Bids for Jersey City Franchise,” Washington Post, December 5, 1950: 19-20.

Daley, Arthur. “Sports of the Times: The Word Is Arrogate,” New York Times, June 11, 1965: 22.

Drebinger, John.  “Broadcast ‘Evils’ Worrying Minors,” New York Times, December 4, 1950: 44.

——. “Nation’s Baseball Officials Gather for Annual Meetings in Florida,” New York Times, December 3, 1950: S6.

Johnson, Lloyd, and Miles Wolff, editors. The Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball (Durham, North Carolina: Baseball America, 1997).

Povich, Shirley.  “Chisox Get Al Zarilla, Dobson and Littlefield,” Washington Post, December 11, 1950: 11.

Nemec, David, and Saul Wisnia. 100 Years of Baseball (Lincolnwood, Illinois: Publications International, 2002).

Smith, Ken.  “Major Leagues to Continue Radio, Television Broadcasts,” Atlanta Daily World, December 8, 1950: 6.

“Clubs Doubt They Can Put Chandler Out,” Washington Post, December 13, 1950: B3.

Notes

1 John Drebinger of the New York Times wrote, “…with all the uncertainty hanging in the air over the foreign situation, the major league clubs have suddenly become fearful lest any move they make will prove to be the wrong one. No one will let go of an old player because no one is certain that by next summer that old hand may not be one of the key members of the club. No one wants to risk trading for a youngster because by tomorrow he may be on his way to a military training base.” See “Uncertain World Conditions Halt Baseball Trades,” New York Times, December 7, 1950: 59.

2 Ibid.

3 John Drebinger, “Chandler Hopes Rise as Several Clubs Waver in Fight to Oust Him,” New York Times, December 14, 1950: 54.

4 “Tebbetts Reveals Sox Dissension; Blasts ‘Juvenile, Moronic’ Pitchers,” Boston Globe, October 3, 1950: 7.

5 John Drebinger, “Majors Fail to Buy Contract of Chief,” New York Times, December 13, 1950: 61.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid.

10 Irving Vaughan, “Majors Vote to Name New Commissioner,” Chicago Tribune, December 13, 1950: E1.

11 United Press, “Majors Appoint Committee to Find Successor to Chandler,” New York Times, December 15, 1950: 46.

12 Pettit was a high-school pitching sensation in California. In 1949, still only 17, he was approached by an enterprising movie producer named Frederick Stephani, who wanted to film the life story of an athlete but couldn’t afford to sign an established star. Convinced that Pettit eventually would make it big, Stephani signed him to a 10-year personal-services contract for $85,000, then three months later sold that contract to the Pittsburgh Pirates for $100,000. The Cardinals and other teams cried foul, but Chandler’s investigation concluded that there had been no wrongdoing. The movie was never made, and Pettit eventually would win just one game in the majors.

13 Associated Press, “Happy Refuses to Quit Post,” Los Angeles Times, December 13, 1950: C1-2.

14 John Drebinger, “Chandler Out as Baseball Head in ’52 as New Contract Is Denied,” New York Times, December 12, 1950: 1, 48.

15 Lyall Smith, “Onus on the Bonus.” Baseball Digest, June 1950. books.google.com/books?id=FS4DAAAAMBAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false. Accessed June 11, 2011.

16 “Majors Vote to Name New Commissioner.”

17 John Drebinger, “Minor Leagues Vote to End Bonus Rule and Ease High School Recruiting Ban,” New York Times, December 8, 1950: 43.

18 Ibid.

19 Ibid.

20 Steven A. Reiss, Encyclopedia of Major League Baseball Clubs (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2006), xxi.

21 See Associated Press, “A.L. Permits 2 Extra Days For Playoffs,” Washington Post, December 12, 1950: 17-18, and “Minor Leagues Vote to End Bonus Rule and Ease High School Recruiting Ban.”

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