1924 Winter Meetings: Big Drama in the Big Apple

This article was written by Aimee Gonzalez

This article was published in the


Introduction and Context

As the American and National Leagues prepared for the 1924 winter meetings in New York City, drama laced the usual business agenda of trades, rulings, and discussion of regulations. The NL had faced trouble internally since the end of September, when its president, John Heydler, disclosed, first to Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis and then to the NL club owners, that outfielder-first baseman Jimmy O’Connell of the New York Giants had attempted to bribe infielder Heinie Sand of the Philadelphia Phillies to throw games in the Phillies’ last series of the season, against Brooklyn. This became known as the O’Connell-Dolan scandal (Albert “Cozy” Dolan was a Giants coach who was accused of urging O’Connell to offer the bribe[1]), partly for what purportedly happened and partly because some NL club owners wanted to keep it quiet.

The way this problem was handled caused rifts in the league and hindered business as usual. American League President Ban Johnson had accused the Pacific Coast League of having a gambling problem, and threatened to bring evidence to the AL board of directors. That alone antagonized William Wrigley Jr., the chewing-gum magnate and owner of the Los Angeles team in the PCL (as well as the Chicago Cubs), who dominated PCL policy-making. When Johnson also decided to publicize his hostile attitude about the National League and his feelings about how Commissioner Landis was handling the O’Connell-Dolan scandal, Wrigley was ready to declare war. Although Johnson’s American League was going strong and had earned points with the public for its commitment to clean baseball, by the time the winter meetings began, quiet rumors had emerged that Johnson’s dismissal was imminent.[2] Although this turned out not to be the case, it was a miracle that any business was accomplished at all, with attention focused largely on the issue of Commissioner Landis’s judgment and authority pitted against Ban Johnson’s assertions. Although there was extensive discussion of trades, “it seems that most of the owners and managers [were] willing to swap [only] provided the Statue of Liberty and Woolworth building [were] thrown in.”[3] Against this backdrop, the NL convened on December 9 and the AL the following day. The leagues met for a joint session on Thursday the 11th at Commissioner Landis’s instruction. Landis himself ultimately was unable to attend the New York meeting, and so the session adjourned with few conclusions reached until the following week in Chicago, at the Congress Hotel, when the commissioner would be able to participate.[4]

The week before the major league meetings, the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues (the official name of the minor leagues) had a much smoother and more productive meeting, in Hartford, Connecticut. The Bond Hotel hosted a robust crowd from December 2 to 4, with strong representation from every minor-league club, as well as the major-league clubs. Headlining attendees included Bucky Harris, player-manager of the World Series champion Washington Senators, and George Sisler the St. Louis Browns’ player-manager.[5]

 

Player Movement 

National Association

Much of the commotion surrounding the National Association’s meeting in Hartford had to do with business items; making deals proved to be much more challenging, although many did come to pass. The Boston Braves went into the meeting looking to acquire outfielder Ty Tyson of the Louisville Colonels, but could not make it happen. The Colonels’ owner, William Knebelkamp, for his part was on record as frustrated at the way trading in general turned out, declaring that “we have had several deals on the fire, but everything has fallen through.”[6] 

Toledo Mud Hens president Joe O’Brien and manager Jimmy Burke also could not close any deals. Jack Dunn, manager of the Baltimore Orioles, finally had to record a no-sale on shortstop Joe Boley; after several seasons he still had no bids from the major-league clubs, which should have indicated that his price continued to be too high. There was considerable demand for first baseman Lu Blue from Ty Cobb’s Detroit Tigers, but Cobb quickly clarified that Blue was not on the market. The meeting’s course of events then consisted primarily of efforts to persuade Cobb to simply consider talking about a swap. Even Nashville Volunteers manager Jimmy Hamilton, widely known for his ability to close a deal, struck just one in 1924, purchasing pitcher Larry Bennett, who had been with Bridgeport.[7]

