April 22, 2021

Harry Frazee, William Howard Taft, and the Lasker Plan

July 15, 2019 by · 1 Comment 

Most baseball fans know that Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis became Major League Baseball’s first commissioner in 1920.  But if Boston Red Sox owner Harry Frazee had gotten his way, former President William Howard Taft would have gotten the job two years earlier.

Harry Frazee

In November, 1918 Frazee came out in favor of a one-man National Commission to replace the three-headed monster that had ruled baseball since 1903, and that American League president Ban Johnson had heavy influence over. Harry Hempstead, New York Giants owner, backed Frazee. Both men approached former United States President William Howard Taft and offered him the position of sole member of the National Commission. William Baker of the Phillies, Brooklyn’s Charles Ebbets, and Pittsburgh’s Barney Dreyfuss all publicly endorsed Taft, although Dreyfuss was miffed that someone had leaked the information that the former president had been approached.

When word got out, Hempstead clarified that Taft had merely been asked to consider an offer if made to him formally. John Heydler, who had taken over as National League president in August, recalled Johnson’s role in the 1918 World Series strike and determined then and there that a change was necessary. “I decided after that spectacle in the umpires’ room that the old National Commission form of baseball government was outmoded, and we needed a strong one-man administrator to run our game.”

The “spectacle” to which Heydler referred was an embarrassing one for Johnson.  Organized Baseball had been in the midst of an upheaval for most of the season.  The United States had entered World War I in 1917 and by 1918 was sending thousands of soldiers to France every day.  On May 23, with the Red Sox holding a slim two-game lead over the Yankees and Indians, Provost Marshal General Enoch B. Crowder and Secretary of War Newton D. Baker announced that baseball was a “nonessential occupation” and that all players must either enlist in the military, or work in a shipyard or defense plant by July 1 or they would be automatically inducted into the armed forces.

Johnson responded with his typical bombast, “…if I had my way I would close every theatre, ball park, and other place of recreation in the country and make people realize that they are in the most terrible war in the history of the world.” Frazee remained silent on the issue. The New York Times speculated that the Cubs and White Sox would be “wrecked” by the order since all but four players were of draft age. Detroit’s Frank Navin feared the order would force the Tigers to close their park.

Meanwhile major league baseball was awaiting a ruling from Baker that would impact the rest of the season. Washington Senators catcher Eddie Ainsmith had been declared eligible for the draft when the “work or fight” order came down in May. Clark Griffith appealed the decision on Ainsmith’s behalf, but the appeal was denied on July 19. Ainsmith was forced into military duty. By the time the dust had settled, 124 American and 103 National Leaguers enlisted in the service.

Upon hearing of Baker’s decision, Frazee made a backhanded remark about the National Commission’s handling of the situation. “I do not believe that this matter has been properly presented to Sec Baker, and I believe if it had been properly presented to him his ruling would have been entirely different.”  Frazee was referring to what Mike Vaccaro called Johnson’s “ham-fisted attempt to convince congress of baseball’s essential value to the home front.”  Johnson’s request for an exemption had only made things worse. Congress was unmoved and the league president ordered the American League to cease its operations on July 21.

Red Sox manager Ed Barrow, speaking for himself and Frazee, opposed Johnson’s edict. “The Boston American League club does not propose to abide by that arbitrary ruling. We demand the right to protect our investment.”  Frazee echoed Barrow’s sentiments and raged that unanimous consent among the owners was required to shut down the season. Instead of relenting to Johnson’s edict, the owners formed a coalition whose purpose was to appeal to Congress for an extension of the July 21 deadline.

The coalition, made up of the National Commission, Frazee, and all eight National League owners, paid a personal visit to Baker in late July to ask him to suspend the “work or fight” order until October 15. “The season should be allowed to continue,” Frazee argued, “not for the sake of baseball but for the good of the country.” A second contingency headed by the National Commission and Clark Griffith, that included Frazee, also met with Baker and Crowder, eventually convincing them that baseball was indeed essential to the nation’s morale. The two officials balked at the October 15 request, but major league baseball was given until September 1 to finish its season.

