Rabbit Hole: "We could have finished last without you."
As a baseball fan, you’ve probably heard some version of this story:
In 1952, Pittsburgh’s Ralph Kiner led the league in home runs for the seventh straight year. Six of those seven Pirate teams were pretty terrible, but that ’52 group was particularly bad — going 42-112-1 and finishing last by more than 20 games.
After the season, Kiner met with the Pirates team president, the legendary Branch Rickey, to discuss contract terms for the 1953 season. Kiner wanted a raise. Rickey, instead, offered to cut his pay by 25 percent.
“Why do I get a cut?” Kiner asked. “I led the league in home runs.”
“Son,” Rickey said, “we could have finished last without you.”
That’s probably the most famous negotiation story in baseball history. Kiner himself told it many, many times. I’ve written it a few times myself.
Only, now, I don’t think it happened. Or, more to the point, I don’t think that’s where the “We could have finished last without you” story actually comes from.
Now, you could say, “Who cares?” and you’d be entirely right. But this is one of the problems I have. I get stuck on something silly like this, and I can’t quite let it go. And one story leads to another which leads to another which leads to another …
And down the rabbit hole we go.
First, let’s talk about what we know about Ralph Kiner’s 1952 season. He did indeed lead the league in home runs. And Rickey did indeed try to impose a 25 percent pay cut on Kiner’s $90,000 salary.
But if you go back and look … Kiner fully accepted that he deserved a pay cut. He didn’t think a 25 percent cut was fair, and he did fight back on that part, but he acknowledged that 1952 was a down year.
From 1947 to ’51: .294/.420/.609, averaged 47 homers, 115 runs and 121 RBIs.
1952: .244/.384/.500 with 37 homers, 90 runs and 87 RBIs.
Every part of Kiner’s offense was not only down but way down. And since Kiner was a purely offensive player — he was a famously subpar defender — that massive drop in production was the biggest story about the 1952 Pirates. I’m not saying that Rickey didn’t at some point say the line about how they could have finished last without Kiner. Maybe he did. But that certainly wasn’t the thrust of the negotiations.
Rickey believed the Pirates finished last in some part BECAUSE of Kiner.
As soon as the season ended, Rickey immediately put Kiner up on the trade market. Rickey was famous for trading a player too soon rather than too late … and he felt like he was already too late on Kiner. He essentially put Kiner up for public auction, and during that offseason numerous teams — including the Cubs, Reds, Phillies, Braves and Dodgers — thought they were close to a deal. But they all wanted Kiner to take his pay cut first.
Kiner eventually accepted a 15 percent pay cut, and in June was finally traded to the Cubs.
But again, I don’t think this is where “We could have finished last without you,” began. But if not with Rickey and Kiner, then where?
Well, if you do a cursory search … you find people who will insist the story actually begins with Bill Veeck. Which makes a lot more sense. The quote SOUNDS like Bill Veeck.
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In early July 1951, Bill Veeck became owner of the St. Louis Browns. It was, in so many ways, the perfect match. The Browns were atrocious and had no following and needed something. And Veeck was a circus barker in search of a circus.
Veeck grew up in baseball — his father, Bill Veeck Sr., was president of the Chicago Cubs. and an innovator himself (oh, does rabbit hole lead to rabbit hole). Veeck Sr. started out as a star Chicago American sportswriter who wrote under the pseudonym “Bill Bailey,” He wrote often about how he would run the Cubs … and in 1918, the Cubs hired him as team president. Over the years, he created a special day for women at the ballpark, signed one of baseball’s first radio deals, etc.
Bill Jr. took things to a whole other level. In 1940, he was part of a group that bought the Class AAA Milwaukee Brewers. And he tried all sorts of stuff. He formed a band. He played morning games with cereal and doughnuts for welders and riveters (particularly women) who worked the nightshift.
He had giveaway promotions where the team gave fans:
A 200-pound cake of ice
A dozen live lobsters
Well, the Barracuda giveaway might have happened when he became owner in Cleveland. He had a Taxi Day where all taxi drivers and their families were invited to the ballpark for free. He had a nursery built for little kids at the ballpark. He basically invented the whole connection between fireworks and baseball.
And when he got to St. Louis, he did not hold back at all. Within 10 days of taking over, he signed 44-year-old (at least) Satchel Paige. He also signed a local minor league legend named Frank Saucier out of retirement (Saucier had hit .446 in Wichita Falls in 1949). Soon he would send 3-foot-8 Eddie Gaedel to the plate, he’d try to irk the crosstown Cardinals by hiring team legends Rogers Hornsby (as manager) and Dizzy Dean (as radio announcer).
And then there’s the story of Ned Garver.
By all accounts, Garver was pretty much the only thing the 1951 Browns had going for them. Garver was a 25-year-old pitcher with a good slider and the grave misfortune of playing for the Browns. From 1948 to 1950, he had a 131 ERA+ — third best in the American League over that span — but he went 32-46 because he was playing for such a lousy team. He was often called the hardest luck pitcher in baseball.
Well, in 1951, for some reason, Garver’s luck turned. He started the season 12-4. This was in part because he pitched well (in July, he pitched four consecutive complete games in which he allowed just one run), and, in part, because he caught some breaks (on May 14, he gave up 10 runs against Detroit but got the victory anyway).
