1918 Winter Meetings: Baseball returns from World War I

This article was published in “Baseball’s Business: The Winter Meetings: 1901-1957” (SABR, 2016).

winter_meetings_cover_510pxOn November 11, 1918, minor-league owners from 40 teams, representing seven leagues, were preparing for a somber discussion about whether baseball would even be played in the 1919 season1 when word came down that the World War had ended.

The “war to end all wars” had caused an existential crisis throughout the baseball world. The US government’s “work or fight” order had forced every minor league and both major leagues to end their 1918 seasons earlier than usual. The World Series between the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs wrapped up just after Labor Day and all draft-eligible ballplayers were forced to choose between joining the military or taking a job in a war-essential industry.2 With the war now over, no one was quite sure what Organized Baseball would look like when play resumed … if play resumed.

“Not one minor league, just at this time, is certain of opening next season,” Southern Association President R.H. Baugh said at the start of the 17th annual winter meetings in Peoria, Illinois, on November 12. “The prevailing opinion is to wait and see if conditions by next spring will adjust themselves to warrant baseball.”3

Meanwhile, in Chicago, White Sox owner Charles Comiskey spent Armistice Day celebrating the end of the war. “I never was happier in my life than this morning when I knew peace was assured. The good news came sooner than expected,” he said.4

Peace in baseball, however, was far from certain. Faced with severe financial difficulties after the premature end to the 1918 season, some minor-league owners were ready to declare war on the major leagues.5 At issue was the majors’ practice of acquiring players via the Rule 5 draft, and optional agreements that allowed major-league teams to sell players to minor-league teams with the right to repurchase the player at a later date.6 Most minor-league owners depended on the sale of their players in order to turn a profit. Major-league teams benefited greatly from these arrangements and used them to keep costs down in developing prospects.

As historian Cliff Blau has written, “[T]he truce between the majors and minors was always an uneasy one.”7 In 1918 the gloves came off as minor-league owners adopted a stern resolution at the winter meetings protesting the Rule 5 draft. American Association President Thomas J. Hickey demanded that the minor leagues withdraw from the National Agreement, in place since 1903, if the majors did not agree to abolish the draft.8 “It is the minor leagues that develop these stars and the smaller leagues should reap the financial reward,” said A.R. Tearney, president of the Three-I League.9

Ban Johnson had other ideas. The American League founder and de-facto head of the National Commission, baseball’s governing body, dismissed the minors’ call for war and blamed their troubles on an old foe — the Federal League. The Federal League’s attempt to become a third major league in 1914-15 had forced AL and NL teams to raise salaries across the board and cut into the money available for player sales. Johnson claimed that before the Federal League’s formation, major-league teams had paid an average of $250,000 per year to the minors for new talent, a revenue stream that had yet to be restored by 1918.10

In his paternalistic way, Johnson tried to reassure minor-league owners that the majors had their best interests in mind. He intended to meet with Garry Herrmann, chairman of the National Commission, baseball’s governing body, and work out a plan to keep the minor leagues afloat. “The National Association … for years has been incapable of managing its own affairs,” Johnson said. “We are planning to give the minor leagues a sane, just, and forceful government in place of their own weak organization, which has proved so inefficient in the past.”11

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Ban Johnson

As these shots were being fired in the press, the major-league owners had their own differences to work out. No one except Ban Johnson was satisfied with the three-man National Commission, a chair that had been missing a leg since August, when National League President John Tener resigned after a dispute between the Philadelphia A’s and Boston Braves over the rights to pitcher Scott Perry turned ugly.12 It was one of many National Commission rulings that seemed to go the American League’s way, with the dictatorial Johnson pulling the strings behind the scenes. But some AL owners weren’t happy with Johnson, either. Just after the Perry decision, three owners — Comiskey, Boston’s Harry Frazee, and Washington’s Clark Griffith — publicly called out their president for his “bungling” of baseball’s response to the War Department’s “work or fight” order.13

Frazee, who was the first AL owner not hand-picked by Johnson14 and believed (not without merit) that the league president was trying to run him out of baseball, made the first dramatic play to turn the tables on Johnson. Shortly after the minor-league meetings ended in November, Frazee and outgoing New York Giants owner Harry Hempstead approached former President William Howard Taft about becoming the “supreme head of baseball,” which would abolish the National Commission entirely.15 The idea of a one-man commission had been tossed around for several years as both leagues grew frustrated with the ineffective National Commission, but America’s entrance into World War I in the spring of 1917 put a damper on any talk of radical realignment of baseball’s power structure. Now that the war was over, the idea regained steam.

Taft was a popular choice to become baseball’s commissioner. He had made a lasting contribution to the game’s history in 1910, when he became the first sitting president to throw out the “first pitch” on Opening Day in Washington, D.C. His younger brother, Charles P. Taft, had been a one-time owner of the Philadelphia Phillies and briefly the Chicago Cubs. After the news broke that Taft had been approached, five NL owners quickly expressed some level of support for the idea, as did acting NL President John Heydler, who had taken over John Tener’s duties and was elected to fill the permanent position in December.

