Editor’s note: This article is an excerpt from an upcoming SABR book on the history of baseball’s Winter Meetings by the Business of Baseball Research Committee. Click here to learn more about the book or to purchase a copy. For more information on the Business of Baseball Committee, click here.
By Joe Marren
December 14, 2014
As World War II seemed to be winding down (even though the Battle of the Bulge in Europe was only days away, and the Pacific invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa were still in the future), recovery from the war was the watchword at the 43rd annual baseball winter meetings in 1944.
The nation was beginning to think about being at peace again, and the various paths to re-adjustment were being planned in all walks of life. For baseball, normalcy meant the winter meetings, as the minors and their major league brethren met in Buffalo’s Hotel Statler from December 6-8, while the major leaguers convened by themselves in New York City’s Hotel New Yorker on December 11-13.
But a sense of loss would pervade the normal business routine for the expected 1,000 baseball men at the meetings. It would be the first winter meetings since 1920 that would not be chaired by Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who died November 25, 1944, in Chicago. Landis had been chosen to be the first commissioner in late 1920 and formally assumed his duties on January 12, 1921. And, just as in 1920, organized baseball would have to find at least a temporary way to run things until it decided who — or what group — would be in charge.
Expediency had to be paramount, as baseball writers reminded the moguls, because the Major-Minor League Agreement was set to expire in January 1945 and the Major League Agreement would end in January 1946, though baseball officials had given a 10-member committee until February 6, 1945, to draft a major league pact.
Governance wasn’t the only thing penciled on and off various agendas; there was good news and bad news and the same-old news given to minor league owners and executives at their meeting. The seemingly annual problem of what to do about territorial incursions and even the threat of such incursions by the major leagues was the same-old news that was discussed. The bad news, as might be expected, was financial — 1944 expenses were $35,588 more than revenues and, as a result, the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues were forced to dip into a reserve fund to balance the books.
The good news, on the other hand, was that the baseball executives were looking ahead to the end of the war and anticipating a future that would be joyous, even in Mudville. In particular, the meetings in Buffalo had “the greatest optimism”[fn]Brands, Edgar G. “Optimism Reigns at Minors’ Confab.” The Sporting News, December 14, 1944.[/fn] among the minors since before the start of the war, and maybe that’s why it was the most attended meeting since the 1941 confab in Jacksonville.
There were 10 leagues in the association that year, the same number that started play in 1944 (and one more than ’43), and there was talk of two to four more leagues resuming play as the nation hoped to shift from war to peace in the upcoming spring and summer of 1945.[fn]Baseball representatives heard at the meeting in Buffalo that the Carolina and North Carolina State leagues would be revived in 1945. The Quebec-Ontario League was looking to add Quebec City and Three Rivers so it could resume play in 1945. And the Northwest International League was expected to vote for resumption at its annual meeting in January. However, the Mexican League representative in Buffalo did not appear at a meeting to answer questions about player eligibility and other matters; reporters speculated that it was unlikely the league would have been approved for admission into the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues.[/fn] William G. Branham, president of the association, believed this indicated not only stability but also the possibility of growth. He reported that although Winston-Salem of the Piedmont League and Jackson of the Southeastern League had suspended play in 1944, the 15 leagues that had suspended active status during the war had renewed their membership and protection fees.[fn]Brands, “Bramham Still Opposes, But Bows to ‘Red Inking,’” The Sporting News, December 7, 1944.[/fn] So the future of baseball held promise.
MINORS SEEK SECURITY
The problem with that promise, though, was that it might mean growth — and therefore competition for the minors — by the majors. Such a paradox begs an explanation: Major league baseball was still predominantly a northeastern sport in 1944, with St. Louis serving as both the southernmost and westernmost city. The minor-league magnates, worried about post-war territorial incursions into Los Angeles, San Francisco, Baltimore and Buffalo, proposed 13 amendments to the Major-Minor Agreement.
