Wednesday, September 30, 2015
Baseball Economics Part 3: The aftermath of the 1972 Strike and the Lost Class of Player Reps
The 1972 baseball player strike was historic as the first labor-related work stoppage in American professional sports history. During the short-lived strike, the players showed an unexpected resolve and ability to stick together and bargain collectively. It would prove to have drastic implications over the next decade and would influence player salaries in ways no one could have imagined at the time.
Often forgotten is the fate of the team player reps from that period. While some owners claimed to put the strike behind them and get on with the business of baseball, most openly viewed the union with scorn and vowed to continue the fight. Like any giant business when confronted by the threat of a pesky union, Major League baseball owners set out on a course of union-busting. They had gambled that the solidarity of the players would fragment when confronted with the prospect of missing paychecks during the strike. Instead, the union emerged stronger than ever and owners were still searching for a way to maintain the upper hand. Often the player reps made an easy target of retribution.
The position of team player rep had never seemed so important. Traditionally, the post was filled by a team vote during the spring, or during the season if the position suddenly fell open. Sometimes serious veterans, respected by their peers, who understood the issues and had a plan, guys like Robin Roberts and Jim Bunning, took the post. Other times the vote was basically a popularity contest among the few players who indicated they weren't violently opposed to taking on the job.
In Ball Four, Jim Bouton talked about committing a social faux paux one season by actively campaigning for the position. He went so far as to write up a two-page statement on why he felt he would be a good player rep, what qualities he thought they should look for in a rep and why he felt he met those requirements. Bouton, who was never the most popular man on any team, mainly because he tended to ask annoying questions and speak sometimes when he shouldn't, mimeographed his well-thought-out treatise, handed it out to his teammates for their perusal, then got exactly three votes out of the twenty-five man roster.
Player reps attended two meetings a year, one at the All-Star break and one after the season. Their job description included keeping teammates informed of health care, pension plans and other issues facing the union, along with looking after the day-to-day complaints and needs of players. For much of the 1960s, the needs of players were confined to maybe an extra shower head in the locker room or private rooms on the road for veterans. The union held about as much power as the average elementary school student council.
The hiring of Marvin Miller in 1966 to head the union drastically changed the dynamic of player-owner relations. Everyone knew that serious confrontation was coming. And the job of player rep suddenly became more important, and dangerous.
Milt Pappas, player rep for the Cubs, said being a rep was, "The most thankless job in baseball. You get abuse from the athletes as well as the front office. A lot of reps lose their jobs or are sent to the minors."
Billy Cowan, rep for the Angels, noted that while in the past reps had been given the use of a car, "All we get now is complaints and a few hearty hand clasps. And sometimes we get traded. My wife about went out of her goard [during the strike]. I was getting 15-20 phone calls a day from players, writers and broadcasters."
When the April 1-April 13,1972 strike ended and play resumed, team player reps were singled out for the most vitriolic boos in almost every major league city. Even local deity Brooks Robinson was booed in Baltimore for the first time in memory. This was not by accident. The reps had been held up as the public face of the strike, and fans, inflamed by the almost uniformly negative press, reacted as expected.
Actually, for several years the press, no doubt encouraged by management, had referred to individual reps as troublemakers and poison in their locker rooms--merely for doing their jobs. Billy Cowan was noted to be the "Clarence Darrow of the baseball clubhouse" by The Sporting News in 1972 (a novel way of restating the overused insult "clubhouse lawyer"). Other reps reported being badgered by management for information to reveal the inner workings of the union in order to give the owners an advantage.
In addition to the mental abuse reps took, the talk of job insecurity by Pappas and Cowan was a very real threat. Between October, 1971 through the summer of 1972, an astonishing 16 of the 24 team reps were traded, sold, or released and three other resigned under duress for fear of a similar fate.
Some of the reps were of such talent and local reverence that they were obviously untouchable, like Brooks Robinson, Joe Torre, the assistant rep in St. Louis, coming off an MVP year in which he hit .363, and Tom Seaver. Twenty-five year old Johnny Bench, who took over in April of 1972 when the previous rep resigned and was in the middle of his second MVP season in three years had as much job security in Cincinnati as the Pope had in the Vatican City.
A few others, like Jim Perry of the Twins, one year removed from a Cy Young Award season, and Dave Guisti, the relief ace for the World Champion Pirates, were not quite Hall of Famers but were good enough on the field to feel safe about their employment.
Unfortunately, the majority of the reps were not so comfortably indispensable to their teams. In fact, most of the other reps soon proved to be entirely dispensable if nothing else.