Unfortunately for Frazee and Hempstead, they did not have the authority to extend a job offer to Taft or anyone else. Philadelphia Phillies owner William Baker expressed dismay that Frazee and Hempstead had approached Taft without consulting the other executives. Frazee, he said, “was acting on his own initiative … [and] was not empowered to speak for the American League.”16 For his part, Taft, a keen legal mind who would later serve as chief justice of the US Supreme Court, was only interested in a job in baseball that required him to settle contract disputes between the leagues17 — not the all-powerful authority figure that the commissioner would become under Kenesaw Mountain Landis. He turned down the job on the last day of November. The National Commission would last another two years before dissolving in the wake of the Black Sox Scandal.

As Taft was still contemplating the offer, a furious Ban Johnson lashed out at Frazee and Hempstead for overstepping their authority. “There are no two individuals in baseball who know less about the national agreement and the rules governing baseball,” Johnson snapped. “These parvenu owners have no idea of the conditions existing in baseball [when the National Commission was formed]. Their perspective in baseball is bounded by the walls of their own parks.”18 Johnson would outlast both of his adversaries: Hempstead sold a controlling interest in the Giants to Charles A. Stoneham in January 1919, while Johnson and Frazee continued to butt heads until financial woes forced the latter to sell the Red Sox in 1923.

In December the focus began shifting to the coming season. Ban Johnson received an encouraging letter from the War Department, which gave the green light for baseball to “resume the usual regular schedule” in 1919.19 So the games could be played … but who would play them? In the confusion surrounding the work-or-fight order, some major- and minor-league owners — assuming the season was about to end and their revenue streams were about to dry up — had released their players before the end of their contracts in order to save money. Some players contacted the National Commission to see if they were now free agents, a fleeting challenge to the hated reserve clause that bound them to their teams in perpetuity. But the commission issued a statement that all teams would retain rights to their former players, quickly nipping that threat in the bud.20

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Shoeless Joe Jackson

Another point of contention involved the dozens of major leaguers who had quit their teams in midseason to take a war-essential job instead of joining the military — which usually took the form of playing baseball for a company team in an industry or shipyard league. Shoeless Joe Jackson of the White Sox was the most notable player to join the “paint and putty” circuit, and his team’s owner, Charles Comiskey, was among the most vocal about wanting to ban these “unpatriotic” players from returning to the majors.21 He even went so far as to support a resolution at the American League’s annual meeting in December to blacklist them. But the man who had built the 1917 World Series champions did not get much support and soon relaxed his stance at the urging of his new manager, Kid Gleason. Jackson, Lefty Williams, and the other shipyard players were all in uniform on Opening Day.

At the AL meeting in Chicago, the cautious league owners decided to adopt a 140-game schedule and set a roster limit of 21 players instead of the usual 25, keeping expenses down just in case fans chose not to return to the ballparks after the war.22 The National League followed suit at its own meeting in New York. In another attempt to cut costs, NL owners in January approved an $11,000-per-month player salary cap, which worked out to a team payroll of less than $58,000, according to baseball historian Bob Hoie.23 But the AL teams refused to go along with the idea and the plan was mostly ignored by the time the season began. Still, all salaries under a shortened 140-game schedule were lower since most players got paid only while they were playing.

Because of the uncertainty around baseball, there were few major deals at any of the league meetings during the winter of 1918-19. The New York Yankees bolstered their rotation by acquiring veteran pitchers Dutch Leonard and Ernie Shore from the Boston Red Sox, and signing right-hander Pete Schneider from the Cincinnati Reds, but none proved to have a lasting impact with the team. Later, a three-way deal was completed by the Tigers, Red Sox, and Senators involving, most notably, infielder Ossie Vitt and catcher Eddie Ainsmith. But the most significant (and surprising) move at the winter meetings was the Phillies’ release of their manager, Pat Moran, who had led Philadelphia to its first pennant in 1915. The Cincinnati Reds promptly signed him to replace Christy Mathewson, who was still overseas on military duty. The hiring paid immediate dividends, as Moran — dubbed the “Miracle Man” by Reds fans — led Cincinnati to its first pennant and a World Series championship in 1919.

As the new year rolled around, the big issues on the table were still the future of the National Commission and the overall relationship between the major leagues and minors. A special joint meeting between the American and National Leagues was called for January 16, 1919, at the Hotel Biltmore in New York. After former President Taft’s rejection of the tentative “offer” to be baseball’s commissioner, no other candidates had been introduced. Each league agreed to form a committee to study the issue and recommend potential candidates for the job. The NL appointed William Veeck of the Chicago Cubs and William Baker of the Philadelphia Phillies, while the AL selected Jacob Ruppert of the Yankees and Frank Navin of the Detroit Tigers. In the meantime, the National Commission would continue overseeing the game with Cincinnati Reds president Garry Herrmann as chairman, the same position he had held since 1903.24

