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February 27, 2004
You Could Look It Up
Problems in Red Sox Management: A Tourist's Guide
This is the seventh installment of YCLIU, the designated space at BP where we play Monday-morning quarterback with history. If Dr. Seuss was writing this column, he might introduce the concept this way:
Oh, the Baseball Places You'll Go!
If you pay attention
This time-traveling jaunt
Alas, Ted Geisel is beyond our reach, so we'll just skip lightly onto the topic at hand, a visit to the flannel years and the first big Red Sox spending spree, which kicked off in 1933 and somehow managed to accomplish absolutely nothing of importance. The idea that the Baltimore Orioles have perfected under Peter Angelos, that one can spend quite a lot of dough on a team and still have a product that is not terribly competitive, is not a new one, and despite John Henry's post-A-Rod bellyaching, the original model was created in Boston, not New York.
TOMMY YAWKEY BUYS A TOY
Having inherited a great deal of dough at a very young age, Thomas Yawkey was one of that now-extinct men of leisure known as a "millionaire sportsman" (just as dinosaurs evolved into birds, millionaire sportsmen evolved into Paris Hilton). On his 30th birthday, Yawkey came into even more money. When Yawkey was a lad his uncle/foster-father had briefly owned the Detroit Tigers, and he'd gotten to like being around ballplayers. For a while he was close friends with Ty Cobb, until the Peach attacked Yawkey with one of his patented tirades. The freakout was one of the worst mistakes of Cobb's life, because when Yawkey decided to get into baseball, he didn't ask Cobb for help, but turned instead to another friend, the steadier Eddie Collins. In February, 1933, four days after his birthday, Yawkey purchased the Red Sox and made Collins his vice president and general manager. The great second baseman would run the team for the rest of his life, while Cobb would play a lot of golf.
The Red Sox that Yawkey purchased from J.A. Robert Quinn (grandpa of the former Yankees and Giants general manager) were still trying to recover from the rapacious ownership of Harry Frazee. Quinn had never had the money to restock the team's talent pool--his principal backer had died just after Quinn's group bought the club--but had nonetheless grappled with the club for nearly 10 years. Quinn's Red Sox had gone 544-988, a .355 winning percentage, and had finished out of last place just twice. His final team, the one Yawkey inherited, had a spectacular-in-all-the-wrong-ways record of 43-111 (.279).
The team had few if any keepers; certainly no there was no future Cobb or Collins to be found in the mix. The best hitters Dale Alexander and Smead Jolley, were both defensively immobile. A Sox trainer would shortly crisp Alexander's leg in a diathermy machine, destroying his offensive value. The best pitcher, Danny MacFayden, went 1-10 and was traded to the Yankees.
Anticipating George Steinbrenner, who was evidently paying attention though he was just two years old at the time, Yawkey went on a spending spree to quick-fix his club. With a fortune in lumber money behind him, he was easily the richest man in baseball and flung his cash around accordingly. This four-year, $3.5 million binge is itemized below:
Adjusted for inflation, Yawkey spent about $44 million in 2003 dollars.
There was method to the Yawkey/Collins madness. Some of his purchases were downright sabermetric, or Prospectusmetric, if you prefer, in many cases taking advantage of their trading partners in moments of extreme vulnerability:
As noted above, many of Boston's key acquisitions continued to perform at a high level with the Red Sox. Yet, the Yawkey/Collins plan didn't work. The team came a long way from its 1932 performance, but obviously not as far as Yawkey hoped:
YR FIN W L PCT GB 1932 8th 43 111 .279 64 1933 7th 63 86 .423 34.5 1934 4th 76 76 .500 24 1935 4th 78 75 .510 16 1936 6th 74 80 .481 28.5
There were three primary, interlocking reasons why the Red Sox failed to become competitive during this period. As satisfying as it might be to blame the club's deeply rooted racism under Yawkey for holding the team back, bigotry wasn't the handicap (moral and competitive) that it would be in the 1950s; in the 1930s every club's (heck--the whole nation's) comportment was equally pathetic. Still, the team's later myopia is anticipated here, in the sense that an overly selective approach to talent acquisition anticipates the blatantly exclusionary approach of later years.
