The Yankees (Fortune Classics, 1946)
Editor’s note: Every week, Fortune.com publishes a favorite story from our magazine archives. It’s the end of summer, which means baseball fans are gearing up for the playoffs and World Series. What does it take to make a team profitable? This July 1946 about the Yankees during the Joe DiMaggio era is a reminder that even the best players are never enough.
The player’s the thing, as thousands cheer, but it takes business brains to make even a winning club pay a profit.
FORTUNE — It is the last half of the ninth in the 1946 opener at Yankee Stadium and the Washington visitors are leading New York 6 to 5. As the first Yankee batsman, Joe Gordon, steps to the plate, the vibrant rumble of 55,000 voices swells ever so slightly, then scales down sharply to near silence. Everybody is waiting for the pitch. As it thuds into the catcher’s glove–a clean strike–the tension breaks momentarily and the crowd finds its voice. The pitcher throws two more like it and Gordon, usually a fine hitter, has struck out. An almighty, communal groan rolls over the Stadium, and Gordon, as if to chastise himself, deliberately holds his ignoble strike-out pose. He scrutinizes his bat reproachfully, and for a moment it looks as if he would fling it away in disgust. Instead, he hands it to the bat boy with exaggerated tenderness and slowly makes his way to the dugout. Over the magpie chorus of the crowd a shrill voice pipes, “Tough luck, Joe!” but from another corner of the stands comes a Bronx objection: “Ahh, that Gawdon-anhh.”
Now Stirnweiss is at bat. For a big-leaguer he is short (five feet eight inches) and “hard to pitch to.” When he has worked the Washington pitcher for a base on balls, the stands begin to hum and a few spectators heading for the exits pop back from the ramps to see what’s up. Henrich, a left-hander, bats next. In trying to throw him a slow, teasing ball–close inside–the pitcher nicks Henrich on the wrist. It doesn’t look as though Henrich tried too hard to avoid being struck, but the umpire waves him on to first base over the anguished protests of the Washington players. Then it is that the vocal thunder begins to gather. DiMaggio, greatest of the Yankee sluggers, is coming to bat. DiMaggio! DiMaggio! The name is passed around the Stadium from lip to lip like a password, a prayer-and finally, in one section of the upper tier, it turns into pure incantation: DiMaggio! thump, thump, thump; DiMaggio! thump, thump, thump …
Amid this melee of shouting, stamping, and gesticulation, DiMaggio appears to be the only sane and poised individual in the park. He walks deliberately, but without swagger, into the batter’s box, first pausing to scoop up a handful of dirt, the better to grip his bat. Fifty-five thousand pairs of eyes are fixed now on his ritual. He tugs once-just once-at the peak of his cap; he raps the plate once-just once-with the end of his bat; and he takes three-just three-half swings in the direction of the pitcher. Then he pulls back into his distinctive stance, feet wide apart, arms high, bat in air, cocked for the swing. Utterly immobile, he awaits the pitch.
Niggeling, the opposing pitcher, plainly would like to do anything but serve that ball up to DiMaggio. He has to straighten his cap several times, hitch up his pants, massage the hall between his bare hands, turn to assure himself that the outfielders are playing deep enough, and peer down again and again at his squatting catcher for the signal. There is a second of pregnant silence as Niggeling half-winds and fires. Then wham! DiMaggio has gotten his wood on the ball–not quite flush; for the pitch was a trifle wide–but the ball sails hard over third base and cuts through the grass just inside the left field foul line. Stirnweiss scores easily with the tying run, Henrich pulls up at third and DiMaggio at second. All who are sound of wind and bottom among the crowd are now on their feet, bellowing, barking, or whistling, each according to his talents. From a box seat down front, a distinguished gentleman with Calvert-ad possibilities arises to shout something to DiMaggio. His attractive companion leans out of her minks to hear his comments, but she can’t quite make out the words. It sounds to her as if he were yelling, “Addaboydamadge! Addaboydamadge!”
The victory run that follows is actually an anticlimax: Six-foot-four Johnny Lindell, who has been substituting spectacularly for the injured Charlie Keller, drives it home with a ponderous fly to left center field, and the Stadium police rush out on the diamond to save DiMaggio from the outrages of his youthful admirers.