A month later it was extended to September 15 so the World Series could be played. Despite the “victory” Frazee demanded that Johnson and Garry Herrmann, chairman of the National Commission, be held accountable for not contacting the government sooner and appealing to Baker and Crowder when the order was initially handed down. The Red Sox magnate’s role in the meetings “carried the day,” wrote Vaccaro, “but it also sealed the animosity between Johnson and Frazee forever.”

Johnson wanted to end the regular season on August 20, and then play the World Series in the 11 days remaining before the new “work or fight” order took effect. Frazee argued for August 24. Barney Dreyfuss told Johnson that the National League would not agree to an earlier closing than September 2. For the first time in league history owners were attempting to wrest control of the league away from Johnson. Frazee, Griffith, and White Sox owner Charles Comiskey opposed Johnson’s decisions about the schedule and fought him at every turn. The Sporting News announced that the three magnates “intended to take a more prominent part in the running of the league instead of turning over the entire management of its affairs to Mr. Johnson.”

Frazee went even farther saying “From now on Johnson is through spending our money. The club owners are going to run the American League in the future. His policy of ‘rule or ruin’ is shelved.”  Griffith and Comiskey denied that they were in Frazee’s camp and were “shocked” to learn they had been named in the attack on Johnson. Paul Shannon of the Boston Post backed Frazee, claiming he’d been in the room when the statements were made and Griffith was “anxious to have the statement made in even more caustic language than Frazee used. Besides this, Comiskey knew that this statement was to be given out, as he was in Frazee’s presence at the hotel.” Henry Edwards of the Cleveland Plain Dealer was also in the room and agreed with Shannon, claiming that Frazee and Griffith “together dictated the statement in question.”

“It is evident that a movement is on foot to save Johnson’s face,” wrote Shannon, “and that Comiskey and Griffith are being whipped into line to make Frazee the goat.”  Frazee continued his assault, though, calling Johnson’s World Series schedule, which proposed that the first three games be played in Chicago and the remaining games in Boston to curtail transportation at the government’s request, “very unfair to the Boston club” and an “insult to Boston fans and to the best baseball town in the American League.”

“The proposed arrangement some regard as a Johnsonian slap at Frazee, who has given opinions ad lib in regard to the handling of affairs by the American League chief,” wrote Edward Martin in the Boston Globe.  Herrmann defended Johnson, claiming the matter had been decided by a coin toss and that the winner would be awarded the first three games of the series. “The schedule as arranged was made by the National Commission as an entirety and not by Mr. Johnson. The schedule will be carried out regardless of whether it suits Mr. Frazee or not.”

Ban Johnson


The World Series started as planned on September 5 with Boston taking Game 1 behind Babe Ruth’s six-hit shutout. The Cubs took the second game 3-1, but the Sox rebounded to win Game 3 by a score of 2-1 as Carl Mays outdueled Hippo Vaughn. With a two games to one lead and heading back to Boston things got ugly. The players started to get wind of their World Series shares and they didn’t like what they heard. Attendance had plummeted by more than 2 million fans, which cut into their profits. In addition, and perhaps having a larger impact, was that the league had adopted a new formula for divvying up the profits.

Previously players had received 60 percent of the gate receipts of the first four games, 75 percent of which went to the winning team and 25 percent to the losers. The remaining 40 percent was split equally among the rest of the teams.  In 1918, then National League president John Tener devised a plan to split the proceeds among the teams that had finished second, third, and fourth in each league.  The league, fearing that fewer people would attend the games, kept ticket prices at their regular season levels instead of increasing them in the postseason as they had in the past. Lastly, the players had pledged, at Johnson’s urging, 10 percent of their Series money to war charities.

It was reported that the winners would receive $2,000 while the losers would earn $1,400 each, almost half what players had earned in prior postseason series.  The National Commission, however, was forced to reduce the shares even more due to small crowds and lower than normal admission prices and the new figures came to $1,200 and $800, respectively. When all was said and done, though, the winners ended up with just $1,102.51, a record low, and the losers earned a paltry $671.09.

