This article was written by Donald J. Proctor
This article was published in 1981 Baseball Research Journal
To all but a handful of the several hundred spectators attending the Cincinnati Reds’ workout at The University of Michigan’s Ray Fisher Stadium prior to the 1981 “second season” it was an exercise in nostalgia in which baseball loves to indulge. To that knowledgeable handful who were of melodramatic turn it was the staging of a beautiful irony. John McNamara manager of the Reds, had interrupted his field duties to go into the stands to meet with Ray Fisher, the 93-year-old man for whom Michigan’s baseball facility is named.
Fisher had coached Michigan’s baseball teams for an unprecedented 38 seasons between 1921 and 1958, but of greater significance to the reporters and Photographers whose presence provided an air of excitement to the meeting was the fact that Ray was the oldest living Cincinnati Red. Not only that, he had pitched for Cincinnati in two games of the infamous 1919 World Series and was also being hailed as the oldest living person to have played in a World Series. It was a festive moment not at all dampened by an awareness that because Ray Fisher had taken the opportunity in 1921 to become Michigan’s baseball coach, August Herrmann, then president of the Cincinnati Reds, had placed Fisher on the team’s ineligible list. It was a move that led in short order to a lifetime suspension leveled against Fisher by Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, baseball’s first commissioner.
Thus far no satisfactory answer has been provided as to why Ray was either declared ineligible by Herrmann or suspended for life by Landis. Fisher admits to no wrongdoing and available published sources do not provide the answer. J. G. Taylor Spink, for many years publisher of The Sporting News, wrote his recollections of the Landis commissionership in 1947 and he attributes Fisher’s expulsion to judicial caprice, While Professor Harold Seymour, in the second volume of his outstanding history of baseball, describes Landis’s permanent ban as “incomprehensible”
The reason for Ray Fisher’s expulsion from major league baseball, though complex, is comprehensible. To explain why it happened involves one in a complicated story, but it is a story worth telling for several reasons. Confusion still surrounds the episode; therefore, the circumstances and underlying reasons that led up to the expulsion should be reviewed and explained as clearly as possible. Furthermore, a review of Fisher’s problems provides one with an insight into the player-owner problems that presently plague major league baseball. But in the final analysis it is the story of how a decent man ultimately prevailed in a classic man-against-the-system conflict, and that’s a story always worth telling.
Events that led to Ray Fisher’s blacklisting began in 1918 while Ray was in the U.S. Army. Prior to his wartime induction at age 31, he had pitched for the New York Yankees from 1910, following his graduation from Middlebury College in Vermont, through 1917, at which time he was earning $6,500 a year. The money was well spent. During his eight seasons with the second division Yankees, Ray won 73 games, lost 77, attained a 3.12 ERA and was selected by batting masters Ty Cobb and Nap Lajoie as one of the 12 best pitchers in the American League. Ray compiled his Yankee record despite being severely stricken during the 1916 and 1917 seasons by what doctors then diagnosed as pleurisy but what later examinations revealed to have been tuberculosis. Nevertheless, he won 11 and lost 8 in 1916 and went 8 and 9 in 1917, relying primarily on control and guile to record 3.17 and 2.19 ERAs. The Yankees, however, sold Fisher’s contract to Cincinnati during the 1918 season.
The contract Ray received from the Red’s August Herrmann for 1919 called for $3,500. Unsure of what effect a year’s layoff might have had on his pitching ability, Ray signed without protest, but he was taken aback by the contract forwarded by Herrmann after the 1919 championship season. Ray, restored to good health, had won 14 games, lost but 5, posted a 2.17 ERA, and hit .271 to contribute significantly to Cincinnati’s drive to the pennant. Herrmann responded by offering $3,650 for 1920.
Ray signed but he seethed, and after a successful spring he decided he would either get a better contract or leave major league baseball. Ray so informed Pat Moran, Cincinnati manager. Consequently, an hour or so before a Sunday afternoon game in Cincinnati, Herrmann summoned Fisher, who was shagging fungoes in the outfield, to the president’s nearby office for salary negotiations. Agreement between president and strong-willed pitcher was quickly reached. Herrmann preferred not to call Ray on his threat to leave the team rather than play for $3,650. Instead he agreed to give Ray a $1,500 increase for the 1920 season, payable immediately, and included a bonus stipulation based on wins and earned runs that eventually netted Fisher an additional $350.
Ray, of course, was pleased with the immediate outcome of his confrontation with Herrmann but that it had taken place at all did not augur well. After all, Ray reflected, he would turn 33 at the end of the 1920 season. Furthermore, he was a family man, and given the uncertainty of future financial arrangements with the Cincinnati organization, the time had arrived to seek out Branch Rickey and explore the possibilities of finding a college coaching job.
That Ray would turn to college coaching for a post-major league career is understandable. By 1920 he had gained considerable teaching and coaching experience. He had coached the baseball team while still an undergraduate at Middlebury, and after the 1910 season had taught Latin for a semester at Newton Academy, New Jersey. Ray returned to Middlebury College during the off-seasons from 1911 through 1915 to serve as that school’s physical education teacher. Furthermore, between the 1916 and 1917 seasons and prior to his induction into the Army, Ray taught baseball fundamentals at Springfield College. But why did Ray, whom the New York sportswriters delighted in calling “the Vermont schoolmaster,” seek out Branch Rickey to aid him in his quest? Did he know him?
