Dan Levitt has a new book out, and people with an interest in baseball history should take note. The book, which is available from Amazon and University of Nebraska Press, is Ed Barrow: The Bulldog Who Built the Yankees’ First Dynasty. Levitt talked to BP about one of the most influential and underappreciated geniuses the game has seen.
David Laurila: Why is Ed Barrow important?
Dan Levitt: Baseball fans have always been fascinated with why teams win. There is, of course, no recipe for success; competition is a dynamic process that requires shifting tactics over time. But studying the central actor and his decisions for one of the great American sports dynasties–the New York Yankees from 1921 through World War II–offers valuable insights into success in sports.
In the broadest sense Barrow and the Yankees understood the changing economic environment within which baseball operated. Barrow’s tenure with the Yankees highlights his reading of this environment and how the Yankees responded. And while circumstances may change, the importance of correctly understanding the environment and then crafting the best response remains relevant today.
DL: What impact did Barrow have on the structure of baseball organizations?
Levitt: Until Barrow joined the Yankees, teams generally operated without a general manager. Clubs were typically run by the owner and manager. Ownership evolved after WWI as more sophisticated American industrialists bought into baseball. These new owners recognized the importance of professional administration to move beyond the limitations of operating like a small business. The Yankees owners were at the forefront of this change and brought in Barrow to professionalize the front office. Barrow went on to become the standard for the position.
DL: What did Barrow do before he joined the Yankees?
Levitt: Barrow held just about every job in baseball except player. In his first shot at organized baseball he owned and managed minor league teams; he later became a minor league president. To help generate interest for his league, he brought in heavyweight boxing champion Jim Corbett and female pitcher Lizzie Arlington. He also participated in one of the first attempts at night baseball in 1896.
In 1903 Barrow received his first shot at the majors when the Detroit Tigers hired him as manager. In Detroit, Barrow battled with mercurial star Kid Elberfeld, whom Barrow accused of throwing games. Elberfeld’s suspension and its aftermath nearly reignited the AL-NL war. Later, as president of the International League during the battle with the self-proclaimed major Federal League, Barrow schemed to have a modified version of his high minor league recognized as a third major league.
DL: Did Barrow also manage the Boston Red Sox?
Levitt: In 1918, Barrow became manager of the Red Sox; that season he led the team to its last World Championship before the “curse.” While in Boston, Barrow converted Babe Ruth from one of baseball’s best pitchers into an outfielder. Barrow also had several remarkable run-ins with his immature star during his three years at the helm.
DL: Was Barrow involved in sale of Babe Ruth to the Yankees?
Levitt: Not surprisingly Barrow opposed the sale of baseball’s best player. In the book I use newly available material from the New York Yankees’ financial records and the Frazee papers at the University of Texas to debunk the now widely accepted revisionist history exonerating Boston Red Sox owner Harry Frazee for the sale of Babe Ruth and the “rape” of the Red Sox. He needed money and sent his top players to the Yankees in return for large sums.
DL: Can you give away any of Barrow’s and the Yankees’ secrets?
Levitt: First of all, the Yankees made more money than any other team, but others were profitable as well. The Yankees, however, left all of their profits in the club. Unlike their counterparts, the Yankee owners did not take large distributions, and they used these funds to build a long term winner. In the late teens and early 1920s the Yankees spent roughly $600,000 buying all of the Red Sox best players. When this avenue dried up, and other franchises were not so cash needy during the roaring twenties, Barrow assembled a terrific team of scouts and bought top talent from the independent minors. By the 1930s with the onset of the Depression and changing rules regarding the ownership of minor league franchises, Barrow helped start the legendary Yankee farm system and directed his scouts to sign the nation’s best amateurs.