Bob Quinn was a baseball man for more than 60 years. He started as a player in the 1880s, although he never made the majors, and then became a business manager/general manager. At various points from 1917 through 1945, he held this role at the big-league level with the St. Louis Browns, the Brooklyn Dodgers and Boston Braves. From 1923 through early 1933, he fronted the group that owned the Boston Red Sox, while also running the business. Late in life, he became director of the Baseball Hall of Fame (1948-1952).
Yet as SABR member Craig Lammers wrote in 2007, a seminal chapter of Bob Quinn’s career came in the minor leagues, as the business manager of the American Association’s Columbus Senators early in the 20th century. Lammers called Quinn “truly one of baseball’s greatest innovators,” noting that he deserves credit for such original concepts as ownership of farm teams, hiring a group of scouts and managers, and having multiple players under option to different teams in the same league. Quinn hatched these ideas while building the first team to win three consecutive championships (1905-07) in the American Association.
Though ultimately short-lived in practice at Columbus, Quinn’s thoughts on player development were decades ahead of their time. They were a significant influence on a fellow Ohioan, Branch Rickey, who is typically credited with initiating the development of the farm system. For most of Quinn’s own career as a big-league owner and executive, he was hamstrung by lack of funding. Yet many other major-league execs relied on his blueprint to build their organizations. His foremost disciple was his son John J. Quinn, who followed his father’s teachings to the letter during 28 years as a general manager in the majors. Two more generations of Quinns have been closely involved with baseball – the family’s influence has come to span well over a century.
Bob Quinn was born James Aloysius Quinn on February 14, 1870, in Columbus, Ohio (though some accounts say Anderson, Indiana). He was the oldest of five children.1 The 1880 census shows the Quinn family living in Columbus. Father John, who was born in Ireland, was a stone cutter. Mother Annie, an Ohio native, had given birth to three other siblings at that point, a brother named John, plus two sisters named Mary and Ellen. Quinn was still shown as “James” then; he took the name “Bob” or “Bobby” as a young man.He had Irish coloring: red hair and a ruddy complexion.
Like Rickey, Quinn commenced his baseball career as a catcher, beginning in the 1880s. He started at age 14 with an Irish team in Columbus called the Shamrocks. He played primarily for minor-league and independent teams in Ohio. He was a good defensive catcher though a rather ordinary hitter. He weighed just 145 pounds when he started as a pro. In 1935, The Sporting News wrote, “Bob Quinn is a small man in stature, but he has been a fighter ever since he was a catcher, in the period when a little fellow wasn’t considered of much use behind the bat.
Quinn’s first real association with baseball in Ohio’s capital was as a backup player with Columbus’s team in the 1895 Interstate League. Both the team and league failed at midseason. An interesting observation of Quinn came from London, Ontario that August. Sporting Life wrote, “Catcher Bob Quinn has developed into a great coacher, and his continual droll sayings are amusing, when it is remembered that Bob was formerly one of the quietest ballplayers living.”
Quinn later told sportswriter Fred Lieb that he might have had a chance to play in the majors with the Boston Beaneaters in 1896, except he hurt his arm while playing for Norfolk of the Virginia League. “It handicapped me for the remainder of my career,” he said. “I even tried outfielding, figuring it would be less of a strain on my arm. It wasn’t until 40 years later that I finally landed with Boston [the NL franchise].”
Quinn was appointed manager of the Columbus club for 1900, inheriting a weak team and finishing in sixth place. He also saw action in 33 games as the backup catcher and utilityman. After the season he relinquished his duties as field manager to concentrate on his job as business manager. This position was similar to a modern general manager. As Lammers observed, it was in the area of finding and developing talent that Quinn’s genius would be realized. From the beginning he was impressed with players who knew the game and had the ability to help develop young talent. Finding those players was his job and he was good at it.
For full detail on Quinn’s operation and how it emerged into a prototype farm system, one should refer to Lammers’ article. Among other things, it covers the development of baseball in Ohio, including the formation of the Ohio State League in 1908. Quinn was named the president of the new league –– a job that entailed new responsibilities but also created new opportunities for the scouting and placement of players.
Lammers also singled out the importance of Lee Fohl, “Quinn’s most trusted baseball man. . .More than anyone other than Quinn himself, Fohl was responsible for the success of the Columbus farm system. He had the skills needed by Quinn, including the ability to develop both young pitchers and position players. He also had an eye for talent on other clubs, players who could be traded for or purchased. Quinn’s faith in Fohl was so great that he later hired him to manage the major-league St. Louis Browns.” According to Lammers, Branch Rickey was also learning Quinn’s methods and using them with college stars, such as Hall of Famer George Sisler.
