Baseball and America

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Part VIII: Watergate, Free agency, Hammerin’ Hank

Adding to the pain of the Vietnam War was the political scandal of the century. On June 17, 1972 five   burglars broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters located in the Watergate building in Washington D.C. Their objective was to steal information regarding the political plans of the Democrats for the upcoming presidential campaign. The group headed by former CIA agent Gordon Liddy, was hired by the power brokers of the Republican Party. The two year investigation into who hired the burglars eventually led to the top officials of the White House including President Nixon. Rather than go through an impeachment trial, Nixon submitted his letter of resignation on August 8, 1974 and turned the presidency over to Vice President Gerald Ford.

Baseball was having its own problems throughout the seventies and eighties. The Major League Players Association (MLPA), continued to grow in strength under the leadership of Marvin Miller. In 1970 outfielder Curt Flood of the St. Louis Cardinals refused to accept a trade to the Philadelphia Phillies and brought a suit against Major League Baseball claiming: “ After 12 years in the major leagues, I do not feel I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes. I believe that any system which produces that result violates my basic rights as a citizen and is inconsistent with the laws of the United States and of the several States. “ The case went to the Federal District Court in New York and although Flood’s suit was denied, the publicity that was attracted opened the door for a fight to end the reserve clause. In 1972 players held a 13 day strike in protest of the clause. In 1973 two players, Andy Messersmith of the Dodgers and Dave McNally of the Orioles, following the lead of Curt Flood opted to sit out a season. This was the only way at the time to gain free agency and the right to sell their services to the team of their choice. Messersmith was rewarded with a three-year million dollar contract with the Atlanta Braves and its owner Ted Turner. McNally decided to retire. Thus the start of the high salaries baseball players earn today. In 1976 the MLPA negotiated a basic agreement with ownership that granted free agency to any player with six years of major league experience. The tension did not stop there. In 1981, as a reaction to the owners attempting to place a ceiling on player salaries, the players went on strike again, this time for six weeks and forced cancellation of 713 games. The strike was very costly to players and owners but the outcome produced great gains in future  player salaries and benefits. Between 1970 and 1981 player salaries increased from an average salary of $25,000 in 1970 to $185,000 in 1981. There was no shedding of tears for the owners as their wallets also got fatter thanks to the increasing revenues received from television networks and rising record attendance. Ball players had gained the rights they had been fighting for since the start of organized baseball in 1876.

Society’s civil rights movement of the sixties spread quickly to women and the gay community. Both groups held demonstrations and parades in order to gain recognition of the discrimination against them. In 1973 the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Rowe Vs Wade which granted women the right to choose abortion as an alternative to giving birth. There was also an active movement by environmentalists to save the planet.  1970 marked the first Earth Day celebration. Environmental concerns were heightened by a huge oil spell of 10 million gallons of oil from the Exxon Valdez oil container ship off the coast of Alaska. In 1979 the nation shuttered with news of a nuclear reaction meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant outside of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  Many of the environmental destruction fears expressed by Rachel Carson in her bestselling book Silent Spring were becoming real.

Jimmy Carter took the presidential reins from Gerald Ford in 1976. He was unable to stop a slumping economy. Inflation was rampant, there were gas shortages and jobs were threatened by deindustrialization due to growing technology. Ironically as the baseball union grew in strength, the labor unions weakened. Less industrial jobs meant less union members. Carter’s greatest moment was the Camp David Accord in which he was able to bring President Anwar Sadat of Egypt together with Prime Minister Menachen Begin of Israel to sign an agreement of peace with the two antagonistic countries. His lowest point was in 1979 when 52 American diplomats and their staffs were taken hostage by Iran and held for 444 days. They were not released until Ronald Reagan took over as President in 1981.

Baseball continued its upward movement through more relocation and expansion. In 1972 the Seattle Pilots became the Milwaukee Brewers and Washington Senators became the Texas Rangers. In 1977 new teams were granted to Seattle (Mariners) and Toronto (Blue Jays). In 1973 a big change occurred in the American League with the creation of the designated hitter (DH) position. It was designed to boost offense by allowing proven hitters to bat for weak hitting pitchers. The National League refused to go along believing that the strategies employed by having the pitcher hit for himself made the game more interesting.  The stance of each league has not changed and it is a lively discussion today between fans of differing opinions. On the field the creation of  league subdivisions helped to correct the imbalance of competition. The first half of the seventies was all about the young Oakland A’s as they won three consecutive World Series behind the pitching of Catfish Hunter and Vida Blue. A young slugging outfielder named Reggie Jackson led their offense. In the mid seventies the Cincinnati Reds became known as the Big Red Machine. Led by the all time hits leader Pete “ Charlie Hustle” Rose,  future Hall of Famers second baseman Joe Morgan and catcher Johnny Bench they wreaked havoc on opposing pitchers. They won the 1975 World Series by outdueling the Boston Red Sox. Many declare the ‘75 series as the most exciting World Series game ever played. It was highlighted by game 6. In a back and forth game with Boston trailing 6-3 in the eighth inning, pinch hitter Bernie Carbo hit a three- run homer to tie the game.  Three exciting innings later, after both team missed numerous opportunities to score, Boston catcher Carlton Fisk hit one out of the park to win the game.  The next day the Reds were victorious 4 to 3 to win the championship. By the end of the decade the Yankees, with new owner George Steinbrenner spending a lot of money accumulating free agents like Catfish Hunter and Reggie Jackson, were back on track and once again playing the Dodgers for the World Series championship.

