Joe Cronin ascended from the sandlots of San Francisco through the ranks of star player, field manager, general manager and American League President to become one of the most influential people the game of baseball has ever seen. Historian and author Mark Armour has written the definitive biography of Cronin’s life in Joe Cronin: A Life in Baseball.
Mark Armour has authored numerous books and articles on baseball, and is also the director of SABR’s Baseball Biography Project. We are extremely grateful for the opportunity to chat with him on the Cover the Bases podcast.
It was his efforts on the Baseball Biography Project that started Mark on the path to writing this book. Since Joe Cronin had been involved in the game at the highest levels since 1926 through his final days as AL President in 1973, his story was intermingled with most of the players that Mark was compiling in the project. After questioning a trusted colleague about why there had not been a complete biography of the man, Mark’s colleague said it was up to him to write it. His inspiration was set.
One of the first individuals in the game to recognize the skills that young Cronin possessed as a player, and also as a leader, was Clark Griffith owner of the Washington Senators. Griffith put complete faith in a 26 year old shortstop to lead his team as player-manager, which he did well, leading them to the World Series in 1933. This relationship to the Griffith family lasted a lifetime, including Cronin’s marriage to Griffith’s niece Mildred.
Expectations were high when Cronin arrived in Boston prior to the 1935 season to be the player-manager of owner Tom Yawkey‘s Red Sox, and the challenges of managing some of his new teammates who had already demonstrated Hall of Fame caliber success was difficult for the young man. He did however continue to demonstrate high caliber skills, earning him seven All-Star selections as a shortstop and was widely considered one of the game’s most popular players.
Cronin’s transition to the Red Sox General Manager position came about gradually as he obtained more influence with the team as his playing time waned (during the war years he played somewhat out of necessity) and health impediments interfered with of job duties of the current GM Eddie Collins. Cronin knew the players and the needs of the team better than anyone else.
It seemed his greatest challenges as he took over the General Manager’s role during the years 1948 through 1950 were the constant contract struggles with stars Ted Williams and Dom DiMaggio and the harnessing of Manager Joe McCarthy who was battling serious alcohol problems.
One of the key negatives that historians will point to in a Cronin biography is the fact that the Red Sox were the last team to integrate in the Major Leagues. It was not until Pumpsie Green joined the team in 1959, eleven and one-half years after Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier, that every team had fielded an African American player. Whether is was a directive, poor planning and scouting, or poor timing, this is a responsibility that must be accounted for when discussing Joe Cronin’s legacy.
Some of the most important decisions the game had ever known greeted Joe Cronin when he became the President of the American League. Issues ranging from antitrust to unionization of the umpires to League expansion are just some of the items needing attention during his Presidency.
Mark makes the intriguing case in the book that although it was natural for Cronin to ascend to these ever increasing responsibilities, he did not come from any formal pedigree that would be a requirement for the position today. However, it must be said that no matter what rank he served, he performed it well.
During the writing of this book, Mark had the chance to speak to a central figure in the history of the labor movement, both inside and outside of baseball, Marvin Miller. Miller related the scenario that although he liked Cronin personally, everyone liked Cronin personally, they were not speaking the same language as it pertained to the rights of the players as employees in a collective bargaining agreement. The game was changing in ways that were unimaginable.
Cronin always had the perspective that the game had treated him right, and through hard work and perseverance he had risen from a sandlot ballplayer to the highest position in his League. He felt that the game would continue to go on to reward ballplayers who followed the same work ethic.