1983 Winter Meetings: The End of the Bowie Kuhn Era

This article was written by Mike Huber

This article was published in the


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

The 1983 Baseball Winter Meetings were held at the Opryland Hotel, in Nashville, Tennessee, from December 5 to 10. Trades and free-agent signings usually headline the agenda of the annual gathering of executives, managers, scouts, agents, lawyers, accountants, and media personnel. Going into the 1983 meetings, though, there were several unresolved issues, including the naming of a new commissioner, the selection of a new American League president, and the completion of a restructuring plan that many executives felt was long overdue.

Executive Personnel Changes

Bowie Kuhn had been the fifth commissioner of major league baseball, having first been elected in 1969, but his contract was not renewed in 1983. His tenure as commissioner had been marked by labor strikes (the most noteworthy being the seven-week stoppage during the 1981 season) and the end of baseball’s reserve clause. Despite overseeing a doubling of attendance from 1968 to 1983 and a growth in television revenue, Kuhn was forced out by a majority group of disenchanted owners. Kuhn had also been responsible for getting the World Series into prime time; the first World Series night game was played in 1971. Further, Kuhn had a reputation for being hard on players who abused drugs. These were all themes as Commissioner Kuhn gave a valedictory address to officially open the 82nd annual meetings. He viewed the selection of a new commissioner as “a problem and an opportunity.”1< Kuhn called for the new commissioner to be “strong as a personality who will have the necessary courage in the face of relentless problems and pressures and to do what is necessary for the good of the game.”2< He placed emphasis on the problems of drugs and player drug abuse, where “the self-indulgence of a few mars the reputation of the great majority of players who do not use or abuse drugs and mars the reputation of the game.”3< He pushed for collaboration with the Major League Baseball Players Association. He also celebrated the new $1 billion-plus television contracts and increases in attendance, while keeping ticket prices relatively low.

Bud Selig, owner of the Milwaukee Brewers, chaired the Commissioner Search Committee. In early November, Selig told reporters, “I really don’t know what will happen in Nashville. It’s possible we’ll name the new man there, but I won’t assure you it’s going to happen.”4<

Several names were indeed floating around as candidates for the top job. They included Hall of Famer Henry Aaron (who was the Atlanta Braves’ director of player personnel); Congressman Silvio Conte (Republican from Massachusetts); newspaper magnate Francis Dale; Yale University President A. Bartlett Giamatti; Chrysler’s Lee Iacocca; United States District Judge Prentice Marshall (presiding in Northern Illinois); Montreal Expos Vice President John McHale; CBS Sports executive Neal Pilson United States Steel’s William Resch; United States Olympic Committee President William Simon; Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee President Peter Ueberroth; and NBC Sports executive Arthur Watson. Many felt that Giamatti was the front-runner, but Selig refused to comment before the meetings began. Selig later spoke to the press in Nashville, and reporter Peter Gammons wrote wryly, “When Bud Selig was telling the media that all the stories of his offering the commissionership to various individuals amounted to nothing more than idle and inaccurate speculation, the song playing over the public-address system was Marvin Gaye’s version of ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine.’”5< The Winter Meetings ended without a selection of a new commissioner. Ueberroth told the press he was one of two finalists, but he was withdrawing his name from consideration because of the upcoming Olympics. Kuhn’s contract was due to expire on December 31, so he agreed to serve as a 60-day “transitory bridge”6< during the continuing search.

Candidate Aaron was quoted as saying, “I’m not saying I’m the one who should get the job — maybe I’m not — but I do think we need a baseball man. A baseball man would be more conscious of what is good for the fans. When I interviewed with the search committee for the job, they told me that baseball has grown so much we need a commissioner who understands finance and marketing. If that’s what they want, fine. But I think a baseball man knows more about marketing our game — about bringing players into our game and fans into our stadiums — than someone who doesn’t know anything about the game.” He added, “I’m perfectly satisfied with my job right here [as head of the Braves’ farm system<. My main concern is to make sure we have a championship team.”7<

Naming a new commissioner was the top priority, but many felt that even if a decision could not be reached, the owners would be able to find a replacement for Lee MacPhail, who was stepping down as president of the American League in order to direct the owners’ Player Relations Committee. The Sporting News listed several candidates in the days leading up to the Winter Meetings, and all were either current or former general managers: Peter Bavasi (Toronto Blue Jays), Frank Cashen (New York Mets), Harry Dalton (Milwaukee Brewers), Danny O’Brien (Seattle Mariners), Hank Peters (Baltimore Orioles), and Al Rosen (Houston Astros).8<

Instead, Dr. Bobby Brown, the former New York Yankees third baseman and now a cardiologist, accepted a five-year contract as the AL’s new president. He disclosed to reporters, “I was interviewed twice for the commissioner’s job. My appointment (as American League president) came about as a result of my conversations with the search committee.”9< He added, “I will be sorely disappointed if my job is not fun.”

