Monday, February 16, 2015

This Day in Baseball History (‘Home Run’ Baker Starts Year-Long Holdout)

Feb. 16, 1915—Connie Mack, forced to rebuild his artfully constructed dynasty, further dismayed fans of The Philadelphia Athletics by announcing at the team’s annual banquet that Frank “Home Run” Baker (pictured) would be retiring. What really had happened, though, was that the slugging third baseman, still at the height of his ability but unable to renegotiate a contract he had signed the year before, had simply refused to show up at the team’s spring-training camp in Jacksonville, Fla.

The fallout from this clash of wills in one of baseball’s first labor-management disputes was immediate and unfortunate for both parties. Baker, a smooth-fielding, .321 career hitter at the time, never reached the heights he had achieved earlier. Mack, with nobody promising or even particularly adequate to replace his star infielder, saw his team--World Series champs three of the last four years-- stumble through a 43-109 campaign—not only 58.5 games out of first place, but an appalling 56 games off  their pennant-winning pace of the year before.

I’m writing this particular post because of a conjunction of events and longstanding interests of mine. I have long wanted to post something about Mack, a genteel figure who bestrode several generations of baseball history. Then, the curious case of Alex Rodriguez (see this post of mine from the other day) made newly relevant the question of whether a star third baseman, after being forced to sit out an entire season, could ever return to anything like his old form.

At the time of this contract dispute, two forces—one restraining player freedom of movement, the other loosening it—were in direct opposition to each other, in a way they would not be again until the 1970s, when the free-agent system came into being.

The reserve clause, started in 1879, went far beyond the standard one-year contracts signed between player and team. In essence, a player was bound, in perpetuity, to a team, which was free to play him or trade him wherever it wanted, with no input by him into the matter. In their desire to control payroll costs, owners not only were circumscribing players’ ability to choose the employer of their choice—a restriction that no other industry exercised at the time—but dooming many long-suffering fans to long-term mediocrity, or worse.

In response, all that players could do was employ a weapon of mutually assured destruction: the holdout. But by 1914, the Federal League had formed, creating a third major league—and another option for players seeking more money. Its specter haunted the American and National Leagues, including the A’s, two of whose players, Eddie Plank and Chief Bender, jumped to the new circuit.

This new force caught Mack in a financial vise. A quarter-century before, as a 28-year-old catcher, he had been among those players opposing the National League’s salary cap and reserve clause. But now, as a part-owner of the A’s, he had become far more cognizant—and self-interested—about the other side of the financial ledger.

Even despite winning the pennant for the fourth year in a row, the A’s were only fifth in the American League in attendance. The fans had become spoiled by having a dynasty, Mack figured (though the impact of a 23-month national recession also couldn’t be discounted). Moreover, a giant scoreboard across from City Hall, put up by The Philadelphia Record, was enabling fans to catch the action for free outside the stadium. Now his players were clamoring for more pay. What should he do?

The course that Mack chose will be familiar to teams today in secondary markets: bite the bullet, economize and rely on the same eye for talent that had built one championship contender to create another.

That meant trading second baseman Eddie Collins, threatening to bolt to the Federal League, to the Chicago White Sox, and releasing Jack Coombs—who, though a World Series hero just three years before, was now 32 years old and coming off two straight seasons of illness and injury. But Mack still had three-quarters of his infield left and, with an older but cheaper Nap Lajoie, an all-time great who would adequately replace Collins.

At this point, he heard noise coming from Baker’s Maryland farm—and it wasn’t from the livestock.
While Baker didn’t mind Lajoie making $9,000 per year, he couldn’t help comparing the older man’s situation with his own: a 40-year-old on the downside of his career, vs. a 28-year-old just hitting his prime—but only making $6,666 per year.

Baker wanted his salary upgraded—but it covered three years rather than one. Mack was not ready to renegotiate. Still, at the banquet where he made the announcement, the manager sought to spin the situation: “He’s just sick of traveling and he wants to settle down for good on his Maryland farm. His wife has been at him for years to quit and it has been a tussle to make him sign each season…The boy isn’t dissatisfied. He doesn’t want more money, and he isn’t flighty.”

Of course, “more money” was exactly what Baker wanted. He was certainly willing to give Mack a hometown discount off what other teams might offer, but he did want to see an improvement.

But, for all his courtliness (he would never embarrass anyone before the press or even teammates), Mack had limited sympathy for the players’ point of view. Forced into a Dickensian job cutting soles in a shoe factory during his teen years, he, like many Irish-Americans of the Victorian Era, regarded baseball as a ladder out of poverty. Ballplayers should regard the game as a privilege, not a business.

