The start of baseball season and another year at Fenway Park is around the corner. St. Patrick’s Day is at hand. To celebrate both rites of spring, BST&N pays tribute to one of the great Irish baseball heroes of Boston lore and honors Joe Cronin as March’s Vintage Athlete of the Month.
Cronin was born and raised in San Francisco. A good athlete, his interest level in school was not particularly high, but the local baseball team came up with a promotion that saved him—the Seals, a minor league franchise that would one day be home to Joe DiMaggio, started giving away free tickets to students with good grades and attendance records. That was enough to motivate Cronin to get through school, and eventually he started playing semipro baseball himself.
It was as he played in Kansas City that Cronin’s big break came. He was spotted by a scout from the Pittsburgh Pirates and in 1926, at the age of 19, made his first appearance in the major leagues. Cronin only got a handful of big-league at-bats over the next couple years and was traded to the Washington Senators. It was here he began to make the mark that would eventually lead him to Boston.
Cronin solidified the shortstop position for the Senators and over the next seven years was a model of consistency at the plate. He hit over .300 four consecutive seasons, drove in 100-plus runs five times, led the league in triples in 1932 and doubles in 1933.
He would have fared even better—at least in terms of public esteem—in today’s world, where statistics have evolved to give credit for more than simply batting average and home runs. Cronin finished with a career on-base percentage of .390, a full 89 points higher than his .301 batting average. That’s good by today’s standards, and outstanding by the pre-Moneyball era where taking a walk was foolishly seen as a sign of weakness. Cronin’s consistent hitting for extra bases would have won him points in slugging percentage and driven his value even higher.
As it was, he still finished in the Top 10 of the MVP voting three times during his tenure in Washington, including a second-place finish in 1933 when the Senators won the American League pennant. Even though they lost the World Series to the New York Giants in five games, Cronin hit .318 in the Fall Classic.
What makes all this even more impressive is that Cronin was doing all this while managing the team. His ability to teach the game of baseball had not gone unnoticed, and the pennant year of ’33 was Cronin’s first as player-manager. He continued in that role for the next two seasons in the nation’s capital and when he was traded to Boston for the 1935 season, it was understood he would both play shortstop and manage in Fenway.
Cronin continued to be a model of consistency at the plate. His productive years as a player ran through 1941 and he hit between .281 and .325 each of those years. The 100-RBI campaigns kept coming, with three more seasons over the century mark and two others that just missed. And the Green Monster was good to Cronin—after never hitting more than 13 home runs in a season with Washington, the manager/shortstop exceeded that number five times in Boston, topping out a 24-home run campaign in 1940.
When his productive playing days ended, Cronin could still manage and in 1946, he led the Red Sox to their first American League pennant since Babe Ruth had been on the team. His knowledge of the game was so widely regarded, that Cronin would later serve as president of the American League after his retirement.
We’ve celebrated Cronin’s achievements, but an honest reading of history requires that we hone in on three warts, escalating in importance from a debate managerial decision to that which is simply indefensible.
*Prior to the 1946 World Series, Cronin staged a practice game under live conditions. Ted Williams was hit in the elbow and lost his power for the Series, getting only five singles in a World Series the Red Sox lost by one run in the seventh game. Cronin’s decision to play this scrimmage can be defended, although I personally prefer teams to just get everyone to the real games healthy. One can only imagine the heat would come down today in the age of social media.
*Cronin let his ego get in the way of the long-term good of the club when he was sent by owner Tom Yawkey to scout Pee Wee Reese, then playing in Louisville. Cronin realized that Reese would be the one to replace him at short, so Cronin sandbagged the player and got him traded to Brooklyn. Although in the bigger picture, maybe it was for the best, since Reese would be in Brooklyn when Jackie Robinson arrived and the shortstop would have the courage to publicly put his arm around the game’s first African-American player in a time of crisis.
*Which leads us to the biggest wart on Cronin’s legacy and it’s his refusal to integrate the Red Sox roster after he became general manager. This includes passing on the opportunity sign Willie Mays and letting the Red Sox lag to the very end, along with the Yankees, in racial integration. There is much to laud in the career of Joe Cronin, and no human being should ever be judged by their worst act. But this was Cronin’s worst act.
Cronin was elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1956. According the website Baseball Reference, his career statistics, adjusted for factors like era and park effects, compare favorably with other shortstops in Barry Larkin (a Hall of Famer), Alan Trammell (who deserves to be one) and Jimmy Rollins (who will have an outside shot after he retires).
The legacy of Joe Cronin lives on in Boston today. His number was retired by the Red Sox in 1984, and there is a player named Joe Cronin on the Boston College baseball team—a good sophomore infielder who plays second, third and short and usually bats near the top of the order. I can’t confirm if he’s a direct descendant of the Red Sox legend, but we can say this—he’s got the right name for success.