The term fire sale derives from the 1800s. When most everything was made of wood, fires often swept through business districts quickly.
Supposedly damaged goods were placed on sale to acquire monies needed to repair the damage caused by the fire. In baseball terms, the past thirty years has seen an uptick in the fortuitous nature of such deals. Teams often use July and August to assess their chances of reaching the post season. According to Baseball Reference, a fire sale happens when,
“a team dumps payroll by trading away many or all of its expensive players in return for marginal players or prospects. This is usually done when a team feels that it is in a financial crunch, or that it has gone as far as it can with the current group of players and wants to start over with cheaper younger players.”
This year, the Cubs, Astros, and just today, the Boston Red Sox, emptied their rosters of higher priced veterans and began rebuilding their rosters with prospects and a few veterans.
For the Red Sox, their trade of Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, $12 million, and Nick Punto to the Dodgers for Allen Webster, Ivan DeJesus, Jr., Jerry Sands, James Loney, and Rubby De La Rosa is a staggering megalithic trade. For one, the Red Sox traded players that are still owed $261 million over the life of their future contracts; almost $60 million per year the next two years.
All dollars in millions
If the Dodgers make the playoffs and/or win the series, this will be the turning point. Or, it could do the exact opposite to the franchise. For the Red Sox, they shed half their payroll, rid the clubhouse of possible personality problems, and they can begin rebuilding their pitching staff.
Fire sales are nothing new. The most famous fire sale was back in early 1920 when Boston Red Sox owner Harry Frazee sold the rights to pitcher/outfielder Babe Ruth to raise money for one of his several Broadway productions. Ruth would go on to be the foundation for the Yankees for the next fifteen years, and, arguably, become the greatest player in baseball history.
Starting in the 1970s, fire sales became more prevalent because of three factors.
1. Divisional play increased the number of teams in the playoffs. Eventually the wild card was introduced and even more fire sales took place as teams went in and out of contention quickly.
2. Free agency increased player movement. Originally it was thought the free agent market would balance the competition. Instead, large market teams threw their money around and began buying up talent.
3. Expansion into Seattle and Toronto, and later Arizona, Florida, Tampa Bay, and Colorado, has flooded the market with teams and changed the talent pool. Teams now scour the four corners of the Earth to find players.
In the 1970s, Charlie Finley attempted to sell off his Oakland A’s players after free agency began. The A’s had won three World Series Championships in a row in the early 70s. When Jim Catfish Hunter went to the Yankees in free agency, Finley knew he couldn’t keep all his players. So, he tried to sell them. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn stepped in forbid the direct sale of players. Finley sued. The Circuit Court ruled the following:
“The Commissioner has the authority to determine whether any act, transaction, or practice is not within the best interest of baseball, and upon such determination, to take whatever preventative or remedial action he deems appropriate, whether or not the act, transaction, or practice complies with the Major league Rules or involves moral turpitude.”
Finley proceeded to trade his players one by one. By 1978, the A’s were broken up, and by 1981, Finley was out as owner.
In the mid 1980s, the Cincinnati Reds would go through a dismantling, and the San Diego Padres would do the same in the early 1990s. In the 1990s, after expansion, fire sales became the modus operandi for the Montreal Expos. A declining fan base following the 1994 strike meant that the Expos would not be able to keep some of their young stars including a young Pedro Martinez. The Expos then built teams around young players and would trade players for prospects as they neared free agency .
In 1997, General manager Ron Schueler and the White Sox made one of the most famous fire sale trades ever with the “White Flag Trade.” The trade stunned the baseball world as the White Sox were only 3.5 games out of first place when the trade took place on July 31. It staggered the fan base and baseball as Schueler and owner Jerry Reinsdorf felt the team was not going to contend that August and September. It was if they gave up. The San Francisco Giants received pitchers Wilson Alvarez, Danny Darwin, and Roberto Hernández. In return the White Sox acquired Keith Foulke, Bob Howry, Lorenzo Barceló, Ken Vining, Mike Caruso, and Brian Manning. The Giants made the playoffs but lost to the eventual champion Marlins in the playoffs. The White Sox would not contend again until 2000 when they won the Central Division with Foulke and Howry anchoring the bullpen.