“No,” Ray explains, “but I knew Rickey had a great many contacts among colleges and even though I didn’t know him, I decided to see him when our paths crossed in New York.” Then borrowing the idiom of young players he coached as late as the l960s, Ray adds, “It was no big deal.”
Ray met briefly with Rickey in mid-I 920 when the Reds and Rickey’s St. Louis Cardinals were both in New York City for series with the Giants and Dodgers, and given the informality of the encounter, perhaps it was “no big deal,” but it determined the subsequent course of Ray’s life.
True to Ray’s understanding, Branch Rickey did have contacts in college baseball circles. He had maintained his ties with both Ohio Wesleyan, where he played as an undergraduate and briefly coached, and with the University of Michigan where he had coached baseball for four seasons, 1910-13, while he took courses in what was then the Law Department. But equally as important as far as Ray’s future was concerned, Rickey moved from Michigan to the major leagues where he had ample opportunity to evaluate Ray Fisher as a pitcher and as a person. Rickey managed the St. Louis Browns from 1913 through 1915, a period that coincided with Ray’s best years with the rival Yankees. Then in 1917 Rickey moved to the Cardinals’ organization as president and he took on the added responsibilities of field manager in 1919, the same year Ray and the Reds won the pennant and Rickey’s Cardinals finished a distant seventh. Consequently, when Ray appeared unannounced at Rickey’s New York hotel on a mid-summer evening in 1920 to ask him if he knew of any college coaching opportunities, Ray was no stranger to Branch Rickey.
As Ray remembers it, the meeting between the two men was pleasant but noncommittal. Characteristically, Rickey dazzled Ray with his thoroughness (“He was an amazing person . . he knew all about my pitching and what I had done.”) but he couldn’t provide Ray with any leads. However, what Ray did not know and what Branch Rickey did not tell him was that Philip G. Bartelme, Athletic Director at the University of Michigan, had called Rickey several weeks earlier and asked him if he could recommend anyone to replace Carl Lundgren, Michigan’s very successful baseball coach. Bartelme explained that Lundgren, who was Rickey’s successor at Michigan, had been enticed back to his alma mater, the University of Illinois. Rickey had promptly recommended Del Pratt, his former hard-hitting second baseman on the St. Louis Browns, but after his meeting with Ray, Rickey called Bartelme and also recommended Fisher very strongly for the Michigan job. It was too late. Bartelme told Rickey he had already made an offer to the 32-year-old Pratt and Pratt had accepted it. Ray, meanwhile, unaware of these transactions, gave his undivided attention to pitching effectively for the Cincinnati Reds. He did nothing more for the remainder of the 1920 season to further his college coaching plans. However, his determination to find a coaching job was renewed with a vengeance when he belatedly received his 1921 contract from August Herrmann on February 5, a scant three weeks before the beginning of spring training.
The contract Herrmann sent Ray called for a salary of $4,500, a thousand dollars less than what he had earned in 1920. Ray was beside himself. He immediately sat down at his desk and expressed his disillusionment in a succinct two-page letter to Herrmann. “Don’t you think $1,000 is a pretty big cut for a $5,500 contract?” he asked. He reminded Herrmann that he had pitched pretty well after he was given a regular turn. His pay cut was all the more galling, Ray continued, in light of the well-reported fact that the 1920 season was a very profitable one for the owners. “Kindly think [my contract] over,” Ray requested, “and do not look on one side altogether. Take a look from my side and see if you cannot see things a little differently.”
If August Herrmann did pause to take a look at the salary situation from Ray’s side, he apparently did not see things any differently than before. To paraphrase his brief, written response, he told Ray to take it or leave it.
Ray took it, but not without a parting observation. “I realize just as well as you,” Ray wrote, “that I am compelled to sign at your figures as are all the other ballplayers — except the `stars’ who are demanded by the public.” With that he signed the contract, mailed it back to Herrmann, and prepared to join the Reds in spring training in Cisco, Texas, more determined than ever to search at every opportunity for a college coaching job. Having made up his mind, Ray settled down and in the opinions of the Cincinnati Post‘s Tom Swope and the Enquirer‘s Jack Ryder, had an outstanding spring. However, action on the job-seeking front came sooner than Ray expected.
By early April 1921, Michigan was again looking for a baseball coach. Del Pratt had succumbed to the perseverance and pocketbook of Harry Frazee, owner of the Boston Red Sox, who had been after Pratt to join his club ever since Pratt had reported to Michigan in February. Hence on April 2, as Ray Fisher and the Cincinnati Reds were slowly making their way north as they played a series of exhibition games before the season opener in Cincinnati on April 15, the Michigan Daily reported that Pratt was considering an offer to join the Boston Red Sox.
Following this revelation, events moved rapidly in the life of Ray Fisher. The Daily‘s item on Pratt was picked up by the wire services and used by the newspaper Ray purchased on Sunday, April 3, during a stopover in Oklahoma City. Ray immediately wired Bartelme and applied for the job. At the Regent’s meeting on Monday, April 4, Bartelme recommended that Pratt be released from his contract. The Regents complied and Bartelme wired Ray to come to Ann Arbor for a meeting. Ray received the telegram Tuesday morning when the train carrying the team arrived in Joplin, Missouri. Shorlty thereafter the details of the wire were reported by Jack Ryder of the Enquirer. In a story datelined Joplin, April 5, Ryder, who described Ray as the Red’s best right-hand pitcher, noted the Michigan offer and wrote, “[Fisher] requested permission from Moran [to go to Ann Arbor] and asked if he could obtain his release from the Cincinnati club. Pat told him that he had no authority to give releases, but would allow him to go to Michigan to look the ground over. . .”
