1919 Winter Meetings: The End of the Deadball Era

This article was published in “Baseball’s Business: The Winter Meetings: 1901-1957” (SABR, 2016). Click here to read the previous chapter, “1918 Winter Meetings: Baseball Returns From World War I.”

winter_meetings_cover_510pxAs baseball’s powers-that-be prepared for the 1920 season, the national pastime was in complete turmoil behind the scenes. The American League was in the midst of a civil war over a series of controversial decisions made by its founder and president, Ban Johnson. There were steady rumors that the recent World Series between the Chicago White Sox and Cincinnati Reds had been fixed by gamblers. And there was still no working agreement between the major leagues and minor leagues, the latter having opted for financial and structural independence after the unprofitable World War I years. But the most significant story of that offseason was the sale of a talented, headstrong star from the Boston Red Sox to the New York Yankees.

By the time all the dust finally settled, baseball’s governing body, the National Commission, had been dissolved and federal judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis ruled as the game’s supreme authority. Eight White Sox players were banned for life in the 1919 World Series scandal, giving the game its biggest black eye. And as baseball took steps to move out of the Deadball Era, Babe Ruth became the sport’s home-run king and its first transcendent superstar, establishing a dynasty in New York that would last for the rest of the 20th century.

But it was a different Red Sox player sold to the Yankees who became the center of attention during the 1919-20 offseason. Pitcher Carl Mays, not Ruth, was the catalyst for the American League’s internal feud that threatened to blow up baseball’s power structure and end the profitable era of peace between the two major leagues that had been in place for nearly two decades.

Since joining the Red Sox in late 1914, Mays had helped the team win three World Series and was the ace of Boston’s pitching staff. However, his abrasive personality and reputation for headhunting had made him “perhaps the most disliked player of his era,” according to SABR biographer Allan Wood.1 By 1919, with the Red Sox heading for a sixth-place finish, he was frustrated and wanted out. In mid-July, Mays walked off the mound in the second inning of a game at Chicago’s Comiskey Park and abruptly left the team, vowing never to pitch for the Red Sox again. “I do not care where I go,” he said.2 Red Sox owner Harry Frazee, a theater mogul who paid more attention to Broadway than to his baseball team, announced that he would seek a trade for Mays, and the other AL clubs virtually lined up to acquire the submarine-style pitcher who was in the prime of his career. On July 30 Mays was sent to the Yankees for two players and $40,000 in cash.

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Carl Mays

AL President Ban Johnson, fearful that other players might emulate Mays by refusing to play and demanding a trade — which would nullify the powerful reserve clause that bound players to their teams — responded by suspending the pitcher indefinitely. The Yankees were furious that Johnson had intervened in a deal that had already been struck between the two clubs. Following the lead of Philadelphia A’s manager Connie Mack in a disputed case involving pitcher Scott Perry in 1918, the Yankees turned to the court system for justice.3 A New York judge ruled that Johnson had overstepped his authority and issued a temporary injunction, allowing Mays to suit up for the Yankees. He made his debut in pinstripes on August 7 and posted a superb 1.65 ERA in 13 appearances, helping New York to finish in third place with an 80-59 record, a half-game ahead of the Detroit Tigers.

Some rival teams, especially those operated by supporters of Ban Johnson, weren’t too happy about Mays defying the league’s disciplinary action. Tigers owner Frank Navin protested that the Yankees had illegally used a pitcher under suspension and shouldn’t be allowed to accept their third-place share of the World Series gate receipts. (Whether that money should fall to the fourth-place Tigers, Navin didn’t say.) The three-man National Commission, which included Johnson, NL President John Heydler, and Cincinnati Reds owner Garry Herrmann, agreed to withhold the Yankees’ share until the Mays case was settled.4 This controversial decision set in motion a series of events that turned the American League’s winter meetings into “open warfare” between the five owners who backed their league president and the “insurrectionists” — Boston’s Harry Frazee, New York’s Jacob Ruppert, and Chicago’s Charles Comiskey — who were fed up with Johnson and ready to oust him.5

In 1919 those three owners also comprised a majority of the AL’s Board of Directors, which also included Cleveland Indians owner James Dunn and Ban Johnson, serving as chair. After Johnson announced the decision to withhold the Yankees’ World Series money, the directors passed a resolution, by a 3-to-2 majority with Dunn and Johnson opposed, ordering the National Commission to pay the New York owners what they were owed. The commission, led by Johnson, refused to obey the nonbinding order.