One of the amendments put forth, by Pacific Coast League President Clarence Rowland, would require the major-league team to compensate both the affected minor league owner and the league itself, as well as give that owner an option to somehow be involved in operating the major-league franchise.[fn]Compensation for drafted players in 1944 was $7,500. The proposed amendment by the Pacific Coast League would double the price to be paid to the minor league team to $15,000. Also, in 1944, if a major league team expanded into a minor league team’s territory, the major club would have to pay the minor club’s league $5,000 and a negotiated amount to the affected minor league team. If the teams couldn’t agree on a price, the matter would be decided by the commissioner.[/fn]
However, the majors didn’t take any action on that amendment at its meeting the following week in New York City. Nor did it agree to a hike in draft prices paid for minor league players. Presidents Rowland, Frank Shaughnessy (International League), and George Trautman (American Association) of the three AA leagues — then the highest classification of the minors — said in Buffalo that they wanted $10,000 per player instead of the current $7,500 in compensation when a player was drafted. Lower leagues would consequently also be paid one-third more.
The minors also wanted a say in who would rule the baseball world in the wake of Landis’ death. But who — or what — would be the boss was a matter of some controversy at the meetings. At first a plan was floated for a triumvirate made up of American League President William Harridge, National League President Ford Frick, and secretary to the commissioner Leslie O’Connor to run things. This was the way baseball had been structured before the Office of the Commissioner was established, and opposition came from powerful owners and executives such as Clark Griffith of the Washington Senators, Horace Stoneham of the New York Giants, Ed Barrow of the New York Yankees, and Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
The sport was, in fact, being run by Harridge, Frick, and O’Connor at this time. No action was taken during the meetings on a successor to Landis, but what really got the major and minor league owners arguing was whether to pick a baseball man for the job, or look to an outsider to be the next commissioner. Griffith, Stoneham and Rickey favored looking outside the sport while Barrow favored promoting from within.[fn]Povich, Shirley, “Griff Favors Naming a New Czar at Once,” The Sporting News, December 7, 1941; Brands, “Majors Name Council to Rule Until New Pact,” The Sporting News, December 14, 1944; Brands, “Majors Reaffirm Policy on One-Man Government,” The Sporting News, December 21, 1944; and Stedler, Bob, “Sports Comment,” Buffalo Evening News, December 11, 1944.[/fn]
As the reasoning went, Griffith felt that someone from outside the sport would guarantee that baseball didn’t return to the pre-Landis commission days, when the sport was almost ruined by gamblers and other unsavory elements. As such, Griffith said he wanted someone with a national reputation “who carries the confidence of the public.”[fn]Povich, “Griff Favors Naming a New Czar at Once,” The Sporting News, December 7, 1941.[/fn]
Others, however, thought that, with postwar changes on the horizon, an insider was really needed. And yet another argument was that Landis had wielded too much power and baseball should simply revert to the three-man commission it had utilized prior to Landis’ appointment.[fn]“New Czar’s Power Will be Debated,” The Hartford Courant, December 10, 1944.[/fn]
But there was one thing everyone agreed on — at least publicly — and that was the unanimous election of Landis to the Hall of Fame, which took place on December 10, just two weeks after his death. He was the first selection to the Hall since Rogers Hornsby’s induction in 1942 and the fifth non-player.[fn]Landis was selected by the Major League Advisory Committee, which had been set up in August to help get 19th century players and others into the Hall, which had inducted its first class in 1936. The members of the committee included Stephen C. Clark, president of the National Baseball Museum in Cooperstown, chairman; Paul S. Kerr, secretary; Connie Mack, owner of the Philadelphia Athletics; Ed Barrow, president of the New York Yankees; Bob Quinn, head of the Boston Braves; Sid Mercer of the New York Journal-American; and Mel Webb of the Boston Globe. Mack was vacationing in California and sent his vote via telegram.[/fn]
Branch Rickey had warned about a football incursion into the baseball season back in 1943, saying that one day football would start as early as Labor Day and run for months. So at the meeting in Buffalo a committee was named to meet with professional football owners to try to work out a solution to what baseball termed the encroachment of pro football into the baseball season. With the anticipated addition of the All-American Football Conference in 1946 to compete with the National Football League, the baseball powers worried that football was taking up September and October dates in their ballparks.