The New York Yankees’ dramatic victory–with all its attendant commotions–meant many things to many men. To the sharp-eyed sports writers, it meant the “pros” were back from the wars with their superb skills apparently intact, restoring thereby the highest standards of big-league play. To Joseph Vincent McCarthy, closemouthed little Irishman who manages the team on the field, it meant a good night’s sleep, for after forty years in baseball he still frets for endless hours over the loss of a game. To Leland Stanford MacPhail, ebullient president of the club, it meant that he could circulate among his prosperous, postgame Stadium Club guests like a conquering hero and confidently congratulate himself and his millionaire associates, Dan Topping and Del Webb, on their $3-million flyer into the baseball business a year ago. For baseball is a cult as well as a business and a game, and any qualified baseball mystic could tell from the vibrations current in the Stadium this day that the Yanks were in for a whopping year at the gate. The next day, Saturday, 38,698 fans trooped up to the Bronx for the game; on Sunday, 42,749 admissions were paid. As of FORTUNE’s press time, the Yankees were in a fair way to equal, or exceed, their 1928 all-time high for home admissions–1,250,000. A dollar sign before that figure gives an approximation of the take.
It may seem odd not to inquire first into the reactions of the Yankee players to their victory, but to the baseball business this is not a consideration of much import. It is assumed that the players pulled hard to win, for a successful ball team requires competitive spirit as well as technical competence among its members. Also, there is the financial bait of a world series’ cut for the players on a championship team, and lesser prizes for second, third, and fourth-place standings in the league. A few managements–the current Yankee proprietors among them–are not so cold-blooded in their approach to the boys in the “monkey suits,” but to most of the big brains in baseball the player is so much property, or to use a harsher but exact word, a chattel. He can be sold, traded, or fired at his owner’s pleasure and, with few exceptions, can exert no preference after he has signed his first pro-baseball contract.
Here is baseball’s paradox–and sore spot. Out of millions of American boys who play baseball, no more than 400-odd (or twenty or thirty coming up each year) exhibit the genius called for by major-league play. It is extremely doubtful whether any coach or tutor ever made a big-league ballplayer out of some stout lad who had less than a natural endowment of the sport’s peculiar requisites (though good performers have sometimes been manufactured in such sports as football and boxing). It is further generally uncontested that no owner or manager ever put together a championship team out of inferior material; and, finally, it is a baseball maxim that only winning teams make money (though some losing clubs make up deficits by the sale of star players). Nevertheless, it is the express attitude of many owners and managers–and even some sports writers–that the average big-league ballplayer ought to be happy he’s not back in Hoskins Corners driving a truck. (By the same logic Dorothy Lamour at option time should be grateful only that she is not running that elevator in Chicago.)
No mistake, the player is the thing in baseball and in the finances of the game, for all the masterminding that may be accredited to the front office when the team and the tickets are going good. But that is not to imply that a successful championship club gets that way by hapchance. The greatest collection of players in the world requires skillful, sympathetic management on the field to play winning baseball day in, day out, and discriminately to acquire such a collection calls for a top operator with business brains as well as baseball insight. It calls for plenty of money, too-preferably money that can be thrown away at the start. As a business (and a relatively small business, despite its big noise), baseball has unusual hazards. Even the Yankees, regarded as “the most valuable baseball property in America,” have had their ups and downs.
The American League Baseball Club of New York began its existence in 1903 when the franchise of the Baltimore club was purchased for $18,000 by Frank Farrell, a retired saloonkeeper, and William S. (Big Bill) Devery, retired chief of the New York City police. Two years before, the American League had battled its way into the major-league picture by tactics not altogether different from those being employed this year by the Mexican League, i.e., inducing established league players to come over to their side for more money. Because the new league needed a successful New York outlet if it was to rival the National League in prestige and gate receipts, Ban Johnson, American League President, ordered other teams to transfer some of his league’s greatest stars to the New York club, as well as the circuit’s outstanding manager, Clark Griffith, now president of the Washington club.
But no amount of wet-nursing by Johnson ever succeeded in making a pennant winner or a money-maker out of the “Highlanders,” as they were first called. In 1910, when the brilliant but perverse Hal Chase, the famed “Black Prince” of baseball, was at his peak as a crowd pleaser, the team finished in second place and netted a profit of $80,000. Two years later it finished last, while the colorful New York Giants, under the pugnacious management of John McGraw, were winning the championship of the rival National League. The next year the forlorn, newly christened “Yankees,” too poor to build a park of their own, humbly became tenants of the Giants at the Polo Grounds.
