Stars and Strikes

Baseball and America in the Bicentennial Summer of ‘76

Dan Epstein

Thomas Dunne Books

1.
Let’s Do It Again
 
 
(November–December 1975)
 
On November 26, 1975, toward the end of a press conference filled with thorny questions about federal spending, Soviet involvement in Angola, Israeli occupancy of the Golan Heights, and the CIA’s role in political assassinations, a journalist tossed Gerald R. Ford a softball. “Tomorrow being Thanksgiving Day,” asked the reporter, “as the President of the United States, what do you have, number one, to be thankful for?”
“I’m primarily thankful for the fact that this country is at peace on this Thanksgiving,” Ford responded, “rather than engaged in a war, as we were for four or five or six years.” Though he got the math wrong, this was no mere platitude on the president’s part; the traumatic and divisive Vietnam War had come to a close in April 1975 with the fall of Saigon, making this the first Thanksgiving in over a decade where American troops weren’t on the ground in Vietnam, nor actively involved in any other foreign war.
America was also largely at peace on the home front, at least in the sense that the race riots and antiwar demonstrations that had been a recurring part of American life from the mid-’60s through the early ’70s were now mostly just bitter memories. Armed revolution, once a fashionable concept in various left-wing circles, was no longer a viable threat to the status quo, now that radical organizations like the Black Panther Party, the Weather Underground, and the Puerto Rican liberation collective FALN had been decimated by infighting, heroin addiction, and aggressive law enforcement harassment.
The dark cloud of corruption and paranoia that enveloped the White House during the Nixon administration also seemed to have dissipated during the new commander in chief’s tenure, replaced by a fog of amiable incompetence that was relentlessly mocked and parodied by political cartoonists and stand-up comedians alike. Chevy Chase, a cast member of NBC’s new late-night sketch comedy/variety program Saturday Night, had become the show’s first breakout star, partly due to the popularity of his portrayal of President Ford as a bumbling boob who never met a flight of stairs he wouldn’t eventually fall down.
The country’s unemployment rate had stubbornly refused to dip below 8 percent all year, despite Ford’s attempt to shake the U.S. economy out of its mild recession with the Tax Reduction Act of 1975, a one-year tax cut of $22.8 billion that was supposed to stimulate economic growth. When New York City faced bankruptcy in October, the president initially refused NYC’s mayor Abraham Beame’s pleas for a federal bailout, thus inspiring the infamous New York Daily News headline, “Ford to City: Drop Dead.” Though Ford—fearing the national, international, and political repercussions of having the country’s largest metropolis go into default—eventually relented, the city’s long-term prospects appeared pretty grim, as did Ford’s prospects in next year’s presidential elections.
Still, the overall mood of the country at the end of 1975, if not exactly celebratory, was at least notably lighter than it had been during the bleak closing days of 1974, when the acrid stench of the Watergate scandal was still hanging thickly in the air. Even recent revelations that the late FBI director J. Edgar Hoover had abused his power by illegally ordering the investigation and persecution of thousands of Americans were oddly comforting: though these disclosures offered additional chilling proof of how the nation’s highest offices had been befouled by some of the most viciously amoral characters in American history, the mere fact that Hoover’s transgressions were coming to light—and provoking considerable outcry from even the most conservative corners of the media—seemed to indicate that sanity was finally creeping back into the national discourse. Maybe Ford had been right when he asserted in his August 1974 speech after being sworn in that “our long national nightmare is over.”
This collective sense of relief—mixed with an overwhelming and understandable desire to boogie away the accumulated bad vibes of the past seven years—was widely reflected in late 1975 by the nation’s pop charts, where socially conscious hits like Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ “Wake Up Everybody” were being noticeably muscled out by such blissfully message-free dance tracks as the O’Jays’ “I Love Music,” the Bee Gees’ “Nights on Broadway,” and Silver Convention’s “Fly Robin Fly,” as well as numerous songs whose lyrics seemed entirely devoted to the myriad joys of sex. An article in the December 29 issue of Time magazine estimated that 15 percent of airtime on contemporary AM radio was taken up by “sex rock,” singling out People’s Choice’s “Do It Any Way You Wanna,” the Staple Singers’ “Let’s Do It Again,” KC and the Sunshine Band’s “That’s the Way (I Like It),” and Leon Haywood’s “I Want’a Do Something Freaky to You” as some of the juicier offenders—along with “Love to Love You Baby,” which the magazine prudishly described as “Donna Summer’s marathon of 22 orgasms.”
