Breaking the Slump|
Baseball in the Depression Era
by Charles C. Alexander
Columbia University Press, 2002 | Buy the book
Whatever discomforts and hardships big leaguers such as Billy Herman had to put up with, life at the top was always better than life in the minor leagues. Jobs and pay in the minors rapidly diminished as leagues folded in the early Depression years, but the minors' revival and expansion in the mid- and late 1930s did nothing to improve working conditions. In the upper minors, teams usually traveled in day coaches rather than Pullmans; in the lower minors, they rode cramped, creaky buses over bumpy two-lane roads, sometimes for hundreds of miles. A good player might pull down about $400 per month for a season of five or five and a half months in the International League and American Association and seven months in the Pacific Coast League. At the Class C or D level the pay would be $60 to $75 per month for a season of about four and a half months.
Minor-league ball -- with its lesser pay, tough travel conditions, and, in the lower minors, inferior lighting systems -- became a career for scores of aging players who may or may not have ever spent time in the Big Show. [The use of the term “Big Show” in reference to the major leagues was fairly common in baseball parlance as far back as the 1930s. A later generation of players would usually shorten that to “the Show.”] It seems a safe assumption that from 1973 on, plenty of them would have been welcomed into the American League as designated hitters. As it was, men who consistently hammered strong minor-league pitching but had bad legs or weak throwing arms or just found it difficult to field a position stayed in the minors for season after season, sometimes decade after decade.
Five standout minor-league hitters from the 1930s serve as examples. After dividing the 1929 season between Cleveland and Milwaukee, Joe Hauser was a thirty-one-year-old first baseman when he landed in Baltimore in the International League. Hauser had spent five years with the Philadelphia Athletics (1922–1924, 1926, 1928), interrupted first by a near-career- ending leg fracture and then by a season in Kansas City. With the Athletics, Hauser had hit as many as twenty-seven home runs, but with Baltimore the left-handed Hauser took advantage of a short right-field fence at Oriole Park and in 162 games drove out an Organized Baseball–record sixty-three homers. Hauser's home-run output dropped to thirty-one in 1931 (although that was still enough to lead the league), and he was sold to Minneapolis in the American Association. At Nicollet Park, he could aim at another short right-field barrier, and over five seasons he slammed 208 homers, including sixty-nine in 1933 to break his own record and set a mark that would stand for twenty-one years. After six years as player-manager at Sheboygan in the Wisconsin State League, Hauser ended his playing career with minor-league totals of 399 homers and 1,353 runs batted in.
Whereas Hauser was of modest size (5 feet 10 1⁄2 inches, 175 pounds), Russell "Buzz" Arlett was a big guy, a switch-hitting outfielder–first baseman who'd been a promising young pitcher in the Pacific Coast League until he hurt his arm. From 1923 to 1930, Arlett averaged .354, drove in 1,192 runs, and hit 237 homers for Oakland. It was Arlett's bad luck finally to make the majors in 1931, the year the ball was deadened. Drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies, he batted respectably (.313, eighteen homers, seventy-two RBIs), but he didn't have much of a throwing arm and covered little ground in left field. For 1932 he was back in the minors with Baltimore, where he cracked fifty-four homers, followed by thirty-nine the next year. Sold down to Birmingham in the Southern Association and then purchased by Minneapolis, he teamed with Joe Hauser to form one of the most potent tandems in minor-league history. Both were released following the 1936 season; Arlett hung on in Organized Baseball through six years of managing in the lower minors. Over eighteen seasons in the minors, he hit 432 homers and drove in 1,786 runs, besides gaining 108 victories pitching in the Pacific Coast League.
Another heavy-hitting former pitcher was Smead Jolley, who from 1926 to 1929, with San Francisco, hit as many as forty-five homers, drove in as many as 188 runs, and successively batted .346, .397, .404, and .387. Purchased by the Chicago White Sox, Jolley hit above .300 in three of four American League seasons, but his outfielding gaffes became legendary (including one occasion when a ball went through his legs, hit the fence, and rolled back through his legs on the rebound). Back in the Pacific Coast League by 1934, with Hollywood, he pummeled pitchers in that circuit as well as the International League, Southern Association, and Western International League for eight more years. All told, Jolley made 3,037 minor-league hits, homered 337 times, drove in 1,593 runs, had a .366 average, and won six batting championships.
Oscar "Ox" Eckhardt appeared in a total of twenty-four big-league games in a sixteen-year professional career, during which he won three Pacific Coast League batting titles and another in the Texas League, and averaged .367. Nick Cullop played in 128 major-league games (mostly with Cincinnati in 1930 and 1931) and spent twenty-five years in the minors. Cullop never won a batting title, but he hit 420 homers and drove in 1,857 runs -- the most RBIs by any minor leaguer. Once asked why he never made it to the majors to stay, he was fairly philosophical: "I could have helped some teams, but not the ones I went to. Then after you've been around awhile, up and down, you get tagged as a guy who can't make it when you really can, if given a chance." [Eugene C. Murdock, Baseball Players and Their Times: Oral Histories of the Game, 1920–1940 (Westport, Conn.: Meckler, 1991), p. 202.]
For one reason or another, Hauser, Arlett, Jolley, Eckhardt, and Cullop were all "tagged" as either not having or no longer having big-league credentials. Frank Shellenback, however, stayed in the Pacific Coast League from 1920 to 1938 because the rules were changed on him. As a nineteen-year-old right-hander, Shellenback went up to the White Sox from Milwaukee in 1918 -- a season when, with players leaving for military service or to work in wartime industry, big-league clubs scrambled to keep their rosters filled. Shellenback managed a 9–12 record with a 2.66 earned run average for a sixth-place team, but the next year he was back in the American Association, in Minneapolis. The young pitcher's favorite weapon had become the spitball, which was outlawed effective with the 1920 season. Although designated spitballers (including Shellenback) could continue to use the pitch for the remainder of their careers, minor leaguers couldn't bring it with them into the majors. So spitballer Shellenback put in nineteen years in the Pacific Coast League, during which he pitched for four teams, managed two, won 295 games, and lost 178. Organized Baseball's last legal spitballer, Shellenback finally quit pitching to become a coach for the Cardinals and subsequently the Red Sox.
If Shellenback and other fine ballplayers experienced frustration at being held out of the majors, and if their pay, travel, lodging, and food left much to be desired, the fact remains that just about anybody within all-white Organized Baseball had it better than ballplayers on the other side of the color line. Times were harder and life was tougher in every respect in black professional baseball, yet leagues operated, the competition was intense, the overall caliber of play was high, and millions of African Americans faithfully followed the fortunes of teams and players. Black baseball was always off to one side within the vast national baseball universe, but in the hard times of the 1930s -- the last full decade of segregated professionalism -- it may have been at its best.
This essay is reprinted from the book, Breaking the Slump: Baseball in the Depression Era by Charles C. Alexander.
Copyright © 2002 by Charles C. Alexander. Used by arrangement with Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.