The 1936 Yankees, the 1963 Dodgers, the 1975 Reds, the 2010 Giants—why do some baseball teams win while others don’t?
General managers and fans alike have pondered this most important of baseball questions. The Moneyball strategy is not the first example of how new ideas and innovative management have transformed the way teams are assembled. In Pursuit of Pennants examines and analyzes a number of compelling, winning baseball teams over the past hundred-plus years, focusing on their decision making and how they assembled their championship teams.
Whether through scouting, integration, instruction, expansion, free agency, or modernizing their management structure, each winning team and each era had its own version of Moneyball, where front office decisions often made the difference. Mark L. Armour and Daniel R. Levitt show how these teams succeeded and how they relied on talent both on the field and in the front office. While there is no recipe for guaranteed success in a competitive, ever-changing environment, these teams demonstrate how creatively thinking about one’s circumstances can often lead to a competitive advantage.
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About the Author
Mark L. Armour is the author of Joe Cronin: A Life in Baseball, the editor of The Great Eight: The 1975 Cincinnati Reds, and a coeditor of Pitching, Defense, and Three-Run Homers: The 1970 Baltimore Orioles, all available from the University of Nebraska Press. Winner of the 2015 Bob Davids Award from the Society of American Baseball Research, Daniel R. Levitt is the author of Ed Barrow: The Bulldog Who Built the Yankees’ First Dynasty (Nebraska, 2008) and The Battle that Forged Modern Baseball: The Federal League Challenge and Its Legacy. He is the coauthor (with Mark L. Armour) of Paths to Glory: How Great Baseball Teams Got That Way.
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In Pursuit of Pennants
Baseball Operations from Deadball to Moneyball
By Mark L. Armour, Daniel R. Levitt
UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESSCopyright © 2015 Mark L. Armour and Daniel R. Levitt
All rights reserved.
A survey of veteran baseball historians to determine the game's greatest talent evaluator would likely result in numerous mentions of Branch Rickey. Bob Quinn, who knew Rickey for fifty years and was an excellent judge of talent himself, thought Rickey might have suggested another candidate. "I'd say that Rickey's greatest ability was his tremendous judgment of players," Quinn recalled to historian Lee Allen. "In this, he patterned himself after Barney Dreyfuss, the owner of the Pirates. He often told me that Dreyfuss was the best judge of players he had ever seen."
When Quinn spoke these words Dreyfuss had been dead for almost forty years and was nearly forgotten except by a few baseball historians. He had never been a scout, farm director, player-development coordinator, or general manager—none of those jobs, as we know them today, yet existed when he started in management. Unlike Rickey, Dreyfuss had never seriously played the game. He did not see his first baseball game until he was an adult. He obviously did not own a computer or a cell phone. In his early years he had to travel by train to see potential players. He did not have an organization of people to whom he could delegate work—if something needed to be done, Dreyfuss did it himself. He relied on friends and contacts throughout the country, a few newspaper subscriptions, an ever-present notebook in which he recorded everything he learned, a brilliant business sense, a large capacity for work, a superior intellect, and as keen an eye for spotting baseball players as the game has ever seen. Armed with all of this, he built the Pirates into one of history's greatest teams and was one of the most powerful men in the sport for more than thirty years.
Before baseball teams employed people we now call "general managers," major personnel decisions were made either by a team executive—typically the team president with an ownership stake—or by the field manager. Baseball front offices were little more than one executive with a minimal staff to help oversee the financial accounting and the necessary back-office functions such as arranging travel and managing ticket sales. Farm systems did not yet exist. Teams typically landed young talent by purchasing or drafting players from independent Minor League teams. Dreyfuss proved to be a master in this environment.
Barney Dreyfuss's journey toward baseball began in 1882 when the seventeen-year-old emigrated from Freiburg, Germany, to Paducah, Kentucky, to live and work with relatives who operated the Bernheim Distillery, a maker of fine whiskey. Later described by sportswriter Fred Lieb as "a little energetic man of 125 pounds," Dreyfuss spoke with a heavy German accent throughout his life. In Paducah he began as a barrel washer before becoming a bookkeeper, a skill he had learned in school in Germany. Within a few months he became credit manager, maintaining a grueling schedule, working long days and learning English at night.
