This article was written by Bob Whelan
This article was published in Baseball’s Business: The Winter Meetings: 1958-2016
Introduction and Context
The 1987 winter meetings were held at the Loew’s Anatole Hotel in Dallas, Texas, in the middle of the “collusion era.”1 Collusion is a complex tale and, as such, only a brief summary is presented here. Peter Ueberroth became commissioner of baseball in 1984, after concluding his successful management of the 1984 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Ueberroth was quick to tell owners that they were “stupid,” particularly in relation to free-agency issues. Undoubtedly, Ueberroth never ordered collusion on free agency, but his comments in owners meetings gave the clear impression that he supported collusion. After the 1985 season, teams announced an end to long-term contracts (i.e., those of more than two years for pitchers and three years for hitters).
Such stars as Kirk Gibson, then a Detroit Tiger, did not receive better offers from other teams. After the 1985-86 offseason, 29 of 33 free agents returned to their former teams.
The four players who did move were marginal players whose original teams weren’t interested in retaining their services. In February 1986, the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) filed its first grievance.2
If anything, the 1986-87 offseason was worse for free agents. Such stars as Bob Boone, Andre Dawson, Bob Horner, Jack Morris, Lance Parrish, and Tim Raines attracted little interest, with none of them receiving a larger offer from another team. Indeed, Dawson took a substantial pay cut when he went from the Expos to the Cubs — a decision based on Dawson’s bad knees, and a desire to play on grass at Wrigley Field instead of the artificial turf of Montreal’s Olympic Stadium.
In February 1987, the MLBPA filed a second grievance. In September of 1987, ruling on the first (February 1986) collusion grievance, baseball’s arbitrator, Thomas Roberts, found the major-league owners to be guilty. Teams now took a new approach to collusion, known as the “information bank.” A team making an offer to a free agent was supposed to report it to the Player Relations Committee (PRC). A club thinking of making an offer could find out what others had done by first checking with the PRC.3 The resulting situation was more open than the previous two years, but far from the sometimes outrageous free-agent competition in ensuing years. The greater fluidity was demonstrated in trades and free-agent signings in the period just before the 1987 winter baseball meetings.4
Much of the player movement before and during the 1987 Winter Meetings came from the efforts of AL West teams to compete with the World Series Champion Minnesota Twins.
On November 6, 1987, the Kansas City Royals traded left-handed starting pitcher Danny Jackson and infielder Angel Salazar to the Cincinnati Reds for shortstop Kurt Stilwell and right-handed pitcher Ted Power. Jackson proceeded to have his career season, with 23 wins for the 1988 Reds. Salazar appeared in only 34 games for Cincinnati. Stilwell became the Royals’ regular shortstop for several seasons. Power had won 10 games for the 1986 and 1987 Reds, but never reached that total again.
Just before the Winter Meetings, there were two major free-agent departures. The first found the San Francisco Giants signing Cleveland Indians star Brett Butler. One of the outstanding outfielders of his era, Butler was a leadoff man with a high on-base percentage and a knack for disrupting the opposition — between 1983 and 1993, Butler stole more than 30 bases every season. He would play center field for the 1989 Giants World Series team. On the same day, December 1, 1987, the Giants lost outfielder Chili Davis to the California Angels. Davis would go on to have a long and successful stay in the American League as an outfielder and designated hitter, finishing with 350 career home runs.
As the Winter Meetings opened on December 5, 1987, the Dallas Times-Herald headline read: “Baseball executives expect sparse trading again this year.” With five major trades concluded in the next few days, the reader can draw conclusions as to whether trading was “sparse.”5 Four of the five trades involved AL West teams, as did two of the three moves noted above.
On December 5, 1987, the California Angels traded Gary Pettis to the Detroit Tigers for right-handed pitcher Dan Petry. At a young age, Petry had won 19 games in 1983 and 18 games for the 1984 World Series Champion Tigers. Unfortunately, he was never that pitcher again. (One wonders about his career with more careful handling used today.) Pettis was the prototypical light-hitting, great-fielding center fielder. A two-time Gold Glove winner with the Angels, he would win two more with the Tigers and one more with the Rangers.
The next two trades, made on December 8, 1987, were characterized as “blockbusters” in the Dallas newspapers. In the first, the Oakland A’s sent young pitchers Jose Rijo and Tim Birtsas to the Cincinnati Reds for veteran slugger Dave Parker. The old baseball cliché is that the trade helped both teams. The right-handed Rijo became a solid starter, with 14 wins in 1990, followed by two more wins in the World Series, which earned him the World Series MVP award for the champions. After a promising start as a 10-game winner for the 1985 A’s, the southpaw Birtsas worked as a reliever for the Reds. Parker, in the twilight of a distinguished career, hit 22 home runs and drove in 97 runs for the A’s 1989 championship squad.
The other “blockbuster” trade involved a trio of right-handed pitchers, as the Red Sox sent pitchers Calvin Schiraldi and Al Nipper to the Cubs for star closer Lee Smith. Smith wound up having two good seasons with the Red Sox, and continued a great career in which he led the league in saves on three more occasions. Schiraldi, a great prospect, never developed into a consistent winner. Nipper had been a double-digit winner in both 1986 and 1987 for the Red Sox, but never won that many again.
In another AL West trade, the Kansas City Royals got lefty Floyd Bannister and utilityman Dave Cochrane from the White Sox for four young pitchers: southpaw Greg Hibbard and righties John Davis, Chuck Mount, and Melido Perez. Bannister had won 16 games, a career high, for the White Sox in 1987. He went on to win 12 for the Royals in 1988, but was injured and ineffective thereafter. Both Hibbard and Perez became rotation starters for the White Sox for several years.