When reached for comment on these sybaritic sounds, radio programmer Tom Yates from L.A.’s KLOS-FM simply told Time, “People just want to dance and get it on.” Or, as the breakthrough hit by grease-painted hard rockers KISS succinctly put it, “I wanna rock and roll all night and party every day.”
*   *   *
The lords of baseball should have been celebrating as well, since the game appeared as healthy as it had ever been, perhaps even healthier. Over 29.7 million fans bought tickets to major league ballgames in 1975, the third-highest attendance figure in history, and the season had been capped by an electrifying seven-game World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the Cincinnati Reds—memorably highlighted by Carlton Fisk’s game-winning 12th-inning homer in Game Six—during which a record 75.9 million viewers tuned in for what many were already calling the greatest Fall Classic in history.
This World Series ratings bonanza had conveniently occurred right as baseball’s four-year, $72 million TV contract with NBC was coming to an end. The new basic broadcasting agreement, split between NBC (which would continue to broadcast Saturday’s Game of the Week as well as the 1976 World Series) and ABC (which was given the rights to the Monday Night Baseball franchise, as well as the ’76 League Championship Series broadcasts), would deposit nearly $93 million into the game’s coffers over the next four seasons. As New Yorker baseball essayist Roger Angell pointed out, the total radio and TV income share for each MLB club “now amounts to one and a half times the total paid out for player salaries and retirement benefits.”
But instead of basking in the World Series afterglow, or reclining like contented pashas upon their piles of cash, baseball’s owners and executives had more reason to sweat than celebrate as 1975 drew to a close. Despite the overall attendance boom of the last few seasons, at least three major league franchises—the Atlanta Braves, the Chicago White Sox, and the San Francisco Giants—were in dire financial straits. More ominously, a breach of contract lawsuit brought against the American League by the state of Washington in 1970 (which asked for $32.5 million in damages and the return of a major league team to Seattle, as recompense for the city’s loss of the Pilots expansion franchise) was about to finally have its day in court.
The lawsuit had already been postponed twice by Washington State attorney general Slade Gorton, in hopes that Commissioner Bowie Kuhn and the American League would make good on their long-standing promise to bring baseball back to Seattle. The King County Multipurpose Domed Stadium, aka the Kingdome, was due to open in the spring of 1976 following three years of construction, but the city still didn’t have a baseball team to play there.
Kuhn had repeatedly urged Gorton to forget about the lawsuit, assuring him that Seattle would eventually receive another major league franchise. Gorton, however, had refused to drop it; and now that the suit was scheduled to come to trial in January 1976, Kuhn and the team owners were cringing at the prospect of legal light being shed on baseball’s clubby business practices, concerned that it might cause the federal government to put the kibosh on their sport’s long-held antitrust exemption.
Kuhn and company’s collective mood was further soured by the return of Bill Veeck to Major League Baseball. A good-humored hustler with a mile-wide progressive streak, Veeck—who didn’t remotely fit the stodgy profile of a typical major league owner—had long ago established himself as the enemy of conservatism on every level of the sport. During his brief but memorable ownership stints with the Cleveland Indians, St. Louis Browns, and Chicago White Sox, he’d significantly increased attendance in each city with a nonstop barrage of often outlandish promotions, invariably offending the staid sensibilities of his fellow owners, who viewed such irreverent stunts as livestock giveaways and pinch-hitting midgets as affronts to the dignity of the Grand Old Game.
