1958 Winter Meetings: The Last Word in Utter Futility

This article was written by Mike Lynch

This article was published in the Baseball’s Business: The Winter Meetings: 1958-2016


Baseball's Business: The Winter Meetings: 1958-2016Organized Baseball’s 1958 Winter Meetings were held in Washington from December 1 to 4, with the major leagues headquartered at the Statler Hilton Hotel and the minors at the Mayflower Hotel, both within walking distance of the White House. As usual, there were many items on the table to be discussed and voted on, including two major issues that would impact major-league baseball in the near future.

The players fired a loud salvo at the owners and demanded that their salaries to be calculated based on 20 percent of gross revenue, a stipulation that had Jesse Outlar, sports editor of the Atlanta Constitution, claiming that baseball “has declared war against itself.”1 Some magnates laughed it off, including one unnamed owner who expressed his facetious desire to see the 20 percent deal adopted.

“We’ll just give them meal money during the season; no salary at all,” he gloated. “Then, at the end of the year, just toss the 20 percent take into a room. I want to be there to see those players divide the money. That would be the greatest fight in history.”2 Most, however, were resentful and could see the writing on the wall, that the players were “moving closer and closer to a union.”3

One owner, Tom Yawkey of the Boston Red Sox, who was also vice president of the American League, earned loud applause from his peers when he denounced the ultimatum. The players had initially requested 25 percent of TV revenue before shifting gears and demanding 20 percent of all gross revenue. Yawkey was apoplectic and threatened to walk away from baseball after 25 years at Boston’s helm, citing the fact that only once or twice since he purchased the Red Sox in 1933 had he cut a player’s salary.4

“I’ve put a lot of money into this game,” Yawkey declared. “I did it voluntarily. I never asked the players to share my losses. … Over the years, more ballplayers have been overpaid than underpaid.”5 The players cited large bonuses given to untested kids as their reasoning for demanding a larger piece of the pie. “If there is so much money around,” they reasoned, “why can’t we get more of it?”6

But dissension wasn’t present only at the major-league level. The International League’s players threatened to strike if the Triple-A circuit didn’t establish a pension for them. At a cost of $293,000 a year, $256,000 (87 percent) of which would come from the league while the players would contribute the remaining $37,000 (13 percent), league President Frank Shaughnessy told the players that the league “could not see its way clear to meet the tremendous financial obstacles that formed roadblocks to a pension system.”7

The other major issue on the table was major-league expansion, led by representatives from Houston and New York. With more than 9 million residents, Texas was the largest state without a major-league baseball team, and Houston was the largest city. George Kirksey, executive secretary of the Houston Sports Association, was hoping the group could purchase an existing team and made a $5 million offer for the Cleveland Indians, the highest price ever proffered for a team at the time.8

The offer was rejected and Houston filed applications with both the National and American Leagues in hopes that one of them would expand. New York, still reeling from the loss of the Dodgers and Giants (who moved to Los Angeles and San Francisco, respectively, after the 1957 season), was also itching to get back into the National League. William Shea, a lawyer and native New Yorker, tried to persuade the Pittsburgh Pirates, Philadelphia Phillies, and Cincinnati Reds to relocate to New York but was rebuffed by all three.

When he was told by National League President Warren Giles that no team would move to New York in the immediate future, Shea, along with legendary baseball executive Branch Rickey and New York Mayor Robert Wagner, hatched a plan to form a third major league — the Continental League — to begin play in 1961.9

St. Louis Cardinals president August A. Busch Jr. was in favor of a 10-team National League and offered to lease or sell Houston’s Busch Stadium, home of the Houston Buffaloes of the Double-A Texas League, to the Houston Sports Association if it was awarded a major-league team. Busch had put the Buffaloes up for sale in November and subsequently sold the franchise to former Cardinals All-Star shortstop Marty Marion, but retained ownership of the stadium.10

About Houston’s attempt to achieve major-league status, Busch said he’d “offer the highest degree of cooperation,” and would do “everything possible to help” as long as it was best for the city and Organized Baseball.11 Busch Stadium seated only 11,500 spectators but plans to expand its capacity to 23,000 were already in place and it was expected to be ready for the 1959 season. The park’s renovation was to include new restrooms and concession booths, additional parking, and new lights, if necessary.