The 1912 season marked the beginning of a decline in Quinn’s farm system. With the demise of the Inter-State League (which disbanded in 1913), and the end of the Columbus Cubs team (which Quinn owned), the system effectively ended. The Columbus Senators remained in the American Association, however, and Quinn remained associated with the franchise until late 1916.
In April 1917, Quinn became business manager of the St. Louis Browns, succeeding none other than Branch Rickey. Quinn had been rumored as the successor to Arthur Irwin as business manager of the New York Yankees in 1915, after Jacob Ruppert and Til Huston bought the club. There had also been talk that Quinn could have gotten the job in St. Louis earlier; Rickey was eventually kicked upstairs from field manager in February 1916.
Tom Shehan, sports editor of Yank: The Army Weekly, wrote about Quinn’s move in 1945. When Browns owner Phil Ball made the offer, he wrote, “There’s really nothing to the job. All you need is bunk and bluff.” Quinn – known and respected for his honesty – responded, “I have never practiced bunk or bluff in my life.” “A sense of humor and a disarming frankness” also were part of his reputation. The Browns had moved from Milwaukee, where they were known as the Brewers, after just one season in 1901. From 1902 through 1916, they finished over .500 just three times while landing in the cellar for four seasons. Although the win totals inched up each year, the Browns remained below .500 from 1917 through 1920.
After the 1920 season, Quinn made a particularly notable contribution to the governance of Major League Baseball. That November, amid internal strife among the clubs and their owners, “the three-man National Commission [which had overseen organized baseball since 1903] was discarded and, apparently, so was the idea of a new three-man governing body [a.k.a. the Lasker Plan]. . .The elimination of the proposed three-man commission in favor of a single arbiter was first introduced by. . .Bob Quinn.”Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis emerged as the sole Commissioner, and he would rule with an iron fist.
Momentum began to gather for the Browns in 1921. With Lee Fohl as manager, St. Louis finished third in the AL at 81-73, the club’s highest standing since 1902. The next year the Brownies posted their best winning percentage ever at 93-61 (.604). That squad – starring George Sisler, Ken Williams, Marty McManus, Baby Doll Jacobson, and Urban Shocker – finished just one game behind the New York Yankees. It was the closest the downtrodden franchise ever came to winning an AL pennant until its lone taste of success in 1944.
Accounts in The Sporting News during this period clearly portray Quinn in the capacity of GM, wheeling and dealing for players. With the Browns, Quinn also continued to cultivate farm clubs. For example, he established a working agreement with Mobile of the Southern Association in 1921 and sent a number of players there for development. The mercurial Phil Ball was not an easy man to work for, though; “his interference frustrated Quinn.”
After the 1919 season, the Red Sox had sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees. The embattled owner of the Red Sox, Harry Frazee, hung on for a few years – but in August 1923, he finally sold out to a group of Columbus investors led by Quinn. The most important – i.e., deep-pocketed – of these investors was Palmer Winslow, who had made his fortune with the Winslow Glass Company of Indiana. The Encyclopedia of Major League Baseball Clubs notes that Quinn was “goaded in the background” by American League president Ban Johnson, who was “eager to rid the game of his archenemy.” The price was $1.15 million.
Quinn started with a splash. As the franchise history Red Sox Century put it, “Quinn said, ‘Our big idea is to go out and get ballplayers.’ Over the next seven weeks he spent two hundred fifty thousand dollars acquiring no fewer than seventeen minor league stars in a buying frenzy. . .But Quinn wasn’t the judge of talent he thought he was.” In retrospect, it was a painful lesson: buying talent – even to stockpile at the minor-league level – was not the way to go.
Indeed, the Red Sox languished in last place for eight of the ten years that Quinn and his partners owned the franchise. They did no better than sixth in the other two seasons. The Encyclopedia of Major League Baseball Clubs expressed it neatly. “The Red Sox were a sorry picture, the laughing-stock of the AL, the dumping ground for the league’s least talented players. Managers came and went under the increasingly desperate Quinn, six of them in 10 years: Frank Chance, Lee Fohl, Bill Carrigan, Heinie Wagner, Shano Collins, and Marty McManus.”