Dreyfuss soon took a liking to the odd American sport of baseball, playing the game for recreation and ultimately organizing his own teams, using workers at the distillery and, later, local semipro players. When Bernheim moved its company headquarters to Louisville in 1888, Dreyfuss relocated and soon convinced his relatives to join him in investing in the local Louisville Colonels of the (Major League) American Association. By 1890 the twenty-five-year-old Dreyfuss served on the team's board of directors as treasurer.
The Colonels had been a mediocre team in the association for several years, but in the chaotic 1890 season (when the rebel Players League took most of the best players from both the American Association and the National League [NL]), the Colonels won their only pennant. When the Players League folded after that single season, the Colonels returned to their losing ways. Dreyfuss continued to increase his holdings in the team and soon was named secretary-treasurer. The management of the Louisville club was fluid in the 1890s, and at a time when buying into baseball franchises was still open to men of more modest means, Dreyfuss became the largest stockholder and gained further control. Because he still held a full-time job with Bernheim,often traveling overseas for the company, his hands-on role with the Colonels was limited by his own schedule.
Dreyfuss had been an avid fan of the game for many years and later told a writer that he had a complete run of the Sporting Life, a Philadelphia-based weekly devoted mainly to baseball, going back to the mid-1880s. Once he got involved with the Colonels, he was not just reading the articles for pleasure, but using them to learn about the players. He devoured this publication, as well as the Sporting News, a rival newspaper published in St. Louis. In the days before teams had full-time scouts, Dreyfuss wrote everything in a dope book, which he carried with him everywhere.
Dreyfuss would develop a genius for finding ballplayers, but he also built a proto-organization. As opposed to a staff of scouts such a club might have today, Dreyfuss made and kept contacts throughout the country—former Louisville players who were now coaching in the Minor Leagues or newspapermen he had met during his travels. He communicated with these people regularly, via letter or telegraph, and supplemented the knowledge in his dope book. If one of the baseball papers was touting a Minor League player, or if Dreyfuss got a tip from someone in his network of baseball people, he often decided to look the player over. Dreyfuss usually worked at the distillery during the week, leaving the weekend for his baseball travels. If the occasion warranted, he might schedule a midweek business trip in conjunction with his scouting mission. And he had a prodigious memory. "At any time," recalled his longtime manager Fred Clarke, "he could quote current hitting averages without looking them up."
Beginning in 1892, when four teams from the American Association were absorbed by the National League, and continuing for eight seasons, the "major leagues" consisted of a single twelve-team league, often called the "Big League." The 1890s were a historically crucial period in the development of the game. Most important, in 1893 the NLestablished the pitching rubber, raised it up on a mound, and placed it sixty feet and six inches from home plate; following many years of experimentation, this pitching distance took hold and has remained ever since. In addition, many innovative teams and players began playing "scientific baseball," leading to more stolen bases, bunts, hit-and-runs, and other innovations that came to define the game for the next thirty years.
Off the field, however, the game was in disarray. The league owners—who came to be called "magnates"—now had a monopoly and no longer needed to concern themselves with the interests of the players or the league as a whole. Under the ineffectual leadership of league president Nick Young, the owners broke into factions, wrangling for the benefit of their narrow interests. New York owner Andrew Freedman, the wealthiest and most despised owner in baseball, worked his own agenda for his personal benefit; large-market owners Arthur Soden (Boston), John I. Rogers (Philadelphia), and James Hart (Chicago) schemed to take advantage of the lesser capitalized franchises; the smaller-market teams, led by John Brush (Cincinnati), survived by banding together to force an even split of gate receipts. This delicate balance of power would not hold up for long.
One thing all the owners could agree on: the players made too much money. The owners instituted salary caps, tightened their hold on their players' contracts, and codified strict behavioral rules. Salaries plummeted. The league also became grossly imbalanced. Boston and Baltimore won the first seven pennants of the Big League, and the other ten teams generally spent the last three months of each season well out of contention. Upon joining the NL in 1892, Louisville became one of the also-rans and remained so for most of the decade. While Dreyfuss was gradually accumulating stock, his team was not winning many games. But the talent on the team was slowly improving.
