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August 11, 2003

Damned Yankees

Past Efforts to Level the Playing Field

by Mark Armour

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In a recent article, Derek Zumsteg recounted how bothersome it is to hear constant complaining about the Yankees dominating the game, especially because, well, they aren't dominating the game. As Derek points out, the recent collective bargaining agreement requires that the Yankees pay their competitors for the privilege of employing Aaron Boone or, for that matter, Jose Contreras. Although the CBA does not mention the Yankees by name, much of the revenue sharing provisions will likely not affect anyone but them, and no one was really fooled by what the goal was.

The recent CBA is not the first attempt to stack the deck against the Bronx Bombers.

No team has ever dominated the game like the Yankees did in the 1930s. Not only did the New Yorkers win four straight World Series (1936 through 1939), but the American League pennant "race" became a joke, with the Yanks winning by an average margin of 14.5 games. The 1939 entry had to suffer through the physical breakdown of their captain and leader, Lou Gehrig, who discovered he was dying of a disease that would soon bear his name. Nonetheless, the club won the league by 17 games and swept the Reds in the World Series.

The rest of the baseball world was understandably frustrated. Clark Griffith, the owner and operator of the Washington Senators, was apparently more frustrated than most. At the American League's annual meeting (Dec. 7, 1939), Griffith proposed a new rule that would prohibit the league champion from making any trades or purchases with any other league team. The prohibition would extend from the end of the regular season until the end of the following season. The champion would be allowed to acquire players through waivers only, meaning that all other league teams would have to pass on the players involved. The National League, which held a separate meeting two days earlier, decided against the rule.

One thing is crystal clear: the Yankees did not win four pennants in the late 1930s by making trades. As a matter of fact, they made virtually no trades in this era. At the time of the 1939 meeting, the Yankees had not acquired any player of significance from another team since 1936, when they made separate deals for Bump Hadley and Jake Powell. Neither player was a star, and the team would have won easily without either. The other teams in the league were not reacting to the Yankees regularly fleecing other clubs, they were all just sick of losing.

The rule change was passed unanimously by the American League, with the Yankees likely cognizant of the fact that they rarely traded anyway. Although the provision did not mention any team by name, in December 1939 it likely seemed as if the Yankees had been the defending champion for decades. While they were at it, the other AL teams also revoked the rule that made the manager of the defending champion the pilot of the league's All-Star team, instead agreeing to name a manager annually at the league meeting. They then named the Red Sox' Joe Cronin to skipper the 1940 squad. If the Yankees were going to whip everyone every year, at least someone other than Joe McCarthy would get to manage the annual gala.

In any event, the Yankees did not win the 1940 American League pennant, instead finishing in third place, two games behind the Tigers and one behind the Indians. There was some grumbling from the Yankees that the rule cost them the pennant. One can never know what deals the team could have made, and the club had no track record on which to judge its acumen in this area.

At the 1940 league meeting, the rule was discussed again. This time it passed 5-3, with the surprise champion Tigers one of the dissenters. Early in the 1941 campaign, the Tigers acquired Rip Radcliff from the Browns after he had passed through waivers. This caused quite a stir, with Griffith in particular claiming that the deal had violated the spirit of the prohibition. The deal was upheld, and the rule quietly faded away the next off-season.

The 1941 Yankees, once again given free rein to bilk their fellow teams in trades, again made exactly zero deals, and nonetheless recaptured the American League pennant.

Mark Armour is the co-author (with Dan Levitt) of Paths To Glory, the stories of the building of several interesting baseball teams, which was published this spring by Brasseys, Inc. You can contact him at markjane@comcast.net.

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