What Is Supposed to Happen at the Winter Meetings?

A nice way to start off a century: baseball wars.

On the first day of the new century — January 1, 1900 — not much actually happened. Perhaps because of the solemnity of the first new century that most people then alive had lived to see, a look into what happened on that historic milepost turns up little. This surprised me, though upon further consideration, maybe it shouldn’t have. I’ve found that the first day of the new year often ends up being something of a comedown — a contemplative, fatigued chaser to the delirious rush of New Year’s Eve.

Still, one would expect something more to mark the beginning of the next 100 years of human history than a few newspaper headlines documenting the most notable celebrations of the night before. But that was what constitutes most of the news items one can find sifting through online archives: salutations and well-wishes, illustrations featuring trumpets sounding, injunctions to go out with the old and in with the new.

Amid all of these good-natured, mild-mannered new year’s greetings, though, one can find a rather more contentious headline. On the pages of the Buffalo Express, bold text proclaimed, “DECLARE WAR!”

And though the 20th century would indeed come to be defined by global conflicts of heretofore unprecedented brutality, this declaration of war was nothing to do with assassinated archdukes or the rise of fascism. It was referring to a winter gathering of baseball executives — a “secret conference” held among the executives of what had been known as the Western League, a successful minor league that was beginning to entertain thoughts of challenging the National League as a rival major league, breaking the 1896 agreement they had made to coexist. Under the leadership of Ban Johnson and Charles Comiskey, the powers that were of the Western League gathered at year’s end in Chicago’s Great Northern Hotel to plot their moves for the coming year — and, it followed, for the next century of their league.

The meeting was held in the utmost confidence, with the attendees not leaving their names at the hotel register for fear of discovery, and for eight solid hours, the “magnates” conferred, not leaving the room even to seek meals. (Clearly, their secrecy didn’t stop enterprising journalists from breaking the news that the meeting had occurred.) And in that hotel room, a decision was reached: The Western League was to become the American League of Professional Baseball Clubs. And the newly-named American League was coming for the National League’s crown. It would expand into Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and St. Louis — the National League’s territory. It was, as the papers reported it, a full-on invasion.

After the meeting, Johnson gave this vague, portentous statement to the curious members of the press gathered outside:

“I would like to give out the details of our plan, but you can expect a definite announcement soon. We did not intend to give out anything at all, but I can say this much, that we have decided to break with the National League and throw up the national agreement. As for our new circuit — well, we will go east.”

For the next few days, baseball news was abuzz with news of the secret summit, the planned attack, the presumptuous desire for ascension to major-league status. The Kansas City Independent‘s “Baseball Notes” column described the decision to break from the national agreement “sheer madness” with assured “fatal consequences” for the American League; the Pittsburgh Press declared the move a “queer baseball yarn.” There was also some confusion about what, exactly, had occurred: On January 3, the Buffalo Evening News reported that the impending baseball war had been nothing but a fabrication. It delivered this shockingly prescient paragraph:

The baseball pipe is certainly being smoked to death by the dreamers these days. Ban Johnson has now branded as pure fiction the statement sent out that the American League was going to make war against the National League. The baseball news sharks will kill the game themselves if they don’t watch out. The public is already tired of the wrangling and want to be let alone during the winter. The baseball season is long enough for all the scraps and news there are in it. The sport deserves a rest in the winter.

But regardless of the feelings of the public, regardless of the conflicting reports, and despite the fact that the number of people involved in the actual conference could be counted on one’s fingers, that turn-of-the-century meeting of the Western League bigwigs turned out to be a turning point in the history of major league baseball. The American League would indeed go on to become a major league in 1901; the rest, as they say, is history. And it all hinged around that one clandestine meeting — a group of men shuttered in a hotel room in the dead of winter.

***

It is impossible for us to know whether Ban Johnson and Charles Comiskey knew if that first meeting would inspire a century-spanning annual tradition. It is equally impossible to know what, if they did indeed think that far ahead into the future, they might have imagined a Baseball Winter Meeting in 2019 would look like. But as I stood at the crossing for the San Diego Green Line, watching a series of young men in dubiously-fitting suits zip down the street on e-scooters, I felt fairly confident in assuming they wouldn’t have imagined it to look anything like this.

