Posts Tagged ‘Arthur Soden’

The Emporer Nails It

January 24, 2013
Arthur Soden

Arthur Soden

One thing I’ve learned over a lifetime is that there is great truth to the old saw “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”  Consider this little gem from De Pretiis, the edict on prices promulgated by the Roman Emperor Diocletian in 301 of the common era:

“The only desire of these uncontrolled madmen is to have no thought for the common welfare, for with them the immoderate and unscrupulous is almost a creed.”

Diocletian would have understood Arthur Soden.

Soden was born in Massachusetts in 1843.  He had a job in pharmaceutical supplies when the American Civil War broke out. He was drafted into the 22nd Massachusetts Infantry in 1863, rising, because of his experience with pharmaceuticals, to hospital steward in 1864.

Out of the army, Soden ran a roofing company and became a baseball fan. In 1874, a group of ball players, joined by several fans, toured Britain giving exhibitions. Soden was one of the fans and actually played in one game (This is not the more famous Spaulding tour that went around the world). Back home, Soden bought three shares in the Boston National League club (now the Atlanta Braves) for a total of $45 (or $15 a share–try that today).  With the team floundering after the 1876 season, Soden, joined by William Conant (a hoop skirt maker) and J.B. Billings (who ran a shoe factory), bought the team. Soden became team President with the other two becoming secretary and treasurer.

Initially the team did well, picking up pennants in 1877 and 1878, but problems were developing. To put it as bluntly as possible, Soden made misers look good. He rented rundown hotels for the teams on away trips, cut meal money, used the players as a grounds crew. The players were required to launder their uniforms at their expense, wives were charged full price to watch their husbands play, and the team offered incentives (I’ve been unable to find exactly what, but it must have been something odd.) if a player could make his shoelaces last two years. Then he cut salaries, going first for future Hall of Fame shortstop George Wright. That brought complaints from both team members and the shortstop’s brother, manager Harry Wright. The upshot of it all was that Harry Wright was fired and the team began to flounder.

Here’s a list I found for the period 1875-1880: clubhouse upkeep dropped from $$1626 to $551 per year; travel expenses went from $4000 a season to $2813 a year (reference is made here to the rundown hotels); and payroll dropped 20% to an average of $1377 per player. Meanwhile Soden and his two cronies were making salaries of $2500 a year. Unfortunately for the players, the penny-pinching worked. The team was turning a profit by 1880 and to be absolutely honest, Soden cared only about the profit margin. He admitted on more than one occasion he was in it for profits, not for love of the game.

This sort of attitude caught the attention of another team leader that Diocletian would have understood, National League President William Hulbert. Soden became one of Hulbert’s most trust advisors (birds of a feather, you see) and when Hulbert died in 1882 Soden was chosen interim President (he served for only a few months). While President he managed to return baseball to both New York and Philadlephia, each of which was banned under Hulbert’s Presidency (another story for another time).

Back running the Boston franchise, Soden was one of the leaders in attempting to break the first player’s union in 1890, an organization his actions had done much to help form. For one of the few times in his life he was generous, loaning money to other teams (at interest) to help them weather the Player’s League storm. He was instrumental in forming the reserve rule and ruthless in dealing with players who rocked the boat.

He also had the endearing habit of ignoring his players. He felt that owners and players were of decidedly different social class and shouldn’t mix. He didn’t travel with the team (but did attend home games). One player speculated Soden didn’t want to be seen in the flophouse hotels his players were forced to call home. Catcher Boileryard Clarke played for Boston two seasons. He once commented that he never spoke with Soden and was reasonably sure Soden never knew Clarke was on the team.

But you can’t make a profit with a losing team. By the late 1880s, the Beaneaters (Soden’s team) was making money, so he was able to invest in better quality players. He picked up Hall of Famers King Kelly and John Clarkson in the late 1880s and by the early 1890s his team was in contention. They won pennants in 1891-1893, and again in 1897 and 1898. the 1892 season was a split season with Boston winning one half and Cleveland the other. In the first split season playoff ever, Boston won the championship. In 1897 they won the last ever Temple Cup.

But Soden was in trouble. Although his team was successful, the players still hated working for him. With the arrival of Ban Johnson and the American League in 1901, the Beaneaters were decimated. The team fell off rapidly. The new team in Boston, the Americans (now the Red Sox), were drawing fans in droves and the Beaneaters were dying at the gate. In 1906, Soden sold the team for $75,000 which he split with Conant (Billings had sold out to the other two in 1904). Retired from baseball, Soden continued working (he owned, operated, or was co-owner in a number of businesses). He died while on vacation in 1925.

Because of the way he treated his players, it’s difficult to like Soden. There is a ruthless streak in him that Roman Emperors would have understood but that strikes us today as overboard. It’s fair to say of Soden that he was no worse than many of his contemporaries. It’s also fair to say that in many ways the road from him to Marvin Miller is a reasonably straight line. That Diocletian would never have understood.

Diocletian (follis)

Diocletian (follis)

My Top List of Terrible Owners

September 19, 2011

Where these guys belong

Baseball is full of terrible players and coaches. I guess it’s not fair to call any player who makes it to the Major Leagues “terrible”, but there’s definitely a lot of players that are at best marginal. And coaches and managers can be real duds. But somehow owners tend to get overlooked by casual fans. Most people don’t seem to pay much attention to the impact of ownership. Well, baseball has had some really awful owners too. Here’s my Mount Rushmore (4 guys) of terrible owners in no particular order.

