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Introduction and Context
With the inauguration of free agency in 1976 and the introduction of a second interleague trading period in 1977, the baseball winter meetings had become agonizing to attend. The traditional exchange of players between teams became more limited now that players could bargain for long-term contracts and no-trade clauses. However, the 1980 gathering in Dallas saw a delightful departure from more recent meetings as an overwhelming amount of talent was moved before the sun set on December 12, the official close of business, with more to follow in the coming weeks. The date and location of these meetings had been announced in Toronto the year before, marking the second time that Dallas was the host city, but the first since 1927! For 1980, the magnates set up headquarters at the Loews Anatole Hotel, whose décor was described by some as “Texas — Egyptian.”1
The current session took place after an exciting regular season in which George Brett of the Kansas City Royals chased the elusive .400 batting mark — he finished at .390 — while the Philadelphia Phillies made their first World Series appearance since 1950 and captured baseball’s ultimate prize by defeating the Royals in six games.
As the meetings were about to convene, however, an ominous cloud began to form on baseball’s horizon. The team physician for the Philadelphia Phillies’ Double-A affiliate in Reading, Pennsylvania, along with two other people, was charged with fraudulently prescribing and obtaining amphetamines in quantities “beyond the scope of the patient-doctor relationship and without first conducting physical examinations.”2 Although use of “greenies” had been known in baseball for years, the issue persisted and served as an unfortunate precursor to the cocaine scandal that by 1985 would shake the sport to its core.
The Business Side
When the business meetings convened, a spokesman for the commissioner’s office noted, there would be “nothing of significance” on the agenda.3 However, several executives, including Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, chose to disagree. Steinbrenner was part of a group who felt the time had come for baseball to realign into a three-division format. This was not the first time the subject had been brought up; at the 1978 meetings in Orlando the subject was discussed, and a 10-member study committee presented a recommendation that Commissioner Bowie Kuhn found feasible. In 1978, Kuhn considered the proposal to be “the most significant subject to hit the major league agenda in years.”4
Steinbrenner expressed confidence that the American League would realign by the beginning of the 1982 season, but he was concerned that the proposal would not meet the commissioner’s approval without the National League making a parallel move. At the meetings in Dallas, only one National League executive, Bill Giles, was in favor of the three-division alignment. “The National League has been against it, but I think a majority might be in favor of it now,” Steinbrenner said.5 Skyrocketing operational costs were seen as one factor that could sway the collective thinking of normally conservative owners, and a geographical realignment would make economic sense in helping to reduce travel and operating expenses.
As if to bolster the argument for the economic benefits of three divisions, a recently released audit conducted by Ernst and Whinney disclosed that eight unnamed big-league teams had each lost an average of $2 million in 1978 and 1979. Kuhn used the disclosure of the gloomy financial news as an opportunity to decry the ever-escalating salaries being garnered by players, and express his fear over a potential decline in competitive balance should wealthier clubs succeed in securing the services of the best talent via the signing of free agents. To no one’s surprise, Marvin Miller, head of the Major League Baseball Players Association, termed Kuhn’s hand-wringing “absurd” and defended the gains made by the players union by pointing out that “every time a franchise changes hands, there are tremendous capital gains [made by the owners who sell their teams],” therefore, it was only fair that the players share in the wealth.6
The National Association, the governing body of minor-league baseball, considered 13 amendments to the Professional Baseball Agreement and Rules. Four amendments to the National Association Agreement were discussed as well. Johnny Johnson, president of the National Association, said the proposals involved increases in the size of Double-A and Triple-A rosters, injury rehabilitation assignments, and expanding the high-school rule to cover prospects from Puerto Rico.7 All of the amendments would need major-league approval. As well as the roster increases, other proposed amendments would bring about improvements in player-development contracts, including an increase in meal allowances for players in each minor-league classification.8 The International League proposed an amendment to increase the amount of time before a reserve-list player was subject to the December draft, from three years to four years.9
Scheduled highlights of the meetings included an instructional clinic for high-school and college coaches moderated by several noteworthy big leaguers: Tom Grieve, Sparky Anderson, Dick Howser, Charlie Lau, Tom Lasorda, and Pat Corrales. Also on tap was a Texas-style Hoedown as well as the annual dinner for the National Association. On December 9, The Sporting News Man of the Year was unveiled by St. Louis Cardinals announcer Jack Buck, with the winner, not surprisingly, being the Royals’ George Brett.
