1928 Winter Meetings: The Draft Mess and Glimpses into the Future

This article was written by Silvio Sansano - Marshall Adesman

This article was published in the


Introduction

The annual baseball winter meetings of 1928 took place in three cities. The National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues (the minors) went north for its 27th annual convention, filling the King Edward Hotel in Toronto from December 5 to 7. The chief topic of conversation was a continuation of 1927’s primary sticking point, the drafting of players by teams in higher classifications, including the major leagues. The National League met on December 10 and 11 at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York, and American League moguls were in Chicago’s Congress Hotel on December 11 and 12. Just for good measure, all major-league owners got together at the Congress Hotel on December 13, with Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis presiding. At that session a surprise topic was a radical idea unexpectedly proposed by John Heydler, president of the National League.

 

Northern Exposure

The minor-league gathering in Toronto was described as “the biggest meeting the minor leagues ever held.”1 There were, in fact, some 500 delegates to this convention, including a large contingent of major-league “observers,”2 who were there for two reasons: to make trades or at least begin talking about deals that might be completed the next week when the big leaguers met in New York and Chicago; and to see what sort of draft recommendations the NAPBL would put forth.

As usual the first order of business was the annual report by Secretary-Treasurer John Farrell, in which he announced that 208 teams in 30 leagues had qualified for membership in 1928; three leagues folded during the course of the season while one failed to start altogether.3 President Mike Sexton, in his annual address, deplored the fact that some smaller leagues could not afford to journey to the convention and suggested that future gatherings be held in central locations, like West Baden, Indiana.4 This recommendation was eventually rejected by the membership when they selected Chattanooga, Tennessee, as the site for their 1929 meeting.5

As you might expect when so many people are gathered in the same place, a great deal of activity took place on several fronts, including rumors that proved to be unfounded. There were reports, for instance, that Harry Williams, president of the Pacific Coast League (Class AA), was investigating the possibility of putting together a new league that would feature cities in Washington state and western Canada and would serve, in effect, as a farm for his PCL. On the other side of the country, John Toole, president of the Class AA International League, said that George Stallings, the manager of the 1914 Miracle Braves of Boston, would return to the helm of the Montreal Royals. Stallings had been forced by health concerns to step down during the 1928 season. As it turned out, the PCL rumor was untrue, and Stallings died just five months after the meetings.6

By and large the Toronto meetings proved to be a lively affair, with several former major leaguers signing to manage in the minors, including former New York Giants teammates Jack Bentley and Heinie Groh, who took over York (Class-B New York-Pennsylvania) and Hartford (Class-A Eastern), respectively.7 George Burns, who had played in the Polo Grounds before Bentley and Groh, agreed to manage Springfield in the Eastern League, while Eugene “Bubbles” Hargrave, the first catcher to win a major-league batting championship (he hit .353 with Cincinnati in 1926), was sent to St. Paul of the Class-AA American Association as manager, with right-hander Paul Zahniser going to Cincinnati in return.8 Former White Sox skipper Clarence “Pants” Rowland took charge of the Nashville Volunteers of the Class-A Southern Association; former Yankees infielder Fritz Maisel moved into the Class-AA Baltimore Orioles’ (International League) dugout; and Steve O’Neill also went to the IL as the leader of the Toronto Maple Leafs. This proved to be the first of numerous managerial assignments for the former catcher, highlighted by a World Series triumph with Detroit in 1945.9

There were some interesting twists to a handful of managerial assignments. Former major-league righty Allan Sothoron became a first-time skipper, with Louisville of the Class-AA American Association. This took place, however, after Bert Niehoff had already been told the job was his!  Nowadays one would expect a noisy lawsuit, but the former Atlanta Crackers leader landed on his feet by joining the New York Giants as a coach.10 Future Hall of Famer Tris Speaker hung up his spikes to manage Newark in the Class-AA International League. Speaker having been Cleveland’s player-manager for eight years (and winning the 1920 World Series), it was natural to assume, as Francis Powers did in The Sporting News, that “(it) will only be a matter of time until Spoke is recalled to the majors as a manager.”11 It never happened, however, and after the 1933 season Speaker was only occasionally involved with baseball.

Other managerial moves found Wilbur Good agreeing to lead Atlanta in the Class-A Southern Association, Frank “Pop” Kitchens taking the reins in Tampa (Class-B Southeastern League), and Lester “Pat” Patterson going to Dubuque of the Class-D Mississippi Valley League.12

There were also some small player transactions generated in Toronto that involved men whose names have pretty much passed into history.  For example, a couple of Pacific Coast League teams made moves: The Los Angeles Angels sold the rights to second baseman Gale Staley to Portland for cash, and the neighboring Hollywood Stars purchased outfielder Joe Bonowitz and infielder Hod Kibbie.13 A couple of trades involved players who would make more of a mark in succeeding years. The Red Sox shipped infielder Billy Rogell and right-hander William “Slim” Harriss to St. Paul of the (Class-AA) American Association in exchange for catcher Alex Gaston and outfielder Russ Scarritt.14 While Scarritt had a couple of good seasons in Boston before washing out, Rogell would resurface in Detroit in 1930 and became the starting shortstop for the Tigers’ back-to-back American League champions of 1934 and 1935. The Tigers sent three players to Toronto of the International League in exchange for first baseman Dale Alexander and righty John Prudhomme, plus cash.15 Prudhomme won exactly one game for Detroit but Alexander was a solid hitter, compiling a lifetime batting average of .331. He led the AL with 215 hits in 1929 and won the batting title in 1932 with a .367 mark. (He started the season with the Tigers and was traded to Boston in June.)  