Of course, Busch Stadium was to be a temporary solution until a new venue could be built, and Houston was out in front of that problem, having garnered the votes needed by Harris County voters to secure a $20 million bond for the construction of a stadium.12 The Harris County Board of Park Commissioners was studying “population growth, traffic flow, accessibility from all directions, drainage and acreage for a parking lot capable of holding 20,000 cars,” and had 13 different locations in mind.13

The stadium issue in New York, on the other hand, was one that had Dodgers vice president Buzzie Bavasi accusing Shea and Wagner of “putting the cart before the horse.” Bavasi was all for putting an NL team in Gotham, but opposed the idea of a new team sharing Yankee Stadium with the Yankees. “I shudder at the thought of trying to buck the Yankees in their own park with a new club that has no tradition or fan following,” Bavasi said.14

Many were in favor of putting an NL team in New York, including Yankees co-owners Del Webb and Dan Topping, and general manager George Weiss, but they thought Shea and Wagner were going about it the wrong way. Weiss called the thought of an outlaw league “so silly it doesn’t call for any consideration whatsoever,” and Webb was even more critical, stating, “The scheme outlined … is the most ridiculous thing of its kind within my experience as a baseball man.”15

Commissioner Ford Frick expressed a desire to see two leagues of 12 split into East and West divisions, but was miffed that Shea and Wagner failed to notify him of their plans and wondered how they’d pull off their impossible plot. Still, the thought of expansion was intriguing for some, including Cubs owner Philip K. Wrigley and Milwaukee Braves president Joe Cairnes, and Bavasi thought it might happen as early as 1960.16

Longtime AL President Will Harridge, who’d served in that capacity for 27 years and had been working for the AL since 1911, announced his resignation in a special meeting on December 3, citing the players’ demands, the pressure of expansion and the threat of a third major league as his reasons for stepping down. He opposed a 10-team league, insisting the junior circuit was better off with eight, and didn’t want to go through what he’d experienced in 1914-1915 when a third league, the Federal League, “almost wrecked baseball.”17

“I feel that the American League should have the opportunity of bringing in a younger and more energetic man to handle the problems confronting it,” the 77-year-old Harridge announced.18

Warren Giles, on the other hand, who’d been NL president for only seven years, was awarded a new five-year contract shortly after Harridge made his surprising announcement. NL magnates canceled the last year of Giles’ four-year deal and renewed his contract for five years at a higher salary.19

Perhaps emboldened by his new deal, Giles proposed an idea that appeared to be radical but had been adopted by teams in the past, and the league prexy hoped it would become standard across all of baseball. In 1939, when Giles was general manager of the Cincinnati Reds, he assigned numbers to his players based on the position they played. The manager, coaches, and catchers wore single digits; infielders wore numbers from 10-19; outfielders from 20-29; and pitchers from 30 on up.

Opponents of the idea cited Stan Musial and Elston Howard as examples of why the numbering system idea could be shot down. After spending his first four years in the majors in the outfield Musial began playing first base in 1946 and bounced between first and the outfield for the next 15 years. Sportswriter Earl Lawson wondered if Musial would be expected to switch uniforms from his familiar number 6 to a number from 20 to 29 when he played the outfield.

About Howard, who played outfield, catcher, and first base for the Yankees, Lawson jokingly suggested that he and his three uniforms might be too expensive to keep around.20 He concluded that the numbering system could prove to be complicated and subject to ridicule. The numbering system was one of 30 proposed amendments. Others included interleague trades, the bonus rule and unrestricted draft, the sacrifice-fly rule, and Federal League records.

