Q&A with Dan Levitt – Ed Barrow: The Bulldog Who Built the Yankees' First Dynasty
A longtime member of the Society for American Baseball Research, Daniel R. Levitt has written three guest columns for Baseball Analysts. I first invited Dan after he and Mark Armour co-authored Paths to Glory: How Great Baseball Teams Got That Way, a winner of The Sporting News-SABR Baseball Research Award.
As a result, I took great interest when Levitt's latest book, Ed Barrow: The Bulldog Who Built the Yankees' First Dynasty, was released two weeks ago. Although Barrow wrote a relatively short autobiography in 1951, Dan's book will undoubtedly go down as the definitive work on one of the most important baseball figures in the first half of the 20th century. It is an extremely well-researched, detailed, and scholarly portrait not only of the larger-than-life Barrow but an inside look at the business of baseball and how the Yankees evolved into a powerhouse franchise.
Published by Nebraska Press, the 427-page book includes an extensive appendix, complete with tables detailing salaries, team payrolls, financial statements, population and attendance comparisons, and transactions of that era. The bibliography also provides a narrative that is more informative than the straightforward listing of resources found in most books. You can check out the table of contents, index, and the first chapter, as well as an outstanding review by Steve Treder at The Hardball Times.
I conducted the following interview with Dan via email over the past several days. It gives additional insight into Barrow and the 50 years he spent in baseball. Pull up a chair and enjoy.
Rich: You and Mark Armour co-authored Paths to Glory: How Great Baseball Teams Got That Way, a book that I bought, enjoyed reading, and have sitting on my shelf in my baseball library here at home. I can't help but think that this book must have had a big influence on your decision to pursue writing a comprehensive biography on Edward Grant Barrow.
Rich: The image of Barrow and a half dozen Yankees players on the cover of your book is a classic. I don't recall ever seeing it colorized like that and must admit it does wonders for that old photo.
Rich: Your subtitle "The Bulldog Who Built the Yankees' First Dynasty" suggests that the Bronx Bombers have had multiple dynasties. How would you define these dynasties and what was Barrow's role in each of them?
Within Barrow's "first dynasty" I would suggest there were really three different phases: 1921 - 1923, 1926 - 1928, and 1936 - 1943. Much of Barrow's genius lay is reading the environment correctly so that he could build and then rebuild on the fly. After joining the Yankees, Barrow spent roughly $450,000 to buy up the rest of Boston owner Harry Frazee's best players. This avenue dried up in 1923 when Frazee sold the team – he was out of good players by this time anyway – and other major league teams were not sellers during the roaring twenties. To restock his team in the mid-1920s Barrow assembled a terrific team of scouts and bought top talent from the independent minors. In the 1930s the onset of the Depression led to new rules regarding the ownership of minor league franchises. With these revised, more favorable rules in place, owner Jacob Ruppert demanded Barrow start a farm system. Barrow quickly developed the best minor league organization in the league while his scouts redirected their efforts to nation's best amateurs to stock it.
Rich: How would you compare and contrast Barrow and Branch Rickey, who has been given a lot of credit for creating a competitive advantage for the Cardinals by developing the farm system at or about the same time?
Dan: Rickey's genius was more creative; Barrow's more in the realm of administrative excellence in creating an adaptable, efficient organization.
Rich: The Yankees never won a pennant until Barrow was hired as the club's general manager after the 1920 season. New York won the American League pennant in 1921 and 1922, and then captured its first World Series title in 1923. A cynic might say he piggybacked on Babe Ruth and just happened to be at the right place at the right time. No?
That said, the team that won the Yankees first World Series in 1923 was materially different than the one Barrow inherited after the 1920 season. Among the position players, in addition to Ruth, only Bob Meusel and Wally Pipp started for both; among the starting rotation Bob Shawkey was the only one common to both squads. Barrow clearly turned the team over in his first three years at helm, mostly by acquiring the rest of Boston's good players.
