This article was written by David Jordan
This article was published in The National Pastime: From Swampoodle to South Philly (Philadelphia, 2013)
The Philadelphia Athletics, just a few years off three consecutive AL pennants, took a nosedive at the gate in 1933 and needed cash fast. At the winter meetings in December, the A’s traded away five of their most valuable players “in a series of spectacular deals” for nearly a quarter-million dollars: Lefty Grove, Mickey Cochrane, George Earnshaw, Rube Walberg and Max Bishop. “Black Tuesday” altered the franchise’s fortunes for the rest of its years in Philadelphia.
December 1933 in Philadelphia was a time of anxiety and anticipation. In the city, as in the rest of the country, there was a sense of hope as the measures of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal started to have an effect on the worst of the Great Depression. Money became a bit more available, jobs opened up a little, and the people of the city and its surroundings allowed themselves to hope that the economy was improving.
Philadelphia’s baseball fans hoped to see fortunes improve, too. But they were aware that their Phillies were not improving—the club had just traded away its big star, Chuck Klein—and their Athletics seemed to be declining from their championship stature of a couple of seasons back. The fans followed the news to see what else was going on around town.
On the fifth of the month, at exactly 5:32 p.m. Eastern Time, Prohibition had come to an end, as Utah officially ratified the 21st Amendment to the Constitution. Of course, the headline in the December 6 Philadelphia Inquirer read “PRICES HIGH, SUPPLY LOW IN PHILA.” There was an inevitable hassle, as the newly created State Liquor Control Board granted only 10 of the 231 new liquor stores in the state to Philadelphia. The squawks to Harrisburg were loud enough that the next day the state’s largest city was awarded nine more stores.[fn]Philadelphia Inquirer, Dec. 6, 7, 8, 1933.[/fn]
On December 10, 53-year-old Bill Roper, an Independent Republican city councilman and the legendary former football coach at Princeton, died of a blood infection at his home. Roper had been instrumental in passage of the recent legislation legalizing Sunday sports in Pennsylvania, which the city’s voters had approved in a referendum a month earlier.
The movie theatres in town were featuring shows like “One Sunday Afternoon,” with Gary Cooper and Fay Wray at the Rialto in Germantown; Constance Bennett in “After Tonight” at the Earle; and the Marx Brothers in “Duck Soup” at the Stanley. The comic strips in the local newspapers included “Winnie Winkle,” “Bringing Up Father,” “Mutt and Jeff,” “Tillie the Toiler,” “Blondie,” and “Moon Mullins.” So there were things available for folks to take their minds off the state of the economy.
Another major outlet for Philadelphians was baseball. Through the early 1920s, both of the city’s ballclubs, the Phillies and Connie Mack’s Athletics, were pretty bad. In the middle of the decade, Mack rebuilt his team so successfully that the 1929 A’s, winners of the World Series over the Chicago Cubs, are often considered the best baseball team of all time. In 1930, the A’s repeated their World Series triumph, and in 1931, after winning their third straight pennant, they came very close to a third Series win in a row, losing to St. Louis, four games to three.
In 1932, the team won 94 games, but finished second in the AL behind a rejuvenated New York Yankee squad. Slugging star Jimmie Foxx belted 58 home runs and was voted the American League’s Most Valuable Player. With attendance dropping, though, due as much to the Depression as anything, Mack saw the red ink piling up on his ledgers, and traded off some star players—Al Simmons, Mule Haas, and Jimmy Dykes—for cash.
The A’s of 1933 dropped off a bit more, finishing third, with attendance down some more, though Foxx did win the Triple Crown, leading the AL in batting average, home runs, and runs batted in, on the way to a second MVP Award. The club still had the best pitcher around, Robert “Lefty” Grove, who won 24 in 1933, the best catcher in the game in Mickey Cochrane, and some good-looking additions in Mike Higgins, Bob Johnson, and Doc Cramer. With the coming of Sunday baseball, A’s fans looked ahead to more successful seasons.
1933 even brought some good feelings to Phillies fans. Though the club finished a distant seventh in the National League, it too featured a Triple Crown winner in outfielder Chuck Klein, who not only led the circuit in batting average, homers, and RBIs, but also in hits, slugging percentage, and total bases. Klein had been the league MVP in 1932, but somehow his Triple Crown honors could not win him a repeat in ’33, with the Giants’ Carl Hubbell winning that prize.