As the meetings continued, Chicago White Sox owner Bill Veeck petitioned to sell the White Sox to Ohio real-estate tycoon Edward J. DeBartolo Sr. The sale had been vetoed earlier by Commissioner Kuhn due to DeBartolo’s horse-racing holdings, but a second attempt by DeBartolo to purchase the White Sox for $20 million was nixed by an overwhelming vote of 11 to 3 by American League owners. Kuhn also felt DeBartolo wouldn’t be a good fit for ownership based upon his previous attempts to buy other teams with the intention of moving them to New Orleans, and the commissioner noted the ill-received “pressure tactics” employed by the aspiring owner on several of the AL moguls to support his cause.10 There were rumblings that DeBartolo was destined to be an absentee owner, which found little favor among his potential brethren. Yet DeBartolo may have felt some degree of entitlement to ownership: It was reported in the New York Times that he loaned the White Sox over $500,000 so that the team could sign free-agent outfielder Ron LeFlore two weeks before the winter meetings began.11 Departing the ranks of ownership for the final time, Veeck ultimately received permission to sell the club to an ownership group headed by Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn in late January 1981.
In matters less controversial, the National League also announced that President Chub Feeney was given a three-year contract extension through 1983, and John McHale of the Montreal Expos was re-elected as the NL’s vice president. Commissioner Kuhn announced a 35 percent increase in the budget for the Umpire Development Program, the annual expenditure being raised from $505,000 to $685,000, and the Official Rules Committee made a revision to the designated hitter rule as a means of addressing a scheme employed by Baltimore manager Earl Weaver during the 1980 season. “To counter the possibility of a pitching change by the opposition before his DH came to bat, Weaver on 21 occasions filled the DH spot on his lineup card with the name of a pitcher who wasn’t due to play and then used another player in his place.”12 The amendment now forced the player first listed as the DH to bat at least once before he could be removed.
In a move that stunned many at the Dallas gathering, the San Francisco Giants fired manager Dave Bristol, who had expressed displeasure at the team’s trade of left-handed pitcher Bob Knepper and a minor leaguer to the Astros for third baseman Enos Cabell. The dismissal, orchestrated by club owner Bob Lurie, came awkwardly “during a luncheon for major-league managers in which the Giants skipper and members of the organization were conspicuously absent from their table.”13 Lurie was also said to be perturbed with Bristol’s alleged unflattering statements about first baseman Mike Ivie, which Lurie believed would hurt the Giants’ chances to offer Ivie in a trade. Whether coincidental or not, this proved to be the last major-league piloting job Bristol would hold.
In other managerial affairs in the run-up to the winter meetings, Dick Howser in late November became another victim of owner George Steinbrenner’s managerial purges when he was jettisoned after New York was swept in the League Championship Series by Kansas City. The owner said that “it will be his [Howser’s] decision” whether to return to the Yankees dugout, but Steinbrenner was obviously making the call himself when Howser was axed. In a bizarre press conference, the Yankee owner mendaciously cited Howser’s desire to “pursue a real-estate opportunity in Florida,” but few were buying this tale.14 At the same time that Howser was being embarrassed, another of Steinbrenner’s past sparring partners, Billy Martin, found a new job near his hometown of Berkeley, California. Following the transfer of ownership of the Oakland Athletics from Charlie Finley to Walter Haas Jr., in August 1980, team President Roy Eisenhardt announced the signing of Martin to a five-year contract to be the A’s manager and player-development director.
