1968 Winter Meetings: Down Goes Eckert

This article was written by Mark Armour

This article was published in the


Baseball's Business: The Winter Meetings: 1958-2016Background

Baseball was going through a time of transition as the 1968 Winter Meetings approached. Most dramatically, the major leagues were about to add four new teams beginning in 1969, and had recently held two expansion drafts to stock the new clubs. On Monday, October 14, the National League held its draft for the Montreal Expos and San Diego Padres, while the following day the American League had its turn to benefit the Kansas City Royals and Seattle Pilots. When the dust settled, each of the 20 existing teams had lost six players and each of the four new teams had added 30.

Expansion also must lead to some reorganization in the minor leagues — both because some of the new teams would supplant minor-league teams, and also because the franchises would need affiliates of their own. In October the general managers approved a plan for 22 Triple-A teams, 20 Double-A, and 24 Single-A teams in 1969, with plans to get to 24 at each level (one for each major-league team) by 1971.

Also of note, the sport had been getting a lot of heat in the national press for its historic lack of scoring, the lowest in 60 years. Most observers believed that baseball would have to act to change the game to generate more offense. “It would be terrible for us to continue on whistling through the graveyard and ignore what is happening,” said Cleveland Indians President Gabe Paul.1 Several possible rules changes were on the agenda for the meetings.

The major-league meetings were held at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco from Sunday, December 1, through Saturday, December 7.

The biggest news to come out of the meetings happened on Friday the 6th, when Commissioner William Eckert was asked for, and soon proffered, his resignation. He had completed just three years of his seven-year contract. The owners wanted a new commissioner who would provide bold and imaginative leadership, traits that Eckert clearly did not have. The owners claimed they were looking for a complete restructuring of the game, changes that would rid baseball of the squabbling between the leagues that had plagued it for years.

“When each league goes its own way on basic matters of policy, what you’re left with is the ‘law of the jungle,’” said Tigers President John Fetzer. Sounding the same theme, Bill Bartholomay of the Braves added, “We couldn’t even agree on a waiver rule change at these meetings. One league wants one thing and one wants something else, and no one in either league knows what the other is thinking.”2

Mike Burke of the Yankees, one of the “Young Turks” who was angling for the change, thought baseball needed to deal with the fact that it was losing popularity. “We recognize our problem. It’s the attitude of the public at large that baseball is not with it, that it’s not as contemporary as football, hockey, and basketball, the contact sports. It’s an attitude that exists and we’ve got to decide what to do about it. We need strong, courageous, intelligent leadership.”3

A three-person committee was created to recommend a reorganization of the management structure of baseball: Jerry Hoffberger, owner of the Orioles; Dick Meyer, representing August Busch of the Cardinals; and John Holland, representing Phil Wrigley of the Cubs. Hoffberger in particular had led the revolt that resulted in the ouster of Eckert.

 

Rule 5 Draft

On December 2, the 24 teams (including the four expansion teams) held their annual Rule 5 draft. The first choice, by the Houston Astros, was veteran outfielder Gary Geiger, who had spent the 1968 season in the minor leagues and had been left unprotected by the Cardinals, his parent club. Other well-known names included catcher Russ Nixon (taken by the White Sox from the Red Sox), and left-handed pitcher Bob Belinsky (by the Cardinals, from the Astros).

Because the expansion draft had already taken six players from the 40-man rosters of each of the existing 20 teams, the pickings in the Rule 5 draft should have been that much less enticing. On the other hand, the existing teams had six new holes to fill, thus making the draft just as active as it had been in past years.

The most important selections were lesser-known minor leaguers who went on to long careers in the big leagues: corner infielder Darrell Evans (by the Braves from the Athletics), outfielder Cesar Geronimo (by the Astros from the Yankees), and right-handed pitcher Pedro Borbon (by the Angels from the Cardinals). One player who paid off even quicker was Wayne Garrett, whom the Mets selected from the Braves system and who became a platoon regular for them at third base.