The majors approved a rule that would suspend traditional waivers from November 21 to December 15 each year to allow for trades between leagues without requiring players to be waived out of their respective leagues.21

Since the elimination of the old bonus rule at the 1957 Winter Meetings, teams had shelled out approximately $6 million for high-school and college prospects, and even the wealthier teams agreed that new restrictions were needed. In order to curtail large bonuses given out to unproven youngsters, one proposal called for players signed as free agents to be subject to an unrestricted draft after one year of service, the logic being that teams would be reluctant to hand out large bonuses if they knew a player might be lost to another team after only a year. A Frick-appointed committee also reduced the amounts teams would be required to pay to draft players, making the draft more attractive. After a $25,000 price tag was established for players drafted by a major-league club in 1957, the price was reduced to $15,000. The Triple-A price was set at $7,500, Double-A at $6,000, Single-A at $4,000, and Class B and C at $3,000.22

Ed Costello of the Boston Herald suggested a graduated bonus plan that would give teams more time to pay their bonus babies and force those players to earn the money. Under Costello’s plan, a $50,000 bonus would be distributed depending on which level of ball a player was slated to begin his career. A player starting in Single A would be awarded $20,000 up front and paid the minor-league minimum salary. Each time the player advanced to the next level, he’d receive another $10,000. Players who eventually earned a major-league roster spot would receive the entire $50,000 bonus over time, while those who didn’t make it would receive only a portion of the promised bonus.23 “Such an arrangement would make the young fellow work hard to improve himself,” Costello wrote, “or out he goes with only the bonus money he earned.”24

Because the $15,000 price tag had yet to be approved prior to the 1958 draft, 12 players were selected at a cost of $300,000 on December 1, including two who went on to have productive careers or played important roles for their teams. Journeyman first baseman Rocky Nelson was selected by the Pittsburgh Pirates, one of six teams he’d played for from 1949 to 1956, and would prove to be an invaluable platoon man and pinch-hitter from 1959 to 1961, capping off his ’60 campaign with a two-run homer in the first inning of Game Seven of the World Series against the Yankees.

The Chicago White Sox selected 21-year-old right-handed pitcher Claude Raymond from the American Association’s Wichita club, the Triple-A affiliate of the Milwaukee Braves, and though he would only appear in three games for the White Sox before being released and returned to the Braves, Raymond went on to have a solid 12-year career.25

The minor-league draft, held on December 2, was in stark contrast to the ’57 draft that saw 44 players selected, mostly due to steep prices, bonuses, and prior salary commitments. Only 18 players were chosen at a cost of $84,500, the lowest number of draftees since World War II. The Los Angeles Dodgers estimated that they’d already invested $800,000 in salary and bonuses in more than 100 players, half of whom were expected to make their professional debuts in 1959.26

Other transactions included a trade between the Cleveland Indians and Boston Red Sox that saw 21-year-old center fielder Gary Geiger and veteran slugger Vic Wertz go from Cleveland to Boston on December 2 for eccentric Gold Glove center fielder Jimmy Piersall, one of the best defensive outfielders in the game. Cleveland also dealt second baseman and former batting champion Bobby Avila to the Baltimore Orioles for right-handed minor-league pitcher Russ Heman and $30,000.

On December 3 the Philadelphia Phillies acquired young infielder Ruben Amaro from the Cardinals for outfielder and future World Series stud Chuck Essegian, and sent right-handed pitcher Jack Sanford to the Giants for right-handed pitcher Ruben Gomez and catcher Valmy Thomas; while the Pirates traded left-handed relief pitcher Luis Arroyo to the Reds for minor-league outfielder Nino Escalera. The next day the Cardinals sent outfielder Wally Moon and righty hurler Phil Paine to the Dodgers for outfielder Gino Cimoli, and the Yankees signed right-handed pitcher Jim Bouton as an amateur free agent.

