Washington traded its star shortstop less than two years after he helped lead the team to the World Series.
That happened last week, when the Nats dealt shortstop Trea Turner to the Los Angeles Dodgers, along with pitching ace Max Scherzer. But it also happened in 1934, when the Washington Senators traded popular player-manager Joe Cronin to the Boston Red Sox.
Cronin, like Turner, was a 28-year-old All-Star shortstop in the prime of his career. Both men played seven seasons in Washington, with remarkably similar stats – the same .842 OPS and a nearly identical batting average (Cronin .304, Turner .300).
The trades had something else in common – the blowing up of a team that had just wrapped up a decade of contending baseball.
Starting with the 1924 World Series title, the Senators won three pennants over a 10-year period. In 1933, under the leadership of the “boy-wonder” Cronin, Washington won the American League pennant, dethroning a powerhouse New York Yankees team that featured Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Cronin hit .309 with 118 RBIs and a league-high 45 doubles that year while managing for the first time.
“Crossing his early season critics by assuming managerial cares without losing any of the sparkle of his play afield and at the plate, Cronin has been credited with imparting something akin to college-boy spirit to the Senators,” the Associated Press observed.
The Senators lost the ’33 World Series to the New York Giants.
The Nats won the first of four division titles in 2012, and of course capped off the run with the 2019 World Series title. They had hoped to contend again this year before shifting into full sell-mode last month. By the time the Nats traded Turner and Scherzer, they had slipped to fourth place – second-to-last in the NL East.
The Senators traded Cronin after a 1934 season which saw them crater to second-to-last in the AL (seventh place, in an era before divisional play).
One important difference between the two trades is that the Nats have received prized prospects that could help fuel a rebuild, notably pitcher Josiah Gray and catcher Keibert Ruiz. Gray had a fine Nats debut this week, giving up just one run in five innings against the Philadelphia Phillies.
The Senators deal, by contrast, was mostly about money. In the midst of the Great Depressions, Boston’s brash new rich owner, 31-year-old Tom Yawkey, paid cash-strapped Senators’ owner Clark Griffith the then-staggering sum of $250,000 – more than double what the Red Sox sold Babe Ruth for 15 years earlier. Boston also sent Washington light-hitting shortstop Lynn Lary, who would hit just .194 in 39 games for the Senators.
In a twist, Cronin had just married Griffith’s niece Mildred Robertson weeks before the trade, but Griffith used that as justification for the deal.
“Remember, Yawkey is a millionaire, with the sky the limit in his baseball operation,” Griffith wrote years later, describing his inner thought process. “He could do things for Joe and Mildred you could never hope to approach. 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.”
“Opening wide his well-stocked money bags,” the Washington Post reported at the time, “Yawkey tempted owner Clark Griffith of the Nats with the richest proffer in baseball history and plucked Cronin from the Washington team.”
Not only did the Cronin deal signal the destruction of a recent pennant-winning team, it marked the end of competitive baseball in D.C., and the start of many years of mostly terrible teams.
Last week’s trade of Turner and Scherzer, along with several other deadline deals, saw the Nats similarly demolish their team, 21 months after Washington won its first World Series in nearly a century. But Nats fans can take solace in the likelihood that the Nationals won’t repeat the experience of the Senators.
With little money to invest in his team, Griffith soon found himself outgunned financially by richer owners.
That won’t be a problem for the Lerner family, the wealthy owners of the Nats. And the team has a plan to rebuild, in an era when a teardown is often the prerequisite to building up.
That doesn’t make it any easier for fans who have grown attached to this crew, but it must have been harder on Senators fans to see Cronin, a future Hall-of-Famer, continue to excel as player-manager for the Red Sox. In 1946, focusing solely on managing, Cronin led the team to its first pennant since 1918, when Ruth was still with Boston.It took the Red Sox more than a quarter-century to make it back to the World Series after selling the Babe, but the Senators would never return after selling Cronin.
Frederic J. Frommer is the author of You Gotta Have Heart: Washington Baseball from Walter Johnson to the 2019 World Series Champion Nationals, and Head of Sports PR at the Dewey Square Group, a public affairs firm. Twitter: @ffrommer.