Broke and disconsolate, Farrell and Devery sold the club in 1915 to Colonel Jacob Ruppert, the brewer, and Captain Tillinghast L’Hommedieu Huston, a contractor-engineer, who wanted to own a baseball club just for the fun of it. The price paid was $460,000 but the simple arithmetic of the transaction is misleading. The extent to which Farrell and Devery transferred capital from other activities into their baseball adventure is not known, but upon their deaths Farrell left a net estate of $1,072, Devery left debts of $1,023.
During their first few years in baseball, Messrs. Ruppert and Huston got no return whatsoever on their investment financially, nor did Ruppert, for one, find it very much fun. Huston at least got a bang out of associating with ballplayers and sports writers, but Ruppert more or less held himself socially aloof from the Broadwayish baseball crowd. The Colonel was never a very knowing fan. His passions were involved in the sport only to the extent that he wanted his team to win consistently and by very large scores. (It is reported by a sports writer, Frank Graham, that Ruppert once admonished pitcher Waite Hoyt: “You win all your games by scores of 1 to 0 and 2 to 1. Our other pitchers win their games by 9 and 10 to 1. Why don’t you win some of your games like that?”) In 1915 the Yankees finished fifth; in 1916, fourth; 1917, sixth; 1918, fourth. The Colonel was not seen at the games very often.
Throughout this period the Yankees were paying top prices to other American League clubs for such players as their rivals were willing to sell, but the New York team never rose above mediocrity. It was only by a most fortuitous circumstance, in 1919, that the Yankees pulled out of this funk. The situation was that Harry Frazee, owner of the Boston (Red Sox) American League team, needed a half-million dollars and needed it quickly. As it happened, Mr. Frazee didn’t want the money to shore up his baseball club. That property was doing very handsomely, owing to the canny manipulations of his manager, Edward G. Barrow, and the presence on the team of a fabulous orphan named George Herman Ruth, whom Barrow had sagaciously converted from a great left-handed pitcher into a sensational, home-run-hitting outfielder. Frazee needed the money to finance some questionable ventures in the theatre–his first and only true love. This was one deal in which Colonel Ruppert was far from being the patsy. He made a personal loan to Frazee of $350,000 (taking a mortgage on Boston’s Fenway Park as security) in consideration for the privilege of buying Ruth for the Yankees for $100,000. In due time, to the disgust of Boston fans, Frazee sold most of his other stars to New York and shipped along Ed Barrow himself, who became business manager of the Yankees.
Babe Ruth changed the entire character of the Yankee ball club and, for that matter, of all major-league play. Until he burgeoned, the home run was a rarity-for a single player to hit a dozen in a season was sensational. Ruth hit thirty, forty, and finally sixty in a year. With Ruth showing the way, every hitter in baseball began to tee off on the ball, grasping the bat at the very end of the handle to get the utmost leverage. Under the long-ball barrage, much of the old-time “inside” baseball began to lose caste. Of what use were the sly stratagems to score one run–the squeeze play, the stolen base, etc.–when you had a bruiser or two on the team who could knock the ball out of the park, sending the runners ahead of him home at a dogtrot? Though many a classicist among the fans professed to deplore the new-style slugging, many more. Americans began to find their interest in baseball stimulated. A home run is the easiest thing in baseball to understand. Patronage began picking up remarkably–particularly wherever Ruth played. Even the American League clubowners got the point and quietly livened up the ball, so that henceforth there was a little bit of Ruth in every .220 hitter.
With Ruth–and the so-called “Murderers’ Row” that was built around him–the New York Yankees blasted their way to pennants in 1921, 1922, and 1923. In 1922 the jealous Giants asked the Yankees to find a park of their own to play in, and Colonel Ruppert began construction of the $2-million Yankee Stadium, finest baseball plant in the country, which the sports writers not inappropriately tagged “The House that Ruth Built.”
In 1923 Ruppert and Huston disagreed (mainly over Ruppert’s insistence on backing up his pint-sized manager, Miller Huggins, in the latter’s disciplinary disputes with the tempestuous Ruth) and Ruppert bought out his partrier’s share for $1,500,000.
The destiny of the Yankees was now shaped. Though they slipped to second place in 1924, and plummeted to seventh in 1925, when Ruth was beset with a monumental bellyache from overindulgence in hot dogs, championships were won again in 1926, 1927, and 1928. All the clubs were patterned on hitting power. As Ruth’s home-run prowess began to decline, the almost equally great Gehrig maintained the slugging championship for the Yankees, and when Gehrig was struck down with a fatal illness, DiMaggio took his place in the unbroken tradition. Manager Miller Huggins died in 1929, and the team floundered momentarily; but under Joe McCarthy’s managership, which began in 1931, the Yankees, now reinforced by business-manager Barrow’s farm system, which sent up the cream of the country’s young minor-league players, won eight more American League races. Since 1921 the Yankees have won fourteen pennants and ten world series–an unparalleled feat. Probably the nearest to it is the Giants’ National League record of fifteen pennants and four world championships, but that was accomplished over a period of almost sixty years of competition.