The Sanford trade had sportswriter Dick Young speculating that the Phillies must have known something about the former Rookie of the Year that forced them to trade him.27 Sanford had gone 19-8 with a 3.08 ERA and league-leading 188 strikeouts in 1957, but followed that up with a disappointing 1958 campaign. The Boston Globe reported that the Phillies were desperate for a catcher and although Thomas was a weak hitter, he had a strong arm and was very good behind the plate. And despite an inconsistent track record, Gomez was considered a front-line starter.28

Records and rules were also discussed during the convention. Minor-league writers and scorers proposed a rule change that would give a batter credit for a sacrifice fly even if the ball was caught in foul territory. Section 10.08 of the rule book gave credit for a sacrifice fly only if a fair ball was caught and a run scored, but the writers wanted the Rules Committee to eliminate the word “fair” and award a sacrifice fly for all balls caught that produced a run.29

Meanwhile the Records Committee of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America struggled with the idea of including Federal League records and statistics in baseball’s record books. For years there was a divide between those who thought the records should count and those who ignored them on the grounds that the Federal League was not of “big league caliber.”30

One concern was how to recognize records of stars like Eddie Plank, Three Finger Brown, Joe Tinker, and Ed Reulbach. Plank had won 284 games for the Philadelphia Athletics from 1901 to 1914 before jumping to the St. Louis Terriers of the FL in 1915, for whom he went 21-11. He rejoined the AL in 1916 and went 21-21 for the St. Louis Browns to end his career with a record of 326-194. With 305 wins in the AL, the southpaw was a Hall of Famer regardless, but the Records Committee wondered which win total the Hall of Fame should reflect on his plaque.31

The Records Committee also tasked itself with completing Ty Cobb’s RBI total, Walter Johnson’s won-lost record, and Lou Gehrig’s home-run total. RBIs weren’t officially adopted until 1920, but Hall of Fame historian Ernie Lanigan had been keeping track of them since 1907, and only had to pore through Detroit newspapers to find Cobb’s RBIs from 1905 and 1906. At the time, Cobb was credited with 1,901 runs batted in, third all-time behind Babe Ruth and Gehrig.32

Unlike the 1957 Winter Meetings that saw controversy over the writers’ choice of Mickey Mantle over Ted Williams in MVP voting, no one quibbled with their selections in 1958, although one writer, Ed McAuley of the Cleveland News, questioned why there was an MVP Award for each league but only one Cy Young Award for both leagues.33

Yankees right-hander Bob Turley led the Cy Young voting and narrowly defeated National Leaguers Warren Spahn, Lew Burdette, and Bob Friend. He also finished second to Boston outfielder Jackie Jensen in the MVP balloting.

Newspapermen and baseball officials had mixed opinions when all was said and done. The New York Times’s John Drebinger described the sessions as attaining the “last word in utter futility,” having produced “more expansive talk, more intensive plotting and scheming and accomplished less” than any of the previous winter meetings.34 According to him, the only unanimous vote was the owners’ refusal to meet the players’ demands for 20 percent of the gross revenue, a decision that earned the approval of at least one player who realized his team used 27 percent of its gross revenue for payroll, and he’d be forced to take a pay cut if the 20 percent demand had been approved.35

Drebinger also claimed the legislation that was passed was “more or less of a negative sort,” calling the one-year draft rule “virtually worthless” because of all the amendments attached to it, and citing the “inconsequential deals” made by big-league clubs. He credited Phil Wrigley, head of the National League’s realignment committee, with being forthright enough to realize the question of expansion was beyond Organized Baseball’s scope, and that a group that included an outside research agency was necessary. “They may even find out how to pitch to Ernie Banks or Hank Aaron,” he joked.36

Bob Addie of the Washington Post was not only in favor of the interleague trade period that ran from November 21 to December 15, but he called the passage of the rule “a long time coming,” and hoped that some day interleague play would eventually become a reality.37 It finally did in 1997.

 

Notes

1 Atlanta Constitution, December 4, 1958.

2 Ibid.

3 The Sporting News, December 10, 1958: 5.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 The Sporting News, December 10, 1958: 6.

