This Day in Baseball History: March 23, 1938 – Landis Frees the Minor Leaguers

FederalLeagueI love baseball history and I enjoy writing short bits about it. I frequently write a ‘This Day in Baseball History’ post at my Facebook page.  I thought this one was worth posting here on my blog. It ties in my second-favorite player of all time towards the end.

In 1913, the newly formed Federal League began play as a baseball minor league. In 1914, it became the third major league, throwing (for the time) big money at current National and American League players to entice them to switch teams. Several, including a few Hall of Famers, did. In January of 1915, the Federals filed an antitrust lawsuit against the other two major leagues.

The federal judge assigned stalled the case until the Federal League signed an agreement with the other two leagues, dropped the suit and folded. The owners of the Baltimore Terrapins were the only team to object to the agreement. They would then file their own suit, leading to the famous Supreme Court ruling that baseball was not interstate commerce and therefore not subject to anti-trust laws (what a joke!).

Kennesaw Mountain Landis was the federal judge who oversaw that first lawsuit and kept it from progressing – to the great benefit of the Major League Baseball. Then, after the famous Black Sox Scandal of 1919, the baseball owners begged Landis to become the first Commissioner, in an attempt to restore the public image of the National Pastime.

Landis_FistHe accepted, receiving a lifetime appointment and total authority. Later, the owners would regret creating this Frankenstein, but they were desperate in 1920. He was a supporter of the reserve clause and had no mercy on players suspected of gambling. While the owners certainly played a large part, Landis enforced segregation in the game. His successor, former US Senator Albert ‘Happy’ Chandler, supported Jackie Robinson’s signing.

Branch Rickey, the Hall of Fame executive who brought Robinson to Brooklyn, invented the minor league farm system while in St. Louis. It made the relatively small market Cardinals a pennant-winning franchise. Rickey beefed up his scouting department and signed as many players as practicable. They were essentially graded into ‘keepers’ and ‘extras.’ The keepers were developed for the majors, while the extras were sold off to other teams for cash (Rickey kept a portion of all player sales). Hundreds of minor league players were on Cardinals farm teams.

Rickey_HOFplaqueOn March 23, 1938, Landis freed 74 minor leaguers in the Cardinals chain. Six teams lost players and the owners were fined a total of $2,176. Landis asserted that the Cardinals controlled multiple teams in the same leagues, which was prohibited. He also accused the unofficial/unaffiliated teams of selling players to the Cardinals’ official minor league team improperly. The Cardinals were accused of controlling the players on two teams in all three Class D leagues in 1936 and in all four leagues in 1937.

Cardinals owner Sam Breadon denied all allegations and many viewed the decision as an attack on Rickey, the team’s general manager. Breadon indicated as much when he said, “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”

Rickey_MacphailMost 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.

Reiser_PictureExcept that, in 1939, Reiser reached base in his first 11 at bats of spring training and manager Leo Durocher, not in on the deal, told reporters the kid would be his Opening Day shortstop. Rickey, furious, called MacPhail and accused him of double-dealing. MacPhail called Durocher, blasting him for showcasing Reiser and demanding he send the youngster to the minor league camp. Durocher ignored him.

MacPhail flew down to Florida and fired Durocher but things were smoothed out the next day (this happened many times). However, Durocher realized that MacPhail was serious and Reiser returned to the minors. ‘Pistol Pete’  worked his way up to the Dodgers (having a superb 1941 rookie season) and  MacPhail had to tell Rickey that he couldn’t return Reiser. Rickey was furious and this is considered to be perhaps the key dispute that turned the former friends into enemies.

I talked about Reiser in my March 17 ‘This Day in Baseball History’ post.




1 thought on “This Day in Baseball History: March 23, 1938 – Landis Frees the Minor Leaguers

  1. Pingback: Baseball history unpacked, March 23 |

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