1992 Winter Meetings: The Circus Comes To Town

This article was written by Rodger A. Payne

This article was published in the


Baseball's Business: The Winter Meetings: 1958-2016The baseball community met at the Galt House hotel in downtown Louisville, Kentucky, December 3-9, 1992. Reportedly, 1,800 to 1,900 people registered for the annual meeting, with vendors increasing the size of the meeting to about 2,500. By most accounts, the 1992 Winter Meeting was especially eventful, highlighted by a number of prominent free-agent signings involving past and future Cy Young and MVP Award winners, an ongoing racial controversy about the owner of the Cincinnati Reds, and the tragic sudden death of a team executive during a business meeting. Time magazine observed that the “break and circuses” meeting reflected the “greed, rancor, farce and tragedy” of real life.[1]

 

Business Issues

The Louisville meeting did not involve a great deal of new league business. The biggest business story leading up to and carrying over into the meeting – racist statements attributed to Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott – reminded many observers of baseball’s racially segregated past. In November, former Reds marketing director Charles Levy, in a deposition in support of fired controller Tom Sabo’s suit against the Reds, said Schott referred to former Reds players Eric Davis and Dave Parker as “million dollar niggers.”[2] On November 14, Schott issued a statement declaring simply, “I am not a racist.” Less than a week later, on the 20th, she released another statement saying her use of the word “nigger” and ownership of a Nazi armband (she called it “memorabilia”) were not meant to offend.[3] The story kept gaining traction as the Winter Meeting approached. On November 29, the New York Times quoted Schott as saying that “Hitler was good in the beginning, but he went too far.” She also claimed that her reference to “niggers” was a joke term, but denied applying it to Davis and Parker. Former Negro League player Hank Aaron, widely beloved as the game’s all-time home-run leader at the time, called for Schott to be suspended from baseball.[4]

Because of the Schott controversy, civil-rights leader and former Democratic presidential candidate Reverend Jesse Jackson visited Louisville during the meetings and challenged baseball to regain a leadership role in fair hiring practices and to end its “institutional racism.”[5] Jackson met with the small ownership group investigating Schott, but the session ended inconclusively. If baseball did not get its “house in order,” Jackson warned, he would call for boycotts of the game and would mount a challenge against its antitrust exemption.[6] While Jackson was calling for structural changes in baseball, he was surrounded at the podium by former players, including Parker and ex-Reds star Frank Robinson, a Baltimore Orioles executive. The following January, Jackson made good on his threat by calling for a boycott of games played by teams that did not have affirmative-action plans in place by Opening Day.[7]

Somewhat unexpectedly, but timed after Jackson’s visit, Schott on Wednesday, December 9, issued a tepid apology for her remarks. Reportedly she literally stumbled over the word “apologize”:

“I am not a racist or bigot. I have always believed in equal opportunity for everyone and that individuals should be judged by their merit, not by their skin color, religion or gender. … I acknowledge that in the past I have, on occasion, made insensitive remarks which I now realize hurt others. On those few occasions, it was my mouth but not my heart speaking. For any such remarks which were insensitive, I am profoundly sorry and I apologize to anyone I hurt. I can only say that I did not mean them. I love baseball, and if anything I have said caused embarrassment to the game, the Reds, the wonderful fans and city of Cincinnati, I am sorry.”[8]

Before ending her statement, like Jackson, Schott pushed some of the blame on baseball itself: “I wish to add that while I am not without blame in this matter, I am also not the cause of the problem. Minority issues have been present in baseball long before I came to the game. They must be resolved. … I pledge to you that I will work with others to accomplish meaningful reform.”[9] Throughout the controversy, reporters noted that Schott frequently pointed out that she too was a minority in baseball, a woman in a man’s world. However, this fact did not stop baseball from punishing her. On February 3, 1993, Schott was fined $25,000 and banned from day-to-day operations of the Cincinnati Reds during the 1993 season.[10]

The meeting did include some other new business. Owners considered a few fairly small initiatives that served as omens for future changes in baseball. For example, owners reviewed data compiled by market researchers to consider league realignment (which would occur in 1994) and interleague play (which would begin in 1997). Perhaps most importantly for baseball in the 1990s, owners voted 15 to 13 to reopen the Collective Bargaining Agreement with the players union. While some feared this decision was a precursor to a 1993 spring-training lockout of the players, owners also voted to amend their bylaws to require a three-fourths majority vote to authorize such a lockout. Traditionally, owners have more leverage over players in the spring and any lockout would have been intended to force players to accept a salary cap. While owners did not repeat the lockout strategy they had used in 1973, 1976, and 1990, the lack of a settlement about the Basic Agreement did contribute to a midseason 1994 players strike. Players have far more leverage in the middle of the season since owners have every incentive to finish the season and collect revenues from attendance and media contracts. The strike led to the cancellation of the 1994 World Series.