Several minor-league officials were recognized in Dallas for their contributions in the season just completed. Jim Burris, general manager of the Triple-A Denver Bears; Frances Crockett, GM of the Double-A Charlotte Orioles; and Greensboro Class-A general manager Tom Romenesko were the latest executives to be honored for the success they and their respective clubs achieved. Burris and his team were no doubt helped by the feats of future major leaguers Randy Bass15 — his MVP performance in the American Association included a .333 batting average, 37 home runs, and 143 RBIs — and Tim Raines, The Sporting News Minor League Player of the Year, who swiped 77 bases and led the circuit with a .354 average.
With free agency now in full flower, bidding for the best talent on the market drew the biggest headlines, and the premier player offering his services was outfielder Dave Winfield, late of the San Diego Padres and now seeking a new home and contract. Drawing notice as well was former Dodgers pitcher Don Sutton, who signed with the Houston Astros on the eve of the meetings in Dallas just as the Yankees, with George Steinbrenner’s checkbook at the ready, seemed poised to ink the right-hander. The Montreal Expos were also among the serious bidders for Sutton, but the pitcher opted for the chance to pitch his home starting assignments in the spacious Astrodome. Another free-agent hurler, the Phillies’ southpaw reliever Tug McGraw, had some anxious negotiations with the club he had just helped propel to the World Series crown, but on the eve of the winter meetings he signed a four-year contract to remain in Philadelphia.
With Red Sox star outfielder Fred Lynn scheduled to be a free agent after the 1981 season, Boston was entertaining trade offers for him. The intriguing possibility of Lynn landing with the New York Mets, who were actively in the bidding for Winfield, left GM Frank Cashen pondering the likely strain on team finances: “Sure it’s exciting to think of those two in the same outfield. But could we pay the ushers?”16 Not only would the payroll rise sharply, but the Mets faced the prospect of surrendering three valued players — outfielder Mookie Wilson and right-handed pitchers Neil Allen and Tim Leary — to the Red Sox, which they declined to do.
Playing the role of consummate dealmaker was St. Louis general manager Whitey Herzog, who had taken the reins of the Cardinals after the midseason dismissal of manager Ken Boyer. Herzog was at the helm for 73 games before moving to the front office and leaving Red Schoendienst in charge of matters on the field. After signing free-agent catcher Darrell Porter from the Kansas City Royals — the backstop’s production had fallen precipitously from his stellar 1979 but had played well when Herzog managed the Royals — the White Rat engineered a series of major trades that gave his club a significant makeover. On December 8, Herzog packaged a pair of catchers, Terry Kennedy and Steve Swisher, infielder Mike Phillips, and a quartet of pitchers — right-handers John Littlefield and John Urrea, and southpaws Al Olmsted and Kim Seaman — and sent them to the San Diego Padres in exchange for right-handed relief ace Rollie Fingers, left-hander Bob Shirley, and former World Series hero Gene Tenace, a catcher-first baseman. Yet another catcher, Bob Geren, was sent to St. Louis two days later to finalize the initial deal.
Herzog then moved into the second phase of his maneuvering on December 9. With his sights set on the Cubs’ closer, right-hander Bruce Sutter (the 1979 Cy Young Award winner), Herzog swapped first baseman Leon Durham and former Gold Glove third baseman Ken Reitz to Chicago for Sutter. Infielder Ty Waller was also dispatched to the Cubs two weeks later. Moving Reitz could have been difficult as he had a no-trade provision in his contract, but Herzog successfully navigated around it with a $150,000 buyout. Finally completing his frenetic bargaining on December 12, Herzog traded Ted Simmons — the Silver Slugging catcher was expendable with Porter now aboard — along with the just-acquired Fingers along with journeyman right-handed pitcher Pete Vuckovich to Milwaukee. In return, the Brewers sent outfielders David Green and rifle-armed Sixto Lezcano, plus pitchers Dave LaPoint and Lary Sorensen (a lefty and a righty, respectively) to the Cardinals. As was the case with Reitz, Simmons also was able to collect a substantial sum from the Cardinals and Brewers — $750,000 in total — in order for him to waive his no-trade rights. The same buyout situation applied to former National League Cy Young recipient Randy Jones of the San Diego Padres, who was dealt to the New York Mets on December 15 for right-handed pitcher John Pacella and infielder Jose Moreno. In the end, Harry Dalton, the general manager of the Brewers, did not receive the same degree of notoriety as Herzog did on the trading front, but Dalton is due credit for adding players who turned Milwaukee into a pennant winner in 1982.