7 Ibid.

8 The Sporting News, November 26, 1958: 3. One prominent member of the Houston Sports Association was Kenneth Stanley “Bud” Adams Jr., who used his wealth to help form the American Football League in 1959. The league began play in 1960 and Adams’s Houston Oilers won the first two league championships before the AFL merged with the NFL in 1970. At the time of his death in 2013, Adams’s 409 wins as an owner were the most among all current NFL owners.

9 The Continental League was to put teams in New York, Houston, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Toronto, Denver, Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth, and Buffalo. Although the Continental League never got off the ground, all but Buffalo would eventually get a major-league team in future expansions, including New York and Houston, which joined the National League in 1962.

10 The Sporting News, November 26, 1958: 3.

11 Ibid.

12 The Sporting News, November 26, 1958: 4.

13 The Sporting News, November 26, 1958: 3.

14 The Sporting News, November 26, 1958: 5. When the New York Mets joined the National League in 1962, they used the Polo Grounds in 1962-1963 before moving into Shea Stadium in 1964. It’s interesting to note that the Yankees shared the Polo Grounds with the New York Giants from 1911 to 1922, before Yankee Stadium was built, then shared Shea Stadium with the Mets in 1974-1975 while Yankee Stadium was being renovated. So it’s not impossible to believe the Yankees would have allowed the Mets to call Yankee Stadium home in 1962-1963.

15 Ibid.

16 Ibid.

17 The Sporting News, December 10, 1958: 5.

18 Ibid. Hall of Fame shortstop Joe Cronin, who had been serving as the Red Sox’ general manager since 1948, succeeded Harridge in January 1959.

19 Ibid.

20 The Sporting News, November 26, 1958: 4.

21 Chicago Tribune, December 4, 1958.

22 The Sporting News, December 3, 1958: 11.

23 The Sporting News, November 26, 1958: 12.

24 Ibid.

25 Claude Raymond was named to the National League All-Star team in 1966, and from 1961 to 1971 he was one of seven NL pitchers to record at least 80 saves.

26 The Sporting News, December 10, 1958: 12.

27 The Sporting News, December 10, 1958: 25.

28 Boston Globe, December 4, 1958. The Giants easily got the better of the Jack Sanford trade that netted the Phillies Ruben Gomez and Valmy Thomas. Sanford won 80 games for the Giants from 1959 to 1963, including 24 for the pennant-winning 1962 squad, before numbness in his hand effectively ended his days as a starting pitcher. Over that same period, he paced the Giants in wins, innings, starts, and strikeouts. Gomez went only 3-11 for the Phillies with a horrible 5.78 ERA before being sent back to the minors in 1961 at the age of 33. Thomas spent only one year in Philadelphia and batted an anemic .200. He also committed a career-worst seven errors, but threw out 46 percent of would-be base thieves.

29 The Sporting News, December 10, 1958: 15.

30 Ibid.

31 Ibid. Plank was inducted into the Hall of Fame by the Old Timers Committee in 1946. His plaque at the Hall of Fame Museum in Cooperstown, New York, simply mentions that he’s “one of few pitchers to win more than 300 games in big leagues.” Brown won 239 games, including 31 in the Federal League, and his Hall of Fame plaque reflects that. Reulbach won 182 games, including 21 in the FL, but he’s not in the Hall of Fame. Tinker’s plaque doesn’t mention his stats, just who he played for and the fact that he was a shortstop on four pennant winners.

32 As of this writing, Baseball-Reference.com credits Cobb with 1,933 RBIs; the sixth edition of Total Baseball, the official encyclopedia of Major League Baseball, credits him with 1,937, and Retrosheet.org has him with 1,944. Walter Johnson’s won-lost record is listed as 417-279 in all three of the above; Lou Gehrig’s home-run total is listed as 493 in all three of the above.

33 The Sporting News, November 26, 1958: 10. From 1956 to 1966 only one Cy Young Award was given out. It wasn’t until 1967 that the Baseball Writers Association of America awarded a Cy Young trophy to a pitcher from each league.

34 New York Times, December 6, 1958.

35 Ibid.

36 Ibid.

37 Washington Post, December 6, 1958.

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