A true populist, Veeck enjoyed making himself accessible to the fans, and could often be seen mingling and drinking with them in the stands—sometimes even letting them stub their cigarettes out on the ashtray he’d had carved into his wooden leg—behavior that only further alienated him from baseball’s executive branch. Veeck’s round-the-clock preference for casual wear earned him the affectionate nickname “Sport Shirt Bill” from sportswriters, who loved his way with a quote and his generosity with a bottle.
Health issues had forced Veeck to sell off his White Sox ownership shares in the midst of the 1961 season, but baseball fans on Chicago’s South Side still remembered him fondly. For them—and for everyone else who appreciated the injection of a little levity into the old ballgame—Christmas came early in 1975, thanks to the December 11 announcement that the 61-year-old Veeck had repurchased the White Sox. After months of rumors that the cash-poor franchise was about to be sold and moved to another city, Veeck and his group of over 40 investors (including Ebony and Jet publisher John H. Johnson, the first African American to hold an ownership stake in a major league team) stepped in to save the team and keep it in Chicago.
American League president Lee MacPhail and several of the AL owners (including California Angels owner Gene Autry, who’d lobbied hard on behalf of a consortium fronted by fellow Hollywood star Danny Kaye, who wanted to buy the franchise and move it to Seattle) had done their best to prevent the sale of the White Sox to the Veeck group, forcing them to jump through numerous financial and legal hoops before ultimately ratifying the transaction. Veeck, who took control of the team less than 48 hours before baseball’s Winter Meetings trading deadline, wasted no time in reestablishing himself as a thorn in the side of his fellow owners, commandeering a desk in the lobby of Hollywood, Florida’s, Diplomat Hotel and hanging up a sign reading “Open for Business—The Chicago White Sox, No Reasonable Offer Refused.”
The major league team owners and general managers who attended these conventions typically made their deals while sequestered in the privacy of smoke-filled hotel suites and conference rooms, with plenty of liquid refreshment and old boys club backslapping on tap. But Veeck and White Sox general manager Roland Hemond were gleefully making a point of “operating in the open like honest men,” as they put it, loudly juggling offers and consummating deals in full view of the assembled media and passing hotel guests alike, and annoying the hell out of their peers in the process. “This is a meat market,” huffed Milwaukee Brewers owner Bud Selig. “Why can’t he do this in his own room?” complained Houston Astros assistant GM John Mullen, sounding like an appalled parent who’d just caught his longhaired son air-guitaring to Lynyrd Skynyrd in the family den. Even Bowie Kuhn weighed in, disparaging Veeck and Hemond’s theatrical display as “gauche.”
These gentlemen would have been even more irate had they realized that many of the calls coming in for Veeck were actually being dialed by Hemond from a nearby pay phone. That morning, Veeck had shoved several rolls of dimes into his GM’s hands, and instructed him to go off and make calls to their “trading post” whenever there was a lull in the action. Thinking that Veeck’s constantly ringing phone meant other teams must be hot to make deals with the Sox, several baseball execs hurriedly joined the fray, setting off what The New York Times described as one of “the fastest trading sprees in history”; by the time the Winter Meetings officially came to a close, Veeck had engineered six deals and acquired 11 new players, including speedy outfielder Ralph “Road Runner” Garr, who’d won the 1974 National League batting title as a member of the Atlanta Braves, and veteran relief pitcher Clay Carroll, who’d just won Game Seven of the 1975 World Series for the Cincinnati Reds.
“I wanted a new ownership, a new team and a new attitude,” Veeck explained to Wells Twombly of the Sporting News, as the dust from his deal-a-thon began to settle. “I’m not through making changes,” he added. “This is only the start.”