While it may have seemed that Herzog was stealing most of the thunder in Dallas, a number of other clubs got in on the trading action. Another high-profile pitcher, right-hander Bert Blyleven, was on the move when he was sent to the Cleveland Indians along with veteran Pirates catcher Manny Sanguillen. In return, Pittsburgh received another catcher, Gary Alexander, and a trio of pitchers: left-hander Bob Owchinko, right-hander Victor Cruz, and minor-league right-hander Rafael Vasquez. Pirates manager Chuck Tanner’s habit of removing Blyleven from games earlier than the pitcher preferred had soured him on his tenure in Pittsburgh. A bit of intrigue attended this trade because the Indians appeared to have swooped in to grab Blyleven before the California Angels could complete their own trade for the future Hall of Famer. Angels manager Jim Fregosi even admitted that his team was “definitely making progress with the Pirates” as negotiations continued, but the potential deal broke down when Pirates held firm in their refusal to part with infielder Vance Law.17
The Angels had dangled right-handed reliever Mark Clear and former American League MVP Don Baylor as bait for the Pirates, but when they failed to consummate a Blyleven trade, they turned their attention to Boston in seeking help for their problem at shortstop. The day after Blyleven slipped away, California traded Clear, third baseman Carney Lansford, and outfielder Rick Miller to the Red Sox for third baseman Butch Hobson and shortstop Rick Burleson. With Burleson likely to become a free agent after the 1981 season, Boston instead chose to avoid the possible loss of his services by trading him to get something of value in return.
Trades had an impact for several other notable players when San Francisco outfielder Craig Landis and former Rookie of the Year right-hander John Montefusco were swapped to the Braves for another righty, journeyman hurler Doyle Alexander, while the Rangers and Mariners completed a Herzog-sized deal involving 11 players. Heading to Texas were left-handed pitcher Rick Honeycutt, shortstop Mario Mendoza, catcher Larry Cox, outfielder Leon Roberts, and DH Willie Horton, while a quartet of pitchers — righties Ken Clay, Steve Finch, and Brian Allard, plus southpaw Jerry Don Gleaton — joined infielder Rick Auerbach and slugging outfielder Richie Zisk in moving to Seattle.
In a series of moves involving lesser-known players, Oakland swapped shortstop Mario Guerrero to Seattle for a player to be named, but this in actuality was a cash transaction. Outfielder Dave Edwards went from Minnesota to San Diego for infielder Chuck Baker, the Kansas City Royals inked free-agent slugger Lee May, most recently with the Orioles, and the Astros signed infielder Dave Roberts, another free agent formerly with the Texas Rangers. Detroit sent shortstop Mark Wagner to the Rangers for left-handed pitcher Kevin Saucier, and the Angels signed former Expos righty John D’Acquisto as a free agent. Cliff Johnson, a catcher-first baseman, and minor-league infielder Keith Drumright went from the Cubs to Oakland for minor-league left-handed pitcher Michael King, while Twins also dealt outfielder Willie Norwood to the Mariners for right-handed pitcher Byron McLaughlin. Cincinnati and the Cubs exchanged outfielders, Hector Cruz for Mike Vail; outfielder Dave Stegman went from Detroit to the Padres for left-handed pitcher Dennis Kinney; and Toronto infielder-outfielder Bob Bailor was traded to the Mets for right-handed pitcher Roy Lee Jackson. Second baseman Tony Bernazard of Montreal landed with the White Sox, with the Expos getting southpaw Rich Wortham in return.