There were many individual achievements. Hall of Famers outfielder Frank Robinson and third baseman   Brooks Robinson (not related) led the Orioles to two World Series appearances. Frank Robinson was a two time MVP and only player to win the award in both leagues He became the first black manager in major league history when he became a player manager for the Cleveland Indians in 1975. Willie McCovey, first baseman for the San Francisco Giants, succeeded Willie Mays as the team’s slugger. On April 8, 1974 “ Hammerin” Hank Aaron hit his 715th home run off of Dodger pitcher Al Downing to break Babe Ruth’s all time record for home runs. Pitcher Nolan Ryan of the California Angels won the American League Cy Young award in 1973 by throwing two no hitters and striking out 383 batters. Just as amazing was the season Steve “Lefty” Carlton had for the last place Phillies in 1972. He won 27 games for a team that only won 59. Tom Seaver displayed his excellent pitching for the Mets and won a Cy Young Award in 1973. Two hitters threatened to break the .400 batting average mark. Outfielder Rod Carew of the Minnesota Twins, who won four consecutive batting titles, hit .388 in 1977. George Brett, third baseman of  the Kansas City Royals came even closer by batting .390 in 1980 when he led the team to their first World Series. Unfortunately they lost the series to the Phillies who were led by Hall of Fame third baseman Mike Schmidt.  On a somber note two of baseball’s greatest players died tragically in plane crashes. On December 31, 1971 Pirate outfielder Roberto Clemente’s plane crashed while delivering emergency supplies to earth quake victims in Nicaragua. Clemente, a former MVP had recorded his 3000th hit on the final day of the 1971 season. Seven years later Yankee catcher and former MVP Thurmond Munson died in a private plane crash over New York City.

As They Played the Game:

The Pine Tar Incident

In the late seventies through the early eighties a bitter post season rivalry developed between the New York Yankees and the Kansas City Royals. Starting in 1976, the two teams met in four of the next five American League Championship Series with Yanks winning three of them. The Royals couldn’t stand the fiery Yankee manager Billy Martin or flamboyant owner George Steinbrenner. In 1976 the Yanks won a highly contested five game series, 3 games to 2, after a ninth inning game 5 walk off homerun by first baseman Chris Chambliss. 1977 the Yanks won again 3 games to 2. In 1978 it was again the Yanks, 3 games to 1. Finally the Royals broke the jinx by soundly sweeping the Yankees 3 games to 0 in 1980.

The rivalry extended into the regular seasons and on July 24, 1983 the two teams squared off at Yankee Stadium. With the Yankees leading 4 -3 in the ninth and needing only one out, Kansas City’s All Star third baseman George Brett came to bat with a runner on first.. He carried with him one of the messy bats he had used all season. The bat was messy because of the generous amount of pine tar that Brett liked to apply to the bat handle to prevent it from slipping from his hands. Yanks manager, Billy Martin, brought in his future Hall of Fame relief pitcher Rich Gossage to get the final out. Brett turned on the second pitch and blasted it over the right field fence to gain a 5 to 4 lead. This is where it got interesting. The Yanks manager ran out to home plate and pleaded with the umpire to take a look at the bat citing an obscure rule that pine tar cannot extend more than 18 inches its handle. The umpire laid the bat across the 17 inch wide home plate and it was quite apparent that Martin was right. The clever Billy Martin admitted later that he had been aware of Brett’s pine tar violation for some time but was waiting for the most ideal time to call attention to it. The umpires met and after consultation ruled Brett out erasing the homerun. Brett flew into a rage and ran out of his dugout out of control. The umpire had to grab him and put him in a headlock to try to control him until two Royal players came to his rescue and held him back. Meanwhile Royals pitcher Gaylord Perry ran out and grabbed the bat and started to hand it off to other teammates like a relay baton in order to hide the evidence. Two security guards got hold of the bat before it got to the locker room.

The Royals protested the game. American League President Lee McPhail, Jr reversed the call after a lengthy study of rules and declared that the correct interpretation should have required the removal of the bat and in no way did pine tar affect the flight of the ball. The teams were forced to resume the game at Yankee stadium on August 18 at the point when Brett hit the home run. The Royals had to make a special trip to New York to play the rest of the game. It took nine minutes to record the final four outs of the resumed game. The Royals were the winners 5 to 4.

Next week: The Steroid Era and the end of the cold war.

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