Barrow has rightfully received widespread credit for converting Ruth to the field. Hooper certainly deserves recognition for realizing Ruth’s potential as a regular and pushing for it, but Barrow warrants the bulk of the acclaim. When a decision has a clearly identifiable decision maker who has both the authority and the responsibility to make it, that person deserves most of the credit for a successful outcome and the blame for an unsuccessful one. Had the second-best pitcher in baseball (to Walter Johnson) underperformed in his new role and then returned to the mound at anything less than his previous ability, it would have been Barrow who suffered the condemnation and abuse from the fans, the press, and, perhaps most importantly, his players.
Rich: The careers of Barrow and Ruth are sure intertwined. It would be impossible to write a biography about one and not talk about the other quite extensively. What was the relationship between the two?
Dan: Barrow always appreciated Ruth's talents – for example, even in the deadball era when small-ball was king, Barrow didn't worry about the strikeouts that came with Ruth's power. But he never really warmed to Ruth's personality like others did, notably Yankee owner Jacob Ruppert.
Ruth was immature, self-centered and somewhat naïve in his approach to life, but he could also be quite generous. Furthermore, Ruth had a surprisingly sophisticated appreciation of his celebrity status. The driven, determined Barrow, however, could never get past the immaturity and respect the happy-go-lucky Ruth as an adult.
Rich: I know you wrote about the time Barrow challenged Ruth to a fight. What was that all about?
Dan: In the spring of 1919 Ruth was doing his best to enjoy the nightlife and ignoring training camp rules. Once the season started Barrow assigned coach Dan Howley as his roommate to help restrain him. Despite Howley's proclamation that: "I’ll take care of that guy if I have to put a ring through his nose," Ruth's late night escapades continued. One evening early in the season Barrow decided to catch Ruth at his late-night dalliances. When the hotel porter informed Barrow at 6:00 AM that Ruth had just returned, he went down to Ruth’s room, where the lights were on and he could hear voices. After knocking, Barrow burst into the room and found Ruth in bed smoking a pipe with the covers pulled up to his neck and Howley hiding in the bathroom.
Later that morning at the ballpark while Ruth dressed with his teammates, Barrow locked the door and lambasted his team for their off-field shenanigans, directing his remarks mainly at Ruth. After tolerating the tongue-lashing for some time, Ruth fired back, threatening to punch Barrow in the nose. This was almost certainly the reaction the physical Barrow was agitating for. He ordered the rest of the players to head out to the field after they finished dressing and offered to fight Ruth. Ruth ignored the challenge and ran out to the field with his teammates. Barrow then sent Ruth back to the clubhouse, ordered him to take off his uniform, and suspended him. On the train back to New York, the forlorn Ruth approached Barrow regarding his reinstatement. The manager and his incorrigible star reached an unusual détente: Ruth agreed to leave a note in Barrow's hotel box with the time he returned, and Barrow would not challenge him on it.
Rich: Speaking of time, until Terry Francona's success with the Red Sox in 2004, it was Barrow who last managed Boston to a World Series Championship.
The 1918 season itself was full of controversy. Barrow had several well publicized run-ins with Ruth, who even jumped the team at one point. Baseball-wide matters related to World War I brought further discord. American League president Ban Johnson's clumsy response to the government's "work or fight" order, requiring baseball players to either enlist or join an essential war industry, opened the first critical rift between the dictatorial president and his owners.
The confusion and quarrelling carried over into the World Series. Frazee complained about the distribution of games: three in Chicago followed by four in Boston due to wartime travel restrictions. Game five was nearly postponed by a threatened player's strike over a shameful reduction in their World Series shares. In the end Barrow's Red Sox prevailed four games to two despite scoring only six earned runs (nine overall).
Dan: The decision to move was as much engineered by Boston owner Harry Frazee and the Yankee owners, Jacob Ruppert and Tillinghast L'Hommedieu Huston, as by Barrow. Frazee was in the process of dismantling his team, and no longer needed a high-profile, highly compensated manager. The Yankee owners recognized the importance of professional administration to move beyond the limitations of operating like a small business and brought in Barrow to professionalize the front office.
