1977 Winter Meetings: So Much Promise, But Wait Till Next Year

This article was written by Steve Cardullo

This article was published in the


Baseball's Business: The Winter Meetings: 1958-2016The 1977 major-league baseball season witnessed two new teams — the Seattle Mariners and Toronto Blue Jays — join the American League. George Foster hit 52 home runs for Cincinnati. The Twins’ Rod Carew flirted with hitting .400 and Yankees outfielder Reggie Jackson’s bat returned the World Series championship to New York City. The 1977 Winter meetings in Honolulu also held some drama and entertainment. Business discussions included talk of the more affluent teams gaining strength under the current free-agent rules, reinstatement by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn of a suspended owner, possible approval of the relocation or sale of one of the two teams in the San Francisco Bay area, and the rejection of the sale of an East Coast team. The Mexican League’s longtime association with the majors ended. Owners also held their annual discussion about baseball returning the Washington area. Awards were presented, and a few free agents looking for a new team wandered the halls, along with others seeking any kind of employment with baseball.

The 76th Winter Meetings were held at the Sheraton-Waikiki Hotel from December 4 through 8. Commissioner Kuhn, in his opening address to an audience of 500, lamented the Collective Bargaining Agreement with the players union. Free agency was still new, and Kuhn cited statistics showing that the more affluent clubs were signing most of the free agents.1 The concern was that eventually the better ballplayers would gravitate to the bigger and more affluent markets, while the smaller-market teams would become far less competitive. Kuhn was also concerned that salaries would challenge revenues.

Kuhn did praise the re-entry draft, saying most players remained in the league “where they had their greatest experience and I think that is a perfectly healthy situation.”2 Players’ salaries, however, had risen 60 percent in two years. “That … is a very large gain in a short period of time and there is no way I or anybody else can stand here and say it is not a source of some concern,” the commissioner said.3 He said that the players’ salaries plus pension benefits in 1977 represented26.3 percent of liabilities. This was an 8.1 percent increase since 1950. Looking at the brighter side, he said baseball at all levels — major league, minors, and amateur — had made enormous gains, citing major-league attendance of 38,709,781, a 24 percent increase over the previous year. The Dodgers led all 26 teams, putting 2,955,000 fans through their turnstiles. Minor-league attendance increased 13 percent, to 1.6 million. The 1977 World Series had the highest viewership in the history of televised baseball in four of the six games. Viewership of the League Championship Series increased by 14 percent over the previous year. Citing the Harris Poll, Kuhn declared that baseball had regained its prominence as America’s favorite sport. In closing, he cautioned that “[t]here are problems, and we must face up to those problems.”4When the owners left Honolulu many of these issues remained unresolved, and team ownership was one of them.

A group led by Haywood Sullivan and Edward “Buddy” LeRoux were attempting to purchase the Boston Red Sox. Sullivan, a former catcher with the Sox and A’s, was a front-office executive who began working in the Boston front office in 1965, while LeRoux was a former trainer with the team. American League owners, however, questioned the viability of the group’s financial backing.

American League owners did approve the financial reorganization of the Cleveland Indians,5 led by Cleveland Browns owner and Indians investor Art Modell. The primary stakeholder, millionaire F.J. O’Neill, had to sell his shares in the New York Yankees before he could take on his duties with Cleveland.

The San Francisco/Oakland area market was burdened by low attendance, and many thought that two franchises could not survive there. However, the matter was not discussed at the meetings; any substantive talks would require the presence of Oakland Athletics owner Charlie Finley, and he was not present in the conference room at the time. Finley had recently been in negotiations with several parties who expressed some interest in purchasing the A’s, most notably Colorado oil baron Marvin Davis, who would seek to move the club to Denver. Finley actually did sell the club to Davis days after leaving Oahu,6 but the transaction was nullified by the commissioner as not being in the best interests of baseball. Kuhn did mention that in retrospect it was a mistake to place two teams in the same small market.7

 

The sale

The issue of moving a franchise to Washington was another agenda item. Kuhn had met with several members of Congress in November to discuss specifics.8 Washington had been without a team since the Senators moved to the Dallas-Fort Worth area after the 1971 season. Back at home after the meetings, Kuhn said that among the difficulties to be ironed out were “the availability of a club, obtaining proper financing and the settling of territorial rights with the Orioles.”9

