Earl Averill – Show Me the Money

Sometimes history shows us that everything old is new again, and that the roots of what we consider new issues or developments actually go far back in time. This is certainly true in baseball in the case of an old ballplayer named Earl Averill. He’s interesting because at a crucial point in his career he took a gutsy stance on a salary issue which led to a proposed change in baseball’s policy regarding player sales. This change was never adopted, otherwise baseball’s subsequent labour strife might have been less costly.

Serious baseball fans will know about Averill, or at least have heard of him, but others maybe not. He played a long time ago – from 1929-41, mostly with the Cleveland Indians, not exactly a glamorous team back then. He was very good, and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1975 by the Veterans Committee. He was kind of the Bernie Williams of his day: a well-rounded, smart, graceful center fielder who could also really hit. His career didn’t last as long as Bernie’s and he didn’t have the fortune of playing on great teams like Williams did, but otherwise they were similarly versatile and productive players.

Averill was the best center fielder in the American League, and maybe in all of baseball from 1930-35, when along came Joe DiMaggio. He hit for average (.318 lifetime) and had power (238 home runs, 401 doubles and a .533 slugging average). He didn’t strike out much and walked enough that his career on-base-percentage was .395 which meant he scored well over 100 runs most seasons, with a high of 140 in 1931. He was small (5′ 9″, 172 pounds), not blindingly fast and didn’t have an exceptional arm but was nevertheless a very good defensive outfielder, both by reputation and by the numbers.

Unlike many who played during that peak offensive era, Averill’s career totals are actually misleadingly low. This is because his career started late – he turned 27 when he reached the major leagues – and he only played ten full seasons. Furthermore, a back injury in June of 1937 affected his swing for the rest of his career and he went into a bit of a spiral because of this. He was able to hang on and play very well through 1938, after which he was traded to Detroit and went downhill quickly as a part-timer. Had his career started at a more normal age, he would likely have had 400 homers, 600 doubles and close to 3,000 hits, as he averaged nearly 200 per season. The Indians never finished higher than third place during his stay with them, but he did make it to a World Series with Detroit in 1940. Unfortunately by then his back was really acting up and he was limited to just three pinch-hitting appearances, going hitless as the Tigers lost to the Reds in seven.

It may sound a bit far-fetched to compare him with DiMaggio – after all, Joe D. is a famous legend, a first-ballot Hall of Famer, an icon who won all those championships and did all those heroic things. But a lot of that had to do with DiMaggio playing for the Yankees; the Cleveland Indians didn’t have that kind of magic aura or track record, didn’t provide such a grand stage. While Averill’s career was nowhere near as great, his skills were just behind DiMaggio’s, but not by much. At any rate, he was a terrific all-around player, rated by Bill James as the fourteenth-best center fielder of all time, just ahead of Edd Roush and Richie Ashburn, just behind Dale Murphy and Wally Berger.

Averill was a bit eccentric; his temperament and early career pattern were unique and it’s these I wanted to touch on. He was a quiet, sensitive, intelligent guy from the small town of Snohomish, Washington. Although he liked playing baseball and was clearly very talented, he had other interests and options; as a young man he actually worked for a living, considering baseball a kind of hobby. For a time he was a florist, and horticulture was a lifelong fascination. Call me crazy, but this probably wasn’t all that common among ballplayers back then, it would be like finding a player today who’s interested in Dixieland clarinet, the Beat poets or metaphysics. He also loved animals and considered a career as a veterinarian. While weighing these various options and marrying at nineteen, he played ball in some semi-pro leagues, which there were a lot of back then and the level was pretty high, probably about like AA ball now. One of the reasons he was stand-offish about a career in pro baseball was that he hated big cities, preferring to be around nature in a more rustic setting.

His skills eventually attracted the attention of scouts and at the fairly late age of 24 he was offered a pro contract to play with the San Francisco Seals in the Pacific Coast League. The minor leagues then were flourishing and independent, none more so than the PCL, a very high-quality league which paid salaries quite comparable to the majors. The Seals were a powerhouse – Lefty O’Doul and all three DiMaggio brothers also played for them at various times – but even so, Averill immediately stood out. He hit .348 in 1926, his first season, then .324 in 1927, and .354 with 36 homers and 173 RBI in 1928. On his way to the ballpark late in that season, he read in a newspaper that he’d been sold to the Cleveland Indians for $50,000 and was to be sent to them the following season.