Where the winter meeting of 1899 was a shadowy affair held among a small, exclusive enclave of powerful men, the Baseball Winter Meetings™ are a circus. Thousands of people descend on whatever city will host the year’s festivity — this year, San Diego; last year, Las Vegas; sometimes Nashville, sometimes Orlando — for widely varying purposes. There are the team executives and agents, looking to make deals; free agent players, looking for their next job; beat reporters, obligated to cover the dealings of their respective teams, and national writers, covering the spectacle writ large; and masses of dreamers, looking to pursue their dream careers in baseball.

I’d never been before this year, and as someone whose own role there was undefined, I was unsure of what to expect. I found myself mostly taken aback by the scale of it all: the huge hotel blocked out for the purposes of the meetings, the convention center entirely taken up by the trade show. Even just walking around the Gaslamp Quarter, grabbing a taco or ducking into a bar for a quick drink, I would find myself surrounded by baseball people. It was undoubtedly quite a spectacle.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

But I found myself wondering, as the days went by, why exactly all of this needed to happen. The number of hours spent awake, the amount of alcohol consumed, the unconscionable dollar amounts that were being bandied about over the course of just a few days — everywhere you looked, an incredible amount of excess. And excess not obviously for the benefit of the fan, of any of the millions around the world whose sustained interest keeps major league baseball profitable. It was an excess limited to certain people, people who had registered their applications and wore their badges, who could take the time and money to fly out to San Diego for a few days and subsist off nothing but overpriced cocktails. In the age of the internet, trades and signings don’t need to happen when all relevant parties are in the same hotel; jobs can be applied for and offered remotely. All the pageantry must serve some other purpose.

***

After a new National Agreement was signed in 1903, wherein the National League and American League officially entered into a major-league-to-major-league relationship, the mid-winter meetings of the two major leagues became a well-known annual event. For the first few decades of their existence, they generally followed the same familiar patterns. There would be closed-door meetings in hotel rooms; there would be reporters huddled outside those doors, trying to note the volume of conversation and pick up any information that might trickle out. There would be inevitable whispers of some executive or other scheming to overthrow Ban Johnson, and talks of which teams were angling for which kind of player to be traded. The executives would try to negotiate around the latest grievances of the players’ fraternity. Pipes were used as a metaphor puzzlingly often. National rules would be argued about, changed, or have proposed changes postponed.

And, of course, the primary force driving all negotiations, all of the intermingling whispers, was money — large sums of money, changing hands from executive to executive. Here’s the Pittsburgh Daily Post reporting on the winter meetings of 1919:

The game has gone along for years by itself, operating under its own peculiar and sometimes irregular rules, but affording protection for both its franchise-holders and its players. It has made an effort to conduct its own laundry and much dirty linen has been washed out this way. But the almighty dollar has been steadily blocking the progress of the sport and blinding the eyes of many magnates.

The problem of money was of particularly pressing concern after the 1927 season, when the Murderers’ Row Yankees laid waste to every other team. The question, widely posed, was “how to battle the Yanks.” The answer was arrived at rather quickly:  “Baseball quid.” And there was a lot of baseball quid to go around. At this point, baseball’s status as the national sport was cemented. The business was booming, and teams had the cash to combat the looming Yankee problem. And, in a change from all past winter meetings, there were no longer any Ban Johnson-related insurrections. Johnson had been forced to resign due to his irreconcilable differences with commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis.

All the hubbub, then, resulted in little in the way of actual drama. As the Honolulu Advertiser wrote: “It looks like the same old story this year, lots of smoke but very little fire.”

