Free Trade (1971)

Part 15 of our series on Important Moments in Team Building.  See introduction, and up-to-date list.

 

Between 1965 (the year of the first Amateur Draft) and 1976 (the first year of Free Agency), baseball general managers had more power than they had ever had and would ever have. It was the era when baseball players had the least control over their careers, and it was also the era when owner wealth or revenue meant the least. A team could not buy its way out of trouble with bonuses to amateurs or veterans. If you had a poor team, you had two reasonable methods to improve: you could draft well over a period of years and then be patient; or you could make a series of astute trades. Ideally, you would do both.

This is where the general manager came in. Other than the occasional owner who was actually going bankrupt, the rest of the teams, even those in small markets like Baltimore, Oakland, and Cincinnati, could compete on equal footing with teams in New York and Los Angeles if they had a bright general manager, scouts, and development system. In fact, all three of those teams achieved more success in this period than before or since.

CuellarIn all three cases, much of their success could be attributed to their ability to trade. The Orioles great 1969-71 run was keyed by deals for Frank Robinson, Mike Cuellar, and Pat Dobson, while the A’s turned a good team into a great one by dealing for Ken Holtzman and Bill North.

But the greatest GM of this period, the man who built the best team, was Bob Howsam, who ran the Cincinnati Reds. Howsam was a master trader, having made impressive deals for Orlando Cepeda and Roger Maris during a stint running the Cardinals before taking the Reds job in 1967. His acquisition of Bobby Tolan put the finishing touches on his 1970 pennant winner, but his master stroke came after his team slid back in 1971.

Howsam met with his brain trust, including manager Sparky Anderson, the farm director, and the team’s top scouts, in September 1971, to map out their off-season strategy. As Howsam saw it, they were too slow, too defensively challenged (especially now that they had moved to Riverfront Stadium with its artificial turf and huge power alleys), and too right-handed. Howsam and his group went over his team position by position throughout the entire organization, and then put together a position-by-position ranking of every player in the major leagues to gauge how the Reds matched up.

Howsam expected his staff to know other baseball organizations as well as the teams themselves did. When he went to talk to the Pirates about a trade, he wanted to know the Pirate players who might be blocked or who might be underappreciated. He wanted to be ready for anything his counterpart might suggest.

The man Sparky Anderson wanted was Joe Morgan, a 28-year-old second baseman with the Astros. Morgan was a left-handed hitter, a great base stealer, and had more power than most middle infielders. He also had tremendous on-base skills that were undervalued at the time. It was no secret that Morgan did not get along with Astros manager Harry Walker – which might offer the opening the Howsam needed.

Howsam asked scout Ray Shore to look into the matter further and report back. Shore spent the last few weeks of the 1971 season with Astros, scouting Morgan. Shore knew everyone, and knew how to get the information he needed. One of his sources was Harry Kalas, a radio broadcaster for the Astros at the time. Kalas liked Morgan, thought him bright and competitive, and believed that Walker mismanaged him. Shore concluded that Morgan would be a great addition to the club.

Howsam’s scouts felt that the Astros were looking for power, and the Reds had three right-handed power hitters in Johnny Bench, Tony Perez, and Lee May. Bench was untouchable, and May was the one Howsam was willing to trade. He called up Astros general manager Spec Richardson and offered May for Morgan, straight up.

Richardson spent the next few weeks shopping Morgan around before getting back to the Reds. He asked to expand the deal by trading infielder Denis Menke for Tommy Helms (the Reds’ second baseman who would be displaced by Morgan).

download (14)Although Helms would be redundant, Howsam used this as an opportunity to get more players. This is where his scouts’ hard work paid off. Howsam asked for both Cesar Geronimo, a young centerfielder blocked by Cesar Cedeno, and Jack Billingham, a starting pitcher who had not broken into a deep Astros rotation. Richardson needed neither, as Howsam knew, but Spec felt he had to ask for utility man Jimmy Stewart. Realizing that the deal was just about done but always wanting one more player, Howsam said he’d agree if he could have young outfielder Ed Armbrister.