Straitened finances were a factor. According to Red Sox Century, following the 1924 season, “Palmer Winslow became ill and withdrew his promise of support, and the other investors didn’t have any real money of their own. When Winslow passed away in 1926, the key to the vault, and any chance for the resurgence of the Red Sox, went with him to his grave.” To paraphrase, it became a vicious circle: attendance plummeted, and thus there was no money to get – let alone retain – good ballplayers. At that time, Fenway Park was not even two decades old, but it fell into disrepair.
The Encyclopedia of Major League Baseball Clubs continued, “The crash of the stock market in 1929 and subsequent depression jarred Quinn to his last resorts. The Red Sox must be sold. On the downside was the fact that the club owned a derelict ballpark, a horrible pool of playing personnel, a drastically reduced fan base, and an organizational structure in disarray. Under normal circumstances this debilitating picture alone would have led Quinn to entertain even the most preposterous offers for his ball club. But there was a redeeming feature of value – the land upon which Fenway Park rested, which even during the depression was worth well over $1 million. Quinn found the angel he needed in Tom Yawkey.” The wealthy Michigan lumber magnate bought the Red Sox for $1.2 million in February 1933.
The 2004 book The Rivals showed just how tough it had gotten for Quinn personally. “Poor Mr. Quinn, a genial man of very good intentions, fell deeply in debt ($350,000) trying to keep the franchise afloat. . .Things got so bad for Bob Quinn that he was forced to borrow on his life insurance in order to finance training camp in 1933.”
The sale to Yawkey had extinguished Quinn’s debts, yet he still kept his hand in by obtaining the Hazleton franchise in the New York-Pennsylvania League and transferring it to another Pennsylvania location, Reading. This club was affiliated with the Red Sox. Despite a good record, it did not do well at the gate, so Quinn sold it too to Yawkey and Red Sox GM Eddie Collins that August.
Quinn next became business manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, effective October 1, 1933. He served for two seasons, 1934 and 1935. The Dodgers were better than the Red Sox, but not that much. They had finished sixth in the National League in 1933 and remained in the second division during Quinn’s relatively brief tenure there. The lineup featured the likes of Tony Cuccinello, Frenchy Bordagaray, and Jersey Joe Stripp. The staff ace was Van Lingle Mungo.
Perhaps the most memorable moment during this phase of Quinn’s career was Bill Terry’s quip ahead of the 1934 season, “Is Brooklyn still in the league?” As author Bob McGee wrote in his history of Ebbets Field, “Bob Quinn read it in the newspaper and, knowing an opportunity when he saw one, pretended to blow a gasket. . .Quinn was more than a little displeased when [manager] Max Carey failed to weigh in. . .before Carey could even pack to get to training camp, he was out of a job.” The new skipper was Casey Stengel.
McGee also noted, “The Brooklyn franchise was in full disarray. Not only were the Ebbets heirs and the McKeever faction still at odds; the Ebbets heirs were in court with one another, prompted by the fact that income from the ball club had stopped.” As Fred Lieb observed, Quinn was “caught in the middle of the feud.”
The 1935 season also featured another attempt by Quinn to help the Reading franchise in the NY-Penn League, which had become a Brooklyn affiliate after the Red Sox withdrew their support in late 1934. But the Reading Brooks didn’t draw fans either, so he had to move the club to Allentown. That December, the 65-year-old – described as “the man without an enemy” – went back to Boston. He joined the city’s other big-league team, the Braves, as president and part owner. “He was financed by $200,000 from majority stockholder Charles Adams, owner of the Boston Bruins. Adams tried to keep a low profile within Major League Baseball due to his ownership of Suffolk Downs Race Track.”
The Braves might have had an opportunity to become Boston’s top baseball franchise in the 1920s, but it was a dreary decade for them too. One of the team’s problems was its ballpark, Braves Field, which former owner Jim Gaffney had constructed with vast dead-ball era dimensions. In the 12 years that Judge Emil Fuchs owned the Braves, from 1923 through 1935, the best they could muster was consecutive fourth-place finishes in 1933 and 1934.
There was nowhere to go but up after a ghastly 38-115 record in 1935, but the Braves – known as the Bees from 1936 through 1940 – never got above fifth place during the nine years that Quinn headed the club. In both 1937 (under Bill McKechnie) and 1938 (under Stengel, whom Quinn hired for the second time), Boston finished a little above .500. Meanwhile, the fortunes of the Red Sox had ascended under free-spending Tom Yawkey; the Braves’ attendance lagged and the organization lacked depth.
