The ‘66 Shots That Changed Baseball

Fifty years ago this spring, three Hall of Fame pitchers planted the seeds that would change baseball's harvest irrevocably, and for the better. One seed kind of opened the door for the other, if indirectly, but once baseball's field was tilled for the other (kicking and screaming, of course) the game's and perhaps the country's worst fears proved largely unfounded.

The first seed was the joint holdout of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, prompted by their concern for a semblance of financial security: Koufax dealt with his pitching elbow, possibly the nation's most famous case of arthritis; Drysdale dealt with knee issues with shoulder issues not too far behind.

In other words, in spring 1966 the time for baseball's deadliest one-two starting pitching punch to make big money was now or never. Over dinner one night Koufax and Drysdale revealed to each other, almost inadvertently, how the Dodgers used one to set up the other in contract negotiations. Koufax was still also steamed a bit that a demand for 1964 that he hadn't made was leaked to the press.

Drysdale's then-wife suggested the two join up, saying that if general manager Buzzie Bavasi relished comparing them, they might just walk in together. Which is exactly what they did, saying one wouldn't sign unless the other was happy, and they'd be happy with nothing less than a million dollars to split between them for the coming three seasons.

To prove they weren't kidding, Koufax and Drysdale hired an agent named Bill Hayes to advise them; Koufax had known him for handling his non-baseball business dealings. Then, they signed on to appear in a David Janssen film, Warning Shot (Drysdale was to be cast as a television commentator and Koufax was to be cast as a detective), an ironic title considering what the two pitchers were doing with the Dodgers.

Both men knew there were limits to their high-stakes game, and in due course, and with spring training down to its final week, the Dodgers — who'd originally offered Koufax $100,000 for 1966 and Drysdale $90,000 — upped their ante to $115,000 for Koufax and $100,000 for Drysdale.

Drysdale saw and raised when he stepped in to negotiate himself for the two, with Koufax's approval. He came away with $125,000 for Koufax and $115,000 for Drysdale. It made the pair the highest-paid players in the game for 1966 and the first pair of pitchers to earn six figures for a season. ("Oh, boy, now I won't have to act in that movie," Koufax was quoted as saying when the holdout ended.)

Koufax, of course, went out (despite the advice of team physician Robert Kerlan to hang it up) and pitched 323 innings to a 27-9 won-lost record, 312 strikeouts, a 1.72 ERA, a 2.07 fielding-independent pitching average, and 10.3 wins above a replacement level player — then, after a hard-luck World Series loss (Willie Davis's 3 errors in the fifth doing him in after he'd been shutting the Orioles out the first four), retired.

Drysdale won 13, lost 16, though he pitched in a little hard luck. (His FIP was considerably lower than his ERA.) He was also battered early in a season-ending first doubleheader game, forcing manager Walter Alston to send Koufax out with two days rest to nail the pennant in the nightcap, which may have helped cost the Dodgers the Series when they couldn't open with Koufax as planned. But the two showed baseball players what could be done by bargaining even with one fellow partner.

At the same time as the Koufax-Drysdale holdout, a former United Steelworkers of America economist and negotiator named Marvin Miller was visiting spring training camps and meeting players. He was running to become the first executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association. How he got there in the first place begins with a third Hall of Fame pitcher approaching the end of his long and once-distinguished career.

Robin Roberts had been the National League's winningest pitcher for the first half of the 1950s, before somewhat insane overwork (even for that time, and largely because after their surprise 1950 pennant the Phillies had little else in the way of starting pitching) ground down his arm and took the hop off his once-deceptively exploding fastball. (It wasn't all that fast, but its late movement bedeviled hitters when they weren't hitting home runs off him.)

Roberts spent the last half of the 1950s reinventing himself as a thinking junk-baller, though it took a few seasons and a departure from the Phillies to the Orioles (with a very brief stop with the Yankees in between) for him to find late success with that approach. By 1966, after a respectable 1965 split between Baltimore and Houston, Roberts was clearly approaching the end as he went to spring training with the Astros.

In the interim, Roberts became savvy enough about baseball labour matters, having been the Phillies' player representative after shortstop Granny Hamner gave up on the job. When then-commissioner Ford Frick refused to let the player reps have a lawyer present while they hammered out a bigger share of television monies into the players' pension fund, Roberts suggested they keep the lawyer on call during the meeting for advice, a suggestion the player reps voted down.

But he'd learned the hard way that Frick, unlike predecessor Happy Chandler, wasn't even close to looking after the players' best interests. By 1959, he'd become the player rep of the National League's player reps, and suggested — based on previous experience — that the players' association think about hiring an executive director. They declined at the time, and Roberts stepped down.

