1951 Winter Meetings: Open Classification

This article was written by Steven Bryant

This article was published in the


Introduction

At the 1951 Winter Meetings, the major topic of discussion was the future of the minor leagues. Attendance in the minors was down 20 percent in the 1951 season, a total loss of more than 7 million. In another important matter, for the first time in baseball history, rules that set forth the requirements for a minor league to obtain major status were to be presented.

This was Ford C. Frick’s first Winter Meeting as commissioner. Frick, who succeeded Albert C. “Happy” Chandler after Chandler’s contract was not renewed, would later be criticized for inaction in his career as commissioner,1 and the first example of his not casting the deciding vote when teams deadlocked on legislation or a policy issue appeared at these sessions.

Open Classification and Requirements for Major Status

The Triple-A Pacific Coast League had been campaigning for years to achieve major-league status, and at a league meeting in August 1951 they announced they would withdraw from the National Association if they continued to be subjected to the major-league draft. With Congress already investigating baseball’s antitrust exemption, including a focus on the situation with the PCL, the majors had little choice but to do something to placate the league and the lawmakers.

The minor-league meetings were held December 3 through 7 at the Deshler-Wallick Hotel in Columbus, Ohio. In anticipation, the requirements to be met by any league seeking classification as a major were announced on November 27. Additionally, a new classification between Triple-A and the majors, Open Classification, was created. The new classification would be “designated to facilitate the development of a circuit to the point it would be ready for Major ranking,” Frick said.2 Players on an Open Classification team would be excluded from the draft if they waived their selection rights or had less than five years of service. The draft price for an Open Classificiation player would be $15,000 instead of the $10,000 price tag on Triple-A players.3 To achieve Open Classification, a league had to show an aggregate population of 10 million, have an aggregate park capacity of 120,000, and average a paid attendance of 2,250,000 for the preceding five years.4

For a league to reach major-league status, Commissioner Frick announced, there were 11 steps:

  1. Any group of eight clubs mutually agreeing to all requirements and responsibilities as provided under the proposed regulations must apply to the major-league Executive Council. The eight clubs are responsible for all necessary territorial indemnities and financial obligations.
  2. The clubs must present with their application complete data establishing their ability to meet the requirements for advanced status, including a full statement of stock ownership, financial ability, and character, both for the group and its individual members.
  3. The proposed league shall show an aggregate population of 15 million in the eight cities.
  4. Each club shall have a potential capacity of at least 25,000 in its ballpark.
  5. They shall have had an average total paid attendance of 3.5 million over a three-year period preceding the application.
  6. They shall provide a balanced schedule of at least 154 games.
  7. They shall adopt the major-league minimum-salary agreement with no maximum salary limitations.
  8. They will become parties to the Major League Agreement and the Major-Minor League Agreement.
  9. They will accept the uniform major-league player’s contract and agreement.
  10. They will join in the players’ pension plan or adopt a comparable plan.
  11. They shall apply for major-league status at least six months before the meeting at which the application must be considered, and at least 10 months before the opening of the season in which they hope to participate under major-league status.5

Since the Open Classification creation was seen as being aimed at the Pacific Coast League – the only league that would truly meet the stated qualifications – a fight was anticipated at the Columbus gathering. To the surprise of many, it did not happen, and the proposal was passed unanimously.6 International League President Frank Shaughnessy did try to have the proposal amended to give his league and the American Association parity in the draft with the Pacific Coast League, but it was rejected. The minor leagues were not given the opportunity to vote on the regulations to reach major-league status.

When the major-league teams met at the Commodore Hotel in New York City December 8-10, they approved the creation of the Open Classification, and also approved Frick’s regulations for a minor league to reach major-league status.7

Television/Radio

Attendance in the minor leagues was down for the second straight year. Fifty-nine leagues drew 41,982,335 fans in 1949, and in 1950 attendance fell to 34,735,967 in 58 leagues. In 1951 there were just 50 leagues with a total attendance of 27,625,527, a drop of some 20 percent from 1950 and 34 percent from 1949’s high-water mark.8 Only the Gulf Coast, Provincial, Kitty, and Southwest International Leagues9 saw an increase in fans over the previous year. With such a sharp drop in attendance, the minors were blaming radio and television broadcasts by the majors in their markets.

In a speech at the National Association meeting, President George Trautman accused the majors of having a selfish attitude on allowing broadcasts in minor-league markets.

Trautman’s remarks did not fall on deaf ears; Branch Rickey, on behalf of the Pittsburgh Pirates, pledged that the Pirates would not adopt any broadcasting policy that interfered with the minors.

