The Joe Cronin Trade And the Senators’ Decline

This article was written by Jerry Hannan

This article was published in the 1989 Baseball Research Journal


Washington is the only city to have lost two major-league teams. In its last twenty-five years as an American League franchise, the nation’s Capital never even reached the first division. But its greatest single misfortune may have taken place on October 26, 1934, when owner Clark Griffith sent Joe Cronin to the Red Sox for $225,000 and Lyn Lary. In terms of Washington infamy, that date ranks second only to Pearl Harbor Day.

Was this the worst trade ever? How did it compare with the trade of Lou Brock (and some never-to-be-heard-of’s-again) for Ernie Broglio? Or Nellie Fox for Joe Tipton? Hard to say. In any case, the circumstances that dictated the Cronin trade included more than just playing talent. Clark Griffith surely was astute enough to know that Lyn Lary wasn’t comparable in any way with Cronin, but in that Depression era Griffith probably needed the $225,000 to stay in business. Yet it’s hard to imagine any deal that resulted in a faster unraveling of a franchise.

To understand the enormity of that trade, it’s necessary to appreciate what had transpired in the preceding years. Washington entered the American League in 1901 and struggled for respectability for more than two decades. In 1924 the Senators won the pennant and defeated the New York Giants in the World Series. They also won the pennant in 1925 and had the Pirates down 3 games to 1 before losing the Series. There followed seven years in which the Senators did well, but never as well as the Yankees or Philadelphia Athletics. During that period the Senators were not really serious contenders despite having some quality players.

Cronin became a regular in 1929-not just a regular but a good fielder and an excellent hitter. During his first four years there was a steady correlation between his batting and the team’s standing in the league:

 

Year Cronin’s
average
Senators’
standing
1929   .281  5th
1930   .346  2nd
1931  .306  3rd
1932  .318  3rd

 

In 1933, Cronin was named the playing manager. He was all of twenty-six years old. Help immediately arrived, as Griffith acquired lefthanded pitchers Earl Whitehill and Walter Stewart and reliever Jack Russell. In lesser transactions Griffith picked up Fred Schulte, Luke Sewell, and Goose Goslin-the latter having been a Senator standout in their glory days. With Cronin hitting .309, driving in 118 runs, turning double plays with Buddy Myer, and baiting the umps-in dramatic contrast to his deliberate predecessor, Walter Johnson-the Senators won the pennant. They were no match for the Giants in the World Series, losing 4 games to 1, but Washington fans could not have been disappointed with the 1933 season.

In 1934 the bubble broke. Cronin’s average dropped 25 points, Joe Kuhel’s fell 33, General Al Crowder degenerated from a league-leading 24 wins to 4, and Whitehall won 14 games instead of 22. The team dropped to seventh place in one of the more dramatic turnarounds in baseball history. Many veterans had lost the touch after their one blockbuster of a season. There was some hope for the 1935 season, however, because Cecil Travis had shown that he could hit (.3 19) and Johnny Stone had a good year at .315. Maybe with a little luck and a few off-season deals by the Old Fox, the Senators could be back in the hunt. Instead, Clark Griffith, short of cash, disposed of his most valuable asset by peddling Cronin to the Red Sox for the aforementioned $225,000 and Lyn Lary. To put this in perspective, imagine the Baltimore Orioles trading Cal Ripken for a truckload of cash and Mike Fischlin! Lary didn’t finish the 1935 season, and the Senators finished in sixth. Succeeding years saw them finish fourth, sixth, fifth, sixth, seventh, seventh, and seventh before rising to second in the 1943 war year.

None of those teams would have won the pennant, but with Cronin at shortstop they might well have contended. An infield of Kuhel, Myer, Cronin, and Travis would have been among the league’s best until Kuhel was traded after the 1938 season. Their contact-hitting style was perfect for Griffith Stadium’s vast outfield. But once Cronin was gone, the Senators were on their way out, too.

JERRY HANNAN is a chemist at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C.

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