1974 Winter Meetings: Détente Before The Storm

This article was written by Clayton Trutor

This article was published in the


Baseball's Business: The Winter Meetings: 1958-2016Introduction and Context

The 74th annual Winter Meetings were held in New Orleans from Sunday, December 1, to Friday, December 5, 1974. New Orleans hosted the annual meeting on two earlier occasions, in 1916 and 1938, but had not been home to the event in 36 years.

Recent struggles between the Players Association and the owners hung over the 1974 meetings. The work stoppages that affected both the 1972 and 1973 seasons, as well as the impending legal battles over free agency, had led to a change in the way owners in the American and National Leagues regarded one another, not only in terms of labor negotiations with the players union but also on other financial issues that affected both leagues. Writing in the New York Times, Leonard Koppett characterized the new spirit of cooperativeness between the American and National Leagues as “détente,” mirroring the thaw in US-Soviet relations during the early 1970s.

Owners and officials from the rival leagues worked together in New Orleans to deal with issues affecting them all, most notably with the formation of a joint committee to deal with leaguewide financial concerns, including expansion, franchise relocations, labor relations, and the search for sustainable ownership for teams in ailing markets.1 Considering the intense focus on league business by baseball leaders at these meetings, it was not surprising that player movement proved to be light, both in terms of volume and in the profile of players traded during the week.

The 1974 Winter Meetings proved to be the final leaguewide gathering before the beginning of the free agency era. Ten days after MLB leaders left Louisiana, arbitrator Peter Seitz ruled on the contract dispute between reigning American League Cy Young Award winner Catfish Hunter and Oakland Athletics owner Charlie Finley. Seitz surprised all interested parties by awarding Hunter outright free agency, not merely bumping up his $100,000 salary from the previous season. Hunter considered a flurry of offers from clubs in both leagues before signing with the New York Yankees on New Year’s Eve for a record amount, later reported as five years for $3.35 million and other benefits.2 Seitz’s ruling in the Hunter case proved to be a mortal wound to the reserve clause. A year later, in December 1975, Seitz again served as arbitrator between the owners and the Players Association. This time he heard a grievance filed by the union on behalf of pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally, and ruled that both players were free to sign with any club, effectively ending the reserve clause.

 

Player Movement

New Orleans saw 15 trades consummated involving 39 players, a significant drop from the 58 players swapped at the 1973 Winter Meetings and the 68 players dealt in 1972.3 The focus by baseball’s leaders on league business accounted for this in large part, but another reason for the lack of player movement was the unusual vigor of the early offseason trade market. In the six weeks after the Oakland A’s victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series, a number of deals involving high-profile players made for an interesting beginning to the Hot Stove season. The first major trade involved the St. Louis Cardinals’ standout catcher Joe Torre, who was sent to his hometown New York Mets for veteran left-hander Ray Sadecki and young right-handed pitcher Tommy Moore. In late October, the San Francisco Giants and the Yankees swapped All-Star outfielders, with Bobby Bonds heading east and Bobby Murcer moving west; and in early November, the struggling Atlanta Braves sent aging home-run king Hank Aaron back to the city where he began his illustrious career, dealing him to the Milwaukee Brewers for veteran outfielder Dave May and minor-league pitcher Roger Alexander.4

Going into the meetings, trade rumors involving Cleveland’s Gaylord Perry, Cincinnati’s Tony Perez, and several disgruntled Athletics stars, including Reggie Jackson, Sal Bando, and Vida Blue, circulated in the press.5 None of these moves came to fruition in New Orleans, yet several trades involving prominent players were concluded that week. The Baltimore Orioles proved particularly successful in their dealings, acquiring in separate transactions Lee May and Ken Singleton, both of whom became major contributors to their championship teams of the late 1970s and early 1980s. The Houston Astros traded the power-hitting first-baseman May, along with outfielder Jay Schlueter, to the Orioles for youthful infielders Rob Andrews and Enos Cabell. The Montreal Expos sent outfielder Singleton and right-handed pitcher Mike Torrez to the Orioles for righty Bill Kirkpatrick, outfielder Rich Coggins, and a three-time All Star, southpaw Dave McNally, who would spend just one season in Montreal before retiring at age 32, never cashing in on the fortune he could have earned in the aftermath of Seitz’s decision.6

Three other noteworthy deals were completed at the Winter Meetings. The Red Sox sent two-time stolen-base leader Tommy Harper to the California Angels for utility infielder Bob Heise, while the Mets traded their colorful, standout reliever Tug McGraw along with outfielders Don Hahn and Dave Schneck to the Philadelphia Phillies for veteran outfielder Del Unser, heralded rookie catcher John Stearns, and left-handed reliever Mac Scarce.

But the most prominent player involved in a trade at the 1974 Winter Meetings was former AL MVP and reigning home-run champion Dick Allen. In September, Allen, who had been involved in locker-room conflicts throughout the summer, left the White Sox with two weeks remaining in the season. He remained on their roster until teams convened in New Orleans, at which time the White Sox traded the controversial slugger to the Atlanta Braves for $5,000 and a player to be named later.7 Allen refused to report to the Braves and announced his retirement. Later in the offseason, Allen’s original team, the Philadelphia Phillies, persuaded him to return to baseball. He remained Braves property, and in May a convoluted deal was worked out that resulted in Allen rejoining the Phillies.

 

The Business Side

The most significant event at the meetings was the creation of a joint committee by the American and National Leagues designed to examine the big financial issues that affected the major leagues.

