This article was written by Paul Hensler
This article was published in the
Introduction and Context
The disquieting year of 1981 featured the worst upheaval in baseball history — to that point in time — due to a players strike that erased roughly one-third of the regular-season schedule. Play was halted on June 12, and after weeks of acrimonious negotiations between players, club owners, and their respective representatives, a settlement was reached that allowed for a resumption of the championship season on August 10. The key factor in the dispute was compensation demanded by teams that lost players, especially those of the highest quality, to free agency. Newly implemented was a rule that created a pool of players from which those clubs could draft a compensatory replacement to fill the void left by the departed free agent. This rule was opposed by the Major League Baseball Players Association due to concerns about the negative impact it could have on the bargaining rights of players chosen as compensation.
Teams that had been at the top of their division at the time of the strike were declared “first-half” winners, and when play resumed after a delayed All-Star Game on August 9, those clubs that won their division in the “second-half” of the regular season would face the “first-half” victors in a special divisional playoff series that prefaced the normal League Championship Series. When the smoke cleared in late October, the Yankees engaged the Dodgers in the World Series, won by Los Angeles in six games on the heroics of Ron Cey, Pedro Guerrero, and Steve Yeager, all of whom were named co-MVPs of the series. The Dodgers’ victory was the capstone to a season in which Los Angeles rode a wave of “Fernandomania,” the catchy epithet used to describe enthusiasm generated by the deeds of the team’s sensational rookie pitcher, Fernando Valenzuela.
Against this backdrop of labor rancor and the subsequent redemption of a thrilling postseason, major-league baseball held its annual winter meetings from December 7 through the 11th at the Diplomat Hotel in Hollywood, Florida.
The Business Side
With over five years having passed since the landmark Messersmith decision that facilitated free agency, the financial state of the game was less than promising. Addressing the gathering of owners, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn stated that baseball collectively lost $25 million in 1980, and the accounting data for the just-completed season would reveal, according to Kuhn, a $50 million loss.1 Only nine of the 26 major-league franchises turned a profit in 1980, and some small-market teams, already at a disadvantage because of lower revenue streams, sought some form of revenue-sharing to be modeled on a system used by the National Football League. The pooling and redistribution of a sports league’s monies had already taken root in the NFL, and this move had been initiated — successfully so — to ensure the stability of weaker and small-market clubs. Well-funded major-league baseball teams, however, were less than enthusiastic to provide alms for their poorer brethren. Orioles owner Edward Bennett Williams was leading the effort to remedy the disparity and “appear[ed] to have made some progress, but most of the owners in the larger markets … aren’t overly anxious to slice up the pie.”2
During a quick trip to the nation’s capital on December 9, Kuhn fanned the flames of the revenue debate when he testified before a congressional subcommittee and expressed concern about “the potential overexposure of baseball games on cable television [that] threatens the economic viability of the sport.”3 Kuhn’s remarks drew a sharp rebuke from Ted Turner, owner of television superstation WTBS and the Atlanta Braves, whose games were beamed to cable outlets nationwide. It was acknowledged at the winter meetings that the American and National League rules dealing with radio and television licensing, some of which were decades old, needed amending in order to account for the “new technology and terminology that didn’t exist when the [leagues’] charters were adopted.”4
Another proposal under consideration by the owners concerned the realignment of each league into three divisions, a concept that would have led to an additional round of playoff games. However, the proposal failed, primarily because of a noticeable lack of support in the National League. The restructuring of the American League required the approval of 10 of its 14 franchises, and informal voting among the junior circuit’s moguls seemed to favor the change. But National League bylaws called for unanimous approval, and Dodgers President Peter O’Malley was the most powerful among a bloc of five owners strongly believed to be opposed to three-division league formats.5
