The 1970 Baseball Winter Meetings

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Note: This article was originally published at TheNationalPastimeMuseum.com in December 2017 and is reprinted here by permission.

 

When compared with the previous few off-seasons, baseball’s 1970 winter meetings were relatively calm. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn seemed secure in his job, and the players and owners had agreed to a new Collective Bargaining Agreement in May. The Curt Flood case was winding its way through the courts, meaning that the process was out of baseball’s hands. Baseball’s attempts to consolidate its two leagues and place more authority in the hands of the commissioner had made no progress, and would make no more this time.

Instead, baseball management discussed ways to tinker with the game, made a few trades and closed the week with a grand awards banquet, an event that was supposed to be the first of an annual affair but has not been repeated.

The 1970 meetings were held from Sunday, November 29 through Friday, December 4 at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles, California.

The most interesting baseball discussions took place in the Rules Committee meeting. In 1970 three different minor leagues had experimented with new rules: the Eastern League employed a designated hitter rule; the New York-Penn League allowed the pitcher to intentionally walk a batter without having to throw four balls; and the Gulf-Coast League used expanded fair territory, with the foul lines bending outward three degrees at first and third base, creating a larger outfield. After a brief discussion, all three experiments were deemed failures and terminated. Instead, management agreed to allow some leagues to allow designated pinch runners.

The champion rule proposer in this period was Charles O. Finley, the owners of the Oakland A’s, who favored all of the above changes and more. At the 1970 meeting Finley proposed several new rules, including the use of colored bases, colored foul lines (in other years Finley had requested colored foul poles and even colored baseballs), and a 20-second pitch clock. All of these were rejected. None of this was really farfetched – it was about this time that tennis switched from white tennis balls to a bright green, for precisely the reason Finley wanted colored baseballs: visibility. But the other owners hated Finley, so he always had a bit of uphill battle to get anything approved.

One significant rule change was approved: beginning in 1971, all players would be required to wear a batting helmet. A rule that required earflaps was still far in the future; the 1971 rule required only a helmet shaped like a normal baseball hat. Players who wore a cap liner (which was the previous minimum requirement) in 1970 would be allowed to continue doing so throughout their career. Red Sox catcher Bob Montgomery would the last of these “grandfathered” helmet-less players, when he finally finished in 1979.

As usual, several big name players changed teams. The Baltimore Orioles, already boasting three 20-game winners (Mike Cuellar, Dave McNally, Jim Palmer), acquired Pat Dobson from the Padres to be their fourth starter. In 1971, all four won 20 games, and the Orioles ran away with the division again.

Another interesting deal involved star relief pitcher Hoyt Wilhelm, who was traded from the Cubs to the Braves. This was particularly interesting because Wilhelm had been sold from the Braves to the Cubs on September 21 to help the Cubs in the division race. Wilhelm pitched just three games for Chicago before being sold back in December. The situation was suspicious enough that the commissioner investigated, though he found nothing disturbing about it.

One of the more far-reaching news items to come out of the meetings was Commissioner Kuhn’s announcement that beginning in 1971 some World Series games could be played at night. “The networks are intrigued,” said Kuhn, “in terms of potential ratings, with the possibility of telecasting … in prime time.”

In fact, the very first post-season game scheduled for an evening start would be Game 4 of the 1971 World Series. After many years of small encroachment, baseball would eventually settle on scheduling every World Series for evening hours, ultimately leading to many post-midnight finishes. But it all started right here.

On Thursday evening baseball took a break from business and held a swank Academy Awards-style dinner at the Beverly Hills Hotel. There were 1200 people in attendance, paying $50 a plate, for a three-hour event that was filmed and broadcast the next week (in an edited 90-minute version) as a special edition of the Merv Griffin Show. The original plan was for Bob Hope to host, and for parts of the event to be broadcast on a later Bob Hope Show, but Hope came down ill so Griffin stepped in. Curt Gowdy and Vin Scully were also on hand to help.

This was Kuhn’s second attempt at a prime-time gala, following a July 1969 event in Washington on the eve of the All-Star game, at which baseball named its all-time All-Star team. For the second time, Kuhn was unable to secure the live prime-time telecast he craved.

Reportedly many baseball teams were less than enthusiastic about the event, and balked at Kuhn’s request that they each purchase a 10-seat table. You read that right – baseball owners did not want to spend $500 on an event that promoted and celebrated their game. Most of the media reviews stressed that such a price could not be charged in a year when the meetings were held in a place like Pittsburgh or Detroit.

Baseball had originally wanted the event to include the handing out of the longstanding famous baseball awards – including the Most Valuable Player, Rookie of the Year and Cy Young Awards for each league. However, the Baseball Writers Association of America nixed this idea, claiming that the awards were their property and would be given out by them at a time they saw fit. Baseball officials also asked the writers to allow them to announce the Hall of Fame election results, but that too was rejected.

Instead, baseball created a new parallel set of awards that were intended to become equally famous as this event became a smash annual success.

The room was filled with famous stars from the past and present, and the award presenters included Carl Hubbell, Joe Cronin, Joe DiMaggio, Stan Musial, Casey Stengel, and Roy Campanella.

For the record, the award winners included:

  • Johnny Bench, player of the year. Bench had a tremendous season, hitting 45 home runs, driving in 148 runs, and batting .293 for the National League champion Cincinnati Reds. Bench had already copped the NL Most Valuable Player Awards, among many honors.
  • Bob Gibson, pitcher of the year. Gibson had finished 23-7 with a 3.12 ERA for the St. Louis Cardinals, and had recently won the league’s Cy Young Award.
  • Brooks Robinson, defensive player of the year. The Baltimore Orioles third baseman was a perennial Gold Glove winner, but had become more nationally famous two months earlier for his tremendous World Series, for which he won the Series MVP award.
  • Willie Mays, for best typifying the game on and off the field. The San Francisco Giants center fielder was 39 years old and slowing down, but had hit 28 home runs and batted .291 in the just completed season. He had been the most famous player in baseball, and this award was something of a lifetime achievement award.
  • Danny Murtaugh, manager of the year. Murtaugh had returned to the Pirates in 1970 after battling health problems, and the team win the NL East in his first year back.
  • Harry Dalton, executive of the year. Dalton had built one of histories greatest teams, a team which had just completed an amazing season that ended with a 4-1 World Series victory over the Reds.
  • Roger Freed (Rochester), minor-league player of the year. Playing for the Orioles top minor league affiliate, Freed hit 24 homers, drove in 130, and batted .334.

As part of the festivities, the World Series trophy was presented to Baltimore owner Jerry Hoffberger. Several special awards were given to longtime baseball employees, and also to astronaut James Lovell, representing the President’s Council on Health and Physical Fitness, who had piloted the ill-fated Apollo 13 back in April.

For added gravitas, baseball also honored its three living .400 hitters (Bill Terry, George Sisler and Ted Williams), and its three living 3000-hit players (Mays, Henry Aaron, and Stan Musial.

Ultimately the success of the event, and any event of its sort, depended on securing a national television audience. This was Kuhn’s intention from the beginning, and he was not able to achieve this goal.

The media response was polite, but unenthusiastic. The event was never repeated.

 

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Author: Mark Armour

Long-time SABR member, co-chair of the Baseball Cards Committee, founder and past chairman (2002-2016) of the Biography Project, author of several books and dozens of articles on baseball. See mark-armour.net.

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