How a Red Sox Trade Nearly Broke the American League

Steven GoldmanMLB Lead BloggerApril 11, 2012

The tarp-ified Oakland Coliseum: legal action not impossible. (wikipedia)
The tarp-ified Oakland Coliseum: legal action not impossible. (wikipedia)

High Heat Stats reminds us that 96 years ago tomorrow, the Red Sox traded future Hall of Famer Tris Speaker to the Cleveland Indians after a combination holdout and clubhouse dispute:

Speaker had led the Red Sox to World Series triumphs in 2 of the past 4 seasons. But, despite winning, the Boston clubhouse was a rancorous place. Speaker, by all accounts a most unpleasant individual, was a brawler both on and off the field, and even (or especially) in his own clubhouse. Speaker apparently had particular animus towards the Catholic faith (hardly ideal in Irish Catholic Boston), creating something of a Catholic-Protestant schism in the Red Sox locker room.

Speaker was a great player, but at least as a young man was not at the same level as a human being. He was purportedly a member of the Ku Klux Klan, not particularly surprising given the KKK’s revival as a mainstream political movement in the 1920s (it was especially popular not in the South, but in the state of Indiana). On the other hand, later in life, Speaker worked closely with Larry Doby, the first African-American player in the American League, coaching him in his transition from second base to center field. Maybe he learned something, or perhaps he only swallowed his racism for a paycheck. We will never know.

More interesting from our perspective today is how the deal almost broke the American League in two. When Jacob Ruppert and Tillinghast L’Hommedieu Huston (“The Two Colonels”) bought the struggling Yankees in 1915, they had been promised by AL founder and president Ban Johnson that they would have some good players shuffled their way—Johnson wanted to solidify the AL’s place in New York, where the Yankees were the second team behind the Giants, and Ruppert and Huston wanted to make money.

Speaker was sent to the Indians for what was a very light price, and the Yankees didn’t get a chance to make a bid. Even more bothersome was the appearance of self-dealing by Johnson, who had a financial interest in the Cleveland club. This soured the Colonels against Johnson, and a few years later, when Johnson vetoed the trade of club-jumping BoSox pitcher Carl Mays to New York, the league fractured.

Mays had vowed never to pitch for the Red Sox again, and Johnson was more intent on punishing him than solving Boston’s problem by letting him leave. The trade, for two players and cash, was vetoed. The Colonels went to court. Three teams said they would side with Johnson and refuse to play the Yankees. The Red Sox and White Sox sided with the Colonels—and so did the courts. The Yankees got injunctions that forced through the Mays trade and required the league to complete its schedule.

The Black Sox scandal made things hotter for Johnson, and that Speaker, as player-manager, led the Cleveland to the 1920 pennant (and eventual championship) by a mere three games over New York didn’t help soothe feelings. Johnson would soon yield his authority to the first Commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis.

The Mays deal was not the last between the Yankees and the Red Sox: Babe Ruth was coming. The sought-after New York dynasty was established with Mays and the Bambino helping (how the Yankees got sick of Mays is another long story), and Johnson is more or less forgotten today. However, legal struggles between the club owners and those running the game are not new, are in fact as old as the game, and from the McCourt saga to the final destination of the for-now Oakland A’s, go on to this day.

Not that I’m saying that the A’s will sue to get out of Oakland, but, you know, they just might. Let’s hope the fallout is half as devastating.