The owners also made changes to the Executive Council. Nelson Doubleday of the New York Mets and Roy Eisenhardt of the Oakland Athletics were voted to the council, replacing Bob Lurie of the San Francisco Giants and Haywood Sullivan of the Boston Red Sox, respectively. The remaining Council members were Dan Galbreath of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Peter O’Malley of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Jerry Reinsdorf of the Chicago White Sox, Bud Selig of the Milwaukee Brewers, Ballard Smith of the San Diego Padres, and Edward Bennett Williams of the Baltimore Orioles.

Player Trades and Signings

With the importance of these executive decisions, trading might not have been prominently on the owners’ minds at the meetings. In 1980, 59 players changed uniforms in 18 transactions at the annual meetings. In 1982, only eight trades were conducted, involving 22 players,10< and many considered those trades to be minor. From the end of the 1983 season to the Winter Meetings in December, only six teams adjusted their rosters via the trade or outright purchase of players.

At the Nashville meeting, 18 teams participated in the reshuffling of players. The meetings resulted in 17 trades or purchases featuring 35 major-league players. According to one writer, the teams in the American League West Division “were wheeling and dealing like riverboat gamblers.”11< At the deadline of 5 P.M. CST on December 9, there were 26 new players on the rosters of the seven AL West teams. Their counterparts in the AL East had 17 new roster faces on their seven teams. The National League (both divisions) had just 19 players change uniforms. Only five players were signed as free agents by only four teams: right-handed pitcher Frank LaCorte by the Angels, outfielder Dave Parker by the Reds, outfielder Lynn Jones and catcher Don Werner by the Royals, and catcher Mike Berry by the Yankees.

Milwaukee’s Harry Dalton was the general manager who paid the highest price at the meetings. For catcher Jim Sundberg of the Texas Rangers, he gave up catcher Ned Yost and minor-league left-hander Dan Scarpetta. Dalton agreed to pay Sundberg’s buyout clause and deferred salary, costing his franchise approximately $1 million. This brought on predictions of two possible outcomes: either a pennant for the Brewers or a “Million Dollar Misunderstanding.”12< The average salary in 1983 was just over $289,000.13<

Among the whispers as the meetings began was the naming of Yogi Berra to manage the New York Yankees, as owner George Steinbrenner was, for the third time, unhappy with Billy Martin as his skipper.

Policy and Rule Changes

In addition to executive personnel recommendations and player dealings, the Playing Rules Committee was expected to make a decision on a proposal concerning the designated hitter in the postseason. Prior to these Winter Meetings, the designated hitter was used in all World Series games, but only in even-numbered years (the last time in 1982). The Baltimore Orioles won the 1983 World Series without the benefit of a designated hitter. The Executive Council proposed that the DH be employed in every World Series but only in games hosted by the American League. The new rule was passed by the Playing Rules Committee, but it did not gain the approval of the owners. The proposal needed a majority approval in both leagues, and opposition by National League owners prevented its adoption. So, in 1984, the designated hitter would be used under the existing conditions, but there would be no designated hitters in the 1985 Series unless the proposal was revisited.

Along these lines, the owners established a committee to review the designated-hitter rule during the regular season. Commissioner Kuhn said, “Kill it or keep it; frankly, I don’t give a hoot which way it’s handled. I strongly urge uniformity and, if I had my way, there would be uniformity by the 1985 season.”14<

Baseball owners instructed the Long-Range Planning Committee to undertake a feasibility study regarding expansion. The committee would develop a flexible plan to increase the number of teams in the major leagues by six. This would mean a balanced pair of two 16-team leagues (in 1983, the American League had 14 teams, seven in each division, and the National league had 12 teams, six in each division). This committee consisted of the two league presidents and six team executives: Buzzie Bavasi of the California Angels, Charles Bronfman of the Montreal Expos, Andy McKenna of the Chicago Cubs, Peter O’Malley of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Jerry Reinsdorf of the Chicago White Sox, and Haywood Sullivan of the Boston Red Sox.

Also up for consideration at the meetings was a proposal put forward by the Executive Council to create an additional waiver date of August 1. The rule at this time stated that any player who cleared waivers by the June 15 intraleague trading deadline could be dealt elsewhere until the end of the season. If the new date was adopted, it would be necessary for a player to clear waivers on August 1 before he could be sent elsewhere during the final two months of the regular season. The measure was rejected.

The general managers proposed that the supplemental 15-day disabled list be expanded. Prior to this proposal, a team could place only one player (who was not a pitcher) on the 15-day disabled list. If approved, teams would be allowed to place two players on the 15-day DL, and one of the two could now be a pitcher. This measure was adopted.

One of the more infamous events in recent baseball history was the “Pine Tar Game” between the Kansas City Royals and the New York Yankees. After George Brett had hit a two-out, two-run home run in the ninth inning of a June 24, 1983, contest at Yankee Stadium, giving the Royals a 5-4 lead, New York manager Billy Martin notified home-plate umpire Tim McClelland that Brett’s bat was not in conformity with MLB Rule 1.10(c); there appeared to be too much pine tar on the bat’s handle. McClelland conferred with the other umpires and then called Brett out, thus giving the Yankees the 4-3 victory. Brett had “hit the game-losing home run.”15< The Royals filed a protest, and American League President Lee MacPhail upheld the protest, ruling in favor of Kansas City. He restored Brett’s home run and ordered that play continue with two outs in the top of the ninth. The Royals held on to beat the Yankees by the 5-4 score.