In other action, the Class-C Piedmont League allowed its teams to carry as many as four rookies on their 14-man rosters, up from two in 1928. It set its season to end on the Saturday after Labor Day, after which the top two teams would play a best-of-seven series to determine the league champion.16 Former major-league executive Joe Cantillon became the American Association’s umpire-in-chief, while Dale Gear was re-elected president of the Class-A Western League.17 International League President John Toole was also re-elected, but his powers were cut. A move to oust Toole was thwarted by a compromise in which a three-man executive committee was appointed to take over most presidential duties, making Toole little more than a figurehead.18

Several teams announced spring-training sites. Rochester of the International League moved from Monroe, Louisiana, to Plant City, Florida, while Buffalo announced it would be in Palmetto, Florida. The Dallas Stars of the Texas League, having given the White Sox permission to train in their park, said they would work out the kinks in Corsicana, Texas.19

The Washington Senators announced that they would train in Tampa, Florida, but the Southeastern League, of which Tampa was a member, told Washington owner Clark Griffith that it would either like a share of the Sunday gate receipts, or be allowed to play a couple of Sunday exhibition games. Griffith was not interested in turning over any money, and reminded the mayor of Tampa that he had a lease on the playing field and, what’s more, had paid off the team’s debts in 1927 in exchange for his current spring-training arrangement. The Old Fox got his way – money always speaks loudly – but he did not forget. After training in Tampa in 1929, the Senators moved their spring base to Biloxi, Mississippi, in 1930 and then to Orlando in 1936, where they stayed for many years, except for the travel-restricted World War II seasons of 1943-1945.20

An entire league got stonewalled. A proposed revival of the Michigan-Ontario League was put off when NAPBL Secretary John Farrell informed organizers that there were financial claims still outstanding against one or two of the proposed franchises.21 An Ontario League came into being in 1930 (does this mean that the cities at fault were in Michigan?), but it folded after just one season. And a team tried to stonewall its association, as the Piedmont League had to hold up many of its operations –especially creating its schedule – while waiting for the Greensboro Patriots to try to come up with $3,500 to guarantee that it would be able to operate in 1929.22

Several franchises were openly for sale. The Baltimore Orioles, a training ground for so many great players over the years, including Babe Ruth and Lefty Grove, went on the market after owner Jack Dunn died in an accident just weeks before the Toronto meetings.23 Akron of the Class-B Central League was also available, as was Columbus (Georgia) of the Southeastern League, which announced it was taking sealed bids.24 In Nashville, owner Rogers Caldwell was buying out his partners so he could become the sole owner of the Southern Association’s Volunteers. Since he was a close business associate of the Yankees’ principal owner, Jacob Ruppert, this led to speculation that he would sell all or part of the club to the reigning World Series champions, or at least sign on as one of their affiliates.25 The Yankees, meanwhile, bought control of the Syracuse team in the Class-B New York-Pennsylvania League, and were poised to take charge of the Chambersburg club of the Class-D Blue Ridge League, while across the Harlem River, the Giants purchased “a controlling interest” in Bridgeport of the Eastern League.26

All of this, however, took a back seat to two important pieces of business. One was the rule that allowed a franchise to control the territory for 10 miles around it (from home plate, to be specific). This was brought up because there was talk of placing teams in Kansas City (Kansas) and Windsor, Ontario. The 10-mile rule was invoked by Kansas City (Missouri) of the American Association and the Detroit Tigers in the American League, blocking any new club.27 Dale Gear, president of the Western League, fearing the rule would be successfully challenged in court, suggested that an exception be permitted when a state line was crossed. This would have allowed the Western League to move to Kansas City, Kansas. His idea was voted down.28

While the 10-mile regulation was important and had long-lasting ramifications, it was the draft rule that was the talk of Toronto.  Adopted seven years earlier in order to help guide relations between teams in the majors and minors, it was now proving to be a bone of contention within the NAPBL itself. Most minor-league teams were in favor of unlimited selection of players, allowing a team from a higher classification to claim the contracts of players from teams in lower classifications. At that time the modern farm system was not only just in its infancy, but was openly discouraged by Commissioner Landis. Selecting players from a lower classification was an established method for bringing fresh talent to the higher-level club and for providing the lower-level team with much-needed cash. But the three Double-A leagues, plus the Western League (Class A) and Three-I League (Class B), preferred a different approach, lobbying for a system in which players could be drafted only if they had already been sent down by a major-league team.29 This greatly favored the top classifications, making it less than popular with the majority of the NAPBL rank-and-file. 

Judge William Bramham, who was the head of three minor leagues and would later become president of the NAPBL,30brought a compromise to Toronto. Bramham suggested that if a player had originally been signed into a league in which the draft was in effect, he would always be subject to the draft, no matter where he had played in any given year.31 In this way, all leagues would be treated equally when it came to drafting players. 