Discussing the issue of player bonus incentives, Kuhn said there was “considerable feeling for more flexibility” in the rules.10 Bonus incentives allowed a team to insert bonus clauses in contracts based on such things as attendance, innings pitched, or games played.11

The owners amended the rule dealing with World Series player shares. A player traded from one World Series team to another World Series team would receive a full share with each team paying an amount based on the time he had spent with the team. No player would receive more than a full share.12

Commissioner Kuhn announced he had lifted the suspension imposed on Atlanta Braves owner Ted Turner for player tampering ahead of its scheduled expiration on March 23, 1978. Turner had requested an early end to the suspension because the club “needed his abilities,”13 and the commissioner acquiesced.

Expanding the Championship Series from the best of five games to best of seven was discussed, but support was weak, and the issue was tabled. Kuhn asserted that support for additional games was growing, and predicted that the subject would come up again.14

Pay television was also on the agenda, with three teams, the Phillies, Yankees, and Braves, having already entered the new market. Citing a study commissioned by major-league baseball, Kuhn expressed a belief that there was a new national market for major-league baseball.15

Kuhn announced that John Gaherin, the owners’ negotiator with the players union, would be retiring early and a replacement would be needed. No action was taken.

The owners did come to some agreements. Twins owner Calvin Griffith was re-elected AL vice president. (AL President Lee MacPhail’s term would not expire for another year.) NL President Charles “Chub” Feeney’s tenure was extended for four years, through 1981. Feeney had originally only received a two-year extension at the 1976 winter meetings because of some owner dissatisfaction, spearheaded by the St. Louis Cardinals’ August Busch. These unhappy owners felt that Feeney was in over his head when it came to negotiating with the Players Association. They also expressed dissatisfaction with the way he was handling the Giants franchise problems.16 In an about-face in 1977, however, Busch praised Feeney, stating he was “doing a terrific job.”17

Led by their president, Antonio Ramirez Muro, a delegation from the Mexican League announced that they would leave the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues (the minor-league organization) in 1979. Kuhn had acquired Ramirez’s promise not to drop out the previous year, but Mexican League interests would not go beyond the one-year agreement. The Mexicans felt that their league was as competitive as major-league baseball, while the major leagues rated them as no higher than Triple A. This issue, festering for years, could not be overcome in discussions. Ramirez cited a pride factor. He also asserted that there were “some problems in our country about our laws that conflict with baseball and labor laws in the United States.”18 In talks later in December, Kuhn tried unsuccessfully to persuade the Mexican League to remain in the National Association. The greatest worry for Organized Baseball was the loss in attendance, with the Mexican League accounting for almost one-quarter of total minor-league attendance. Of the total minor-league attendance of 13 million in 1977, the Mexican League accounted for more than 4 million.19 Other news from south of the border making the rounds at the meetings dealt with a report that National League President Feeney would meet with a group of Cuban baseball officials in Mexico to negotiate a visit of a major-league all-star team to the island.20

The Playing Rules Committee issued a directive to all umpires in Organized Baseball that strict enforcement to end phantom double plays would be “the goal in the 1978 season.”21 The committee believed that strict enforcement would eliminate many injuries. The committee also made four language changes to the scoring rules dealing with how earned runs would be charged to pitchers, including a footnote to clarify how earned runs should be charged to relief pitchers.

On the topic of “head-hunting” and brushback pitches, the committee gave umpires more control in situations involving teams that have a combative history against one another. It added language to the rule on intentional pitches at the batter giving the umpires broader interpretation powers and allowing for warning and ejection before a situation got out of hand. The rationale for the change was the owners’ concern that in this era of free agency and rising salaries, the loss of injured players was costly.

There were further discussions on the use of aluminum bats and a new Japanese shoe with golf-type spikes, but no action was taken.22 The teams’ public-relations directors patted themselves on the back for their successes in promoting Organized Baseball, but also highlighted the fact that improvement was still needed, especially in coordinating relations between the media and the players, and the players and the fans.23 Kuhn praised the PR directors, giving them some credit for the increases in attendance in the 1977 season. Competition against other sports for the entertainment dollar was also discussed, and Kuhn suggested that the public-relations directors monitor fan attitudes and then make the changes that best reflect the fans’ feelings. Discussions resulted in authorization of “a program to develop statistical uniformity throughout the major leagues.”24 Bob Wirz, the major leagues’ director of information, was to spearhead the effort. Joe Reichler, a special assistant to the commissioner, pledged his support as chairman of the Official Baseball Records Committee.