Some teams had better luck, however, including Jersey City. Manager Patsy Donovan signed free-agent right-hander Johnny Tillman before the Norfolk Tars had a chance to make him a better offer. The Boston Red Sox obtained Joseph Earl Lucey from Jersey City, intending to put him on the mound. Previously he had played both shortstop and in the outfield for the New York Yankees after college, then went down to the minor leagues and developed his pitching skills with Jersey City. Walter Mails, a left-handed pitcher for the Oakland Oaks, went to the St. Louis Cardinals, while the Indianapolis Indians acquired outfielder Sumpter Clarke and third baseman Elmer Yoter from the Cleveland Indians.[8]Cleveland sent infielder Frank Ellerbe to the Kansas City Blues.  First baseman and outfielder Elmer Bowman went to the Birmingham Barons from the Seattle Indians, and Minneapolis Millers pitcher Eric Erickson went to the Toronto Maple Leafs. For all the difficulty in closing some of the desired traditional trade deals in Hartford, 1924 did see the first airplane-for-player deal, struck between Omaha Buffaloes president Barney Burch and St. Joseph (Missouri) Saints president Edward Tracey. Burch sent pitcher Roy Luebbe and catcher Fred Wilder to Tracey in exchange for the airplane; this was deemed to be legal.[9]

American and National Leagues  

One deal had been agreed upon going into the meetings, between the Chicago Cubs and the Pittsburgh Pirates, which drew attention because it was a three-for-three player trade with no money involved. The Cubs obtained  middle infielder Walter “Rabbit” Maranville, first baseman Charley Grimm, and pitcher Wilbur “Lefty” Cooper in exchange for second baseman George Grantham, right-handed pitcher Vic Aldridge, and rookie first baseman Albert Niehaus.[10] Grimm would eventually become manager of the Cubs and take them to the World Series three times.

The headline prospective trade was Washington’s bid for star right-hander Urban Shocker of the St. Louis Browns, which became public in early November.[11] Clark Griffith, the Nationals’ owner, was anticipating the departure of his longtime franchise player, pitcher Walter Johnson, as the latter had expressed an interest in buying into a minor-league team as manager-pitcher, and Griffith hoped to plug Shocker into Johnson’s rotation spot. Connie Mack, the Philadelphia Athletics manager, had already struck a significant deal with the Pacific Coast League’s Portland Beavers in November; he sent pitchers Dennis Burns and Bob Hasty, infielder Harry Riconda, outfielder Ed Sherling, and minor-league catcher Chuck Rowland, plus a cash consideration, to the City of Roses, all for just one man – catcher Mickey Cochrane, and it was expected that this would be finalized during the winter meeting.[12] It was also public knowledge that the Detroit Tigers were on the hunt for a new second baseman.

As it turned out, trading was tough in the major leagues as well – at the adjournment of the New York part of the winter meetings Detroit had not found anyone who met the specifications they wanted, and Washington did not get Urban Shocker. By the time the winter meetings finally concluded a week later in Chicago, Shocker was once again a Yankee – the Browns traded him for pitchers Joe Bush, Milt Gaston, and rookie left-hander Joe Giard, whom the Yankees had acquired from Toledo of the American Association.[13] In the meantime, Clark Griffith moved to protect his team from Walter Johnson’s potential departure, stipulating that Johnson must acquire a significant interest in a Pacific Coast League club and present the contract to him for examination. Only if Griffith found the contract acceptable would Johnson be allowed to leave. (Johnson had engaged in talks with St. Paul, but let it go in favor of pursuing Oakland.) If no deal could be struck, Johnson would have to return to the nation’s capital. The Sporting News called Griffith “the only club owner … who has ever consented to let a real star go while he was still useful without receiving a large equivalent for his services.”[14] At the same time, as Johnson’s search continued to run into dead ends, Griffith offered him two contract choices – one for a single season and one for two– both of which Johnson rejected. The Nationals went ahead and acquired right-handed pitcher Stanley Coveleski (a future Hall of Famer, just like Johnson) from the Cleveland Indians, in exchange for righty Byron Speece and rookie outfielder E. Carr Smith.[15] Although Griffith was willing to take a risk, ultimately Johnson did not buy into a club and stayed in Washington, where he enjoyed his final 20-win season in 1925 and led the team back to the World Series.

 

The Business Side

For both the minor and major leagues, 1924 was a busy year. Although the minors and majors met separately, on different dates and in different cities, much of their business agenda items overlapped.

