This article was written by Dale Voiss
This article was published in Baseball’s Business: The Winter Meetings: 1901-1957
The 1955 major-league baseball season went pretty much as predicted, except for the climactic event. The New York Yankees won their sixth American League pennant in seven years, but this time they lost the World Series to their crosstown rivals, the Dodgers, who won their only World Series while based in Brooklyn. A pair of catchers, the Dodgers’ Roy Campanella and the Yankees’ Yogi Berra, captured their leagues’ MVP awards.
While the season had been an enjoyable one, there was concern among those who held the future of the game in their hands as the annual Winter Meetings loomed at the end of November. The number one reason? Television. TV was having a growing impact on American culture as a whole, and baseball was no exception. Not surprisingly, TV was also playing a role in the rancor developing between the major leagues and the minor leagues. Baseball Commissioner Ford Frick said before the meetings opened that “the problems of baseball can be summarized under the heading of ‘Television and Radio.’”1
There was a growing concern among baseball people that television was serving as a distraction to fans, many of whom would rather sit at home and watch television rather than attend games. This problem was made no easier by the continued apprehension among minor-league owners that radio and TV broadcasts of major-league games into their home areas were hurting minor-league attendance, which had declined. (Minor-league attendance had dropped 45 percent since the end of World War II.2)
There was a lingering animosity between the majors and minors over the broadcasts. In November of 1954 the Portsmouth (Virginia) club in the Class-B Piedmont League had sued the majors for a quarter of a million dollars, claiming that games being broadcast into Portsmouth were hurting the team financially.3
As a result, much of the talk at both the minor- and major-league Winter Meetings centered on broadcasting. Things became more contentious when Cincinnati Reds president Gabe Paul referred to minor-league owners as “plain lazy,” and blamed falling minor-league attendance on indolence, rather than the broadcast troubles. Some of the minor-league magnates were “just plain lazy,” Paul said. He was rebuked by Harold Cooper, general manager of the International League’s Columbus (Ohio) club. Cooper claimed that Paul was “the worst offender” on the broadcast issue because Reds games were being broadcast into Columbus.4 This acrimony continued into the next year and resulted in Paul and Cooper becoming involved in a fistfight at the 1956 meetings.
The four-day minor-league meetings opened at the Deshler-Hilton Hotel in Columbus on November 28, the city which was also the home of minor-league headquarters. Just as the minor-league meetings were opening, Brooklyn Dodgers president Walter O’Malley proposed that the revenue from a proposed televised “game of the week” be split equally between major- and minor-league teams. O’Malley said the arrangement would result in a $1.5 million windfall for the minor leagues and a like amount for the major-league clubs.5 Minor-league teams were delighted to hear O’Malley’s proposal but did not add the item to the meeting’s agenda.
Despite O’Malley’s efforts, the minors’ concerns remained. On November 30 George Trautman, the president of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, the minor-league organization, told the delegates that “baseball men everywhere needed to begin to look at what was best for the game instead of what was best for their individual self-interest.”6 He also warned the majors that the minors would “shortly be unable to furnish the recruits for major league play” if changes weren’t made.7 There later was an announcement that the minors would insist on a fair deal when they went to renew the major/minor-league agreement, which was set to expire in January 1957. Ultimately the majors rejected the minor leagues’ proposal to limit broadcasts to a team’s “home territory.”8
On December 1, as their meetings were closing, the minor-league owners agreed in executive session to keep the current bonus rule in effect. The rule stated that a player signed for more than $4,000 must be kept on the club’s roster for two years. There had been a proposal to allow these players to be sent down to the minors but make them eligible for the annual player draft after one or two seasons.
In another sign of the animosity the minors felt toward the big leagues, they voted to cut the time a returning serviceman could be kept on the roster before being counted against the player limit. The limit had been one year but the minors voted to cut it to 30 days, an action that needed concurrence from the major leagues.
Also discussed at the minor-league meetings was what to do about the Miami situation. Miami had developed into a very lucrative market and two Triple-A leagues, the International and the American Association, desired to locate a franchise there.
A leading player in this discussion was the Milwaukee Braves, who wanted to relocate their Triple-A Toledo franchise to Miami. But the Phillies won the Miami sweepstakes; they were given permission to move their Triple-A team from Syracuse, New York, to Miami, where they became known as the Marlins. (This solution, however, proved to be short-lived. After the 1960 season, the Phillies moved their affiliate back to upstate New York, this time to Buffalo.)
There was also a suggestion by International League President Frank Shaughnessy that the league begin to schedule games with teams from the American Association. Shaughnessy said baseball should try new things to entice fans to come to games.
