Part 5 of our series on Important Moments in Team Building. See introduction, and up-to-date list.
On July 23, 1922 the New York Yankees sent Boston Red Sox owner Harry Frazee $50,000 plus three reserves and a pitcher to be named later for third baseman Joe Dugan and outfielder Elmer Smith. For the Yankees, the key player was Dugan, a highly regarded 25-year-old. For the Red Sox, the key was the money. Since the sales to New York of Carl Mays in 1919 and Babe Ruth after that, Frazee had been cashing in his players, mostly to those same Yankees. Dugan was one of the last of his prized players.
While not prohibited—the trade deadline at the time was August 1–these late July transactions by contenders were generally frowned upon. On the day of the deal the Yankees were in second place in the American League, 1.5 games behind the St. Louis Browns. Not surprisingly, the Browns organization and its fans went berserk. Though Dugan was pretty much an average player in New York, the Yankees overcame this small deficit over the last two months of the season to edge St. Louis by a single game.
The previous season the National League had witnessed a similar episode with a more significant player. On July 25, 1921 the Giants purchased star left fielder Emil “Irish” Meusel from Philadelphia Phillies’ owner William Baker. The Giants were running second, four games behind the Pittsburgh Pirates, and New York manager John McGraw wanted a third capable outfielder to go along with Ross Youngs and George Burns. To land Meusel, McGraw surrendered two players and $30,000, though the cash was not reported until several weeks later; it was originally described as a straight trade. Baker had been gutting his ballclub; at the time of the Giants deal they stood 25-62, and Meusel was one of the few good players left from what had been a fine team during the war.
To shield himself from the ire of his fellow magnates and his team’s fans, Baker charged Meusel with “indifferent” playing and claimed he had suspended Meusel several days before the trade. Suitably riled, Commissioner Landis investigated and determined that Meusel had not been suspended or even accused of malingering by his manager; Baker had simply fabricated the story. Nevertheless, Landis allowed the deal to stand.
The Meusel deal became especially galling for Pittsburgh when the Giants swept them in a crucial five game series at the end of August, with Meusel acting as the catalyst, hitting .500/.556/.938 for the series. By the end of the season the Giants had taken over first place, capturing the pennant by four games over the Pirates.
When the other free spending New York club made its similar pennant-changing deal a year later, the non-selling owners had seen enough. It wasn’t so much the trades themselves, but the perception of buying the pennant by the New York teams. The Giants had long been the biggest spending team and best in the National League, and once Jacob Ruppert and Til Huston bought the Yankees they were assuming the same role in the AL. In 1922, the two New York clubs met in the World Series for the second straight season, and would again the next year as well.
To confine most of the dealing to the offseason, at the joint major league baseball meeting on December 14, 1922, the owners voted to institute a June 15 non-waiver trading deadline. (Intra-league trades only – inter-league deals remained prohibited until 1959.) Any player moved after that date would have to clear waivers. Further testifying to the resentment of the owners and Commissioner Landis, they even considered a provision that would have prohibited the previous year’s pennant winners from making any in-season deals with other major league teams.
Sixty-four years later – in 1986 — the owners moved the trading deadline back to July 31, as much of the original impetus for the earlier deadline no longer applied. This six-week difference in the middle of the season has proved to be meaningful. For the vast majority of teams, it is almost impossible to decide whether to be a buyer or seller by June 15. Too much baseball remains to be played. Today teams can get a pretty good handle on their squads before deciding which way to move, and the later trade deadline has generated heightened publicity as teams concoct their often blockbuster deadline deals.