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Baseball history unpacked, March 23

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Arch enemies and other bullets

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Branch office
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Previously in Duane’s world:

Cub Tracks’ balancing act.

Baseball history unpacked, March 21.

Today in baseball history:

  • 1938 - Commissioner Landis releases seventy-four Cardinal minor leaguers from a total of six teams, with their owners fined $2,176. The Redbirds, contrary to the rules, controlled the players in two clubs in each of the three Class D leagues in 1936 and each of four Class D leagues in 1937. (1)
  • 1938 - Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis frees 74 Cardinals minor leaguers, among them Pete Reiser, in yet another attempt to halt the farm system cover-up. Dodgers General Manager Larry MacPhail makes a pact with Branch Rickey to take the as-yet unknown Reiser and swap him back in the future, but the young outfielder’s ability is too great to hide. (2)

Unpacked?

In this case there was a bit of nepotism happening with the MacPhail and Rickey families, with our good buddy Ford Frick in on the festivities, too, and Commissioner Landis apparently indulging his whim to make life hard for them all. Branch Rickey was trying to get his son into the family businesses, and Larry MacPhail was doing the same with his son Lee. Both young men had a ringside seat.

Google was kind enough to preserve some pages from Jules Tygiel’s Past Time: Baseball as History, in which pages a little background starts to get filled in.

Larry MacPhail, an alcoholic, left the Reds in bad personal shape — “MacPhail himself clearly recognized that he was treading closely to a psychological brink,” brought on by drink and the strain of taking what had been a last-place team to the top.

Powel Crosley, Jr., had financed those efforts. Crosley’s companies were involved in, among other things, in the manufacture of radios. He also owned a radio station, and MacPhail was able to convince him that baseball and radio were a “perfect marriage of interests”.

Walter “Red” Barber was already on board as the announcer.

The next step was bringing the product under the lights. MacPhail battled Giants owner Charles Stoneham, who declared the he would “never vote for night baseball”. Stoneham was true to his word, but was outvoted.

Yankee GM Ed Barrow was underwhelmed. Tigers owner Frank Navin termed it “the ruination of baseball”., as it “changed the players from athletes to actors”.

The customers loved it. MacPhail, apparently unable to stand such success, started breaking down, punching a cop in 1936, his last year with the Reds. he took 1937 off from baseball but was lured back by the Dodgers, having been unable to procure Branch Rickey’s services. Frick was said to be among those who recommended MacPhail for the position.

An unlimited credit line helped MacPhail spruce up the grounds and haul the team into the 20th century, but they were still bad on the field. Without a farm system, MacPhail bought good players from other teams, got Babe Ruth to come out of retirement to coach first base, and generally kept to the spirit of his motto, which was to “keep the customers awake.”

“Rickey should be praised as the savior of the minor leagues through his development of the farm systems which has had, as everyone knows, the constant opposition of the Commissioner’s Office” — Sam Breadon.

In the meantime, Rickey was busy building the Cardinals. He had a farm system, stocked with players. In fact, he had more than one farm team in one league, and allegedly owned entire leagues. This violated a competitive-balance rule, and the “Cedar Rapids Case” was on. Google books excerpts from Murray Polner’s Branch Rickey: A Biography helps to clear this up.

The case involved MacPhail’s friend Phil Bartelme, the Sacramento club (the Solons) of the Pacific Coast League, which Bartelme owned, the Springfield Cardinals of the Western Association, and Cedar Rapids (Raiders) of the Western League.

Landis ruled that MacPhail’s relationship with Bartelme amounted to control of more than one club in the same league, and powerful Cardinals owner Sam Breadon was livid. Judge Landis “did not like to see minor leagues or teams run simply as talent suppliers for the Major Leagues”, and that was the crux of the matter.

There was never any trial. Landis just did what he did, sans proof.

Most of the players re-signed with their former teams and the Cardinals weren’t even fined. THE player freed, and the one that Rickey absolutely wanted to keep, was Pete Reiser. He called his former employee, Larry MacPhail, now President of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and told him to sign Reiser, keep him buried in the low minors for a couple years and then sell him back to the Cardinals. MacPhail signed off and Rickey then instructed Reiser to accept whatever the Dodgers offered him. Of course, this was all completely inappropriate, but things went as Rickey planned.

Leo Durocher threw a monkey wrench into the works in 1939, calling Reiser his “Opening Day shortstop” and ignoring requests to send him to the minor leagues, for which MacPhail fired him. The Lip was reinstated, but McPhail was forced to tell Rickey he wouldn’t be sending Pete Reiser back, and that was the end of their long friendship.

  • 1951 - The Brooklyn Dodgers sign a 21-year lease with the city of Vero Beach, Florida, for use of their spring training facilities there. They stayed until 2008. (2)
  • 1962 - William DeWitt buys the Reds from the Crosley Foundation for $4.625 million. (2)
  • 1963 - On the day he is fitted for his big-league Orioles uniform, Steve Dalkowski, pitching in an exhibition against the Yankees, feels something pop in his left elbow. The fireballer from New Britain, Connecticut, who once struck out 24 batters in a minor league game, will never appear in the major leagues. (1)

Dalkowski was thought to have had the fastest fastball ever, almost as good as Sidd Finch’s mythical offerings. He was a medium-sized guy, a shade under six feet tall, and had a wild streak (not limited to his pitching — Dalkowski stories abound). In 1960, pitching for the Stockton Ports in the California League, he struck out 262 batters and walked 262 batters. (True: here’s his bb-ref page.)

Ted Williams is said to have faced one pitch and refused to do so again. Earl Weaver, his manager for a time at Class A Elmira, said he threw harder than Nolan Ryan, Sandy Koufax or any pitcher that he ever saw.

“His fastball was like nothing I’d ever seen before. It really rose as it left his hand. If you told him to aim the ball at home plate, that ball would cross the plate at the batter’s shoulders. That was because of the tremendous backspin he could put on the ball.” -- Pat Gillick

Sources/recommended reading:

A Look Back at Steve Dalkowski.

Steve Dalkowski: The fastest ever?

Delving into the Dalkowski depths.

Thanks for reading. Where to get my books.