It’s not certain precisely when the various off-season summits that Baseball so greatly favors became epic carnivals of greed, lust, and envy. But one of the best early examples has to be the Hot Stove gatherings of 1947 which led to what were then considered stupendous acts of profligate spending by Thomas Austin Yawkey, the owner of the Boston Red Sox who was better known as “Daddy Warbucks.”
When the lights went back on and the dust had settled, Yawkey had shipped 10 players and an estimated $400,000 -- (near seven decades later the exact amount remains unclear)-- to the woe-begotten St. Louis Browns for infielders Vern Stephens and Billy Hitchcock and pitchers Ellis Kinder and Jack Kramer.
The rest of baseball and all of professional sport in the known world of the time were aghast. Yawkey’s giddy spree was deemed downright obscene. The cash alone greatly exceeded the payroll of every team in the game, including the almighty Yankees. We’re talking about a time when 75 bucks a week was a handsome salary and six-figure stuff was mind-boggling.
Of course, had there been free agency back then Uncle Tom would have gladly bypassed the messy business of having to deal with the riff-raff Browns , the perennial doormats of the American League who had the social standing of a goat in Yawkey’s circles. But in the genuine spirit of noblesse oblige with which he was born, he was pleased to help out his impoverished brethren and, indeed, that was the excuse he used to justify his antics. After all, it was only money, of which he had much too much.
In one sense, the deals -- there were two of them -- turned out well. As expected, Buster Stephens tore down the wall the next four seasons. Kramer had only one fine year but Kinder, a colorful rascal, was dandy for a full decade. Even the utility infielder Hitchcock proved useful. A war hero, he brought a bit of brimstone to a complacent team widely disparaged as the “Gold Sox.” Yawkey was pleased to promptly and vastly over-pay all of them, thus further infuriating his lodge brothers. Over the next five seasons, it seemed every pundit in the business annually picked them to go all the way and win it all.
As for the 10 players shipped to the Browns, not a one ever did much for it was a shopworn assortment of the marginal and the over-the-hill. Featured were the immortal likes of Al Widmar, Roy Partee, and Clem Dreisewerd with the best of them being genial Eddie Pellagrini who would later become the long-serving and beloved baseball coach at Boston College. But Pellie, a local lad without pretense, would have been the first to insist that among the shortstops of that time he was no Rizzuto, Appling, or Boudreau.
Statistics may strongly suggest Yawkey scored mightily in his wild spending binge the winter of ’47, especially if you regard the money involved to have been irrelevant. But where the bottom line was concerned the flamboyant capers reaped little as the Red Sox remained the feeble foil of the Yankees for another long generation. In the end, Junior and Ellie and Smiling Jack only amounted to the difference between finishing close and finishing closer.
Fast forward 63 years to Orlando, Florida, alongside Disneyland, where organized baseball’s annual winter meetings, which gleefully celebrate the modern game’s wretched excess, have lately been held in a spectacular setting rich with bombast, illusion, and desperate yearning. And there is this question, worth considering: In 63 years, how much has really changed?
For sure, free agency makes it much easier for owners to make bloody fools of themselves. The wealth of the game, formerly measured in the tens of thousands of bucks, is now calculated in the billions. That makes the options nearly unlimited. But it also geometrically increases the capacity for error and the prerogatives of stupidity.
Where once upon a time grizzled baseball lifers half on the sauce called all the shots, many of today’s movers and shakers come from the Ivy League and never really played the game, except for their frat houses. But they’re computer-trained and armed with sabremetrics, which they consider much more meaningful. Not a one of them would get caught wheeling and dealing while half in the bag in the hotel bar at two in the morning. But there remains that question worth considering: Is the end result much different?
Where the Red Sox are concerned, Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford are this year’s equivalent of the lads they were willing to pay any price for back in 1947 because they couldn’t live without them. Not surprisingly, both Gonzalez and Crawford come from small market teams whose financial problems range from serious to desperate and who parted with them only with great reluctance; so very sad.
Once again the Red Sox got them because all the other teams thought the price excessive. Once again the local sporting scribes are loopy in their utter ecstasy over the deals, defining them as precisely what’s needed to guarantee a championship. Stop me if you’ve heard this song before.
Of course, nowadays the Red Sox are no longer alone in the belief that championships can be bought with money being no object. The Yankees, foremost apostles of this dubious thesis, appear to be temporarily sidetracked. They seem befuddled by the maddening chase of pitcher Cliff Lee, whom they lust for shamefully. It’s almost a bit sad to see the Yankees in their legendary pride being thus reduced to begging, and there is no other word for it (“Please take my many tens of millions. Mr. Lee, dear Sir.”). In their respective graves one expects Messrs. Ruth & Gehrig, DiMaggio & Mantle to be rolling about, furiously.
This is being written before the Lee fiasco is resolved and there’s a whole lot more to go down before this winter’s free agent festival has completely run its course, but that doesn’t matter because the tone has been firmly set by the fact that it will be proclaimed as shear madness when it’s finally over.
For the booby prize as the dumbest signing it will be hard to beat Jayson Werth, the latest bad joke to be played on the tortured baseball fans of the nation’s capital. Werth has never hit .300, never had 100 R.B.I’s , only led the league once in anything, wandered the majors five years before landing a steady job, had almost as many whiffs (303) the last two seasons as hits (317), and looked about as dangerous as Luis Polonia in the recent playoffs. For that he commands a seven-year pact worth $126 million from the historically inept Nationals.
But don’t get too high on your horse, my Dear Nation. The deal your ballclub gave Mr. Crawford was only slightly less goofy. Crawford is a nice player. Any team would welcome him. To me, he best compares with Johnny Damon. There are many similarities. But I would take Damon in his heyday over Crawford who is about halfway through his. At his best, Damon could do more and had a definite knack for the dramatic moment that Crawford hasn’t yet demonstrated. Overall, they’re quite equal. But I never heard anyone – and that certainly includes Theo Epstein – argue that Damon should have been paid $142 million.
In taking a much more than $300 million plunge for Messrs. Crawford and Gonzalez the Red Sox have relinquished the moral high ground they had been occupying under false pretenses in recent years. Their argument that they were the dear little poor boys on the block struggling valiantly to contend with those dastardly and merciless corporate buccaneers from the Bronx was always laughable. It was the cheerleaders of the Boston sporting media who let them get away with that. Now, at least, that won’t be possible. Not even the bellicose Fenway CEO, Larry Lucchino, whose capacity for the brash is believed to be unlimited, would dare try.
But others will moan mightily, and will have that right. The more things change, the more they look the way they did in 1947. You could look it up.