1953 Winter Meetings: Pension Collision

This article was written by Abigail Miskowiec

This article was published in the


Supreme Court Involvement

On November 9, 1953, a month after the close of the season, the US Supreme Court chimed in on major-league baseball for the second time in history. George Earl Toolson, a longtime pitcher in the New York Yankees farm system, sued the team, claiming the reserve clause violated federal antitrust laws. Toolson had labored at the Triple-A level for four years before the Newark Bears, his team in the 1949 season, folded; as a result, Toolson found himself assigned to the Single-A Binghamton Triplets. Seeing this as a slap in the face, Toolson took to the courts for redress and an opportunity to sign with another club.

The Supreme Court saw fit to entertain this argument against the ongoing practices of the two major leagues; radio, television, and the promise of West Coast baseball had changed the game since a 1922 decision held that interstate travel was an incidental, rather than essential, component of the sport. Furthermore, the court of Oliver Wendell Holmes had found in the 1922 decision that, though the games made money, baseball was legally a sport, not a business, and therefore was not subject to the Sherman Antitrust Act.1

In Toolson v. New York Yankees, Inc., the court, under newly appointed Chief Justice Earl Warren, upheld the 1922 decision by a majority of 7 to 2. One major factor in the decision was a 1951 House Judiciary Committee decision not to define baseball as a monopoly. According to the majority decision, “Congress had no intention of including the business of baseball within the scope of the federal antitrust laws.”2 This ruling set the stage for future pension and reserve-clause battles that eventually resulted in the institution of free agency in 1976.

National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues

From November 30 to December 4, the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, the minor-league umbrella organization, gathered at the Atlanta Biltmore hotel. Executives discussed challenges facing the minor leagues, and held the annual minor-league draft. The newly relocated Baltimore Orioles (formerly the St. Louis Browns) of the American League held the first pick and looked to get their season off on the right foot.

Contract Disputes and Player Movement

Many thought the Orioles would select outfielder Wally Moon with the first pick in the draft, but Moon had already been signed by the St. Louis Cardinals in 1950 while attending Texas A&M University. Because of the reserve clause, Commissioner Ford Frick had to declare Moon ineligible for the draft. The Orioles then selected second baseman Vinicio “Chico” Garcia, who wound up playing only 39 games in his one year in the majors. Moon, on the other hand, won the 1954 Rookie of the Year award over the likes of Ernie Banks and Hank Aaron.

Not everything went the Cardinals’ way during the meetings, however. The team was locked in a contract dispute with the New York Yankees over 17-year-old Ralph Terry. Both teams claimed to have signed the young pitcher; Frick awarded him to the Yankees. Terry’s journeyman career, which included two stints in pinstripes, featured appearances in five consecutive World Series (1960-1964). He found both fame and infamy on the championship stage, giving up Bill Mazeroski’s walk-off homer in 1960 but winning World Series MVP honors in 1962.

Although rumors flew left and right at the meetings, few trades were made. Several deals revolving around Philadelphia A’s right-handed pitcher Harry Byrd were proposed, but he stayed put. The only major deal saw the Cincinnati Reds trading rookie infielder Alex Grammas to St. Louis for right-handed pitcher Jack Crimian. Crimian would not be the only new thing in Cincinnati in the 1954 season; anti-Communist sentiment pushed the club to rebrand itself as the Cincinnati Redlegs until 1959.

Distribution of Cash Flow Causes Trouble

With the increased popularity of television, the minors estimated that they had lost some 19 million spectators in four years because of the broadcast of major-league games into their territories. A 1950 study published by the Radio-Television Manufacturers Association found that 53 percent of fans in Wilmington, Delaware, preferred to watch the Philadelphia major-league clubs on television rather than venture out to see the local Blue Rocks.3 An article in the Atlanta Daily World asserted that television and radio caused “virtually all of the sports’ problems – net return on investments; the possibility of admission hikes; and a system of assuring the minors’ retention of key talent to keep fan interest.”4 The NAPBL members wanted to band together to protect their cities from the encroachment by the majors. They demanded a share of the revenue from major-league broadcasts, and a ban on broadcasts within 50 miles of any minor-league city without their consent. These measures were approved and helped to save minor-league baseball’s flagging attendance rates.

Meanwhile, Frick saw the minor-league meetings as an opportunity to try to settle the pension dispute with the players. The pension system, established by former Commissioner Albert B. “Happy” Chandler, would not expire until 1956, but the players felt dissatisfied with the recently renewed benefits. Talks between Frick and the player representatives, Ralph Kiner of the NL and Allie Reynolds of the AL, had been ongoing throughout the 1953 season. In late August the players hired J. Norman Lewis to act as their legal guide in the matter.5

Among the demands of the players were permission to play baseball in the offseason and the elimination of twi-night doubleheaders and doubleheaders the day after night games. Players also wanted the minimum salary raised above $5,000.

Frick invited 16 player representatives, including Reynolds and Kiner, to meet during the NAPBL meetings in Atlanta. The players refused to attend a conference without Lewis, whom the commissioner had barred from the meetings. Frick said, “I had to stand on my inalienable right as commissioner to summon anyone before me I wanted to in the interests of baseball without any outsiders present.”6 As a result, the relationship between players and executives became strained heading into the major leagues’ winter meetings.

