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Interleague Play Discussions
at Baseball’s Winter Meetings

Rob Neyer begins his series on Winter Meetings with a look at interleague play. Although Commissioner Bud Selig instituted interleague play in 1997, the concept was nearly 100 years old, with a long history of offseason discussions.

By Rob Neyer, December 4, 2017

In 1905 Garry Herrmann was instrumental in establishing the World Series as it is today played between the National League and American League.
Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Catalog

 

When you study the business machinations and the franchise-shaking transactions and the rule changes that have characterized baseball’s various Winter Meetings since (at least) early in the last century, one small benefit is discovering rules that weren’t changed, proposals that weren’t adopted.

Not immediately, anyway. Another benefit of historical research is the nearly constant reminder that—well, to quote a certain best-selling book—The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.

Perhaps there’s no better example in baseball history than interleague play, which first came to the Major Leagues in 1997, largely at the behest of Commissioner Bud Selig . . . and wholly 93 years after the first serious proposal.

Back in 1901, the American League first established itself as a “major” league, but the first “World Series” pitting the AL champs against their National League counterparts wasn’t played until 1903—with the Boston Americans topping the Pittsburgh Pirates, 5 games to 3—thanks in part to Cincinnati Reds owner Garry Herrmann, who preached peace between the two heretofore largely adversarial leagues.

Herrmann was so highly regarded by his fellow owners that when a National Commission was formed, consisting of the two leagues’ presidents and one franchise president acceptable to all parties, Herrmann was chosen for the latter role. And in a testament to his diplomatic skills, Herrmann remained chairman of the National Commission until that body was laid to rest in 1920.

But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. Less than a year after assuming his position as chairman, Herrmann made a radical proposal.

The World Series in 1903 had officially been an exhibition, not sanctioned as a championship series by the two leagues. In 1904, John McGraw’s first-place New York Giants simply refused to play against Boston, champs again in the American League.

But that winter, Herrmann doubled down on the idea of comity, proposing a “round-robin series involving all clubs of both leagues.” The owners of the other 15 Major League clubs were reportedly unanimously opposed to interleague games during the regular season, but Herrmann then played a large role in convincing his colleagues to approve an “official” World Series, beginning in 1905.

That was hardly the end of the interleague ideas. In 1910, Herrmann went to the well again, this time proposing cutting the league schedules from 154 games to 112, followed by interleague games; much like his 1904 proposal, this scheme “was not taken seriously.” Nevertheless, interleague play remained one of Herrmann’s favorite hobbyhorses, and he would routinely float new plans during offseason meetings.

Herrmann was hardly alone. Throughout the 1930s, various baseball executives promoted interleague play, but they were shouted down by their colleagues. In both 1954 and ’56, Cleveland Indians General Manager Hank Greenberg formally proposed interleague games; both times, there was virtually no support.

Hank Greenberg, Baseball Hall of Famer, was a supporter of interleague games. Greenberg played 13 seasons before taking on General Manager duties for the Cleveland Indians.

This story would continue for another few decades. Even with baseball in the relative doldrums in the 1970s, largely because the less-doldrummy National League had little interest in supporting the Junior Circuit. Ultimately, it took the frightening finances and the lost postseason of the mid-1990s for Commissioner Selig to shake loose enough support in both leagues for regular-season interleague games. And now, for better or (as some might reasonably argue) worse, we’ve got them every day. Garry Herrmann was simply ahead of his time. Way, way ahead of his time.

Speaking of which, during the Winter Meetings after the run-starved 1906 season, which saw a team called “The Hitless Wonders” win the World Series, National League President Harry Pulliam recommended the elimination of the pitcher’s mound completely. Of course, his proposal was rejected. But 62 years later, in the wake of The Year of the Pitcher, the mound was lowered from 15 inches to 10. This had the desired effect, with hitting jumping from 1968 to ’69.

In 1909, “there was much talk about banning both the spiked shoe and the spitball.” Spiked shoes were discussed because players were routinely suffering serious gashes, and spitballs because the pitchers continued to have the upper hand in the Majors. Spikes, of course, would remain in the game for a long while yet. But the spitball and other doctored pitches would finally be banned, officially at least, in 1920.

In 1912—and probably before 1912, and certainly after 1912—there were widespread complaints about the length of games, and so the American League “directed owners and managers to work together to shorten the length of games.” And so it ever was, etc.

Shortly after the 1918 season—because of political issues we can hardly explore here—Red Sox owner Harry Frazee and (outgoing) Giants owner Harry Hempstead recruited former President Howard Taft to serve as “supreme head of baseball,” thus abolishing the National Commission and neutering American League President Ban Johnson (which was the primary goal of the maneuver). Taft had been the first U.S. president to throw out a ceremonial first pitch on Opening Day, and his younger brother had once owned the Phillies and (briefly) the Cubs.

But while there was some support for Taft, a) he didn’t want the job, and b) Frazee and Hempstead didn’t have the authority to offer it to him.

Two years later, though? In the wake of the Black Sox Scandal the time was right, and the owners hired a federal judge, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, to assume the office of commissioner; he would retain the position until his death in 1944.

Finally, here’s my favorite example of the past predicting the future. Perhaps the single most radical new on-the-field rule that we’ve seen in recent years is the one allowing a manager to order an intentional walk without the pitcher actually throwing a single pitch. Let alone four.

Of course, this is in the interest of improving the game’s “pace of play,” which of course has been considered an issue in the Majors for longer than anyone in America’s been alive. Literally.

So it should hardly be surprising that in the winter of 1939, Yankees General Manager (and future Hall of Famer) Ed Barrow, hardly anyone’s idea of a radical thinker, “proposed a rule to allow a pitcher to notify the umpire that he wanted to intentionally walk a batter and eliminate the formality of throwing four wide pitches. Barrow’s proposal was tabled.”

Ed Barrow spent 25 years in the front office for the New York Yankees building one of the greatest teams. During his tenure the Yankees won 14 Pennants and 10 World Series Championships.

For almost 80 years, anyway. Now it’s just another thing in baseball.

If you want to know what’s going to happen in baseball next, you can do a lot worse than zip through a list of things baseball people thought were good ideas, but for various reasons couldn’t make happen. Because there’s always a chance.

Or as football hall of famer (and cup-of-coffee Major Leaguer) George Halas once said, “Show me something new, and I’ll show you something old.”

 

The primary source for this article was Baseball’s Business: The Winter Meetings, Volume 1, 1901-1957, published in 2016 by the Society for American Baseball Research.

 

 

 

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