The owners meeting was adjourned early and postponed because of the unexpected death of Carl Barger, the Florida Marlins president and chief operating officer. Barger, a former corporate lawyer, suffered from a ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm on Wednesday during a joint ownership session in the ballroom of the Galt House East Hotel, and succumbed to the internal bleeding. The New York Times reported that he excused himself about 11 A.M. and collapsed just outside the meeting room: “Within seconds, Bobby Brown, the cardiologist who is president of the American League, was at his side administering cardiopulmonary resuscitation, and an ambulance arrived 10 minutes later to take him to the hospital.” His doctor at Humana Hospital, however, told the Times that Barger never regained consciousness and died before surgery could be performed.[11] Barger had been associated with the Marlins since July 8, 1991, but his new team was yet to play its first game. The team had participated in the expansion draft a few weeks prior to the meeting in Louisville. Before joining the Florida expansion franchise, Barger was widely credited with saving the Pirates franchise in Pittsburgh. The owners adjourned their meeting after Barger’s collapse and rescheduled it for January.

 

Player Movement: Free-Agent Frenzy

Teams reportedly obligated $250 million in free-agent spending at the 1992 meetings. In one of the most prominent moves, the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner, right-hander Greg Maddux, departed the Chicago Cubs for the league champion Atlanta Braves for five years and $28 million.[12] Contemporary news reports suggested that Maddux turned down a New York Yankees offer worth at least $6 million more. Braves general manager John Schuerholz later said that the Maddux signing “was the biggest acquisition I was ever involved with at the meetings.”[13]

While the Maddux transaction helped the Braves build a baseball dynasty, it was not the largest free-agent signing at the 1992 Winter Meetings.[14] Peter Magowan’s new ownership group in San Francisco completed a nearly $44 million deal with former Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder and reigning National League MVP Barry Bonds, who had also won the award in 1990. Reportedly, the six-year deal for $43.75 million would be guaranteed even if the proposed sale of the Giants fell through, though departing owner Bob Lurie was quite worried about this aspect of the transaction. Indeed, a hotel-room news conference abruptly ended when a major-league baseball official reportedly whispered Lurie’s concerns into the ear of Dennis Gilbert, Bonds’ agent. As recounted by then-San Francisco Examiner beat reporter Larry Stone, “All of a sudden, the whole group got up and hastily left the ballroom through the kitchen door – Gilbert and his staff of snappily dressed associates; Willie Mays; Bobby Bonds; and a flustered looking Barry – all of whom were seated on the podium, waiting for the triumphant announcement.”[15] The highly anticipated news conference occurred three days later.

The Chicago Cubs also said goodbye that winter to outfielder Andre Dawson, a 38-year-old former MVP (1987) with 399 career home runs. The 2010 Baseball Hall of Fame inductee signed with the Boston Red Sox for two years at $9.3 million.

Free-agent designated hitter and former infielder Paul Molitor left Milwaukee after 15 seasons and was an immediate success with his new team. After signing a $13 million, three-year contract with the Toronto Blue Jays, Molitor enjoyed two All-Star seasons with the team before slipping somewhat in the final year of his contract.

A number of teams re-signed their own free-agent stars to lucrative deals. For example, the Minnesota Twins re-signed 31-year-old free-agent center fielder Kirby Puckett to a five-year deal worth $30 million. Reportedly this cost the Twins $2.5 million more than a deal struck months before that was vetoed by Twins owner Carl Pohlad. At the time of the signing, Puckett was briefly the third highest paid player in baseball.

Similarly, 12-time All-Star shortstop Ozzie Smith, age 37, returned to his team, the St. Louis Cardinals for $3 million per year, renewable for each remaining year of his career so long as he remained healthy and achieved 400 plate appearances in the prior year. Smith also signed a six-year personal-services contract worth $1.2 million upon his retirement from baseball. The Detroit Tigers re-signed their five-time All-Star second baseman Lou Whitaker to a three-year contract worth $10 million. They also re-signed their free agent pitcher, righty Bill Gullickson, to a two-year contract for $4.6 million. And All-Star outfielder Joe Carter re-signed with the Toronto Blue Jays for three years and $19.5 million.

By comparison, numerous other signings at the 1992 Winter Meetings involved players who were never major stars of the game. Some impressive sums of cash nonetheless changed hands in these deals. For instance, left-handed pitcher Greg Swindell signed a four-year contract worth $17 million to play for the Houston Astros. On December 8, the Blue Jays signed former Oakland A’s right-handed pitcher Dave Stewart, a four-time 20-game winner, to a two-year contract worth $8.5 million. Former St. Louis Cardinals right-handed relief ace Todd Worrell signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers (three years, $9.5 million). In a similar transaction, 30-year-old left-handed reliever Randy Myers signed with the Chicago Cubs for three years and $11 million.  