He asked his manager if he was to receive any of this money and was told no. “Well then, I’m going home,” he replied, and did just that. This was unprecedented then, especially at the minor league level. Players had staged holdouts and threatened this type of thing before, but Averill actually followed through and walked. Most young players then would have been simply thrilled just to hear they were on their way to the majors, they wouldn’t have given the sale price a second thought. Averill wasn’t all that young though and baseball wasn’t absolutely everything to him. The Seals quickly went to work on him, applying pressure and trying to convince him with the usual threats that he had no right to a piece of the action. Averill didn’t see it that way and said that right or no, if he didn’t receive part of the money, he had no intention of reporting to the Indians or playing for the Seals.

Eventually the Indians solved this by offering Averill a $5,000 bonus and a generous salary, which he proved to be well worth. He would be Cleveland’s best player over the next decade – durable, productive and despite his early intransigence, very popular, though modest and quiet. During celebrations on July 4th, 1935 he held on to a firecracker too long and burned his hand quite badly. He simply bandaged it up and played that day, earning himself the nickname “The Rock”, a lot sexier than his earlier one, “The Earl of Snohomish.” During off days on road trips he would often be found at the zoo or botanical gardens, he couldn’t have cared less about the big buildings or other urban sights.

Averill is one of the few white players to start so late in the major leagues, who then went on to have a Hall of Fame career, and he still ranks very high among Indians in many all-time hitting categories. He was one of the first players to homer in his first major league at-bat (April 16, 1929) and the first to hit four home runs in a doubleheader (September 17, 1930). He was also famous for hitting the rocket line drive that broke Dizzy Dean’s toe in the 1937 All-Star Game. For a fairly small guy who was not muscle-bound, he clearly hit the ball really hard; apparently Ted Williams often used him as an example when urging and instructing smaller hitters to develop their power.

The Averill-sale affair in 1928 attracted the attention of Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. I don’t think his authority extended to the minor leagues, but because the Indians were involved he weighed in, surprising many by saying that Averill’s demand sounded reasonable to him. Furthermore, he suggested that baseball should adopt a policy that whenever a player was sold he would get a cut of the price. This didn’t fly for reasons I don’t know, but Landis was right and about fifty years ahead of his time in this thinking. If implemented, this would have alleviated some of the cataclysmic economic stress baseball went through after the advent of free agency.

Fast forward to early 1975 or so, when it was pretty clear the reserve clause would be reinterpreted in the player’s favour*, resulting in free agency. Suddenly a lot of owners stood to lose some players they’d been accustomed to controlling for decades, no one more so than Charlie Finley, the maverick owner of the Oakland A’s. The A’s were the best team in baseball but also the most disgruntled, and all of Finley’s great players wanted out from under him because he was a cheap, meddlesome pest whom few could stand. Wanting to at least get something for the players he was sure he was about to lose, he orchestrated sales of them to the highest bidder. I don’t quite remember the details, but it was something like Joe Rudi and Rollie Fingers to the Red Sox and Vida Blue to the Yankees, for several million dollars apiece.

Commissioner Bowie Kuhn stepped in and, using special powers of the office or some such nonsense, voided the sales on the grounds that they were against the “best interests of baseball’s competitive balance.” He also unilaterally imposed a policy forbidding star players from being sold by one team to another in the future by setting a really low ceiling amount on allowable cash player deals.

There was absolutely no precedent for this in baseball history. There had always been two main ways to move players – for other players in trades, or for cash which could then be used to develop or acquire other players. While some didn’t like the ‘chattel optics’ of player sales, there was nothing wrong with selling players – they were paid salaries and were an investment and an asset of the clubs and their owners. If they could be traded, they could be sold, there was no difference on the ‘human dignity scale’. What was offensive to the players’ dignity was the reserve clause itself, but having two methods of transaction actually guaranteed greater freedom of player movement, which benefited both the owners and the players. With the reserve clause about to be reinterpreted and baseball’s economic landscape about to undergo an earthquake, Kuhn saw fit to suddenly eliminate one of two means of exchanging players, cutting baseball’s financial options in half at exactly the wrong moment.