Baseball’s five-man Advisory Council also weighed in with a proposal. This committee was made up of Landis, John Heydler and Ernest Barnard, presidents of the National and American Leagues, respectively, and Mike Sexton and John Farrell of the NAPBL. Under their proposal, a major-league team could option up to 12 players to the minors (up from the 1928 limit of eight); it could sign no more than four players without any minor-league experience in 1929, three in 1930 and then just two thereafter; no Double-A player could be drafted by a major-league team if he had not been in Organized Baseball for at least four years; and higher draft prices, originally proposed in 1926, would be adopted.32

Neither of the compromises could muster enough support. In fact, despite the fact that a majority of teams and leagues favored unlimited selection, the power wielded by the three Double-A leagues and their two lower-level cohorts prevented the NAPBL from making a firm decision in Toronto. It was decided that the matter would be dealt with at a separate conference dedicated solely to resolving the issue. Mike Sexton’s favorite gathering spot, West Baden, Indiana, was chosen as the site for a January10 meeting that would feature three representatives from Class AA, one from each Class A league, and five other men to speak for all the other classifications. The major leagues would also be asked to send people to West Baden so that their interests could be heard.33

Before leaving Canada, the delegates were treated to a speech by Commissioner Landis, who paid tribute to Toronto, acknowledging the importance of its recreational and sporting development, and thanked all Canadians for their efforts during the Great War.34 And with that, having deferred the important draft issue for another month and having already chosen Chattanooga to be the site for the 1929 confab, the lively NAPBL meetings came to a close.

 

New York State of Mind

The National League set up shop at New York’s swank Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on December 10 for two days of meetings preparing for the 1929 season. Early speculation on personnel changes centered on the local teams. Having finished just two games behind the Cardinals in the 1928 pennant race, Giants manager John McGraw decided he needed a little more pitching and set his sights on one of two right-handers deemed expendable by the Cincinnati Reds, Dolph Luque and Peter Donohue. The New York Times’s John Drebinger, one of the leading sportswriters of his day, stated explicitly  that the Giants had “virtually … closed a deal with … the Reds” that would bring either or both of these veterans to the Polo Grounds,35 no deal came to pass. Meanwhile, in Brooklyn, there were rumors that Wilbert Robinson, who had been managing the Robins since 1914 (and had been team president since 1925), might lose both of those posts. Since they won the pennant in 1920, the Robins had finished in the first division only once, and the frequent odd occurrences that took place during their games had made them better known as the Daffiness Boys than for being serious pennant contenders.36 Two of Robinson’s veteran players, outfielder Max Carey and shortstop Dave Bancroft (both future Hall of Famers) were rumored to be interested in taking over the team’s managerial duties if Uncle Robbie got the sack.37 

None of that scuttlebutt proved to have any substance. Brooklyn did make news, though, by completing a major trade, sending southpaw Jess Petty and infielder Harry Riconda to the Pittsburgh Pirates for shortstop Glenn Wright.38 This immediately brought up the question of Bancroft’s future in Brooklyn, but Robinson said he planned to keep him because “he is too good a man to let go.”39 Robinson kept his word on Bancroft but would lose the presidency a year later, and was fired as manager after the 1931 season, and replaced by Max Carey.

There was one other deal involving a notable name. After an eight-year absence, Boston brought shortstop Rabbit Maranville back to his original club, purchasing his contract (and that of outfielder George Harper) from the Cardinals.40Despite having just turned 37 years old, Maranville would be the Braves’ everyday shortstop for the next three years before moving over to second base for his final two seasons as a regular, on his way to a 1954 Hall of Fame induction.

A few other people made some news during these NL meetings. One of the league’s most distinguished umpires, Bill Klem, resigned.41 While no official reason was given, two stories circulated. One was that he was upset over not having been asked to officiate at either of the past two World Series; the other said his continuing problems with the Giants, which included serious threats to his safety, prevented him from continuing in the post he had held since 1905.42  Writing in The Sporting News, Joe Vila commented that the future Hall of Famer was “a capable, fearless and honest official,” and that league President Heydler “will persuade him to change his mind, for his permanent retirement would be a detriment to the National Game.” And in fact Heydler did prove to be successful in keeping Klem around, with the Old Arbitrator staying on until 1941, when he became the National League’s umpire-in-chief until his death in 1951.43

While Klem was, temporarily at least, eager to give up the life of an umpire, another person eagerly embraced it; The Pacific Coast League sold the contract of arbiter George Magerkurth to the National League. A former professional boxer, he would become known over the next 19 years for being cantankerous and pugnacious, and was indirectly responsible for the addition of a screen attached to the inside of the foul poles.44 At the time of his move to the NL, the Christian Science Monitor rather amusingly wrote that Magerkurth “has been an efficient umpire on the coast. His name, however, is too long. … (W)hen he comes to the majors he will be known as ‘Mager.’”45 He actually was called “Mage” throughout his career.

Judge Emil Fuchs had been part of a small group, fronted by Christy Mathewson, that had purchased the Boston Braves in 1922. Mathewson was scheduled to be the team president but when his tuberculosis made that impossible, Fuchs assumed the role. In 1928 the Braves lost 103 games under two managers, and when dire financial straits forced Fuchs to sell off his star player-manager Rogers Hornsby, Fuchs announced that he would manage the club in 1929. Modern-day commissioners might have stepped in and told him no (Bowie Kuhn did just that with Ted Turner), but Landis didn’t say a word and Fuchs would lead the Braves to a 56-98 record in 1929, good for dead last in the National League. In 1930 Bill McKechnie was the manager; Fuchs sold the team in 1935.46

A couple of old catchers found major-league employment. Hank Gowdy, whose .545 batting average and five extra-base hits had led the Miracle Braves to a World Series triumph in 1914, returned to the team as a coach.47 And Gabby Street, whose chief claim to fame as a player had been catching a baseball dropped from the Washington Monument in 1908, was signed to be a manager in the Cardinals’ farm system.48 He had been leading minor-league teams since 1920 and had spent the previous three years in the Class-B South Atlantic League. The new connection benefited Street. McKechnie’s Cardinals had won the pennant in 1928, but were swept by the Yankees in the World Series. St. Louis fired him and hired Billy Southworth to be their skipper; Southworth added Street as one of his coaches. Things did not go well for the defending champs (who finished fourth), with Southworth being booted after just 88 games in favor of McKechnie. Deacon Bill, however, bolted for Boston at the end of the season, at which time Street was handed the reins and won back-to-back National League pennants in 1930 and ’31, topped by a World Series triumph in the latter year.