Baseball memorabilia, soon to bring in added millions to each club, was also on the agenda, with the discussion centering on how to distinguish hobbyist collectors from those looking to make a profit.25

The Awards Banquet drew a packed house of 1,700. Two future Hall of Famers, Rod Carew and Lou Brock, received awards for winning the batting crown and setting the major-league record for career stolen bases, respectively. Carew hit .388 to win the American League batting title and also received the league’s Most Valuable Player Award. Brock’s 35 steals in ’77 made him the career leader in stolen bases, with 900 at the end of the season, surpassing Ty Cobb’s 897. (Brock finished his career with 938 steals.) Outfielder Ken Landreaux, a California Angels farmhand, was recognized as the Minor League Player of the Year. Between El Paso and Salt Lake City, he batted .357 with 27 home runs.

Each year the National Association recognizes a longtime employee who has shown his dedication and service to the game with its “King of Baseball” award. The honor for 1977 was presented to Bill Weiss, statistician for the Pacific Coast, California, Northwest, Pioneer, and Lone Star Leagues. The Sporting News awards for minor league Executives of the Year went to George Sisler Jr. at Columbus of the Triple-A International League, Jim Paul of El Paso in the Double-A Texas League, and Harry Pells of the Quad City club in the Class-A Midwest League. Stan Isle, associate editor of The Sporting News, presented each with a Bulova Accuquartz watch. The President’s Award went to Fresno (Class-A California League) for its long-term stability as a franchise and association with the San Francisco Giants for 20 years.

Special awards were also presented to Visalia, California, which owned the city’s team in the California League, and Franklin County, Ohio, which owned the Columbus Clippers of the International League. Mary Anne Whitacre, executive secretary of the Hawaii Islanders (Pacific Coast League), was honored by the Rawlings Sporting Goods Co. as baseball’s Woman of the Year. George Sisler Jr., general manager of the Columbus Clippers, received the Larry MacPhail Promotion Trophy for outstanding marketing.26

Topps presented the award for Outstanding Organization of the year to the Montreal Expos. The award honors accomplishments in a major-league club’s farm system.

The owners decided to continue to produce the syndicated TV program This Week in Baseball, which premiered in 1977. PR directors voted to hold their spring meetings on March 7, 1978, in Florida and March 14 in Arizona.

The National Association proposed 12 amendments to its agreement with the major leagues, and six of them were adopted.27 The most important concerned player limits in rookie leagues, increases in National Association fees, payments of incentive bonuses by the parent clubs, and guarantee deposits by Triple-A clubs. The agreement was extended for five years.

The Double-A Eastern League lost two teams and had to play as a six-team league. The Reds announced that they were leaving Quebec City, and the Expos abandoned Three Rivers. Both were moving to the Southern League, with Cincinnati going into Nashville and Montreal to Memphis. The league appealed the shifts, but Commissioner Kuhn eventually ruled that his office would not intervene. Kuhn did, however, strongly suggest that the expansion Seattle clubs, when they fielded Double-A teams in 1980, consider returning baseball to Three Rivers and Quebec City. He also made it plain to the Southern League and Texas League that raiding teams to stock Southern leagues would violate the spirit of the National Agreement set to begin in 1979.28

A plan to consolidate the offices of the International League, American Association, and Pacific Coast League into one location and under one CEO failed when the International League failed to muster a majority for the plan. It was thought that consolidation would pass with little or no opposition, but as it turned out, the PCL also had reservations and would have voted to oppose if it was brought to a vote. The plan was opposed by the majors.29

Harold Cooper was elected president of the International League. To replace Toronto and Seattle, which expanded into Triple-A cities, Portland and Vancouver each was awarded a team. Portland, however, was a problematic choice. The city was a longtime member of the PCL until the league moved the team to Spokane after the 1972 season. A club the Class-A Northwest League had been moved to Portland, and Bing Russell, owner of the team, wanted $206,000 to give up his territorial rights. No settlement was reached at the meetings, so the question was sent to arbitration.30