*   *   *
For all of Veeck’s flamboyant dealing, the most significant transactions of the Winter Meetings involved the New York Yankees, who sent slugging right fielder Bobby Bonds to the Angels in exchange for center fielder Mickey Rivers and pitcher Ed Figueroa, and dealt pitcher George “Doc” Medich to the Pittsburgh Pirates for hurlers Dock Ellis and Ken Brett, and a young second baseman named Willie Randolph. The immensely talented Bonds had put up some strong numbers for the Yankees in ’75, hitting .270 with 32 homers, 85 RBIs, 93 runs scored, and 30 stolen bases despite playing in near-constant pain after badly injuring his right knee while going after a fly ball in early June. Bonds’s speed on the bases and in the outfield suffered accordingly, which caused Yankee fans—and fiery new Yankee manager Billy Martin, who’d replaced skipper Bill Virdon in early August—to accuse Bonds of slacking. Tensions between Bonds and Martin escalated to the point where the outfielder challenged the manager in his office, saying, “If you think you can whup me, fine. I’ll beat the shit out of you, plain and simple.” Martin, who tended to fight only when someone else was there to hold him back, punched Bonds’s ticket out of the Bronx instead.
A second baseman for the Yankees during their 1950s dynastic period, Martin had landed his dream job after successful but tempestuous managerial tenures with the Minnesota Twins, Detroit Tigers, and Texas Rangers. Martin had spent the final months of the ’75 season observing his new team, gauging its strengths and weaknesses, and (as befit a man who regularly carried a 1943 silver coin of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini in his pocket) imperiously settling old scores.
Pitcher Larry Gura, who’d clashed with Martin in the spring of ’74 when they were both with the Rangers, suddenly found himself the odd man out of the Yankees’ starting rotation. Gura further underlined his uselessness in Martin’s eyes by playing tennis—which the macho skipper considered a “pussy sport”—with backup outfielder Rich Coggins when the team was on the road; both players’ days in pinstripes were accordingly numbered.
Pat Dobson, a former 20-game winner with the Orioles who’d aroused Martin’s enmity several years earlier by criticizing his handling of the Tigers’ pitching staff, also found himself suddenly unwelcome in the Yankees’ rotation. Dobson was the first to go, exiled to the Cleveland Indians in November in exchange for outfielder/DH Oscar Gamble, whose power stroke was nearly as explosive as his luxuriant afro hairdo.
Since his potent left-handed bat matched up well with the short right field porch in Yankee Stadium, Gamble fit in perfectly with Martin’s vision for ’76. Ditto for Rivers, who’d led the AL with 70 stolen bases in 1975, while 16-game winner Figueroa seemed a sure bet to become a mainstay of the Yankee rotation. Less obvious to many observers, including a high percentage of Yankee players, were the motivations behind the Medich-Ellis-Brett-Randolph deal. Medich, who’d earned the nickname “Doc” via his medical studies at the University of Pittsburgh, had won 49 games in three seasons as a Yankee, and at 27 seemed on the verge of becoming one of the AL’s top starters; but when the right-hander committed the cardinal sin of complaining to the press about his team’s defense, Martin deemed him expendable.
Still, to the casual observer, the Yankees seemed to be getting little more than a grab bag of spare parts in exchange for Medich. Lefty hurler Brett had only shown occasional flashes of brilliance during his six full years in the bigs, and—though the same age as Medich—already had a history of elbow trouble. Ellis, meanwhile, had a history of trouble, period. The outspoken Ellis had long established himself as one of the game’s more colorful and controversial players, a proud black man who wasn’t shy about wearing curlers in his hair on the field (sometimes with tightly rolled pin joints hidden inside them) or decrying baseball’s racist double standard to the press. After Ellis’s well-publicized attempt in August ’75 to stage a team-wide insurrection against Bucs manager Danny Murtaugh, the Pirates were only too happy to get rid of him. The very notion of Ellis and Martin occupying the same clubhouse and dugout space had New York pundits scurrying for cover, but both men were mutually respectful in their comments to the press. “We both want to win,” Ellis told reporters, while Martin responded to questions about Ellis’s alleged bad attitude by saying, “The Hall of Fame is full of tough cases.”