Ray left the team in Indianapolis on April 6 and met with Bartelme and the Athletic Department throughout Thursday, April 7. That evening before he boarded the train for Cincinnati he was told the job, which included coaching freshman football and basketball and paid $5,000 per year, was his if he wanted it. But time was of the essence. The Michigan baseball team was scheduled to leave Ann Arbor the next evening on its annual southern trip during spring vacation to play teams in Kentucky, Alabama and Georgia. Del Pratt would remain with the team until it arrived in Atlanta on the return to Ann Arbor, but then he would leave for New York to join the Red Sox in time for their series against the Yankees. Ray assured Bartelme he would meet with the Cincinnati management first thing Friday morning and give Michigan his answer as soon as possible.
Bartelme did not have long to wait for his answer. Ray’s Friday morning meeting with Pat Moran and August Herrmann and two directors of the Cincinnati organization took place in Herrmann’s office. That Ray would receive such prompt and high-level attention is not surprising given the circumstances in which Herrmann found himself. Opening day was exactly one week away, and team captain Heine Groh and Eddie Roush, both heavy hitters, were still holdouts, and in addition to that, starting righthand pitching was a problem. Jim Ring’s arm was in bad shape and Hod Eller had been totally ineffective during spring training. Herrmann was therefore anxious to keep Ray within the fold and offered to restore the $1000 pay cut Ray had previously protested if he would stay.
Ray replied that he would think about it if Herrmann would give him a three-year contract. Herrmann pointed out that Ray was 33 years old and protested that a multiyear contract was out of the question. In that case, Ray concluded, he would voluntarily retire and take the Michigan job. He would, however, be willing to return to Cincinnati after the college baseball season ended in June if Herrmann still wanted him. A disappointed Herrmann replied that he would let him know. With that, Ray brought the meeting to a dramatic close by picking up the phone that was on Herrmann’s desk and calling Bartelme then and there to accept Michigan’s offer. He would meet the Michigan team in Cincinnati, Ray informed Bartelme as Herrmann and the others observed him in silence, and continue on with it to Lexington for its first game of the season.
The results of Ray’s meeting with Herrmann were succinctly summarized that afternoon by the Cincinnati Post. “Ray Fisher arrived from Ann Arbor today,” the Post reported, “and asked to be released from his contract. He has decided to accept the offer of coach of the baseball team of the University of Michigan. President Herrmann agreed to place him on the voluntary retired list.”
The following morning, Saturday, April 9, 1921, the complete item along with the Cincinnati dateline was carried by the New York Times. Sometime between issuing the press release and Ray’s eventual arrival in Ann Arbor, however, Herrmann had some second thoughts about Ray and his status that prompted him to place Ray on Cincinnati’s ineligible list.
To appreciate what might have contributed to Herrmann’s change of mind one must view the interplay between him and Ray Fisher within the broad sweep of affairs that was shaking the very foundations of baseball. Seen from that vantage point, Ray is reduced to a pawn. He had the misfortune of being caught in the middle of a pair of successive power struggles, first that between August Herrmann and Branch Rickey, a conflict of relatively modest size between rival club presidents, and then the clash of Olympian proportions between Ban Johnson and Judge Landis over the basic governance of major league baseball itself. As a result Ray was whipsawed onto baseball’s blacklist.
The roots of both rivalries went back to 1911 when George Sisler, destined for the Baseball Hall of Fame, enrolled at the University of Michigan and came under Branch Rickey’s tutelage. Sisler’s superlative play was widely publicized, and as a consequence a professional contract Sisler had signed as a 17-year-old was sold in 1913 to Barney Dreyfuss, owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Sisler, however, signed with the St. Louis Browns following his graduation in 1915 and joined his former Michigan coach, Branch Rickey, who in 1914 had moved to the Browns as manager.
Dreyfuss protested Sisler’s action and appealed to the National Commission, a three-man board created in 1903 to adjudicate inter-league disputes. The board was composed of the presidents of each league plus a third member of their choice who served as chairman. From the Commission’s inception Ban Johnson represented the American League and August Herrmann served as Commission chairman. At the time of Dreyfuss’s appeal, the president of the National League and third member of the Commission was John K. Tener, former Governnor of Pennsylvania. The Commission did not render a ruling on the appeal until June 1916, when it declared in a two-to-one decision in which Herrmann voted with Ban Johnson that George Sisler was a free agent and did not have to report to Pittsburgh.
Barney Dreyfuss responded by launching an unrelenting campaign beginning in the post-season meeting of the National League owners in 1916 to remove Herrmann from the Commission and replace him with someone with no baseball connections. Herrmann and Johnson resisted, but several things happened over the next two years that prompted other owners to gradually withdraw their support of Herrmann. Connie Mack, owner of the Philadelphia Athletics, refused to abide by a pro-National League ruling in which Herrmann and Tener concurred. Consequently, Tener resigned from the National Commission and was replaced by John A. Heydler, the secretary of the National League. This, in turn, was followed by the Commission’s inept handling of an abortive player strike during the 1918 World Series. Despite this embarrassment and Heydler’s consequent conviction that a change in baseball’s government was in order, Herrmann held on, but when Johnson’s American League support was deeply eroded in 1919 by squabbles between the Yankees, White Sox and Red Sox, Herrmann’s position became untenable.
