Wednesday, February 29, 2012
Unsung Yankee History: The Time The Yankees Waived a Player Having an All-Star Season
This is the first in a series of examinations into different games, events and decisions that impacted Yankees history in some way, shape or form. Stories that are not as famous as, say, “The Flip” or Babe Ruth calling his own shot, but still have a place in Yankees history, especially for die-hard fans.
Today we take a look at how the Yankees shocked the baseball world with a waiver claim that was so controversial that a couple of years later Major League Baseball changed the waiver rules to prevent something like it from ever happening again.
Henry “Hank” Borowy signed with the Yankees in 1939 after graduating from Columbia University where he had a standout career as a pitcher (the Chicago Cubs tried to sign him after his sophomore year for a $7,500 signing bonus). Every team in baseball wanted to sign Borowy, but he grew up in New Jersey a Yankee fan and, more importantly, he figured that as a Yankee he would have a better chance at making a World Series bonus (World Series shares were a major chunk of a player’s overall salary back in those days). Borowy was known as a shrewd negotiator his whole career in baseball (there’s a great, almost assuredly apocryphal, story that when he signed with the Yankees his contract was originally for $8,000 but when the Yankee representative’s pen ran out of ink he left to get a new pen and returned to find that the contract was now for $8,500).
Borowy joined the Yankees in 1942 and quickly became an integral part of their starting rotation. He went 15-4 with a 2.52 ERA as the Yankees won the pennant. Borowy even got a couple of MVP votes. He was rocked in Game 4 of the World Series, though, as the Yankees were upset by the St. Louis Cardinals in five games. In 1943, Borowy went 14-9 with a 2.82 ERA. He redeemed his World Series loss in the 1943 World Series as he won Game 3 of the Series against the Cardinals (with the Series tied at a game apiece). The Yankees went on to win in five games. He had his finest season for the Yankees in 1944 as he went 17-12 with a 2.64 ERA. He made his first All-Star Game with Yankee manager Joseph McCarthy giving him the nod as the starter for the American League. He once again received MVP votes (even though the Yankees failed to win the pennant).
In 1945, Borowy was still possibly the best pitcher on a pretty weak Yankee pitching staff (he was selected as an All-Star, although they did not play an All-Star Game that year). The team’s offense helped carry the team (led by an impressive infield that had three All-Stars that year - Snuffy Stirnweiss, Nick Etten and Oscar Grimes) and at the end of July, the team was just 4 games behind the first place Detroit Tigers. Borowy was 10-5 with a 3.13 ERA. However, on July 27, 1945, Larry MacPhail (who had purchased the team earlier that year, along with Daniel Topping and Del Webb) announced that the Yankees had traded Borowy to the Chicago Cubs for an undisclosed dollar figure and perhaps some players to be named later (the figure was rumored to be $100,000 and turned out to be $97,500 and the players were so forgettable that I am not even sure if they even existed - if they did, they were sent to the minor leagues and were never heard from again).
The deal was shocking because of the existence of the trade deadline, which had passed a month earlier. The trade deadline was designed to avoid star players being traded late in the season. As is true today, though, teams can get around the trade deadline by placing a player on waivers. If a player is claimed by another team, they can work out a deal with the team that claims the player. If the player passes through waivers unclaimed, then the team can trade the player to any team. If the team does not want to trade the player to the team that claims him, they can pull the player from the waiver wire. Nowadays, a team can only pull a player back from the waiver wire once per season. If they place him on waivers again, it is irrevocable. In the old days, though, teams could place a player on waivers, pull him back if he is claimed and then repeat the process as often as they liked. As a result, it was relatively common for star players to be placed on waivers and go unclaimed, as the others teams presumed that the team would just pull the player back. Heck, some teams would often use the waiver wire as an attempt to see what other teams were looking for. If a team claimed one of your pitchers, it gave you an idea that they were looking for pitching and you could try to work out a deal with them during the offseason with that in mind. Moreover, in order for a player to be traded from one league to another, said player would have to go unclaimed by all the other teams in his league.
Borowy passed through unclaimed by the other seven American League teams and so was made available to the Chicago Cubs.
Cubs general manager Jim Gallagher later recalled MacPhail calling him up to offer him Borowy:
“How the hell can you ever get waivers on him?” Gallagher asked.
“I’ve got the waivers,” MacPhail replied. “Do you want him, or don’t you?”
They did. The Cubs were in first place at the time of the deal and the deal seemed to cinch the pennant for them. Borowy went 11-2 with a 2.13 ERA (he finished 6th in the MVP voting) as the Cubs went on to lose to the Detroit Tigers in the 1945 World Series. Borowy amazingly had four decisions in the series, going 2-2, including the series-clinching loss in Game 7 (after winning in relief in Game 6 to force a Game 7). He is an answer to a pair of intriguing trivia questions “Who is the last pitcher to win a World Series game for the Cubs?” as well as “Who is the last pitcher to lose a World Series game for the Cubs?” He is also one of only three pitchers to win 20 games in a season where he played for teams in both leagues (can you name the other two?).