In administrative matters, Heydler reported that NL attendance for 1928 had fallen below 5 million, a decrease of 400,000 from 1927. To no one’s surprise, he was re-elected as league president.49 In a very forward-thinking action that still resonates today, National League owners decided that all of their fields needed to have telephone hookups between the dugouts and the press boxes.50 Two pieces of business were deferred until a meeting to be held in New York in February.  Boston residents had just voted, by better than three to one, to allow Sunday baseball. The City Council was required by law to wait at least 30 days before they could act, but they were expected to ratify the voters’ overwhelming decision, which would, naturally, affect the 1929 schedule.51 Also placed on the agenda for February was the rule about interference and blocking a runner, especially at home plate, which was based on a Cubs-Giants game played at the Polo Grounds in late September.52 

The Cubs sent several players down to the minors. One eventually resurfaced and etched his name into the record books. Earl Webb was a left-handed-hitting outfielder who had been a part-time player for the Cubs when they sent him to their Los Angeles farm team.53 After a big year on the Coast, Webb found his way to the Red Sox, and in 1931 he cracked out 67 doubles, as of 2015 still the major-league single-season record. It would not be the last time that a player thrived, even for a short time, after leaving Wrigley Field.

Other items needed to be dealt with, but since they would affect both leagues, they were held for the joint session scheduled for later in the week. So the NL owners found their way to Chicago while their American League counterparts prepared for their own meeting.

 

Let’s Make a Deal

The final day of the National League meeting, December 11, was the first day for the AL conclave, held at the Congress Hotel in Chicago. Perhaps because of the league’s competitive imbalance – the Yankees had won 101 games in 1928 and the A’s had won 98, but only one other club (the Browns) had finished above .500 – there were few trades of note in addition to the Dale Alexander deal, which had already been completed at the minor-league convention.

The player who generated the most interest was Red Sox third baseman Buddy Myer, who was being eyed by several clubs. Myer had originally come up with Washington, but was traded to Boston early in the 1927 season and proceeded to become one of the top infielders in the game, batting .313 and stealing a league-leading 30 bases. The last-place Red Sox were in the midst of rebuilding and were willing to part with Myer, though according to Washington owner Clark Griffith, Boston wanted “a whole flock of players for him.”54 With several suitors, it was no wonder that Red Sox president Bob Quinn could place a high price on Myer, and the much-anticipated deal was completed on December 15 (shortly after the meetings concluded), with the winner being the Senators (or Nationals; both names were used by sportswriters of the era). Five players were sent to the Red Sox for Myer: right-handed pitchers Hod Lisenbee and Milt Gaston, infielders Bob Reeves and Grant Gillis, and outfielder Elliot Bigelow.55 Despite the odds, Washington came out way ahead in this deal. The two pitchers both had losing records in Boston, with Gaston losing 20 games in 1930 and leading the league in wild pitches twice. Reeves was handed the third-base job and batted just .248 in 1929 before becoming a part-time player, while Gillis and Bigelow made marginal contributions before heading back to the minors. For Washington, however, the addition of Myer solved long-term infield problems. Third baseman Ossie Bluege was moved to shortstop, but when he was injured, young Joe Cronin entered the lineup and began his Hall of Fame career. In 1930, Bluege went back to third base and Myer moved to second, where he would become one of the top players of the 1930s, helping the Senators reach the World Series in 1933 and winning the 1935 American League batting title with a .349 average.

Washington also traded Bucky Harris, who had not only played second base for the Senators since 1920 but had also been their manager since 1924, to Detroit for infielder Jack Warner, who wound up never playing an inning in the nation’s capital but instead split the 1929 season between Toledo and Brooklyn. Harris’s playing career was at its tag end, but he would manage in the majors almost continually until 1956. The Senators also announced that Walter Johnson would not pitch in 1929. The Big Train had been hired two months earlier as the team’s new manager (replacing Harris), and had not been an active player for more than a year. Johnson, who had managed Newark of the International League in 1928, would in fact never throw another competitive pitch again.

The Cleveland Indians were also active in Chicago. First general manager Billy Evans sent $50,000 to the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League for hard-hitting outfielder Earl Averill.56 Averill injected instant offense into the Indians lineup, batting .332 with 18 home runs (including one in his first major league at-bat) and 96 RBIs in his rookie season, and he went on to be a six-time All-Star and a 1975 Hall of Fame inductee. The Indians sent money and a couple of players to Kansas City (American Association) for 34-year-old left-hander Jim Zinn, who hadn’t pitched in the big leagues since 1922.57 That deal didn’t pan out, as Zinn went 4-6 with an ERA of 5.04, and spent 10 more years in the minor leagues. Finally, Evans pulled the trigger on the second big trade of the AL meetings when he sent 29-year-old right-hander George Uhle to Detroit for shortstop Jackie Tavener and pitcher Ken Holloway. Uhle had been a mainstay in Cleveland, winning 20 or more games three times, including two years when he led the league in victories. But he had been under .500 for two straight seasons and, in spite of also being a good hitter (a .286 average with 17 RBIs in 1928, and a .289 lifetime average), he was thought to be a poor influence on a couple of players, which paved the way for the trade.58 The deal worked out a little better for the Tigers than for the Indians. Holloway won just seven games in a Cleveland uniform, Tavener batted just .212, and both were back in the minors by 1931. Uhle had a good year in 1929 but was mediocre after that. One of the long-term outcomes of this trade, however, was that Uhle was credited with the invention of the slider. Pitching batting practice against teammate Harry Heilman one day, Uhle experimented with a new pitch, releasing the baseball off his middle finger. Heilman had never seen that pitch before and thought it was a new curveball, but Uhle said, “Hey, that’s not a curve. That ball was sliding.” 59