As the greatest baseball team in the country, playing its home games in the most commodious stadium in the land, in the largest city in the U.S., the Yankee club was commonly regarded as a gold mine. Indeed, Colonel Ruppert himself, for all his natural reserve (to say nothing of the conspiratorial silence all club owners observe on matters financial), never tried to give the impression that his baseball empire was an eleemosynary institution. As a businessman, he was proud that the Yankees paid their own way while affording him a sportsman’s pleasure and incidentally a whale of a lot of fine advertising for Ruppert’s beer. In a casual conversation with a friend in 1937, he dropped the word that he valued his baseball property at “something between $6 and $7 million.” This would be no surprise to the man in the street, who could roughly tick off on his fingers that the $2-million Yankee Stadium, built on a $1-million plot, must be written in on anybody’s book for at least $4 million; then there were the stadiums and properties of farm clubs like Newark, Kansas City, and so on–surely worth more than $1 million. There was plenty of evidence to indicate that an American League franchise in New York by its solitary self was worth $1 million and, of course, the Yankees easily owned $1 million worth of ballplayers. Who wouldn’t pay almost a quarter of a million for DiMaggio alone?
When Colonel Ruppert died in 1939, public curiosity over the disposition of his estate was immense because of the involvement of the Yankee baseball club, which had become as much of a national institution as the Metropolitan Opera or the Emporia Gazette. Because the Ruppert will was a somewhat complicated legal arrangement, it received a confused if prominent press. The facts are these: the bulk of Colonel Ruppert’s assets were left in two separate trusts–the Yankee trust and a residuary trust embracing all other property. The only asset of the former trust was the Yankee baseball organization (including the farm clubs and related properties), and it was provided that after the administration of the estate the Yankee organization was to be transferred to a trustee (the Manufacturers Trust Co. of New York was eventually named). The income from the investment was to be paid to Colonel Ruppert’s two nieces—Ruth McGuire and Helen Holleran–and his friend Helen Winthrop Weyant. Ownership was to be retained in the trust fund for the benefit of the three women, but the ladies did not own the Yankees; neither did they have any voice whatsoever in the management of the club, nor could their personal preferences have prevented its eventual sale.
It was Colonel Ruppert’s expressed wish and hope that the Yankees would remain indefinitely in the trust, with the women continuing as beneficiaries. But when the executors found that the Ruppert estate didn’t have sufficient other assets to pay the federal and state death taxes, Ruppert’s personal debts of more than $1 million, and the heavy expenses of administration, the Yankees were put up for sale. In fact, Colonel Ruppert’s interest in the brewery had to be sold also.
When it became known that the Yankees were purchasable, sportsmen, politicos, Wall Street entrepreneurs, and just plain publicity seekers had themselves a field day. He was small fry indeed, in New York’s cafe society, who did not at one time or another publicly entertain the idea of buying the Yankees. At least thirty prospective purchasers were serious enough to approach the Manufacturers Trust Co. on the deal, and one of the most earnest negotiators was James A. Farley. But, in getting down to cases, both buyers and sellers were not long in learning that the economics of baseball had never been adequately reported in the sports pages of the newspapers.
Dollar value of a ballplayer
The $6 or $7 million figure on the Yankees was, of course, a book figure without reality for a prospective operator of the club. The replacement value of the Yankee Stadium alone might run as high as $6 million, but the structure is of operational value only if it is used to house a baseball team. The farm clubs, it was learned, are of productive value only as they contribute to the integrated system of developing players who are capable of performing in the Yankee Stadium–they do not normally pay off of themselves. The Yankee ballplayers, it may surprise the average businessman to know, are valued at $1! That is a bookkeeping fiction, of course, but how can you list as an asset a “property” whose total value can be expunged overnight by a sore arm, a broken leg, or a compulsion to see that evening sun go down far from the sidewalks of New York? Colonel Ruppert wasn’t boasting when he “valued” his Yankees at $7 million, but on the basis of Yankee earnings over the past five years $7 million invested in the enterprise would yield a return about equal to the interest on a comparable investment in U.S. Government bonds.