While the midsummer players strike was thankfully in the past, the owners were beginning to cast a wary eye on negotiations with the umpires union, whose contract had expired at the conclusion of the 1981 season. Bargaining sessions had commenced, noted Blake Cullen, the National League supervisor of umpires, but the progress was slow in the early going. 6
At the senior level of the uppermost echelon of major-league baseball’s power structure, the Executive Council named Baltimore’s Edward Bennett Williams, the Brewers’ Bud Selig, and Ballard Smith of the Padres as new members, replacing John Fetzer of Detroit, Ed Fitzgerald of Milwaukee, and Peter Bavasi of Toronto. Selig and Eddie Chiles of the Texas Rangers were also named to the Player Relations Committee to replace Fitzgerald and Minnesota’s Calvin Griffith. Owners also approved the use of batting helmets with double earflaps, and voted to restrict the size of major-league rosters after August 31 to 28 players rather than 40.7
Minor-league business at the meetings created barely a ripple, but several club officials were recognized for their efforts in 1981. Pat McKernan (Triple-A Albuquerque Dukes), Allie Prescott (Double-A Memphis Chicks), and Dan Overstreet (Class-A Hagerstown Suns) were named by The Sporting News as the top executives of their respective levels.8
The drama receiving the most attention was a nefarious move that threatened to displace Bowie Kuhn from the commissioner’s office. Still stung by what was perceived as his aloofness during the summer strike, Kuhn remained in the crosshairs of a cabal of representatives from nine teams seeking his ouster. Kuhn claimed that Lou Susman, an attorney working for the St. Louis Cardinals, was “secretly campaigning” to undermine him.9 The group of conspirators consisted of Edward Bennett Williams, Ballard Smith, John McMullen (Houston), Bill Williams (Cincinnati), Eddie Chiles, George Steinbrenner (Yankees), George Argyros (Seattle), Nelson Doubleday (Mets), Fred Wilpon (Mets), and Susman. Reporting for the New York Times, Joseph Durso listed Edward Bennett Williams as “the leader of the revolt against Kuhn’s role as commissioner.”10 Less than two weeks before the winter meetings, Kuhn’s detractors had met in New York and drafted what soon became known as the “Hollywood Letter,” a missive calling for Kuhn’s resignation.
Several days into the gathering in Florida, the anti-Kuhn forces, letter in hand, convened on the evening of Wednesday, December 9, “and decided to press for a restructuring of the high command during Thursday’s league meetings.”11 Meanwhile, a group of pro-Kuhn owners, led by the Dodgers’ O’Malley and dubbed “the white hats,” learned of the plot and held their own confab a few hours the next morning to discuss ways to rally support for the imperiled commissioner. While Kuhn was the most visible figurehead among all baseball executives, he had no control over how owners and teams spent their money. Nonetheless, Kuhn had become the scapegoat for the financial losses of the previous years and the widening gap between richer and poorer teams.
Kuhn retained his composure even when the existence of the letter was revealed, and, defending himself in the face of the onslaught of criticism, he explained that his hands were tied to a great extent during the recent strike because the owners’ Player Relations Committee — not the commissioner’s office — was tasked with negotiating with the players union.12 The meeting of National League owners was notably divisive, but a modicum of peace was restored when a new committee of executives was formed to study possible restructuring of the highest offices of baseball. In a superficial attempt to put the matter to rest, the Hollywood Letter was “symbolically torn up by Susman.”13
Kuhn’s term as commissioner was not set to expire until August of 1983, and the terms of his contract held that no discussion of his status could take place until 15 months before its termination. The preemptive assault on the commissioner by his detractors failed, and although he had survived this battle, Kuhn admitted that the shredding of the letter did nothing to dispel the bile among those who ardently sought his removal. This war on Kuhn, initiated by a select group of owners, would continue beyond the conclusion of the 1981 winter meetings.
A prelude to the traditional player transactions at the winter meetings occurred in late November when one trade was completed and another begun. In a swap of former All-Star outfielders, the Detroit Tigers sent former top draft pick and slugger Steve Kemp to the White Sox for Chet Lemon, and ground was broken on a three-way deal involving the Philadelphia Phillies, Cleveland Indians, and St. Louis Cardinals. The Phillies traded outfielder Lonnie Smith and a player to be named later to the Indians for catcher Bo Diaz, and Cleveland immediately shipped Smith to the Cardinals for two pitchers, Lary Sorensen and Silvio Martinez. This trade was completed at the winter meetings when the Indians picked up pitcher Scott Munninghoff from the Phils.