The shots fired by the minor leagues back in November finally landed in January. At a stormy meeting in New York, the precarious National Agreement that had held the majors and minors together for nearly two decades was torn apart. “They wished for independence,” Ban Johnson said, “and now they have it.”25 Under the tentative arrangement, the Rule 5 draft was abolished, as were all existing optional agreements between major- and minor-league teams. The only way in which major-league clubs could acquire players from the minors was by directly purchasing their contracts.26 In announcing the new pact, Herrmann said, “When (the minor-league executives) stated that they would be the happiest men in the world if they were permitted to go their own way … we thought best to permit them to do as they desired.”27

In spite of their bluster at the time, the decision proved to be a colossal blunder for major-league owners. The minors quickly moved to restrict access to their players and, unencumbered by the $2,500 draft fee that previously had been the ceiling, held out for higher and higher prices when the majors came calling for fresh talent. By 1921 the American and National Leagues would be ready to call a truce. “These prices now are so exorbitant and so ridiculous that it would wreck the treasury of any major-league club in baseball if it attempted to recruit an entire team from the minors,” syndicated columnist Frank Menke wrote that year.28 A new agreement was signed that reinstated the minor-league draft and resumed the steady flow of players up the ladder of professional baseball. By then, the National Commission was gone and Kenesaw Mountain Landis had been officially hired as baseball’s supreme authority. The old judge held jurisdiction over all of the major and minor leagues for nearly a quarter-century.

There was one final order of business during the joint major-league meetings in New York that offseason: The National Commission began to prepare a new system to distribute World Series gate receipts to the players of the competing clubs. The 1918 World Series had been disrupted by a threatened player strike before Game Five, when the Red Sox and Cubs players refused to take the field after learning that the rules had been changed governing how much money they were to make for participating — a decision that cut their individual World Series bonuses by more than 70 percent.29 The standoff ended after a few hours, but it put a scare into baseball officials and it did not escape notice of the Cubs’ crosstown rivals, the Chicago White Sox, who won the American League pennant the following season … and decided to take matters into their own hands when it came time to get paid for the 1919 World Series.

Notes

1 Christian Science Monitor, November 12, 1918.

2 Chicago Tribune, May 24, 1918.

3 Chicago Tribune, November 13, 1918.

4 Chicago Tribune, November 12, 1918.

5 Hartford Courant, November 15, 1918.

6 Cliff Blau, “League Operating Rules.” Accessed online at https://cliffblau.ucoz.com/rules.htm on February 16, 2016. Click here for an updated link in 2018.

7 Cliff Blau, “The Major League Draft.” Accessed online at cliffblau.ucoz.com/ml_draft.htm on February 16, 2016. Click here for an updated link in 2018.

8 New York Times, November 15, 1918.

9 Hartford Courant, November 15, 1918.

10 Chicago Tribune, November 16, 1918.

11New York Times, November 16, 1918.

12 Daniel Ginsburg, “John Tener,” SABR Biography Project. Accessed online at http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/c90d4ea9 on September 10, 2015.

13 Chicago Tribune, August 4, 1918; New York Times, August 7, 1918. Johnson had at first urged AL ballplayers to claim exemption from military service, while the NL took “just the opposite position.” Later in the summer, Johnson made several announcements proclaiming that baseball would shut down “immediately,” only to backtrack after club owners persuaded him that they could at least continue the season through Labor Day.

14 Daniel R. Levitt, Mark L. Armour, and Matthew Levitt, “History Versus Harry Frazee: Re-Revising the Story,” Baseball Research Journal, Vol. 37 (Cleveland: Society for American Baseball Research, 2008), 28.

15 Boston Globe, November 24, 1918.

16 Chicago Tribune, November 25, 1918.

17 New York Times, November 25, 1918, and December 1, 1918.

18 Chicago Tribune, November 30, 1918.

19 New York Times, December 5, 1918.

20 Washington Post, January 7, 1919.

21 Jim Leeke, “The Delaware River Shipbuilding League, 1918,” The National Pastime: From Swampoodle to South Philly (Phoenix, Arizona: Society for American Baseball Research, 2013).

22 New York Times, December 13, 1918. The AL meeting began on December 12.

23 Bob Hoie, “1919 Baseball Salaries and the Mythically Underpaid Chicago White Sox.” Base Ball: A Journal of the Early Game (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co., Spring 2012).

24 1919 Spalding Guide, Internet Archive, available online at https://archive.org/details/spaldingsbasebal07chic.

25 The Sporting News, January 23, 1919.

26 1919 Spalding Guide.

27 Atlanta Constitution, January 17, 1919.

28 Frank Menke, “Effort to ‘Knife’ Johnson by Major Clubs Gives Minors Chance to Use Deadly Weapon,” King Features Syndicate, as printed in San Antonio Evening News, December 16, 1921.

29 A player’s share for the victorious Red Sox in the 1916 World Series had been $3,910. In 1918, because of the new system enacted by the National Commission, each Red Sox player received a bonus of just over $1,100. For further reading, see Doug Pappas’ article “The World Championship That Almost Wasn’t,” accessed online at http://roadsidephotos.sabr.org/baseball/bb98-7.htm.