Because of this notable incident, the Playing Rules Committee issued a formal change in the pine-tar rule at the Winter Meetings. Starting with the 1984 season, “a player will neither be ejected nor declared out if he uses a bat with excessive pine tar on the handle. An umpire may eject only the bat.”16<

In other news, the owners adopted an improved pension plan for club nonplaying employees. They also signed a five-year contract for national radio broadcasts with CBS Radio, with the deal covering the 1985 through 1989 seasons. A complicated television plan that supported game-sharing on satellite for local pay-TV venues was approved.

A proposal to require that minor-league postseason games be subject to approval by the Professional Baseball Executive Council was rejected. However, the owners did vote to approve a motion for ballclubs to utilize a service of the Major League Scouting Bureau, beginning in 1984.

Recognizing Achievement

In addition to the player negotiations, the meetings provided opportunities to recognize achievement. Cal Ripken Jr. was selected as the American League’s Most Valuable Player by the Baseball Writers Association of America. He also garnered recognition from The Sporting News as the 1983 Major League Player of the Year. Ripken was presented with a replica of “The Sandlot Kid,” a statue that stands outside Doubleday Field in Cooperstown, New York, at ceremonies during the meetings. The Orioles shortstop played every inning of every game in 1983, and he commented about the award, “To win these awards you have to have been on a very good team. Winning the World Series was the goal of every player, and that is the big thing. That’s what is most important.”17< Ripken’s general manager, Hank Peters, was named Major League Executive of the Year. This was Peters’s second such award in five years.

Since 1951, the “King of Baseball” title had been awarded during the Winter Meetings banquet to a minor-league veteran, and Oscar Roettger was crowned in Nashville. Roettger had played for the Yankees more than 50 years earlier and had coached in their organization. The 85-year-old from St. Louis retired from the game as representative for Rawlings Sporting Goods. He measured hundreds of players for equipment and uniforms and had been attending the Winter Meetings for 50 years.

The United States Olympic baseball team’s preliminary roster was announced, naming 44 players to the squad. The tryouts had been held in October in Louisville, Kentucky, and 76 players, mostly from the college ranks, had participated. Hall of Famer Robin Roberts hosted a luncheon for the announcement. The 44-man roster would still need to be trimmed down to 25 by June 1, 1984.

Larry Shenk received the Robert O. Fishel Award, given for excellence in public relations. Shenk was the Philadelphia Phillies’ vice president and public-relations director, and he had been in the Phillies organization for 20 years.

Finally, plans were made for an Old-Timers’ championship series, which was set to begin on May 26, 1984. Seven stars, including Hall of Famers Henry Aaron, Ernie Banks, Whitey Ford, Juan Marichal, Willie Mays, and Brooks Robinson, had signed up to participate in the best-of-seven series, to be played in cities across the United States and Canada. Harmon Killebrew (who would be inducted into Cooperstown in 1984) had also agreed to play. Details showed that each old-timer would earn a minimum of $1,500 per game.

Future Annual Meetings

The owners decided to hold the 1984 Summer Meetings in Philadelphia and the 1984 Winter Meetings in Houston.

Nashville became a popular site for the owners’ annual winter sessions. After this initial gathering in 1983, Opryland would host the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues’ meetings in 1989, 1998, 2002, 2007. The 2015 meetings were also held in Nashville.

 

Notes

1< Stan Isle, “Kuhn Calls for Commitment by Owners,” The Sporting News, December 19, 1983: 46.

2< Ibid.

3< Ibid.

4< Dave Nightingale, “Trades May Steal Show at Nashville,” The Sporting News, December 5, 1983: 44.

5< Peter Gammons, “A.L. Beat: Deals Appear Most Beneficial to A’s,” The Sporting News, December 19, 1983: 38.

6< Dave Nightingale, “Who’ll Follow Kuhn? The Search Goes On,” The Sporting News, December 19, 1983: 47.

7< “Aaron Still Wants to Succeed Kuhn,” The Sporting News, December 5, 1983: 46.

8< “Trades May Steal Show at Nashville.”

9< “Who’ll Follow Kuhn? The Search Goes On.”

10< See the chapter on the 1982 Winter Meetings in this book by Dan Levitt, “1982: Dispirited and Argumentative.”

11< Dave Nightingale, “A.L. West Is Active in the Trade Market,” The Sporting News, December 19, 1983: 48.

12< Ibid.

13< sports.espn.go.com/espn/wire?id=3744821. Sundberg made the All-Star team for the Brewers in 1984 but was traded in January 1985 to the Kansas City Royals, where he won a World Series ring in 1985.

14< “Who’ll Follow Kuhn? The Search Goes On.”

15< Mike McKenzie, “Umpires’ Ruling Beats the Tar Out of Royals,” Kansas City Star, July 25, 1983.

16< “Who’ll Follow Kuhn? The Search Goes On.”

17< Jim Henneman, “Player of the Year: One More Prize for Cal Ripken Jr.,” The Sporting News, December 12, 1983: 2.

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