Kuhn was widely praised for the vision and wise statesmanship of this at the time, as though he was the new F.D.R. or something, but this was asinine. He voided the sales as a direct and personal slap in the face to Finley, who’d been a thorn in his side for years. Kuhn despised Finley and finally saw a way of screwing him, but good, and driving him out of the game. It was entirely personal and Kuhn simply restricted other player sales to give it all a veneer of impartiality. If he’d truly been concerned about the competitive balance of baseball, Kuhn should have adopted Landis’ idea from 45 years earlier: that players could be sold for whatever the market would bear, providing each player received 25 or 30 percent of the money involved.

This still would have allowed the richer teams to acquire players more easily, but this had always been the case. Before and after free agency, richer teams always had an advantage across the board because they had more money, there wasn’t much to be done about that. However, allowing players to be sold under the Landis concept would have accomplished two things. Firstly, it would have helped keep salaries from spiraling wildly out of control. Player’s salary demands would have been mollified by receiving a cut from their sales and not just because of the cash, but also psychologically, by actually being included in the process with at least some fairness and reciprocity. Secondly, player sales would have allowed the poorer teams back then – the Expos, Twins, Brewers etc. – to remain financially competitive by profiting from the sale of their players, instead of just losing them for nothing.

I find this fascinating, because like a lot of really bad ideas and decisions, it was widely applauded at first but proved to do the exact opposite of what was intended, or expected. Prohibition is a good example of this. Far from preventing people from drinking, which wasn’t going to happen, it simply made things worse by putting control of booze in the hands of criminals, leading to widespread bloodshed, corruption and chaos. In hindsight, which is always easy, Kuhn should have been fired right then and there, but the other owners despised Finley as much as he did. Kuhn’s decision was disastrous, it led to immediate salary inflation because the owners had no other choice but to bid against one another for free agents and competitive balance wasn’t helped any because the have-nots had fewer options.

Having had complete economic control of the game for so long, baseball ownership was so terrified of free agency that they wildly overreacted to it, making its effects far worse for them than was necessary. Free agency needn’t have caused the salary structure to go through the roof overnight, it simply meant that players were free to negotiate with more than one team for the first time; it didn’t have to go crazy. Baseball owners have long resembled a pack of wild dogs though, and they immediately entered into a frenzy of bidding and contract offers that wildly exceeded even the player’s demands or expectations at first. Part of it was the novelty of it all – the fear of being left out and the early, naïve belief that a decent team could suddenly win it all by simply spending money on enough free agents, or on the right ones.

Fortunately, the building of a baseball team is more subtle and complicated than this and not many clubs succeeded in buying a championship, although some certainly tried. Gene Autry of the Angels opened the vaults and signed free agents galore and didn’t get anywhere. It didn’t really work for the Yankees either, even though they also dove in pretty deep. Yes, they won three pennants and two championships right after free agency from 1976-78, and big signings like Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson and Rawley Eastwick helped. Remember though, the Yankees had been building toward a winner for a few years with canny trades that acquired players like Graig Nettles, Dick Tidrow, Mickey Rivers, Ed Figueroa, Sparky Lyle, Dock Ellis and Willie Randolph. They also had a core of good home-grown players like Roy White, Lou Piniella and Thurman Munson – it wasn’t just the free agents.

They won a half-baked strike pennant in 1981, but lost the Series and were without a championship between 1979 and 1995 despite very free spending, a pretty long drought for them. Their run of success under Joe Torre from 1996-2003 was largely accomplished with a core of great players developed within their system – Bernie Williams, Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada. Competitive balance hasn’t been as disastrously effected by free agency as was predicted, although there are teams with deep pockets that are virtually constant contenders, like the Yankees, Red Sox and Phillies. This isn’t really new though, and there are still well-run teams with middling payrolls who win surprise championships as often as not – the Cardinals in 2011 and the Giants in 2010. Baseball has been less dynastic since free agency than before it, there’s been more turnover in champions than ever before.

