This article was written by Mark Armour
This article was published in the
As the 1969 baseball Winter Meetings approached, the central issues on the minds of most owners were the recommendations of the restructuring committee that had been created the year before. At that meeting, in San Francisco, the owners had fired William Eckert as commissioner, and had formed a group to examine ways to restructure the management of the game in an attempt to reduce the league squabbles that had been plaguing baseball over the past decade.
The 1969 Winter Meetings were held from Sunday, November 30, through Saturday, December 6, in south Florida. The minor-league meetings were held at Fort Lauderdale’s Galt Ocean Mile Hotel from Sunday night through Wednesday morning, and on Wednesday afternoon the major-league meetings began 25 miles away at the Americana Hotel in Bal Harbour. Most of the teams’ top brass attended both sets of meetings.
The restructuring committee, headed by Baltimore owner Jerry Hoffberger, along with Dick Meyer (St. Louis) and John Holland (Chicago Cubs), formally presented highlights of their report (complete details had been prepared by the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of management and were mailed to the group after the meeting) to their colleagues on Saturday, December 6. In essence, the committee recommended giving significantly more power to the commissioner by making the two league presidents effectively his deputies, responsible to the commissioner first and the league owners second. The two league presidents (referred to as “deputy commissioners” in the first version of the report) would be nominated by the commissioner and approved by the owners. The minor leagues would also be placed under the commissioner.1
Furthermore, the league offices would both move to New York and operate under the commissioner’s office. Traditionally the league offices were set up wherever the league president wanted to live. In 1969, the AL offices were in Boston, in deference to league President Joe Cronin, while the NL offices had long been in Cincinnati, home of Warren Giles. The minor-league (formally organized as the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues) offices would also move to New York and be under the commissioner.2
In addition, the two umpiring staffs would be joined and place under the command of the commissioner, rather than managed by the league presidents. The commissioner would also have control of a number of additional people and spheres. He would appoint the chairman of the Playing Rules Committee, a broadcast coordinator, an administrative officer, and various aides, lawyers, and assistants.3
Of paramount importance, all playing or operating rules changes or structural changes would require a two-thirds majority of all owners and a simple majority of each league, making it much more difficult for a small group in one league to block a measure favored by most of the owners. Currently the two leagues voted independently and separately and had their own procedures for how their vote was counted. The National League, for example, required unanimous consent on some issues, like relocation or expansion. In 1968 a single owner — Houston’s Roy Hofheinz — had reportedly blocked expansion to Dallas, which the rest of the owners wanted.4
To a very large degree, the restructuring plan was delivered a blow two days before it was presented when the National League voted 12-0 to hire Charles “Chub” Feeney to replace the retiring Warren Giles as league president. The National League was particularly wary of any loss of independence and power for the league, and it was known that Commissioner Bowie Kuhn wanted Giles to stick around during this transitional period. The sudden appointment of Feeney, who was a member of the restructuring committee and well aware of what was in the coming report, was a significant defeat for Kuhn and the committee.
Feeney, the nephew of San Francisco Giants owner Horace Stoneham, had been an executive with the Giants for more than 20 years. He had been reluctant to take the league presidency because he feared the offices were being weakened, but he now made it clear that he was doing so with assurance that the league’s autonomy would be unchanged. “Warren Giles has done a magnificent job of building up the National League during his 17 years,” said Feeney. “I will be well satisfied if I can do two-thirds as good a job in my tenure. The National League is having its high point in the cycle. I hope it will continue.”5
Feeney was opposed to interleague play (something the American League and Kuhn wanted), and also announced that he planned to move his league’s offices from Cincinnati to San Francisco, and not to New York. Many were concerned about the time difference. “In the morning,” said one observer, “Don Grant (New York Mets), Joe Brown (Pittsburgh), and Don Davidson (Atlanta) will be asking, ‘where the hell is Chub Feeney?’”6
In any event, many baseball owners, especially in the National League, were leery of the drastic changes as proposed by the restructuring committee. No action was taken at the Florida meetings, but further get-togethers were scheduled to consider the details of the comprehensive proposals point by point.
Rule 5 Draft
On December 1 the major leagues held their annual Rule 5 draft, and 19 players were selected. The first choice went to the Cleveland Indians, who took left-handed pitcher Larry Staab from the Los Angeles Dodgers. Staab had won 13 games for Triple-A Spokane in 1969, and 12 the prior year for the same club.
There were just a handful of players taken whose names were familiar to any but the most rabid of fans. The Astros selected southpaw Jack DiLauro, who had pitched 23 games for the recent champion Mets. The Braves drafted catcher Hal King, who had played parts of two seasons with the Astros and spent 1969 hitting .322 for the Red Sox’ Triple-A club in Louisville.