When it was announced in January, 1945, that Colonel Larry MacPhail, and his associates Topping and Webb, had unconditionally bought the Yankees for approximately $3 million, news writers promptly labeled the transaction a “steal.” That the purchase at this price offered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a man of his peculiar talents to coax a fortune out of baseball, MacPhail, in a candid mood, would probably riot deny. Nevertheless, it is a fact that the accepted offer of MacPhail’s group was not only the highest received by Manufacturers Trust but it was the only firm bid–with check attached–to emerge from the numberless discussions between the bank and the various intermediaries. The fiduciary today is still satisfied that it got a “good price,” and that on the basis of the Yankees’ earnings over a period of years, “no higher price would be justified.” MacPhail’s version is a trifle more defensive, but more enlightening, too. “On the basis of what the Yankees had been earning,” he says, “the price we paid was too much. But the $3 million represented a justifiable compromise of the club’s earnings and assets. We thought it was a good buy on the basis of what we thought we could make it earn.”
The balance sheets of most big-league ball clubs are vaulted and possibly written in code (the Yankee exception to the rule appears on page 171), which is a pity because the average businessman would undoubtedly be interested in some of the wrinkles. Many clubs, including the Yankees, list the value of players’ contracts at $1; the sale price of players is treated as operating income, the amounts paid out for purchase and development of players as expense. The value of the franchise is usually set up as a capital item, however, because it has a continuing value, regardless of what might happen to the physical property or other tangible assets of the club. Perhaps its closest parallel is a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. The Yankee franchise is the right to represent the American League in New York. It could be sold by itself at any time, provided the transaction was sanctioned by the league, which is a nonprofit association of restricted membership. The Yankees carry their franchise at $300,000 because that was the amount originally thrown in by the Yankee (or Baltimore) owners as their share of the working capital that was pooled to organize the American League. Actually, if the franchise were placed on the market, it could conceivably bring $1 million or more.
With these accounting peculiarities considered, the 1945 operations of the Yankee organization–farm clubs and all–produced a net return of 5 per cent on the total book assets ($4,023,885) of the club. Figuring on the basis of the MacPhail-Topping-Webb investment, the operation would show a return of 7 per cent to the sportsmen. Actually no dividends were paid but, merely as indication of what the investment is earning, these figures would suggest that the new Yankee owners can loan out their crying towels to various of their fellow clubowners who will be only too happy to use them in public, anyway.
The year 1945 was anything but a typical baseball year, but the Yankee operating statement, shown on page 171, gives a general picture of where a ball club’s money comes from and where it goes. Because it was still a war year, and many of the finest players remained in the services, a number of the items are askew. The amount spent for players’ salaries was naturally below par, and the abbreviated training trip of 1945 gave no picture of the Yankees’ current operations. Also, the Yankees, because of their superior backlog of players, sold more contracts to the distressed clubs last year than they will this; by the same token, they will purchase more players as better players become available. In other respects the figures are proportionate, if subnormal.
The Ruppert dynasty is now done in Yankee history, although the current club, in playing personnel, in character, and in crowd appeal, is almost entirely the late brewer’s legacy. Baseball clubs have distinct genres. The Yankees’ attraction has always been their power at the bat and their indubitable air of class. People from all over the country come to see them for a superb exhibition of baseball. The Yankee players feel this, and there is something of the baseball patrician about them on and off the field. The New York Giants, on the other hand, have a sentimental Gotham following that prays for a Giant victory _but goes to see them year in, year out, win or lose. The Brooklyn Dodgers, of course, is a borough team, with a rough, rabid fandom whom the players please by their antics and belligerency as well as by skill. It is inconceivable that at the Yankee Stadium a player, in raising his cap to acknowledge applause, would release a bird from captivity. It happened in Brooklyn.
Therefore, when the haughty Yankee empire passed into the hands of Colonel Leland Stanford MacPhail, Brooklyn’s recent boss, the baseball world held its breath. Wall Street might react the same way to the news that Henry Kaiser had been named senior partner of J. P. Morgan & Co (JPM).; Fifth Avenue to the intelligence that the manager of S. Klein, of Union Square, was coming uptown to boss Bergdorf -Goodman.