Ironically, the Marlins would win the World Series in 1997. That winter they jettisoned the free agent players used to win the World Series. Six years later, the Marlins would win the championship again only to hold a second fire sale. In recent years, Moneyball has changed the game. Beginning with the A’s, and later the Tampa Bay Rays, developing talent and emphasizing sabermetrical analysis has changed the way teams are built. Late in the 2011 season, Theo Epstein took over as President of Baseball Operations for the Chicago Cubs. Over the course of the last year, Epstein, and General Manager Jed Hoyer, have pared the payroll of the Cubs down from $135 million to under $54 million for 2013, with $18 million going to Alfonso Soriano.
Again, ironically, Boston Red Sox General Manager Ben Cherington has done the same to the Red Sox today. The players were all acquired by Epstein when he was the General Manager in Boston. I don’t think fire sales are done. As teams age quickly along with payroll, fire sales may happen more frequently in hopes that teams can reload quickly. In these last two cases, the shocking aspect is that both teams are large market teams.
This year’s Major League Baseball All-Star Game saw the National League break the American League’s winning streak for the first time since 1996. The hallowed game has seen its share of streaks. In the 1960s and 1970s, the National League won 17 out of 20 with one tie. But the exhibition has changed greatly from the first All-Star Game in 1933. Today, there is the Future’s Game and the Home Run Derby – All part of the All-Star Fan Fest Experience. The first All-Star Game was the experience.
Arch Ward had an idea. As the sports editor of the Chicago Tribune, he wanted an event to go along with Chicago’s Century of Progress Exposition. He somehow managed to convince Judge Landis, the commissioner, to approve of the idea. The fans and the managers originally selected the players for the summer classic. Babe Ruth actually campaigned to be a part of the game. Some people complained about Arch Ward and the game taking place in the midst of the Great Depression. If there was one thing America needed during the depression, it was a diversion. MLB attendance waned a little but did not falter. Along with the movies, Baseball provided a necessary diversion and the All-Star Game was the biggest diversion.
On July 6, 1933, over 49,000 filled Old Comiskey Park (You can tell I live near Chicago if I call it “Old Comiskey”) to see the greatest stars in the game. Baseball was a different game to America back then. The biggest difference was radio. The game on radio captured the imagination of the public. They did not get to see their stars on TV like today’s youth. Stars were bigger than life only limited to a person’s imagination.
In 1933, the league was different too. Only two teams were west of the Mississippi River – The Cardinals and Browns were both in St. Louis. St. Louis also happened to be the farthest south as well. And the league was without color as African-Americans played in a league of their own.
As for the game itself, it actually lived up to the hype as the “Game of the Century.” Babe Ruth cracked a homer in leading the AL to a 4-2 victory over the NL. Despite Jimmie Foxx being the star of the league that year, it was Babe who captured everyone’s attention. Within two years, Babe would retire.
“We wanted to see the Babe. Sure, he was old and had a big waistline, but that didn’t make any difference. We were on the same field as Babe Ruth.” – Wild Bill Hallahan – the pitcher who served up Babe’s Homer
Manager – Connie Mack
Manager John McGraw
The game has been held every year since except 1945. In the late 50s and early 60s, there were two games a year. Major League Baseball could learn about how to put on the game from the first game.
1. Keep it simple
2. Don’t invite everyone on every team
3. Let the stars decide the game
In 1934, Arch Ward created the College All-Star Game. This game saw college football stars from the previous season taking on the NFL championship team. This game lasted through to the 1970s.
In the end, the MLB ALl-Star game has survived for almost 80 years and it was never intended to be more than a one time thing. The fact the game has withstood 80 years and two ties is amazing and a testament to the allure of America’s past time.
Ed. Note – Quote from baseballalmanac.com
When the Great Depression struck, many baseball owners feared the worst. They would have trouble drawing fans. The fans they did draw would have a hard time paying for the extra souvenirs or food concessions. Little did they know, people would still come to the ballpark if only to forget about their own troubles for a while. Attendance would be down in the 1930s but none of the sixteen franchises ever folded or moved as a result of the Great Depression and some of the games’ lasting stars said goodbye while others said hello. New ways of playing emerged, lasting vestiges of the game emerged, and a new era of baseball had begun.
Coming out of the 1920s, baseball began to boom. Newspapers and radio combined to turn the game into a way to forget about your problems for a couple of days. New stadiums had been built and offense was booming. In 1930, both Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig hit over 40 home runs. By the end of the decade, both men would be out of the game. In September of 1939, Gehrig would make his last appearance and give one of the most memorable speeches in all of history.
Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth. I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.
Look at these grand men. Which of you wouldn’t consider it the highlight of his career just to associate with them for even one day? Sure, I’m lucky. Who wouldn’t consider it an honor to have known Jacob Ruppert? Also, the builder of baseball’s greatest empire, Ed Barrow? To have spent six years with that wonderful little fellow, Miller Huggins? Then to have spent the next nine years with that outstanding leader, that smart student of psychology, the best manager in baseball today, Joe McCarthy? Sure, I’m lucky.
When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat, and vice versa, sends you a gift — that’s something. When everybody down to the groundskeepers and those boys in white coats remember you with trophies — that’s something. When you have a wonderful mother-in-law who takes sides with you in squabbles with her own daughter — that’s something. When you have a father and a mother who work all their lives so that you can have an education and build your body
— it’s a blessing. When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed — that’s the finest I know.
So I close in saying that I might have been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for. Thank you.
The game continued to evolve in the 1930s. The Cincinnati Reds brought lights into the game in an effort to get more fans to the game. It was a new way of playing and spread all across the country. It would take 50 years before the Chicago Cubs would add lights. In fact, it was during the 1930s that a young Bill Veeck planted the ivy at Wrigley Field which would become the face of the field and the franchise. It was also in Chicago that Babe Ruth would supposedly call his shot in the 1932 World Series.
The 1930s also saw two immortal aspects of the game arrive. The first being the Baseball Hall of Fame. It would not be until 1939 that the Hall was built, but its first five inductees would be Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson, and Walter Johnson. The 1930s also saw the arrival of the All-Star Game. Originally, played in Comiskey Park in 1933, the managers and the fans selected the players. The game was thought up Chicago Tribune sports editor Arch Ward. The game was to be a part of, and take place simultaneously as, the celebration of Chicago’s Century of Progress Exposition.
The 1930s also saw its fair share of stars on the field too. Aside from Ruth and Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio arrived to roam center field for the Yankees in 1935. Jimmie Foxx dominated the decade at the plate. In 1933, Foxx hit .364 with 58 Home Runs and 168 driven in. He kept this up for most of the decade. In 1938, Foxx hit .349 with 50 Home Runs, and drove in 175. The 1930s also saw the Gas House Gang arrive in St. Louis in 1934 and win the World Series. Led by Dizzy Dean and Leo Durocher, the Cardinals were constant rivals to the Cubs and Giants to win the National League pennant in the 1930s.
Much like the 1920s, the Yankees dominated the second half of the decade. Led by manager Joe McCarthy, the Yankees won four World Series in a row to close out the decade. While Connie Mack and the Philadelphia Athletics started out the decade by winning two AL Pennants in a row, their back to back run of 29-30 came to a close in 1931. The 1930s also saw the introduction of a 17 year old Bob Feller, Lefty Grove, Power Hitters Hank Greenberg and Mel Ott, and a Young Ted Williams arrived in 1939.
The Negro Leagues were in their hey-day in the 1930s. Oscar Charleston, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, and a young Satchel Paige flourished as stars; and even the Negro League’s greatest ambassador, Buck O’Neil, made his debut. Some of the finest baseball ever played was never seen by most of America.Whether it was in league play, barnstorming, or playing exhibition against white teams, the brand of baseball played in the Negro Leagues would not arrive as a unified style until the late 1940s and 1950s.
What Rube Foster was to the 1920s for the Negro Leagues, Gus Greenlee was to the 1930s. He organized the East – West All Star Classic in Comiskey Park. Greenlee’s 1935 Pittsburgh Crawfords may have been the greatest team ever to play the game. The Crawfords boasted five future Hall-of-Famers: Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, Judy Johnson and Oscar Charleston. Contrary to popular opinion it was the Crawfords who dominated this era, not the Homestead Grays. The Crawfords won nine consecutive Negro National League Championships.
But the Negro League’s true star was none other than Satchel Paige. Joe Dimaggio even once said, “After I got that hit off Satchel (Paige), I knew I was ready for the big leagues.” Ted Williams echoed the sentiment when he said, “Satchel was the greatest pitcher in baseball.”