Over the long term, the most important selection was that of infielder Manny Trillo, taken by the Phillies from the Athletics. The 20-year-old was still a few years away.
The major leagues approved a “caveat emptor” amendment to the existing rules regarding player trades. There had been two high-profile trades in this past year in which a traded player decided to retire rather than report to his new team. The traditional way such matters had been handled in the past was to call off the entire trade.
- On January 22, 1969, the Montreal Expos traded first baseman Donn Clendenon and outfielder Jesus Alou to the Houston Astros for outfielder Rusty Staub. Everything appeared fine for a few weeks, until February 28 when Clendenon announced his retirement. Most observers thought the trade would be called off at this point. In early March, Clendenon suggested that he might be open to returning but not to Houston, though his public stance would change several times over the next few weeks. For his part, Staub was thrilled to be with the Expos, and Montreal was thrilled to have him. After considerable communication with all parties, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn reworked the deal by having Montreal send a couple of additional players to Houston and allowing Clendenon (who got a big raise) to remain with the Expos.
- In early April the Red Sox made a six-player trade with the Indians, sending popular first baseman-outfielder Ken Harrelson to Cleveland. Harrelson, who had considerable business interests in Boston, announced that he was retiring. Kuhn froze the deal until he could arrange a meeting with Harrelson and executives from each club. After Harrelson got a new contract with a large raise, he “un-retired” and the trade was finalized.
Under the new rule, which even the commissioner believed was necessary, all trades, once agreed upon, would stand. It was up to the teams themselves to persuade their players to report to work.7 Had this rule been in place a year earlier, both trades would have been final, and Clendenon and Harrelson would have been free to report or not as they wished.
The New York Mets, fresh off their World Series championship, were willing to trade some of their young pitching (specifically Gary Gentry, Nolan Ryan, and Jim McAndrew) for a hitter if the right deal came along. GM Johnny Murphy did not expect such a deal, and assumed his team would stand pat. Their only need was at third base, where Ed Charles (who had platooned with Wayne Garrett) had retired. “I’ve talked to every club and they are interested in our kid pitchers,” admitted Murphy. “And I’ve told them all that [Tom] Seaver and [Jerry] Koosman are the only ones we will not trade.”8
Early in the week the Mets got their third baseman from the Royals in the person of Joe Foy, a 26-year-old who had had a few solid years with Boston and Kansas City. The price was 22-year-old outfielder Amos Otis and right-handed pitcher Bob Johnson, neither of whom was in New York’s plans. The Mets were delighted with Foy, considered one of the better young third baseman in the game. “He’s a fine defensive third baseman and he gives us speed,” said Mets manager Gil Hodges. “I expect him to give us more offense, plus a good glove at third.”9
The Atlanta Braves traded veteran outfielder Felipe Alou to the Oakland Athletics for right-handed pitcher Jim Nash. Nash was delighted to be playing at home — he had grown up in nearby Marietta and attended the University of Georgia — while the A’s hoped Alou would take over either at first base or left field.
The Yankees dealt enigmatic first baseman Joe Pepitone to Houston in exchange for outfielder-first baseman Curt Blefary, the 1965 American League Rookie of the Year. Pepitone had had many off-field issues during his Yankee years, and manager Ralph Houk likely had enough after Pepitone jumped the club twice in 1969. “Pepitone was as good a first baseman as I ever have seen and a fine ballplayer,” said Houk. “Joe had his problems, but he was a good guy.”10
The next day the Yankees continued the teardown of their 1964 pennant winner by dealing left-handed pitcher Al Downing (and catcher Frank Fernandez) to the A’s for first baseman Danny Cater and outfielder Ossie Chavarria. Downing, who had had a couple of difficult seasons, had conducted a long holdout in March. The Yankees were hoping that Cater and Blefary would combine to man first base.
After having been rebuffed at the Winter Meetings each of the past two Decembers, the players chose to hold their 1969 annual meeting at a different time and place than the owners, and chose San Juan, Puerto Rico, on December 13 and 14. Bowie Kuhn, who had not become commissioner until February 4, 1969, spoke at the meetings and told the players he hoped they could coordinate their meetings in future years. In fact, Kuhn believed that he was the players’ commissioner too. The players voiced a number of grievances to Kuhn, including the increase of artificial playing surfaces, the newer stadium designs, plans to have the fans vote for the All-Star teams, and the stalled contract negotiations.11 (The very first CBA, agreed upon two years earlier, was to expire on December 31.)