National Association

 The largest theme in the business discussions at the meeting in Hartford revolved around scaling back operations – capping salaries and reducing bonuses, and amending rules regarding the number of optioned players on a team roster.[16] Optioned players are those who can be moved freely between the major-league team and the minor leagues. The other key topic was the minor leagues’ relationship with the major leagues, which included a serious reflection on how the minor-league system was structured and whether this structure continued to make sense. Then as now, the minor leagues functioned as a gateway to the majors. Unlike now, there was concern at the time that there were not enough aspiring ballplayers to fill the minor-league rosters. Although this was largely a matter of survival for the minor leagues, the major leagues clearly had a stake in the issue as well. The minor leagues realized that baseball was up against heavy competition for public interest – golf, and tennis, boxing, and college football were the sports of the day; Little League was a fledgling notion and would not gather the strength it needed to become organized for more than a decade. In order to engage those who did play the sport, and cultivate those who expressed an interest, the National Association’s president, Mike Sexton, proposed a new level for amateurs, particularly those who were not yet eligible for the minor or major leagues. Dubbed Class E, this level would allow promising players in lower or community leagues to begin training with professional baseball staff and get a sense of what a career in baseball could be like. Having the National Association offer this class option would also allow these lower leagues to unload some of their financial responsibilities and thus reduce the risk of folding.[17] Pursuant to this discussion was how the minor-league rosters would be filled – specifically, the minor leagues felt that it should be their task to scout the “sandlots and colleges and [work with] undeveloped athletes” and that the major leagues should stay out of it entirely.[18]

In addition to its own business items, the National Association certainly could not ignore the storm brewing between the National and American Leagues, especially the comments from AL President Ban Johnson, whose allegations of gambling concerned the Pacific Coast League, one of the Association’s own. After its meetings ended, the Association went public with a denunciation of Johnson, and took the extra step of reaffirming its confidence in Commissioner Landis’s ability to head Organized Baseball.[19]

American and National Leagues

The business side of the major-league meetings opened with the establishment of sides – the NL’s first order was to pledge unconditional support for Landis while condemning Ban Johnson’s criticisms of him. However, the camps were not evenly divided – the AL also adopted a resolution supporting Landis and criticizing their president’s public actions.[20] NL President John Heydler was unanimously re-elected, contrary to circulating reports that he was to be replaced.

Pitcher Walter Johnson received the AL Most Valuable Player award. The NL MVP award went to pitcher Dazzy Vance; having been decided prior to the meeting, this had only to be authorized. This award prompted outcry from the St. Louis chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America, who believed that their second baseman, Rogers Hornsby, was the rightful recipient of the honor. The winners were decided by a committee consisting of baseball writers from each major-league city, and the St. Louis chapter asked that the two major leagues publicize the balloting process so that the writers could discern who had failed to include Hornsby on his list of winners.

When the New York portion of the meetings adjourned, the troubling, unresolved question was whether the two major leagues would be able to repair their relationship and move on. Efforts had begun, and before the Chicago half of the meeting it was reported that Ban Johnson had “shown a disposition to ‘go along’ with the magnates … but it remains for the commissioner and his cohorts to make this end possible.”[21] However, until the eve of the Chicago meeting, there was speculation that if Landis and Johnson could not solve their difficulties, one of them would quit by the end of the day.[22] As it turned out, the AL backed its condemnation of its leader in NewYork with new action in Chicago, choosing to remove Johnson from the Advisory Council with a warning, in order to ensure peace between the commissioner and the AL. This effectively stripped Johnson of all power except that of fulfilling the immediate duties of his position. Detroit Tigers president Frank J. Navin replaced him on the Advisory Council.[23] Johnson did not resign, and neither he nor Landis spoke publicly of their conflict after the meeting adjourned.

This did not mean that others refrained from speaking publicly, and soon the owners who had voted to remove Johnson from the Advisory Council began to worry that he might change his mind and resign after all. Remorse set in – after all, Ban Johnson was the man who had led the effort to clean up baseball, turning it into a classy and respectable sport, worth watching as well as playing. He always had his eye on the big picture. In the words of one imaginative reporter, he “cleared the jungle, surmounted the fever-stricken and crocodile-infested swamps and carried a new, healthy legion safely to the promised land of success. He [had] been accused of being dictatorial … but when he pounded his fist [it was] for the American League.”[24]

 

In Summary: Looking to the Future 

The 1924 winter meetings proved to be anything but business as usual. Overshadowing much of the proceedings was the drama that unfolded between Commissioner Kenesaw Landis and AL President Ban Johnson. They butted heads over how the NL bribery scandal during that year’s World Series was handled, and Johnson further exacerbated the baseball community when he decided to go after the Pacific Coast League for an alleged gambling problem.