The president of the Western League, US Senator Edwin C. Johnson of Colorado, presented a resolution that would require major-league clubs to place half of their receipts from airing games in minor-league territories into a fund from which clubs suffering from these broadcasts would be reimbursed. The resolution was unanimously adopted by the minors.10

At the majors’ meetings in New York, Yankees general manager George Weiss said, “I am convinced something must be done to relieve the radio situation for the minor leagues,” and announced that the club would not enter into a contract with either the Mutual or Liberty network’s “Game of the Day.”11

Senator Johnson’s proposal for the minors to get a cut of games broadcast into their territories was acknowledged, but drew no further action.

Roster Limits and 24-Hour Recall

The two most contentious issues facing the majors were a proposal for a 24-hour recall rule and a proposed reduction of rosters from 25 players to 23.

The proposal for roster reduction, sponsored by the Boston Braves and the two Philadelphia clubs, would cut roster size from 25 to 23 from mid-May until September 1. The number of players a club could have on option to the minors  would be increased from 15 to 17.

Branch Rickey sponsored a proposal to eliminate the 24-hour recall of optioned players from the minors, and bar their recall altogether before the close of the minor-league season. The practice of recalling players from minor-league teams with just a 24-hour notice was long hated by minor-league teams, with National Association President Trautman calling it “an insidious practice.”12

E.J. “Buzzie” Bavasi, vice president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, spoke out against both proposals, warning that major-league baseball might be seriously harmed if they passed. “If both went through, we would be in tough shape,” he declared. “No club could afford one injury of any consequence and be able to present the quality of baseball which is now so pleasing to the fans.”13 With a 23-player limit he felt, each club would most likely give up one pitcher and one fielder, meaning one less relief pitcher and one less pinch-hitter for each game. The Cubs were also soundly against the proposals, feeling that they would hamper the club’s rebuilding program.14

While the proposal to eliminate the 24-hour recall got a “sound beating,” the proposal to reduce roster sizes was deadlocked at 8 to 8, with Commissioner Frick’s “no” vote breaking the tie. Frick instituted a policy of refusing to cast a vote that would make any changes when the teams were deadlocked, opting instead for the status quo. While it had been expected that as the former president of the National League, he would vote in favor of the roster reduction (since  a majority of National League clubs favored it), he said, “I am not going to cast my tiebreaking vote for new legislation. That, in my opinion, would not be right.”15

High-School Rule

Both the minors and majors approved a new rule regarding the signing of high-school players. During 1952, clubs would be allowed to contact high-school players at any time, but could not sign them until their high-school eligibility expired. Students who dropped out of high school before their eligibility expired must sit out one year before they could be signed.

Effective in 1953, players would be allowed to be signed at any time, but could not play in Organized Baseball until their original class graduated. A student who left school early could be granted permission to play at any time.

Players’ Liaison

For the first time, major-league players won the right to have a liaison person in the commissioner’s office. The liaison would be a full-time representative and serve as a clearinghouse for any player problems that might arise. The plan was for a former player or a man who has held an administrative position in baseball to be elected at the 1952 All-Star Game.16

Player Transactions

The biggest trade rumor going into the 1951 Winter Meetings was Ted Williams going to the Yankees. While the Red Sox front office and manager Lou Boudreau denied any plans to trade Williams, The Sporting News reported that trade would involve Joe DiMaggio (who was mulling retirement and would ultimately make that pronouncement on December 11, the day after the Winter Meetings ended), infielder Jerry Coleman, catcher Charlie Silvera, and one other Yankee to be determined.17 The Sporting News also reported that the Red Sox had received permission from the Yankees to talk with DiMaggio, who told them he was enthusiastic about playing in Fenway Park in the coming season.18 Adding fuel to the trade rumors, the Red Sox made a trade on November 28, acquiring outfielder Ken Wood and catcher Gus Niarhos from the St. Louis Browns in exchange for catcher Les Moss and outfielder Tom Wright.