The deal was finalized at the winter meetings on November 29. 1971. May, Helms, and Stewart, for Morgan, Geronimo, Billingham, Menke, and Armbrister.

The reaction to the trade was mostly pro-Houston. May and Helms were very popular players in Cincinnati, while many observers thought of Morgan as a worse fielding version of Helms. This judgment would prove wildly incorrect. Over the next five seasons Morgan would be the best player in baseball, averaging .303 with a .431 on-base-percentage, 22 home runs, 113 runs, 62 steals, and winning four Gold Gloves. He had two spectacular MVP seasons in 1975 and 1976, capping off one of the best five-year peaks in baseball history, comparable to those of Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle.

Howsam later estimated that the Reds spent 3,000 man-hours working on the Astros deal, the equivalent of a single person working 40 hours a week for a year-and-a-half. The effort more than paid off for Howsam and his team.

 

What was missing in all of this strategizing and negotiating was any talk of money or salaries. Bob Howsam was a shrewd businessman on top of everything else, and would gladly exchange a veteran for an equally talented lower-cost solution. But in 1971 none of these players were making enough money to give any team pause, and the Reds likely did not increase their payroll with this deal. Forty years later, salaries and each player’s remaining years of control would be of paramount concern in any transaction, to say nothing of whether the players actually wanted to play for their new teams.

For anyone who grew up on the baseball of this time, it is easy to romanticize about how much better it might have been–to imagine your team trading their way to a pennant–without consideration for money or the people involved.

The Reds won the World Series in both 1975 and 1976, fittingly the last two years before free agency. Howsam later recalled a fleeting melancholy feeling in the winning locker room in 1976, knowing that no one would ever again be able to build a team the way he had.

 

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Collective Bargaining Agreement (1968)

Part 14 of our series on Important Moments in Team Building.  See introduction, and up-to-date list.

 

Although the baseball team-building game had changed many times by the late 1960s, most of the changes were made to help the owners. With the amateur draft in place, what was essentially the only power a player had–selecting which team to sign with to begin his career–was now gone. The owners controlled the entire career. Players could theoretically “negotiate” their annual salaries, but if they showed up with a lawyer the owner would likely throw them both out of the office.

While the Major League Baseball Players Association was formally created in 1954, the players’ only substantive accomplishment in its first 12 years was its pension and benefit plan, first established in 1947 (by a pre-MLBPA group of players) and steadfastly maintained in the years since. The union took pride in its pension plan, and the players otherwise accepted their situation. They had a part-time lawyer for a while, but when he suggested to the owners that he wished to negotiate other issues, the owners told the players to get rid of him. They did.

The players then hired Robert Cannon, a personal friend of many of the owners, as a part-time legal advisor. Cannon was a Milwaukee judge who really wanted to be baseball commissioner. His strategy was to remind the players continually how well-treated they were and to ask for nothing from the owners.

download (1)The players’ pension plan had long been tied to revenue generated by the All-Star Game and World Series. As this pool continued to increase, the owners were becoming increasingly uncomfortable giving up so much money to the players, and the tensions related to this disagreement finally caused the players to hire a full-time executive director. After considering a few other candidates, including Cannon, the players ultimately hired Marvin Miller in the spring of 1966. To say this was a watershed moment is an extreme understatement. In 2016 the MLBPA publicly celebrated its 50th anniversary-–the pre-Miller days don’t even count.

The owners were not happy with the appointment of Miller, and they tried to torpedo it. “We could tell from the reaction of the owners that Marvin would be good for us,” iconoclast pitcher Jim Bouton later said. “They hated him. They were saying that he would bring in goons with bicycle chains and baseball bats, and there would be violence and strikes and pickets signs, and we didn’t need that in our union. And of course, we all realized that we did need that.” Miller told the players that his job was not to get along with the owners—his job was to advocate and fight for the players.