He kept an eye on the association as his career edged forward, and finally — during the 1964 World Series between the Yankees and the Cardinals — Roberts took charge despite no longer having any power in the union. With a new television contract approaching and another likely tussle over how much of the gold would go to the players' pension fund, Roberts called the player rep of NL player reps, Pirates pitcher Bob Friend, and asked to address the next players association meeting.

Friend agreed, and Roberts took the floor to argue powerfully on behalf of hiring an executive director. He included his case that making sure the pension fund got a fair cut and protecting player licensing rights, such as they were at the time, meant having such a director with the stakes swelling and the owners likely to dig in deeper to keep the stakes down for them.

This time, the players association heeded the veteran right-hander, agreeing to Roberts forming a committee to find a candidate. The hunters would be Roberts, Friend, Phillies pitcher Jim Bunning, and Cubs outfielder Harvey Kuenn. (Bunning was no stranger to baseball labour issues; the Tigers shipped him to the Phillies in the first place after 1963 because he'd become too involved and savvy as the Tigers' player representative.)

These four weren't exactly looking to become union rebels. They didn't see what they were doing as fostering such things as picket lines and the like. On the other hand, they knew they needed a little extra heft. The question now became whom to consider.

According to John Helyar in The Lords of the Realm, Friend favored Bob Cannon, a judge and the man who'd helped the players nail a $150,000 commitment from the owners to fund the executive director's office in the first place. Bunning favored an attorney who'd once represented him successfully in a lawsuit, but his pick didn't draw much enthusiasm, apparently.

But Roberts had called one-time War Labour Board member George Taylor — who'd advised presidents from Herbert Hoover to Lyndon Johnson on labour issues, and who knew Miller from their work on a joint growth plan between Kaiser and the United Steelworkers — and Taylor asked Miller whether he knew Roberts.

Not personally, of course, but Miller had heard of the pitcher. Taylor had no clue until Roberts called him out of nowhere for help after learning of Taylor's reputation and asking for a recommendation. Miller and Roberts met with the search committee, and the more Miller talked, the more Roberts liked him. The players association executive council agreed to let the players vote between Cannon and Miller, and Cannon won with a lot of persuasion, apparently, from Friend.

But Cannon balked when the players decided they wanted the association offices in New York, where the commissioner's office was. It took Roberts to convince Miller to run again, and it took Friend's apology to convince Miller to take the job if the players would elect him. Miller met resistance in the 1966 spring camps until (what a surprise) noises from the owners began changing their minds.

In a word: the owners tried shaking the players off with often crude caricaturing of Miller as something barely short of a labor gangster. It worked until Miller toured those 1966 camps and staggered players with his mild mannered, understated style and personality. Miller also understood that, for all the reluctance on some players' parts, they did know what it meant to struggle, thanks to (for most of them) all those years in the hardest of the bus leagues.

"Don't apologize," Roberts replied to Hall of Fame third baseman Eddie Mathews, when the aging Braves star did just that before a spring game, having seen Miller and realized he was far different from the caricatures. "Just vote for him." Which is exactly what Mathews, Roberts, and 487 more players did to install Miller in a landslide.

The MLBPA at the time had nothing but $5,400 in the bank and a filing cabinet that looked like a gangster used it to beat a debtor into line. But they now had a Marvin Miller who could, and did, show the players that the flaws of labour and its bosses weren't universal, and that unlike some of the more notorious unions this was one union that could and would be run like a democracy. He also taught them, little by little, that what made their association unique was that the product over which they labored was themselves.

"This is your office. This is your union," Miller habitually told players when he met them each spring. They could and would put that in the bank in more ways than one from then on, regardless of the owners' shenanigans in the moment and to come. (Get a print of how often the owners would shoot themselves in the foot through the demise of the reserve clause and beyond, and the print would probably resemble the map of an oil field.) They also helped bring about not just free agency but (sorry, owners) legitimate competitive balance. (Quick: name the one team sport since baseball's free agency era began to have more different world champions than any other in America. Hint: it's still the only team sport without a salary cap.)

Yet, whenever Miller's name came up as a Hall of Fame candidate before a given Veterans Committee or future offshoot — members of which included players, many who benefitted from Miller's work — he'd be rejected for enshrinement.

Koufax and Drysdale were elected to the Hall of Fame as pitchers, but their final spring training performance together planted the final seed from which Miller's baseball garden grew to produce an invaluable harvest. Drysdale died in 1993; Koufax called Miller shortly before the latter's death to thank him for all he did for baseball, with sportswriter Allen Barra in earshot in Miller's apartment.

"Sandy's always been a class act," Miller told his visitor. "But can you imagine Sandy Koufax as a free agent?"

Miller died at 92 over four years ago, having finally rejected the idea of Hall of Fame enshrinement. Bud Selig, who thought he had to wreck the game to save it, was elected by the Today's Game committee near 2016's finish. You tell me what's wrong with that picture.

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