At least three clubs were thinking spring: The Giants declared they would train in San Antonio, while the Tigers said they would be in Phoenix. The Red Sox announced that they would head back to Bradenton, Florida, for the second straight spring, and they were also debating the merits of offering a contract to a college outfielder named Ken Strong. Strong was the Bo Jackson of his era, a multidimensional football star at New York University who excelled as a running back, placekicker, punter, and passer, and was expected to join the NFL after graduation. Like Jackson (and John Elway and numerous others), Strong wound up playing both sports, and was elected to both the college and professional football Halls of Fame. He played three years of minor-league baseball – probably to help supplement his income – while starring in the NFL.60

Under the category of “sound and fury,” Yankees manager Miller Huggins let it be known that he was willing to “dismantle” his club if he could complete certain trades.61 Over the years many teams have been torn apart, but rarely after winning a World Series (the 1997 Florida Marlins immediately come to mind), but Huggins, for whatever reason, was threatening to do just that. It did not happen; the Yankees, in fact, made no significant changes heading into 1929 and won a very respectable 88 games, good enough for second place. Huggins died suddenly just before the season ended.

 

The Future Is Just Around the Corner

On December 13 the two leagues met together under the overall auspices of Commissioner Landis, in the same Chicago hotel, the Congress, that had just played host to the AL moguls. Landis was unequivocally opposed to the minor leagues serving as a farm system for the majors, believing that this system, dubbed “chain-store baseball,” restricted player movement. So when it came to his attention that several teams already owned or controlled minor-league clubs and several more were thinking of following suit, he asked for all owners to give him an accounting of their current or potential holdings.62 It was unclear what the commissioner planned to do with this information; indeed, if he was working behind the scenes to maintain the independence of the minor leagues, he failed completely. The one matter that had been the chief issue in Toronto was quickly shot down – both major leagues agreed that they would not attend the draft conference the minors had scheduled for January which, according to The Sporting News, “was equivalent to telling the minors to get busy and straighten out the troublesome question among themselves.”63 (The minors quickly canceled their West Baden meeting and issued a statement that the draft rules would remain the same for the immediate future, which did not thrill the Double-A leagues, who hinted at a possible secession from the NAPBL.64 Cooler heads eventually prevailed.)

With one other exception, the one-day joint session took up administrative matters of interest to both leagues. Having suffered through a series of springtime postponements and subsequent doubleheaders later in the season because of inclement weather, the leagues decided that the 1929 season would begin and end a week later, running from April 16 until October 6. It was recognized that this would bring baseball into conflict with football, but that was felt to be a necessary evil.65 The Sporting News applauded this move, saying there would be plenty of room for the complete schedule to be played without doubleheaders being crammed into September,66 and added this interesting comment: “If there is a World Series (italics added) it will be an easier matter to arrange it in October. …”67     

A rule change ended the practice of minor-league teams selling a star prospect to a friendly major-league club for a high price, having the player returned at a later date and then, when it put him back on the open market, forcing another big-league club to pay the already established price. In addition, the leagues banned the signing of any player under the age of 17, and set a pricetag of $7,500 on any first-year player.68

The magnates agreed to donate $50,000 to the American Legion to help finance a tournament of junior ballplayers.69 It was also agreed that the major leagues and minor leagues would each donate $5,000 a year for the next five years to the Association of Professional Ball Players, an organization that had been formed to help out former players who were struggling financially.70

And beyond the discussion of the schedule and playing into the football season, there were other glimpses into a future era. The Baseball Writers Association of America appointed a committee to speak with the American and National League presidents to discuss ways to improve the scoring system. The BBWAA was hoping to get the leagues to hire independent and impartial people to serve as official scorers at all games so that its members would not feel beholden to any major-league club.71  It would take more than 50 years to effect this change.

Then there was the suggestion made by National League President John Heydler. Never previously mistaken for a radical or Bolshevik, at the joint meeting Heydler surprisingly asked the assembled owners to consider an idea that would, quite simply, revolutionize the game.  Saying only that he wanted to “give club owners … something to think over … at a future meeting,” Heydler suggested turning the traditional starting nine into a 10-man team with the addition of a permanent pinch-hitter for the pitcher, i.e., a designated hitter.72

It is impossible to determine, all these years later, what made Heydler think of this, but it certainly had the capability of changing the game in a variety of ways. Managers would have to rethink the batting order from top to bottom, while pitchers would need to focus only on pitching. It was thought that some outfielders might protest against this idea, since for many years the outfield had been the last haven for an aging slugger. On the other hand, good-hitting pitchers (like George Uhle) might also object, since they enjoyed swinging the bat. Most pitchers, however, took little batting practice, so they were not very well prepared when they stepped into the batter’s box. They also wasted a lot of energy running the bases, thus possibly hurting their effectiveness when they got back on the mound. Heydler asserted that quite frequently a pitcher was replaced by a pinch-hitter not because he was tiring, but because it was simply his turn to bat, and his idea would allow managers to keep an effective pitcher in the game.73 Heydler also believed that hurlers would be able to improve their pitching skills if they did not have to worry about hitting, and he also thought his idea could help speed up the game.74