Yawkey's first Red Sox team was for all intents and purposes a blank slate, tabula rasa; it was so bad that it needed to be blown up and started from scratch. The era lent itself to a scorched earth approach. With no guaranteed contracts, he and Collins were free to keep who they liked and release everyone else. Further, in a baseball universe which had not yet been thoroughly won over by Branch Rickey's newfangled farm system, the Sox were free to buy almost any prospect that they liked. The Sox could have purchased an entire Futures team by ordering a la carte.
Instead, Yawkey's greenbacks were largely applied to big-ticket major league items. The Red Sox desperately needed these to be sure; since 1930 the club had been outdrawn by the Boston Braves. Attendance in 1932 had declined to just 2,366 per game. With stars and a renewed sense of hope, attendance jumped from 268,715 in 1933 to 610,640 in 1934. The Sox franchise needed to show the city it had a heartbeat. This was accomplished.
Thus the main import of Yawkey's largesse was mostly symbolic. As a competitive program, he and Collins were misguided. As is now grudgingly accepted, the difference between a star and an average player may only be a few wins a year. There is no player, pair of players, or trio of players, that is capable of taking a team staffed by replacement-level players and turning it into a pennant winner. Improved talent must be diffused throughout the roster. In the 1933-1936 period, the Red Sox never came close to achieving this goal. Two key problems: The Yawkey/Collins program never got around to addressing the outfield; the Sox annually presented the most punchless pasture aggregation in the league; after Grove and Ferrell, the Red Sox were unable to dig up anything like another eight decent pitchers, or even another three.
One lesson to be drawn is that even in an environment in which rival teams are "freely" giving away talent, it's almost impossible to buy enough to staff an entire ballclub. Not only will the pool of available talent, at its deepest, be unequal to the demand (note that even this year's Yankees, who have acquired a number of big-ticket items from more conservative clubs, have not been able to buy certainty for their starting rotation) but buying off the rack forces a team to be overly dependent on making the right selections--that is, on luck. A team that chooses to bank on stars rather than on depth faces a greater risk of having no fallback should their star prove to be infirm, unreliable, or simply on the way down. The large influx of talent that comes with developing a strong minor league system gives a team the depth to survive its own misjudgments.
The latter concern greatly affected the Yawkey/Collins rebuilding campaign. Many of Boston's acquisitions were moved out as fast as they were moved in. As such, team construction was focused on treading water as much as it was on chasing the leaders. The Red Sox had run into entropy, the great enemy of veteran clubs. You buy a package nearing its expiration date, you had better consume it quickly. A 30-something acquisition can be helpful in select circumstances, but when you have a roster of them, you're constantly going to be going back to the shop for overhauls.
A true long-term solution, ironically one that would have conserved more of Yawkey's dollars, would have been the development of a minor league system. Doing so in 1933 would have made the Red Sox one of a handful of early adopters, but no great vision was necessary to see the writing on the wall: The example of the Yankees, who had jumped into the farming business in 1932, was there before them.
It was only in 1936 that Yawkey supposedly saw the light. "Ruppert bought some pennants when he was able to reach into the Red Sox for players," Yawkey told Collins and Cronin. "But, it doesn't seem to work for us when we buy Mack's old champions. So we've got to try something else and raise our own. We've got to build up a farm system such as Rickey has built up for Breadon in St. Louis and Barrow and Weiss for Ruppert in New York. That's the only way we can catch the Yankees."
The veterans-for-dough exchanges ceased. With a greater focus on prospects, the Red Sox began to gather a collection of players that could grow with the team instead of hanging around for a year or so, pulling a hamstring or two and disappearing. In 1937 Bobby Doerr appeared, followed by Ted Williams in 1939, Dom DiMaggio in 1940, and Johnny Pesky in 1932. Pitching remained an ongoing problem, but the offensive core made the Red Sox contenders into World War II and after.
After that, the only thing that prevented the Red Sox from more effectively competing with the Yankees was a fatal lack of perspicacity. That is, though the lessons of 1933-1936 ensured that the team would be run better, it was not necessarily run well.