When the action moved to Florida, Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, never shy about amending his roster or management team, announced that manager Bob Lemon would be allowed to pilot the Bronx Bombers for the 1982 season, after which Gene Michael would take over in the Yankee dugout from 1983 through 1985. Another former Yankees skipper, Ralph Houk, had his contract extended through the 1984 season by the Boston Red Sox.
On the ever-popular trading front, activity was relatively slow, leading one major newspaper to comment that most of the winter meetings consisted of “four days of boredom interspaced with rumors.”14 While many clubs may have been waiting until spring training of 1982 to evaluate their squads before ultimately deciding on how to address problem areas, 36 players were nonetheless swapped in 16 separate transactions. This total was off by a substantial margin from the previous winter meetings, at which 59 players were swapped in 18 trades.
Outfielder Clint Hurdle, the bright Royals star who once graced the cover of Sports Illustrated but had been disabled for most of 1981, was sent to the Cincinnati Reds for pitcher Scott Brown, who had spent most of his professional career in the Reds’ minor-league system.
Pittsburgh sent veteran shortstop Tim Foli to the California Angels for catching prospect Brian Harper. Seeing only limited playing time with the Bucs and three other teams in the mid-1980s, Harper did not start having his best years until 1988 when he joined the Minnesota Twins. But just as he had done for the Pirates in their championship season of 1979, Foli paid a quick dividend for the Angels by helping to anchor their infield during California’s drive to the 1982 AL West pennant.
The Mets traded the middle of their infield, exchanging shortstop Frank Taveras for Montreal pitcher Steve Ratzer and cash. The former ironically had been traded in 1979 from Pittsburgh to the Mets for the aforementioned Foli, while the latter, like Scott Brown, appeared in only a handful of major-league games up to 1981 and would never pitch at that level again. New York also sent second baseman Doug Flynn and hurler Danny Boitano to the Texas Rangers for closer Jim Kern. Flynn had been a key acquisition from the Reds as part of the controversial 1977 trade of Tom Seaver to Cincinnati but was a mediocre hitter at best, and Boitano, who pitched for several years in the Phillies and Brewers organizations, pitched only 30 innings for the Rangers in 1982, his last year in the majors. A three-time American League All-Star reliever in the late 1970s, Kern fell victim to injuries in mid-1980 and had become a rehabilitation project. The tall right-hander never pitched for the Mets, as he was traded, along with Alex Trevino and Greg Harris, for Reds slugger George Foster two months later as spring training commenced.
Seattle’s Tom Paciorek, whose .326 average was runner-up to Boston’s Carney Lansford for the 1981 American League batting crown, was sent to the White Sox for outfielder Rod Allen, shortstop Todd Cruz, and catcher Jim Essian. Allen had no impact for the Mariners, and Essian saw only limited duty behind the plate, but Cruz became Seattle’s primary shortstop in 1982 before moving on to Baltimore. First baseman Paciorek, whose two other brothers also played in the major leagues, hit well for the White Sox (.312 in 1982, .307 in 1983) and continued to do so later for the Mets and Rangers in a career that eventually spanned 18 years.
After spending just one season in San Francisco, outfielder Jerry Martin was shipped to the Kansas City Royals for two pitchers, Rich Gale and Bill Laskey. Gale had been a top prospect in the Royals’ system but had alternating good and bad years since his 14-win, 3.09 ERA debut in 1978; Laskey blossomed briefly, winning 13 games in both 1982 and 1983. Martin, meanwhile, found a place in the Royals outfield, batting .266 in 147 games during 1982. However, he was swept up in the drug scandal that was soon to plague major-league baseball. Along with fellow Royals Willie Wilson, Willie Mays Aikens, and, most notoriously, Vida Blue, he would serve time in jail for involvement with cocaine.
The Giants added outfielder-first baseman Doe Boyland from the Pirates in exchange for pitcher Tom Griffin, swapped hurler Doug Capilla for the Cubs’ Allen Ripley, and traded outfielder Larry Herndon to the Tigers for pitchers Dan Schatzeder and Mike Chris. San Francisco had set out to add one southpaw to its pitching staff at the meetings, but actually ended up with three (Capilla, Chris, and Schatzeder).
