Among the most dramatic developments in major league baseball in the 1930s was the way two American League franchises were simultaneously and fundamentally re-worked, each in the opposite direction of the other.
In the space of about three and a half years, Connie Mack, the longtime owner/manager of the Philadelphia Athletics, found himself forced by Depression-induced financial hardship to sell off nearly all of his best players, and in the process the A’s were transformed from one of the league’s elite teams into a dreadful tail-ender.
And at precisely the same time, a high-living young multimillionaire named Tom Yawkey could think of nothing better to do with his money than to purchase the Boston Red Sox and spend freely on buying up big-name stars from other ball clubs, in the process transforming the Sawx from a dreadful tail-ender to—well, not one of the league’s elite teams just yet, but into a genuinely competitive outfit.
Unsurprisingly in this dynamic, several times the A’s and Red Sox hooked up as seller and buyer, with Yawkey relieving Mack of the services of superstars Lefty Grove and Jimmie Foxx, among others. But Mack engaged in similar deals with additional AL teams, and Yawkey didn’t limit his shopping spree to the goodies displayed on the Philadelphia roster.
This leads us to an intriguing game of “what if.”
Yawkey took legal control of his vast inheritance upon his 30th birthday, in February 1933. Just a few days later he completed the purchase of the Red Sox. But let’s imagine that it wasn’t the moribund Red Sox franchise that attracted Yawkey’s fancy—after all, he had no ties to Boston; Yawkey was originally from Detroit, and in fact his family had once owned the Tigers. Instead let’s pretend Yawkey decided to go for one of the league’s flagships, such as, say, the Athletics, nine-time pennant winners, including as recently as 1931.
Plunging attendance amid the dreadful economic environment of 1932 placed 70-year-old Connie Mack in dire financial straits. Rather than stave off bankruptcy by selling his most lucrative ballplaying assets, let’s say he was introduced to young Mr. Yawkey through Eddie Collins—who in actual fact was employed by Mack as a player and coach from 1927 through 1932, and who in actual fact was a friend of Yawkey’s, and indeed who in actual fact suggested that Yawkey buy the Red Sox—and let’s say Mack and Yawkey worked out a deal in which Yawkey assumed financial control of the A’s operation, while Mack and Collins stayed on to run the baseball side (in fact Yawkey hired Collins to be his general manager in Boston).
How might the Philadelphia Athletics have performed through the 1930s, had they (a) avoided selling off their many stars, and (b) had Tom Yawkey’s purchasing power at their disposal?
Let’s give it a whirl.
The first of Mack’s fire-sale transactions was this one:
This deal took place several months before Yawkey was able to get his hands on all that moolah and buy into baseball. But it’s plausible for us to imagine Mack and Yawkey well into their talks by late September of ’32; perhaps they would even have an agreement in principle by that point. At the very least it would make sense for Mack to hold off on pulling the pin on this grenade; if he was desperate for short-term operating cash, Yawkey, or somebody Yawkey knew, would no doubt be able to float him a loan.
So, Mack tells the Comiskey family to keep its 100 grand, and he hangs on to Simmons, Haas and Dykes.
Meanwhile, up Boston way, the first big Yawkey buy took place early in the 1933 season:
The 33-year-old Pipgras was the familiar name here; he hadn’t consistently performed as a star, but had been a solid pitcher for the Yankees for several years. But the 25-year-old Werber was the real prize. He’d had only a couple of sips of major league coffee, but had hit .289 with 17 homers as an International League shortstop in 1932, and displayed exceptional speed.
One can sensibly argue that although the Yankees were willing to make this deal with the doormat Red Sox, they wouldn’t have been nearly so willing to do so with the closely competitive Athletics, who’d finished second behind New York in ’32, and had beaten them out for the pennant in all three of the preceding seasons.
