Part 9 of our series on Important Moments in Team Building. See introduction, and up-to-date list.
Upon his introduction to the Boston press corps in February 1933, Thomas Yawkey, the new owner of the downtrodden Boston Red Sox, cautioned that the path ahead would not be an easy one. “I don’t think the Red Sox can be built up overnight,” he said. “It would be the height of folly to dump a lot of money into the thing all at once.” Yawkey had been born rich, and inherited a fortune when he reached age 30. The only thing he really wanted was a baseball team, and the hapless Red Sox, who had finished 43-111 in 1932 and drawn less 182,000 fans to a dilapidated Fenway Park, had been available.
In 1932 most people in America were either poor or hanging on to their money for dear life, but Yawkey was one of the richest men in America and, as he saw it, had nothing else to spend money on.
In the years before free agency a rich owner was only useful insofar as he found owners who wanted to sell star players. In the years during and after the Federal League battles and the industry hardships caused by World War I a few big names had changed hands (Eddie Collins, Tris Speaker, Frank Baker, Joe Jackson, and Pete Alexander, among others), and of course Harry Frazee had sold many stars to the Yankees in the early 1920s. But major league sales had gone extinct for several years during the 1920s as most teams were making money, and the owners weren’t pressed for cash. The big-dollar purchases in the late 1920s were all from the independent minor leagues. By the time Yawkey entered the scene in the depths of the Depression no players were selling at high prices. He quickly changed things.
Over the next few years, Yawkey (under the advisement of general manager Eddie Collins) dumped a lot of money into the thing all at once, purchasing the following players (with lesser players usually going in one direction or the other):
- May 1933. Rick Ferrell (catcher) and Lloyd Brown (pitcher) from the St. Louis Browns for $25,000
- May 1933. Billy Werber (third base) and George Pipgras (pitcher) from New York Yankees for $100,000
- December 1933. Lefty Grove (pitcher), Max Bishop (pitcher) and Rube Walberg (pitcher) from Philadelphia Athletics for $125,000
- May 1934. Lyn Lary (shortstop) from the New York Yankees for $20,000
- May 1934. Wes Ferrell (pitcher) from Cleveland Indians for $25,000
- October 1934. Joe Cronin (shortstop-manager) from Washington Senators for $225,000
- December 1935. Jimmie Foxx (first base) and Johnny Marcum (pitcher) from Philadelphia Athletics for $150,000
- January 1936. Doc Cramer (outfielder) and Eric McNair (infield) from Philadelphia Athletics for $175,000
Three years down and Yawkey had spent $850,000 on these players, and there are several lesser transactions that aren’t included on this list. Understand that the Red Sox started at the very bottom of the league, and they had literally no farm system. In this era there was no way to get better outside of buying players – traditionally from the high minors. Farm systems had just become practical when Yawkey took over, and he eventually got around to that too. But for now, he was buying.
So how did he do?
Let’s look at the Red Sox records, year to year:
- 1932: 43-111, eighth (last) place
- 1933: 63-86, seventh place
- 1934: 76-76, fourth place
- 1935: 75-78, fourth place
- 1936: 74-80, sixth place
- 1937: 80-72, fifth place
- 1938: 88-61, second place
- 1939: 89-62, second place
Other than the brief slip in 1936, the team got better every year. The narrative took hold that Yawkey had “failed”, because he tried to buy a pennant and did not. True, but the Red Sox did overtake every team except the Yankees who, in the late 1930s, were arguably the greatest team of all time.
If Yawkey and Collins made mistakes they were of the sort that baseball owners continued to make in the era of free agency. Namely, that while the star players are worth the expense (Grove, Foxx, Cronin, and the Ferrells continued to perform at their previous high levels), they could have saved themselves a lot of money by turning away from the ordinary players and those past their prime.
A comparison to the Yankees reveals the real lesson. While the Yankees did not land Lefty Grove and Jimmy Foxx, they did build a productive farm system as soon as it was practical and continued investing in young talent. In the late 1930s, while the Red Sox were trying to close the gap, the Yankees introduced the likes of Joe DiMaggio (a high minors purchase), Tommy Henrich, Charlie Keller, and Joe Gordon.
What was true in the 1930s is still true today. Building a team of star players without a core of young talent to put around it is prohibitively expensive, even for someone like Tom Yawkey.