In January 1944, Boston construction executives Lou Perini, Joe Maney, and Guido Rugo bought control of the Braves. The following February, on his 75th birthday, Bob Quinn stepped down as the team’s general manager, becoming farm director instead. In doing so, he traded places with his son John. Bob put it wryly, “He [John] has taken care of what minor-league interests the Braves have had.” Before long, however, the new owners finally provided the financial backing to implement the Quinn philosophy: developing a farm system, hiring a good scouting staff, and putting good managers in charge of the minor-league clubs.
In late 1945, Quinn expressed interest in becoming president of his old league, the American Association. Instead, in November 1945 he stepped down from his spot with the Braves and took a position as baseball promotional director of the Wilson Sporting Goods Company. Quinn stayed with Wilson until February 1947, when he suffered a heart attack. He rested at his Boston home for over a year, and then took his last baseball job – as director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum – in July 1948.
Quinn had already been associated with the Hall as a member of the Old-Timers Committee, starting in 1939. As Bill James noted in Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame?, attendance increased rapidly after World War II ended, and the growing institution needed a new manager – it was no longer “a simple, low-pressure job.” In fact, Quinn made it his mission to raise the Hall’s profile further. A May 1949 article in a Cooperstown paper, The Otsego Farmer, described how the genial director had placed his desk on the main floor of the museum, where all visitors were welcome to stop and chat with him if they desired. An April 1950 Farmer report discussed his efforts with active players in a five-week tour of 10 major-league training camps. Acting as “ambassador from the local national shrine . . . he made pleas for trophies and other mementoes they could spare and tried to instill in them the fact that the Baseball Hall of Fame ‘is the only thing we have which is solely dedicated to our profession’ . . . with their help, the Cooperstown baseball shrine could be built into ‘the largest historical society of its kind in the world.’”
Quinn became honorary director in June 1952 following his retirement from the active post. He’d had a minor stroke in 1950 and recovered, but another more severe stroke came on Thanksgiving Day 1951 while he was vacationing in St. Petersburg, Florida. He was hospitalized there for several weeks, rallying after visits from his old friends Connie Mack and Al Lang (St. Petersburg’s tireless baseball booster). He was then brought to a hospital in Providence, Rhode Island, where three of his children resided.
Quinn died in Providence on March 12, 1954. He was buried in St. Joseph Cemetery, south of Columbus. In its tribute, The Sporting News wrote, “Few men ever have given so much in personal service and loyalty to the game” and quoted Quinn himself: “I was just a poor Irish kid with a limited education. Baseball gave me a chance to make something of myself and bring up my family in the way I wished to bring it up.”
Bob Quinn was survived by his wife, Margaret (née Clark), their two sons, Robert and John, and two daughters, Margaret and Mary. Robert Quinn became a Dominican priest, serving as a professor and director of athletics at Providence College. John spent 47 years working for major-league baseball teams. As a boy, he kept busy doing “countless little jobs” and “running errands” for his father while Bob was business manager of the Browns. After graduating from Boston College in 1929, John then served a long apprenticeship under his father with the Red Sox and Braves. During his time as GM of the Braves in Boston and Milwaukee (1945-58), the franchise won three National League pennants and the 1957 World Series. After Quinn went to Philadelphia in 1959, he did another major rebuilding job, though the Phillies never won a pennant on his watch – their collapse in 1964 was his biggest disappointment in baseball.
Four of John Quinn’s five children became involved in baseball. The third-generation Bob Quinn came up through the minors as an executive and worked as a farm director and scouting director in the majors. He then became general manager for three big-league clubs from 1988 to 1996. His son, also named Bob, became a major-league executive too. John Jr., or Jack, was a minor-league exec, notably with the Hawaii Islanders, which he owned for several years. Margo married another longtime farm/scouting director and GM, Roland Hemond. Susan worked for a time in the front office of the California Angels while they were the parent club of the Hawaii Islanders.
John Quinn frequently cited his father’s wisdom when talking about his own approach as a GM. Among those quotes:
“My Dad often compared baseball to a wagon wheel. It was his theory that if you needed a spoke, it was your job to go and get one. The price, he said, was no object if that was what you needed to keep rolling.”
“My dad always said never to be afraid to give up three players for one or four for two so long as you got the man you wanted. He was never worried about how much he helped the other team. He was only concerned how much good he did for himself. He wasn’t trying to trim anybody.”
“Dad and I have always felt that farms are the only way to develop a winning major-league club. If you have the cash, you can occasionally buy a player who will help you. But most of the time all you can buy is what other clubs don’t want. And that type of player won’t get you anywhere but down.”