When Yankees GM George Weiss was asked during the meetings in Columbus about the possibility of a Williams-DiMaggio trade, he said, “This much I would like to make clear on the Williams situation. Up to this moment I haven’t so much as discussed the matter with Joe Cronin or anyone else connected with the Boston club. What is more, I won’t if DiMaggio notifies us that he will be back next spring. For in that case we would have no interest in Williams whatsoever. However, should Joe decide to quit, well, I guess you could say we would be interested.”19

On December 8 Red Sox manager Boudreau called a press conference. While Boston reporters prepared themselves for the news of Williams being traded, Boudreau instead stunned them by stating, “I’m taking Williams off the trading mart. Ted will be my regular left fielder next season. I’m informing all other American League clubs we’ll consider no offer, no matter how attractive, for Ted.”20

In the end, the meetings produced only two deals, both coming on the last day, December 10. The Philadelphia Phillies received right-hander Howie Fox, infielder Connie Ryan, and catcher Smoky Burgess from the Cincinnati Reds for catcher Andy Seminick, first baseman Dick Sisler, infielder Eddie Pellagrini, and left-handed pitcher Niles Jordan. A few hours later the New York Giants sent infielder Eddie Stanky to the St. Louis Cardinals for infielder-outfielder Chuck Diering and left-handed pitcher Max Lanier.

Other Business

The National Association drew a crowd of  1,200 to its annual banquet, on December 6, the largest attendance in the history of the meetings.21 Minor-league baseball awarded the King of Baseball title for the first time, presenting it to Pacific Coast League President Clarence “Pants” Rowland. The honor, for dedication and service to baseball, has been awarded annually ever since.

This was the 50th National Association convention, and favors to celebrate the golden anniversary included a plate that depicted baseball scenes from 50 years before on the outer edge, with the poem “Casey at the Bat” in the center.22

At the major-league meetings, the Philadelphia Phillies were awarded the 1952 All-Star Game. This would be the first time the Phillies would host the midsummer extravaganza, though not the first time the game was held at Shibe Park, as the A’s had hosted in 1943. The Phillies had been scheduled to host the 1951 game but bowed out in favor of Detroit, which was celebrating the 250th anniversary of its founding. Though the American League voted to assign the 1953 All-Star Game to Cleveland, Cincinnati would end up hosting in 1953, and Cleveland in 1954.

The major-league clubs considered the possibility of calling for annual eye tests for umpires, and allowing umpires to work while wearing glasses.23

Notes

1 Robert H. Boyle, “Perfect Man For the Job,” Sports Illustrated, April 9, 1962.

2 Dan Daniel, “‘Tough’ Requirements for Major Status Listed,” The Sporting News, December 5, 1951.

3 Edgar G. Brands, “Many Hot Subjects Among Proposals Put Before Minors,” The Sporting News, December 5, 1951.

4 “Wide Gap Between Open Class and Rating as Major,” The Sporting News, December 5, 1951.

5 Ibid.

6 Edgar G. Brands, “Minors Pull Watch on 24-Hour Recall Rule,” The Sporting News, December 12, 1951.

7 “Way Cleared for Coast,” The Sporting News, December 19, 1951.

8 Clifford Kachline, “Minors’ Gate Tobogganed 20 Per Cent in ’51,” The Sporting News, December 5, 1951.

9 The Southwest International League’s attendance was higher in 1951 than that of the previous year’s Arizona-Texas and Sunset Leagues, from which the league was formed.

10 “Minors Pull Watch on 24-Hour Recall Rule.”

11 Dan Daniel, “Yankees Nix ‘Game Of Day’ For Sticks,” The Sporting News, December 12, 1951.

12 Edgar G. Brands, “Trautman Hoists Storm Signals, Cites Violation of Salary Limits,” The Sporting News, December 12, 1951.

13 Joe King, “Cutting Roster to 23 Would End Clutch Pitching, Hitting – Bavasi,” The Sporting News, December 5, 1951.

14 Edgar Munzel, “Bruins, Rebuilding on Youth, to Oppose Cut in Player Limit,” The Sporting News, December 5, 1951.

15 Dan Daniel, “Frick Demands Majority for New Laws,” The Sporting News, December 19, 1951.

16 Tommy Devine, “Players Gain Right to Liaison Man Attached to Commissioner’s Office,” The Sporting News, December 19, 1951.

17 Bob Ajemian, “Lou, Eager to Trade Ted, Seeks Jolter in Exchange,” The Sporting News, December 5, 1951.

18 Ibid.

19 John Drebinger, “Yanks Interested in Getting Williams From Red Sox if DiMaggio Retires,” New York Times, December 5, 1951.

20 Bob Ajemian, “No Poaching! Splinter Off Trade Limits,” The Sporting News, December 19, 1951.

21 Edgar Brands, “25-Year Men Are Honored at Convention Banquet,” The Sporting News, December 12, 1951.

22 “Gold Convention Favors,” The Sporting News, December 5, 1951.

23 Dan Daniel, “Big Leagues Echo Economy Keynote of Minors’ Confab,” The Sporting News, December 12, 1951.

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