Now operating in Chicago, Dallas Green, the new general manager of the Cubs, worked on retooling the team’s lineup, first by sending pitcher Mike Krukow and cash to the Phillies — Green’s former employer — for pitchers Dan Larsen, Dickie Noles, and catcher Keith Moreland.
It is important to note that one trade that did not take place was a deal involving a prized prospect in the Philadelphia organization. Long rumored to be included in trades for several weeks, Ryne Sandberg was finally acquired in late January 1982 in a trade that brought the future Hall of Famer — along with shortstop Larry Bowa — to the Cubs for shortstop Ivan DeJesus. Based on accounts in The Sporting News at that time, one can draw the conclusion that Green had to have been laying groundwork for a deal involving Sandberg but did not complete trade talks until several weeks after the conclusion of the winter meetings.15
Former National League Rookie of the Year Rick Sutcliffe, a 17-game winner for the Dodgers in 1979, appeared to be destined more for a minor-league bullpen than continued success at the major-league level after posting two dismal seasons (five total wins with a collective ERA of 5.10, in 1980 and 1981) following his stellar debut. Still perhaps overwhelmed by “Fernandomania” and basking in the glow of its World Series title, Los Angeles decided to move Sutcliffe and second baseman Jack Perconte to Cleveland for outfielder Jorge Orta — a former American League All-Star — catcher Jack Fimple, and pitcher Larry White.
One of the last vestiges of the Big Red Machine, outfielder Ken Griffey, had been traded to the Yankees along with pitcher Brian Ryder a month before the gathering in Hollywood. At the meetings, the Reds completed the deal by acquiring pitcher Fred Toliver from New York.
In a swap of outfielders, the Astros sent Gary Woods to the Cubs for Jim Tracy, with both players immediately assigned to their new team’s Triple-A affiliate. The Cardinals signed a pair of pitchers from the Mexican League, Eric Rasmussen of the Yucatan club, and former American Leaguer Vicente Romo of Coatzacoalcos.
American League West rivals Seattle and Oakland completed a trade in which the Mariners shipped infielder-outfielder Dan Meyer, who had twice enjoyed 20-homer seasons, to the Athletics for Rich Bordi, a 6-foot-7-inch reliever who would end up pitching for four other clubs over the following six years. These teams also completed a trade in which the A’s sent pitcher Roy Thomas to the Mariners for outfielder Rusty McNealy and pitcher Tim Hallgren.
In the annual major-league Rule 5 draft, held on December 7, 10 players were selected by other organizations for $25,000 apiece. Among these, only two players — pitcher and former Cardinal farmhand Jim Gott, and infielder Domingo Ramos, late of the Blue Jays — would enjoy any future success with his new club. While neither Gott nor Ramos racked up big numbers, they did exhibit staying power by each accruing 11 years of service time with four different big-league teams.
Other instances of post-meeting trades that had been initially discussed in Hollywood, were those involving the Houston Astros’ Cesar Cedeño, once one of the best all-around players in the game but now in noticeable decline, for Cincinnati third baseman Ray Knight. Knight was the heir-apparent to Pete Rose following Rose’s departure to Philadelphia at the end of the 1978 season, but he became expendable after his batting average dropped nearly 60 points from 1979 to 1981. But perhaps the biggest laying of groundwork for a future trade occurred in a transaction between the Cardinals and Padres.
On December 10, St. Louis dealt outfielder Sixto Lezcano to San Diego for pitcher Steve Mura, and these principals were each accompanied by the ubiquitous player-to-be-named from their respective clubs. Having already surrendered two pitchers — Lary Sorensen and Silvio Martinez — in previous trading, Cardinals manager and GM Whitey Herzog stated that he was in the market for more frontline pitching, so it was fair to assume that at least one more hurler would be forthcoming from the Padres. At the onset of the meetings, however, Herzog alluded to possibly dealing his gifted but troubled shortstop, Garry Templeton. Having fallen out of favor with Cardinals fans and his own teammates, especially after a late August home game in which he made obscene gestures to the crowd at Busch Stadium, Templeton was placed on Herzog’s trading block.