Commissioner Frick had suggested to the US Department of Justice that baseball be allowed to draw up its own broadcasting rules. On November 25 the Justice Department declined to endorse the proposal, saying that localities could not be deprived of the radio and television broadcasts.9
A nationwide survey of 20,000 people taken on behalf of major-league baseball showed that fans wanted a game that was played at a faster pace. They also wanted to have better parking at the ballpark and lower concession prices, and indicated a growing interest in the game. Nevertheless, baseball felt it was losing its share of the entertainment dollar because although the game was growing in popularity it wasn’t seeing increased revenue from that growth. Frick, believing that the fans’ complaints needed to be addressed, encouraged a discussion on how to improve overall baseball revenue. It was becoming harder to draw fans now that so many of them had television in their homes.10
The major-league meetings began December 5 at the Palmer House in Chicago with the American and National Leagues meeting in separate sessions for two days before going into joint session.
The American League immediately addressed the problem of slow games. The average game in 1955 was 2 hours and 31 minutes, the longest in the game’s history. AL President Will Harridge asked the owners to come up with some ideas to speed up games.11
Two significant on-field rules were passed at the meetings. In an effort to address concerns over the speed of the game, the American League announced that it had adopted a rule allowing only one visit to the mound by a manager, coach, or other nonplayer while the same pitcher was pitching. A second such trip would result in the removal of the pitcher. (Visits by catchers or other players would not be affected.)12
The NL did not adopt the rule, but did pass one that required all hitters to wear batting helmets.13
As the meetings were closing, the major-league magnates said they were willing to work with minor-league leaders in striking a new major/minor-league agreement, but they rejected two proposed amendments from the minors. They voted down the idea that the majors ban broadcasts into the home area of minor-league teams. (The Justice Department had already warned baseball that this would be illegal.) Also, they declined to ratify the minors’ proposal to lower from one year to 30 days a returning serviceman’s exemption from counting on the player limit.14
In the player acquisition side of the meetings, on November 29 the Rule 5 player draft was held in Columbus. It was just the third time both the major-league and minor-league player drafts were held on the same day. Ten players, eight of them pitchers, were taken by major-league clubs. The most significant draftee was former New York Giants star outfielder-first baseman (and future Hall of Famer) Monte Irvin, whom the Chicago Cubs selected from the Giants’ Minneapolis farm team.
On the 30th the Detroit Tigers acquired right-handed pitcher Virgil Trucks from the White Sox for reserve outfielder John Phillips. The 38-year-old Trucks had spent his first 12 seasons with Detroit before being dealt to the St Louis Browns in a six-player trade in December of 1952. Six months later he was swapped again, to the White Sox.
In other player news, right-handed pitcher Hal Jeffcoat announced he would retire from baseball after being traded by the Cubs to the Reds. Jeffcoat, who had spent the first eight years of his career with the Cubs, later changed his mind and reported to the Reds, where he pitched through the 1959 season.
The Cubs traded third baseman Randy Jackson and right-hander Don Elston to Brooklyn for three players. One of the three, outfielder Moose Moryn, became an All-Star in Chicago, reaching double digits in home runs for four straight years. Third baseman Don Hoak went on to have excellent seasons in Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, while controversial right-hander Russ Meyer proved to be almost at the end of the line.
In a sad note, while the major-league meetings were being held, the announcement came that the great Honus Wagner had passed. Wagner died in Pennsylvania at the age of 81. Many words were spent talking about the life of the Hall of Fame shortstop.
The 1955 Winter Meetings were essentially about the broadcasting problem. With television making deeper inroads into American life, baseball needed to find a way to make it work to the financial benefit of all parties.
1 Dan Daniel, “Frick Suggests Policy Shaping Role for Office,” The Sporting News, November 23, 1955.
2 Edward Prell, “Majors Seek New Radio-TV Plan,” Chicago Tribune, December 6, 1955: C3.
3 Clifford Kachline, “Dallas Still Pushes Burnett’s Buttons on Majors Domination,” The Sporting News, November 30, 1955.
4 Earl Lawson, “Clubs Depend Too Much on Majors’ Help,” The Sporting News, November 30, 1955.
5 “O’Malley Has Plan for Minors,” Washington Post and Times Herald, November 30, 1955.
6 “Majors Warned That Minors May Be Unable to Supply Talent,” Hartford Courant, December 1, 1955: 23.
8 Irving Vaughn, Majors Veto Suggestions by Players,” Chicago Tribune, December 7, 1955: C1.
9 John Drebinger, “Baseball Plan to Get Government Ruling on Radio, TV Curbs Hits Snag,” New York Times, December 6, 1955: 48.
10 United Press, “Frick Wants Fans’ Peeves Considered in Order to Get Entertainment $ Share,” Hartford Courant, December 6, 1955: 15.
12 Harold Kaese, “Fenway Games Slowest in League, but Rival Managers to Blame,” Boston Globe, December 7, 1955: 26.