The end came for Herrmann at the National League owner’s meeting in 1919 when Branch Rickey cast the deciding vote to replace him with a neutral commissioner. Johnson opposed the move, but when the news broke of the conspiracy to throw the 1919 World Series the owners agreed to abolish the three-man National Commission in favor of a lone commissioner whose rulings they would accept as final. In November 1920 they offered the job to Kenesaw Mountain Landis, District Judge in Chicago’s Federal Court of Northern Illinos. Landis accepted and assumed the duties of the newly created commissionship in January 1921. He had only been at the task of attempting to put baseball’s house in order for about three months when Ray Fisher and the University of Michigan baseball team arrived in Ann Arbor.
A day or so after Ray returned to Ann Arbor on April 18, two things happened that prompted him to write to Herrmann. Branch Rickey and his close friend, law professor Ralph Aigler, chairman of the University Athletic Board, visited Ray during an afternoon practice and, secondly, he received a phone call from a representative of a team in Franklin, Pa., a member of a so-called “outlaw” league. Rickey and Aigler’s visit was not entirely social. After they wished Ray well in his new endeavor, Rickey offered Ray the opportunity, following the close of the college baseball season in early June, to join the Cardinals as a pitching coach and spot reliever; provided, of course, the Cincinnati Reds had no need of him and would give him a release to join a rival team in the National League.
The caller representing the Franklin team also had an offer of employment but along with it came some disconcerting information. The word on the always heavily trafficked baseball grapevine was that Cincinnati was going to put Ray on the ineligible list. If that were so, the Franklin team, which, along with a team in Oil City, Pa., was part of a two-team “league,” would be glad to have him and would pay him $750 per month during whatever portion of the season he could play.
It was in an effort to clarify his status that Ray wrote to Herrmann on April 22. “You informed me at our last meeting that you would let me know if you cared for my services for the summer months,” Ray reminded Herrmann. “I am receiving opportunities to pitch for the summer months,” he continued, “and as I finish here June 6th except for three days — June 28-30 — I am desirous of getting located. I realize you have first call and so wish you would advise me at your earliest convenience.
Ray’s letter crossed with a two-line letter which Herrmann had written to him on the previous day. Enclosed with it was a carbon copy of a letter concerning Ray’s status that he had written on April 21, 1921, to John A. Heydler, the president of the National League. Herrmann informed Heydler that Ray “was taken on the training trip and when the club returned home he called at this office on the day before the season opened, and said he had been offered a position as coach with the University of Michigan team, which he desired to accept.
“We did not want him to leave us,” Herrmann explained, “ . . . and after a discussion with him we offered to increase his salary $1,000. This, however, was not satisfactory to him and he left the club and. . . is now in Ann Arbor.”
“We have not given this player his release,” Herrmann concluded, “and the question arises whether we should put him on the Voluntary Retired List or place him on the Ineligible List for violation of contract.” In his two-line note to Ray, Herrmann pointed out his letter to Heydler was “self-explanatory.” “We are badly in need of your services,” Herrmann admonished Ray, “and certainly regret very much that you left the club in the manner in which you did.”
Ray’s letter of April 22 reached Herrmann on Saturday, April 23. News of Ray’s “receiving opportunities to pitch for the summer months” apparently was all Herrmann needed to settle any question in his mind about Ray’s status. Ray was being placed on the ineligible list for violation of contract, Herrmann informed Ray in a letter he mailed on Monday, April 25. Herrmann had been “hurt,” he explained to Ray, by his decision to accept the coaching job at Michigan, and he was particularly upset by the fact that Ray did not honor the ten-day provision in his contract, a standard clause in all major league contracts required a player to give ten days’ notice before leaving a ball club.
Ray received Herrmann’s letter on April 26 and answered it the same day. With characteristic understatement he described himself as “somewhat surprised” to learn that he had been placed on the Ineligible List rather than the Voluntary Retired List. He was aware that Herrmann might have been hurt by his decision to coach at Michigan, “but you forget,” Ray wrote, “that I have been hurt by some things that were handed me.” As for not giving ten days notice, Ray chose to ignore Herrmann’s assertion in his letter to National League headquarters that he had met with Herrmann “on the day before the season opened” and admitted to regret ting that he only had been able to give Herrmann seven day’s notice instead of ten “as I have always tried to operate on the square.”
However, he did not write to apologize and lest there be a misunderstanding, he elected to state his position clearly. “Now do not for one minute think I am begging of you to give me a position this summer,” Ray concluded, “I simply want to know if you wish my services. If so, I am very willing to work for you. If not, I wish you [would] let me know so I can accept other propositions.”
Herrmann did not reply to Ray’s letter and it was not until Saturday, May 21, when Michigan was in Chicago to play the University of Chicago that Ray did anything further in response to Herrmann’s surprising action of placing him on the Ineligible List. On that date he went to see Commissioner Landis in his temporary office in the Auditorium Hotel which, as chance would have it, was the hotel where the Michigan team was staying.
Ray was not unfamiliar with the high points of the much-publicized career of the newly-named, 54-year-old Commissioner of Baseball. Landis, whose physician-father named him after the Civil War battle near Atlanta, Georgia, at which he had been wounded (the elder Landis inadvertently omitted an “n” from Kennesaw), was appointed to the Federal bench by Teddy Roosevelt in 1905 and Landis won his own national reputation as a “trust buster” in 1907 when he fined Standard Oil of Indiana an unprecedented $29,240,000 for taking rebates from railroads in violation of the Elkins Act.