The rambunctious redhead
In more ways than one, Larry MacPhail is like no other figure in baseball’s ruling class–the “magnates.” Because he is publicity minded and operates on terms of rowdy good-fellowship with the press, to whom he addresses a few thousand wellchosen words almost every day of his life, he is constantly in the news, and not always in a complimentary light. Where Ruppert was always “the Colonel” (an honorary title conferred on him at age twenty-two), MacPhail, who won his rank in service, is more likely to turn up even in the staid New York Times as “Loquacious Larry” or the “Rambunctious Redhead.” Once, in a fit of passion, he threw a middle-aged punch at the capable and well-liked Arthur Patterson, then covering the Dodgers for the Herald Tribune. Patterson, whose hair is just as red as MacPhail’s, countered in kind. MacPhail was so pleased about the affair that he later appointed Patterson traveling secretary and publicity director of the Yankees. The MacPhailian legend, indeed, stops precariously short of clownishness. Irrevocably, he is what the boys call “a character.” It is a curious, possibly a useful, mask for one of the abler businessmen in the U.S. and, with the possible exception of scholarly Branch Rickey, the soundest operator in baseball. (Rickey is a great all-around baseball man, but is now undergoing, in Brooklyn, his first real test as the president of a major-league club.)
The idea of MacPhail as a brooding Byronic figure would give most of his acquaintances a laugh, but even so it may be that he is entertaining a mildly psychotic war in his bosom. As a red-haired, freckle-faced kid in Ludington, Michigan, at the turn of the century, Larry liked to play nine o’ cat until dusk, but he practiced his piano lessons, too, and at fourteen was good enough to play the organ in the Episcopal Church. At sixteen he qualified for Annapolis but went to Beloit instead, where he was a star in his three favorite sports–baseball, football, and debating. During vacations he played pro ball under an assumed name. “In the Southern Michigan Association one season,” he can be induced to recall, “I hit .282. Fred (Bonehead) Merkle was in the league that year and was sold to the Giants for $750. He hit .274.”
At twenty-one MacPhail was practicing law in an impressive way; at twenty-five he was president of a Nashville, Tennessee, department store. He joined Colonel Luke Lea’s regiment, which fought conspicuously in the St. Mihiel and Argonne offensives. When things got dull after the annistice, Lea and MacPhail amused themselves with an attempt to kidnap the Kaiser. After the war MacPhail became a Columbus, Ohio, businessman and attorney of parts-real estate, automobiles, and corporate liquidations. In 1931 his check was good enough to buy the run-down local American Association baseball club for $100,000. He revitalized it some and sold it for profit to the St. Louis Cardinals under an arrangement whereby he remained with the club as president and general manager. The job lasted three years, during which time he absorbed all there was to know about the farm, or “chain-store,” system of baseball that Branch Rickey, as business manager, had created for Sam Breadon’s successful St. Louis organization.
Bailing out banks
In 1934 MacPhail was beckoned by a nervous Cincinnati bank, which was holding the paper of the last-place National League club in that city. In an explosive operation in which he painted the park bright orange and actually staged fireworks displays, MacPhail took the club out of hock and finally lured millionaire Powel Crosley into partnership. Baseball critics granted that his introduction of night baseball and broadcasting of games paid off in cash, but it wasn’t until he had been away from Cincinnati a couple of years that they came around to appreciating that he was something more than a showman. When the Cincinnati Reds came out of nowhere to win the National League pennant in 1939 and in 1940, and all with a collection of unheralded players whom MacPhail had picked up for pennies in sand lots and very minor-league teams, skeptics had to admit that Larry MacPhail knew a ballplayer when he saw one. Actually, he knew something better than that. He knew how to build and utilize a farm system. Some of the highest-priced officials in baseball haven’t learned that trick yet.
Bankers, even if they’re baseball fans, hold no prejudices against a man who can relieve them of a financial lemon, and near the end of 1937 President George V. McLaughlin of the Brooklyn Trust Co. begged MacPhail to come east and try his skills on the woeful Brooklyn Dodgers. “Every club I ever had,” MacPhail once said ruefully, “I had for a bank; it was always a down club, a club that was in the sheriff’s hands. My job has always been to get some bank out of the baseball business. I’ve always worked for a God-damn bank!”
Of all the “down” clubs MacPhail ever fooled with, the Dodgers was probably the deepest. Between two puffs of a cigarette he describes what he did with them: “There wasn’t much I could do in 1938 since the training season had already started, but I decided then that the club had to be completely rebuilt. We got rid of all the players except two. We rebuilt the stadium, which hadn’t been touched for twelve years. We had to rehabilitate the organization itself. When I took over, Brooklyn didn’t have a farm system, it didn’t have any scouts to speak of, it was doing nothing to supply itself with young players. I had to build up a club and the basis of the next club as well.