The key to the deal, at least from the perspective of Yankees’ GM Gabe Paul, was Randolph. Drafted in 1972 out of Brooklyn’s Samuel J. Tilden High School, the second baseman had risen quickly in the Pirates’ minor league system before being called up to the parent club in the summer of 1975. Unfortunately for Randolph, 24-year-old Rennie Stennett was already firmly ensconced as the Pirates’ second sacker, leaving the rookie little opportunity to showcase his skills at the major league level. Paul thought Randolph had the potential to flourish in a full-time situation—and the Yankees, who had trudged through ’75 with the weak-hitting Sandy Alomar at second, were more than willing to give him that shot. “This is the jackpot!” commented Paul upon finalizing the deal.
*   *   *
But the Yankees’ acquisition of Randolph, Ellis, and Brett was nothing compared to the jackpot that the Major League Baseball Players Association hit on December 23, when arbitrator Peter Seitz declared Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally free agents. Messersmith—the Los Angeles Dodgers’ best starting pitcher during their NL pennant-winning campaign of 1974—had failed to come to terms on his 1975 contract with Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley, who rejected Messersmith’s request for a “no trade” clause. Such clauses were simply unheard of at the time; and O’Malley, despite being one of the most powerful and influential owners in the National League, told Messersmith that the league would never allow him to sign off on such a thing.
Marvin Miller, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, saw Messersmith’s situation as another chance to chip away at baseball’s infamous reserve clause, which bound players to their teams for perpetuity, and which the union had originally tried to upend in 1970 by backing Curt Flood’s unsuccessful lawsuit against Major League Baseball. Miller convinced Messersmith to play the 1975 season without a new contract—he would still get paid, though at only a slight increase from his 1974 salary of $90,000—whereupon he could declare himself a free agent, and file a grievance to bring the case to outside arbitration. Joining Messersmith in his bid for free agency was Dave McNally, a 31-year-old lefty who’d averaged 19 wins per year for the Baltimore Orioles from 1968 through 1974. Traded against his will to the Montreal Expos in late 1974, McNally had asked for a “no-cut” contract from his new team. When the Expos refused, McNally wound up pitching 12 games for Montreal without a contract before shoulder troubles forced him to retire in June 1975. Since the Expos and McNally never had a deal in place (and McNally refused to sign voluntary retirement papers before leaving the club), Miller felt that McNally was now technically a free agent as well—and McNally, a former player representative and a notoriously tough negotiator on his own contracts, was more than happy to go along with Miller’s plan and see how it played out. Having already effectively retired from the game to run a successful car dealership in Billings, Montana, McNally literally had nothing to lose.
The owners, on the other hand, knew that they stood to lose plenty, in terms of both money and control. And when Seitz delivered his 64-page opinion declaring that Messersmith and McNally were now free to negotiate with other teams—and that all other players who played for a year without a contract would be eligible to do the same—baseball’s old guard reacted as if someone had just pissed in their Sanka. Pirates GM Joe Brown called Seitz’s decision “the worst thing to happen to baseball in a long time,” while Commissioner Kuhn pronounced himself “enormously disturbed” by the ruling, and promised to appeal it in federal court.
Miller, of course, expressed little sympathy for the panicked state of Kuhn and his cohorts. “I don’t think it’s becoming to see the commissioner and others wringing their hands just because what they held basic for 100 years is no longer applicable,” he said. Since the current Basic Agreement between the players and owners was due to expire at the end of the year, Miller added that he hoped for a “more constructive attitude” on the owners’ side of the table when Basic Agreement talks resumed on January 7.
Bill Veeck was trimming the family Christmas tree when he first got the news of Seitz’s decision. The new White Sox owner had predicted years earlier that the players would eventually win free agency in the courts—and, ironically, his prediction had come true at the worst possible time for Veeck. Having just purchased a lousy team in a crumbling stadium with capital cobbled together from several dozen investors, the old hustler was poorly equipped to handle the economic changes that the coming year would bring. Sport Shirt Bill would still be smiling plenty in ’76; but as with just about everyone else in America during the Bicentennial, those smiles would often require a substantial degree of effort, and occasionally betray a flash or two of anxiety behind the eyes.
 
 
Copyright © 2014 by Dan Epstein