With serious money on the table, Washington reluctantly parted with the face of the franchise — an all-star and future Hall of Famer — reasoning it was the best move for the team in the long run.
That’s how it happened 84 years ago, when the Washington Senators sold their star player-manager, shortstop Joe Cronin, to the Boston Red Sox for $250,000. Things could play out with Bryce Harper and the Nationals in a somewhat similar fashion this winter.
Cronin, 28, and Harper, 26, were both entering their prime years, although Cronin slipped a bit in his final season in Washington — as did Harper this year. In 1934, Cronin’s batting average dropped 25 points to .284, but he still finished with 101 RBI — nearly identical to Harper’s 100 in 2018.
There were other striking similarities. Both men played seven years in Washington, and while Harper has a lot more power, in other ways they struck comparable hitting profiles. Harper’s .388 on-base percentage is just a tick over Cronin’s .387 during his time in Washington. And their birthdays are four days apart.
One key difference: Cronin’s departure came as a shock, whereas the baseball world has been anticipating Harper’s free agency for years (there was no free agency in Cronin’s time). Senators owner Clark Griffith sold Cronin just a year after he led them to the 1933 pennant, the last time a Washington team has played in the World Series. At just 26, Cronin had replaced Walter Johnson as manager that season, and thrived both as a skipper and a player, hitting .309 with a league-high 45 doubles and 118 RBI.
And while the Nats have often called Bryce Harper family, that was literally true in Cronin’s case. After the 1934 season, he married Griffith’s niece, Mildred Robertson — only to be shipped off just weeks later.
Harper was a much more touted prospect. Sports Illustrated didn’t exist yet in Cronin’s day, but if it had, he wouldn’t have been on the cover. After two nondescript seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates, he was let go, and in July 1928, Griffith told the media the Senators had purchased a “young shortstop, name of Cronin.”
A reporter asked for a first name. “It don’t make no difference, and I don’t even know if he’s got a first name,” Griffith responded, according to a 1939 magazine feature by Joe Holman. “He’s only gonna be around long enough to give [shortstop] Bob Reeves a rest, then we’ll ship him to Birmingham. Don’t you fellows go writin’ your heads off about him now — he’s only a fair to middlin’ busher.”
It took a while for Cronin to find his footing, but by 1930, he was one of the game’s best players, hitting .346 with 126 RBI — the first of four straight seasons hitting over .300 and driving in at least 116 runs.
By all accounts he shared Harper’s good looks, too. A few days before Cronin joined the ballclub, according to a 1984 Post obituary for Cronin, Senators scout Joe Engel sent a telegram to Robertson, Cronin’s future wife: “Dear Mildred. Am bringing you home a real sweetie in Joe Cronin. So be dolled up Wednesday or Thursday to meet him. Tall and handsome.”
After the team clinched the 1933 pennant, Cronin was “besieged in the clubhouse by a hero-worshiping throng of thousands of fans of both sexes gone mildly mad” and had to escape through a center field trap door, The Washington Post reported at the time.
So why would Griffith sell off such a superstar?
The same reason Harper is perhaps headed for greener pastures: money.
Griffith initially rebuffed the offer from Boston’s brash 31-year-old owner, Tom Yawkey, but relented after reasoning that the wealthy Yawkey could do more for Cronin and Mildred than he could. That, and the fact that the Senators lost a lot of money in 1934 and owed a bank $124,000.
“I decided that, for the good of those two kids, and for the financial salvation of the Senators, I just had to let Cronin go to Boston,” Griffith wrote years later in a 1952 first-person piece for the Sporting News. In addition to the $250,000, Griffith received Red Sox shortstop Lyn Lary (who lasted just 39 games with Washington), and insisted on a five-year deal for Cronin.
A quarter-million dollars might not sound like much — Harper will likely get well over 1,000 times more — but it was a staggering amount for Depression-era baseball. As The Post reported at the time, “Opening wide his well-stocked money bags,” Yawkey “tempted owner Clark Griffith of the Nats with the richest proffer in baseball history and plucked Cronin from the Washington team.”
Griffith didn’t have well-stocked money bags. Unlike Yawkey, who had inherited millions of dollars from his uncle, Griffith wasn’t independently wealthy and relied on his team for his livelihood.
Cronin’s departure pretty much signaled the end of competitive Washington baseball in the 20th century. The Senators never won another pennant before leaving for Minnesota in 1961, and neither did the second Senators franchise, which played here from 1961 to 1971.
Cronin, meanwhile, took over as player-manager in Boston, and remained an elite hitter through his mid-30s. In 1946, focusing exclusively on managing, he led the Red Sox to their first pennant since 1918 (when the team still had Babe Ruth).
Cronin eventually became president of the American League, and as fate would have it, in September 1971 he made the announcement that owners had approved the Senators move to Texas, leaving the city without a baseball team.
“As an old Washington player, this is very sad, indeed, but there was no feasible alternative,” Cronin said in a Post article detailing the move.
Frederic J. Frommer is the author of “You Gotta Have Heart,” a history of Washington baseball, and head of the Sports Business Practice at the Dewey Square Group, a public affairs firm. Follow him @ffrommer.