Free agent Willie Montanez, a National League veteran, opted to re-sign with Montreal as the winter meetings were concluding, and just days later a former Expo, Rusty Staub, returned for a second stint with the Mets. But the plum of the current crop of free agents was Dave Winfield, the lanky outfielder of the San Diego Padres and a five-tool player who was one of the premier players in the game.
Just as the Mets had been in the hunt for Fred Lynn, so too was George Steinbrenner, and the Yankees mogul with the outsized checkbook had spoken with Red Sox GM Haywood Sullivan regarding a possible trade. At the same time, a drama was unfolding regarding the Yankees’ quest for Winfield, who was Steinbrenner’s primary target. As the meetings in Dallas were wrapping up, the owner’s pursuit of Winfield was intensifying, and the New York Times reported in mid-December, “Although the likelihood might be remote that the Yankees could have an outfield of Reggie Jackson, Lynn, and Winfield, George Steinbrenner was pictured yesterday as intrigued by that possibility.”18 It was rumored that the Astros might seek the services of Winfield after their own star outfielder, José Cruz, was injured in a recent winter league game, but Steinbrenner was capable of competing financially — which is to say outspending — with his ownership brethren, and despite their stumble in the recent ALCS, the Yankees still fielded a very competitive team that its owner was more than willing to improve.
At the Dallas meetings, Steinbrenner had implored his fellow owners to increase by one year the length of time that clubs could maintain a hold over players in the farm system. He made the argument that he needed this bureaucratic amendment in order to avoid a depletion of his minor league rosters, but when he came a cropper in this effort, he vowed to find a solution using his wallet. “What I’ll have to do is go back home and sign a big raw-boned kid from Minnesota,” Steinbrenner said, obviously alluding to Winfield, a native of St. Paul who was educated at the University of Minnesota.19 This was exactly his course of action, and on December 15 the Yankees announced that they had signed Winfield to a record-setting, 10-year contract worth $25 million, thereby validating Marvin Miller’s claim of ownership riches while at once putting a figurative dagger through the heart of Bowie Kuhn and less-wealthy moguls as the proclivity of seemingly frivolous spending apparently knew no limits.
A special footnote is appropriate to the aftermath of the 1980 winter meetings. As mentioned above, Rick Burleson was traded due to his impending free-agent status. And as Fred Lynn was being offered to various teams, he expressed his intent to sign for only the 1981 season and become a free agent thereafter, obviously wanting to take advantage of peddling his services on the open market. This situation held up his potential trade to several teams at the time of the gathering in Dallas. However, when the Red Sox belatedly mailed Lynn his 1981 contract, doing so after the December 20, 1980, deadline, he and teammate Carlton Fisk, whose contract was similarly tardy, filed for free agency. On the eve of an arbitration hearing regarding his filing, Lynn agreed to a trade to the Angels when owner Gene Autry, never bashful himself about spending, signed him to a four-year, $4.1 million deal as part of Lynn’s agreement to the trade.20 For his part, Fisk allowed his grievance to proceed, was granted free agency on February 12, 1981, and subsequently signed with the Chicago White Sox five weeks later.21
The 1980 winter meetings provided a fertile ground for many teams to strike deals and lay the groundwork for others that would be completed in the coming weeks. In total, 58 players were traded in one of the more active sessions since 1977, but the sheer number of personnel swapped was not the only salient factor. Cardinals GM Whitey Herzog demonstrated a bold sense of confidence in engineering a series of deals involving high-profile talent that was a first step toward giving the St. Louis roster a radical makeover on the way to forging what would be one of the most dominant teams of the 1980s. Herzog’s deals also paved the way for the Milwaukee Brewers to acquire talent they needed to compete in the American League in the early part of the decade.
In the area of free-agent signings, liberal spending by well-heeled owners like George Steinbrenner and Gene Autry continued a trend they exhibited in the post-Messersmith era, the former convincing the season’s prime free agent, Dave Winfield, to come to the Bronx, while the latter doling out heavily shortly after the Dallas session to head off Fred Lynn’s entry into the open market.