In response to the scheduling pressure, the majors passed the Barrow Regulation at their meeting in New York. At that time, many football teams rented the hometown baseball stadium for their games, and the Barrow Regulation prohibited the major-league club from renting its stadium to a football team as long as the baseball club had a chance of playing in the World Series. (Remember, there were no league playoffs in baseball at the time. Unless there was a rare tie in the standings, something that had actually not yet occurred, the top team in each league would automatically meet in the World Series in late September or early October.) So the Barrow rule would effectively deny a football team in a major-league city a place to play until mid-October.
Those in baseball thought this was only fair, while football people begged to differ, charging that baseball began its season too early and ended too late. Football owners would think about building their own parks, they told reporters.[fn]Daniel, Dan, “Majors Deny Grid Pros’ Charge of ‘War,’” The Sporting News, December 21, 1944.[/fn] But baseball owners didn’t take that threat seriously, the newspapers reported, since the cost of building a stadium would be prohibitive and also not economical since it would only be used a handful of times in the football year. Or so went the quaint thinking at the time.
Stadium usage didn’t only center around competition with football, there was also the issue of nighttime baseball games; specifically, who would play them and how often. Before the meetings, Griffith said he wanted a blank check to play as many games as possible at night. Others, such as Rickey and Barrow, wanted to set a limit on how many night games a team could schedule in a season. The two St. Louis teams — the Cardinals and the Browns — were allowed an unlimited number of night games, except on holidays and Sundays, yet their respective executives said they didn’t know if they would take advantage of the ruling that had been handed down by Judge Landis.[fn]The question about scheduling night games was brought up by Clark Griffith of the Washington Senators, who wanted no limits placed on the number of night games a team could play. The Philadelphia Phillies wanted 14 night games, but opposed the league office dictating the number of night games a team could play. Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers and Ed Barrow, president of the New York Yankees, thought seven night games a season were enough for a team. After a joint meeting between the St. Louis Browns and Cardinals in Pittsburgh on July 11, the two teams from St. Louis were given a blank check by Commissioned Landis to schedule as many night games as they pleased. However, reports said they entered the meeting in Buffalo not certain how many night games they would set. Cardinals President Sam Breadon said local needs should allow clubs to set a night schedule. Breadon presented the findings from his survey of night games in St. Louis and found that attendance at continuous night games fell after the middle of July, but he said it still was higher than that of day games during the same period.[/fn]
There were a host of reasons why night baseball was a topic: no stadiums added lights during the war, so only those with lights in the 1930s were capable of holding night games; electricity was needed for the war effort in manufacturing cities; municipalities on the Atlantic Ocean tried to keep illumination down so as not to silhouette shipping for German submarines; and, frankly, tradition. St. Louis was one of the cities with stadium lights and it wasn’t on an ocean.[fn]See http://www.baseballhistorian.com/fans_favorites.cfm?hero=922 for information on lights; see http://www.baseballhistorian.com/argue.cfm?argue_id=18&search=y for cities laong the coast and the U-Boat menace; see http://www.baseballhistorian.com/american_heroes.cfm?hero=1043 for electricity and the war effort.[/fn]
The upshot was that each team playing in a stadium equipped with lights was allowed to schedule as many night games as it wished for 1945, though holiday and Sunday games were still required to be played during the day, and the host team was also required to get formal consent from the visitors to play at night.