Extensive national newspaper coverage was also given to the Government’s prosecution of the “Beef Trust” in his court, as it was to his handling of the trials of prominent socialists and labor radicals for violations of wartime espionage and sedition laws. Less sensational but widely published accounts were provided, too, of the Federal League’s unsuccessful attempt in 1915 to win damages in the Landis court from the major league owners for violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act. Of more immediate impact, as far as Ray was concerned, was the Benny Kauff case in mid-May 1921 in which Judge Landis refused to restore Kauff’s baseball eligibility, suspended prior to his trial for a felony indictment, despite Kauff’s subsequent acquittal of the felony. As startling as Landis’s refusal was to Kauff, a New York Giants outfielder, it appeared to Ray that the Commissioner was a man who personally weighed available evidence and was, therefore, the person with whom he should deal. Thus he took it upon himself to go without appointment to Judge Landis’s office to give his side of the story of his dealings with August Herrmann and the Cincinnati Reds.
Landis received Ray very cordially. He was in the process of moving the Commissioner’s office to the People’s Gas Building so he stepped out into the hail and listened to what. Ray had to say. In a brief interview Ray explained how Herrmann had declared him ineligible for takinig the Michigan coaching job despite manager Pat Moran having given him permission to visit Ann Arbor. Moran did so, Ray explained, in the presence of Ivy Wingo, his catcher. Furthermore, the fact that Moran had given him permission to go to Ann Arbor as well as the announcement by Herrmann’s office that he had been placed on the Voluntary Retired List had appeared in several different newspapers.
Landis listened intently and promised Ray he would look into the matter. With that Ray took his leave and prepared for that afternoon’s game with the University of Chicago. He had no further personal interviews with Landis. Ray and the team left Chicago the following day for Iowa City and a game with the University of Iowa. They were back in Ann Arbor by May 25. When a week had gone by without any word from Landis, Ray called him.
Landis did not have an answer for him. He had been told, however, that Ray had agreed to play for Franklin in an outlawed Pennsylvania league. That was not so, Ray replied. He had received an unsolicited call from them and they had made him an offer because they had heard he was going to be blacklisted. He reiterated once more that Moran had given him permission to visit Ann Arbor, but to make sure Landis knew how he stood, Ray gratuitously concluded by telling Landis, “Baseball’s my livelihood and if you blacklist me, I’m going to have to play baseball somewhere.”
Following Ray’s call, Judge Landis wrote to Moran on June 2, 1921. “Ray Fisher has applied for restoration to the active list,”the Commissioner wrote. “He has informed me that with your permission he left the Club after contracting for this present season. I wish you would let me know by return mail all that transpired between you and Fisher on this subject. Make your statements complete and definite as possible.”
Moran’s reply was unequivocal. “I positively refused to grant [permission to Fisher] to leave,” Moran testified, “and told him to take the matter up over the long-distance telephone with President Herrmann, which I understand he did not do, but took it upon himself to leave the next day.”
Landis used Moran’s disclaimer as a point of departure for a memo he composed for his files on June 14, 1921. It is entitled “in Re Reinstatement Application of Player Ray L. Fisher” and
Ray’s testimony in this remarkably one-sided document is limited to a single questionable sentence following Moran’s repudiation. Landis, having received only Ray’s claim that he could produce newspaper accounts backing his story is necessary, noted, “In substantiation of his claim, the player presents excerpts from newspaper accounts of his leaving, stating that he had permission from the Cincinnati Club to do so.” So much for Ray Fisher. The remainder of the memo is essentially a summary of Herrmann’s version of Ray’s departure from the team.
“More indicative, however, of the attitude of the Cincinnati Club,” Landis observed, is the fact that on April 12 (sic), when Fisher asked to be released from his contract obligations, President Herrmann told him Cincinnati was badly in need of his services and offered him a large increase in salary as an inducement to fill his contract. This is admitted by the player, who nevertheless refused to carry out his contract and left the club. His coaching work having been suspended for the summer, Fisher now applies for reinstatement. Pending consideration there-of, he has carried on negotiations with the Franklin, Pa., team which is composed largely of contract violators, and has agreed on terms with that team provided [he is] not reinstated.
Ray Fisher had arrived back home in Middlebury as Commissioner Landis composed his memo on June 14, 1921. At the time Ray was totally unaware of Pat Moran’s testimony. He did, however, receive a telegram from Landis in mid-June. It informed Ray he had been placed permanently on the Ineligible List. It did not explain why. It contained no charges. No hearing was scheduled, nor appeal procedure described. It simply banished Ray from professional baseball within the Commissioner’s jurisdiction. Ray’s reaction to the wire was equally as direct. He called the team in Franklin and told him he would report immediately.
Why did Pat Moran say he had not given Ray permission to go to Ann Arbor? Ray cannot understand why he did. Ray got along well with Moran. “It was probably Herrmann who wrote the letter saying Pat never gave me permission to go to Ann Arbor and Pat just signed it,” Ray surmised. As an afterthought he added, “But it didn’t make any difference.”