The wound that Mack felt from Baker was personal, as well: the manager had believed in the raw young ballplayer when others did not. Bow-legged and awkward-looking in the field, Baker had convinced other experienced baseball hands that he would never make it. But Mack sensed that part of the reason behind the player’s ungainly lunges and off-balance throws lay in hyper-aggressive defense. Mack stuck with his gut. Baker might make more errors than others at his position, but, covering far more ground, he also had many more chances and outs at the hot corner.

For the first several years he was under contract, Baker rewarded Mack’s patience by becoming the best third baseman of his age. His defense, fine baserunning, and excellent batting average would, by themselves, have made Baker a cornerstone of Mack’s “$100,000 infield.” (The other members were first baseman Stuffy McInnis, future Hall of Famer Collins, and shortstop Jack Barry.)

But his power, especially in clutch situations, is what propelled Baker into legendary status. It is jaw-dropping nowadays to think that it took only 11 homers for Baker to lead the league in this category in 1911. But he led the league in homers for four straight years—and belted round-trippers off the majestic (and previously untouchable) Christy Mathewson in the World Series. A 46-ounce bat only added to the mystique created by the Boys in the Press Box of “Home Baker” Baker.

Fundamentally modest, even shy around strangers, Baker still knew what he was worth, and dug in his heels against Mack. Players wrote to him but received no answer back. A month passed, then Opening Day arrived.

At this point, Baker showed up—but not to play. Would Mack mind if he opted out of his contract and played semipro ball, he asked? Not at all, Mack said, so long as he played nowhere near Philly.

And that is how things went for the rest of the year. Baker didn’t get much beyond his farm on the semipro circuit, playing only Saturday and holiday games. Mack tried 14 different players at third base for the A’s in 1915, with very little luck. Wally Schang, the team’s catcher in 1914, who had never played third base before, got the most work, playing 43 games and making 18 errors, with Larry Kopf not far behind at 42 games. As the team’s misfortunes worsened, so did Mack’s mood, to the point where the normally mild-mannered skipper announced that he didn’t want to hear Baker’s name mentioned from then on.

With his holdout for the year over, Baker sat down with his lawyer and Mack after the 1915 season in the brewery office of New York Yankees owner Jake Ruppert and signed a three-year, $36,000 agreement. It was a healthy raise from what he was making with Mack, but his best batting average for a season, .306 in 1918, was still off his career pace with the A’s.  Moreover, he was forced to sit out yet another season (1920), this time because the death of his wife from scarlet fever left him with the responsibility of his two young girls. The one consolation was that in his final two seasons, he made it back to the World Series, on the shoulders of a power hitter more prodigious than he or anyone could have imagined: Yankee teammate Babe Ruth.

Bill James, in his New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, took due note of the impact of Baker’s two lost seasons: “It is certainly possible, and I might even argue that it is likely, that had he not done this [i.e., sat out two seasons], he would rank still today as the greatest third baseman of all time.” Even so, Baker ranks number 5 on the baseball stat maven’s list of all-time great third basemen, behind Mike Schmidt, George Brett, Eddie Mathews and Wade Boggs. (He would go on to be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1955.)

The one player missing among these third basemen is Alex Rodriguez, who at the time of the book’s publication (2001) was still a shortstop. Now, the question becomes whether A-Rod, like Baker, is fated to experience a decline after a year’s layoff.

The answer, I think, is simple: The Yankee third baseman had already been mired in a decline for several years before his season-long suspension. The real question now is how quickly the end comes for him. He could, like Jason Giambi, stick out several more seasons with radically reduced productivity, simply for love of the game. Or--my guess--some combination of injuries and dismay over fan resentment might drive him out sooner.

Of course, there are second acts in baseball, and few perhaps as lustrous as Mack’s. More than a decade after he had dismantled one dynasty, he had put together another, featuring more Hall of Famers like Baker and Collins: first baseman Jimmie Foxx (discovered by Baker), leftfielder Al Simmons, catcher Mickey Cochrane, and starting pitcher Lefty Grove. A 1996 Sports Illustrated cover story posited that the 1929 squad, not the 1927 Yankees “Murderers’ Row,” was the best baseball squad of all time.

Again, though, Mack decided that the combination of escalating player salary demands and straitened economic circumstances required him to tear apart his dynasty. This time, there would be no comeback for the team. The Great Depression devastated attendance for the A’s far more—and for far longer—than the 1913-14 one recession had, and, unlike competitors such as the New York Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers, Mack was slow to recognize the value of investing in a minor-league system. The A's became perennial cellar-dwellers.

When Mack retired, after half a century as a manager and seven decades in pro baseball, following the 1950 season, “The Tall Tactician” was celebrated as the Grand Old Man of the national pastime—an unusual figure who dressed not in a uniform but in a business suit featuring a high starch collar, and who made field adjustments with a wave of his scorecard. But he stayed too long at the fair, not only unable to arrest his team’s long-term decline but having left no clear figure to succeed him. By mid-decade, the A’s had left Philly for Kansas City, then onto Oakland.

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