The players, led by Harry Hooper and Dave Shean of the Red Sox, and Les Mann and Bill Killefer of the Cubs, decided to go on strike. They met with the National Commission to inform them of their decision, but decided to play the fourth game when the Commission agreed to listen to the players’ grievances later that evening. Boston took Game 4 by a count of 3-2 to go up three games to one, then a group of four players that included Hooper, Mann, Killefer, and Heinie Wagner met the commission at their scheduled meeting. When the Commission, made up of Herrmann, Heydler, and Johnson, tap-danced around the issue, claiming the $2,000 and $1,400 figures were based on estimates and insisting there was nothing that could be done at such a late date, the players refused to play Game 5.

Accounts of what happened next vary, but some details remain constant.  Either way, this is the “spectacle” to which Heydler referred in November when he said baseball “needed a strong one-man administrator to run our game.”

Whether Johnson was with an old friend he had bumped into, a few friends, or with the other two members of the commission celebrating at a local bar, the A.L. czar was falling down drunk when he learned that there was a park full of nearly 25,000 spectators but no players. Sportswriter Fred Lieb claimed that Johnson drank, “to an embarrassing degree” and “revealed himself as a clown and a buffoon [after drinking heavily].”

According to one account, when Johnson learned what was happening, he rushed over to Fenway Park to appeal to the players’ sense of patriotism, asking Hooper to proceed with the game “for the sake of the public and the wounded soldiers in the stands.”  Another account has Johnson ordering the players back onto the field. A third account had Johnson nearly in tears and taking credit for Washington’s approval of the World Series and begging Hooper to take the field “for the honor and glory of the American League.”

Regardless of which account is true, Johnson’s biographer Eugene Murdock called the episode “another Johnson blunder, harmful to himself and the National Commission.” While Johnson wasn’t directly responsible for the player strike, his handling of the situation was clumsy and awkward and those witnessing the debacle left with a bad taste in their mouths.

The Series continued with the Cubs winning Game 5 behind Vaughn again. But Boston took the sixth and final game 2-1 behind Mays and copped its fifth world championship. Like so many of his musicals, the Red Sox brought success to Frazee. Baseball Magazine’s William Phelon had proved prophetic when he wrote five years prior that Frazee “turns every enterprise to gold.”

But Frazee wasn’t quite satisfied with his newly minted World Series crown. He had made all the right moves up to this point, culminating in a championship, which had to exasperate Johnson to no end. And he was gaining allies as he went, despite Griffith’s and Comiskey’s denials to the contrary.

Buoyed by his success, Frazee approached Taft in November and asked if he’d consider being the “sole arbiter of the National Commission.”  The idea of a new governing body to rule over the game had been discussed before and had won little support, but was gaining in popularity. The plan, called the Lasker plan, was devised by Albert D. Lasker, a prominent Chicago businessman and Warren G. Harding supporter, who was also a major stockholder in the Chicago Cubs.

Lasker believed that the owners were incapable of governing their league and that a triumvirate of non-baseball men with no financial interests in the game should be brought in to form a new three-man commission.  Among those mentioned as possible chairman were General John Pershing, Major General Leonard Wood, former President Taft, Senator Hiram Johnson, former Secretary of the Treasury William McAdoo, and Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who had presided over the Federal League case in 1915.

Frazee’s attempt to undermine Johnson took a hit when Taft accused Frazee and Hempstead of misleading him. “It now appears that neither Mr. Hempstead nor Mr. Frazee had authority of the two associations to invite me to consider the question of acting as an arbitrator between the two associations,” said the former president. “It further appears hat what they had in mind was to substitute me for the present national commission—I could not consider such an offer under any circumstances.”

It wasn’t until two years later, in the wake of the Black Sox scandal, that the National Commission was eradicated in favor of the Lasker Plan.  Landis was tabbed to be the chairman of a new three-headed National Commission, but insisted on being the game’s sole commissioner.  The owners acquiesced. Landis served in that capacity until his death in 1944.  Taft was named Chief Justice of the United States by President Harding in 1921 and served in that capacity until his death in 1930.

Much of the above is excerpted from Harry Frazee, Ban Johnson and the Feud That Nearly Destroyed the American League. This article was originally published here on July 13, 2009.


One Response to “Harry Frazee, William Howard Taft, and the Lasker Plan”
  1. Great excerpt. Having just finished Professor Charles Fountain’s book on the 1919 Black Sox scandal, I appreciated this even more.

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