Although he ended up being severely curtailed, Johnson did achieve his perpetual goal of sustained adherence to honest, clean baseball. Since the proportions to which the conflict grew made it unavoidably public, baseball was forced to start holding itself more accountable to its audience. Transparency facilitates fans’ ability to relate to the sport, which in turn facilitates growth. Although the leagues’ relationships may have continued to be tense going into 1925, their common goal of creating a sport on par with those that had already gained a strong foothold in American culture was much more likely to be reached after that tumultuous winter. 

 

Notes

[1] O’Connell and Dolan were suspended for life by Commissioner Landis. Lowell Blaisdell, “Mystery and Tragedy: The O’Connell-Dolan Scandal,” The Baseball Research Journal (SABR Baseball Research Journal Archive: 1982). research.sabr.org/journals/oconnell-dolan-scandal, accessed February 4, 2012.

[2] The December 11, 1924, edition of The Sporting News discussed the continuation of the O’Connell-Dolan case and narrated the issues stemming from Ban Johnson’s antagonizing public statements. It provided an illustration of the numerous relationships involved that caused these incidents to gather force.

[3] “Big Leagues Hold Annual Meetings,” The Sporting News, December 11, 1924.

[4] “Landis Established as Czar of Baseball – Joint Meeting Adjourns to Next Wednesday in Chicago,” Boston Globe, December 12, 1924. Commissioner Landis’s wife had been admitted to the Mayo Clinic and her sister had died the week before the meetings.

[5] Because of his sister-in-law’s death, Landis did not attend the National Association meetings, but there was appreciation that he had intended to be there.  Paul Rickart, “Looking ’Em Over at the Bond Hotel,” The Sporting News, December 11, 1924: 3. Landis had failed to appear at all at the National Association meetings the year before, held in his home base of Chicago. His change of heart held promise.

[6] Rickart.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Rickart: 8.

[9] “Omaha Club Trades a Battery to St. Joseph for an Airplane,” New York Times, December 3, 1924: 17.

[10] Irving Vaughan, “Grimm, Cooper, and Maranville Traded to Cubs,” Chicago Tribune, October 28, 1924.

[11] Frank H. Young, “Nats to Make Bid for Urban Shocker, Vet Brown Hurler,” Washington Post, November 11, 1924: S1. 

[12] “Mack Pays $50,000 for Coast Catcher,” New York Times, November 18, 1924: 29.

[13] The resulting lineup after this trade and commentary on the matter was treated in “It Could Be Worse, Sighs Connie Mack,” The Sporting News, November 27, 1924: 1. “Shocker a Yankee; Traded for Bush,” New York Times, December 18, 1924, also provides a summary of negotiations, an editorial on the Yankees having fared better in the deal, and a short history of Urban Shocker’s previous stint with the Yankees.

[14] “Griff Draws Line on Walt’s Going,” The Sporting News, December 4, 1924.

[15] “Stan Coveleksie (sic) and Mike M’Nally Obtained by Nats,” Washington Post, December 12, 1924: S1; “Sox Get Prothro in Trade for McNally: Coveleskie [sic] of Indians Goes to Senators for Speece and Outfield Rookie,” Boston Globe, December 12, 1924.

[16] “Minor Leaguers Meet Tomorrow,” New York Times, December 1, 1924.

[17] “Mike Sexton Expresses Need for Circuits of Class E Rating,” The Sporting News, December 11 1924. 

[18] “Plenty of Action Expected at Minor League Conference,” The Sporting News, November 27, 1924.

[19] “Comment on Current Events in Sports,” New York Times, December 8, 1924.

[20] “Storm Session Looms When Baseball Moguls Gather for Annual Meeting,” Los Angeles Times, December 9, 1924.

[21] “Peace Seems to Rest in Hands of Landis,” The Sporting News, December 18, 1924.

[22] “Everybody Mum on Eve of Big Baseball Meet,” Chicago Tribune, December 17, 1924.

[23] “American League Owners Join National in Endorsing Landis,” The Sporting News, December 25, 1924.

[24] “Owners Now Seeing Error of Their Way,” The Sporting News, December 25, 1924.

 

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