One significant thing the players did not have was a collective bargaining agreement, the sine qua non for any union worth its name. Marvin Miller’s goal, from his first day on the job, was to get the owners to agree to a CBA, which would recognize the union as the legal representative of the players, and would subject the relationship to federal labor laws.

Before the first CBA, the owners made all the rules and the players had no recourse. The minimum salary was $7,000, which had been raised once since the 1940s. And even that was squishy-–Bouton claimed in his book Ball Four that some players were given less than that and were scared to complain. The players might ask to raise the minimum salary, and the owners might say “no.” The conversation was over.

Nothing was written down anywhere. The players had spring training allowances and in-season meal allowances, but none of this was strictly enforced. Players were supposed to have travel paid for if they changed teams, but good luck getting the money. “Before the union came along,” said Joe Torre, “player reps used to ask about things like broken shower heads in certain clubhouses or getting more towels.”

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Curt Flood and Marvin Miller

After a year and a half of on-again, off-again negotiations, the first CBA was signed in February of 1968 and was in effect for two years. There were now two essential agreements covering the players: a CBA and a pension/benefit plan. The CBA increased the minimum salary to $10,000, standardized the base contract for the first time, increased meal allowances, and added schedule rules (for example: specifying how many days in a row a team could play).

 

The most important facet of the CBA was its mere existence. Miller recalled a 1966 meeting at which he mentioned that one team’s players were concerned they had a long stretch without an off day. Joe Cronin–the American League president and an early member of the Player Relations Committee–exploded at Miller about the schedule being the prerogative of the league office and who the hell does Miller think he is? Having scheduling rules, even minor ones, in the CBA established the precedent that the players had a voice in these matters.

Another vital component was the establishment of a grievance procedure, which Miller knew was a key component of CBAs of other industries. The procedure was very simple, merely requiring the player or union to fill out some paperwork and file it with the commissioner’s office. Commissioner William Eckert was the sole arbiter, which was not ideal, but the players won more often than not. In 1968, to cite one example, a few American League teams objected to staying in Baltimore’s substandard Lord Baltimore hotel and filed a grievance. Eckert ruled for the players.

Miller wanted the players to file grievances on everything–no matter how small–that violated the CBA. These victories, some for $25 or $50, led to increased compliance from the clubs and increased confidence by the players in their newfangled union.

The early CBAs were fairly short in duration–two or three years–because Miller believed each success was just a small victory in the larger battle. The 1968 CBA was a landmark, but Miller knew the struggle was just going to get tougher.

Compared with what was to come, the players had gained no real power over their careers. The pieces were starting to come in to place, though the owners were wholly unaware of it.

 

 

 

Amateur Draft (1965)

Part 13 of our series on Important Moments in Team Building.  See introduction, and up-to-date list.

 

“Pro football has a draft, and that cuts down bonus payments. [But] we want to encourage free enterprise on the part of everyone, including, of course, the kids themselves.” So said Joe Cronin, the general manager of the Red Sox in 1952. Indeed, the NFL had started its draft in 1936, and the NBA in 1947. Whatever you may think of the legalities or ethics of a draft, it remains a mystery why baseball did not get on board decades before they did. It is unlikely that the reason was either “encourage[ing] free enterprise”, or “the kids,” since they twice instituted bonus rules that fought against both.

When the free market of 1958 once again resulted in massive bonuses, it did not take long for owners to begin talk of a new rule. At the 1958 winter meetings the magnates tried it again, this time a little less obviously.

Reggie Smith1959-64. First-year player draft. This was not technically a bonus rule, since the policy affected all players whether they received a bonus or not. Every first-year player (with one year of professional experience) who was not placed on a 40-man roster was subject to a new December draft. The drafting team had to place the player on their 25-man roster and pay $15,000 to the draftee.

Despite bonuses not being part of the definition, the rule was clearly intended to curtail bonuses. A team would not want to give out too much money to amateur prospects if they were just going to lose the player a year later.

