“FENWAY'S BEST PLAYERS”


 
1935-1945
#1   JOE CRONIN

Star player, manager, general manager, league president—only one man in baseball history has followed a career path like this one. Joe Cronin, one of the greatest shortstops in the game’s history, spent 50 years in the baseball without being fired or taking a year off. Every job was a promotion, and he came within a whisker of being baseball’s commissioner in 1965. Late in life, reflecting on all his contributions and responsibilities over the years, Joe made it clear where his heart lay. “In the end,” said Joe, “the game’s on the field.”

Joseph Edward Cronin was born in San Francisco on October 12, 1906, six months after the great earthquake and fire that devastated his home city.  Joe, a strong youth who grew to nearly 6 feet tall as a teenager, played soccer, ran track, and won the boys’ city tennis championship in 1920. But baseball was his first love, as it was for most athletes in the city.

In 1922 Joe teamed up with Wally Berger to help win the city baseball championship at Mission High. The following summer the school burned down, and while it was being rebuilt, Joe transferred to Sacred Heart, a Catholic school a few miles north of his home. Joe starred in several sports at his new school, and his baseball team won the citywide prep school title in 1924, his senior year. By this time, Joe was also playing shortstop with summer clubs and for a semipro team in the city of Napa, north of San Francisco.

Although Cronin had long dreamed of playing for the Seals, he passed up an offer to join the San Francisco club by taking a higher offer from scout Joe Devine of the Pittsburgh Pirates in late 1924. In the spring, Joe trained with the Pirates in Paso Robles, California, but soon joined the Johnstown club of the Middle Atlantic League, hitting .313 with just three home runs but 11 triples and 18 doubles in 99 games. At the end of the season, Joe and his friend and roommate Eddie Montague joined the Pirates, working out with major leaguers and sitting on the bench while Pittsburgh beat Washington in the 1925 World Series.

The Pirates were a strong club, especially at the positions Joe would most likely play. Shortstop Glenn Wright and third baseman Pie Traynor were among the best at their positions in the game, and the 19-year-old Cronin had very little hope of playing much in 1926. He traveled with the team early in the season, pinch-running four times and scoring two runs, before being assigned to New Haven in the Eastern League. This club was operated by George Weiss, near the start of a long career in the game that would eventually land him in the Hall of Fame. By midsummer, Cronin was hitting .320 and earned another recall to the Pirates. In the latter stages of the season Joe played 38 games, mostly at second base, a position he had never played. He hit .265 for manager Bill McKechnie, a promising start for the youngster.  After spending spring training of 1928 with the team, he was sold by the Pirates to Kansas City (American Association) in early April. He was back in the minor leagues.  In July he was hitting just .245 and feared he might be sent to a lower classification club. Instead, Joe’s ship suddenly came in. Joe Engel, a scout for the Washington Senators, was making a scouting trip in the Midwest when he discovered that Cronin, whom he remembered from the Pirates, was available. The Senators, it turned out, needed an infielder, and Engel made the purchase.

The Senators needed a shortstop, oddly, because of an arm injury suffered by left fielder Goose Goslin which kept him from throwing the ball more than a few feet. The club needed Goslin’s great bat so the shortstop, Bobby Reeves, had to run out to left field to retrieve his relay throws. Though hitting well over .300 in June, Reeves began to lose weight rapidly in the summer heat, and the team at least needed a capable reserve. Cronin began as Reeves’ backup, but eventually manager Bucky Harris began playing the newcomer most of the time. Cronin hit just .242 in 63 games but played an excellent shortstop and became a favorite of his manager.  After the season Harris was fired and replaced by Walter Johnson. Johnson was a longtime Senators hero, but was not familiar with Cronin at all and said only that he would keep an open mind. The next spring Johnson moved Ossie Bluege from third base to shortstop and installed Jackie Hayes at third, but an early-season injury to Bluege gave Cronin an opening, and his strong play forced the recovered Bluege back to third base. In 145 games, including 143 at shortstop, Joe hit a solid .282 with eight home runs and 29 doubles. His 62 errors, due mainly to overaggressive throwing, did not cause alarm. Turning 22 that fall, Cronin was one of the brightest young players in the game.

