Howie Roseman Proves a Skillful Team Builder

Saturday’s Minneapolis Star Tribune had a great article on Eagles GM Howie Roseman’s building of that team.  Owner Jeffrey Lurie encouraged the team to be aggressive both off and on the field—as highlighted by the fourth down call at the one-yard line at the end of the first half—and both Roseman and coach Doug Pederson took his directive to heart.

Roseman used all avenues to find players—one of the trademarks of great GMs.  He traded five picks to move up to number two overall to draft QB Carson Wentz.  When Wentz was ready to start, the Eagles traded starting QB Sam Bradford for a first and fourth round draft pick, also freeing up cap space which they used to sign free agent WR Alshon Jeffrey.  CB Ronald Darby and DT Timmy Jernigan came via trade, as did Jay Ajayi during the season for a fourth round pick.  Overall, eight of the Eagles starters were acquired in 2017.  The team also has its own Moneyball-market inefficiency philosophy: high draft picks that didn’t pan out with their original team.  Philly’s roster has 20 players who had been either first or second round picks.

The Trade Deadline (1922)

Part 5 of our series on Important Moments in Team Building.  See introduction, and up-to-date list.


Joe Dugan

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.

Irish Meusel

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.


The Federal League War (1914)

Part 3 of our series on Important Moments in Team Building.  See introduction, and up-to-date list.


In the spring of 1913 the Federal League began operation as an independent (unaffiliated with Organized Baseball) minor league in several large Midwestern cities. Since the AL-NL peace agreement a decade earlier, Organized Baseball had generally left these typically small independent leagues alone as long as they didn’t try and infringe on any established contracts or agreements. If they did, even in the slightest, Organized Baseball, often led by American League President Ban Johnson, descended on them aggressively.

At first, the Federals had little desire to challenge the establishment, mostly signing top local semi-pro players and a few aging ex-Major Leaguers and minor league journeyman. As the 1913 season wore on, however, some of the Federal League owners began considering a major league challenge, as the AL had done successfully in 1901.

Acting quickly, in late summer the FL brought in Jim Gilmore, a glib, well-connected Chicago businessman, as league president and began looking for wealthy league owners. Gilmore had an early success when he induced Chicago restaurateur Charles Weeghman to take over the Chifeds. During the fall the league made a few marginal player signings, but nothing that would generate any real buzz. Weeghman changed this.

TinkerJoeAfter the 1913 season the Cincinnati Reds sold player-manager Joe Tinker, the shortstop of the Cubs famous Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance infield but no longer a star player, to Brooklyn for $25,000, a huge amount for the time. Under normal circumstances Tinker would have had no leverage. But with the FL threat afoot he demanded a $10,000 bonus and a three-year contract at $7,500 per year. Brooklyn agreed to the $10,000, but only a $5,000 annual salary at the time when top stars made roughly $9,000 – $12,000 and a mid-level regular around $3,000.

On December 27, 1913 Weeghman shocked the baseball establishment by signing Tinker to one of the largest contracts in baseball history, $36,000 for three years with $12,000 up front. The Federals had loudly signaled that they were ready to sign any player whose contract with Organized Baseball had expired. Over the next several months the Federals pursued many of baseball’s top stars and many from the high minors. They did not land many, but changed the market for all major league players.

A primary goal of any Organized Baseball team in 1914 was now simply to prevent the Federals from poaching its players. NL and AL owners resorted to underhanded tactics that would have been illegal under federal antitrust law, including blackballing players who jumped to the upstart league. More importantly, the new competition required Organized Baseball to nearly double its salary scale over the next couple years. In fact, only a handful of recognizable names jumped, several of whom were past their prime and became managers, such as pitcher Three Finger Brown and first baseman George Stovall. The Phillies lost the most players, including shortstop Mickey Doolin, second baseman Otto Knabe, and pitchers Ad Brennan and Tom Seaton.

During its first major league season in 1914, Federal League owners struggled to show a profit, with several clubs losing huge amounts of money. Once secret peace negotiations broke down in early November, the FL went back on the offensive, signing several significant players away from the major leagues, such as pitcher Pol Perritt, catcher Ivey Wingo, and first baseman Ed Konetchy.  But they still longed for a true superstar, and set their sights on Washington’s Walter Johnson, baseball’s best pitcher. Although Johnson had rebuffed them during the previous summer, he had seemed willing to listen.

JohnsonWalterWeeghman sent his manager Tinker, the Federal’s best spokesman, to Coffeyville, Kansas, to woo Johnson to the Chifeds. Tinker’s timing just happened to be perfect. After Johnson returned to Coffeyville that October he had received a contract in the mail from Senators owner Ben Minor offering just $12,500. When Tinker showed up on December 3, it took the two only 20 minutes to agree to a three-year contract at $17,500 per year. The Federals had finally made their game-changing signing and appeared to have materially changed the dynamic between the leagues.

Organized Baseball counterattacked swiftly. Washington manager and minority owner Clark Griffith hustled out to Kansas to meet with Johnson.   After a long grueling meeting in which he alternately called on Johnson’s loyalty and emphasized the negatives of the Federals, Griffith cajoled Johnson to disregard the contract he had signed with the Federals and re-sign with the Senators. Organized Baseball similarly managed to corral several other recent jumpers back into the fold.