The details of the rule changed several times, but its effects became more dramatic starting in 1962 when the rule required that the first-year player (with one exception per team) be placed on the 25-man roster. Over the three drafts under this revised rule, many future big league stars changed teams, including Paul Blair, Lou Piniella, Jim Wynn, Bobby Tolan, Reggie Smith, and Rudy May, all left unprotected one year into their minor league careers. In addition, many players (like Tony Conigliaro) saw their big league careers fast-tracked so that they would not be subject to the draft.

Although there were likely fewer bonuses, the highest outlays kept growing. In June 1964 the Los Angeles Angels gave $200,000 to University of Wisconsin outfielder Rick Reichardt, which may have been the bonus that finally got the owners to throw up their hands.

1965-present.  Amateur draft.

ReichardtAt the 1964 winter meetings, the major league owners finally made the decision to create an amateur draft. In the succeeding five decades, the amateur draft has been the primary mechanism for major league teams to acquire high school and college players from the United States, Canada, and (as of 1990) US territories (such as Puerto Rico). Originally there were three drafts: the big one in June, one in August (for American Legion players who were still playing over the summer), and one in January (for those who finished high school or college in the fall. As of 1987, there is one draft.

The effect on team building was enormous. No longer could a team choose to open its wallet for a year or two to restock the system. Teams like the Yankees and Dodgers no longer had any advantage over the Senators and Phillies when it came to signing amateurs. Had the draft been in effect in 1964, Reichardt might have been the first pick (by the Mets or Senators) and would have had one offer to accept.

The profession of scouting changed dramatically. A Yankee scout in the 1950s was part salesman, selling an amateur on the glory and prestige of wearing pinstripes. Beginning in 1965, the players’ views on the matter were unimportant. The best players, certainly those selected in the first few rounds, were well known to every team. The job of the scout was the find good players and then lobby with his scouting director or general manager to draft them if they were available.

Although drafting high offers an obvious benefit, an advantage can still be achieved by uncovering and developing the right players. In the first 30 major league drafts, through 1994, a total of 86 selected players (just fewer than 3 per year) went on to put up 50 WAR (a top-flight star) in the big leagues. Many of these were taken in the top 10 picks (23 times), but 28 others were taken after the first four rounds. There were two in the first draft: Johnny Bench, taken in Round 2, and Nolan Ryan, taken in Round 12.

rick_monday_autographIn a typical draft, a single team will select (on average) 25 to 30 future WAR. If a team can beat that number over a period of several years they will almost always compete for multiple pennants a few years later. The Kansas City A’s were big spenders in the last few years of the free market (1962 through 1964) and then picked Rick Monday with the first pick in the first draft. They followed this up outstanding drafts the next two years. Besides Monday, they also drafted Sal Bando, Gene Tenace, Reggie Jackson, and Vida Blue in these years, and were one of the games dominant teams in the early 1970s.

The greatest single draft class was that of the 1968 Los Angeles Dodgers, who selected and signed 234 future WAR. This group included Ron Cey, Dave Lopes, Steve Garvey, Doyle Alexander, Joe Ferguson, Geoff Zahn, and Bill Buckner. The Dodgers top pick that year – Bobby Valentine – had a promising career snuffed out by an injury, but the depth of this draft remains unprecedented even decades later. The Dodgers had drafted Bill Russell, Charlie Hough, and Steve Yeager over the previous two years, and most of this group stayed together to help win four pennants and a World Series over an eight-year period.

For the past 50 years, many teams that have been successful over a period of years have had good drafts a few years prior. The advent of free agency and new player pools outside of America complicated the calculus somewhat, but the draft remains the biggest and best source of talent for big league baseball teams.

 

 

 

 

Bonus Rule (1953)

Part 11 of our series on Important Moments in Team Building.  See introduction, and up-to-date list.

Prior to the advent of the free agency in the 1970s, the only time a player could expect a free market for his services was when he was an amateur. Although the financial health and competence of each team was subject to change over time, theoretically the 16 teams were all trying to sign the best high school and college players. As scouting became more widespread, teams inevitably found the same players, and competitive bidding ensued for the best ones. As signing bonuses began to rise, it was inevitable that owners would try to figure out how to cap the bonuses.