While Philadelphians were going about their usual business—a police raid on the headquarters of a West Philadelphia bookmaking ring, the annual Temple University music department concert, and the election of officers of the Union League—the leaders of baseball were gathering in Chicago for the annual meetings.
One leader not there was Thomas S. Shibe, president of the Athletics and a director of the American League. Shibe, as James Isaminger of the Inquirer reported it, was in St. Agnes Hospital for an operation on a head infection. While the procedure was not considered serious, Shibe did not go to the league meeting.[fn]Philadelphia Inquirer, Dec. 10, 1933.[/fn]
There was much talk in Chicago about the Philadelphia clubs and their money problems. The A’s attendance in 1933 was 297,138, down from a high of 839,176 in 1929, and the club was still paying some high salaries. The Phillies’ gate in 1933 was only 156,421, but they were more used to such low numbers. And on November 21, the Phillies, as mentioned, had shipped Klein off to the Cubs for three inconsequential players and cash.
Early on December 12, Cy Peterman of the Evening Bulletin described what was going on in Chicago: “The tall and angular figure of Connie Mack, nearing his 71st birthday as he approaches this annual meeting of leaders in the game to which he has devoted most of his life, took on colossal proportions as he reached Chicago today. Arriving in Chicago at 8:20 Manager Mack delayed the suspense further when he said he would have nothing to announce until 6 o’clock this evening, which would be 7 o’clock in Philadelphia. He gave no further hint of what his announcement would be.”[fn]Evening Bulletin, Dec. 13, 1933.[/fn]
There were plenty of rumors floating around the Palmer House as Mack arrived. Everyone in the American League was familiar with the A’s money problems, and it was assumed that Mack, “the Tall Tactician,” would have to do something. There had been reports of Cochrane going to Detroit to become the Tigers’ new manager, but whether that would come to pass or not would have to await Mack’s announcement. There was talk, too, of George Earnshaw and Rube Walberg, pitching stalwarts for some years, being on the market, and even the possibility of Grove being sold, but that looked unlikely.
Isaminger wrote sourly that “to lose Grove, Walberg and Earnshaw at one meeting would cost the Athletics nearly all of their seasoned pitching material and Mack would have to start the 1934 playing season with a more or less green staff.”[fn]Philadelphia Inquirer, Dec. 12, 1933.[/fn]
Late in the day, Connie Mack told a group of Philadelphia scribes what had happened. “We sold Grove and Walberg and Bishop to the Boston Red Sox,” he said, “and they give us Kline and Warstler.” He went on, “We sold Cochrane to Detroit and got Pasek in return. We sent Earnshaw to Chicago, with Pasek, and get catcher Berry from them. That’s all.”
“But what about the cash?” he was asked.
“That’s all I have to say,” he repeated, his face tightening as he turned away.
The reporters checked with the other teams involved, checked with each other, assessed what Mack had told them, and were finally able to put it all together for the next day’s papers.
“In a series of spectacular deals,” reported the Inquirer the next day, “the Athletics tonight officially announced transfers of five of their most valuable players that brings to them virtually a quarter of a million dollars and at the same time weakens the team in three departments.”
Three players—Lefty Grove, Rube Walberg, and veteran second baseman Max Bishop—were sent to the Boston Red Sox for cash, right-handed pitcher Bob Kline, and infielder Harold “Rabbit” Warstler. Warstler had batted .211 and .217 the prior two seasons, and Kline was 7–8 with a 4.54 ERA in 1933, so clearly the deal was made for the cash.
Cochrane went to the Tigers, who promptly signed him to a two-year contract to manage and catch. In return, the A’s received $100,000 and a catcher named Johnny Pasek, who had caught in only 28 games for Detroit and was quickly included in the next deal. And that was George Earnshaw and Pasek to the White Sox for $15,000 and catcher Charlie Berry.
