Note: This article was originally published at TheNationalPastimeMuseum.com in December 2017 and is reprinted here by permission.
Fifty years ago baseball used its annual multi-day winter meetings as a place to get things done. In the days before email and cell phones, and in the very early days of primitive “conference calls,” these meetings were the best opportunity for all of baseball’s owners and general managers to meet face to face, to make decisions on their business, to debate rules changes, to consider franchise moves, or to negotiate trades.
Then as now, there were many different meetings – league meetings, marketing meetings, rules committee meetings, meetings for the minor leagues, and many more – along with the informal get-togethers between teams to discuss trades. In the 1967 National League meeting, Astros president Bill Giles suggested that each club select a candidate for a “Miss Baseball” beauty contest. It was a different time.
The 1967 major-league winter meetings were held in Mexico City from Sunday, November 26 through Saturday, December 2.
The most pressing matter was expansion.
The offseason had been launched just after the World Series when the American League granted permission to Kansas City Athletics owner Charlie Finley to move his team to Oakland. Finley had tried to relocate several times before, and in 1964 the American League had threatened to expel him from the league unless he signed a four-year lease in Kansas City. He did so, but now the lease was up and he wanted out. His fellow league owners, the only people who mattered, reluctantly agreed.
When Kansas City civic officials threatened legal action, the American League hastily announced plans on October 18 to add new teams in 1969 in both Kansas City and Seattle. The National League was caught off guard, having believed that the two sides had an agreement to work together on any future expansion or relocation plans. Instead, the American League had placed a team just across the bay from the National League’s San Francisco franchise, and also in Seattle, considered a plum baseball city.
The telling point is that the leagues of this period largely operated independently. The AL had also jumped the gun on expansion in 1961, angering the NL, which expanded a year later. Then-commissioner Ford Frick was powerless to stop any of it, though he did extract a promise that future expansions or franchise moves would be worked out between the leagues. Several years later new Commissioner William Eckert was equally powerless. The AL was expanding, and that was that.
At their meeting in Mexico City, the National League “unanimously, if grudgingly” voted to expand by two teams by 1971, two years after the AL. “We were hoping they would expand at the same time as us,” said AL president Joe Cronin, “and maybe they will yet, but there is nothing we can do about it if they don’t.” He was right about that.
In the 1990s expansions, major league baseball awarded franchises to ownership groups, after considering local markets and ballpark plans. In the 1960s, the leagues first chose the city, and then scrambled to find an owner and a place to play.
The National League received entreaties from representatives of Milwaukee, San Diego, Dallas-Ft. Worth, Buffalo, Toronto, Montreal, and Denver. San Diego, considered a strong choice, had already lured longtime Dodger executive Buzzie Bavasi to sign on as one of its owners. Bill DeWitt, a former executive with several clubs, was working with the Buffalo group.
At their own 1969 league meeting, the AL awarded its Seattle franchise to Pacific Northwest Sports, Inc., a group led by Pacific Coast League president Dewey Soriano, his brother Max, and Bill Daley, former board chairman of the Indians. The group said that Sicks’ Stadium, longtime home of the Seattle team in the Pacific Coast League, could be temporarily expanded to 30,000 seats and that construction on a new stadium would begin by 1970.
The American League owners also heard presentations from four groups hoping to land the Kansas City franchise, and promised to decide between them in January. One of the leading contenders was Ewing Kauffman, president of Marion Laboratories, who, unlike the other Kansas City groups, wanted to buy the entire team with his own money. (Kauffman ultimately was chosen, and became a model owner.)
The AL also established some details of its expansion draft, to be held in October 1968. Each of the new clubs would be able to select three players from each existing AL team (a total of 30 players for both Kansas City and Seattle) at a cost of $175,000 per player. The clubs were also required to pay $100,000 to join the league, bringing their initial expenditures to $5.35 million each. In addition, the new clubs would also be required to begin contributing to the player pension fund immediately, but would not be allowed to share in the TV deal for three years.
Like all expansions in all major sports, it was a major cash grab for the existing owners.
Meanwhile, team representatives met to discuss ways to speed up the games, which were now taking an alarming 2:37 on average. Umpires were asked to ensure that mound conferences between the pitcher and catcher be curtailed, that batters run back to the plate after a fouled bunt attempt, and that pinch-hitters be on the bench when the previous batter completed his time at bat, which would eliminate a pinch-hitter from running in from the bullpen. More interestingly, teams were asked to use golf carts to bring relievers in from the bullpen. The Yankees had long refused to use them, but said they will now comply. A committee of general managers and managers was formed to explore other rules to speed up the game. Spoiler: they did not solve the problem.
Per tradition, the Major League Players Association held their annual meetings in Mexico City as well, with player representatives of all 20 teams present. Drama ensued when Executive Director Marvin Miller was told that the owners’ Player Relations Committee would not have time to meet with them. The union had made numerous proposals to the owners several months earlier (on what would become the very first Basic Agreement) and negotiations had been slow. “We were told further discussion would be needed in Mexico City,” said Miller. “The only reason the players are here is to conclude the negotiation.”
A few years earlier the players would have wagged their tales and returned home, but the 1966 hiring of Miller had changed the game. He held a press conference to lay out the state of the negotiations. The owners claimed to be surprised at the misunderstanding, and claimed that it was much ado about nothing. Atlanta general manager Paul Richards was more pointed: “Somebody’s lying. And I don’t think it’s the owners. If this guy continues these kinds of antics we might just have to get in the gutter with him.”
At their own press conference, player representatives announced that Miller had been given a new contract, through 1970, signaling that the owners could not avoid dealing with their controversial leader. The owners agreed to meet with the players in a couple of weeks back in New York.
At this point, the owners could have learned that the players should be taken seriously as a determined group who wanted a seat at the table and would continue to push until they got it. Instead, the owners went on with the misguided confidence that they retained the whip hand.
The two most pressing issues facing baseball at the end of the 1967 Winter Meetings were the need to finalize expansion plans in each league, and the need to continue and complete negotiations with the player’s union on what would be the first-ever Basic Agreement. Both issues seemed likely to conclude soon.