Early in the 1894 season, the Sporting Life mentioned a young left fielder playing for the Savannah Modocs of the Southern Association: "Fred Clarke is playing a phenomenal game, both in the field and at the bat." This one sentence was buried in a story about the Savannah club, but it is likely that Dreyfuss read this and made a note in his dope book, probably adding to what he already knew about Clarke. As a teenager Clarke, from Winterset, Iowa, had played on an amateur team managed by Ed Barrow, near the start of Barrow's long and distinguished career. Clarke had then begun his professional career in 1893 with St. Joseph (Missouri) of the Western Association and was hitting .346 in twenty games when the league folded. He next hooked up with the Montgomery (Alabama) club of the Southern Association, hitting .306 over thirty-five games to close out the season, and then moved on to Savannah the next spring. Not long after, Dreyfuss arranged a business trip to Memphis when Savannah was playing there.
Dreyfuss later recalled the journey. "A young, thin, rawboned little fellow was playing left field for Savannah; going after everything in sight and hitting the Memphis pitcher out of the lot." When the Savannah catcher became ill, Clarke donned the equipment and took over, showing himself to be both the toughest and the most talented player on the club. According to a later account by Lieb, Savannah manager John McCloskey informed Dreyfuss that his team was broke and ready to disband and that McCloskey did not even have enough money for train fare to get his team back to Savannah. Dreyfuss offered McCloskey two hundred dollars—enough to get his team home—in exchange for Clarke's contract. What we know for sure is that Dreyfuss purchased Clarke, and the twenty-one-year-old entered the Colonels' lineup immediately. In his first game Clarke had four singles and a triple. After the season a grateful Dreyfuss hired McCloskey as Louisville's manager.
Clarke soon became the best all-around player on the Colonels: an excellent hitter, a fine left fielder, and a ferocious base runner, one of the fiercest competitors of his era. Fred Lieb later recounted in Clarke's obituary: "With the possible exception of [Ty] Cobb and John McGraw, baseball never knew a sturdier competitor than Clarke." Indeed, Clarke was often engaged in physical encounters on the field. The 1894 Colonels were a bad team (finishing fifty-four games behind the Orioles) and, except for Clarke, a team filled with disappointing veterans with no future.
Clarke later admitted that he developed some bad habits hanging around with some of his teammates early in his career. "Barney Dreyfuss recognized it too," he recalled, "and he called me into his office. He didn't lecture me, he merely said: 'Fred, you know if a man goes into any kind of business and neglects it, it will surely go the dogs.'" Dreyfuss walked out of the office, leaving Clarke to ponder what he had said. The next day Clarke returned and vowed to right the ship. "I do not think any employer ever gave a young player better counsel," he remembered.
Clarke hit .325 and .347 with extra-base power and great base running in his first two full seasons, but the Colonels finished last twice more. They briefly added a second promising youngster in 1895 when the Boston Beaneaters loaned them outfielder Jimmy Collins after he had begun his first season hitting .211 in eleven games. McCloskey turned him into a third baseman, and he became a great one—soon one of the best in the game. Unfortunately for Louisville, after the season Boston asked for Collins back and withstood Dreyfuss's repeated attempts to gain his rights. Boston was willing to let Collins go only in exchange for Clarke, an offer Dreyfuss rebuffed. At the league meeting that December, Louisville was besieged with other offers for Clarke, including a seven-thousand-dollar bid from the New York Giants.
After yet another last-place finish in 1896, Louisville started the next season 17-24 when Dreyfuss decided to jettison his latest manager, Jim Rogers. The problem with Rogers was not his managing—it was that he was hitting .144 in 153 at bats. During an era when most teams used playing managers to save money, Dreyfuss did not want to pay a manager to sit on the bench, so Rogers was released. Surprising most everyone, he hired the twenty-four-year-old Clarke to take Rogers's place. Clarke responded to his new authority by hitting .390 with fifty-nine steals as Louisville posted a 52-78 record. At the time he took the reins, Clarke was the only good offensive player on the team other than thirty-five-year-old first baseman Perry Werden. The situation soon improved considerably.