Regardless of when games were played, it was revealed during the meetings that who might be playing them could prove to be an issue in 1945. The Selective Service wanted to reclassify all men between the ages of 26 and 37 to make more of them eligible for the military draft if they weren’t working in an essential industry.
While it was widely believed the ruling was put in place to help keep the vital war production factories busy rolling out the needed tanks, guns, ships and ammo, what especially worried baseball men was that the War Department had already told the Selective Service it would be needing 60,000 to 80,000 more men in January and February. And that was only part of the whammy: Selective Service officials said that most men younger than 30 who had been classified 4-F prior to February 1 would be re-examined.[fn]Not all men who registered for the draft were found to be eligible. In fact, a full thirty percent were rejected for physical defects, which included muscular and bone malformations, hearing or circulatory ailments, mental deficiency or disease, hernias, and syphilis. http://www.nebraskastudies.org/0800/frameset_reset.html?http://www.nebraskastudies.org/0800/stories/0801_0106.html.[/fn]
As The Sporting News pointed out, every major league team had several 4-F players and that, combined with the War Department’s decision to more closely scrutinize who was being discharged, meant fewer athletes might be available to play.[fn]Daniel, “Majors Deny Grid Pros’ Charge of ‘War,’” The Sporting News, December 21, 1944; “Stepped-Up Draft Order May Hit Game,” The Sporting News, December 21, 1944; Brands, “Player Deals Slowed by Manpower Order,” The Sporting News, Dec. 14, 1944.[/fn] Consequently, player deals were at a minimum during the ’44 winter meetings. On the other hand, when the war was over the clubs would have to ponder what to do with their returning vets, so it was decided at the meetings to temporarily increase player limits after the war.
All this uncertainty about who could play, and when, had major league magnates wondering if the players would at some point try to unionize; there was already a report circulating at the meetings that Pacific Coast League players had begun talking with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (C.I.O.), a federation of unions.
As the end of the war seemed to be in sight, the formal disbanding of the Postwar Planning Committee took place in Buffalo, though that didn’t mean baseball stopped planning for the future. The owners and executives at the meeting discussed several committee concerns such as increasing fan interest by realigning several leagues and building better parks with lighting and public address systems.
No formal action was taken on these two matters, but two other suggestions were adopted: the re-establishment of a promotions department to deal with the press, and the beginning of a re-examination of the rules and a re-training of umpires with the creation of an Office of Umpire Adviser for the National Association. It was voted to fund the umpire adviser job for two years at a salary of $6,500 per year, although no one was named to the post. Among other duties, the adviser would be expected to work with the leagues to offer pre-season clinics, keep tabs on umpire compliments and complaints, and rank umpires by ability at the end of every season. However, the major leagues, in their New York meeting, did not vote to fund the position.
The Postwar Planning Committee had also been charged with looking into the future of baseball and, in some cases, it did not like what it saw. For instance, it thought that high school baseball was in sharp decline because there were fewer teams and players. According to a report presented at the Buffalo meeting, there were 40 percent fewer student-athletes playing baseball than there had been five years previously.[fn]Brands, “Postwar Planning Urged at Buffalo Convention,” The Sporting News, December 14, 1944; Kritzer, Cy, “Minors Set Up $5,000 Fund for Schoolboy Baseball Clinic,” Buffalo Evening News, December 8, 1944.[/fn]
To try and help reverse that dismal number, Warren Giles, general manager of the Cincinnati Reds, advocated a series of clinics in 15 states, taught by major leaguers. Although the minors voted to set aside $5,000 for the clinics as well as a training film, the majors did not fund that project either.
LEAGUES AND PLAYERS
Baseball wasn’t giving just high schoolers the cold shoulder, it also apparently wasn’t planning on going international. Representatives from the Mexican National Baseball League were in Buffalo in hopes of gaining recognition by the association.
