1979 Winter Meetings: First Chance at a Post-Free Agency CBA

This article was written by Daniel R. Levitt

This article was published in Baseball’s Business: The Winter Meetings: 1958-2016

Baseball's Business: The Winter Meetings: 1958-2016Toronto hosted the 1979 winter meetings at the Sheraton Centre, marking the fourth time the winter meetings were held outside the United States (Montreal in 1930 and 1936 and Mexico City in 1967).1 The owners’ discussions, both formal and informal, focused on the game’s economics and the coming labor negotiations with the players — only the second of the free-agent era — with baseball’s executives plotting to win back some of what many felt they had surrendered too easily four years earlier. Meeting attendance totaled a record 1,600, of whom roughly 150 were members of the media.2

In his opening remarks on the state of the game, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn lauded baseball’s growing TV audience and attendance but expressed concern over mounting financial stress from the rapid increase in salaries. “The bottom eight clubs in baseball lost on the average of $2 million a club. More than half our clubs are in a loss position,” Kuhn said, adding, “In the last year before the 1975 draft you have average salaries of $46,000. Today, or the last time they were measured, they were $121,000 on the average and I can tell you they’re higher than that now. All you have to do is look at the recent signings. So there is a time bomb ticking away in our operations as a result of the reentry draft [free agency] and there is reason for concern.”3

Kuhn also somewhat bizarrely identified a “southern tier” of teams “from Georgia across to California” that were signing a disproportionate number of free agents, in that seven of the 12 free-agent signings so far that offseason were by teams spanning that geographic region. He further expressed unease that teams he viewed as contenders had signed more than their fair share of the free agents.

Kuhn’s other principal concern was over the recent phenomenon of regional cable TV “superstations” broadcasting their team’s games throughout the country into other teams’ markets. The impact of this new delivery channel on major- and minor-league attendance and local TV ratings, along with how the revenue from the broadcast rights should be apportioned, he felt, needed to be tackled.

On the positive side Kuhn highlighted the huge attendance increases in the 1970s over the 1960s; solid television ratings, including 80 million viewers for Game Seven of the 1979 World Series; robust local television viewership; and strong interest from the important 18-34-year-old demographic. Kuhn also emphasized the improvement in marketing, from better international licensing operations to new corporate sponsorships to promoting This Week in Baseball into the country’s highest rated syndicated TV program.

Business and Administrative

Three amendments relating to minor-league administrative matters that required major-league approval were passed: the payment to teams losing players in the minor-league phase of the Rule 5 draft were doubled, though technically only for 1980 (the first increase since 1968); Triple-A player rosters were increased to 22 (from 21), again technically only for 1980; and if a player was returned to the minors at a higher salary than when initially recalled, the major-league team was responsible for the difference.4

The owners also approved a resolution that teams deciding to change their uniform design or colors must give notice by the May 1 prior to the start of the following season, or else indemnify MLB for the “cost of any licensed merchandise which may have become obsolete,” plus potential penalties at the commissioner’s discretion.5

In preparation for the impending labor negotiations, the owners self-imposed a $500,000 fine for any baseball executive speaking publicly about them. Nevertheless, portions of the owners’ negotiating position leaked to the press. Most significantly, the owners were reportedly planning to push for direct player compensation between the team signing a free agent and the team losing the player. The owners’ proposed scheme would allow the signing team to protect a still-to-be-determined number of players, with the player’s former team then allowed to select any unprotected player from the signing team’s roster.6

Another labor negotiation idea that drew particular scrutiny was the suggestion that all contractual special provisions in player contracts should be cleared through the owners’ player-relations committee. Foreshadowing future miscalculations, several legal observers commented that such a scheme was collusive and violated the collective-bargaining agreement, which read in part, “and clubs shall not act in concert with other clubs.”7

At the baseball writers meeting, the BBWAA discussed the common practice of sportswriters acting as official scorers and the associated potential conflict of interest. The writers resolved that individual sportswriters could continue to act as official scorers if they so wished and their newspaper didn’t object. They also concluded, however, that the leagues should be responsible for providing official scorers and that the assignments should no longer be under the purview of the BBWAA. In another decision, the writers changed the calculation methodology for the Rookie of the Year Award, asking the voters to name three players (instead of one) under a 5-3-1 points system, as in the Cy Young Award balloting.8

The Official Baseball Records Committee amended the record for most consecutive RBIs, recognizing the Cubs’ Oscar Grimes as the major-league record holder with 17 and Taft Wright as the American League titleholder with 13.9