“It turned out to be a very nice operation. We paid off the $1,250,000 the club owed when I came there. We spent $500,000 rehabilitating Ebbets Field, and spent $1 million developing a club and an organization to develop future clubs. We refunded the Ebbets Field mortgage and cut it almost in two, and we wound up with $250,000 cash in the bank over and above all current liabilities. In the four years–1939 through 1942–the club drew over a million people each year, which was a third more than either of the other New York teams drew, despite the fact that Ebbets Field holds only 40 per cent as many as the other clubs’ stadiums do. In 1938, the Dodgers finished seventh; in ’39, third; in ’40, second; and in ’41 we won the pennant. It was the most outstandingly successful baseball operation this country has ever seen.”
Dodger into Yank
Assuredly, Larry MacPhail’s gaudy personality is in striking contrast to the cast of quiet characters who ran the New York Yankees show until his advent: mum manager McCarthy; capable, self-effacing George Weiss, boss of the farm system; and rugged old Ed Barrow, who is serving out his lucrative Yankee contract as nominal chairman of the board. As a baseball technician, however, MacPhail speaks their language like a native. The truth is, he is moving in on the Yankees the way some men walk into a ready-made suit-a tuck here, a mite of expansion there, and it looks like a custom-built job.
Though it may have run slightly to seed in the last few uncertain years, the Yankees’ farm setup is one of the most beautiful in baseball-and farm operation is Larry MacPhail’s dish. The Yankees own outright two so-called Triple-A clubs–Newark in the International League and Kansas City in the American Association–which have been finishing schools for many of today’s Stadium stars; they also own the Binghamton, New York, and Norfolk, Virginia, clubs–both in Class-A leagues. In addition, the Yankees have “working agreements” with eleven other minor-league clubs, a deal whereby the Yanks foot a portion of the salaries in return for the right to take any players they choose at the end of the season.
Feeding these reservoirs are fourteen full-time Yankee scouts who roam the minor leagues, the college campuses, and the sand lots. These wise old bird dogs could spot a pitching prospect in a kid throwing rocks at a tin can; they are persuasive, and–though MacPhail doesn’t like to admit it–they carry Yankee checkbooks. Young America is smartening up. More than half of the likely prospects get a little something on the line nowadays before signing into peonage.
The Yankee dragnet sweeps wide–it has strings on over 500 players–but at the same time it’s selective. All the roads in the farm system don’t lead to the Yankee Stadium–some players are signed as trading material, etc.–but generally speaking the Yanks aren’t too interested in a boy who doesn’t figure to meet specifications of a typical Yankee team, present or future.
MacPhail, McCarthy, and Weiss see eye to eye on what might be described as the orthodox dream formula for a great ball club: a strong defense through the middle, and power at the corners. If you check the current Yankee team against this formula, you’ll see the strength that makes it a leading contender for the 1946 pennant, as well as the weaknesses that prevent it from being a sure shot. At the same time, a note on the origin and development of each player will give an idea of how a Yankee team is built according to plan.
The defense “life line” of a ball club is the catcher, the pitcher (the pitching staff is 60 per cent of any club’s defense), the infield combination of second baseman and shortstop, and the center fielder. In tall, drawling Bill Dickey, the Yankees have a catcher who, at thirty-nine, is still the best man in the position in baseball, both mechanically and as a handler of pitchers. Dickey goes so far back that he was purchased from Little Rock before the Yankees had a farm system. The pitching staff is the Yankee problem at this writing. Apart from the star, Spud Chandler, it is an uncertainty. This situation is proof that no system, no exchequer, can monopolize baseball talent. At second base is Joe Gordon, one of the two best in the league (Doerr of the Red Sox is his rival). He was scouted and signed while playing for the University of Oregon and optioned to Oakland for a year where he played shortstop. When the Yankee management decided that its regular second baseman was going to wear out before its shortstop, however, Gordon was transferred to Newark and taught, so to speak, to play second base. The next season he came up with the Yankees and was a star the first year out. At shortstop, the Yanks play Phil Rizzuto (five feet six), fastest fielder in the league and a wizard (with Gordon) at the double play. Every year the Yankees give a mob of kids–mostly high-school and sand-lot players–a two-day tryout at the Yankee Stadium, and that’s how they got little Phil, son of a New York City longshoreman. He played on Yankee farms at Bassett (Virginia), Norfolk, and Kansas City before he was ready. This year the Mexican League offered him $100,000 for three seasons’ play.