 

Rule Changes

Beginning in 1969 the pitcher’s mound was to be 10 inches above the height of the plate, rather than 15 inches, and the strike zone would be reduced to encompass the top of the knees to the armpits, instead of the knees to the top of the shoulder. “All this stuff is trial and error anyway,” said Atlanta general manager Paul Richards. “If it works, let’s do it.” Dodgers manager Walter Alston was less optimistic: “The good hitters are still going to hit and the rotten hitters are still going to strike out.”4

The Rules Committee agreed to a new rule that would credit a “Save” to a reliever who entered the game with a lead and held that lead until the end of the game, provided he did not get a “Win.” The rule would also allow a pitcher to get a Save without finishing the game if he was removed for a pinch-hitter or pinch-runner — in such a case, the official scorer would be allowed to choose from among multiple eligible candidates.5

Another new rule would let scorers charge relievers who enter the game in mid-inning with earned runs allowed even if errors before he entered the game would have ended the inning. In this case the runs could be unearned for the team but earned for the relief pitcher.6

The baseball clubs created a “temporary inactive list” for players who sustain a bona-fide illness or injury unrelated to baseball activities. A player put on this list would be removed from the roster for at least 21 days and not paid, but would remain under contract to the club. The rule was prompted by injuries like that suffered by right-hander Jim Lonborg, the 1967 American League Cy Young Award winner, who broke his leg skiing in late December 1967.

The rules surrounding suspended games were changed. If a game was suspended after nine innings with the score tied, it would be continued from that point, rather than replayed in its entirety.

The American League agreed to try some experimental rules in spring training: the use of a permanent pinch-hitter for the pitcher; a permanent pinch-runner who could be used any time; and the automatic awarding of first base on an intentional walk. “These tests,” said AL President Joe Cronin, “will be made at the discretion of the president.”7

The leagues rejected a proposal to decrease the roster size from 25 to 23, something the minor leagues (who were losing 100 players with league expansion) were urging.

Major-league teams (and minor-league teams as well) that lost at least two players to military service would be allowed to recall an optioned player.8

 

Player Dealing

Cleveland Indians general manager Gabe Paul went to San Francisco looking for a big bat. He apparently offered five players for Phillies slugger Richie Allen (who was rumored to be going several places), but the Phillies wanted either ace lefty Sam McDowell or All-Star righty Luis Tiant as part of the package. The Indians were also believed to have made a pitch for Senators slugger Frank Howard. All of this came to naught. Instead he settled for acquiring infielder Zoilo Versalles (just drafted from the Dodgers in the October expansion draft) from the Padres to complete an earlier trade. Versalles had won the AL MVP award in 1965, but his career had gone downhill rapidly in the years since.

Ultimately the winter meetings were relatively slow on the big-name front. The Phillies picked up Deron Johnson, the slugging corner infielder-outfielder coming off a couple of down years, from the Braves. The Red Sox, having lost infielders Joe Foy and Jerry Adair in the expansion draft, traded right-handed pitcher Gary Waslewski to the Cardinals for infielder Dick Schofield. The Yankees, coming off an 83-79 record, their best finish in four years, made three small deals, acquiring left-handed pitcher Mike Kekich from the Dodgers for outfielder Andy Kosco; outfielder Dick Simpson from the Astros for right-handed pitcher Dooley Womack; and infielder Nate Oliver from the Giants for third baseman Charley Smith.

In the biggest deal of the meetings, one that would have large ramifications over the game for the next several years, the Baltimore Orioles traded infielder-outfielder Curt Blefary and minor-leaguer John Mason to the Houston Astros for left-handed pitcher Mike Cuellar, infielder Enzo Hernandez, and minor leaguer Tom Johnson. Houston had deemed Cuellar expendable despite three good seasons, and had wanted to trade him for a hitter. They had tried to get Jesus Alou from the Expos for Cuellar but had been turned down. Baltimore, on the other hand, had a surplus in the outfield — Earl Weaver had taken over as Orioles manager in July and had given Blefary’s job to Don Buford. Blefary, the 1965 American League Rookie of the Year, had not been happy about it, and the Orioles decided to cash him in.

 

Player’s Union

In September, Players Association Executive Director Marvin Miller had advised the players not to sign their 1969 contracts until a new pension agreement — replacing the one expiring on March 31 — was reached. The clubs’ pension contribution had traditionally been tied to a percentage of World Series and All-Star Game television revenue, but was replaced with a specific figure in 1966. Since then baseball had signed a new lucrative TV deal ($16.3 million), which included additional revenue for the two League Championship Series. “The players have a right to know what is in their 1969 benefit plan before signing their contracts,” reasoned Miller. “The two go hand in hand. Signing without knowing what the new pension plan will offer is like signing half a contract.”9

During the winter meetings, the union’s Executive Board was once again told that the owners were too busy to see them (as they had been in Mexico City a year earlier). After its own meeting, the board called players around the country looking for commitments to not sign contracts without a pension agreement. Miller held a press conference on December 4 and read off the names of dozens of players, including Mickey Mantle, Roberto Clemente, Bob Gibson, and Willie Mays. “Young players have been told to sign now or play in the minor leagues next year,” Miller said. “Others have been told they’ll never get the necessary five years unless they sign.”10 The owners claimed this was all just a ploy. “A negotiating tactic,” said John Gaherin, the owners’ chief negotiator, “but it is not conducive to a healthy climate for a settlement.”11

Also present in San Francisco were the newly organized American League umpires, who were looking for improved salaries and the reinstatement of Al Salerno and Bill Valentine. The two arbiters claimed that they had been fired in September for attempting to organize a union, though AL President Joe Cronin said he made the decision based only on their ability. The Major League Umpires Association (encompassing both leagues) suggested it would strike if the umpires are not given their jobs back.