Veeck jumped right on it. He started to make a big deal about how Garver had a chance to become the first pitcher in many years — going all the way back to the Chicago White Sox’s beautifully nicknamed Hollis “Sloppy” Thurston in 1924 — to win 20 games for a last-place team.
You might see a little foreshadowing here.
No, the concept of a last-place pitcher winning 20 games might not sound like a promoter’s dream … but Veeck had done more with less. He started talking about it to the sportswriters he loved so much: “Wouldn’t it be something if Ned Garver could win 20 for this team?” And they started mentioning it in their stories.
It did not look like Garver would get there, though — he had a dry August and didn’t start September too well, either, and on Sept. 6 was only 15-11 with, at most, six starts remaining.
But he beat Cleveland on Sept. 7 by allowing one earned run in nine innings. And on Sept. 18, he pitched 10 innings against Washington, held the Senators to two runs, and won his 17th game.
No. 18 came in Chicago, a seven-inning, one-run game. He repeated the feat on Sept. 22 against Detroit and won his 19th game.
And so it came down to the final day of the season, Ned Garver and the Browns vs. the Chicago White Sox for Garver’s 20th win!
Veeck decided to turn it into a party.
You gotta love Ramsworth: modest. They didn’t say they had the GREATEST suit value. They merely claimed to always have ONE of America’s greatest suit values.
If you wanted to do a Bill Veeck movie — and, hello, how has this not happened yet? — you could start with that game. Veeck set it up so that before the game, his Browns would play an outdoor basketball game against the Harlem Globetrotters. They built a basketball court along the third-base line.
But it gets better than that. He hired a couple of basketball ringers to join the Browns, one of them being the great Tony Lavelli, who had been an All-America basketball player at Yale and had played for the Celtics and Knicks in the early days of the NBA.
The Globetrotters won the game 29-17, but as soon as it was over, Lavelli put on a suit and played the accordion for the fans. He was a virtuoso accordionist.
I love these rabbit hole stories.
And then Garver came out to pitch. Numerous papers around the country had written about his quest to win 20 — one of the writers who did was Des Moines sports columnist Bill Bryson, who is the father of bestselling author Bill Bryson, who just happens to be one of my favorite writers. Round and round it goes.
Almost 15,000 people came out to the ballpark, which might not sound like a lot, but it was the third-largest crowd of the season for the Browns. Garver wasn’t especially sharp on the mound, but his Browns were inspired — and he hit a home run himself — and St. Louis won 9-5. That gave Ned Garver 20 victories.
Three wild things happened after that. One, an absurd rumor began that Veeck was going to trade Garver to Boston for Ted Williams. Veeck’s response was priceless.
“I wouldn’t consider that close to an even deal,” Veeck said. “Besides, with that short left-field wall they have there in Boston, Garver might hit more home runs than Williams.”
Second, Garver finished second in the MVP balloting, just a few points behind Yogi Berra. It seems astonishing and absurd that a 20-game winner on the worst team in the league would almost win the MVP award, but Veeck’s cajoling of sportswriters had an impact (by Baseball-Reference WAR, Garver was actually more valuable than Berra that year).
And third — you were waiting for this, I’m sure — Ned Garver met with Veeck during the offseason to negotiate his 1952 contract.
And, finally we get to the moment: After the season, Garver approached Veeck and asked for a sizeable raise. I mean, of course, he did.
And Bill Veeck said: “We could have finished last without you.”
The end! Fin! Thank you for coming! Please tip your wait staff!
Wait, why is there a line and more words?
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OK, remember the part where I said, “You might see a little foreshadowing there?” Right. That was my M. Night Shyamalan maneuver.
You see, this version of “We could have finished last without you” is way better. It makes much more sense. It has been told as fact many times. But, alas, it isn’t true.
See, after the season ended, Garver did approach Veeck for a raise.
And … Veeck gave it to him without a second’s hesitation. It was, he would say, maybe the easiest negotiation of his entire life.
“After we greeted each other,” Veeck said. “I asked him how much he thought he should be paid for the 1952 season. Ned gave me a figure. I said, ‘That’s fine.’ We shook hands. That’s all there was to it. … That beats my previous record for signing a player.”
So … wait, then. There is no answer? I feel like little Fred Savage in “The Princess Bride,” when he finds out that Prince Humperdinck doesn’t get killed. “What did you read me this thing for?” he yelled.
I’ll tell you why. Because there IS an answer. The story did happen.
Only it happened to someone else.
It happened to the beautifully nicknamed Hollis “Sloppy” Thurston in 1924.
The only player ever nicknamed “Sloppy” — he was called that ironically; apparently he took great care with his personal grooming — won exactly 20 games for the last-place Chicago White Sox that year. After the season, he wrote a letter to White Sox general manager Harry Grabiner, asking for a raise.
“Don’t forget,” he wrote, “that I won 20 games for a last-place team.”
Grabiner responded via Western Union:
“No raise. Sox could have finished last without you.”
And there’s the story. There’s only one more thing to know. Thurston did get the raise. Grabiner was joking.