May 17, 2011

Game 26 - Lefty Takes It in the Chin

May 17, 1911
Philadelphia 5, Chicago 7

The A’s sweep of the Browns gets canceled out by one at the hands of the White Sox.

Eddie Collins returned to the lineup and even collected two hits, but it wasn’t enough as poor pitching doomed the Mackites. Lefty Russell made his second (and final) start of the season, and was pulled after getting tagged for three runs in the first inning. Cy Morgan replaced him, but coughed up another four runs over eight innings.

The prior year, Mack had paid a record $12,000 to the Baltimore Orioles of the Eastern League (the current O's are still the St. Louis Browns) for Russell’s contract, which was a record at the time*. Sporting Life caught up with the A’s skipper in Chicago:

Connie Mack, manager of the World’s Champion Athletics, has been stung and he doesn’t hesitate to admit the fact; at least he did while here this week with his ball team. “Lefty” Russell, the southpaw, who came to the Athletics from the Eastern League, is the youngster upon whom the shrewd manager of the World’s Champions was hooked. It will be remembered that Connie paid a record price for this youngster. “But never again,” says Connie. In fact, his idea of the value of ball players has undergone a radical change. Mr. Mack figures that the best way of ruining a promising ball player is to pay a great big price for him. And in the future Mack will practice the same principles as he did before he purchased the high-priced Russell. He will draft his men and pay the draft price. Said he “I’m not saying that Russell isn’t worth the money, but he isn’t worth $13,000 to me**. And in the future I will not be among the bidders when major league managers are attempting to set a new record on the purchase price of players. Somehow or other the high price fellows don’t make good. I might prove my point by citing Rube Marquard, of the Giants, as an example. I’m not saying that they weren’t worth the money. But the fact remains that they have not displayed their worth or rather they have not justified the large amount that was paid for them. It’s my firm belief that the payment of a big price means that you are going to be disappointed. I do not know why it is or why it should be. But the fact remains that it is the truth. Take Collins, on my ball club. Take Barry and half a dozen others who helped to win the world’s championship. I didn’t pay any fancy price for those fellows.

Later in his career, Mack would develop the reputation as a skinflint, and this type of stance no doubt played a big part in that.

What this account leaves out (aside from anyone pointing out the foolishness of judging a young pitcher on just two starts) is that Russell injured his pitching arm in spring training, a fact with which Mack was fully aware. It strikes me that Mack treated Russell unfairly in light of the injury (which he might have avoided in the modern era of ball clubs protecting their investments). Though he hung around a little longer with the A’s, Russell never had an impact at the big league level, though he did go on to have a respectable minor league career, according to his SABR bio.

Whether Russell was treated unfairly or not, baseball executives certainly learned their lesson with him, and to my knowledge his record of $12,000 paid for a ball player still stands today, and no team has significantly overpaid for unproven talent since then. Can you imagine? $12,000 just for a baseball player?

But seriously, as long as we’re talking contracts, as much as some people like to idealize the good old days, baseball had been a professional’s game for decades by 1911. And folks have been up in arms about high pay for ball players since probably a day or two after the first player took a salary (though in this case it's not the salary but the price paid for his contract). Just this season the great Walter Johnson refused to report to the Senators, demanding $8,000 for his services. He and the team eventually agreed to $7,000 per year, but it was widely noted at the time that his demands would mean he’d make more than a college professor. While today’s professors do make slightly more than $8,000, the Walter Johnsons of the modern day do about four orders of magnitude better.

But getting back to the Athletics themselves, after a disappointing series on the South Side, they’re about to head east across Michigan to face their toughest foe yet: Ty Cobb and the mighty Tigers.

* Of course, the way baseball worked back then, Russell didn’t see any of that money. The modern farm system didn’t yet exist, so minor league teams would sign players, and if they ended up being major-league-ready, they’d sell or auction those contracts to big-league teams.

**Most sources list the amount as $12,000.

[Today's sources: and]

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