After weeks of haggling following the initial Lezcano-Mura trade, Templeton and All-Star shortstop Ozzie Smith were announced — on February 11, 1982 — as the players swapped to complete the trade first brokered in Hollywood. Smith would go on to anchor the Cardinal infield for three National League crowns and a World Series title while endearing himself to St. Louis fans for the remainder of a career that landed him in Cooperstown. Templeton, feeling more comfortable closer to his home in Santa Ana, California, helped the Padres to the 1984 National League pennant, but he never fulfilled the promise he displayed during his early years when he hit well over .300 in three of his first four seasons as a Cardinal.
Several free-agent signings at the winter meetings involved some well-known names, including former Boston outfielder Joe Rudi and Texas right-hander Fergie Jenkins, who returned to the cities that initially launched them into prominence, Rudi back to Oakland, Jenkins back to Chicago for another stint with the Cubs. Reliever Bill Campbell, also formerly of Boston and a member of the first big free-agent class of 1977, followed Jenkins to Wrigley Field by signing as a free agent. Others, such as outfielder Cesar Geronimo (Kansas City), infielder Jerry Remy (Boston), and catcher Buck Martinez (Toronto), re-signed with their 1981 clubs, and the Cardinals purchased pitcher Mike Stanton from the Indians.
In closing, a few other transactions warrant attention. On December 6, the Angels purchased catcher Bob Boone from the Phillies, and five days later, the Dodgers signed former Orioles shortstop Mark Belanger as a free agent. Both players had been very active as members of the Major League Baseball Players Association, and a third player with a high profile in the players union, Orioles third baseman Doug DeCinces, found himself traded to California in late January 1982. It may be argued that Boone had become expendable in Philadelphia with Bo Diaz about to become the Phillies’ backstop. It may also be claimed that Belanger was at the end of his career, and the Orioles were making room for rookie Cal Ripken Jr.; thus, the Phillies and Orioles had little to lose by letting this trio of veterans go. However, the movement of three players prominent in union circles to new addresses may well have been a case in which their former clubs simply chose to rid themselves of some of the reminders of the strike of 1981.
The first winter meetings following the devastating midseason strike of 1981 were punctuated by a backlash against Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, instigated by a group of owners intent on forcing Kuhn’s resignation. Fueled by dissatisfaction over widespread financial problems besetting the national pastime and the ostensible distance at which the commissioner kept himself during the strike, those seeking Kuhn’s ouster were unsuccessful in their attempt, but the dissent that surfaced in Hollywood, Florida, did not bode well for Kuhn as baseball’s top executive. Trading activity was generally slower than in previous years, but formulation of a deal eventually involving two premier shortstops of the day, Garry Templeton and Ozzie Smith, was set in motion and finally consummated before the opening of spring-training camps in early 1982.
Gillette, Gary, and Pete Palmer, eds. The ESPN Baseball Encyclopedia, Fourth Edition (New York: Sterling Publishing Company, 2007).
Kuhn, Bowie. Hardball: The Education of a Baseball Commissioner (New York: Times Books, 1987).
Miller, Marvin. A Whole Different Ball Game: The Sport and Business of Baseball (New York: Birch Lane Press, 1991).
Siegel, Barry, ed. Official 1982 Baseball Register (St. Louis: The Sporting News, 1982).
The Baseball Encyclopedia, Ninth Edition (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1993).
Wigge, Larry, Carl Clark, Dave Sloan, Craig Carter, and Barry Siegel, eds. Official 1982 Baseball Guide (St. Louis: The Sporting News, 1982).
1 “Kuhn Says Baseball Lost $25 Million in 1980,” Washington Post, December 8, 1981: C1; Bowie Kuhn, Hardball: The Education of a Baseball Commissioner (New York: Times Books, 1987), 362.
