1961 Winter Meetings: The Mets, the Colt .45s, and Debating the Return of the Spitball
This article was written by Christopher Matthews
This article was published in Baseball’s Business: The Winter Meetings: 1958-2016
In the winter of 1961, baseball fans were gearing up for an expansion of the National League — newcomers named the New York Mets and Houston Colt .45’s would play their inaugural season in 1962. Baseball writers around the country, however, were more thrilled by the return of Casey Stengel, hired to manage the Mets. The quotable Stengel was returning from a forced one-year retirement from the game, and in the winter of 1961 the newspapers were once again filled with his colorful pronouncements on such subjects as the possible return of the spitball.1
Adding teams in Houston and New York, a year after the American League moved into Los Angeles and Washington (with the shift of the previous D.C. team to Minneapolis), was the backdrop to the winter meetings in Miami in 1961. But the owners had more to deal with than inviting two new members to join their club. The aforementioned spitball was also an issue which was placed on the table and subsequently received plenty of press coverage. After a ban since 1920, a movement to bring back the spitball seemingly came out of nowhere, but received some high-profile support from luminaries like Stengel.2
Another more chronic issue that needed addressing was the explosion in the size of signing bonuses being given to first-year players. Commissioner Ford C. Frick was intent on enacting a new bonus rule that would alleviate this problem. There had been no regulations on the books restricting bonuses to unproven talent since 1957, and with the commissioner and most owners united in their desire to create a system that would keep large bonuses in check, this matter was a top priority for Frick in the winter of 1961.3
The meetings were also notable for showing signs of a nascent labor movement. It would be several years before the reserve clause was formally challenged, but issues dealt with in the winter of 1961 foreshadowed some of the monumental changes the players union would bring to the game, primarily the contract battle waged by New York Yankees star Roger Maris in the winter after his record-setting season of 1961.4 Ownership would also address the issue of holding two All-Star Games, a practice that had been in place since the 1959 season in order to finance the players pension fund.5 The owners were opposed to this, and the disagreement on how to take care of former major leaguers showed the beginnings of a rift between players and management that would grow much wider in years to come.
San Francisco fans were able to breathe a sigh of relief that their team wasn’t successful in its attempt to trade its part-time, 23-year-old first baseman, Willie McCovey.6 McCovey had burst onto the scene two years earlier, hitting .354/.429/.656 in 52 games and being selected the National League Rookie of the Year, but he battled shoulder injuries in the following years and found his career stagnating.7 The Giants shopped him at the winter meetings in 1961, hoping to trade him to the St. Louis Cardinals for light-hitting second baseman Julian Javier.8 The trade didn’t happen, however, and McCovey went on to post a 154 OPS+ in 1962. He followed that performance by leading the league in home runs in 1963 with 44 on his way to a spot in the Baseball Hall of Fame.9
The big player in the trade market that winter was the Chicago White Sox, making two deals in an effort to get younger and shore up their defense.10 The South Siders dealt 39-year-old outfielder Minnie Miñoso to St. Louis for first baseman-outfielder Joe Cunningham.11 The White Sox bought low on Cunningham, who bounced back from two down seasons to post a 127 OPS+ in 1962.12 The team also traded an aging slugger, first baseman Roy Sievers, to the Philadelphia Phillies for infielder Charlie Smith and pitcher John Buzhardt.13 Though one can question Philadelphia’s strategy of trading for a star on the wrong side of 34 when it was rebuilding, the deal proved to be a success for the Phillies. Sievers had a few more productive years, while neither Smith nor Buzhardt ever panned out.
Though the genesis of the spitball legalization movement is unknown, it was submitted to the rules committee by the White Sox and supported by both Commissioner Frick and the president of the American League, Joe Cronin.14 The main arguments for removing the ban were that it was a difficult rule to enforce and that it would help keep ballooning home-run totals in check. There was also the idea that it would cause hitters to focus more on making contact, thereby bringing back a brand of “small ball” that had been lost in favor of home runs.15
The issue was deliberated by the rules committee, chaired by James Gallagher, a former Chicago Cubs business manager and director of the Phillies scouting department.16 The committee could have removed the ban on the spitter with a simple majority vote, regardless of what the owners thought of the measure.17 However, Gallagher made it known that he would bring the rule to a vote only if he saw an overwhelming number either for or against it. “I feel that on such an important change the vote should be at least 7 to 2,” Gallagher told the Chicago Tribune.18
Despite the high-profile support and considerable fanfare in the media, the spitball was voted down 8-1 in the rules committee.19 The committee was made up of the supervisors of the American and National League umpires, one American League executive, two National League executives, and three representatives from the minor leagues. The only member of the committee to vote in favor of the spitball was Cal Hubbard, supervisor of American League umpires.20
The major change adopted at the meetings was the passing of Frick’s new regulation on bonuses for first-year players. The old rule, which had been in place from 1953 to 1957, stipulated that a player who signed a bonus over a certain amount was required to remain on a team’s major-league roster for two full calendar years, or else be placed on the waiver wire and possibly lost to the signing club. The rule was intended to prevent teams from spending big bucks on unproven players and then stashing them interminably in their farm systems.21 In reality, it led to teams using up bench space for kids who couldn’t cut it in the big leagues, and stirred animosity among veterans whose salaries were dwarfed by the bonuses given to these youngsters. It also brought on scorn from the fans and press. Players like Harmon Killebrew and Sandy Koufax (and a host of players who never panned out) were derisively called “bonus babies.”22 Also, the rule wasn’t entirely enforceable. Teams came up with ways to pay the players under the table, or they would put their new signees on the disabled list for cooked-up injuries.23 On top of this, the rule failed to stem the rising tide of bonuses, so it was abandoned in 1957.
