Imagine Ted Williams, Bob Feller, Phil Rizzuto and Stan Musial playing the 1946 season not for their respective major league clubs but on teams in Mexico.
Sounds far fetched? Not to Jorge Pasquel.
In 1946, the flamboyant millionaire president of the Mexican League envisioned elevating his circuit to a “major-league” level by stocking its teams with major-league talent, and he tried to convince some of the biggest names in baseball to jump their contracts to play south of the border.
Pasquel’s raids ignited a conflict between the Mexican League and MLB that precipitated a challenge to baseball’s reserve clause years before Curt Flood, and that shaped the direction of baseball in Latin America.
“This was a man who certainly shook up Major League Baseball,” said Texas Tech University associate dean Jorge Iber, who contributed the chapter on Mexico to the 2017 book, “Baseball Beyond Our Borders: An International Game.”
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Nationalistic pride and “extreme” self confidence, Iber said, allowed Pasquel to think he could take on MLB, and the first major-leaguer he convinced to bolt for Mexico was Danny Gardella, a free-spirited World War II-era New York Giants outfielder better known for handstands than his prowess at the plate (career-high 18 home runs in 1945).
Bound to the Giants by the reserve clause, Gardella refused to accept a $5,000 salary offer for the 1946 season – the same amount he was paid the previous year. Thanks to an earlier chance encounter with Pasquel, Gardella then signed with the Mexican League for $8,000 and a $5,000 signing bonus.
MLB’s “Mexican League War” was officially engaged “at the 100th anniversary to the start of the Mexican-American War,” which according to Iber, “Mexican newspapers gleefully noted.”
“Jorge goes and visits to New York City and runs into Danny Gardella, and he was actually shocked that Gardella was working during the offseason as a trainer at a New York athletic club in order to make ends meet,” Iber said. “So, I think it’s a combination of nationalism, it’s a combination of his shock at the way that (major-league) ballplayers were treated and also the fact that he really believed that Mexico could sustain major-league level competition.”
After Gardella, the signings ramped up.
Brooklyn Dodgers outfielder Luis Olmo signed for three years at $40,000. Giants pitcher Sal Maglie left for $10,500. Dodgers All-Star catcher Mickey Owens took a five-year deal at $15,000 per year with a $12,500 signing bonus. St. Louis Browns star shortstop Vern Stephens accepted a five-year, $75,000 contact.
But the really eye-popping offers came for the biggest names: three years at $120,000 per year for Cleveland’s Feller; $100,000 for the Boston Red Sox’s Williams, whose 1946 salary was $40,000; $60,000 plus a $15,000 bonus for the New York Yankees’ Rizzuto; $130,000 over five years for the St. Louis Cardinals‘ Musial, whose salary was $13,500 in 1946.
Pasquel failed to lure the star players, but the Mexican League convinced about 20 major-leaguers to jump their contracts, including three of Musial’s teammates – in the middle of a series against the Giants.
When Cardinals lefty Max Lanier, infielder Lou Klein and pitcher Fred Martin failed to show up at the Polo Grounds on May 23, 1946, a note greeted Cardinals second baseman Red Schoendienst at the Hotel New Yorker.
“So long, Red. Keep hitting line drives. I’ll see you next winter and we’ll go hunting. Best of luck,” read the message from Lanier, his roommate on the road and the team’s top pitcher at 6-0 with a 1.93 ERA.
Even before wooing the Cardinals trio, Pasquel’s brazenness had forced baseball commissioner Happy Chandler to act.
He declared ineligible any player who jumped his contract to play in Mexico, banning them from playing in “Organized Baseball” for at least five years. He also declared that anyone who played, coached or managed with or against the “jumpers” would be ineligible as well. Chandler’s edict inflicted collateral damage elsewhere in Latin America.
Because so many in the Cuban League played with or against jumpers – in Mexico during the summer and Cuba during the winter – Chandler effectively branded Cuba’s winter league a rogue circuit.
Dozens of Cuban players had to choose between participating in their country’s winter league or maintaining their eligibility in Organized Baseball. Many chose homeland.
Miguel Ángel “Mike” González, for example, played eight of his 17 major-league seasons with the Cardinals before before becoming the team’s third base coach. But González walked away from St. Louis rather than give up his ownership stake in the Habana team in the Cuban League.
In 1947, González joined a contingent of Cuban baseball officials to negotiate a truce with Organized Baseball. The resulting agreement brought the Cuban League into MLB’s good graces as an unaffiliated minor league. In return, the league stopped using ineligible players, including Cubans. The agreement also established rules by which Cuban League teams could sign American players in the future.
By 1948, the Puerto Rican, Venezuelan and Panamanian winter leagues joined the Cuban League under the umbrella of Organized Baseball. The four countries also established the first incarnation of the Caribbean Series.
Meanwhile, the Mexican League struggled under the financial burden of hefty contracts doled out by Pasquel, prompting him to cut salaries for the 1947 season. The league shut down prematurely in 1948 and Pasquel resigned as president. The league returned the following year fully committed to honoring MLB contracts and joined Organized Baseball in 1955, along with the Dominican League, essentially bringing baseball in Latin America under MLB’s control.
As for the jumpers, only Stephens, who was spirited out of Mexico shortly after the seasons began, was allowed to return to the majors in 1946. Owen, disillusioned, fled Mexico with the help of a taxi driver in July 1946 but was denied MLB eligibility by Chandler.
Those who stayed in Mexico, including Lanier, balked at Pasquel’s pay cuts and threatened to sit out. But they remained banned from playing in the U.S. and had few options.
At one point, Lanier considered semipro ball, going so far as to send a telegram to a team in Cleveland, essentially begging for a job: “Heard that you had a baseball club. I would like to pitch for you this summer. If you would be interested, wire me collect.”
In 1947, Gardella filed a lawsuit challenging baseball’s reserve clause. As that case wound its way through federal courts, Lanier and Martin in 1949 filed a $2.5 million lawsuit claiming MLB was a monopoly in violation of the Sherman and Clayton antitrust laws.
“The threat that the Mexican League would challenge baseball’s monopoly through its player contracts was real,” William Marshall wrote in his 1999 book “Baseball’s Pivotal Era: 1945-1951.”
When the U.S. Court of Appeals refused to reinstate Gardella, Lanier and Martin in 1949, Chandler used the opening to offer an olive branch, reducing the jumpers’ ban from five years to three, allowing all jumpers to return immediately.
Owen returned to the majors in 1949 with the Chicago Cubs but ended up bankrupt after fighting breach-of-contract lawsuits from Pasquel. Lanier and Martin, thrilled to be back with the Cardinals, dropped their lawsuit. Gardella eventually settled – “It is like Judas taking money and saying, ‘I’m being bought off,’ ” he said of the settlement. Gardella played only one more game in the majors, in 1950.
Pasquel’s efforts ultimately failed, but the Mexican League episode was a harbinger of MLB’s coming storm over unionization (the MLBPA was formed in 1966 and negotiated the first collective bargaining agreement in professional sports in 1968), the reserve clause (challenged by Flood in 1969 and struck down by an arbitrator in 1975) and free agency, which changed the sport forever.
“I would compare (Pasquel) to maybe a Lamar Hunt (who founded the AFL in 1959 as a rival to the NFL before the leagues merged in 1970),” Iber said. “There’s opportunities for individual athletes to play in another league, maybe make a little bit of money and challenge and basically kick the status quo in the rear and maybe get them moving in a different direction.”
Cesar Brioso is author of “Havana Hardball” and “Last Seasons in Havana.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ted Williams, Bob Feller, Stan Musial once pursued by Mexican League
Source: Yahoo Sports