Heydler also speculated that minor-league clubs could possibly benefit from the new rule change. The majors were often reluctant to spend upward of $50,000 for a great hitter who was not nearly as good in the field. With this designated-hitter rule, a player’s defensive shortcomings would be a secondary concern, making it possible for minor-league teams to ask for, and receive, top dollar for top batting prospects.75

Heydler’s revolutionary proposal, however, fell flat at the joint meetings. No one from the American League expressed any interest, with new Tigers manager Bucky Harris saying it would ruin baseball and Indians skipper Roger Peckinpaugh adding that a “manager would not have a chance to do any masterminding.”76 The National League supported their leader, and the Washington Post found that the idea had its supporters and detractors among fans interviewed at random.77 But it had its impact: In an editorial, The Sporting News wrote that “there may come a time when such a departure (from tradition) is welcomed without anybody shrinking with fear. …”78 And that time would come more than 40 years later, on April 6, 1973, when Ron Blomberg of the New York Yankees faced Luis Tiant of the Boston Red Sox as the game’s first designated hitter.79 The DH is now used in virtually every league and conference, from kids games to the major leagues; ironically, it is not in effect in the National League, despite having first been proposed in 1928 by its president, John Heydler.

 

Summary

In contrast with many previous gatherings, the 1928 Winter Meetings were filled with hot topics and a couple of major transactions, plus numerous managerial hirings on the minor-league level.  The battle over the draft, the possible introduction of Sunday baseball in Boston, the increasing development of the farm system, and the overlapping schedule with football were all matters that would evolve as the years went on, but chief among them was John Heydler’s shocking idea to institute a designated hitter. Though it took more than four decades for this proposal to become a reality, Heydler proved to be a baseball visionary, and his initiative has left a lasting legacy on all levels of the game.

 

Sources

In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author also consulted:

Anderson, David. “Bill Klem,” SABR Baseball Biography Project, sabr.org/bioproj/person/31461b94, undated, accessed August 16, 2014.

Baseball Library 2006. “Charlton’s Baseball Chronology – 1928.”  baseballlibrary.com/chronology/byyear.php?year=1928#November (accessed May 29, 2011).

Cooper, George S. “Middle Atlantic Makeup Stands,” The Sporting News, December 6, 1928: 2.

Davis, Ralph. “Garden Directors Approve Sharkey-Stribling Go; Klem to Remain,” Pittsburgh Press, January 15, 1929: 35.

Drebinger, John. “Baseball Sessions Carded This Week,” New York Times, December 9, 1928: S-2.

Drebinger, John. “Detroit Gets Dale Alexander and Prudhomme from Toronto in $100,000 Deal,” New York Times, December 6, 1928: 42.

Dunkley, Charles W. “Heydler’s Idea Unsound, Is Decision,” Washington Post, December 13, 1928: 15.

Greene, Sam. “Detroit Jumps Into Big Money to Beat Off Rival Major Bidding,” The Sporting News, December 13, 1928: 1.

Pegler, Westbrook. “Ghost Hitters for Pitchers is New Plan for Old Idea,” Washington

Post, December 23, 1928: 15.

Semchuck, Alex. “Wilbert Robinson,” SABR Baseball Biography Project sabr.org/bioproj/person/5536caf5, undated, accessed August 18, 2014.

Thorn, John, Pete Palmer, Michael Gershman and David  Pietrusza, eds. Total Baseball: The Official Encyclopedia of Major League Baseball, Fifth Edition (New York: Viking Penguin, 1997).

Young, Frank H. “Griffith Plays Waiting Game as Buddy Myer deal nears,” Washington

Post, December 12, 1928: 17. 

—— “Nats Angle for Hunnefield In Triple Exchange if Deal for Myer Proves

Failure,” Washington Post, December 13, 1928: 15.

—— “Red Sox Asked to Hold Open Offer,” Washington Post, December 14,

1928: 15.

—— “Nats Obtain Myer, Trading 5 Players,” Washington Post, December

16, 1928: 1, 21.

—— “Red Sox Rate 3rd Baseman Highly,” Washington Post, December 8,

1928: 13.

“Draft Meet Spurned by Heydler,” Washington Post, December 11, 1928: 14.

sportsencyclopedia.com/al/wasdc/nats.html.

“Indians Trade Uhle for 2 Detroit Men,” New York Times, December 12, 1928: 44.

“Minor League Men Gather at Toronto: International and American Association Meetings Today,” New York Times, December 3, 2011: 33.

“Minor Leagues May Talk Draft at Session Today,” Washington Post, December 6, 1928: 18.

“Myer Decision by Griffith Due Today,” Washington Post, December 15, 1928: 15.

 

Notes

1 “Yankees Seek Buddy Myer or Bluege,” Washington  Post,  December 5, 1928:15.

2 “Major Leaguers Arrive at Minors’ Convention” Hartford Courant, December 5, 1928: 19.

3 “Report of Secretary Opens Minor Session,” The Sporting News, December 6, 1928: 1.

4 Brian Bell, “Baseball Heads to Talk Over Draft Today,” Los Angeles Times, December 6, 1928: B-1.

5 “Convention of Owners Shelves Baseball Draft,” Hartford Courant, December 7, 1928: 22.