The most famous “bonus rule” was in effect between 1953 and 1957, which is why my title says “1953”. But there were actual a few different attempts. Let’s run through them.

Pre-1947. Free market. There were several large bonuses in the 1930s and 1940s, generally in the $10,000 to $20,000 range. The biggest bonus was probably that given by the Tigers to Dick Wakefield in 1941: $52,000 and a new car. He had an excellent year-and-a-half with Detroit and then entered the military in mid-1944. When he returned, he was not the same player, and his case was often cited at the time as a bonus failure, as evidence that baseball had a problem.

At the 1946 winter meetings, owners agreed on their first bonus rule.

RobertsRobib1947-1950. First bonus rule: Any player who received a bonus of more than $6,000 could not be optioned to the minors without clearing irrevocable waivers. Soon after, the rule was amended to allow a one-time option, so that a player could spend a single season in the minors.

The effect was to limit the number of bonuses, especially for contending teams who valued their 25 major league roster spots. A team like the Phillies, generally out of contention, spent nearly $100,000 on pitchers Robin Roberts and Curt Simmons, and was forced to give them both big league jobs in 1948. This worked out very well when both soon became stars, but a more typical case was someone like Frank Quinn, who received $75,000 from the Red Sox and then spent a year-and-a-half taking up a roster spot (pitching 24 innings) for a contending team in 1949-50. Or Paul Pettit, who received $100,000 from the Pirates and won one big league game.

One of the unintended side effects of the bonus rule was the resentment of veteran players to the kids on the bench who (a) had more money than they did, and (b) were not helping the team. At the 1950 winter meetings, the owners voted to scrap the rule.

1951-52. Free market. Baseball had thrived in the post-war period, and owners were more than ready to spend some of their profits. The Red Sox led the way, spending over $1 million in two years, including $700,000 in 1952 on 17 players. The entire major leagues apparently spent $4.5 million on bonus contracts in this single year. All of these players could be sent to the minors, away from their lesser paid veteran players.

After a couple of years of these huge outlays, the owners again voted to institute another bonus rule, stricter than the last.

1953-1957. Second bonus rule. Any player who received $4,000 or more would have to spend two full seasons on the big league roster, with no one-time option. If they were sent to the minors, they would be subject to an end-of the-season draft.

Big league managers began complaining about the rule immediately, saying it hurt development and morale. Charlie Dressen, managing the Senators, suggested a modification that would allow a club to option the players to the minors who would nonetheless count against the 25-man roster. In effect, this would punish the team, but not the player. This sensible proposal was rejected.

KalineAlThis rule was in place for five years, and affected 60 players. Most of these players were soon forgotten, but the group did include four eventual Hall of Famers: Sandy Koufax, Harmon Killebrew, Roberto Clemente and Al Kaline. Kaline was a star very quickly; on the other hand, Koufax and Killebrew took several years to get their careers going with two wasted seasons at the start.

Clemente deserves special mention. The Dodgers signed him out of Puerto Rico in 1954 but then decided to risk sending him to the minors anyway. They were the only team to ever take this chance, and it backfired when the Pirates selected him in the draft after the season. Clemente took a few years to become a star but was soon a legend.

At the winter meetings in December 1957, the owners again voted to repeal the bonus rule.

1958. Free market. Once again, the owners spent money freely. While the Red Sox had dominated the previous free market, this time one of the biggest spenders were likely the Dodgers. Freshly relocated to Los Angeles and with an older team that needed reinforcement, the Dodgers signed the likes of Frank Howard, Willie Davis, and Ron Fairly to large bonuses in this single year.

There were two additional attempts to curb bonuses: the first-year player draft (that began in 1959), and the amateur draft (that began in 1965). Those attempts will be covered in a couple of days.

 

Jackie Robinson (1947)

Part 10 of our series on Important Moments in Team Building.  See introduction, and up-to-date list.