 

Centennial

In a meeting of team public-relations directors chaired by Joe Reichler, PR director for the commissioner’s office, the group agreed to a plan to celebrate baseball’s centennial in 1969. Highlights included:

  • A two-trailer caravan containing Hall of Fame memorabilia would visit every major- and minor-league park in the country during the season.
  • A baseball digest containing team histories and current players would be published.
  • A one-hour television show featuring members of the Hall of Fame and top entertainers would be broadcast on July 21, the eve of the All-Star Game.
  • A new US postage stamp would be issued.
  • Campbell’s Soup would make baseball-oriented labels on 40 million to 50 million cans of company’s product.
  • Lee Allen and other writers would compile a list of 25 outstanding feats in history, to be part of a publication released during the year.
  • Fans in ballparks would vote on the greatest players by position (10 players, including a left- and right-handed pitcher) for their home clubs. Writers would take these teams and pick all-time teams. The living players would be part of the July 21 gala.

 

Miscellaneous

On December 3, attorneys for the Washington Senators announced the sale of the club by board chairman James H. Lemon to a group led by Robert E. Short of Minneapolis, the treasurer of the Democratic National Committee. Short met with team executives at the winter meetings to discuss the state of the team.

Johnny Mize appeared at the meetings in support of the Global League, a proposed professional circuit that would not compete with the major leagues. According to league plans, there would be teams in Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya, Japan, Louisville, Jersey City, and Mobile in the United States. Former Commissioner Happy Chandler would take a leadership role. The league would be supplied with players who had been released by the major leagues. Mize would manage a team, and Roy Campanella was envisioned as the manager for Jersey City. Other interested people included Enos Slaughter, Allie Reynolds, and Bob Turley.12

The Global League would also experiment with different rules changes. Hillman Lyons, a longtime major- and minor-league executive and a Chandler associate, elaborated. “Like allowing pinch-hitters to bat more than once, using pinch-runners more than once. Maybe our pitchers won’t hit at all.”13

At the Baseball Writers Association of America annual meeting, the writers urged that the statistics earned in the new league playoffs not count as part of the regular season stats. Past policy was that statistics from league playoffs (after two teams tied for the pennant) counted in regular season statistics.

The two leagues formally agreed to two divisions, 162-game schedules, and best-of-five League Championship Series.

At the annual meeting of the National Association (the minor leagues), outgoing Pacific Coast League President (and incoming Seattle Pilots President) Dewey Soriano was crowned “King of Baseball.”

 

Conclusion

Heading out of the Winter Meetings, baseball had some major problems to deal with. The owners had to find a commissioner, and early indications were that the two leagues were likely not going to agree easily on that score. There was also, for the first time in history, the threat of a player strike over the unresolved pension negotiations. The leagues had agreed to new rules to combat a crisis in run scoring, and no one really knew whether those new rules were going to be sufficient.

With all that going on, baseball was adding four new teams and playing with four divisions for the first time. It was an extraordinarily historic time in the history of the game.

 

Notes

1 Bob Sudyk, “Liven Up Ball to Restore Scoring Thrills, Paul Urges,” The Sporting News, December 7, 1968: 48.

2 Oscar Kahan, “Baseball Groping for New Direction,” The Sporting News, December 21, 1968: 25.

3 Ibid.

4 Harry Jupiter, “Rules Altered; Now It’s Up to Swingers,” The Sporting News, December 21, 1968: 24.

5 The Sporting News Official Baseball Guide 1969, 203.

6 Ibid.

7 Stan Isle, “Players Protest Rule Permitting Pay Suspension,” The Sporting News, December 21, 1968: 27.

8 Ibid.

9 The Sporting News Official Baseball Guide, 1969.

10 Stan Isle, “Threat of Umpire and Player Strikes Hanging Over Majors,” The Sporting News, December 21, 1968: 24.

11 Ibid.

12 Harry Jupiter, “Mize Goes to Bat for Global League,” The Sporting News, December 14, 1968: 35.

13 Ibid.

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