The real “blockbuster” trade occurred at the end of the meetings, and it involved three teams and eight players. The Los Angeles Dodgers sent hard-throwing righty pitcher Bob Welch and southpaw Matt Young to the Oakland A’s. Another right-hander, Jack Savage, went from the Dodgers to the New York Mets. The A’s sent shortstop Alfredo Griffin and right-handed closer Jay Howell to the Dodgers. The A’s gave up pitching prospects Kevin Tapani and Wally Whitehurst (both right-handers) to the Mets, while the Mets sent their closer, southpaw Jesse Orosco, to the Dodgers.
This trade had significant results, as the next two world champions — the 1988 Dodgers and the 1989 A’s — improved their new teams with this deal. Welch won 211 games in his career, including 27 wins and a Cy Young Award for the 1990 A’s. Young never lived up to his early promise as a Mariners starter. Savage recorded only one save in a brief career. “Fettucine” Alfredo Griffin was a good-fielding shortstop for LA for several years, while Howell was a highly successful closer for the 1988 Dodgers, and for several seasons thereafter. Tapani won 143 games in an effective major-league career, but these were for the Twins and Cubs, not the Mets. Whitehurst, who pitched the University of New Orleans to the College World Series in 1984, won only 20 games in a career limited by injuries. Orosco helped the Dodgers win the 1988 championship, but left for Cleveland as a free agent. He remained a top left-handed reliever for many years and, in fact, appeared in more games — 1,252 — than any other pitcher in history. There were three other trades concluded at the meetings, but in retrospect they don’t seem particularly important.
One change was made in the rules at the 1987 Winter Meetings by the rules committee.
Previously, the upper limit of the strike zone was the batter’s armpits. The 1987 rules change redefined the upper limit of the zone as “the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants.” The intention of the smaller strike zone was to increase scoring.
Discussion of expansion was perhaps more significant for the future of the majorleagues. In 1987, there were 26 teams, and the majors were under pressure from a 14-member US Senate Task Force on Expansion, chaired by Senator Tim Wirth (D-Colorado). The task force was composed of members who hoped that their states would get expansion teams.
The Senate group threatened the end of baseball’s antitrust exemption. Phoenix, Tampa Bay, and Buffalo were considered the prime locations for expansion, with Washington, Indianapolis, Miami, and New Orleans also being mentioned. In an interview, Commissioner Ueberroth looked forward to having 32 teams in the major leagues; he even mentioned Havana as a possible franchise site. Expansion was discussed in both owners and league meetings, and Ueberroth appointed an expansion committee. In the 1990s, MLB expanded to its current 30 teams, adding Denver (Colorado Rockies), Miami (Miami Marlins), Phoenix (Arizona Diamondbacks), and Tampa Bay. In addition, the Montreal Expos franchise relocated to Washington after the 2004 season.
Another issue on the business side was the status of Ueberroth. He had previously built a highly successful travel business, and had managed the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympic Games. As commissioner, he had increased the amount of baseball’s licensing and sponsorship monies significantly. He settled an umpires strike, and a players strike, but the owners were not happy with the results of either settlement. Ueberroth was also the leader of the 1985-1987 collusion effort. Ueberroth’s dictatorial approach, and the fact that he wasn’t a “baseball man,” didn’t sit well with club owners. The commissioner was also ahead of his time in proposing a drug-testing plan at the 1987 Winter Meetings. Knowing that he lacked support from a majority of owners, Ueberroth announced that he would not seek a second term in June 1988.
Minority hiring was another important issue for the 1987 meetings. The context was the infamous appearance of Dodgers executive Al Campanis on the television program Nightline in April 1987, in which Campanis said that black people lacked the “necessities” for high-level management positions in baseball. At the meetings, Ueberroth met with a group formed to promote the hiring of blacks and Hispanics in managerial positions in baseball. By the end of his tenure as commissioner, He claimed that 180 of 542 baseball hires had been minorities — 36 percent in the front office and 30 percent in field-level positions.
Free agency and the salary situation were the overriding concerns at the 1987 Winter Meetings. The owners were pleased that the average salary dropped from $431,521 in 1986 to $408,000 in 1987. At the same time, teams showed a willingness to pursue free agents, under limited conditions (e.g., shorter-length contracts). This was evidenced by the Brett Butler and Chili Davis signings just before the meetings.
Summary and Conclusions
In the wake of the arbitrator’s decision that collusion had occurred in 1985, there was more movement in free agency and trades than there had been in the previous two years. The 1987 meetings were lively, with several significant trades, involving quality players. A significant rules change — a smaller strike zone — went into place. The owners took steps toward expansion, and the hiring of more minorities. This was a time of transition for baseball, and the Winter Meetings reflected the changes.
1 John Helyar, Lords of the Realm: The Real History of Baseball (New York: Villard, 1994), especially 354-387.
2 Andrew Zimbalist. Baseball and Billions (New York: Basic Books, 1992), 24-25.
3 Helyar, 384.
4 For more detailed accounts of the collusion era, see Helyar, 354- 387; Zimbalist, 24-26; and Andrew Zimbalist, In the Best Interests of Baseball: The Revolutionary Reign of Bud Selig (Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, 2006), 90-95.
5 Phil Rogers, “Baseball Executives Expect Sparse Trading Again This Year,” Dallas Times Herald, December 5, 1987: D6.