 

JackieOn April 15, 1947 Jackie Robinson made his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers, bringing to an end a six-decade ban on dark-skinned players in the major leagues. This was a great day for Robinson, a great day for the Dodgers (who had gained one of the game’s all-time great players), and a great day for America. The story of Robinson and the brave men who followed his lead and helped change the game has been told often and well over the succeeding years, and cannot be told enough. Robinson’s bravery and outstanding play combined to right baseball’s great wrong, and led the way for many other players who followed.

Although baseball’s belated foray into social justice is worth all the attention it has received, the issue that concerns us here is that the integration of the game had an extraordinary impact on how a team could be built. Jackie Robinson improved baseball ethically and morally, but he also made it better because he was a great player, and his playing time came at the expense of someone who was a lesser player. Robinson opened the doors for a vast new source of baseball talent, and that talent could not help but dramatically improve the game.

For all the major structural changes that we talk about in this series – the farm system, the amateur draft, free agency – most of them deal with how players get sorted between teams, or how they shift around from team to team. Integration was different. Integration opened up an essentially brand new pool of talent to the 16 major league clubs. The player pool was not new, of course; African-Americans and Latinos had been playing baseball at a high level for decades. The fact that none of these players had played in the major leagues was a crime, variously blamed on many people. All we know for certain is that Branch Rickey signed Robinson, he joined the Dodgers, and the game got a whole lot better.

MaysWhen baseball integrated in 1947, most teams were likely oblivious to how much talent had just become available. Many had expressed skepticism about whether many black players would be able to play in the majors. Their doubts proved unfounded. There were not just a handful of players who could play in the majors, but dozens of them, many of them among the greatest players ever to play the game: Willie Mays, Roy Campanella, Monte Irvin, Henry Aaron, Ernie Banks, Roberto Clemente and Frank Robinson were discovered and signed within the first decade.

In order to take advantage of this extraordinary point in time, a baseball team needed both moral courage (although this arguably became less important by the mid-1950s when blacks were excelling in the game) and the willingness to expend the additional time and money to find and scout these players. If a team employed a dozen scouts spread over a still largely segregated country, chances are they would not have seen many dark-skinned players unless they were instructed to do so, to go see different games in different towns and cities.

Jules Tygiel, the preeminent scholar of baseball’s integration period, pointed out that it was not enough that a team express a willingness to integrate, or even to have a legitimate willingness to do so. A team had to redirect its scouts or hire new ones, including Latino scouts for Mexico and the Caribbean. The Boston Red Sox often claimed to be looking for black players in the 1950s, and they made a few high-profile attempts to acquire established blacks, but they were the last team to actually field a black major league player, in 1959. They had the money – their owner Tom Yawkey might have been richest man in the game – but when faced with one of history’s great talent windfalls, they sat on their hands. The team paid dearly for doing so – on the field, going through its worst string of seasons of the past 80 years, and off the field, tarnishing the reputation of the team and its management for decades.

AaronThe pace of integration moved slowly in the early years; through 1953 only 9 of the 16 teams had fielded a black player. But although there were only 24 blacks in the game, these included several future Hall of Famers: the Dodgers’ Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella, the Giants’ Willie Mays and Monte Irvin, the Indians’ Larry Doby and the Cubs’ Ernie Banks. Over the next few years the pace quickened, especially in the National League where there were 36 blacks in 1956 and 66 in 1960.

Importantly, these players changed the balance of power in the game especially in the National League. The most aggressive integrators – the Dodgers, Giants and Braves – dominated the NL in the 1950s. The Cardinals, the best NL club for the two decades before integration, were slow to sign black players and went through some lean years. In the AL the Yankees were a grand exception – winning pennants regularly with largely white teams – but its best competition came from the two most integrated AL teams, the Indians and White Sox.

In ensuing decades the game has done much better seizing on newly available talent pools, in several Latin American countries, in Japan, in Korea.

But the Jackie Robinson debut remains its most important and best moment.

