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Bad Decisions: Selling Pee Wee
There’s no reason at all for Tom Yawkey to be in the baseball Hall of Fame.
He owned the Red Sox for over 40 years, and in that time they won just three pennants and never won the World Series. He also dragged his feat in integrating the team, making them the last major league franchise to do so. This was after he helped write a report for his fellow owners in 1946 that recommended major league baseball remain segregated. It was also after political pressure forced him to hold a tryout at Fenway Park for three Black players in 1945, but he then refused to sign any of them. One of them was Jackie Robinson.
There are any number of executives with more impressive overall cases to be inducted into Cooperstown, yet Yawkey made the cut in 1980, four years after he died. His former manager and general manager, Joe Cronin, was a powerful voice on the Veterans Committee at the time, and managed to push through Yawkey’s election. This was done instead of electing anyone from the Negro Leagues, which the Veterans Committee had the responsibility for at the time, but that’s a subject for another day. Or even for a book.
Cronin was also a key player in one of Yawkey’s many blunders as owner of the Red Sox. He told him to sell Pee Wee Reese.
In 1938, Reese had singed with the local Louisville Colonels of the American Association. At the time, they were affiliated with the Brooklyn Dodgers, but that contract lapsed, so the team no longer had a tie to any major league franchise. Around the same time, the Colonels’ owner passed away, leaving the club to his children, none of whom had an interest in keeping it.
Reese had played well in his rookie year, and was viewed as a valuable property. Several clubs attempted to purchase his contract, but they were all turned down as the club waited for better offers. The team’s management knew that if they sold Reese, the team’s best player, they would have considerable trouble selling the entire team as well. Their solution to this problem was to tell the next team that made an offer to buy Reese, which happened to be Yawkey’s Red Sox, that he was only for sale as part of the entire team. Buy the team, and Reese was yours.
Yawkey sent his farm director to look at Reese again, and he gave a glowing recommendation, seeing Reese as a perfect replacement for the team’s current shortstop and manager, Joe Cronin. This led Yawkey to pull together a couple of partners and buy the entire Louisville team for a reported $195,000. Pee Wee Reese was now Red Sox property.
The following Spring Training, in 1939, Cronin decided he didn’t like what he saw in Reese. His reasons for that have generally been reported as having to do with personal vanity. He was 32-years old during the 1939 season and still thought he had several years left in his career. He had no interest in training his own replacement and potentially giving Yawkey and the team a reason to end his playing days, and maybe his tenure as the team’s manager, prematurely.
Other reports indicate that Cronin genuinely thought Reese was overrated based on his play in a handful of Spring Training games that Cronin witnessed. Either way, Cronin made the recommendation that Reese’s contract be sold before other teams realized he wasn’t as good as the team first thought.
This was, of course, preposterously short-sighted at least, and based on Cronin’s hopelessly biased opinion at worst. Selling off Reese’s contract at that point, having just purchased an entire team to get him and having barely seen him play in any actual games besides in Spring Training, would have been silly. Doing it based on just Cronin’s opinion was just plain dumb.
But that’s exactly what Tom Yawkey did.
The club put out feelers to other teams about Reese, saying he was available. During the first half of the 1939 season in Louisville, Reese played well enough to make the American Association All-Star team and draw interest from several teams. One of them was the Dodgers, who offered cash and and players to be named later. Yawkey accepted.
The amount of money has variously been reported as $25,000, $35,000 and $75,000, and the number of future players Boston would receive has been reported as two, three or four. According the baseball-reference.com, the Red Sox received $35,000 and just two players to close the deal, pitcher Red Evans and outfielder Art Parks. Neither ever played for the Red Sox, or for any other major league team after they left Brooklyn.
Reese, of course, went on to a Hall of Fame career for the Dodgers. So did Robinson, who the Red Sox turned away a few years later. The other two players the Sox turned down at that 1945 tryout were Sam Jethroe and Marvin Williams. When Jethroe finally made the majors in 1950 as a 33-year old, he led the National League in steals and won the Rookie of the Year Award. One can only image what he would have done in Fenway Park in his younger days. Williams, already a star in the Negro Leagues with a career batting average of .382, became a star in Mexico after Yawkey turned him away.
Here’s what the Red Sox lineup of the late 1940s and early 1950s could have looked like if Tom Yawkey wasn’t a racist fool:
C - Birdie Tebbetts
1B - Jackie Robinson
2B - Bobby Doerr
SS - Pee Wee Reese
3B - Johnny Pesky
LF - Ted Williams
CF - Dom DiMaggio
RF - Sam Jethroe
They’d have also had Marvin Williams on their bench, or available to use in a trade for improved pitching. But none of that happened because Tom Yawkey decided to listen to his biased manager, giving away Pee Wee Reese for virtually nothing in return, and turning away Jackie Robinson, Sam Jethroe and Marvin Williams for literally nothing in return.
It took the Red Sox another 65 years after selling Reese before they won a World Series. Yawkey was dead for 28 years by the time it finally happened.
But they stuck that dummy in the Hall of Fame anyway.
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