The AL directors also set the league’s annual meeting for December 10 at the Biltmore Hotel in New York. A defiant Johnson replied that the annual meeting would be held in Chicago as it always had been, snapping that the renegade owners “do not possess the moral or physical courage to sit in session with the other five honest club owners of the league.”6

In the meantime, Yankees owner Ruppert went back to court, securing an injunction from New York Supreme Court Judge Joseph Newberger that prevented the American League from holding its official meeting in Chicago … and another injunction that forbade Johnson to use league funds to fight the first order. Comiskey, who had once been Johnson’s closest friend and business partner before the two had turned against each other, began taking shots at his rival in the press. “Mr. Johnson is endangering not only the value of our [teams], but the integrity of baseball,” the White Sox owner said. “We therefore intend to do everything possible to rid Organized Baseball of the impediment which we believe is now attached to it.”7

Comiskey-Charles

Charles Comiskey

Comiskey was a key part of the triumvirate seeking to remove Johnson from power, but he was preoccupied with more serious troubles that offseason. Early on during the 1919 World Series, he had learned that eight of his White Sox players were conspiring with gamblers to throw games to the Cincinnati Reds.8 After the Reds’ surprising victory in eight games,9 Comiskey hired a detective agency to investigate the players involved and quietly track down as much information as possible.10 He didn’t intend to reveal that information because he knew that if the fix became public knowledge, it would destroy his championship team. Ban Johnson was also aware of the fix but, although he had fought for years against the scourge of gambling and game-fixing in baseball, he didn’t want to see the national pastime sink to the seedy level of boxing or horse racing in the eyes of the public. However, as the World Series rumors continued to flourish during the 1920 season, Johnson saw an opportunity to get back at Comiskey, ruining his old friend’s ballclub and reputation. Johnson helped lead an effort to empanel a grand jury in Chicago to investigate the World Series fix. Later, after the Black Sox players were indicted, Johnson used American League funds to aid the prosecution before their criminal trial in Chicago. Comiskey would never forgive him.

With the league’s top leaders at one another’s throats, Tigers owner Frank Navin tried to play peacemaker and withdrew his protest against the Yankees in early December 1919. “I have no ax to grind and I would like to see the property rights of the club owners protected,” he said.11 His efforts resulted in two signs of progress: The Yankees dropped their injunction requests, and the other AL owners agreed to travel to New York to meet as a group. But the night before the full league was set to hold its winter meeting, Comiskey learned of Johnson’s plan to vote the “insurrectionists” off the Board of Directors and install new officers from among the “loyal five.”12

The meeting that took place, according to historians Harold and Dorothy Seymour, was “the most torrid session the American League has held in the nineteen years of its existence. … [There] probably has never been a baseball conclave in which there was such a violent display of bitterness.”13 In the end, Johnson accomplished his goal of voting Ruppert, Comiskey, and Frazee off the board. They, along with James Dunn, were replaced by Navin, Phil Ball (St. Louis Browns), Ben Shibe (Philadelphia A’s), and Ben Minor (Washington Senators). The new board could be trusted to abide by Johnson’s wishes.14

But Johnson’s victory was short-lived, because Ruppert and Yankees co-owner Tillinghast L’Hommedieu Huston took the fight right back to the legal system, where the New Yorkers had enjoyed a certain kind of home-field advantage so far. The pair filed a $50,000 lawsuit in February 1920 against Johnson, alleging that he had tried to drive them out of baseball by conspiring with the New York Giants to kick the Yankees out of the Polo Grounds, the home ballpark that both teams shared.15 Ruppert and Huston also questioned the legitimacy of Johnson’s employment as league president16 and tried to get him to turn over the league’s books. The lawsuit went nowhere, but the new season was soon to begin and all league business had long since ground to a halt.

Navin once again stepped in to preserve any semblance of peace, and the American League scheduled another meeting for February 10 in Chicago.17 The second meeting was just as ugly as the first. Phil Ball of the Browns and Ruppert at one point “seemed to be all set for a passage at fisticuffs [until] cooler heads prevailed.”18 But this time the “insurrectionists” got their way. After three “grueling” sessions that didn’t end until the early morning hours, an agreement was reached in which Carl Mays was allowed to remain with the Yankees, who also were awarded their third-place share from the World Series pool. More importantly, Ban Johnson’s power to issue suspensions and fines was effectively — and permanently — neutered. A board of review comprising Ruppert and Clark Griffith of the Washington Senators, was established, with broad powers over league business that turned Johnson into more of a figurehead as president than the czar he had been for the last 20 years.19

A day later, at a joint meeting of both major leagues, the owners formally accepted the resignation of Cincinnati Reds owner Garry Herrmann as chairman of the National Commission. Herrmann had played a key role in establishing peace between the American and National Leagues back in 1903, but his presence on the commission had been largely ceremonial over the years, as the other owners grumbled that he always seemed to lean in the same direction as Johnson when it came time to vote. Baseball’s power structure was falling apart.