The arbitration board was made up of two members each from the PCL and NWL, plus a neutral member appointed by the National Association. The board ruled in favor of Russell, awarding him the full $206,000. Several groups expressed interest in owning the Portland club. The Vancouver franchise was awarded to Harry Ornest, a former minor-league baseball player and owner of teams in the NHL and the Canadian Football League.31

The American Association had two franchise issues needing to be resolved. The situation in Oklahoma City was settled by an announcement that a local buyer was in the process of purchasing the team and keeping it in town. Less pressing was the announcement that the New Orleans club would be moving to Springfield, Illinois, though the abandoned territory would remain with the league in case a major-league team was ever placed there. New Orleans club owner A. Ray Smith, along with the American Association, would be entitled to compensation if that happened.32

Trades are always a major aspect of the Winter Meetings. The 1977 gathering played host to a whopper. Atlanta, Texas, the New York Mets, and Pittsburgh combined to swap 11 players, the biggest player-trade since the Angels and Dodgers pulled off a seven-player deal at the meetings in 1972. Bert Blyleven, Jon Matlack, John Milner, and Willie Montanez were the gems of the deal. Meanwhile, Commissioner Kuhn announced that he would hold a hearing to discuss the deal between the Athletics and Reds, in which Oakland sent left-hander Vida Blue to Cincinnati for their top prospect, first baseman Dave Revering, plus $1 million in cash. Kuhn eventually declined to approve the trade because of the cash amount involved.33

Quite a few other well-known players changed teams. Outfielder Bobby Bonds, right-handed pitcher Richard Dotson, and outfielder Thad Bosley went from the Angels to the White Sox in exchange for catcher Brian Downing and right-handed pitchers Chris Knapp and Dave Frost. St. Louis traded colorful left-handed reliever Al Hrabosky to Kansas City for catcher Buck Martinez and right-hander Mark Littell, then sent Martinez to Milwaukee for right-hander George Frazier. Seattle traded outfielder Dave Collins to Cincinnati southpaw Shane Rawley. The Orioles traded pitchers Rudy May, Randy Miller, and Bryn Smith to the Expos for pitchers Don Stanhouse and Joe Kerrigan and outfielder Gary Roenicke. Only the Dodgers and Padres failed to make a deal, as the meeting produced 22 different transactions involving 53 players, the most since 1975, when 64 players changed uniforms in 23 transactions.34

One significant swap did not occur. San Diego had come to the meetings looking to trade outfielder Dave Winfield. Two serious negotiations took place, with the Dodgers and the Yankees, but neither was brought to fruition. The Padres rejected what Los Angeles offered, while the Yankees were unwilling to give up third baseman Graig Nettles for the future Hall of Famer, who had let it be known through his agent that he was willing to transfer to the infield.35 Yankees manager Billy Martin reasoned that if he was deprived of Nettles’ services then he couldn’t repeat as World Series champion, and if he didn’t win then he would lose his job.36 Winfield, considered to be the holy grail of the trading period and anticipating a swap, had brought his mother to Hawaii to witness the events.

Baltimore manager Earl Weaver walked out for 24 hours after protesting that the Orioles were trading players without his approval or input. The story was that Weaver was taken to a cocktail party and made “unavailable” during the negotiations. When he was tracked down later by sportswriters, the deals had already been finalized, which set off Weaver’s famous temper. He returned to the team the next day.37

Nothing brings more intrigue than the annual re-entry draft. Seven teams spent $200,000 on eight minor league players. The Cardinals lost three players. “We’re either awfully well off or awfully dumb,” commented St. Louis general manager Bing Devine.38 Devine was referring to the wealth of talent in the Cardinals system and how others coveted their players.

Two noteworthy picks that year were first baseman Willie Upshaw, who went to the Toronto Blue Jays with the first pick; and catcher Ned Yost, selected by the Milwaukee Brewers. Both went on to have lengthy major-league careers, and Yost managed the 2015 World Series champion Kansas City Royals. In the Triple-A and Double-A draft, 16 players were plucked. The Sporting News speculated that the minor-league draft was full of players whose clubs had lost confidence in them, and that picking one in the draft was perhaps a small wager that some of them would, indeed, work out.39

 

A few side notes

Ralph Houk, former Yankees manager, nearly came to blows with current manager Billy Martin. According to those present at a managers’ party hosted by Reds skipper Sparky Anderson, Martin was harassing Houk until the later informed Martin that he was not “screwing with Tom Thumb now!”40 Martin got the message and quit.