Johnson’s defection back to Washington, along with many of the other players, devastated the FL’s owners. They felt like they had been fighting fair, generally going after players controlled only by the reserve clause, while Organized Baseball disdained the Federals, treating their contracts as if they did not exist. The Federals went to court to try to enforce the Johnson contract and several others, and to defend themselves from Organized Baseball’s own legal attacks, but these cases were costing the Federals tens of thousands of dollars.

The Federals decided to use the largest legal hammer they had, suing Organized Baseball for violating federal anti-trust laws. The FL’s attorneys wanted a sympathetic judge, and elected to file in Chicago in the court of Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, known as a trust buster. But despite Landis’s unspoken belief that Organized Baseball was acting in violation of antitrust laws, he refused to rule against them. In fact, he refused to rule at all. He simply sat on the case for all of 1915. At the end of the year, the Feds threw in the towel and reached the best settlement they could, receiving about $700,000 from the major league baseball owners and folding their league. Several owners, including Weeghman, were allowed to buy into major league teams. The NL and AL owners remembered Landis five years later when they named him baseball’s first commissioner.

After the Federal League folded, the power to completely control player movement returned to the clubs and salaries returned to their pre-FL levels. Had Walter Johnson and a few of his fellow major leaguers followed through on their contracts with the Federals for 1915 the league may have survived several years longer. If the FL had still been around a couple years later when America’s entry into the Great War dramatically cut into baseball’s profits, Organized Baseball may have been willing to cut a deal with the Federals that would have left a substantively different major league structure. One thing is for certain: like in 1903, the major leagues would not have allowed the salary explosion caused by the new league to stand.

For more on the Federal League Battle with Organized Baseball see this book.



The Reserve Clause (1879)

Part 1 of our series on Important Moments in Team Building.  See introduction, and up-to-date list.


Arthur Soden

Boston Red Stockings owner Arthur Soden had a problem. He and the other National League magnates, who had set up their new league just a few years earlier, were losing money. Over the NL’s first three seasons no team turned a profit, and in 1879 only Providence had made money. It was not supposed to be this way. When their league was established in 1876, the NL owners thought they had addressed the flaws of its predecessor, the National Association. Under the leadership of Chicago owner William Hulbert, the man who should really be considered the father of American sports leagues, at its start the NL agreed on four principles soon taken for granted.

First and foremost the owners took control over who could be a member, creating what we now refer to as a “franchise”. No longer could ten guys from Keokuk, Iowa — who might have ponied up a dollar each for the $10 entry fee — compete with established teams from Boston and Philadelphia (as had happened with the National Association). Secondly, the owners granted territorial exclusivity to their member teams. Also, the league created a common schedule so that teams played a similar amount of games against the other teams in the league – the National Association left it up to their member teams to schedule games as they wished, meaning that some teams played vastly more games than others. Lastly, the league registered player contacts with a central office so that teams could not poach players under contract to other teams.

Nevertheless, it was not enough. Most significantly, with most players on one-year contracts, once a season concluded teams would lure players from their competitors by offering higher pay or other perks. Salaries in those early NL years consumed nearly two-thirds of a team’s operating budget. Not surprisingly, having players “revolve” between teams also hurt fan interest. As the financial losses piled up, teams disbanded on a nearly annual basis. Only the fact that some new hopeful would pop up to take their place kept the league from folding.

After four years of this, Soden had a solution. He recommended that each team be allowed to “reserve” five of their contracted players (which was about half of the team) for the next season—no other team would be permitted to sign them. On September 30, 1879 Soden’s scheme was secretly adopted by the National League. Once implemented, the system had its desired effect. Salaries fell dramatically, profits rose, and the league’s franchises became much more stable. The reserve system proved so successful for the owners that they eventually made it public and expanded it to nearly all the players.

With no competition for their services, reserved players had little recourse other than to hold out – to refuse to sign their contract. The associated threat that the player would retire to some other line of work was hardly more than a hopeful bluff. In a period of less than a decade players had gone from being able to jump from team to team for better salaries to being tethered to whatever team held their contract, effectively forever. The launch of the American Association as a competing major league in 1882 offered new competition for the players, but the respite was short lived as the two leagues quickly agreed to respect each other’s reserve lists.

John M. Ward

The players had one brief stab at power a few years later under the leadership of John Montgomery Ward, a star infielder with New York. Ward organized the first real players union, the Brotherhood of Professional Baseball Players, in the mid-1880s. In 1890, with backing from wealthy investors, the players launched their own league, the Players League. Once again salaries soared, but this time the National League fought back in the courts, arguing that the reserve clause, now inserted into the players’ contracts, legally prohibited players from negotiating with any other team. The NL owners did not win any of these challenges, and the Players League landed many of the top stars.

In the end, however, it didn’t matter. The Players League folded after just one year; the National League and American Association continued to agree to respect one another’s reserve lists; and the players once again had no leverage. Owners and GMs could go about their team building with only the most cursory concern over the desires and needs of their players.

The reserve clause remained a bedrock principle of the major leagues for the next 85 years. Even after an arbiter, and various collective bargaining agreements, chipped away at the scope of the clause beginning in the 1970s, most major leaguers (all those with less than six years service time) are bound by the clause to this day.

Today, much of the hot stove talk is around where various free agents are likely to land and their impact on a team’s chances in the coming year. Under the reserve clause regime there was no way to access significant mid-career players other than through trades or outright purchases from other teams. The former obviously required surrendering one’s own talent while the latter was only available under unique financial circumstances. For nearly a century, Soden’s 1879 brainstorm defined player-owner relations and narrowed teams’ roster options.