Baseball’s hierarchy adhered to the status quo of two divisions in each league in spite of discussion of possibly changing to a three-way split, and the ownership ranks stymied the attempts of Edward J. DeBartolo Sr. to purchase the Chicago White Sox.
When taking into account the total time frame of the weeks prior to the winter meetings, the meetings themselves, and their aftermath, it is interesting to note that Winfield, Don Sutton, Bert Blyleven, Bruce Sutter, Rollie Fingers, Bill Veeck, and Whitey Herzog all figured prominently in news emanating from Dallas. In later years they would be figuratively reunited in the Plaque Gallery at the Baseball Hall of Fame.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author also consulted Baseball-Reference.com, baseballlibrary.com, and the book by Burton A. and Benita W. Boxerman, Ebbets to Veeck to Busch: Eight Owners Who Shaped Baseball (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc., 2003).
1 Steve Wulf, “Big Wheels Make Big Deals in Big D,” Sports Illustrated, December 22, 1980.
2 “Reading Team Doctor Facing Drug Charges,” The Sporting News, December 6, 1980: 61.
3 Stan Isle, “A.L. May Push for Realignment,” The Sporting News, December 13, 1980: 39.
6 Miller quoted in Clifford Kachline, “Labor Strife, Big Salaries Topped ’80 News,” 1981 Official Baseball Guide (St. Louis: The Sporting News), 324-325.
7 Stan Isle. “A.L. May Push for Realignment,” The Sporting News, December 13, 1980: 39.
9 A review of records by Minor League Baseball senior communications director Jeff Lantz failed to turn up any evidence as to whether the amendment was actually adopted. Email from Jeff Lantz to author, August 31, 2016.
10 “AL Rejects DeBartolo White Sox Offer Again,” Spokane Spokesman-Review, December 11, 1980: 35.
11 Murray Chass, “White Sox Had Help in Signing LeFlore,” New York Times, November 27, 1980: B7.
12 Clifford Kachline, “Labor Strife, Big Salaries Topped ’80 News,” 1981 Official Baseball Guide (St. Louis: The Sporting News), 324.
13 “Cards Get Sutter; Dave Bristol Fired,” Sarasota Herald-Tribune, December 10, 1980: 1D.
14 Dave Anderson, “George Steinbrenner’s Revolving Door Sent a Champion to the Royals,” New York Times, October 18, 2014.
15 Prior to his breakout season with the Denver Bears, Bass had played in 13 major-league games, with 22 at-bats for the Twins, Royals, and Expos.
16 Cashen quoted in “Mets Offered Deal for Lynn,” New York Times, December 10, 1980: B12.
17 Murray Chass, “Cards Get Sutter; Blyleven to Indians,” New York Times, December 10, 1980: B9.
18 Murray Chass, “Yankees Press for Lynn and Winfield,” New York Times, December 14, 1980: A1.
19 George Steinbrenner quoted in ibid. Despite his well-earned reputation as a big spender, Steinbrenner had a point regarding protection of his minor-league prospects. The Yankees’ minor-league system in the late 1970s was very capable of producing quality talent, including the likes of Willie McGee, Willie Upshaw, LaMarr Hoyt, Dave Righetti, and Damaso Garcia, most of whom made their mark with clubs other than the Yankees.
20 On January 23, 1981, Boston swapped Lynn and right-handed pitcher Steve Renko to the Angels for right-handed pitcher Jim Dorsey and left-handed pitcher Frank Tanana, as well as outfielder Joe Rudi. California GM Buzzie Bavasi considered Lynn “the complete player,” and when the outfielder dropped his grievance by “agree[ing] to a trade to a team of his choice,” the Angels were then poised to pull off the deal with the Red Sox. See Dick Miller, “Lynn Adds a Potent Bat to Angel Arsenal,” The Sporting News, February 7, 1981: 40.
21 Carl Clark, “White Sox Deal a Winning Hand,” 1982 Official Baseball Guide (St. Louis: The Sporting News), 249.