The facts support Ray’s conclusion. Apparently Moran’s statement did not make any difference to Herrmann or Landis. Herrmann did not even consider it necessary to include it in his letter of April 21 to National League President Heydler. In fact, Herrmann did not feel compelled to give any reason for whatever action he took in Ray’s case other than citing the fact that Ray chose coaching at Michigan over playing for Cincinnati. As for Landis, his summary memo of June 14 illustrates that the Commissioner gave short shrift to the testimony of Moran as well as that of Fisher while uncritically accepting Herrmann’s description of events. A more basic question one must ask relative to Ray’s ineligibility is why Herrmann and Landis behaved as they did. In Herrmann’s case a variety of probabilities come to mind.
The first is money. As early as April 22 it appeared quite evident that Cincinnati was well underway to the sixth place finish it suffered in 1921. Pitcher Hod Eller showed no signs of coming around and Heinie Groh and Eddie Roush continued to hold out with no evidence of relenting. It also appeared unlikely that Ray Fisher would be able to reverse Cincinnati’s plunge into the second division were he to join the team in early June. Whatever fraction of Fisher’s salary Herrmann might have to pay, it would be a case of sending good money after bad.
Another factor was Ray’s independent attitude. It ran contrary to management’s best interests. Given the administrative turmoil of the 1920 season it was perhaps time for the owners to reestablish their authority, and giving the self-reliant Fisher his comeuppance would serve that end. Furthermore, Herrmann’s willingness to get tough by declaring Fisher ineligible would not be lost on the uncooperative Groh and Roush, but more significantly it would prevent Fisher from playing elsewhere. Fisher coaching at the University of Michigan, despite unpleasant memories of the Sisler case, was perhaps bearable, and his association with the struggling, two-team outlaw league in western Pennsylvania that would have little direct bearing on the Reds might be tolerated. But it would have been a bitter pill for Herrmann to swallow to have Fisher coaching at Michigan and then playing for Rickey, his baseball adversary on and off the field. But whatever the reasons, Herrmann’s act of declaring Fisher ineligible was not justified. Seen in any light it was mean, small and spiteful. Why then did Landis endorse Herrmann’s self-serving declaration?
Essentially it came down to whom Landis was to believe: a player relatively unknown to him or an influential team owner and former member of the National Commission who had himself adjudicated baseball disputes for 1 7 years? Furthermore, Landis was in no position to slight August Herrmann. He was having difficulty enough with Ban Johnson, who had opposed his selection as Commissioner from the start and was being anything but cooperative. Johnson was heatedly indignant over Landis’s response to an apparent theft from the prosecutor’s office of the evidence on which the Black Sox indictments were based. Rather than join forces with Johnson in a frenzied effort to re-gather evidence, Landis simply stated, “Baseball can protect itself regardless,” and to illustrate his point, announced on March 14, 1921, “All the indicted ball players have today been placed on the ineligible list.” For his part, Johnson freely voiced his lack of confidence in Landis’s exercise of his power to declare players ineligible as a means of handling the problem. As a consequence, the Benny Kauff incident and the relatively innocent Ray Fisher case gave Landis an opportunity to prove a point to those who listened to Johnson.
Another factor was the published demand of Heinie Groh that did not contribute positively to Landis’s frame of mind when it came to settling Ray’s differences with Herrmann. Groh had announced that he would only sign with Cincinnati on the provision that he would be traded immediately to the New York Giants. When it appeared a weary Herrmann was prepared to accommodate Groh, Landis blocked the move. No player, he ruled on June 11, 1921, was going to engineer his own assignment by not reporting to the team that held his contract. Groh, Landis insisted, would play for Cincinnati or he would not play at all. Players did not dictate to owners. Groh accepted Landis’s ruling good naturedly and reported to Cincinnati on June 12. Landis wrote his memo dispensing with Fisher two days later.
Reflecting on the harshness of Landis’s dispensation of Ray’s petition, apologists for the newly installed Commissioner point out that in addition to dealing with the uncooperative Johnson, Landis did not resign his federal judgeship until February 1922 and was therefore unable to give baseball his undivided attention. Nevertheless, they point out, players were not bound by the owner’s pledge not to appeal the Landis ruling in a civil suit. Nor was Landis unwilling to reverse his ruling on appeal, they add. Pitcher Phil Weinert of the Philadelphia Nationals, for example, was suspended in 1921 for five years for not honoring his contract, but he appealed successfully and was reinstated during the 1922 season. They grant that Landis’s ruling in the Fisher case was high-handed and based on a superficial investigation but the Judge’s defenders contend that Ray Fisher could have appealed the decision but elected not to.
Today Ray agrees that he should have appealed. “I should have taken them to law,” he says with more than a trace of anger. “I should have retained Aigler. And I would have won, too!”
Perhaps so, but in the summer of 1921 he had some convincing reasons for not appealing. To begin with, Weinert’s successful appeal came much later than June. At the time of his own suspension Ray was only aware of the treatment meted to the eight accused White Sox players and the disgraced Benny Kauff. To judge by those cases an appeal of a Landis ruling would probably involve the expense of retaining a lawyer and even then the likelihood of success was not great. Landis had not -reversed a single decision in favor of a player during the six busy months of his administration. Furthermore, Ray had already given Landis his side of the story and no good had come of it. So why not go to Franklin? In June 1921, there was nowhere else Ray could go to work at his calling.