“We have been practically assured of recognition by Bramham, and our six league cities are planning to go in for a complete program, including lights for night games,” said L.A. Michaels, vice president of the El Paso Texans.[fn]“Outlook ‘Exceedingly Bright,’ Say Mexican Loop Leaders.” Buffalo Evening News, December 6, 1944.[/fn] Michaels was in Buffalo for the meeting with Ernest Calderon, director of the Chihuahua team, and Frank Montes, vice president of the Juarez team.
However, no action was taken even though Rogers Hornsby endorsed the idea, and published reports said Bramham had promised league officials a Class B recognition.[fn]There were six teams in the league when it applied: Chihuahua, El Paso, Juarez, Parral, Torreon and Saltillo. Published reports said the year-old league had drawn more than 500,000 fans in its inaugural season. El Paso and Juarez had stadium lights for night games.[/fn] (Hornsby was at the meeting in Buffalo in an unsuccessful attempt to buy the minor-league Minneapolis team from owner Mike Kelley.)
The winter meetings were usually Rumor Central for big trades and other player moves, and once in a while some of those rumors actually came true. But trading at the 1944 meetings was scant. There were only four deals worked out, three of them involving the Chicago White Sox:
- The Sox sent left-handed pitcher Jake Wade (2-4 in 1944; he wound up with a 27-40 career mark) to the New York Yankees for lefty pitcher Johnny Johnson (0-2 in ’44; 3-2 lifetime).
- They also sent shortstop/second baseman Jim Webb to the Detroit Tigers for utility infielder Joe Orengo. “Skeeter” Webb retired after the 1948 season with a .219 batting average in 699 games, while Orengo called it a career at the end of 1945, finishing with a .238 batting average in 366 games.
- Their last trade had outfielder Ed Carnett going to Cleveland for outfielder Oris Hockett. Carnett played in 30 games for the Indians and ended his career in 1945 with a .268 batting average in 158 games. Hockett, who was an All Star in 1944, also saw 1945 prove to be his last year in the majors, as he finished with a .276 batting average in 551 games.
- In addition, the Cincinnati Reds sent outfielder Tony Criscola to the Pacific Coast League’s San Diego team. Criscola never made it back to the majors and his final career stats show a .248 batting average in 184 games.
And finally, it was announced that the 1945 All-Star Game would be held on Tuesday, July 10, in Boston’s Fenway Park. Since Fenway didn’t have lights at the time, it would be the first time since the 1941 game in Detroit that the All-Star Game would be played in daylight.
With the death of Landis, a whole new era opened for baseball near the middle of the 20th century. Just as some baseball owners feared, football would one day grow and come to rival baseball for the nation’s entertainment dollars and attention. Much of that had to do with television, of course, which was able to mold football while encountering old-fashioned resistance with baseball.
Buffalo never again hosted the winter meetings. Its place of prominence in the nation’s manufacturing heartland declined to afterthought as many of its industries withered or moved from the Rust Belt to the Sunbelt for a variety of reasons, including climate and a “perfect storm” of economic forces beyond its control.
Baseball was also buffeted by change in the years after the war. It painfully showed the nation how to keep its promises of equality for all as Jackie Robinson joined the boys of summer in their games. Just a generation of players later, as baseball and the nation still struggled with civil rights, free agency helped to open the vaults as players and agents could now negotiate with owners from a position of strength.
Baseball also expanded to the West Coast and into Canada. St. Louis was now the middle ground between the coasts and no longer the metaphorical end of the line with the majors going no further west or south. But expansion, free agency (and, yes, collusion), and integration were matters for other winter meetings in other cities.
JOE MARREN is an associate professor and chair of the Communication Department at SUNY Buffalo State. Prior to his academic career, he was a reporter and then an editor for 18 years at various newspapers in Western New York. He was a Washington Senators fan growing up in Buffalo. Why? Well, because somebody had to be.
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Major-Minor Code Faces Revampment.” The Washington Post, December 6, 1944.
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Originally published: December 8, 2014. Last Updated: December 8, 2014.