Chasing Pennants in Boston (1935)

Part 9 of our series on Important Moments in Team Building.  See introduction, and up-to-date list.

 

photo_thomas_yawkeyUpon 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
James-Emory-Jimmie-Foxx-October-22-1907-July-21-1967-celebrities-who-died-young-37012867-577-750
Jimmie Foxx

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.

 

 

Branch Rickey’s Farm (1925)

Part 7 of our series on Important Moments in Team Building.  See introduction, and up-to-date list.

 

RickeyBranchIn the early 1920s, Branch Rickey was running (as both field manager and general manager) the impoverished St. Louis Cardinals, and he was getting sick of watching his more well-healed competition spend large sums to buy minor league players. A wave of high-dollar purchases began once the owners realized that post-war surge in attendance and revenue was not transitory and the major league-minor league draft rules became much more skewed in favor of the minors. In one of the first big-buck purchases the Giants paid San Francisco $75,000 for outfielder Jimmy O’Connell, and pretty soon the average big league club was spending $50,000 a year for minor league talent.

Rickey had baseball friends all over the country – college coaches, high school coaches, scouts – and he regularly received tips on where the bright young prospects were. But the Cardinals could control only 40 players – 15 for the big league team, and another 15 (maximum) that could be conditionally optioned and reacquired later. With few exceptions, if the 18-year-old was not ready for the major leagues he signed with an independent minor league team.

Major league teams in this era acquired players by either buying or drafting them from the minor leagues. The draft rules changed many times over the years, and select minor leagues occasionally were allowed to opt out but payments to minor league teams were always a significant expense.

Breadon Sam 4352-76_HS_NBL
Sam Breadon

Rickey’s solution to the high cost of finding players was for the Cardinals to own, or at least control, their own minor league clubs. Sam Breadon took control of the Cardinals in 1920, and Breadon’s deserves credit for agreeing to and funding Rickey’s idea. By the mid-1920s, the Cardinals owned a controlling interest in clubs in Ft. Smith (Arkansas), Houston, and Syracuse. More clubs followed.

An interesting historical question is why Judge Landis, who was named Commissioner in 1921 and became a staunch foe of farm systems, did not work harder to ban ownership interests in these early years. The most likely explanation is that most respected people around the game thought it was a silly idea that would fail of its own accord. Pittsburgh’s Barney Dreyfus and Detroit’s Frank Navin, close confidants of Landis, told the Commissioner it would be financially destructive. John McGraw, the Giants’ respected manager, told owner Charles Stoneham not to waste his money on a farm system. So Landis probably decided to save his political capital on another fight.

images (2)Now that the Cardinals were not signing ready-made players, but high school boys several years away from the majors, Rickey he needed a cohesive philosophy of scouting, instruction, and coaching. Every part of the game—bunting, sliding, run-down plays, and so on—Rickey wanted to be taught consistently throughout the organization. And Rickey wanted the scouting and player-development parts of the system to work hand in hand. As Kevin Kerrane wrote in his classic book on scouting, Dollar Sign on the Muscle, “Rickey applied scouting insights to teaching, and vice versa.” Rickey became a legendary talent evaluator, able to make decisions quickly on players, and all of this became suddenly critical once he had a minor league organization to run.

Rickey’s proto-farm system proved highly successful. He turned one of baseball’s most hapless franchises into one of the best run and one that was consistently competitive. By the end of the decade some of the fruit of his approach was beginning to ripen into major league caliber talent. The team still acquired some of its players the old-fashioned way, but the young ballplayers coming through its system provided a key source of supplemental talent.

Throughout the 1920s, Rickey and the Cardinals still stood alone. As late as 1931, there were still only a handful of minor league teams controlled by a major league team. As long as teams could only control a 40-man roster, there was a limit to how much teams were willing to invest in minor league teams. Before the farm systems could truly take hold, the rules needed to be relaxed. Two clubs in particular led the fight for this – the Cardinals and the Yankees – not coincidentally, the best run and most successful teams in the major leagues.