As events transpired, Ray’s association with Franklin left something to be desired. His stay with the team was for all of one week. It had been his intention to report to Franklin, pitch one or two games, return to Ann Arbor for the varsity-alumni game that was part of the post-Commencement festivities held between June 28 and 30, then return to Franklin for the remainder of the season. In actuality Ray reported to Franklin and pitched four games in as many days before departing for Ann Arbor. Once back at Michigan there was no pressing need for him to return to Franklin. During his absence the two-team league folded. Ray received $750 for his week’s work and returned to Middlebury. He would have to wait until mid-April of 1922 when the Michigan baseball team was scheduled to play the University of Cincinnati in the final game of Michigan’s spring tune-up series before he could settle accounts with August Herrmann.
Ray had personally made arrangements for this game in order to have an opportunity for a final meeting with Herrmann. As he reminisces about it now Ray appears both satisfied and chagrined as he tells how he rehearsed his speech before he confronted a genuinely startled and apprehensive Herrmann in his office and “really told him what I thought of him!” As for Landis, Ray behaved far more sedately when, less than two weeks later, they passed each other on the sidewalk. It was April 28, 1922 and Michigan was in the Windy City for a game with the University of Chicago. Landis gave him a wave of recognition along with a smile and some sort of standard greeting that Ray no longer remembers. Ray responded with a slight nod of his head and a stern expression. “Later,” Ray recalls, “I regretted I didn’t say to him, `I’d think you’d be ashamed to speak to me,’ but I didn’t say anything.” However, the final episode of the Fisher-Herrmann-Landis affair took place on August 8, 1951, when Ray appeared as a Congressional witness before New York Representative Emanuel Celler’s House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Study of Monopoly Power. Ray has never wavered in his conviction that he was treated unjustly by Landis, but as his testimony before Celler’s subcommittee would illustrate, he endorsed Landis’s subsequent actions as baseball’s powerful Commissioner.
Ray Fisher fared quite well in the 30 years between taking the Michigan coaching job and his appearance as a Congressional witness. During the interval his Michigan teams won nine Big Ten championships outright and shared the championship on four other occasions. And although the Landis-sanctioned ban denied him lucrative summer employment in the major leagues while he was still in his physical prime, he was not wanting for things to do. His collateral duties as freshman football and basketball coach kept him occupied, but he still found time to work with Matt Mann, Michigan’s famed swimming coach, at Mann’s summer sports camp near North Bay, Ontario. In addition to that, Ray took members of his varsity teams to Japan (with playing stopovers in Hawaii) in 1929 and 1932 for games with Japanese college teams.
Between 1935 and 1950 he coached baseball nine summers in New England’s Northern League, an “independent” league in which young professional hopefuls, many of whom came from the college ranks, could sharpen their skills. (The most notable of these players was Hall of Famer Robin Roberts, who pitched for Ray’s Barre-Montpelier team in 1946 and 1947. When Roberts was later asked to evaluate Ray’s influence on his career, he replied, “Ray taught me how to pitch.”) The league disbanded after the 1950 season, so Ray spent the summer of 1951 coaching a team in distant New Brunswick, Canada. It was while he was in New Brunswick that he was subpoenaed by Emanuel Celler’s Subcommittee on the Study of Monopoly Power.
Judge Landis’s 1921 ruling declaring Ray ineligible provided the link between Ray and the congressional committee. Among the materials read by John P. Stevens, Associate Counsel for the Subcommittee, in preparation for the hearings on Organized Baseball was J. G. Taylor Spink’s book on Landis, published in 1947, two years after Judge Landis’s death. Stevens seized upon Spink’s account of Ray’s ouster from professional baseball and determined that Ray should travel to Washington, D.C. to give his version of the incident.
Ray arrived in Washington on August 4, 1951, and that evening he was visited by Stevens, who, in addition to Spink’s book, had obtained from the files of Commissioner Landis his June 14, 1921 memo in which Pat Moran was quoted as categorically refusing to give Ray permission to go to Ann Arbor to investigate the Michigan coaching offer. Stevens had also uncovered the New York Times item of April 9, 1921, quoting Cincinnati sources that Ray had been placed on the voluntary retired list. He brought all of these items with him for his evening meeting with Ray during which he outlined committee procedure.
Ray had never before laid eyes on the Landis memo and he was taken aback by Moran’s testimony, but if Stevens, who impressed Ray as being unsympathetic to the reserve clause, had anticipated a shocked and indignant response, he was no doubt disappointed. Ray could see no good being derived from raking over old coals. “I told him,” Ray states emphatically, “that baseball had been good to me. It was my livelihood and I didn’t have anything to say that would embarrass it.” On that note Stevens departed, rather precipitously Ray thought, but the following day he gave Ray every opportunity to testify at length. Ray had nothing but praise for Landis, as the following exchange between Stevens, Ray and Chairman Celler taken from the transcript of the hearing illustrates:
Mr. Stevens: Mr. Fisher, I wonder if you would like to comment on your feelings in general about the actions of Commissioner Landis.
Mr. Fisher: I, of course, am older now and I regret very much that I did not follow up and make an appointment with Mr. Landis. I think probably at the time he saw me it was right after he had put the Black Sox on the retired list, and I must have reminded him of them when he saw me. That is the only thing that I can imagine. And, if I had taken Mr. Aigler from the law office and gone over and made an appointment with him, I have every reason to think that! would have been reinstated immediately.
Chairman Celler: Does this point up the need for having some right of appeal when a decision is rendered against a player?
Mr. Fisher: I think probably I had the right of appeal there, had I availed myself to it. I blame myself, possibly, for not using
I have the highest respect for Mr. Landis. I think that if he had realized. . . he would have lifted the suspension immediately.