At center field the incomparable Joe DiMaggio catches, as Joe McCarthy puts it, “three-base hits every day,” and cuts off many a run with the best throwing arm in baseball. DiMaggio was snared by the Yankees from San Francisco for $25,000 and three players, after other clubs had lowered their bids because of his reported bad knee. The Yankees were the only ones who thought to have the knee examined by a competent surgeon. DiMaggio earns over $40,000* a year from the Yankees’ picks up more from radio appearances and the like. He reads the financial as well as the sports pages, and has as fine a case of ulcers as any businessman.
Power is paramount
All the members of this superb defense line, it should be noted, are fine hitters–even little Rizzuto. The Yankees don’t want any fancy Dans unless they can hit.
For the power at the corners, there is Nick Etten at first base. There are better fielders in the1eague than. Nick, but Hank Greenberg is the only first baseman who hits a longer ball more often. Etten is one of the rare Yankee purchases, having been bought from the Philadelphia National League club to replace the two farm-developed players who went off to war and couldn’t rewin their jobs as Yankee regulars this year. At third base is stubby George Stirnweiss, who is a good but not a power hitter. He was spotted by Yankee scouts at Fordham Prep and signed while at the University of North Carolina, where he coaches football in the off season. He was farm-trained as a second baseman, his natural position, but was converted this year to a third baseman. It was the only place the talent-studded Yankees could play him.
In the right-field corner the Yanks have Tommy Henrich, who was luckily declared a “free agent” back in 1936 when his original owners were accused by the Baseball Commissioner of “covering up his contract,” i.e., optioning him to a minor-league team for more than three years. He sold himself to the Yankees for $25,000. In left field, Charlie Keller, a tremendously powerful chap dubbed “King Kong” by his mates, completes the Yankee heavy artillery. The Yankees picked him off the University of Maryland campus on a Baltimore sports writer’s tip to George Weiss. Both Henrich and Keller are left-handed hitters, as are Dickey and Etten. The Yankees favor such hitters because of the short right-field fence at the Stadium.
What makes a manager?
Such is the club (plus a brace of substitutes almost as good as the regulars) the Yankee organization has collected and groomed for Joe McCarthy to manage to a championship if he can. Joe doesn’t have much to say about whom the Yankees sign–he can’t get a look at them out in the sticks–but he has the last word on whether they’ll stay around the Stadium or not. And Joe is in sole and complete charge of the team on the field. McCarthy is possibly the best manager in baseball but professes to know not why, unless it is because he has picked up some odds and ends in forty years of campaigning. He plays the known percentages in baseball, as all managers do, but he has a little extra patience and understanding in dealing with young players, and a knack of knowing when to start a pitcher and when to take him out of the game. Once, to be agreeable, Joe took a baseball test that Columbia University’s Teachers College had designed for its graduate students in physical education. He scored sixty-three, barely passing. A Miss Lucy J. Smoot, elderly elementary-school principal from Kansas City, was tops with a B-plus.
The Yankees of today are not a young team (two-thirds of them are service veterans who were Yankee regulars before the war). They’ll go over the hill one day, but there’ll be other Yankee clubs to take their place–probably, like this one, manned 75 per cent from Yankee farms. The chances are that they will always have a good defense down the middle, with power at the corners, and plenty of left-handed hitters to park home runs in the right-field stands while the crowd roars.
Meantime, Colonel MacPhail has already given the fifteen other big-league magnates lessons in how to merchandise a baseball club. For example, spring training costs the average major-league club anywhere from $20,000 to $40,000. This year MacPhail flew his team to Panama for a pre-spring training workout. The Panamanians gave him a $30,000 guarantee that more than covered the cost. Riding the Panama publicity, the Yankees came back to the U.S. for the regular spring trip and grossed almost two and a half times as much as the best previous year, for a net profit of $65,000. And while MacPhail was taking the sun, business manager Tom Gallery back in New York was selling out the new box-seat Stadium Club memberships to the tune of $500,000–all cash in the till before opening day. The Rambunctious Redhead is not, after all, defiling Yankee history. He’s writing it.
*Players’ salaries are never matters of firm record. Sports writers base their estimates on a compromise of unofficial figures leaked by clubowners and players. Some of the estimates: DiMaggio, $42,500; Stirnweiss, $16,000; Dickey, $22,000; Chandler, $20,000. First year players average around $5,000 or better with the Yankees.