Barrow certainly would have had mixed feelings about the job change. While he recognized that his days in Boston were numbered as Frazee scaled back the financial commitment and expectations for his team, the move would not have been viewed as a promotion. His title in New York would be "business manager," a role that traditionally involved back office duties (scheduling travel, overseeing stadium operations, managing uniforms, bats and balls, etc.) and not the front office functions associated with player transactions. Barrow, however, lived in New York, and the Yankees offered a generous salary and, more importantly, expanded responsibilities that fell within the purview of a modern general manager – he would in fact be a de facto GM. Barrow prided himself on both his organizational abilities and his player-evaluation skills; the Yankees position offered him the opportunity to employ both.
Rich: Using newly available material from the New York Yankee financial records and previously unexplored financial data from 1951 Congressional hearings, you delved into the economic environment of baseball over the first half of the twentieth century. What was the most enlightening thing you learned about the Yankees?
Dan: Two things stand out. First, the Yankees reinvested their profits in the team while other franchises often distributed theirs out to the team's owners, and second, the Yankees consistently paid the highest salaries.
Rich: Sounds like a winning strategy to me. You covered the fascinating story about the sale of the Yankees to a syndicate of Del Webb, Dan Topping and Larry MacPhail at a war-depressed price in 1945. What was Barrow’s involvement in that deal?
Dan: When Yankee owner Jacob Ruppert died in January 1939, ownership of the Yankees passed to a trust. The trust named Barrow president of the Yankees, and for several years he sat at the pinnacle of his beloved franchise. Estate tax issues quickly materialized, however, and the trust began evaluating sale options for the Yankees. Unfortunately, America's entry into World War II in December 1941 virtually eliminated all non-war related economic activity.
Nevertheless, the estate tax issues could not be postponed indefinitely, and Barrow and the trust continued their search for a buyer. Barrow even approached his friend Tom Yawkey, owner of the Boston Red Sox, to see if there was some way for Yawkey to sell the Red Sox and buy the Yankees. Eventually the sale options were reduced to a single entity: a triumvirate of construction magnate Del Webb, wealthy sportsman Dan Topping, and baseball maverick Larry MacPhail. Barrow and MacPhail had feuded publicly for many years and Barrow hated to see "his" team go to his rival. At one point early in the sale negotiations, Barrow declared that MacPhail would take control of the franchise "over his [Barrow's] dead body." But Barrow could no longer control the process, and in January 1945 the trust sold the Yankee organization to the three for the war-depressed price of only $2.8 million.
Barrow had purchased a ten percent interest in the team back in the early 1920s based on a valuation of $2.5 million that Ruppert had set when he bought out his partner. For the price (and Barrow's interest) to have barely increased after he spent 20 years turning the franchise into one of the gems of American sports galled him immensely.
Rich: I bet. Going back to Barrow's early years, did he really "discover" Honus Wagner?
When the Iron and Oil League folded after the season, both Barrow and Wagner were technically without a team. For 1896 Barrow bought the Paterson, New Jersey franchise in the Atlantic League. To stock his team Barrow, who lived in Pittsburgh at the time, remembered Wagner, who lived in nearby Carnegie. With a little encouragement from a local promoter, Barrow sought out Wagner and signed him for $125 per month, $25 above the monthly salary limit of $100. A year-and-a-half later Barrow sold Wagner to the major leagues for $2,100, a hefty price for the time. Barrow's claim that he discovered Wagner is something of an overstatement; Wagner had already played in Organized Baseball and other teams were certainly sniffing around. Nevertheless, it was Barrow who most clearly recognized the ability of this free agent and snatched him up for his team.
Rich: Well, Barrow lived a long and full life. And you have captured it like no one before and probably no one ever again. Your book is an important and fascinating read for Yankees and Red Sox fans, as well as students of baseball history.
Dan: Thank you. Barrow was at the center of many of the key events of the first half of the twentieth century. Studying his life helps answer two of the overarching baseball questions of the era: how did baseball's competitive economic environment evolve and how did the Yankees come to dominate it.