Major Leagues

The pension issue continued to hang over the major leagues when executives met the following week in New York. The meetings were held on December 7 and 8 in the Commodore Hotel, but in that short time, many issues were resolved.

Major Moves of Players and Teams

As in the minor-league sessions, few deals were made at the major-league meetings. The one major trade involved a future MVP. The Washington Senators traded outfielder Jackie Jensen to the Red Sox for outfielder Tom Umphlett and left-handed pitcher Mickey McDermott. Jensen, who had played only half a season with the Senators, was the American League MVP while playing for the Red Sox in 1958.

The National League had been looking into the possibility of putting a team in Los Angeles. Regarding one possible venue, the LA Coliseum Commission voted 7 to 1 to bar major-league baseball at the Coliseum because of high temperatures on the field, a ban on beer sales, and the conflicting schedules of local teams. The NL agreed that the venue was not a good fit, a policy it would ignore just a few years later.

The idea of baseball in the California sun would not die, though. Frank Shaughnessy, president of the International League, proposed expanding the majors into two 12-team leagues and then dividing each league into Eastern and Western divisions. The top four teams in each division would then participate in a best-of-seven postseason playoff. In this case, even if a team ran away with the division title, fans could look forward to the possibility of an upset in the playoffs. Shaughnessy targeted San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle as possible landing spots for teams.7 The National League relaxed the requirement for relocation; a club owner would need a three-quarters vote of his fellow owners rather than a unanimous one. Thus was the inevitable transition to the West Coast eased.

More than a few notable players inked their first deal during the 1953-54 offseason. A future Rookie of the Year, shortstop Tony Kubek (1957), signed with the New York Yankees. The Brooklyn Dodgers signed two future Hall of Famers, right-hander Don Drysdale and outfielder Roberto Clemente. (The Pittsburgh Pirates would pick up Clemente in the Rule 5 draft the next season.) Pittsburgh nailed down another future Hall of Fame member, second baseman Bill Mazeroski. The Chicago White Sox also got in on the action, signing 1956 Rookie of the Year and future Hall of Fame shortstop Luis Aparicio as a free agent.

Rule Changes

The 1953 meetings featured rule changes that remain to this day. A rather trivial matter, leaving gloves, glasses, and other accouterments on the field between innings, was officially banned. Hank Greenberg, a leading advocate for the change, reasoned, “We don’t want games to be decided by accidents or outside interference.”8 For the players, this meant an end to some of their shenanigans, such as using the discarded gloves for target practice or pulling pranks on teammates and opponents alike. According to the Boston Globe, Yankees shortstop Phil Rizzuto was a prime target. Red Sox players once sneaked a dead mouse into his glove, and he was routinely plagued by rubber snakes.

Pension Committee

After the tension between the commissioner and player representatives in Atlanta, the players decided not to go to the meetings in New York. Still, the news from the winter meetings mostly concerned the pension plan.

Indians general manager Hank Greenberg (who would be voted into the Hall of Fame in 1956) and Pirates general manager John Galbreath formed a two-man committee to study the effects of ending the pension plan. On the other hand, Babe Dahlgren, a former major leaguer who had presided over the first pension plan meeting in 1947, suggested a “no pension, no play” policy for players.

The executives did vote to make changes to some playing rules, as suggested by the players, including a ban on twi-night doubleheaders and spring night games. The AL banned night games on getaway days if either team had to play the next afternoon, but the NL did not follow suit.

Conclusion

The pension dispute was not settled at the 1953 winter meetings, and the tension carried through the winter and into the baseball season. When the conflict finally ended in 1954, the players formed the Major League Baseball Players Association. The organization became an official labor union in 1966 and is still in existence today.

Sources

In addition to the sources mentioned in the notes, the author also consulted:

“Baseball Executives Hail Ruling as Tremendous Victory for National Game,” New York Times, November 10, 1953: 40.

John Drebinger, “California Cities Prime Prospects,” New York Times, December 7, 1953: 46.

Notes

1 Federal Baseball Club of Baltimore v. National League of Professional Baseball Clubs, 259 U.S. 200, 42 S. Ct. 465, 66 L.Ed. 898 (1922).

2 Toolson v. New York Yankees, et al, 346 U.S. 356, 75 S. Ct. 78, 98 L.Ed. 64 (1953).

3 Dean A. Sullivan, ed. Late Innings: A Documentary History of Baseball, 1945-1972 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002), 47.

4 “Minor League Meet Gets Underway Here,” Atlanta Daily World, December 1, 1953: 4.

5 United Press, “Baseball Players Hire Own Counsel,” New York Times, August 22, 1953: 9.

6 John Drebinger, “Baseball Players and Frick at Odds,” New York Times, December 3, 1953: 2.

7 “Shaughnessy Plan for Two 12-Team Major Leagues Builds Up Clamor,” Ellensburg (Washington) Daily Record, November 6, 1953: 8.

8 Harold Kaese, “New Rule: Players Can No Longer Leave Gloves on Playing Field: How Can They Play Tricks on Pesky?” Boston Globe, January 24, 1954: C1.

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