On the ownership front, as the meetings opened the long, drawn-out negotiations to sell the Oakland A’s to Marvin Davis and move the franchise to Denver appeared closer to fruition. Several Oakland officials, including the mayor and the commissioner-elect of the Oakland Coliseum, had acknowledged that they were willing to let the A’s leave in exchange for a $4 million buyout of the lease. Reportedly, the buyout price would be split among Davis, A’s owner Charles Finley, San Francisco owner Bob Lurie, and the other American League owners.10 By the time of the meetings, however, the deal was again hitting some snags: Finley was apparently trying to extract more money out of Davis in the form of consulting fees after the sale, and the Oakland city council voted unanimously to try to keep the team.11 Nevertheless, the owners left in place a commitment to purchase insurance against third-party claims in the event the team was sold to Davis and moved to Denver.12

To pressure Finley to sell the team — whether to Davis or anyone else — the AL owners discussed imposing a minimum $10,000-per-game payment to visiting teams, though no action was taken on this measure. With Finley’s low attendance, such a disbursement would have been in excess of the visiting team’s percentage of the gate, adding to his financial burden. One report also mentioned that baseball would institute a $50,000 cap on the amount of money that could be included in any trade, well below the $400,000 level Commissioner Kuhn had imposed a couple of years earlier in response to Finley’s selling off his players, to further prevent Finley from trying to cash out. Whether this was ever enforced or implemented remains questionable. When Aurelio Rodriguez was sent from the Tigers to the Padres during the meetings, it was first announced that Detroit would receive a player to be named later; it later turned out to be a straight sale for $200,000. In any case, once Finley finally sold the team to Oakland interests the following year, there was no longer a need for this reduced dollar maximum.13

Player Movement

As in 1978, the number and significance of trades at the winter meetings remained subdued as teams continued to work through the impact of free agency and other recently acquired player rights. “You just can’t make a quick trade anymore,” said always aggressive trader Buzzie Bavasi, the GM of the Angels. In speaking about some of his past successes, he added, “I couldn’t have made those deals today. It would have taken too long, and something would have stood in the way. It used to be all you had to worry about was, ‘Is he healthy?’ Now you ask, ‘Who’s his agent? How many years on his contract? Does he have a no-trade clause? Will he refuse a trade because he’s a 10-year player?”  Bob Kennedy of the Cubs agreed, saying simply: “Your hands are tied.”14

Notorious trader Bill Veeck went so far as to question the continued viability of the meetings as a trading mart: “This year they tell me 39 major-league players were moved between the end of the season and the start of the meetings, and most of these were better known than the ones traded during the meetings.” He went on to suggest other possibilities. “We still have a need for the meetings,” Veeck said. “And I wish I knew all the answers. But December seems to me to be just too far from everything. Maybe we should have fall and spring meetings instead of winter and summer. Why not have fall meetings during the World Series and the next ones after two or three weeks of spring training?”15

The Minnesota Twins dominated the Rule 5 draft, selecting three players, the first time in recent history that any team had selected that many. Overall, 10 players were taken, with two going on to major-league careers of some note. With the seventh pick the Brewers selected outfielder Mark Brouhard, who would log nearly 1,000 major-league plate appearances over a six-year career. The last of the Twins’ selections, right-hander Doug Corbett, would be the best, registering 66 saves during his eight-year career. Surprisingly, the best players to come out of the 1979 Rule 5 draft came through the Triple-A phase, where the White Sox grabbed first baseman Greg Walker out of the Phillies organization, and the Blue Jays selected outfielder Mitch Webster from the Dodgers farm system.

Free-agent activity during the winter meetings was relatively quiet as well, particularly when compared to the Pete Rose signing spectacle the previous year. After landing free-agent right-handers Dave Goltz and Don Stanhouse earlier in the fall, the Dodgers had room for one more player in their quota of three free-agent signings. The team wanted to sign Joe Morgan but already had a veteran at second base in Davey Lopes. After some public discussion over possibly shifting Lopes to the outfield, the Dodgers instead elected to sign veteran outfielder Jay Johnstone as their final free agent.16 Other free-agent signings included left-hander Fred Norman and outfielder Rowland Office by Montreal.

