Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Old Reliable, the Mountain, and the Brews

New York Yankees right fielder Tommy Henrich, nicknamed "Old Reliable" for his clutch hitting, passed away yesterday at the age of 96. Henrich, who played in pinstripes for eleven seasons in the 1930s and 1940s, is perhaps best known for winning Game One of the 1949 Fall Classic with the first walk-off home run in World Series history. A former teammate of Lou Gehrig, he was the oldest living Yankee at the time of his death. All of this is well-known, and was reported in his obituaries coast to coast. What you may not know is that he had a unique connection to the Milwaukee Brewers.

In October of 1936, Tommy Henrich was a 23 year-old outfielder for the New Orleans Pelicans, the Sourthern Association farm club of the Cleveland Indians. The Brewers, coming off their 1936 American Assiciation pennant-winning campaign, bought the contracts of Henrich and his teammate Ralph Winegarner, a right-handed hurler. Henrich was a particularly prized addition to the Brewer roster, and was expected to see plenty of time at Borchert Field in the 1937 season.

Henrich (left) with fellow Brewer outfielders Jack Kloza and Ted Gullic

Henrich, however, had other plans. He had been tearing up the minors, and expected to find himself heading to Cleveland's Municipal Stadium. He was frustrated by the prospect of another minor-league contract, especially after reading that several big league clubs had expressed an interest in him.

Henrich suspected that although the Indians didn't have a clear spot for him on their roster, they still valued him and had been trying to hide him from other clubs by moving him out of their directly-controlled farm system. In January, Henrich wrote to Kennesaw Mountain Landis, the commissioner of organized baseball, asking for his intervention.
"I wrote the judge on Jan 19," explained Henrich. "I told him I started to play in organized baseball at Zanesville, Ohio, in 1934 and was farmed to the Penn State league. Then I played again for Zanesville in 1935 and was sold to New Orleans. I played for New Orleans last year and two weeks before the season ended I was told I had been sold to Milwaukee. I told the judge–wait, I'll read you a copy of my letter:

"'This all looks O.K. to me, as far as I understand baseball laws, except that half the time I hear that I belong to Milwaukee and half the time I hear that I belong to Cleveland. If I belong to Milwaukee, I'd like to know how they got me when major league clubs tried to make deals for me and couldn't. In other words, I've been sold twice to higher leagues at Cleveland's direction, yet I never even saw a Cleveland contract. It is all confusing to me. I'd like to know once and for all who I really belong to.'"
Henrich initially rebuffed the Brewers' offers, although they eventually settled on a contract. If he was still waiting for a response from Landis, he gave no public sign. By the time he reported for Spring Training in Biloxi, Mississippi, Henrich's future in Milwaukee was secure.

One week into Spring Training, Landis dropped a bombshell onto the Brewer camp, finally agreeing to hear Henrich's claim and settle his contract status once and for all. The Brewers were stunned, and the announcement made quite a splash in Milwaukee:

Henrich denied that he was trying to get out of his Brewer contract, insisting that he just wanted to know who really owned it.

The Indians had some cover in the nature of their affiliation with Milwaukee. Today, we're accustomed to very clear lines of player ownership. Major league clubs have exclusive agreements with a chain of minor league teams. The big leager organization owns player contracts and determines the promotion and demotion of players up and down the ladder.

During the Brewers' history, those exclusive deals were the exception and not the rule. Milwaukee had a series of informal arrangements with its major league affiliates, in which the Brews got financial assistance and the big club traditionally received a right of first refusal on Milwaukee's players. Milwaukee then operated its own extensive network of farm clubs, assigning some players to play at Borchert Field and some to play in the Brews' developmental system.

Under these circumstances, Henrich's confusion seems quite reasonable. Had the Indians given up his rights when he moved from the farm club to the independent Brewers? Or was he on a sort of temporary loan? In any case, his contracts were all with the minor league clubs and not with the American League team that seemed to be controlling his career. This was the legal gray area into which Henrich had been deposited.

Landis conducted a hearing with Henrich. During that four-hour meeting, Henrich accused Cy Slapnicka, the Indians' chief scout, and Cleveland general manager Billy Evans of hiding him in the minors.

A hearing was being held in New Orleans Thursday to determine if Tom Henrich, young outfielder sold by New Orleans to the Milwaukee Brewers last year, is rightfully owned by the Milwaukee club or by Cleveland, which originally held his contract. At the session were (front, left to right) Louis Nahin, Milwaukee business manager; Judge K. M. Landis, baseball's high commissioner; Henry Bendinger, Milwaukee owner, and Henrich. In back are Manager Larry Gilbert (left) of New Orleans and Alva Bradley, president of the Cleveland club. Landis took the case under advisement.
Landis deferred his ruling for two weeks to consider the case. While waiting for the verdict, Henrich insisted to the press that his frustration was with the situation itself, and not with the Brewers.
"I'd just as soon play for Milwaukee. From the correspondence I've had with the club I think I would get along fine up there. I hear it's a good baseball town."
Henrich never got the chance to find out. Landis ruled in Henrich's favor, voiding any claim Cleveland had on him and declaring him a free agent.

"I never thought I had a chance," Henrich said. "The old Judge was leaning over backwards to be impartial and he never gave me a word of encouragement or any hint that I had a good case. Facts, facts, facts, is what he wanted. Then, an hour later, he called me with his decision and that was the greatest thrill of my life to that point. I think part of it was that the Judge didn't like Slapnicka and he got a kick out of me writing to him and standing up for my rights."
Henrich returned to his home town of Massilon, Ohio, to await the bids. Although the New York Giants put in a good showing, the Yankees were the victors, and Henrich was bound for the Bronx. He started at their farm club in Newark, but quickly moved to the Bigs. He made his Yankee debut on May 11, 1937, less than a month after Landis released him from his Brewer contract.

Henrich had an outstanding career in pinstripes as an integral part of eight American League pennant-winning clubs and seven world champions before retiring in 1950 (he spent the 1943, 1944 and 1945 seasons wearing a different shade of blue, that of the Coast Guard).

In 1960, Henrich was in Milwaukee, and was asked about his brief stay with the Brewers. Henrich did have one regret about never playing for the Brews:

I'm sure those short fences looked pretty inviting to him.

Because Henrich never saw action for Milwaukee in a regular season game, his name is absent from the team's complete roster. His short time with the club, however, remains a fascinating chapter in Milwaukee Brewer history.

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