When one looks back at the decade, it is a wonder the game survived in such a harsh economic climate. Thanks to its stars and innovations made in the 1930s, the game lived on. Surviving the war would be another story as most of the great players of the 1930s signed up to serve their country. However, the stars it did have made the 1930s able to stake its claim as the Golden Age of Baseball.
Check out this student made Documentary on the greatness of Satchel.
For Further Reading
Golden Age of Baseball: The 1920s
“Baseball is a habit. The slowly rising crescendo of each game, the rhythm of the long season–these are the essentials and they are remarkably unchanged over nearly a century and a half. Of how many American institutions can that be said?” – George Will 1999
It is rare to find a historian that does not love baseball. Together they are intertwined. The Civil War did more for the game than any television or radio ever could. Letters, journals, and diaries of soldiers detail the spreading of the game from camp to camp and back to towns all across America. As America’s march on history took place, baseball went along with it. During the Spanish-American War, soldiers took baseball to Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the islands of the Caribbean in the following years. Following World War II, occupied Japan got its taste of the great game. Wherever America has gone baseball has been sure to follow. And historians will be there keeping score.
But when we look at the history of the game, it is arguable as to what the greatest age of baseball has been? Was it in the 1920s with the Yankees’ Murderer’s Row? Was it in the 1930s when the Gashouse Gang arrived? Was it the post-war era of the late 1940s and early 1950s? The 1960s before the mound was raised? The 70s dynasties of the Oakland A’s, the Cincinnati Reds, and the re-emergence of the Yankees-Dodgers rivalry? Or was it the steroids era of the late 1990s? Or are we standing in the midst of the greatest age of baseball right now? An argument could be made for all of them. That is one of the great things about baseball. The game is not stagnant. It changes along with America. The dead ball era gave way to home runs which gave way to speed which went back to power and now is back in an era of youth dominated teams in the post steroids era. Over the next few weeks, I will look at the history of the game and make points about what each era has to say about why it is the greatest age.
Two words describe why the 1920s stake a claim to baseball’s golden age – Babe Ruth. The man had stadiums (some could say cathedrals) built to either house his home runs or for him to hit them out. Everything about today’s game goes back to Ruth. The home run became the predominant force of the game, unless you count good pitching. But still, the game revolved around the home run. However, there are other factors which helped to make the game a national passion.
1. Radio – during the 1920s, radios could now be massed produced, and massed produced cheaply. It was the way to get the information about the game. Many families in the Midwest and the Mideast tuned in to hear some of the greats of radio bring the game to life. On a clear night, you could hear games from across the eastern half of the country.
2. Newspapers – during the 1920s, many national newspapers began to have their own sports sections solely devoted the game. While pro football was in its infancy and basketball not even a national or professional sport yet, baseball had the run of the roost in the pages of the newspapers.
3. Stability – by the end of the decade, the teams of the next 30 years were established. Until expansion arrived in the 1960s, the league itself did not change much for over three decades until the Dodgers and Giants moved west.
4. Cork – the ball was now being made with a cork center instead of being wound. This changed the emphasis of the game from pitching and defense to hitting.
5. The Negro Leagues – starting in 1920, the National Negro Leagues provided an opportunity for some of the greatest talent the game has never seen. Rube Foster’s business sense provided a sound foundation for the next 30 years for African-Americans and Latin greats to play in the US.
6. Stadiums – Baseball was coming off its greatest scandal when the decade started. Within ten years, Ruth had transformed the sport in to what we recognize it as today. All but two of the stadiums of that era are gone – Wrigley and Fenway – but the stadiums built would last until the cookie-cutter-AstroTurf fields were built in the 1960s and 1970s. If you ever have played a recent baseball game on XBox or PS3, the previous stadiums were mammoth parks built to hold the ball inside the park. The Polo Grounds and the West Side Grounds (Chicago) were places where fly balls went to die. The 1920s made parks that were still spacious but one could hit one out and Ruth did 714 times. The game as we know it was made by him.
Ruth was not the only star to emerge from the decade. Other great players included: Lou Gehrig along with Rogers Hornsby, Grover Cleveland Alexander, George Sisler, Tris Speaker, and Pie Traynor. The 20s also saw the end of Ty Cobb and Walter Johnson.
Everything about the 1920s set up the next 80 years of the great American game.
For Further Reading
Golden Age of Baseball: The 1920s