As teams began to come to terms with free agency, they often focused on moving players who would become free agents after the following season and would likely be difficult to sign. Detroit had recently offered free-agent-to-be outfielder Ron LeFlore what they felt was a significant contract of almost $3 million over six years. Leflore reportedly countered at $4 over five years. Unsure of his ultimate ability to re-sign LeFlore, GM Jim Campbell was willing to listen to proposals for his star outfielder, and when Montreal offered lefty Dan Schatzeder, Campbell accepted.17

One trade was carelessly announced early, nearly causing Commissioner Kuhn to void the deal. In late November the Rangers swapped third baseman Eric Soderholm to the Yankees for three minor leaguers. Because minor-league rosters were technically frozen until the winter meetings, the teams were prohibited from announcing the minor-league players involved. When the Rangers unthinkingly disclosed their incoming players, Kuhn considered vacating the deal before approving a restructured deal in which the Rangers received only two minor-league players.18 

The Expos swapped unhappy second baseman Dave Cash, who had been benched for youngster Rodney Scott, to the Padres for utility infielder Bill Almon and outfield reserve Dan Briggs. The Indians traded outfielder Bobby Bonds to the Cardinals for outfielder Jerry Mumphrey and right-hander John Denny. Bonds had demanded a trade during the season (as was his right under the CBA), mostly as a negotiating ploy to sweeten his contract. When Bonds and GM Gabe Paul couldn’t reach agreement, Paul worked out the best deal he could at the winter meetings. Cardinals GM John Claiborne hoped to fill three needs at the meetings (in order): left-handed starter, left-handed reliever, and right-handed-hitting outfielder. By landing Bonds just before the deadline, Claiborne could go back to St. Louis with at least one goal met.19

Toronto GM Pat Gillick wanted to improve his squad by using one of his veteran first basemen, either John Mayberry or Chris Chambliss, as trade bait. He found a willing partner in Atlanta, who sent him reliever Joey McLaughlin, outfielder Barry Bonnell, and shortstop Pat Rockett for Chambliss and shortstop Luis Gomez.20 In other action, Texas, always active on the trade front, swapped right-hander Doyle Alexander, infielder Larvell Blanks, and $50,000 to the Braves for righty Adrian Devine and shortstop Pepe Frias. This deal originally had outfielder Jeff Burroughs also going to the Rangers, mostly as a salary dump by the Braves. When he exercised his no-trade right to veto his inclusion, the frustrated Braves complained, “All we can do is hope Jeff’s pride takes over.”21

In a relatively minor swap that highlighted the Twins’ trade calculus, manager Gene Mauch pushed for utility infielder Pete Mackanin, whom the team landed for pitcher Paul Thormodsgard. “I know about Mackanin because he played for me in 1975 at Montreal,” Mauch said. “He has some power. I don’t know if he will give us the power we need for a right-handed DH, but he might. He hit 28 homers for Spokane (PCL) in 1974. He was considered the best prospect in the Texas organization. That’s why we traded to get him in Montreal.” Minnesota owner and de-facto GM Calvin Griffith, who acknowledged that he knew little about Mackanin, obliged his manager because “we had no plans for Thormodsgard.”22

Always active Angels general manager Buzzie Bavasi had a frustrating beginning to the winter meetings as an apparently completed deal fell through. After a couple of days of back-and-forth negotiations with his New York Mets counterpart, Joe McDonald, Bavasi had arranged a trade in which California would acquire right-hander Craig Swan, due to be a free agent after the 1980 season, plus outfielder Elliott Maddox in exchange for shortstop Dickie Thon and first baseman Willie Mays Aikens. When Mets manager Joe Torre, who didn’t want to trade either of his players, added his voice to the talks, backup catcher Ron Hodges was substituted for Maddox.  To formalize the transaction, the Angels and Mets executives, including New York’s president, Lorinda de Roulet, retired to the Mets’ hotel suite. The Mets were in the process of being sold, but McDonald believed and had publicly announced the team was ready and willing to participate in the trading mart. Nevertheless, de Roulet vetoed the swap, saying it wouldn’t be fair to the new owners to make such a significant deal, though Torre may also have influenced her thinking on dealing Swan. Not surprisingly, Bavasi reportedly “unleashed a tirade at the Mets’ boss for keeping the Angels hanging for two days during what is a precious time of year for baseball teams.”23

Bavasi didn’t waste any time getting back to working the hotel and a couple of days later dealt Aikens and third baseman Rance Mulliniks to the Royals — in the market for a first baseman with power — in exchange for right fielder Al Cowens, shortstop Todd Cruz, and a player to be named later. Bavasi also signed shortstop Freddie Patek as a free agent, whose agent was former pitcher Jim Bunning, a future Hall of Famer and US senator.24