Commissioner Frick was determined, however, to keep these bonuses in check. It was estimated that since the old rule was repealed, teams had shelled out over $6 million annually for bonuses for this young, unproven talent.24 Frick proposed a slight variation on the old rule: A team could option only one first-year player to the minors; all others would have to be kept on the major-league roster or pass through waivers before being sent down. The price to claim the player on waivers was $8,000, regardless of how much bonus money the player had received.25 Theoretically, then, a team would have a heavy incentive not to sign more than one first-year player for more than this amount.
Frick’s new rule was passed unanimously in the American League and by 7-3 in the National League, with the big-market Dodgers, Giants, and Mets opposing it.26 As it turned out, there were too many loopholes in the rule, and its failure in part led to the creation of the player draft in 1965.
Finally, it was also decided at the meetings that 1962 would be the final year of holding two All-Star Games. For several years the leagues had played two midseason games in an effort to keep the players’ pension fund above water.27 But opposition from the owners of American League teams would bring back the practice of playing just one All-Star Game and force the players in subsequent years to find new ways to keep their fund solvent.
On its face, the winter meetings of 1961 weren’t that revolutionary. There were no blockbuster trades, the movement to bring back the spitball was shot down, and a new rule to curb first-year player bonuses was enacted, but it was really just a variation on a theme that had been played around with since the end of World War II. Looking back, however, one can see how the major changes of the 1960s and beyond were presaged by the 1961 meetings. The players’ pension plan was broke, and having two All-Star Games was an attempt by the players to get a bigger piece of the pie. Rebuffed by the owners, they would be forced to use more confrontational tactics to get their share of baseball’s profits. Though Commissioner Frick was very confident in the efficacy of his new bonus rule, it proved to be a failure, directly leading to the Rule 4 (free-agent) Draft, now a staple and a major event of every modern baseball season.
Ford Frick on Overhauling the Minors
“This new bonus rule is the first step. I think we have taken the most forward steps that baseball has made in 15 years. This rule may have some bugs in it but they will be worked out. What I like best about it is that it is self-enforceable. There is no limit. Anybody can pay $100,000 but they may lose the boy in the draft.”*
*“Majors Pass New Type Bonus Rule,” Eugene (Oregon) Guard, December 3, 1961: 14.
More of a Huddle Than a Meeting
Reportedly, Commissioner Frick, the two league presidents, and 20 club presidents conducted their business at the joint meeting in seven minutes.*
*“New Bonus System Cuts Majors’ Spending for Big Talent,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, December 3, 1961: 60.
1 “Stengel Backs Return of Spitball as Assist for His Met Pitchers,” New York Times, November 24, 1961: 49.
2 “Rules Group Acts Today on Spitball,” Chicago Tribune, November 26, 1961: C6.
4 “Yankees Maris Seeks Reward for ’61 Showing; Still Can’t Come to Terms,” Chicago Daily Defender, January 25, 1962: 27.
6 “Baseball Rules Committee Votes, 8 to 1, to Retain Ban on Spitball Pitches,” New York Times, November 27, 1961: 40.
10 “Sox Trade Sievers for 2 Phillies,” Chicago Tribune, November 29, 1961: C1.
13 “Sox Trade Sievers.”
14 “To Spit or Not …” Los Angeles Times, November 26, 1961: L2; “Rules Group Acts Today on Spitball,” Chicago Tribune, November 26, 1961: C6.
15 “To Spit or Not …”
16 “Rules Group Acts Today on Spitball.”
19 “Baseball Rules Committee.”
24 “Frick Hails Move to Halt Wild Bonus Bidding,” New York Times, November 8, 1961: 46.
25 “New Bonus Rule Is Likely at Baseball Meetings,” New York Times, November 26, 1961: S2.
26 “New ‘Bonus Rule’ Voted by Majors,” New York Times, December 3, 1961: S1.