The Carl Mays controversy, along with other disputed cases involving pitchers Scott Perry and Jack Quinn, had seriously eroded the owners’ support for the National Commission. The idea of a neutral, independent commission, or maybe even a single commissioner, to oversee Organized Baseball had been proposed earlier, most notably by Albert Lasker, an advertising executive and part-owner of the Chicago Cubs. In the fall of 1918, Red Sox owner Harry Frazee and Giants owner Harry Hempstead had approached former President William Howard Taft about the possibility of serving as baseball’s sole commissioner, but the well-respected Taft wasn’t interested. It would take another year, and the exposure of the Black Sox Scandal, before the Lasker Plan gained enough traction to succeed.

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Kenesaw Mountain Landis

In addition to the aforementioned disputes, the commission’s power had also been weakened by the withdrawal of the minor leagues from the National Agreement in early 1919. America’s involvement in World War I had cut into the minors’ profits and forced many teams and leagues to fold. The minors also felt that they were not being sufficiently compensated when big-league clubs took their best players in the Rule 5 draft. Desperate to hold onto their stars, minor-league owners opted in January 1919 to pull out of the National Agreement, which had been in place since 1903.

But with global peace at hand and baseball soaring in popularity, it turned out to be only a one-year hiatus. The minor leagues at their winter meeting on November 13-15 in Springfield, Massachusetts, voted to renew their working arrangement with the major leagues.20 Reach Guide editor Francis C. Richter wrote approvingly, “The foolish notion, long entertained by both parties to the National Agreement, that each can get along without the other, has at last been dispelled. … Each is absolutely necessary to the other — the major leagues to the minor for the revenue, and the minors to the majors for the development of players.”21 The partnership between the majors and minors has been in place ever since.

In contrast to the out-of-control American League, the National League’s annual meeting on December 9 at the Waldorf Astoria in New York was its most peaceful in years. The main order of business was restoring the 154-game schedule that had been cut to 140 games in 1919 because owners were fearful that fans might not return to ballparks after the end of the war. They were cured of that notion after several teams enjoyed record attendance; more than 6.5 million fans attended games in 1919, twice as many as in 1918. The 1920 season, the first in the so-called Live Ball Era characterized by high-powered offensive production, would turn out to be even more profitable.

Because of all the turmoil, relatively few player transactions were conducted at these winter meetings, but one of the most significant transactions in baseball history took place as soon as the calendar rolled over to 1920. On January 5 Red Sox owner Harry Frazee announced the sale of his biggest star, Babe Ruth, to the Yankees. In return, the financially distressed theater mogul received $100,000 for the 25-year-old Bambino, plus a $300,000 loan from Yankees co-owner Jacob Ruppert.22 At the time, it was the highest purchase price for any player in baseball history. Although Ruth had been a pitching ace with the Red Sox for most of his career, he had moved to the outfield full-time in 1919 and set a single-season major-league record with 29 home runs. With the Yankees, he would go on to even greater heights, leading them to seven pennants and four World Series championships.

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Babe Ruth

Ruth’s transfer to the Yankees forever changed the balance of power in the American League. The Red Sox had won three of the previous five World Series (in 1915, ’16, and ’18), but they wouldn’t win another one for the rest of the 20th century. The Yankees, meanwhile, continued to purchase talent from the cash-strapped Frazee. In addition to Ruth and Carl Mays, New York acquired such stars as Waite Hoyt, Wally Schang, Everett Scott, Bullet Joe Bush, Sam Jones, Joe Dugan, George Pipgras, and Herb Pennock from the Red Sox during Frazee’s ownership.23 These players formed the nucleus of the Yankees’ three consecutive pennant winners (1921-23) and helped establish the Murderers’ Row dynasty that dominated the AL for years.

In the seven-player deal that brought them shortstop Scott and right-handed pitchers Bush and Jones, the Yankees sent back to Boston right-hander Jack Quinn, one of the last legal spitball pitchers in the major leagues. In February 1920 the Joint Rules Committee made an important and far-reaching decision to help improve offense and bring more fans to the ballpark. Legislation was enacted to ban all “freak” pitches — including the spitball, the shine ball, the emery ball, and all other doctored pitches — which had helped many pitchers enjoy great success during the Deadball Era of 1901 to 1919.24 The Joint Rules Committee ordered pitchers to stop throwing the spitball after the 1920 season, but eventually 17 pitchers (including future Hall of Famers Stan Coveleski, Urban “Red” Faber, and Burleigh Grimes) were given a lifetime exemption from the ban as long as they were still active in the major leagues.