2 Jerome Holtzman, “Owners Discuss Sharing Income,” Chicago Tribune, December 6, 1981: C5.
3 Bart Barnes, “Kuhn Hits Cable TV,” Washington Post, December 10, 1981: D1.
4 Dave Nightingale, “Chances Dim for 3-Division Play,” The Sporting News, December 12, 1981: 45.
5 Referring to a gathering of National League executives in October, O’Malley said, “I could have sworn I saw at least five hands in the air (in opposition to three-division play) at the National League meeting in Arizona.” See Dave Nightingale, “Chances Dim for 3-Division Play,” The Sporting News, December 12, 1981: 39.
6 “Chances Dim for 3-Division Play.”
7 Clifford Kachline, “Baseball Takes Lumps, Survives Stormy, Strike-Plagued Season,” in Larry Wigge, Carl Clark, Dave Sloan, Craig Carter, Barry Siegel, eds., Official 1982 Baseball Guide (St. Louis: The Sporting News, 1982), 25.
8 “Top Minor League Execs Packed Their Parks,” The Sporting News, December 12, 1981: 40.
9 Kuhn, 366.
10 Joseph Durso, “Attack on Kuhn Shook Baseball Talks,” New York Times, December 13, 1981: S3.
12 As Kuhn informed the New York Times, “The commissioner’s powers are mostly restraining. I don’t make labor policy or labor decisions.” See Larry Wigge, Carl Clark, Dave Sloan, Craig Carter, Barry Siegel, eds., Official 1982 Baseball Guide (St. Louis: The Sporting News, 1982), 24.
13 Kuhn, 10.
14 Mark Heisler, “At Baseball Meetings, There’s a Lot of Talk, Not Much Action,” Los Angeles Times, December 11, 1981: G3.
15 Hal Bodley, “Phils Disgusted; Deals Collapse,” The Sporting News, January 2, 1982: 38.
Danny Ainge had a no-basketball clause in the contract he signed in 1980 with Toronto. Boston Celtics general manager Red Auerbach admitted to knowing about the Blue Jays clause and the contract, and being notified twice about it. Still, Ainge’s desire to play basketball over baseball landed in the courts. By the beginning of October 1981, a jury decided in favor of Toronto,1 even though Ainge signed his contract without counsel because he was still in college (Ainge became the first athlete to take advantage of an NCAA rule allowing a college athlete to be a pro in another sport.)2 However, the possibility of Ainge’s playing basketball remained, as Judge Lee Gagliardi questioned the situation:3
Gagliardi: “The affidavit filed by Ainge shows that he wants to play basketball, doesn’t it?”
Blue Jays attorney Douglas Parker: “Yes. It says he doesn’t want to play baseball. But the Toronto management’s position is that Ainge gets confused about his future.”
Gagliardi (reportedly smiling): “He’s a college man. And an academic All-America. I think he has a very good idea of what he wants.”
Toronto agreed to continue working on an agreement with Boston, but progress was slow. Rumors spread of Toronto President Peter Bavasi being an obstacle to negotiations, and hopes emerged after Bavasi resigned in late November, citing the need for a greater challenge.4 Pat Gillick, Toronto’s vice president of baseball operations, suggested that Bavasi’s resignation had no impact on the Ainge situation, referring to Toronto’s legal team as the driver of negotiations.5
Ultimately, a deal was reached on November 27, with settlement terms not announced.6
1 Mike Douchant, “Hands Off Ainge, Jury Tells Celts,” The Sporting News, October 17, 1981: 62.
2 Thomas Boswell, “Danny Ainge: A Singular Figure in a Double Play Ainge: Does He Have the Right Stuff for NBA?,” Washington Post, December 20, 1981: L1.
3 “Hands Off Ainge, Jury Tells Celts.”
4 Enquirer Wires, “Bavasi (Needing a Challenge?) Resigns from Blue Jays,” Cincinnati Enquirer, November 25, 1981: 34.
5 Neil Singelais, “Bavasi Quits Blue Jays; Ainge Dispute Continues: Resignation May Facilitate Deal with Celtics,” Boston Globe, November 25, 1981: 33.
6 Associated Press, “Boston Signs Ainge,” Albuquerque Journal, November 28, 1981: 32.