Future Hall of Fame inductee Tony LaRussa was named the new manager of Knoxville in the Southern League.

Dave Dombrowski, a future general manager and major-league club president, got his first baseball employment, with the Chicago White Sox. Dombrowski in two years would be the head of all minor-league scouts in the White Sox system.41

 

Notes

1 Stan Isle, “Kuhn ‘Concerned’ as Rich Get Richer in Free-Agent Market,” The Sporting News, December 24, 1977: 47.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 Stan Isle, “Owners Shelve Sticky Issues, Bask in Sun,” The Sporting News, December 24, 1977: 43.

6 Dave Condon, “Finley Agrees to Sell A’s,” Chicago Tribune, December 15, 1977: Section 4, 1 and 3.

7 “Owners Shelve Sticky Issues.”

8 Ibid.

9 “Finley Agrees to Sell A’s.”

10 Ibid.

11 “Owners Shelve Sticky Issues, Bask in Sun.”

12 Ibid.

13 “Finley Agrees to Sell A’s.”

14 “Owners Shelve Sticky Issues, Bask in Sun.”

15 Ibid.

16 “Feeney Re-Elected, Will Move Office,” The Sporting News, December 25, 1976: 34.

17 “Owners Shelve Sticky Issues, Bask in Sun.”

18 Oscar Kahan, “Mexican Loop Planning O.B. Divorce,” The Sporting News, December 24, 1977: 44.

19 Ibid.

20 Ibid.

21 Stan Isle, “Rules Group Puts Umps on Notice — Halt Grid Tactics, End Phantom DP,” The Sporting News, December 24, 1977: 44.

22 “Rules Group Puts Umps on Notice.”

23 Stan Isle, “Public Relations Directors to Step Up Efforts,” The Sporting News, December 24, 1977: 44.

24 Ibid.

25 Ibid.

26 Chris Mehring, “Timber Rattlers Are Midwest League Nominee for the Larry MacPhail Award,” timberrattlers.com, December 12, 2016.

27 Stan Isle, “14 Amendments Adopted — Roster Hikes Rejected,” The Sporting News, December 24, 1977: 45.

28 Oscar Kahan, “Eastern Loses Fight for Two Clubs,” The Sporting News, December 24, 1977: 45. The Eastern League did pick up two new clubs in 1980, but they were not in Quebec City or Three Rivers, they were in Lynn, Massachusetts, and Glens Falls, New York. Neither Quebec City nor Three Rivers has returned to the National Association.

29 Oscar Kahan, “Majors Spike Triple-A Merger Plan,” The Sporting News, December 24, 1977: 46.

30 Oscar Kahan, “Russell Demands $206,000 for Loss of Portland to PCL,” The Sporting News, December 24, 1977: 46.

31 Larry Stone, “Meet the Nuttiest Baseball Team the Northwest Has Ever Seen,” Seattle Times, July 26, 2014: old.seattletimes.com.

32 “Majors Spike Triple-A Merger Plan.”

33 In March, Kuhn approved a deal in which Blue was sent to the Giants in exchange for seven players plus $300,000. baseball-reference.com/players/b/bluevi01.shtml, accessed June 13, 2016.

34 Stan Isle, “11-Player Deal Caps a Swapping Spree,” The Sporting News, December 24, 1977: 43.

35 Phil Collier, “Padres Fail in Bid to Deal Winfield for Hill Help,” The Sporting News, December 24, 1977: 55.

36 Ibid.

37 Jim Henneman, “Orioles Blow Logjam and Weaver Blows Top,” The Sporting News, December 24, 1977: 55.

38 Stan Isle, “Cards Lose Three in Major Draft,” The Sporting News, December 24, 1977: 48.

39 Oscar Kahan, “16 Players Bring $136,000 in Minors’ Draft,” The Sporting News, December 24, 1977: 48.

40 Dick Young, “Young Ideas/Houk, Martin Near Blows,” The Sporting News,” December 24, 1977: 17.

41 John Feinstein, Play Ball: The Life and Troubled Time of Major League Baseball (New York: Villard Books, 1993), 22.

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