Somewhat less noteworthy, the expansion Florida Marlins signed their first free agents on December 8 – infielder Dave Magadan and 44-year-old knuckleball pitcher Charlie Hough. Magadan played only a few months as the Marlins primary third baseman before being traded in late June of 1993 to the Seattle Mariners for right-handed pitcher Jeff Darwin and outfielder Henry Cotto.  The right-handed Hough served as the Opening Day starter for the new franchise in both 1993 and 1994, finishing a combined 14-25 in his final two years as a player. After failing to land Greg Maddux and other big-name free agents, the New York Yankees acquired shortstop Spike Owen for a three-year, $7 million contract.

 

Trades

The 1992 Winter Meetings did not feature a significant number of important trades, but teams were able to agree on a few deals. The first trade of the meetings featured Minnesota trading left-handed pitcher David West, who posted a 6.99 ERA in a limited role during the 1992 season, to the Philadelphia Phillies in exchange for right-handed pitcher Mike Hartley, who had pitched 53 games in relief during the season with an ERA of 3.44. While Hartley performed slightly worse in 1993, West played a significant role in the bullpen of the 1993 National League champion Phillies, finishing with a 2.92 ERA in just over 86 relief innings.

The California Angels traded starting pitcher Jim Abbott, who had finished third in the 1991 Cy Young Award race, to the New York Yankees for a package of players, including first baseman J.T. Snow. The left-handed Abbott’s ERA increased significantly in New York as he became a slightly below average starter, though he did pitch a no-hitter in September. Pitcher Charlie Leibrandt, a 15-game winner in each of the prior two seasons, was traded from Atlanta to Texas for his final big-league season. The southpaw finished with a 4.55 ERA in 150 innings and a 9-10 won-loss record.

At 1 A.M. after the busy Wednesday, San Diego Padres general manager Joe McIlvaine announced the final deal of the day, a trade sending right-handed pitcher Jose Melendez to Boston for promising young slugger Phil Plantier. Writer-analyst Bill James predicted that Plantier was the player most likely to slug more home runs in the decade of the 1990s than any other player.[16]

 

Conclusion

The 1992 meetings are mostly remembered for the large personalities who dominated the headlines – outspoken owner Marge Schott, Jesse Jackson, and Barry Bonds and his entourage. Columnist Hal Bodley later called the 1992 meetings a circus, though this was largely because of the great number of signings involving star players. Indeed, after the 1992 meetings, major-league owners voted 28 to 0 to forbid GMs from attending future Winter Meetings. Executive Council chair Bud Selig pushed for this largely because of frustration with the free-agent marketplace. Baseball management felt that agents and players were using the meetings to create bidding wars for players. Baseball would not reconvene in the same manner until it gathered in Nashville in December 1998. 

While most publicity and news coverage about the Winter Meetings focuses on the activities and interactions of a relatively small group of major-league owners and general managers, it is important to keep in mind that the meetings are also a trade show and a job market. Indeed, among those in attendance in 1992 was Dominic Latkovski, a graduate of local Bellarmine University, who had been working since 1990 as the Billy Bird mascot for the Triple-A Louisville Redbirds for a modest $35 per game. In hopes of emulating the famous (San Diego) Chicken and taking the act to audiences nationwide, Dominic and his brother Brennan created a video of their past performances, designed marketing materials, and manned a booth at the meetings hoping to at least break even on their investment by securing four $1,500 bookings for the 1993 season. The Latkovski brothers ended up performing 48 shows in their first year of independent operation and launched a successful business that as of 2017 continued to entertain thousands of people every summer at minor-league ballparks.[17]

 

Sources

In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author also consulted:

Associated Press. “Baseball Meetings Open Today; Clemens, Brown Are Top Names in Marketplace,” December 11, 1998. amarillo.com/stories/1998/12/11/spo_166-7052.shtml#.VqvUuvkrL2Q.

Chass, Murray. “Puckett Stays Put With Twins; Swindell Goes Home to Houston,” New York Times, December 5, 1992. nytimes.com/1992/12/05/sports/baseball-puckett-stays-put-with-twins-swindell-goes-home-to-houston.html.

Chass, Murray. “Jays Re-Sign Carter and Swipe Molitor,” New York Times, December 8, 1992. nytimes.com/1992/12/08/sports/baseball-jays-re-sign-carter-and-swipe-molitor.html.