In 1930 Cronin took his game up another notch, becoming the best shortstop and one of the best players in baseball. Joe hit .346 for the season, with 203 hits and 126 runs batted in. In fact, the baseball writers voted Joe the league’s MVP, ahead of Al Simmons and Lou Gehrig. It was not until 1931 that the writers’ award became the “official” MVP award, but Cronin was recognized in the press as the recipient in 1930. The Sporting News also gave Cronin its Player of the Year award.  Joe maintained his new plateau of excellence. In 1931 he hit .306 with 12 home runs and 126 runs batted in, as his club won 92 games, again well back of the Athletics. The next year he overcame a chipped bone in his thumb, suffered when he was struck by a pitch in June, to hit .318 with 116 runs batted in and a league-leading 18 triples.  Cronin silenced all of the doubters in 1933 by continuing his fine play on the field (.309 with 118 runs batted in and a league-leading 45 doubles), while simultaneously managing his team to a pennant in his first season, still the youngest manager in World Series history.

1934, was a difficult one for Cronin and the Senators. The club dropped all the way to seventh place, at 66-86, and Joe took several weeks to get on track. At the end of May his average had dropped to .215, before he finally began to hit. He got his average up to .284 with 101 runs batted in, but as the team’s manager he was more distressed by the showing of his club. On September 3 he collided with Red Sox pitcher Wes Ferrell on an infield single and broke his left forearm, finishing his season. The Red Sox offered $250,000 plus Lyn Lary for Cronin, and had agreed to sign Joe to a five-year contract as player-manager at $30,000 per year. It only needed Cronin’s OK.  Joe realized what this would mean for Griffith, and also for himself and his new wife. He told Griffith to take the deal. Two hundred fifty thousand dollars? In 1934, during the height of the Great Depression, this was an unfathomable sum. Cronin was the Alex Rodriguez of his time -- his purchase price and contract became part of his identity.

When Cronin joined the Red Sox, dubbed the "Gold Sox" or the "Millionaires" by the nation's press corps, the club was expected to win. When they did not win, the fans and press around the country typically blamed the high-priced help, including Cronin. Even worse, many of the veteran players Yawkey had acquired -- ornery men like Wes Ferrell, Lefty Grove, and Bill Werber -- did not like or respect their manager. This should not have been a big surprise; Grove did not like Connie Mack telling him what to do, and he certainly was not prepared to listen to the rich kid shortstop. The team was filled with temperamental head cases, and Cronin was younger than most of them.  In July 1936, Ferrell called Cronin to the mound and told him he would not throw another pitch until the pitcher warming up in the bullpen sat down. A month later he stormed off the mound and back to his hotel room after a Cronin error. When informed by a reporter of his $1,000 fine, he shot back, "Is that so? Well, that isn't the end of this. I'm going to punch Cronin in the jaw as soon as I see him."  A month later, Werber cursed at Cronin during a game and was ordered off the field. Cronin was not yet 30 years old when all this was going on.  The Red Sox continued to acquire controversial veterans, players who had had trouble with managers over their careers, and invariably they caused trouble with Cronin.

After a fine year at bat in 1935 (.295 with 95 runs batted in), Joe suffered through a frustrating season in 1936. The acquisition of Jimmie Foxx and others from the Athletics made the Red Sox a supposed pennant contender, but Joe’s injury-plagued season (a broken thumb limiting him to 81 games and a .281 average) helped the Red Sox finish a disappointing sixth. At this point many observers thought Joe, overweight, struggling in the field, and injured, might be through at just 30 years old.

Instead, Joe rebounded to hit .307 with 18 home runs and 110 RBIs in 1937, then .325 with 94 RBI and a league-leading 51 doubles in 1938. In the latter year, the Red Sox finished in second place with 88 wins, their most as a team in 20 years.  Cronin started seven All-Star games, including the first three, and would have started a few more had the game existed earlier in his career. In the famous 1934 game, when Carl Hubbell struck out five Immortals in succession, Cronin was the fifth victim--after Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, and Al Simmons. Less remembered today is that Cronin managed the AL team, and that the AL won the game.  The Red Sox won 89 games in 1939, and Joe had another fine year -- .308 and 107 runs batted in. Joe’s biggest problem in these years was the Yankees, who were one of history’s greatest teams.

Joe hit .285 with a career-high 24 home runs in 1940, then .311 with 95 runs batted in 1941.  After his All-Star season in 1941, he quietly stepped aside for rookie Johnny Pesky in 1942. Even with Pesky in the Navy for three years beginning in 1943, Cronin was mainly a utility infielder and pinch-hitter (setting a league record with five pinch home runs in 1943) during the war years. In April 1945 he broke his leg in a game against the Yankees, missed the rest of the reason, and hobbled away from his playing career.