I write all of this because we’re in the midst of the 2012 free agent season and it’s been on my mind. It would seem the market has corrected itself gradually, some of the excesses have stopped. Big money has been lavished on Albert Pujols, Jonathan Papelbon, C.J. Wilson, Mark Buehrle and others, mostly by the Marlins and Angels. And there’s been the whole $117 million Yu Darvish madness. But the market has cooled somewhat, Prince Fielder and some other big names remain unsigned with spring training not too far off. I can well understand the disaffection with obscene salaries, the perception that today’s athletes are a bunch of overpaid, spoiled brats, the temptation to throw up one’s hands in disgust and say “baseball’s just become all about the money.”

But really, ever since enough people became sufficiently interested in baseball to pay admission to see it, the game’s always been about the money, certainly for the owners. Since free agency, it’s been about teams and players sharing that money on a more level playing field. Sure, salaries have skyrocketed, but so have the game’s revenues, and there seem to be more and newer sources of these all the time. Anyway, it’s all relative. I was reading the other day about the 1920 sale of Babe Ruth to the Yankees for the unheard of sum of $125,000. Being no shrinking violet himself, Babe too wanted a cut of this, but the Yankees weren’t about to comply. They protected their investment by giving Babe a generous raise to $20,000 annually. It was by far the highest salary in baseball and a sizable sum of money back then, but still it seems laughably low even when adjusted for inflation. If an Albert Pujols can land over $25 million a year now, then what would a player with Ruth’s star power and sensational ability command in today’s market? $40 million? 50? I’ll tell you one thing I know – whatever the figure would be, someone would pay it and still turn a profit.

Getting back to Earl Averill briefly, he was 39 when he left baseball and I haven’t been able to find out much about what he did in retirement. I assume he returned to his beloved Washington State because he died there in 1981, and he probably was deeply involved with flora and fauna. His son Earl Averill, Jr. had a career as a catcher in the majors with various teams 1956-63, making less of an impact than the old man. Averill was very involved with old-timer activities – charity games, reunions and an attempt to improve conditions and pensions for former ballplayers. He was openly critical of the Hall of Fame and some of its decisions, and outspoken about being elected himself, though he didn’t actively campaign for induction. He actually made legal arrangements that if he was inducted after his death, his name could not appear in the Hall itself. He made news in the early 1960s when he boarded a plane bound for an old-timer’s game, carrying his own bat in a gun case. I get the feeling Earl Averill loved baseball players and the game itself but didn’t have much use for those who ran baseball or its institutions. When he was deservedly inducted in 1975, he flew those that had helped elect him to the ceremony at his own expense and unfortunately spent much of his speech lambasting the Hall for not electing him sooner. He was a bundle of contradictions – reportedly gentle, modest and soft-spoken, yet cranky, stubborn and an opinionated hard-ass. Really, he was an odd duck. I guess it takes one to know one.

* For a long time I shared the common misconception that the reserve clause had been overturned and removed from baseball’s basic agreement in 1975, but this is untrue, it’s still there. One day It occurred to me that, working as I do in a law library, I should look the actual decision up and read it. So I did and found it fascinating. Basically, the reserve clause states that if a player hasn’t signed a contract within two months of the start of a season, then he’s bound to his team and the terms of that contract for a period of one year. There’s nothing illegal or even strange about this, these types of clauses exist in contracts all over the place. For decades the owners and most everybody else assumed the “one year” to be infinitely renewable – one year, followed by the next year and the next, on into perpetuity and a player’s whole career. Once they organized and had some brains surrounding them, the player’s union offered a different and more literal interpretation – that the one year meant one year and one year only. Period.

 An ironclad principle has evolved in contract law that when there is conflict over a clause because of its vague language, the meaning of that clause will be interpreted against those deemed responsible for the vague language. Obviously, the reserve clause was put in by the owners, so eventually arbitrator Peter Seitz had no choice but to side with the player’s union and rule that one year meant one year, literally. The reserve clause was never removed, just reinterpreted. The owners had painted themselves into a legal corner, their position could never have stood forever. Really, the miracle is that it took so long to be interpreted properly and justly. Like all good things, this justice was worth waiting for.

© 2013 – 2017, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.

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