Chairman Celler: Do you think that a player thould have some sort of right of appeal to a board of arbitration or some such tribunal as has been indicated here in the event of decisions of that or a similar character?
Mr. Fisher: It is my opinion, if you could have a man of the integrity of Landis, it would not be necessary.
Ray was 64 years old when he testified before the Congressional committee, but his baseball career was far from over. He returned to Michigan and in April 1952 began his 32nd season as Wolverine coach. In 1953 his Michigan team scaled the heights of college baseball by winning the College World Series and the National Collegiate Athletic Association championship. For his efforts Ray’s fellow coaches voted him “College Baseball Coach of the Year.”
Ray completed his 38th and final year as Michigan’s baseball mentor in 1958 with a cumulative won-lost record of 661-292 for a .696 winning percentage, but he had no desire to retire completely. In 1959 he served as pitching coach for his successor and former student, Don Lund, who had concluded his major league playing career with the Detroit Tigers. The following year at age 72, with his banishment long-forgotten, Ray signed on with the National League’s Milwaukee Braves as a coach to work with their pitchers during spring training. (Had his wife been willing, he might have accepted the Braves’ offer to extend his assignment into the regular season.) In 1963 he switched his professional affiliation from the Braves to the Tigers after Don Lund returned to that organization as Director of Player Development. Ray coached pitchers at Detroit’s Lakeland, Florida, spring training site for three seasons. Hence Ray’s final and 58th year in baseball as a player or coach was 1965 when he was in his 78th year. Only then was he willing to rest on his laurels.
By 1965 the laurels were beginning to accumulate, for during the decade of the 1960s Ray did not want for recognition. He was inducted into both the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame and the College Baseball Hall of Fame in Washington, D.C. In 1964 the University Regents accepted a gift to establish the Ray L. Fisher Scholarship that is awarded annually to the person voted by his fellow team members as “Most Valuable Player.” However, the ultimate accolade from the Regents came in May 1970 when they endorsed the Athletic Department’s evaluation of Ray as “one of the greatest college coaches of all time” and re-dedicated Michigan’s baseball facility as “Ray Fisher Stadium.”
Having reviewed the career of Ray Fisher, one can only conclude that he was deserving of the honors he received while his permanent ouster from major league baseball simply wasn’t justified. Recent attempts to vindicate Ray and restore him fully to baseball’s good graces by appealing to Commissioner Bowie Kuhn have been but partially successful.
Commissioner Kuhn’s involvement with the Fisher case came in response to letters he received from Henry W. Caswell, a Vermont friend of Ray’s, and from former President Gerald R. Ford, who was the center on Ray’s 1931 freshman football team. Each had received an expanded version of this article from Ray’s grandson. In his letter to Mr. Caswell, who requested a clarification of Ray’s status, Commissioner Kuhn, who had also been sent a manuscript of the article, replied, “While Mr. Fisher was made ineligible in 1921 for not complying with his 1921 Cincinnati contract, you should feel free to advise Mr. Fisher that I view him as a retired player in good standing,” and concluded, “I can confirm, incidentally, that he is the oldest living player to have appeared in a World Series game.”
In his reply to President Ford, whose “Dear Bowie” letter of October 30, 1980, expressed the former president’s conviction that “it would be proper for remedial action at this time . . . [for] … a wonderful 93-year-old gentleman who has given so much of his life to baseball,” the Commissioner referred to his enclosed letter to Mr. Caswell and reiterated, “. . . we consider Mr. Fisher to be a retired player in good standing,” and added, “Your letter only further convinces me that I was right in reaching this conclusion.” On the same day the Commissioner wrote to President Ford, he also wrote a warm note to Ray in which he clarified his retired status and enclosed a copy of President Ford’s letter.
Bowie Kuhn’s action thus far on behalf of Ray Fisher is, of course, appreciated, but as Ray’s grandson noted in a letter to the Commissioner, it does not address the problem of Ray’s having been declared ineligible in the first place, and therefore leaves the original record unmodified.
In his response to this point, Bowie Kuhn contended that “the general perception of Ray Fisher’s major league career is that it is in good standing [in that] the various baseball encyclopedias show his major league record without comment.” He further explained, “. . . we have already sent a copy of my letter to the Hall of Fame to be added to his permanent library file. We believe this erases any question. We would be happy to send this information to others who you have reason to believe may question his status.”
The Commissioner’s offer is a generous one but it will do Ray little good as far as posterity is concerned because contrary to what Commissioner Kuhn has been told, Ray’s lifetime ineligibility is in the public record. In the most recent (1979) edition of Grosset and Dunlap’s standard reference, The Sports Encyclopedia: Baseball, to cite one example, the entry for Ray Fisher includes the career-code designator “DL,” which one learns stands for “Declared ineligible for life by commissioner.”
An unjustified and ominous notation mars the record of a distinguished career, but setting the record straight could be a simple matter. As Ray’s entry in the Sports Encyclopedia illustrates, the cumulative baseball record is festooned with cryptic abbreviations and asterisks indicating modifications to the record without reference to time or circumstance. Were Commissioner Kuhn to make formally an official statement restoring Fisher’s eligibility, it follows :hat future generations of historians would no doubt find in baseball encyclopedias the designation “ER” added to Ray’s entry: “Eligibility restored upon appeal to the commissioner.” It also would restore full dignity to one of the oldest and noblest of them all.