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!
Is that thing that we do
To visit the past-times
That happened to you
If you pay attention
You can learn much
From a Gehrig named Lou
And a Hobson called Butch
This time-traveling jaunt
May have its naysayers
But say what you want!
You can’t libel dead players!
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:
- $1 Million to buy the Red Sox (February, 1933)
- $1.5 Million to renovate Fenway Park
- $55,000 to the Browns for C Rick Ferrell and LHP Lloyd Brown (May 9, 1933)
- $60,000 to the Yankees for SS/3B Bill Werber, OF Dusty Cooke, and RHP George Pipgras (May 12, 1933)
- $125,000 to buy LHP Lefty Grove, 2B Max Bishop, and LHP Rube Walberg from Connie Mack (December 12, 1933)
- $25,000 to the Browns for RF Carl Reynolds (December 14, 1933)
- $25,000 to Baltimore of the International League for LF Moose Solters (1934)
- $35,000 to buy SS Lyn Lary from the Yankees (May 15, 1934)
- $25,000 to the Indians for RHP Wes Ferrell and RF Dick Porter (May 25, 1934)
- $250,000 to buy SS Joe Cronin from Clark Griffith (October 26, 1934)
- $50,000 to the A’s for RF Bing Miller and 2B Dib Williams (May 1, 1935)
- $150,000 to the A’s for 1B Jimmie Foxx and RHP Johnny Marcum (December 10, 1935)
- $75,000 to the A’s for CF Doc Cramer and SS Eric McNair(January 4, 1936)
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:
- Rick Ferrell has been derided as one of the worst Hall of Fame selections, but he still a good player. Bill Dickey and Mickey Cochrane were the top catchers in Ferrell’s American League. Those two being unavailable to the Red Sox, Ferrell was easily the best of the remaining choices. He was a quality regular for the Sox. From 1933 to 1936, he batted .302/.392/.411, an .803 OPS versus a league OPS of .780, and was regarded as a defensive standout. The Browns, in the process of drawing 88,113 customers for the entire season, needed the cash.
- Werber was a strong prospect, one of the era’s rare base stealers, had a shortstop’s glove at third, and was willing to take a walk. Originally a shortstop, Werber was competing with Frank Crosetti and Red Rolfe for a spot on the left side of the Yankees infield, and lost to both. It is frightening to contemplate how many runs Joe McCarthy’s Yankees would have scored with Werber leading off instead of Crosetti. In 1934, his first full year in Boston, Werber hit .321, knocking 200 hits including 41 doubles, 10 triples, and 11 home runs. In addition, Werber took 77 walks, struck out just 37 times, and stole 40 bases, though in 55 attempts (OBP/SLG of .397/.472 versus league average of .362/.415). Cooke was a former hot prospect who had been passed on the Yankees depth chart by Ben Chapman due to injuries that sidelined him for most of two years.
- Lefty Grove was just 33, the best pitcher in baseball, had a career record of 195-79 (.712) and an ERA of 2.88 at a time when league ERAs were sometimes pushing 5.00, and had won between 20 and 31 games for seven consecutive seasons. Grove suffered arm problems in 1934, but he adjusted and went 83-41 (.669), 2.83 (against a league ERA of 4.70) from 1935 to 1939. Bishop didn’t hit much, but he was a lock to walk 110 times a year and was an excellent fielder. Walberg was a durable innings-eater. Connie Mack had lost his shirt in the stock market and the A’s weren’t drawing despite being a very strong team.
- Lary was Derek Jeter Mark I, an above-average hitter for a shortstop who had a reputation as a scarybad fielder (FRAA, you will note, does not bear this out). Yankees’ GM Ed Barrow had spent a lot of money purchasing Lary from Oakland of the Pacific Coast League, and when he failed to turn out to be the new Honus Wagner (also a Barrow discovery), Barrow spent the rest of his life being annoyed, unable to see the good things Lary could do.
- Wes Ferrell was not only one of the best pitchers in baseball, having gone 102-60, 3.67 (league ERA 4.42) from 1929 to 1933, but he was only 26 and a terrific hitter, having hit .274 with 19 home runs (.452 SLG) during that period. In this instance, the Red Sox took advantage of the Indians wanting to get rid of a likely holdout. Ferrell went 59-34, 3.79 (league 4.68) in his first four seasons with the Sox. He was also Rick Ferrell’s younger brother, which made for a nice story.
- With the possible exception of Pittsburgh’s Arky Vaughan, who came along in 1932, Joe Cronin was the best shortstop in baseball. Ironically, the Senators had offered Cronin to Bob Quinn as part of an earlier trade, but Quinn preferred another player. Cronin was the complete package. He had a strong glove (at least for a while), hit for average and power, and took 80 walks a year. Just 28, he was also an established manager, having guided the Senators to the 1933 World Series. Like Connie Mack, Senators owner Clark Griffith was no millionaire sportsman but actually derived his income from his ballclub. Cronin was Griffith’s son-in-law, but Yawkey increased his offer until Griffith couldn’t afford to say no. Cronin took over as Boston’s manager, with the man he was replacing, Bucky Harris, going to Washington in a sidebar deal.
- Jimmie Foxx, Double-X, grapples eternally with Lou Gehrig for the title of best first baseman ever.
FOXX vs. GEHRIG, 1925-1938 AGE G AB R H 2B 3B HR Foxx 1710 6116 1355 2049 346 102 429 Gehrig 2156 7973 1886 2717 535 162 493 RBI BB SO AVG SLG OBA 1519 1104 935 .335 .635 .437 1994 1503 789 .341 .634 .448
From 1931 to 1935, Foxx had outslugged Gehrig .664 to .637, a minor distinction to be sure, but comforting if the team you were hunting for was the Yankees. A righty slugger who was made for Fenway Park, Foxx was available as part of Mack’s ongoing “I’m retiring from competitive baseball” sale. Absolutely no one was surprised when the massive Foxx bombed 50 home runs for Boston in 1938.
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.