6 “Trading Rapid on First Day,” Christian Science Monitor, December 6, 1928: 8; Joe Vila, “National League to Lose Klem, Who Is Peeved, New York Hears,” The Sporting News, December 6, 1928: 1;  baseball-reference.com.

7 “Trading Rapid on First Day,” Christian Science Monitor, December 6, 1928: 8.

8 “Baseball Trade Winds Blow Gale at Toronto Meet,” Chicago Daily Tribune, December 6, 1928: 25; Charles Dunkley, “10-Man Team Proposal is Tabled,” Washington Post, December 14, 1928: 15.

9 John Drebinger, “M’Graw Is on Trail of Luque-Donohue,” New York Times, December 7, 1928: 35; “Report of Secretary Opens Minor Session,” The Sporting News, December 6, 1928: 1; L.H.Addington, “Shopping and Swapping With the Minor Leaguers,” The Sporting News, December 13, 1928: 3, 7.

10 “Trading Rapid on First Day,” Christian Science Monitor, December 6, 1928: 8; Addington, L.H., “Shopping and Swapping.”

11 Francis J. Powers, “Evans Thumbs Over His Trading Stock,” The Sporting News, December 6, 1928: 2.

12  “Shopping and Swapping.”; “Caught on the Fly,” The Sporting News, December 13, 1928: 7.

13 “Angels Sell Staley to Ducks, Stars Buy Pair,” Los Angeles Times, December 9, 1928: A-1.

14 “Trading Rapid on First Day.”

15 Ibid.

16 “Piedmont Magnates Broaden Rookie Rule,” The Sporting News, December 6, 1928: 2.

17 L.H. Addington, “Modified Draft Loops Allied Against Any Change in Policy,” The Sporting News, December 6, 1928: 1.

18 Ibid.

19  “Trading Rapid on First Day”; “East Carolina Loop Stands,” The Sporting News, December 6, 1928: 2;  “Shopping and Swapping”; “Caught on the Fly”; Paul Moore, “Dallas to Train in Corsicana,” The Sporting News, December 6, 1928: 2.

20 Paul W. Eaton, “Tampa Smokes Up One on Senators,” The Sporting News, December 6, 1928: 2. 

21   “Shopping and Swapping.”

22 They obviously found the money – the Patriots won the 1929 Piedmont League title. J. Chris Holaday, Professional Baseball in North Carolina(Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 1998), 75; “Piedmont Magnates Broaden Rookie Rule”; George Netherwood, “Outlook Bright for Patriots,” Greensboro Daily News, December 4, 1928: 13; George Netherwood, “Extension Granted the Patriots,” Greensboro Daily News, December 16, 1928: 4, 1. 

23 “Shopping and Swapping.”; W. Lloyd Johnson and Miles Wolff, eds.,  The Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, 2nd edition (Durham, North Carolina: Baseball America Inc., 1997), 256.

24  “Shopping and Swapping.”; “Southeastern Club on Block,” The Sporting News, December 13, 1928: 1. 

25 Joe Hatcher, “Rowland Comes Back in Managerial Field,” The Sporting News, December 13, 1928: 1. 

26 Joe Vila, “Retirement Plans Confirmed By Klem,” The Sporting News, December 13, 1928: 1; John Drebinger, “Giants Adopt the Chain-Store Idea By Purchasing Bridgeport Club,” New York Times, December 18, 1928: 44.

27 Brian Bell, “Draft Matter Given Go-Bye,” Los Angeles Times, December 7, 1928: B-1. A territorial rule is still in effect today although, due to better roads and modes of transportation, a minor-league club nowadays controls a diameter of 35 miles.

28 “Shopping and Swapping.”; “Minor League Territorial Question Brings Warm Debate,” The Sporting News, December 13, 1928: 3. 

29 “Trading Rapid on First Day”; Robert L. Finch, L.H. Addington, and Ben H. Morgan, eds., The Story of Minor League Baseball (Columbus, Ohio: The Stoneman Press, 1952), 26-27. Double-A was the highest level of the minors at that time and would be until 1946. That level included the American Association, the International League and the Pacific Coast League.

30 He led the Class-B South Atlantic Association, Class-C Piedmont League, and Class-D Eastern Carolina League; he became head of the NAPBLat the end of 1931. The Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, 2nd edition, and The Story of Minor League Baseball

31 “Trading Rapid on First Day.”

32 John Drebinger, “Important Trade by Yankees Looms,” New York Times, December 5, 1928: 37.

33 “Minors Disband; Leave Draft as Muddled as Ever,” Chicago Tribune, December 8, 1928: 30; “M’Graw Is On Trail Of Luque-Donohue”’ “Convention of Owners Shelves Baseball Draft,” Hartford Courant, December 7, 1928: 22.

34 “M’Graw Is on Trail of Luque-Donohue.”

35 Ibid.

36 Peter Golenbock, Bums (New York: Pocket Books, 1984), 5.

37 John Drebinger, “Baseball Owners Leave for Chicago,” New York Times, December 13, 1928: 37; “N.L. Washes Its Hands of Minor Draft Fight,” The Sporting News, December 13, 1928: 1. 

38 “Baseball Owners Leave for Chicago.”