Hall of Fame pitcher Walter Johnson, who did not throw the spitter, appreciated the reasoning behind the ban: “There is no getting away from the fact that the baseball public likes to see the ball walloped hard. The home runs are meat for the fans. Babe Ruth draws more people than a great pitcher does.”25

The rule change had an immediate effect. Scoring increased from 3.9 runs per game in 1919 to 4.4 in 1920 and 4.9 in 1921, while attendance soared as well. In 1920 the Yankees became the first team to draw more than 1 million fans at home. Ruth was a national sensation, walloping 54 home runs to shatter his own record of one year earlier. (He broke his own mark again in 1921, hitting 59 homers.) Even the Black Sox Scandal could not cast a dark enough shadow to ruin the game’s new prosperity. Babe Ruth is sometimes credited with “saving” baseball in the wake of the 1919 World Series fix, but the sport’s popularity was already on an upward swing both before and after the scandal became widely exposed.

Meanwhile, the future of the National Commission would not be decided in the offseason of 1919-20. Garry Herrmann’s resignation in February and the owners’ subsequent inability to decide on a new chairman left the game without competent leadership when the Black Sox fixers Eddie Cicotte, Shoeless Joe Jackson, and Lefty Williams testified to their involvement before a Chicago grand jury in the fall of 1920. It was at that point that the baseball owners finally sprang into action and hired federal judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis to serve as the game’s first commissioner. Landis would serve in that role for 24 years, guiding the sport through its darkest hour and into the modern era.

Notes

1 Allan Wood, “Carl Mays,” SABR BioProject. https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/99ca7c89.

2 Ibid.

3 Harold and Dorothy Seymour, Baseball: The Golden Age (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971), 264-66.

4 The Reach Official American League Base Ball Guide for 1920 (Philadelphia: A.J. Reach Co., 1920). Accessed online at Smithsonian Libraries, https://library.si.edu/digital-library/book/reachofficialame1920phil.

5 Washington Post, November 20, 1919; Chicago Tribune, November 22, 1919.

6 Chicago Tribune, November 22, 1919.

7 Washington Post, November 22, 1919.

8 There is conflicting evidence on what Comiskey knew about the World Series fix and exactly when he first knew it, with Comiskey writing in a 1929 letter that he was aware at least by the end of Game One. Reporter Hugh Fullerton wrote in a 1935 memoir that he confronted Comiskey before Game One that the fix was in and Comiskey replied that he already knew about it. In any event, it was a loosely kept secret throughout baseball, with many people apparently knowledgeable about the fix. See Gene Carney, Burying the Black Sox: How Baseball’s Cover-Up of the 1919 World Series Fix Almost Succeeded (Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, 2006), 40-53.

9 The baseball owners had voted in 1919 to lengthen the World Series to a best-of-nine affair in hopes of boosting attendance. The experiment was dropped after three years and the Series returned to best-of-seven in 1922.

10 Gene Carney, “Comiskey’s Detectives,” Baseball Research Journal, Volume 38, Issue 2 (Cleveland: Society for American Baseball Research, Fall 2009).

11 Seymour, 269.

12 Ibid.

13 Ibid.

14 Chicago Tribune, December 11, 1919.

15 Since 1912, the Yankees had been tenants at the Giants-owned Polo Grounds, an uneasy agreement that ended when the AL team built its own stadium on the other side of the Harlem River in 1923.

16 At a preliminary hearing, arguments centered on Ban Johnson’s claim that he had signed a 20-year contract to serve as AL president back in 1910. But he could not seem to produce any proof of such a deal. The Yankees also questioned Johnson’s longstanding financial stake in the Cleveland Indians.

17 Seymour, 271.

18 Ibid.

19 Ibid.

20 Hartford Courant, November 16, 1919.

21 1920 Reach Guide.

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

23 Ibid. In addition to the players involved — plus Hall of Fame executive Ed Barrow, who is credited with the idea for moving Ruth to the outfield when he managed the Red Sox; Barrow joined the Yankees front office in 1920 — the Yankees also paid the Red Sox close to $500,000 in cash during this period as part of the deals.

24 Steve Steinberg, “The Spitball and the End of the Deadball Era,” The National Pastime, Number 23 (Cleveland: Society for American Baseball Research, 2003).

25 New York Evening Telegram, August 22, 1920.