The closest thing Dreyfuss had to a coworker with the Colonels was Harry Pulliam, a reporter and city editor for the Louisville Courier who had also served as secretary of the American Association in its waning days. In the early 1890s Pulliam became the business manager for the Colonels, working, like Dreyfuss, on a part-time basis, but by 1895 he had left his newspaper and become a full-time employee of the team. Two decades later a writer would say, "Harry Pulliam might be called the first of all Scouts." It would be more accurate to say that everyone actively associated with a ball club—a group that generally numbered no more than a handful in addition to the owner and manager—performed scouting duties when time allowed, and Pulliam and Dreyfuss spent most of their free time during the season looking for players. As it happened, Pulliam garnered everlasting fame for his role in landing one of the best prospects any scout ever landed, though it took a fair bit of serendipity.
Honus Wagner grew up just outside of Pittsburgh and played for several Minor League teams before signing with Ed Barrow's Atlantic League club in Paterson, New Jersey. Wagner was a large, awkward-looking man who did not seem to have a position but hit .313 for Barrow in 1896. He returned the next season and hit even better. One of his opponents took special notice: Claude McFarlan, a pitcher-outfielder who lived in Louisville but played for Norfolk. After watching Wagner go eight for twenty-one with two home runs and two triples in the season's first few weeks, McFarlan wrote to Pulliam, who ignored the letter.
McFarlan persisted, tracking down Pulliam in early June when Norfolk was playing in Newark and the Colonels were in New York. Ten years later Pulliam told the story at a banquet. "Fifteen years ago, down in my old home, I did a favor to a good fellow who was in hard luck," Pulliam related. "He never forgot my kindness, which was very small.... For three nights the man I referred to visited the old baseball headquarters in New York, the Stuyvesant House, in order to see me. Two nights he missed me, but on the third he remained at the hotel until I returned, a very tired young man. He said, 'You did me a good turn one time, and I am going to do you a good turn, for I have the greatest ball player in America for you in Paterson, and his name is Hans Wagner. The beauty of this man is that not only can he play ball, but he has the best disposition of any fellow you ever knew.'"
Suitably impressed, the next day Pulliam went to see Wagner for himself, and both Clarke (soon to be named manager) and Dreyfuss joined Pulliam over the next few days. Pulliam began negotiations with Barrow that dragged on for several weeks, with other teams joining the bidding. Wagner helped Barrow's cause considerably on July 11, when he hit three home runs, a triple, and a double in a win over Norfolk. Pulliam pressed his case. "I told [Barrow] of the struggle we were having in Louisville to get on our feet and begged him to let me have the man," said Pulliam. "My efforts were successful, and he sold me the release of Wagner for $2,000 [sic]. I drew a draft on the Louisville club immediately for that sum, which I had my doubts was in the treasury, and wired Barney Dreyfuss, the moneyed man of our concern." In fact, before selling Wagner to Pulliam, Barrow contacted the Pittsburgh Pirates, to whom he had earlier promised the first shot at his star. After hearing this Pulliam pleaded for more time and wired Dreyfuss for permission to up his bid. Dreyfuss agreed, and when the Pirates failed to counter, Dreyfuss and Pulliam landed their star for twenty-one hundred dollars. Wagner, hitting .375 for Paterson, stepped right into the Colonels' lineup on July 19.
Wagner still had no position, but his .335 average over the rest of the season ensured that Clarke would keep him in the lineup. Wagner played mostly center field in 1897, first and third base in 1898, right field and third base in 1899, and right field in 1900. In fact, Clarke was often criticized for not finding a permanent place for Wagner, especially when Honus went into a (rare) batting slump. But wherever he played, Wagner was a star and with Clarke gave the Colonels two of the National League's best players as the team slowly gained respectability.
Excerpted from In Pursuit of Pennants by Mark L. Armour, Daniel R. Levitt. Copyright © 2015 Mark L. Armour and Daniel R. Levitt. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of ContentsList of Illustrations
List of Tables
List of Charts
Part 1. Professional Management
2. Field Manager
3. General Manager
5. Farm System
Part 2. General Manager Ascendant
7. Dodger Way
11. Excellence Rewarded
12. Amateur Draft
13. The Machine
Part 3. New Order
14. Long Road Back
16. Free Agency
17. The Zoo
18. Many Rivers
Part 4. Businessmen
19. Winning Now
22. Modern Game