This post is part of a series in which we count down the 25 best GMs in history. For an explanation, please see this post.
Before feuding owners Jacob Ruppert and Tillinghast L’Hommedieu Huston turned to Ed Barrow in 1920, the Yankees had never won a pennant. They won their first in 1921 and during Barrow’s tenure went on to win thirteen more as well as ten World Series. Technically hired as business manager—the GM position hadn’t yet been formalized—Barrow concocted on the fly the modern concept of the general manager. He had spent his entire adult life mastering just about every executive position in baseball, and now it would carry over to one more. For the next 24 years in New York he would apply that expertise to building one of the great American sports dynasties.
Before joining the Yankees, Barrow had managed Babe Ruth and the Red Sox to their last World Series championship prior to the “curse.” As president of the International League in the 1910s he had led the battle against the upstart Federal League, a self-declared major league backed by some of the biggest industrialists of the era. Barrow also spent time as a minor league owner, a minor league manager, and manager of the Detroit Tigers. He prided himself on having signed Honus Wagner while a minor league owner, the immortal’s last stop before the majors. As a youth Barrow had boxed and was not afraid to mix it up with players or umpires. He knew just about everyone in baseball and at 52 was ready for a new challenge.
Up to Barrow’s time with the Yankees most teams were run by a team president and the manager. Barrow grasped the potential of his new role perfectly and became the ideal for this position. He defined the job early in his tenure, telling manager Miller Huggins, “You’re the manager, and you’re going to get no interference or second guessing from me. Your job is to win, and part of my job is to see that you have the players to win with. You tell me what you need, and I’ll make the deals—and I’ll take full responsibility for every deal I make.”
The team Barrow inherited had purchased Ruth the year before, and the Babe helped the team to 95 wins and a third place finish. Over the next few years Barrow went back to his old boss and Huston’s close friend, Boston owner Harry Frazee, and using Ruppert’s money bought all the rest of the Red Sox best players. Spending over $400,000 Barrow and the Yankee owners purchased Wally Schang, Everett Scott, Joe Dugan, Sam Jones, Joe Bush, Herb Pennock, and Waite Hoyt–the core of the team that would carry the Yankees to their first three pennants and first-ever World Series victory in 1923.
One of the keys to the Yankees long-term success was Barrow’s amassing possibly the greatest assemblage of scouts in baseball history. After the disastrous 1925 season in which the team fell to 69 – 85, Barrow expanded and reorganized his scouts, creating arguably the first modern scouting department. He hired “Vinegar” Bill Essick to scout the west and Eddie Herr, a former Detroit Tiger scout, whom he assigned to the Midwest. Holdovers Bob Gilks and Ed Holly focused on the South and East respectively. Superscout Paul Krichell remained principally responsible for the colleges, and acted as Barrow’s right hand. Bob Connery purchased a controlling interest in the St. Paul franchise in the American Association and left the Yankees organization to run the Saints.
Over the next few years Barrow continued to fine-tune his scouting staff. He brought in Gene McCann to help in the East and Johnny Nee to take over the South. Several years later the Yankees added the last of their legendary scouts, hiring Joe Devine to help out in the West. Like Barrow’s existing scouts, all three had spent time as minor league managers, a well-mined source for scouts.
Once Frazee’s stable of stars ran out and the other major league teams were under little pressure to sell off their talent during the roaring twenties, Barrow needed another talent source to restock his team. At the time, prior to the inception of the farm system, the minor leagues were run independently and major league clubs purchased or drafted (hopefully) major league-ready players. Barrow’s scouts out-hustled and out-scouted the competition, identifying the top minor league players and cajoling their owners into selling. Over the next decade the Yankees purchased several future Hall of Famers along with many valuable contributors.
The signing of Hall of Fame second baseman Tony Lazzeri typifies Barrow’s process. Barrow often dispatched his scouts to review prospects on short notice, and Krichell joked that every telegram from Barrow started with “immediately” or “at once.” Lazzeri was tearing up the Pacific Coast League, and Krichell traveled to Salt Lake City to scout him, liking what he saw. Although several teams showed some reservation because Lazzeri was epileptic, Krichell recommended Lazzeri to Barrow despite his price tag of $50,000 and five players–a huge outlay for the time. Given the cost, Barrow dispatched Holly to confirm Krichell’s judgment and practically ordered ex-scout Connery, now in St. Paul and no longer a Yankees employee, to also validate Krichell assessment.
When the team next won the World Series in 1927, many of the key players—catcher Pat Collins, second baseman Lazzeri, shortstop Mark Koenig, outfielders Bob Meusel and Earl Combs, and pitcher Wilcy Moore—were all purchases from the minor leagues. Barrow’s crack team of scouts continued identifying and purchasing the best players over the next couple of years, including Bill Dickey, Frank Crosetti, and Lefty Gomez.
With the onset of the Depression in the early 1930s, the minors looked for financial assistance from the majors. In response the majors changed the roster rules to make investing in and controlling in minor league franchises worthwhile. Ruppert quickly grasped the impact of this rule change, ordered Barrow to establish a farm system, and hired George Weiss to run it. To stock what would quickly become the best minor league system in the league, Barrow redirected his scouts to spend more time chasing top amateurs. Of course, the scouts did not completely forgo the high, independent minors, and in 1934 the Yankees purchased Joe DiMaggio for $25,000 and five players, a discount price because of his reportedly bum knee.
Landing the best amateurs required wits, money, salesmanship, and hustle. The Yankee scouts became renowned for selling the benefits of the Yankee organization to prospective signees, and directed by Barrow, quickly proved their mettle in unearthing amateur talent. In 1937, for example, when the Yankees easily won the pennant and World Series, their top farm team in Newark won more than 70% of its games. This minor league team, often considered one of the greatest ever, was led by many future major league players and stars acquired by the Yankees scouts.
The Yankees won four consecutive World Series from 1936 to 1939. During this great run Barrow and manager Joe McCarthy successfully integrated the products of their farm system onto a championship squad, a gutsy but long-term, high-yield approach. By 1939, many of the key players, such as Joe Gordon, Red Rolfe, Charlie Keller, Atley Donald, Marius Russo, and Johnny Murphy, had been signed as amateurs and graduated from the Yankees farm system.
When Ruppert died in 1939, Barrow took over as team president but still ran the team as the de facto GM. In early 1945 the Ruppert trust, needing money to pay its taxes, sold the Yankees to a triumvirate of Larry MacPhail, Del Webb, and Dan Topping. Barrow disliked the flashy MacPhail and unsuccessfully tried to interest his hunting buddy and Boston owner Tom Yawkey in purchasing the club. After the sale the new ownership kicked the 76-year-old Barrow upstairs with a title of chairman of the board, but it was a purely symbolic position.
The team he was forced to sell had a culture and infrastructure in place that would help carry it to another two decades of greatness. As one of the first and most successful men ever to embrace the role of general manager, he helped fashion a position that encompassed the oversight of both the scouting staff and the farm system. That he not only shaped the role, but excelled at it, allowed him to bequeath an organization that would be the envy of baseball for many years to come.
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