Note: This article was originally published at TheNationalPastimeMuseum.com in December 2017 and is reprinted here by permission.
As the 1969 baseball winter meetings approached, the central issues on the minds of most owners were the recommendations of a restructuring committee that had been created a year ago. At the previous year’s meeting in San Francisco the owners had fired William Eckert as commissioner, and had formed a group to examine ways to restructure the management of the game in an attempt to reduce the league squabbles that had been plaguing baseball over the past decade.
Would baseball reorganize to reduce the power of individual leagues? In 1969, the two professional football leagues completed their merger and placed themselves firmly under the direction of a single powerful commissioner – Peter Rozelle. It escaped no one’s notice professional football was thriving, particularly when compared with the so-called National Pastime.
The 1969 winter meetings were held from Sunday, November 30 through Saturday, December 6 in south Florida, split between Fort Lauderdale and Bal Harbour.
It is instructive to consider how autonomous the leagues were a few decades ago. The leagues could expand or move teams without regard for the other league. The leagues had different umpiring crews, who stood in different places on the field and who often received different direction on rules – when to call a balk, when and how to enforce the spitball rule, how to define the strike zone. Teams did not co-ordinate on scheduling – in 1960 the National League started the season a week earlier than the American League.
After firing Eckert at the 1968 meetings, the owners had hired Bowie Kuhn as interim commissioner in February, and then signed him to a seven-year contract in August. At the 1969 meetings in December, the restructuring committee, formed a year earlier, made its proposal to their fellow teams.
In essence, the committee recommended giving significantly more power to the commissioner by making the two league presidents essentially his deputies, responsible to the commissioner first and the league owners second. The presidents would be nominated by the commissioner and approved by the owners. The two league offices would move to New York (traditionally they had moved to wherever the president happened to live), as would the minor league offices.
Moreover, the two league umpiring staffs would be merged into a single staff under the commissioner, rather than managed by the league presidents. The commissioner would also have control of a number of additional people and spheres. He would appoint the chairman of the Playing Rules Committee, a broadcast coordinator, an administrative officer, and various aides, lawyers, and assistants.
Of paramount importance, all playing or operating rules changes or structural changes would require a two-thirds majority of all owners and a simple majority of each league, making it much more difficult for a small group in one league to block a measure favored by most of the owners. Currently the two leagues voted independently and separately and had their own procedures for how their votes were counted. The National League, for example, required unanimous consent on some issues, like relocation or expansion. In 1968 a single owner – Houston’s Roy Hofheinz – had reportedly blocked expansion to Dallas, which the rest of the owners wanted.
To a very large degree the restructuring plan was delivered a blow two days before it was presented when the National League voted 12-0 to hire Chub Feeney to replace the retiring Warren Giles as league president. It was known that Commissioner Bowie Kuhn wanted Giles to stick around during this transitional period. The sudden appointment of Feeney, who was a member of the restructuring committee and well aware of what was in the coming report, was a significant defeat for Kuhn and the committee.
The National League, which still called itself the “senior circuit” seven decades after the AL was founded, took pride in its own superiority – it had most of the best players, had much higher attendance, and had won the past seven All-Star games. Many AL clubs struggled financially in the 1960s, including Cleveland, Chicago (who were essentially rescued by playing 20 games in Milwaukee over the previous two seasons), and Seattle (who was bankrupt).
The NL also had more stability within its ranks, and was particularly weary of any loss of independence and power. During these troubling times it was the AL who wanted to make changes to the game – advocating for interleague play, the legalization of the spitball, and, eventually, the designated hitter. The NL generally held the time, and they were weary of having the AL dictate terms.
Feeney was opposed to interleague play, as Giles had been, and also announced that he planned to move his league’s offices from Cincinnati to San Francisco, and not to New York. Many were concerned about the time difference. “In the morning,” said one observer, “Don Grant (New York Mets), Joe Brown (Pittsburgh) and Don Davidson (Atlanta) will be asking, ‘where the hell is Chub Feeney?’”
No action was taken at the Florida meetings, but further get-togethers were scheduled to consider the details of the comprehensive proposals point by point.
In the end, most of the plan would eventually take hold, but it would take 30 years.
In a less dramatic matter, the major leagues approved a “caveat emptor” amendment to the existing rules regarding player trades. There had been two high profile deals in this past year in which a traded player decided to retire rather than report to his new team.
- On January 22, 1969, the Montreal Expos traded first baseman Donn Clendenon and outfielder Jesus Alou to the Houston Astros for outfielder Rusty Staub. Everything appeared fine for a few weeks, until February 28 when Clendenon announced his retirement. Most observers thought the trade would be called off at this point. In early March, Clendenon suggested he might be open to returning but not to Houston, though his public stance would change several times over the next few weeks. For his part, Staub was thrilled to be with the Expos, and Montreal was thrilled to have him. After considerable communication with all parties, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn reworked the deal by having Montreal send a couple of additional players to Houston and allowing Clendenon (who got a big raise) to remain with the Expos.
- In early April the Red Sox made a six-player trade with the Indians, sending popular first baseman/outfielder Ken Harrelson to Cleveland. Harrelson, who had considerable business interests in Boston, announced that he was retiring. Kuhn froze the deal until he could arrange a meeting with Harrelson and executives from each club. After Harrelson got a new contract with a large raise, he “un-retired” and the trade was finalized.
The traditional way such matters had been handled in the past was to call off the entire trade.
Under the new rule, which even the commissioner believed was necessary, all trades, once agreed upon, would stand. It was up to the teams themselves to convince their players to report to work. Had this rule been in place a year earlier, both trades would have been final, and Clendenon and Harrelson would have been free to report or not as they wished.
The biggest trade of the winter meetings caused only minimal comment at the time. The champion New York Mets, whose third baseball Ed Charles chose to retire, sent two youngsters (outfielder Amos Otis and pitcher Bob Johnson) to the Kansas City Royals for third baseman Joe Foy. The Mets had long been seeking stability at third, and the 26-year-old Foy appeared to be the missing piece. “He’s a fine defensive third baseman and he gives us speed,” said Mets manager Gil Hodges. “I expect him to give us more offense, plus a good glove at third.”
After having been rebuffed at the winter meetings each of the past two Decembers, the players chose to hold their 1969 annual meeting at a different time and place than the owners: San Juan, Puerto Rico on December 13 and 14. Bowie Kuhn, who had not become commissioner until Feb. 4, 1969, spoke at the meetings and told the players he hoped they could coordinate their meetings in future years. In fact, Kuhn told the players that he considered himself the players’ commissioner too.
The players voiced a number of grievances to Kuhn, including the increase of artificial playing surfaces, the newer stadium designs, plans to have the fans vote for the All-Star teams beginning in 1970, and the stalled CBA negotiations. (The very first CBA, agreed upon two years earlier, was to expire on December 31).
The most important issue discussed at the players’ meetings involved star outfielder Curt Flood, who had been traded from St. Louis to Philadelphia in October but now wanted to file suit against baseball to end its hallowed reserve clause. Miller invited Flood to speak to the players, who asked tough questions about his motivations and plans. After hearing from Flood, the player voted unanimously to support his legal case financially and otherwise,
This would prove to be a momentous decision, part of the thread that took down the reserve clause six years later.
As with most winter meetings in this period, it would take years to fully understand the history that was being made. The owners spent most of their time on restructuring their management, while the players were working on dismantling their core economic system. A new decade dawned, baseball’s biggest one yet.