The committee, made up of two members from each league, was to make recommendations to the commissioner on how to deal with the financial issues, including league expansion, franchise relocations, working to ensure the viability of franchises in struggling markets, and finding stable ownership groups for troubled teams. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, along with AL President Lee MacPhail and NL President Chub Feeney, praised the formation of the committee as a step toward getting the rival leagues to work together permanently to find solutions to leaguewide problems.8

Pressing concerns for the new joint committee included the lagging attendance for both teams in the Bay Area, which baseball experts believed was too small to support two teams. Despite the on-field success of the Oakland Athletics, the team struggled to draw even one million fans a year to its ballpark, the football-oriented Oakland Coliseum. The San Francisco Giants, whom longtime owner Horace Stoneham had put up for sale, drew barely 500,000 fans in 1974 and were considered a likely candidate to move to one of the several cities planning to build a domed stadium to lure big-league baseball, among them Seattle, Toronto, and Denver.

The perennially contending Baltimore Orioles also faced significant financial problems, as the team had been drawing lackluster crowds for several years in spite of its on-field success.9 Orioles owner Jerry Hoffberger wanted to sell the club or at least move some of its home games to RFK Stadium in Washington in hopes of drawing more fans from the D.C. metropolitan area, which now lacked a team. Other franchises, including the Cleveland Indians and San Diego Padres, struggled mightily at the box office throughout the early 1970s and looked to other cities as a possible solution to their problems.

The formation of the joint committee signaled an end to 20 years of extensive franchise movement and expansion in the major leagues. A consensus had clearly emerged within baseball’s leadership that franchise shifts and expansions needed to be considered more carefully than they had been in the 1950s and 1960s. As a result, none of the struggling franchises of the mid-1970s ended up moving. The leagues worked with the cities to find suitable new ownership groups or encouraged the construction of new facilities for the Giants, Orioles, Padres, Indians, and, after Charley Finley’s financial troubles, the Athletics. Baseball also slowed down the process of expansion. At the 1974 Winter Meetings, the joint committee told potential expansion cities, including Denver, Seattle, and Toronto, that the sport would need time to carefully consider which cities would provide the most stable homes for two new American League clubs.10

Temporary labor peace was also achieved at the Winter Meetings. Across the country, the Players Association held its annual meeting in Las Vegas during the same week the owners met in New Orleans. Union representatives from every team except the Athletics (Reggie Jackson was absent) voted for a plan to offer management a no-strike pledge for the 1975 season in return for an agreement to early bargaining on the next labor pact and an agreement to go to binding arbitration if the new deal could not be worked out by December 1, 1975. The owners in New Orleans agreed to the MLBPA’s plan, ensuring a strike-free 1975 season.11

Charlie Finley kept the Rules Committee busy at the meetings. Before the 1973 season the American League had adopted the Finley-championed position of the designated hitter. The DH had become popular enough among AL owners that they pushed for its use in All-Star Games and in World Series games played in AL parks. The effort was unsuccessful in New Orleans but a year later, at the 1975 convention in Hollywood, Florida, the Rules Committee approved the proposal for the World Series; its use in All-Star Games played in AL parks would not become a reality until 1989. In New Orleans Finley pushed for the use of orange baseballs, which he declared would be easier to see during night games, and continued championing the idea of a designated runner as an addendum to the designated hitter. The Rules Committee agreed to allow Finley to try out orange baseballs during one spring-training game and to test the designated runner intermittently during the exhibition season. Other rule changes at the 1974 Winter Meetings included a strengthening of the ban on illegal pitches. A pitcher found to be applying a “foreign substance” to the game ball would face immediate ejection. The Rules Committee also agreed to permit the use of cowhide, rather than just horsehide, in the manufacture of baseballs.12

 

Summary

The 1974 Winter Meetings were most noteworthy for the efforts of leaders from both leagues to work together on issues of common concern. The owners kept an eye to the future in their efforts to ensure the stability of the major leagues. Their attempts to stabilize the sport succeeded, as the major leagues witnessed a decade and a half of franchise stability between the 1977 expansions to Seattle and Toronto and the 1993 expansions to Miami and Denver. Owners and players agreed to another season of labor peace. The Rules Committee allowed for more experimentation by Charlie Finley, but held off on more significant changes to the game. Several trades with long-term consequences, including the deals for Ken Singleton, Lee May, and Tug McGraw, took place in New Orleans, yet overall player movement was light after the blitz of early offseason deals.

 

Notes

1 Leonard Koppett, “Baseball Meetings End Amid Détente,” New York Times, December 7, 1974: 35.

2 Murray Chass, “Owners Worry Over Reserve Clause Suit,” New York Times, January 3, 1975: 44. See also Hunter’s obituary in the New York Times, September 10, 1999.

3 Joseph Durso, “Harmony Is Keynote of Baseball Owners,” New York Times, December 8, 1974: 269.

4 Ibid.

5 “Baseball Winter Meetings Set to Open,” Hartford Courant, December 1, 1974: 9C.

6 Durso.

7 Ibid.

8 Koppett, “Baseball Meetings.”

9 Ibid.

10 Durso. The cities that ended up receiving the two expansion teams in 1977, Seattle and Toronto, both kept the pressure on the major leagues until they were awarded their franchises. Seattle agreed to drop its seven-year-old lawsuit on behalf of the departed Pilots in 1976 when the American League voted to place an expansion team in the newly-constructed Kingdome. On the heels of the Labatt Brewing Company’s efforts to bring the San Francisco Giants to the newly renovated Exhibition Stadium, Toronto received the other American League expansion franchise. Years later, Denver received a National League franchise for the 1993 season.

11 Leonard Koppett, “A No-Strike Deal Offered by Players,” New York Times, December 5, 1974: 61.

12 Durso; “Baseball Winter Meetings Set to Open.”

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