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.
Dan: Absolutely. My interest has always focused on team building, and Paths to Glory represented our systematic look at the issue. It was a natural follow up to take a closer look at the one of the most successful dynasties in American sports history. Barrow played the key role in assembling and maintaining it, and – fortunately for my writing career – was probably the most significant baseball executive without a full length biography.
Rich: Ed Barrow did just about everything in the minor and major leagues except play the game. What was his single greatest accomplishment?
Dan: In his fifty years in baseball Barrow had many accomplishments and, of course, several failures. I would say his greatest accomplishment was bringing professional administration to the Yankee front office at a time when few other franchises recognized its necessity. By this I mean he assumed responsibility for executive action (e.g. hiring the best scouts and manager, acquiring the best players, and never losing sight of the longer term) and then willingly delegating to his charges and listening to their advice.
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.
Dan: I really like the cover photo, too. It shows Barrow with six of his star players, five of whom were landed by the Yankees' scouts. Barrow was particularly proud, and rightfully so, of the scouting department he developed and oversaw.
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?
Dan: There is no official definition, of course, but I identify the first Yankees' dynasty as the period from 1921 through the end of WWII in which they won 14 pennants and 10 World Series. Not surprisingly, this era corresponded to Barrow's tenure with the club. In early 1945 the Yankees were sold to a new ownership entity ending Barrow's term at the helm and a long period of stability. The mercurial Larry MacPhail's approach to running a front office was materially different from Barrow's. By the time MacPhail left and George Weiss took over, the post-war bonus-baby era of talent acquisition was in place. In sum, the huge disruption caused to American life by WWII, the dramatic change in Yankee ownership, a change of managers, and the post-war change in talent acquisition and wide-spread expansion of the farm system throughout baseball makes the period around the end of WWII a natural demarcation point.
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?
Dan: First of all: no question that one of the best ways to look smart is to take over a team that has the Babe.
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.
Rich: Ed Barrow managed Ruth in 1918 and 1919 when the latter was playing for the Red Sox. It was during this time when Ruth was spending less time as a pitcher and more time as an outfielder. How much influence did Barrow have in converting the Babe from one of the best pitchers in the league to the premier slugger in the game?
Dan: Barrow was the key actor in moving the Babe from pitcher to the field. To appreciate the boldness of this move one needs to first realize that Ruth was an exceptional pitcher: in 1916 he completed the season 23-12 while leading the league with a 1.75 ERA; the next year he finished second in the league in wins with a 24-13 record and seventh in ERA at 2.01. Outfielder Harry Hooper (who also acted as something of a bench coach for Barrow – remember, Barrow was seven years removed from managing and thirteen from managing in the majors) argued that Ruth’s prodigious hitting would make him more valuable as a regular in the field. On May 6, 1918 with first baseman Dick Hoblitzel nursing an injured finger, Barrow started Ruth at first base, his first non-pitching appearance in the field after more than three years in the Majors. Ruth made Barrow and Hooper look like geniuses, going two-for-four with a home run. Over the next several weeks Barrow often used Ruth in the field when he was not pitching, mostly in left field after Hoblitzel returned.
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.
Dan: Barrow assumed Boston's helm in January 1918. That off-season the team made a number of off-season player moves, some before Barrow arrived and some after. Despite not having managed in the major leagues since 1904, he successfully integrated a host of new players into his team. Barrow also benefited from the fact that the Red Sox lost fewer players to WWI and the essential war industries than other top clubs.
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).
Rich: Amazing. After winning the World Series in 1918, the Red Sox struggled with losing records in 1919 and 1920 under the leadership of Barrow. Ruth was sold to the Yankees after the 1919 season so I can understand why Boston lost more games than it won in 1920. But why did the team do so poorly in 1919 after winning it all the year before?
Dan: The Red Sox regressed both offensively and defensively. Despite Barrow recognizing the ability of future Hall of Famer Herb Pennock and inserting him into the rotation, the pitching staff collapsed, falling to seventh in the league in ERA. Key rotation starter Joe Bush missed nearly entire season with shoulder problems, Sam Jones turned in possibly his worst season, and Frazee sold Carl Mays amid a huge uproar in July. On offense, Ruth was the lone bright spot. No other player recorded a slugging percentage above .375. And although home runs were less common in 1919, it is still shocking that the rest of the team combined for only four during the entire season. Maybe even more basically, as players returned to baseball from the armed services and war related industries, other teams, particularly the Chicago White Sox, received a bigger boost than Boston.
Rich: I wanted to ask you what made Barrow give up his uniform and a spot in the dugout for a suit and the title of general manager, but I see from the wonderful photos inside the book that Ed was one of those managers who chose to wear a pair of slacks, a coat, a tie, and a fedora rather than a baseball cap.
Dan: Ever since his days working in and hanging around the Pittsburg sporting scene in the Gay Nineties, Barrow liked to dress well.
Rich: Was Barrow's move as a manager of the Red Sox to general manager of the Yankees more a function of wanting to change roles or teams?
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?
Dan: Barrow certainly liked to claim he did, but the truth is a little more nuanced. In 1895, Barrow's first year in Organized Baseball, he owned and managed a team in Wheeling, West Virginia, first in the Inter-State League and then the Iron and Oil League. Wagner also played in these leagues, and Barrow would certainly have noticed him, although his older brother, Al, was generally viewed as the bigger star.
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: Barrow was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1953, six months before his death. What did that honor mean to him?
Dan: Barrow’s ego and self-worth were completely wrapped up in his baseball success. It is impossible to overstate what his election meant to the eighty-five-year-old Barrow. His wife observed that being chosen for the Hall “kept him alive longer than he would have lived otherwise.”
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.