Some of the players changing teams or being released could be explained by normal attrition. After all, they were mostly veterans, some nearing the end of their careers, and veterans were most likely to be traded at the time. But the sheer numbers begs the question of whether they were targeted specifically for their union activities. Many of the moves were puzzling from a baseball standpoint and are difficult to understand for any reason other than revenge or attempted union-busting.
Jim Lonborg was an intelligent, serious-minded seven-year veteran, a graduate of Stanford and the player rep for the Red Sox, as well as their pitching ace. A series of injuries had slowed his performance on the field, and a change of scenery was the reason given when he was traded to Milwaukee in October, 1971. He quickly became the player rep for the Brewers (the previous rep, Lew Krause, had been part of the deal for Lonborg). Lonborg performed very well for the miserable 1972 Brewers, going 14-12 with a 2.83 ERA. He was only 30 years old and appeared to be near the top of his game but was traded along with Ken Brett and Ken Sanders October 31, 1972 to the Phillies for Billy Champion, Don Money and John Vukovich. Although Money was a reliable third baseman, the other two did not contribute. Lonborg had 5 or 6 more productive years after the trade. Any way you look at this one, before or after, it was a terrible deal for the Brewers and one must consider the fact that Lonborg's player rep status must have figured into him being dumped.
Ray Fosse of Cleveland was a two-time All-Star catcher and only 25 years old. He had a subpar season at .241 with 10 homers and 41 RBIs in 1972 but was still on the short list of the better catchers in the league. Fosse took much local heat in the period leading up to the strike--especially when the Indians voted unanimously to strike. He was traded to Oakland with Jack Heideman for Dave Duncan and George Hendrick in March of 1973. Long-term, this one proved about even for the two teams, but at the time, Fosse was one of the lowly Indians' better players and a well-liked, hard-working leader--not normally the kind of guy who would be on the trading block.
Dick Dietz was a hard-hitting, below-average-fielding catcher for the Giants. In 1970 he was an All-Star who hit .300 with 22 home runs and 109 RBIs--great numbers for a catcher, especially when you throw in the fact that he usually got a lot of walks and had a great OBP. As the Giants player rep, he was in obvious danger given the hardline rhetoric from old-school owner Horace Stoneman. After a 1971 season in which he had hit 19 home runs, Dietz was surprisingly placed on waivers April 12, 1972--in the middle of the strike. He was claimed by the Dodgers and used as a backup, then sent to Atlanta for 1973. He was released and not offered a contract for 1974 by anyone and, at 32 years old, his baseball career was over. It's difficult to believe that not one American League team could have used his solid bat as a DH.
Dietz's predecessor as the Giants rep, Gaylord Perry, was a future 300-game-winner, and one of the best pitchers in the league. As such, he should have been considered untouchable. However, he had been involved in one of the 1971 postseason's blockbuster trades. On November 29, 1971 he was sent to Cleveland for their ace Sam McDowell. The trade was viewed as an even swap at the time. McDowell, incidentally, had been Cleveland's player rep and Fosse's predecessor on that hot seat. Dietz's successor in the San Francisco-rep job was the venerable Willie Mays. One of the games' highest paid players at $165,000, Mays had been a vocal supporter of the players' cause during the strike. At 41 years of age, he was obviously in decline and a liability to the team at that price. His role as player rep may or may not have hastened his exit from San Francisco because Stoneman, strapped for cash, had been looking for a way to painlessly rid himself of the Say Hey Kid's salary for some time. On May 11, 1972, Mays, the face of the Giant franchise for two decades was traded to the New York Mets.
There were other deals, not involving All-Stars, that were suspicious as well:
Jack Aker was 31 years old in 1972 and the rep for the Yankees. In 1971 he had a fine season in the bullpen, going 4-4 with a 2.59 ERA in 41 games--obviously a valuable commodity. But he was sent to the Cubs May 17, 1972 as the player-to-be-named-later for the January, 1972 deal for a broken-down Johnny Callison--a move that appears to be an obvious dump.
Cecil Upshaw was a 29-year-old, 6-year-veteran quality reliever was the rep for the Braves. Atlanta's general manger, Paul Richards, had been one of the most vocal anti-union hawks during the strike. Upshaw, who would have several more productive years, was traded in April, 1973 to Houston for backup outfielder Norm Miller, much less than he should have commanded in a fair-market deal.