39 Ibid. It was a good thing for the Robins that they didn’t move Bancroft. Wright was hurt early on and made only 30 plate appearances for the year, so Bancroft wound up reclaiming his shortstop post and batted .277. Overall, the trade proved to be fairly inconsequential for both clubs. Wright did come back in 1930 with a good season, but that was the last one of his career. Petty won 11 games for Pittsburgh in 1929 but then only two more in the majors, while Riconda wound up playing in just nine more major-league games.

40 James C. O’Leary, “Braves Get Harper, Maranville, Gowdy,” Boston Globe, December 9, 1928: A-32.

41 “National League to Lose Klem, Who Is Peeved, New York Hears.”

42 Ibid.

43 “Klem to Remain,” Pittsburgh Press, January 15, 1929: 36.

44   In 1939 during a dispute over whether a ball was a home run or foul ball, Magerkurth and Billy Jurges spit at each other. Both were fined and suspended, but more importantly, National League President Ford Frick ordered that a two-foot-wide wire screen be installed inside the foul poles to help the umpires determine whether a ball was fair or foul. Evening News of Sault Sainte Marie, July 19, 1939: 10; Kingston (New York) Daily Freeman, July 19, 1939: 1; Rhinelander (Wisconsin) Daily News, July 24, 1939: 5; Paul Geisler Jr., “Billy Jurges,” SABR Baseball Biography Project, sabr.org/bioproj/person/aada6293#sdendnote14sym, undated, accessed July 7, 2016. 

45 “Committees to Discuss Draft,” Christian Science Monitor, December 8, 1928: 7.

46 Burt Whitman, “Hub Marking Time on Council Action,” The Sporting News, December 6, 1928: 1;  en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emil_Fuchs_(baseball), accessed August 30, 2014.

47 baseball-almanac.com/treasure/autont2002b.shtml, accessed August 31, 2014; “Minors Disband; Leave Draft as Muddled as Ever,” Chicago Tribune, December 8, 1928: 30.

48 “M’Graw Is on Trail of Luque-Donohue.”

49 “Landis Polls Major Owners on Farms, But No Action Is Taken,” The Sporting News, December 20, 1928: 3. 

50 Ibid.

51 “Hub Marking Time on Council Action”; “N.L. Washes Its Hands of Minor Draft Fight,” The Sporting News, December 13, 1928: 1.

52  “N.L. Washes Its Hands of Minor Draft Fight”; In the Cubs-Giants game, as a Giants runner attempted to score, the Cubs’ Gabby Hartnett hit him with his shoulder and knocked him down, even though the catcher did not have the ball. Hartnett then held the runner down until his third baseman came down the line and applied the tag. The umpire ruled that there was no interference and the runner was out. The umpire was Bill Klem, and this may have been the reason for the threats made against him. Dom Forker, Wayne Stewart, and Michael Pellowski, Baffling Baseball Trivia (New York: Sterling Publishing Company, 2004), 220-221.

53 Irving Vaughn, “Cub Ranks Shrink at Minor Session,” The Sporting News, December 13, 1928: 1. 

54 Frank H. Young, “Red Sox Rate 3rd Baseman Highly,” Washington Post, December 8, 1928: 13.

55 Burt Whitman, “Bob Quinn’s One-For-Five Deal Should Help Boston Red Sox,” The Sporting News, December 20, 1928: 3.

56 “Evans Thumbs Over His Trading Stock”; baseball-reference.com/bullpen/Earl_Averill_(averiea01), accessed September 1, 2014.

57 Francis J. Powers, “Billy Evans Adds as He Subtracts,” The Sporting News, December 13, 1928: 1. 

58 Joseph Wancho, “George Uhle,” SABR Baseball Biography Project (sabr.org/bioproj/person/1d015def), undated, accessed September 11, 2011.

59 Ibid.

60 “Business Lags, But Baseballers Chin and Chin,” Chicago Tribune, December 5, 1928: 29; “Caught on the Fly”; profootballhof.com/hof/member.aspx?PLAYER_ID=206.

61 “Important Trade by Yankees Looms.”

62 “Landis Polls Major Owners on Farms, but No Action Is Taken”; John Drebinger, “Giants Adopt the Chain-Store Idea By Purchasing Bridgeport Club,” New York Times, December 18, 1928: 44.

63 “West Baden Conference Off; Present Draft Pact to Stand,” The Sporting News, December 20, 1928: 3. 

64 Ibid.

65 Charles Dunkley, “10-Man Team Proposal Is Tabled,” Washington Post, December 14, 1928: 15.  One has to wonder what those 1920s owners would think of the twenty-first-century baseball and football schedules.

66 “Landis Polls Major Owners on Farms, But No Action Is Taken.”

67 Ibid.

68 Ibid.

69          “10-Man Team Proposal Is Tabled.”

70 “Pickups and Rebounds From the Major League Meetings,” The Sporting News, December 20, 1928: 3. 

71 Ibid.

72 “10-Man Team Proposal Is Tabled.”

73 “Heydler’s Plan Receives Favor,” Christian Science Monitor, December 12, 1928: 10.

74 Brian Bell,“Many Hurlers Star at Bat, Others Hard to Convince, Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service archive, December 13, 1928: 15-16.

75 Ibid.

76  Charles Dunkley, “American League Managers Condemn Heydler Proposal for Batless Pitchers,” Hartford Courant, December 13, 1928: 20.

77 “National Firm in Radical Proposal,” Washington Post, December 13, 1928: 15.

78 “The Ten-Man Team,” The Sporting News, December 20, 1928: 4.

79 Marty Noble, “First DH Blomberg thankful for his place in history,”  m.mlb.com/news/article/36452472/, accessed August 22 and September 2, 2014.

 

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