But it’s also worth recognizing what a staggering sum this was to purchase a good-but-declining pitcher and a good-but-not-elite prospect. Bear in mind that just half a year earlier the A’s had sold the package of the superstar Simmons, plus the solid regular center fielder Haas and the excellent supersub Dykes, to the White Sox for the same figure of $100K. It was an enormous amount of money in 1933, and the Yankees of owner Jacob Ruppert and GM Ed Barrow—as intelligent and fiscally shrewd a pair as ever ran any operation—might very well have concluded that they were getting the better of this transaction no matter which franchise was on the other end.
So, in the spirit of good fun, let’s assume that Pipgras and Werber would be donning Athletics uniforms in the spring of 1933.
Mack’s sell-off of Simmons and company allowed him to survive through 1933. But clearly it didn’t allow him to prosper, because following that season he undertook an even more dramatic bust-up of his roster, with three bombshells detonating on a single dark winter’s day:
These were “trades” only in the most technical sense, as the talent exchanges were laughably unequal. The money was obviously the entire issue.
We’ll cancel this terrible trio. And Yawkey will get the bonus of not having to shell out 125 grand for Grove and company.
The actual Yawkey undertook his second big purchase the following spring:
Weiland, Seeds and Porter were all unremarkable journeymen. The towering figure here was Ferrell, just 26 years old but already the proud owner of 102 big league wins, as well as the best bat ever swung by a full-career pitcher. At this point Ferrell was nursing a sore arm, the only reason his price tag was as affordable as this. Yawkey bet that he would quickly recover, and Yawkey bet correctly.
Obviously our A’s don’t have Weiland or Seeds to trade. So how about this: Seeds and Porter cancel each other out anyway, so let’s just eliminate them from the deal. And on our A’s roster we have a pitcher named Roy Mahaffey who was roughly equivalent to Weiland; if the Indians were less than thrilled with Mahaffey we could easily sweeten the cash portion beyond $25K.
So let’s say it was Mahaffey and a big bag of green going from Philadelphia to Cleveland in exchange for Ferrell.
That fall Yawkey really got the checkbook in gear:
The huge size of this transactional price tag for an individual talent can scarcely be overstated. On a financial scale, in baseball history only the purchase of Babe Ruth by the Yankees in 1919 compares, and on strict cash terms this one was by far the larger (the Ruth deal involved “only” $125,000 in direct cash, but also $75,000 in various deferred payments, and a $300,000 loan).
But we’ve got Yawkey’s money working for the A’s now. We don’t have Lary, who was a good ballplayer, but scuffling with the bat at this point. But our A’s have a comparable shortstop, Eric McNair, who was a few years younger and almost certainly seen as a better player than Lary in 1934.
Let’s make it McNair and a fleet of Brinks trucks going from Philadelphia to Washington in exchange for Cronin.
Flush with his newfound liquidity, Senators owner Clark Griffith decided to spend some of it early in the 1935 season:
Hey, Athletics owner Tom Yawkey. Are you going to let stingy old Clark Griffith outbid you for this up-and-coming St. Louis standout? Didn’t think so.
Why don’t we imagine that it was the A’s plucking this prize away from the cash-starved Browns.
In 1933 and ’34, Mack’s team had been drifting downward in the standings, but he’d managed to avoid last place. That wasn’t the case in 1935, as the A’s landed in the basement, and Shibe Park attendance, at slightly over 3,000 per game, was its lowest in more than 15 years.
Mack had no choice but to sell off his few remaining big names, and of course he found an eager buyer up in Boston:
None of the players going from Boston to Philadelphia was of significance; as in Mack’s 1933 divestiture, they were roster filler, dressing the deals up to masquerade as trades.
We don’t have to worry about any of that. Keep this $225,000 in your bank account, Mr. Yawkey. (Or, if you insist on spending it, go out and buy an island, or something.) And we’ll keep Foxx, Marcum and Cramer on the A’s.
We’ll dust off the old adding machine and do some refiguring of the numbers.