A Philadelphia baseball writer watched what he called “Connie Mack’s bitterest hour.” He entered the room where the reporters waited, invited by Eddie Collins, once Mack’s star infielder, now the general manager of the Red Sox. Mack was “pale, so pale and gray and old, that even for old Connie he looked frail and wasted.” He had “just announced the greatest disposal of stars that baseball ever saw. More than a quarter million dollars worth of baseball aces whose deeds will ring through the years, once his, all now no longer his. His voice shook and his hand trembled so that the papers within it quivered, rustling slightly.” The writer summed it up: “Connie had no further words.… In a hurried half-whispered sentence he said he had sold out.” Then the old man walked away.[fn]Cy Peterman, Evening Bulletin, Dec. 13, 1933.[/fn]
The banner headline across the December 13 Inquirer, “COCHRANE, GROVE SOLD IN $250,000 DEAL,” greeted Philadelphia’s baseball fans, as they and the writers who covered the team tried to assess what it was all going to mean. Mack declined to make any more comments on the deals and said he would have nothing to say until he returned to Philadelphia.
The first thing, of course, was that Mack and the Shibes were going to pay off that $225,000 bank indebtedness. That was the best part of things for the Athletics. The rest of it looked pretty bad. The club still had Foxx and Johnson and Higgins, but it had little pitching remaining. As one writer put it, “Grove gone. Cochrane gone. Walberg, Bishop, Earnshaw gone. Simmons gone. Haas and Dykes. Since 1925 those names were as much of Mack and his plans as the scorecard upon which he wrote them.”[fn]Ibid.[/fn]
Lefty Grove, contacted by phone after the trade was announced, said, “Well, that’s great and I’m sure tickled to hear it.” He continued, “I expect I’ll have many more years of pitching without losing any stuff.” George Earnshaw said, “I am now content … I don’t like the idea of leaving the Athletics, but you must go where they send you in baseball.” Max Bishop commented, “It’s all in the game and if Connie sold me to Boston well and good.”[fn]Ibid.[/fn]
Mickey Cochrane, after he had signed his contract with Detroit, even approached Mack to see if he could secure a trade for Mike Higgins, but the A’s owner quickly refused: “I would break up my team,” he said, somewhat ironically, “if I let Higgins, the best third baseman in baseball, go.”[fn]Philadelphia Inquirer, December 13, 1933.[/fn]
The fans in Philadelphia were stunned by the trades. They had heard some of the rumors that something was coming, but they hardly imagined the wholesale liquidation of star players that happened. Their team had quickly gone from a first-division contender to a sure also-ran. “Scattered to the four winds, the once proud Athletics,” wrote Cy Peterman. “That is the tragic finish of the last great baseball machine molded by Cornelius McGillicuddy.”[fn]Evening Bulletin, Dec. 13, 1933.[/fn]
In an editorial, the Inquirer stated that “the announcement that he (Mack) has made a series of spectacular deals by which he gives up five of his stars in return for about a quarter of a million dollars and several players will cause moaning and groaning from thousands of the patrons of the game in Philadelphia.”[fn]Philadelphia Inquirer, Dec. 14, 1933.[/fn]
The moaning and groaning was loud and persistent, and with good reason. For the followers of the Philadelphia Athletics, 1934 developed as they feared it would. Attendance actually increased by about 8,000, but this increase was generally attributed to Sunday baseball. The team fell into the second division, finishing in a distant fifth place with a record of 68–82. Foxx hit .334 with 44 home runs, and Higgins, Cramer, and Bob Johnson all hit well over .300. It was the pitching staff that did them in: No one won more than 14 games and none had an earned run average below 4.41. Grove, Earnshaw, and Walberg were gone, replaced by the likes of John Marcum, Joe Cascarella, Bill Dietrich, and Sugar Cain.
In 1935, the A’s collapsed into the AL cellar, with a record of 58–91, five and a half games behind the seventhplace Browns. Jimmie Foxx led the league with 36 home runs and hit .346, but the pitching was once again poor.
Last place became a bad habit for Connie Mack’s Athletics. In the next eight years, the Mackmen finished last six times, and seventh the other two seasons. Mack managed for 17 more years, and finished 10 of them in last place. The club remained in the city through 1954, but did not win an American League pennant after 1933. This tumble into the nether regions of the American League had commenced on “Black Tuesday,” December 12, 1933.
DAVID JORDAN, for twelve years president/chairman of the Philadelphia Athletics Historical Society, is a retired lawyer who has published books on the Philadelphia A’s, Phillies, Hal Newhouser, Pete Rose, and classic ballparks.