As always, the general managers arranged several blockbuster trades that fell through in the end. Philadelphia GM Paul Owens thought he had worked out a deal for San Diego outfielder Dave Winfield. As negotiated, the swap would have netted the Phillies Winfield and pitchers Gaylord Perry and Bob Shirley in exchange for pitcher Larry Christenson, outfielders Greg Luzinski and Bake McBride, and relief pitcher Ron Reed. Reportedly, the deal unraveled because San Diego wanted to rework the trade to include center fielder Garry Maddox.25

Another one of Owens’s trades fell through because of a unique clause in reliever Sparky Lyle’s contract. Texas GM Eddie Robinson and Owens believed they reached an agreement in which Texas would receive outfielder Bake McBride, pitcher Larry Christenson, reliever Tug McGraw, and a minor leaguer in exchange for Lyle, the just-acquired Devine, outfielder Johnny Grubb, and possibly the just-acquired Frias. But a sticking point popped up in Lyle’s contract from when Texas had acquired him in a multiplayer deal in November 1978. Because at the time Texas owner Brad Corbett hadn’t realized that Lyle could veto his inclusion in the deal under the CBA rules and the trade would still stand but without him, he had been forced to sweeten the southpaw’s contract by adding a 10-year, $50,000-per-year post-career arrangement in which the pitcher would join the Rangers’ TV and radio lineup. Since a player could not play for one team and have a financial obligation from another, his contract, therefore, would need to be restructured before this latest trade could be consummated. Lyle and the Phillies discussed several possibilities, including guaranteeing the last couple of years of his existing contract, but with the deadline approaching no deal could be worked out. McBride also used his contract leverage to help scuttle the trade.26

Owens summed up his frustration: “It’s like getting married, then getting divorced and remarried. It’s like the new husband and wife have to settle the conditions of the first marriage. You have to make good on things that were in the first contract that you had nothing to do with. Last year’s meetings were slow because of that, but these were even slower. A lot of the deals went by the boards. A lot of people left early because of that. It’s getting so I don’t see the point of the winter meetings anymore.”27

White Sox manager Tony LaRussa was another discouraged trader. While sitting in the Sheraton lobby, LaRussa told one reporter he was looking for a policeman. “Why?” the reporter asked. “There are a bunch of people in this hotel who ought to be arrested for attempted theft. They’re trying to steal my left-handed pitchers.” 28

The Red Sox had several significant trade opportunities that general manager Haywood Sullivan eventually declined, including a three-way deal that would have netted lefty Frank Tanana and cost them third baseman Butch Hobson, and a straight-up trade of Hobson for pitcher Bob Shirley.29

Houston GM Tal Smith also saw his trade opportunities dwindle as the week progressed. On Monday he said, “We have possible matches with eight teams.” The next day he told reporters, “That total has been cut in half.” On Thursday Smith remarked, “We have less than a 10 percent chance of making a deal with an American League team.” Finally, “after Friday he went home.”30



1 Stan Isle, “Player Deals Most Likely News at Toronto Meetings,” The Sporting News, December 8, 1979: 47.

2  “News and Quotes From Toronto Meetings,” The Sporting News, December 22, 1979: 47.

3 “Commissioner Kuhn’s Address to Opening Session at Annual Meeting in Toronto,” December 3, 1979, Bowie Kuhn Papers, Baseball Hall of Fame, S3-SS3-B3-F1; Stan Isle, “Free-Agent System ‘Time Bomb’ — Kuhn,” The Sporting News, December 22, 1979: 44.

4 Minutes of the Joint Major League Meetings, BKK Papers. S1-SS1-B2-F2 (1979); 12-18; Stan Isle, “More Money to Flow to Minors,” The Sporting News, December 22, 1979: 44.

5 Minutes of the Joint Major League Meetings, BKK Papers. S1-SS1-B2-F2 (1979).

6 Murray Chass, “Baseball Clubs Map an Effort to Change Compensation Rule,” New York Times, December 7, 1979; Murray Chass, “Club Owners Push Compensation Plan,” The Sporting News, December 22, 1979: 59.

7 Murray Chass, “Owners Adopt $500,000 Muzzle,” The Sporting News, December 15, 1979: 49.

8 Jack Lang, “Writers Can Keep Jobs as Scorers,” The Sporting News, December 22, 1979: 44.

9 “An Official Okay for RBI Mark,” The Sporting News, December 22, 1979: 43.

10 Tom Weir, “Oakland Coliseum Relaxes Its Grip on A’s,” The Sporting News, December 15, 1979: 54.

11 Tom Weir, “Finley Snags Denver Deal,” The Sporting News, December 22, 1979: 46.

12 Major League Executive Council & Television Committee Meeting December 5, 1979, Minutes distributed April 11, 1980, Bowie Kuhn Papers, Baseball Hall of Fame, S1-SS1-B2-F2.