***

If you wake up one day and find yourself to have somehow become part of the media, it becomes hard to gauge the engagement of casual baseball fans with any given event in the baseball world. Before I started writing, I thought about the winter meetings only to the extent that my team was going to be doing anything of interest. Other than the increased possibility of the Blue Jays signing someone, the days in December during which the game’s brightest congregated in their hotel rooms felt no different than any other day in December. Now, inundated with industry discussion, the meetings seem like a bigger event than Christmas. I don’t know, then, whether the assertion of that sportswriter in 1900 — the idea that fans would be happier if baseball were allowed a winter rest — has held true. Perhaps it never was.

In 1959, a rule was introduced that added some legitimately high stakes to the meetings: an interleague non-waiver trading period, lasting from mid-November to mid-December. This imbued the proceedings with an energy more akin to those of the mid-summer trade deadlines that we know so well. In 1970, that period extended back to five days after the World Series ended; in 1986, interleague trade restrictions were nixed entirely, removing that particular narrative arc from all future meetings.

It’s interesting, looking back on the history of the meetings, how few of the crises that have afflicted the sport throughout its history have come to a head during the meetings. The first Collective Bargaining Agreement, whose negotiations were led by the now Hall-bound Marvin Miller, was ratified in the spring; most significant labor actions in the history of baseball, as a matter of fact, seem to have taken place not in the lull of winter, but well into the spring. If one reads rundowns of the history of the meetings, almost all have to do with blockbuster trades and bombshell deals, Bill Veeck’s shenanigans and a guy falling into a fountain.

The top minds of the game gathering in one place, sitting down and facing each other to solve baseball’s problems — that’s not what this is about. That’s not how the legend of the meetings is constructed. It’s about the concentration of power, the abundance of money, the glamor of a luxury hotel gathering. The crowds of press, waiting for the latest, biggest scoops, bringing the secrets out to the wider world. The tradition of it all. And while the tales have always abounded of the attempted mutinies taking place out of sight from prying eyes, while the questions about steroids and juiced balls have to be answered, the front-facing images are usually the same: all smiles, all good times. Baseball is a game, after all. Aren’t we supposed to be having fun?

Associated Press, December 10, 1986.

***

In an auspicious turn for a first-time attendee, this year’s meetings turned out to be eventful. The three biggest free agents signed on three consecutive days for record-breaking deals — exactly the kind of drama people are always looking for. Dinners were fled in order to write up-to-the-minute reactions; late nights were spent collecting reactions and typing out stories. The portion of San Diego overtaken by baseball people was abuzz with excited chatter. Everyone was talking to everyone else. This was what we were all here for.

Under the last full moon of the decade, the Bayfront gleamed. The lights kept the sky lit until morning.

References & Resources

  • Balinger, Edward F. “Major League Swaps Expected Before Opening of New Season.” Pittsburgh Daily Post, December 16, 1923.
  • Balinger, Edward F. “Baseball Progress Slightly Held Up By Petty Quarrel.” Pittsburgh Daily Post, December 14, 1919.
  • “Baseball ‘Pipe.'” Buffalo Evening News, January 3, 1900.
  • “Base Ball Topics: Current News and Notes of the Game.” The Independent (Hutchinson), January 3, 1900.
  • “Declare War! Secret Conference Held of a Majority of the American Baseball League Magnates.” Buffalo Morning Express, January 1, 1900.
  • “How To Battle Yanks Will Be Baseball Quid.” United Press, October 27, 1927.
  • “Minor ‘Mags’ Convene: Winter Baseball Meeting Begins in New Orleans Today.” The Topeka State Journal, November 14, 1916.
  • Peet, William. “Winter Baseball Meetings Over–No Real Trades.” The Honolulu Advertiser, December 14, 1927.
  • “Queer Baseball Yarn: American League Talks of Invading National’s Territory.” The Pittsburgh Press, January 2, 1900.


Rachael is the current managing editor of The Hardball Times and dilettante-in-residence at FanGraphs. Previous work can be found at Baseball Prospectus, VICE Sports, and The Hardball Times.
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lostatlimbo
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lostatlimbo

Fantastic article. Well done!

Nicholas
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Nicholas

Awesome research, well done!