Hill, Benjamin. “Latkovski’s passion fuels traveling act,” MLB.com, May 3, 2013. milb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20130503&content_id=46451862&fext=.jsp&vkey=news_milb.

Newhan, Ross. “Baseball Winter Meetings: Marlins’ Boss Collapses, Dies,” Los Angeles Times, December 10, 1992. articles.latimes.com/1992-12-10/sports/sp-2461_1_baseball-winter-meetings.

Schmuck, Peter. “Free-Agent Thaw Floods Baseball Winter Meetings,” Baltimore Sun, December 11, 1992. articles.baltimoresun.com/1992-12-11/sports/1992346114_1_schott-reopen-executive-council.

Walker, Ben (Associated Press). “Tragedy Marks End of Winter Meetings,” Deseret News (Salt Lake City), December 10, 1992. deseretnews.com/article/263618/TRAGEDY-MARKS-END-OF-WINTER-MEETINGS.html.

 

Notes

[1] “The Baseball Barons’ Bread and Circuses” Time, December 21, 1992. content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,977306,00.html.

[2] John Erardi, “‘Bookkeeper’ Started It All,” Cincinnati Enquirer, October 25, 1998. reds.enquirer.com/1998/10/102598sabo.html.

[3] Schott’s Statement: ‘I Am Not a Racist,’” New York Times, December 10, 1992, nytimes.com/1992/12/10/sports/baseball-schott-s-statement-i-am-not-a-racist.html; Ira Berkow, “Marge Schott: Baseball’s Big Red Headache,” New York Times, November 29, 1992, nytimes.com/1992/11/29/sports/baseball-marge-schott-baseball-s-big-red-headache.html?pagewanted=all.

[4] Berkow. The quotations attributed to Schott are also from this article.

[5] Jerome Holtzman, “Jackson Makes Pitch for Minority Hiring,” Chicago Tribune, December 8, 1992. articles.chicagotribune.com/1992-12-08/sports/9204210874_1_minority-hiring-black-journalists-rev-jesse-jackson.

[6] Maryann Hudson, “Jesse Jackson, Looking Beyond Schott, Reprimands Baseball,” Los Angeles Times, December 8, 1992. articles.latimes.com/1992-12-08/sports/sp-1797_1_jesse-jackson.

[7] Danny Robbins, “Jesse Jackson Outlines Boycott: Schott Case Provides Him a Platform to Call for Improvement in Minority Hiring,” Los Angeles Times, January 13, 1993. articles.latimes.com/1993-01-13/sports/sp-1250_1_jesse-jackson.

[8] “Schott’s Statement.”

[9] Ibid.

[10] Glen Macnow, “Reds Owner Is Suspended 1 Year, Fined/The Penalty: $25,000. Marge Schott Will Still Pay the Bills. But She Won’t Be Able to Run the Team,” Philadelphia Inquirer, February 4, 1993. articles.philly.com/1993-02-04/sports/25955938_1_cincinnati-reds-owner-marge-schott-inappropriate-language.

[11] Robert McG. Thomas, “Carl Barger, 62, Team President With Pirates and Florida Marlins,” New York Times, December 10, 1992. nytimes.com/1992/12/10/us/carl-barger-62-team-president-with-pirates-and-florida-marlins.html.

[12] All signings and trades referenced here are documented at “1993 Major League Baseball Transactions,” www.baseball-reference.com/leagues/MLB/1993-transactions.shtml. The player links reveal the terms of contracts.

[13] Hal Bodley, “Winter Meetings are no honeymoon,” MLB News, December 5, 2008. mlb.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20081205&content_id=3703507&vkey=perspectives&fext=.jsp&c_id=mlb

[14] For a summary of how these free agents performed through their contracts see, Rodger A. Payne, “Evaluating Free Agent Signings at the 1992 Baseball Winter Meetings,” Rodger A. Payne’s Blog, May 16, 2016. rpayne.blogspot.com/2016/05/evaluating-free-agent-signings-at-1992.html.

[15] Larry Stone, “Memories of Winter Meetings Past,” Seattle Times, December 7, 2009. seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/thehotstoneleague/2010445446_memories_of_winter_meetings_pa.html?syndication=rss

[16] Chad Finn, “Top 50 Red Sox Prospects of Past 50 Years: 30-21,” Boston.com, April 2014. archive.boston.com/sports/touching_all_the_bases/2014/04/30-21.html. While Plantier hit 34 home runs for the 1993 Padres, he managed only 53 more over the remainder of his career, including 18 for the 1994 Padres. He never again achieved even 400 plate appearances and was out of major-league baseball by age 29.

[17] Press Release, “The ZOOperstars to Perform at Bandits Game Friday,” Quad-Cities Online, July 21, 2009. qconline.com/archives/qco/print_display.php?id=449772.

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