Joel Horlen had been a frontline pitcher for the White Sox since 1963. At 34 years old in 1972, he was coming off a subpar, but not terrible, year of 8-9 with a 4.26 ERA. He had been the player rep in 1971 and 1972 and had openly clashed with general manager Stu Holcomb in the days leading up to the strike. The day after the strike started, April 2, 1972, Horlen was released by the White Sox. He was quickly picked up by Oakland's Charlie Finley and he played the 1972 season with the A's, going 3-4 with 3.00 in 32 games, mostly in relief. He was released in December and retired.
Although it looks suspicious, in fairness Horlen was aging and nearing the end of his career and age may have played as much a factor as being a rep in the demise of his playing time. Such was also the case with Gary Peters. A 35-year-old, 13-year veteran and one of the top ten pitchers in the league for a decade, Peters was the Red Sox rep and was coming off a solid 14-11 year. For 1972 the Sox had acquired a younger starter in Marty Pattin, picked up the ageless Luis Tiant who had a break-out year and also brought up quality younger starters Lynn McGlothlin and John Curtis. Peters found himself out of the rotation. He got just 4 starts in 33 games in 1972, compiled a 4.32 ERA and was released at the end of the season. The Red Sox were fighting for the pennant and it is unlikely that Peters' role as rep played a part in the pitching decision.
For borderline players who were reps, their fate was often settled swiftly and savagely. Some of them lost not only their position on their team, but their job in baseball as well. Ron Brand of the Expos was a 32-year-old backup catcher. Nine days after the strike was settled, he was sent to Peninsula of the International League and his salary was cut from $22,000 to $7,000. Later in the season when the club wanted to drop him further in the minors, he retired.
Reds pitcher Jim Merritt, 28 years old in 1972 and a 20-game winner in 1970, had been booed regularly throughout the 1971 season. His record of 1-11 had much to do with it, but so did the inflammatory comments against Merritt from the local press, of which the Cincinnati Enquirer was owned by the Reds majority owner. Merritt voluntarily gave up his job as player rep April 16, 1972 to Johnny Bench and was soon demoted to the minors. He spent most of 1972 at AAA Indianapolis and was traded to Texas in December. He was out of baseball within a year.
Billy Cowan, a 33-year-old veteran outfielder, had been with the Angels for three years. He had been the club's top pinch-hitter in 1971 and had received a raise to $55,000 for the 1972 season. He was released on May 2, 1972--two weeks after the strike. No other major league team offered him a contract and he went into the insurance business, his baseball career over. He and the Major League Baseball Players Association filed a grievance, alleging that the release was due to his union activities. The Angels argued that he was released according to section 7(b) (2) of the Uniform Players Contract that said a club could terminate a player who failed to exhibit sufficient skill to be a member of the team. It's a tricky position to argue and the arbitrator ruled in the Angels' favor and Cowan was officially an insurance salesman and no longer a major league baseball player.
Cowan, incidentally, had volunteered to be the assistant rep in 1971 to help Jim Fregosi. When Fregosi was traded (little controversy here--when you get a chance to get Nolan Ryan for Jim Fregosi, you take it) Cowan took over as the main man. At the time he said, "I believe either the rep or the alternate rep should be a player who isn't playing as a regular so he won't be distracted." While a logical thought, the fact that a player wasn't valuable enough to be playing regularly put him at a very definite risk for continued employment if he dabbled in union activities.
Indeed, borderline players should not have applied for the job. Ed Spezio, a below-average third baseman for the lowly Padres is a prime example. In 1972, Spezio was a 30-year-old, 8-year veteran; a career backup who got a chance to play for the expansion Padres and promptly showed why he had been a career backup. In 1971 he had hit .231 with 7 home runs. In the spring of 1972, he refused a demand from the Padres to take the maximum 20% pay cut and was sent to the minors. He returned to San Diego in midseason only to be sent to the White Sox in early July of 1972, thrown in for a player to be named later and cash. He was released the following March and his baseball career was over.
Thirty-something-year-old, journeyman backup players are considered to be easily replaced and there was little fanfare or questions when reps Dal Maxvill of the Cardinals, Bob Barton of the Padres, Joe Keough of the Royals, Don Mincher of Texas, Denny Lemaster of the Astros, Jim Price of the Tigers, and Tom Haller (Price's replacement) of the Tigers were traded, demoted to the minors or released within the year. Like Spezio, Cowan and Dietz, a surprising number of them were not offered contracts by any other team, raising the specter of organized blackballing.
Overall, the carnage was swift and nearly complete. When questioned point-blank by reporters, Dodger general manager Al Campanis said it was "asinine" to suggest that player reps were more prone to being traded, sold or released. The above were mere coincidences and normal business.