13 Mike Littwin, “Dodgers May Move to Sign Johnstone,” Los Angeles Times, December 3, 1979; Tom Weir, “Finley Snags Denver Deal,” The Sporting News, December 22, 1979: 46; Phil Collier, “Second-Choice Rodriguez Bolsters Padres at Third,” The Sporting News, December 22, 1979: 62; Official Baseball Guide for 1980 (St. Louis: The Sporting News), 392.

14 Richard Dozer, “Meetings Not What Hot-Stovers Imagine,” Chicago Tribune, December 7, 1979.

15 Richard Dozer, “Winter Meetings Outdated — Veeck,” The Sporting News, December 29, 1979: 38.

16 Mike Littwin, “Dodgers May Move to Sign Johnstone,” Los Angeles Times, December 3, 1979; Gordon Verrell, “Dodgers Sidestep Morgan, Land Jay Johnstone Instead,” The Sporting News, December 8, 1979: 50; Murray Chass, “Mets’ Chief Vetoes Swan Trade,” New York Times, December 5, 1979.

17 “LeFlore to Expos, Palmer to Nowhere,” Washington Post, December 8, 1979; Richard Dozer, “Expos Obtain Tigers’ LeFlore; Indians Send Bonds to Cards,” Chicago Tribune, December 8, 1979; Tom Gage, “High Pay Demands Made LeFlore Ex-Tiger,” The Sporting News, December 22, 1979: 57.

18 The Rangers took left-hander Ricky Burdette and infielder Amos Lewis from the Yankees’ minor-league system. “Yankees Get Soderholm After All,” Deseret News (Salt Lake City), November 15, 1979: 36.

19 Rick Hummel, “Cards, Searching for Bat Balance, Invest in Bonds,” The Sporting News, December 22, 1979: 61; Burt Graeff, “Bad Advice Hastened Bonds Exit,” The Sporting News, December 22, 1979: 61; Murray Chass, “Bonds Traded Again but Lyle Deal Fails,” New York Times, December 9, 1979.

20 Neil MacCarl, “Jays’ Swap Bait: Mayberry or Chambliss,” The Sporting News, December 8, 1979: 54; Neil MacCarl, “MacLaughlin Key in Jays’ Swap,” The Sporting News, December 22, 1979: 54.

21 Randy Galloway, “Burroughs Plays It Cool,” The Sporting News, January 5, 1980: 46; Ken Picking, “Braves Take to Tepee, Smug Over Swaps,” The Sporting News, December 29, 1979: 34.

22 Bob Fowler, “Twins So-S0 as Bargain Hunters,” The Sporting News, December 22, 1979: 62.

23 Murray Chass, “Mets’ Chief Vetoes Swan Trade,” New York Times, December 5, 1979; “Baseball Deals Fall Through,” Washington Post, December 5, 1979; Jack Lang, “Little Thanks at Empty Met Table,” The Sporting News, December 8, 1979: 50; Jack Lang, “Mets Blasted for Trade Foul-Up,” The Sporting News, December 22, 1979: 56.

24 Dick Miller, “Angels to Chart Golden Oldies, Disco Kids,” The Sporting News, December 29, 1979: 35; Sid Bordman, “Royals Correct Old Pain by Swapping for Aikens,” The Sporting News, December 22, 1979, 60.

25 “Baseball Deals Fall Through,” Washington Post, December 5, 1979.

26 Hal Bodley, “Lyle’s Radio-TV Pact Killed Swap to Phils,” The Sporting News, December 29, 1979: 46; Randy Galloway, “Lyle Is Dangled as Bait Despite Corbett’s Line,” The Sporting News, December 29, 1979: 38; Murray Chass, “Bonds Traded Again but Lyle Deal Fails,” New York Times, December 9, 1979.

27 Hal Bodley, “Lyle’s Radio-TV Pact Killed Swap to Phils,” The Sporting News, December 29, 1979: 46.

28 Richard Dozer, “White Sox Escape Toronto With Lefty Staff Intact,” The Sporting News, December 22, 1979: 54.

29 Joe Giuliotti, “Red Sox Whiff in Trade Mart — Fans Irked,” The Sporting News, December 22, 1979: 60.

30 Harry Shattuck, “Astros Black Out in Search for Power,” The Sporting News, December 22, 1979: 57.