The most important issue discussed at the players’ meetings involved star outfielder Curt Flood, who had been traded from St. Louis to Philadelphia in October but now wanted to file suit against baseball to end its hallowed reserve clause. Miller invited Flood to speak to the players, who asked tough questions about his motivations and plans. After hearing from Flood, the players voted unanimously to support his legal case financially and otherwise.12
The major-league umpires’ union met with league presidents Warren Giles and Joe Cronin to try to iron out the ongoing dispute over their pension plan. “The umpires also are seeking a wage increase and an equalization — certainly an approximation — of benefits in proportion to years of service,” said John Reynolds, attorney for the umps. “This meeting, however, was primarily concerned with pensions.”13 While the National League umpires had formed a union in 1963, the American League did not join them until 1968.
The National Association named longtime Appalachian League President Chauncey DeVault as the “King of Baseball.” At the same banquet, the National Association presented plaques to outgoing NL President Giles, Sporting Newspublisher C.C. Johnson Spink, and Sy Berger, sports director of Topps Chewing Gum Inc. Berger was honored for the company’s years of service to the minor leagues, which included a series of annual awards to the top performers in each minor league.
At the annual meeting of publicity directors, plans were discussed to create an annual televised baseball dinner in the wake of the tremendous success of the gala held in Washington on the Monday prior to the 1969 All-Star Game. “We’ve been told universally,” said Joe Reichler, the public-relations aide to Commissioner Kuhn, “that the Washington affair was the biggest sports dinner ever.”
At the same meeting, Reichler announced plans to create computerized All-Star ballots, to be distributed to fans at ballparks, gas stations, supermarkets, banks, etc., beginning in June. The fans had not voted on the All-Star Game since 1956. The PR men also discussed setting up a historical library (containing film, photographs, and printed material) in the commissioner’s office, a baseball caravan of material that would tour the country, and a Saturday-afternoon TV show for children,
The commissioner asked each of the teams to consider a plan to put names on the backs of their uniforms. While the practice had become common, it was still not universal. At the most recent World Series, the Orioles had their names on their uniforms but the Mets did not.
In a meeting of the baseball writers, the group agreed to expand both the Rookie of the Year and Cy Young Award ballots so that each voter would select a first, second, and third choice, worth 5, 3, and 1 points, respectively. In the recent American League Cy Young Award balloting, Baltimore’s Mike Cuellar and Detroit’s Denny McLain had finished in a tie, a first in BBWAA history. Additionally, the writers agreed to make their votes public.
The Seattle Pilots had struggled off the field in their inaugural season, to the point where making payroll was not guaranteed. In the fall the club announced that Bill Daley, their principal owner, had an agreement to sell the team to a group led by Jerry Danz, who owned a chain of theaters. Danz met with the American League owners at the winter meetings, but did not make a convincing case that he had sufficient financial backing to come up with the $10.5 million sales price. At least two owners — Jerry Hoffberger of Baltimore and Robert Short of Washington — wanted to give Daley permission to sell the club to a group in Milwaukee who would move the team there right away. The majority disagreed, and urged Danz to go back to Seattle and get some backers immediately.
As baseball concluded its various winter meetings, it was faced with several crucial open issues. One of its franchises — Seattle — was essentially bankrupt and facing an uncertain future after just one season. The game’s organizational structure was being debated at the highest levels, and it was uncertain how much power the owners wanted to grant Commissioner Kuhn.
A new CBA was expiring, and the players were looking for an impartial arbiter to hear grievances. And one of the game’s marquee players was suing baseball over its reserve clause, one of the underpinnings of the sport.
Another big year loomed.
1 Leonard Koppett, “Kuhn Would Have Czar Power if Planners’ Ideas Win Okay,” The Sporting News, 29.
4 The Sporting News Official Baseball Guide 1970, 301.
5 Dick Young, “Giants Lose Ace Exec … N.L. Prexy Feeney,” The Sporting News, December 20, 1969: 27.
7 Stan Isle, “Buyer Takes Risk in All Deals,” The Sporting News, December 20, 1969, 28.
8 Jack Lang, “41 Met Hot Sackers, Who’ll Be Next?” The Sporting News, December 6, 1969: 42.
9 Jack Lang, “Mets Will Toss Reins on Speedboy Foy,” The Sporting News, December 20, 1969: 30.
10 Jim Ogle, “Trade Winds Puff Out Yank Muscle,” The Sporting News, December 20, 1969: 31.
11 Stan Isle, “Kuhn ‘Well Pleased,’ But Miller Isn’t,” The Sporting News, December 27, 1969, 36.
12 Leonard Koppett, “Flood Warms Up for Reserve Clause Attack,” The Sporting News, January 17, 1970: 33.
13 Stan Isle, “Giles, Cronin Hear Ump Pension Plea,” The Sporting News, December 13, 1969: 34.