Charles Comiskey: The only owner who ever had his team mutiny to such an extent it was willing to dump a World Series. Ultimately the players themselves must take blame for their own actions, but Comiskey did more than his share to help them along with their choices. Comiskey was cheap, but so was Connie Mack. What Comiskey lacked was a shred of respect for his players, and that makes him lower on the ownership scale and thus higher on the Rushmore scale. And I’m not sure I understand it exactly. Charles Comiskey was a former player, actually a pretty good one. He was first baseman and manager of the St. Louis Browns team that won pennant after pennant in the 1880s. Having been a player, having seen the tussles with ownership and the league offices, I find it strange he seems to have had no sympathy at all for the plight of his players. Maybe it was an “I went through it, so can you” attitude. Maybe he was just a jerk. Whatever it was he gets a spot on my Mount Rushmore. And for what it’s worth, although Clifton James doesn’t look at all like Comiskey, his portrayal of the White Sox owner in “Eight Men Out” is pretty close (except that the flat champagne episode occurred in 1917, not 1919).

The Robison Brothers: Because there were two of them, the Robison brothers occupy two spaces on Mount Rushmore. Frank was the older brother. He married the daughter of the man who ran the Cleveland, Ohio streetcar company, Charles Hathaway. Today that doesn’t sound like a way to make a great deal of money, but in an era without subways, cars, or buses, the streetcar was the quickest, easiest way for someone to get across town to see the doctor or go to work or whatever. So the Robison’s made a lot of money, a whole lot of money. Very early on Frank brought in younger brother Stanley to help run the business. Between them they got very rich. Frank Robison was also a baseball fan (as was Stanley to a lesser degree). He decided that Cleveland should have a big league team and in 1887 he started up the Cleveland Blues, later renamed the Spiders. They joined the National League the same year. Mostly they weren’t very good. In 1892 that changed. Among other things, they picked up (the year before) a youngster named Cy Young who seemed to have some potential. It was the year of the first split season. Cleveland won the second half, then lost the playoff to Boston. In 1895 and 1896 they played for the Temple Cup, winning in ’95. It was the apex of the team and so far so good for the brothers as owners. But the Robison’s had a plan to make more money. In 1898 the National League forced St. Louis owner Chris Von Der Ahe to sell the Browns. The Robison’s bought the team. In 1898 it was legal to own two teams. It was called “syndicate baseball” and there were three of them, including the Robison’s. With St. louis being a much larger market (4th largest US city at the time),  the Robison’s immediately began stripping the Cleveland team of its best players and sent them, Cy Young included, to St. Louis. The Browns didn’t do any better and the Spiders were awful. At the end of the year, the NL shut down the team. Frank died in 1908, leaving Stanley in charge. In 1905 Stanley had tried his hand at managing the team. He went 19-31 (which was better than Ted Turner’s foray into managing). Now in charge, Stanley proceeded to watch his team continue to flounder. He died in 1911, leaving the team to Frank’s daughter.

The Robison’s make my Mount Rushmore because of their callous disregard for the fans and the city that made them, Cleveland. They had gotten rich off Cleveland and then they caused the town to lose its team and its finest players. Did it bother them? Apparently not. And they didn’t make St. Louis any better in the long run. The team went from last to fifth (but they had two rosters, theirs and Cleveland’s to use), but then stagnated topping out at fourth in 1901. About the only positive thing the Robison’s did was to change the uniform color from brown to cardinal red, thus giving the team its current nickname, Cardinals.

Emil Fuchs: Fuchs was the Giants attorney. In 1922 he joined with Christy Mathewson in buying the Boston Braves. Mathewson’s ill-health put Fuchs in charge. He proceeded to run the team into the ground. He knew nothing about baseball other than what he’d picked up as attorney for the Giants, couldn’t evaluate talent, couldn’t be bothered with the small details of keeping up a stadium. In 1928 he bought Rogers Hornsby as manager, found a way to make money, and sold Hornsby the next season to the Cubs. With no manager, he tried his hand at running the team on the field himself. They finished dead last. In 1935, out of money, unable to pay rent on the stadium, he bought Babe Ruth from the Yankees. He promised Ruth a vice presidency, a managerial job, and a share of the profits. Well, there were no profits, the vice presidency was nominal, and Fuchs admitted he wasn’t going to fire his current manager, Bill McKechnie  (who ended up a Hall of Fame manager). Ruth, not unreasonably, quit. At the end of the 1935 season, broke, short of players, out of options, Fuchs sold the team back to one of the men he’d bought it from in 1922.

So there they are, my four Mount Rushmore lousy owners. There are a lot of other people available; Arthur Soden who destroyed the great Beaneaters dynasty of the 1890s, Arthur Freedman who almost managed to destroy the Giants before John McGraw got there, Harry Frazee who sold away a rejuvenated Red Sox, Earle Mack who almost destroyed his dad’s Athletics, Frank McCourt who is currently destroying the Dodgers, the guys who’ve run the Royals and Pirates into the ground. And a host of others too. But for my money, these four are the guys I’d least like to see run my team.