MacPhail’s true reasons for selling Borowy while the Yankees were in the midst of the pennant race are a mystery. Even his family never learned his true motives. Here are the various theories:
1. MacPhail felt that Borowy was tailing off. After starting 11-4 in 1944 he finished at 17-12. In the weeks leading up to the deal, Borowy was pitching poorly. MacPhail supposedly exclaimed (doing his best George Steinbrenner impression) “He’ll never pitch for the Yankees again!” after Borowy gave up a pinch-hit grand slam to a pitcher (who was pinch-hitting for a pitcher) in a Yankee loss to the Detroit Tigers (with the son of the Detroit Tigers’ owner as his guest in the owner’s box). With World War II over and the Yankees returning their veterans to the team, MacPhail believed that the team would have better pitchers than Borowy on the 1946 team and that Borowy would falter against non-Wartime opposition.
2. Borowy had blister problems. Borowy did have problems with a blister, but it seems unlikely that the Yankees would get rid of him for something like that.
3. Borowy couldn’t finish games. This was actually the stated reason MacPhail gave at the time for the move. “This year he pitched three complete games for us after April, none after June 24. Last season he won only five and lost eight after July 15. In short, he has not been, for the Yankees, a pitcher who could be relied on when pitching class was needed most.” To add insult to injury, Borowy finished 11 of the 14 games he started for Chicago in 1945. Even after the season, though, MacPhail continued to disparage Borowy, “Borowy had his chance with us and he failed,”
4. MacPHail was trying to drive Joseph McCarthy away. MacPhail was not a big McCarthy fan, and the feeling was mutual. The Hall of Fame Yankee manager was used to the front office letting him call the shots with the roster, and something like this was a real shock to his system, as Borowy was a favorite of his (at the time, MacPhail claimed that he had made the decision with McCarthy, but that appears to be false. McCarthy, who had been dealing with a drinking problem for some time, had taken three weeks off from the team to deal with his drinking soon before the deal. He had offered to resign at the time, but MacPhail turned him down, choosing to hold him to his contract for 1946. The two continued to argue in 1946 and MacPhail let McCarthy step down 35 games into the 1946 season. Since McCarthy had left the team and offered to resign before the trade, this one does not seem to make sense.
5. MacPhail wanted the money. MacPhail did tend to run the Yankees with a tight fist and $97,500 for a player was a lot of money (it was somewhat surprising to see Cubs owner William Wrigley willing to spend the sum - the last time he spent that much money on a player).
6. Macphail believed that Borowy was about to be drafted. Possible, but Borowy was classified 2-B at the time as an “essential worker in the war industries” (he worked at the Eastern Tool and Manufacturing Company in Bloomfield, NJ during the offseason) so he was unlikely to be drafted. In fact, so much fuss was made about the deal at the time that the draft board actually went in and re-examined whether Borowy was correctly classified. They determined that he was not, changing his status to 2-A, “contributing to the war effort, but not actually on the assembly line.” Luckily for Borowy, he was not called up before the end of the war.
7. MacPhail owed a favor to Jim Gallagher from a great trade that MacPhail had made with Gallagher and the Cubs a few years back when he was running the Dodgers. MacPhail had picked up future Hall of Famer Billy Herman from the Cubs right before Herman had the finest offensive season of his career. This seems a bit too conspiratorial for my tastes, especially with no real corroborating evidence.
I think the truth lies with a mix of #5 and #1. MacPhail felt Borowy was going to be a luxury when the player returned from the war and if he could get $97,500 for him now, it was better for the team to do so. Borowy did not have nearly as much success after the War as he did during the War (67-32 in his first four seasons from 1942-1945 and 37-42 in his next four from 1946-1949), so MacPhail might have had a point. And the “four games out of first” thing was a bit overblown, as they were behind two teams at the time and just barely ahead of a third and MacPhail could have reasonably felt that the team just was not as good as Detroit that year.
In any event, the deal outraged the other American League clubs, none more so than the then-second place Washington Senators. Their owner Clark Griffith argued that Major League Baseball Commissioner Happy Chandler should veto the deal or at least launch an investigation into how the deal came about. Griffith stated that he would have paid $100,000 for Borowy had he known MacPhail was seriously offering the player up. MacPhail mocked Griffith’s position, “Investigation, hell. That request for waivers was on Griffith’s desk for four days. He could have claimed him any time during that period before the deadline. But Griffith would not have given up $100,000 for Borowy with the Queen Mary thrown in and maybe a couple of smaller steamships.”
Griffith got some measure of revenge when he pushed for the rules to change and in 1947, the waiver rules were altered to their current configuration. With the knowledge that the Yankees would be blocked from placing Borowy on waivers again later in the season, there is no doubt that one of the American League teams would have put in a claim on the pitcher, if only to block him from being traded to another team.
Thanks to Lyle Spatz, whose SABR biography of Borowy was the best I’ve read. Lots of great information. Thanks also to Chicago Sports Memories for the Jim Gallagher quotes.
If you have any suggestions for future Unsung Yankees History pieces, drop me a line at email@example.com.
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