Joe Cronin, A Life in Baseball
By Mark Armour
University of Nebraska Press, 2010
List Price: $31.95
On a cool, rainy May night in 1984, the Red Sox honored two of the franchise’s greatest players by retiring their numbers in a pregame ceremony. Ted Williams and Joe Cronin were the first players ever so recognized by the team, and while they were beloved by the city of Boston, fewer than 10,000 fans showed up for a game that was eventually rained out. Among the crowd was a young Mark Armour, who had no inclination at that time that a quarter century later he would pen Cronin’s biography, “Joe Cronin, A Life in Baseball.”
Cronin, who died less than four months later, was too weak to join Williams on the field that night. He watched from upstairs while his daughter Maureen accepted his award from former teammate Bobby Doerr. Armour, like many Sox fans, was more interested in Williams at the time.
“Cronin was the old guy waving from the box,” he recalls.
Of course, Cronin’s legacy in Boston runs every bit as deep as Williams’, if not deeper. Purchased from the Washington Senators in October 1934 for a then-record $250,000, he was immediately installed as the club’s shortstop and manager, a role he had fulfilled for two seasons in Washington. Cronin skippered the Sox for 13 years, playing in 11 of those. After the 1947 season, he moved upstairs into the general manager’s role, a job he held for 11 years before graduating to president of the American League in 1959.
Armour, who serves as the director of the Society for American Baseball Research’s Baseball Biography Project, became intrigued with Cronin while working on a book called “Paths to Glory: How Great Baseball Teams Got That Way,” which he co-authored with Dan Levitt. They included several teams that fell short of greatness, including two different disappointing eras in Boston history, both of which Cronin had a hand in.
“I’ve been reading baseball history since I was a kid and I’ve been writing about it in essays for years,” Armour says. “I wanted to write one story. He was in the game so long and played so many different roles it allowed me to tell the story of how the game evolved.”
Born and raised in the talent hotbed of San Francisco, Cronin signed with the Pirates at 18 for a $200 bonus. Three years later he reached Washington after a detour through Kansas City in the American Association. At 26, he took the helm of the Senators, becoming the youngest player manager to lead his team to the World Series in his managerial debut. With the team facing mounting debts, owner Clark Griffith, the uncle of Cronin’s wife Mildred, sold his star to the rival Red Sox.
Boston owner Tom Yawkey’s lavish spending restored the team from doormat to perennial contender—at least for second place behind the dominant Yankees. For most of Cronin’s time as manager and GM the team was competitive, finishing third or better 12 times, and winning the AL pennant in 1946. Over time Cronin became involved in league matters, working on the minor league revision committee as well as the major league pension committee, among other side projects. When AL President Will Harridge stepped down, Cronin and New York’s George Weiss were the only serious candidates to replace him.
Though his career included numerous accomplishments, Cronin is best remembered by many today as one of the men who delayed integration in Boston. The Red Sox were the last team in the major leagues to sign and play black players. Cronin was the manager at the time of the team’s infamous Jackie Robinson sham tryout in April 1945. The Red Sox didn’t integrate their major league roster until 1959, months after Cronin’s tenure as GM had ended, though there were several black players in their minor league system during the ’50s.
Cronin certainly could have influenced this. In addition to Robinson, the Sox chose to pass on Willie Mays and other players who could have dramatically altered the club’s fortunes.
“I dreaded talking about the whole race thing,” Armour says. “That race issue has kind of taken over the whole story for many. He was not a saint by any means, but he was probably a good guy.”
Armour sought out primary sources from Cronin’s day instead of relying on stories and rumors that have circulated, and in many cases mutated, over the past 60 years. He questions, for example, the report that someone present at the Robinson tryout yelled “Get those niggers off the field.” Pittsburgh Courier reporter Wendell Smith was one of a handful of men present that day and he reported no such outburst. Nor did any of the other papers of the day. Armour tracks the line back to Boston Globe writer Clif Keane, who went public with this account in 1979, 34 years after the tryout.
Boston’s 86-year drought between World Series titles inspired some rewriting of history on the part of anguished fans. The Cronin years were not viewed as a failure by the fans of his time. The club suffered just three losing seasons in his 13 years as skipper, with two of those coming during World War II, when the roster was almost completely depleted of talent. They finished in the upper division in 10 of his 11 years as GM, though they weren’t generally far over .500 for most of the 1950s.
Cronin’s weakness as GM wasn’t just failing to sign talented young black players, it was failing to sign talented young players of any color. He threw bonus money at the wrong youngsters, most of whom never made the bigs. Many of his trades were made with short-term return in mind. Armour cites this as a contributing factor to the team’s post-Cronin struggles.
By the time the American League presidency was eliminated in 1999, the position was largely symbolic. During Cronin’s two terms the leagues enjoyed much more independence, and he was one of the most powerful figures in the game. He didn’t always use that power appropriately, however. Armour describes Cronin’s attempt to break the umpires’ union in 1968 as one of the lowlights of his career. He also had a hard time relating to the players of the 1960s and ’70s, as they yearned for free agency and a greater slice of the pie.
“Cronin was somebody, like many of his generation, who honestly believed in his heart—he grew up poor, he learned the game on his own—he believed he was proof that the system worked,” Armour says. “How could the players not think this was the best system in the world?”
This kind of thinking made him something of a dinosaur well before his tenure as AL president concluded in 1973. His rise through the ranks is unlikely to be replicated in modern times.
“I think his life story is sort of somewhat his struggle in later roles, showing he wasn’t really qualified for them in the standards of today,” Armour says. “His qualification was he was a great shortstop and he knew people.”
Of his many roles, he was most successful as a player. Cronin represented the AL in seven All-Star games and would likely have played in at least three more had the exhibition begun sooner. He averaged 123 RBIs in the three years preceding the inaugural All-Star contest in 1933. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1956. When baseball assembled an all-time all-star team in 1969 to commemorate the sport’s 100th anniversary, Cronin was the starting shortstop. While one could certainly have made an argument even then for others (particularly Honus Wagner), in the 1930s he was the best the position had to offer.
“Joe Cronin” provides a balanced look at the long career of a baseball lifer. Armour is critical of Cronin’s failings, but fair in his overall assessment of the man. We’ve been blessed with a plethora of Hall of Fame biographies this spring (Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Old Hoss Radbourn, among others). Don’t overlook Cronin while boning up on your baseball history.
James Bailey is a former associate editor at Baseball America. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.