Note: This article was originally published at TheNationalPastimeMuseum.com in December 2017 and is reprinted here by permission.
Like the rest of the country, baseball was sailing through troubling waters in 1968. In the view of many observers, baseball had been overtaken by professional football as the national sport, especially with young people. It was the now sport of their grandfathers, but lacking in the excitement and violence offered up on Fall afternoons in the NFL.
Baseball’s biggest problem, though by no means the only one, was the alarming dominance of its pitchers – or, if you prefer, the alarming ineptitude of its hitters. This trend had been dismissed as a fluke a few years earlier but had instead gotten steadily worse. How bad was it? A full 21% of all major league games were shutouts in 1968. The American League hit .230 (the venerable Yankees managing .214). No-hitters, long shutout streaks, batters hitting below .200, pitchers with ERAs below 2.00 – none of this was unusual, or special, any longer.
Baseball was getting hammered in the press, who concluded that baseball needed on-field changes, but that its management was so dysfunctional and inept, with two leagues that operated without regard for the other, that nothing was ever done. “It would be terrible for us to continue on whistling through the graveyard and ignore what is happening,” said Cleveland president Gabe Paul.
The 1968 major-league winter meetings were held at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco from Sunday, December 1 through Saturday, December 7. Surprisingly many, baseball acted in dramatic ways.
Most people focused on the Rules Committee meeting, at which significant changes to the playing rules were agreed upon: beginning in 1969 the pitchers’ mound would be 10 inches above the height of the plate, rather than 15 inches, and the strike zone would be reduced to encompass the top of the knee to the armpit, instead of the bottom of the knee to the top of the shoulder.
Most baseball people seemed to be crossing their fingers. “All this stuff is trial and error anyway,” said Atlanta general manager Paul Richards. “If it works, let’s do it.” Dodger manager Walter Alston was less optimistic. “The good hitters are still going to hit and the rotten hitters are still going to strike out.”
Of importance to record keepers and historians, if not to the game on the field, baseball also created the first official “save” rule. Writers had been using the term informally for years, and the Sporting News had created a rule (which they regularly modified) several years earlier, but in 1969 the save would be part of the official record for the first time.
The rule would credit a “save” to a reliever who entered the game with a lead and held that lead until the end of the game, provided he did not earn a “win.” The rule would also allow a pitcher to get a save without finishing the game if he was removed for a pinch-hitter or pinch-runner – in such a case, the official scorer could choose from among multiple eligible candidates. This original save rule remained in place through 1973, and all 1969-1973 saves in the record book reflect this rule.
The American League also agreed to try some experimental rules in spring training: the use of a permanent pinch-hitter for the pitcher; a permanent pinch-runner who could be used anytime; and the automatic awarding of first base on an intentional walk. “These tests,” said AL President Joe Cronin, “will be made at the discretion of the president.”
For most fans, the winter meetings are about trades. In the biggest deal of the meetings, one that would have large ramifications over the game for the next several years, the Baltimore Orioles traded infielder-outfielder Curt Blefary and minor-leaguer John Mason to the Houston Astros for left-handed pitcher Mike Cuellar, infielder Enzo Hernandez, and minor leaguer Tom Johnson. In the end, the only piece that mattered was Cuellar, who became an anchor for the great Orioles staffs over the next several years.
Houston had deemed Cuellar expendable despite three good seasons, and had wanted to trade him for a hitter. They had tried to get Jesus Alou from the Expos (which also would have been a terrible trade). Baltimore, on the other hand, had a surplus in the outfield – Earl Weaver had taken over as Orioles manager in July and had given Blefary’s job to Don Buford. Blefary, the 1965 American League Rookie of the Year, had not been happy about it, and the Orioles decided to cash him in. They would soon be one of history’s great teams.
Meanwhile, per longstanding tradition the players union held their annual meetings in the hotel, which led to a fair bit of drama. In September, MLBPA Executive Director Marvin Miller had advised the players not to sign their 1969 contracts until a new pension agreement — replacing one expiring on March 31 — was reached. The clubs’ pension contribution had traditionally been tied to World Series and All-Star Game television revenue, and baseball had recently signed a new lucrative TV deal, which included additional revenue for two brand new League Championship Series. Understandably, the players wanted to share in this new bounty.
Once he arrived in San Francisco, Miller was told that the owners were too busy to meet with them (as they had been too busy in Mexico City a year earlier). After their Wednesday board meeting, Miller held a press conference and read off the names of dozens of players, including such luminaries as Mickey Mantle, Roberto Clemente, Bob Gibson, and Willie Mays, who had agreed not to sign their 1969 contracts without a pension agreement in place.
The owners claimed this was all just a ploy. “A negotiating tactic,” said John Gaherin, the owner’s chief negotiator, “but it is not conducive to a healthy climate for a settlement.” (The players held firm for three months, until a favorable pension accord was finally reached in late February.)
But the most dramatic act of the meetings took place on Friday the 6th, when the owners fired Commissioner William Eckert three years into his seven-year contract. The owners wanted a new commissioner who would provide bold and imaginative leadership, traits that Eckert clearly did not have.
The owners claimed they were looking for a complete restructuring of the game, changes that would rid baseball of the squabbling between the leagues that had plagued it for years. They wanted someone like Pete Rozelle – who was overseeing the merger of the NFL and AFL and achieved more cooperation between the two leagues in a few months than the baseball’s leagues had achieved in more than 60 years of co-existing.
Mike Burke of the Yankees, one of the “Young Turks” who was angling for change, thought baseball needed to deal with the fact that it was losing popularity. “We recognize our problem. It’s the attitude of the public at large that baseball is not with it, that it’s not as contemporary as football, hockey and basketball, the contact sports. It’s an attitude that exists and we’ve got to decide what to do about it. We need strong, courageous, intelligent leadership.”
There were no discussions on a replacement – Eckert was fired on the final day of the meetings – but a committee was formed to consider ways to restructure the game. What many wanted was less league autonomy, the start of a unification process that would take 30 years to complete.
The 1968 Winter Meetings were one of the most important ever. The news included new rules changes, the axing of a commissioner, and more dramatic — and ominous – rumblings from the players. The year ahead would include four new expansion teams, league championship playoffs, and a year-long celebration of their centennial.
The first step in solving a problem is recognizing that you have a problem. Baseball had taken the first step, but there were many more ahead.