Baseball, money and Sandy Koufax

When I read what ballplayers, even marginal ones who spend most of their time in the dugout, are making these days, I have  reactions from “Wow.  That’s a lot of money.” to “Well, they have pretty short careers.” to “I guess ticket prices will go up again” so I was very interested in Michael Beschloss’ piece in the New York Times this morning. 

I was a pre-teen when Sandy Koufax first came to baseball.  I kept a notebook with clippings and newspaper articles about him.  A close friend was a New York Giants fan and so I moved over to follow the Brooklyn Dodgers, abandoning my hometown team, the Phillies.  Baseball was one of the things we often watched on television as a family and I learned a lot about the game from my father and grandfather.  But back then, every game was not televised and after we acquired an early transistor radio, I would often listen outside in the afternoons when I could pick up the Dodger games from New York.  I was devastated by their move to Los Angeles until I figured out that at night I could pick up team broadcasts from all the National League teams east of the Mississippi which, back then, were almost all the teams in the league.  I would figure out who the Dodgers were playing and find that station staying up far into the night listening to the games when they played in California.  I particularly tried to listen when Sandy pitched.

I know that there are clippings in that notebook (which is probably in a storage box somewhere) about the Koufax-Drysdale holdout in 1965.  Beschloss writes

In 1962, the star Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax invested in a West Hollywood motor inn, which was renamed “Sandy Koufax’s Tropicana Motel.” Down Santa Monica Boulevard from the famed Troubadour club, these “74 luxurious air-conditioned rooms” — rented at “popular prices” — came to lodge some of the biggest musical acts of the period: Alice Cooper, Bob Marley, the Mamas and the Papas, Led Zeppelin, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and the Doors. “I don’t know which made me more excited,” said one guest, “to be in Sandy’s motel or to be in a room right beside Sly Stone, from Sly and the Family Stone.”

The early 1960s were not the era of players like Miguel Cabrera, whose eight-year contract extension in March will give him the bountiful sum of $248 million. A major league star of that earlier time was well paid, but not so lavishly — given the relative brevity of most baseball careers — that he had no need to take an off-season job or plaster his name on a motor hotel or cocktail establishment like “Don Drysdale’s Dugout Lounge” in the San Fernando Valley suburb of Van Nuys. In 1965, Koufax was earning $85,000. Drysdale, his fellow Dodgers pitcher, took in $80,000. (Each salary would equal slightly less than $600,000 in 2014 dollars.)

That fall, the two men tried to overturn the usual year-to-year method of major league baseball bargaining, which Koufax called “negotiation by ultimatum” from management. He and Drysdale, friends who had served together in the Army, jointly demanded that the Dodgers pay them a million dollars over three years, divided equally between the two of them. When the team went to Dodgertown in Vero Beach, Fla., for 1966 spring training, Drysdale and Koufax staged a double holdout. “Ballplayers aren’t slaves,” Koufax told reporters, “and we have a right to negotiate.”

Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale after winning the 1965 World Series

Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale after winning the 1965 World Series

The two held out for most of spring training – 30 plus days.

The 32-day boycott persisted almost to the end of spring training. During the “war of nerves,” Koufax cranked up the pressure by telling the press that he and Drysdale needed time to “reflect on what we want to do with ourselves if we don’t play this season or ever again.” Furious that his star pitchers were guilty of the heresy of bargaining with him through an agent, the Dodgers’ owner, Walter O’Malley, sputtered, “Baseball is an old-fashioned game with old-fashioned traditions.”

Then Drysdale, anxious about supporting his family, told his partner he could hold out no longer. Koufax, who suffered from an arthritic left elbow and was secretly planning to quit at the end of the 1966 season, let Drysdale inform management that they wanted to settle. Drysdale finally told Bavasi, “I’ll sign for $110,000 and Sandy will sign for $125,000.” (In 2014 figures, this would still be less than a million dollars for each pitcher.)

Now we have a Player’s Association and everyone has an agent.

Koufax did retire around the same time I went to college.  Drysdale pitched until 1969.  Koufax as elected to the Hall of Fame in 1972, Drysdale in 1984.  But beyond  being remembered their pitching talent, today’s sports figures should thank them for taking that first step.

Koufax’s new salary was nearly the same as that of Willie Mays, the best-paid man in baseball. Concerned about possible holdouts by other players, Bavasi insisted the following year that the Koufax-Drysdale tactics “only worked because the greatest pitcher in baseball was in on it,” and vowed, “It will never happen again.”

But Bavasi was wrong. The holdout changed the relationship between baseball management and players, paving the way for the big money game of our day. Just after the standoff ended, Arthur Daley of The New York Times called the settlement “baseball’s first collective bargaining arrangement,” writing, “There are aspects of unionism to it and no one in this sport of rugged individualists ever was confronted with such a thing before.” Koufax later agreed that his partnership with Drysdale was like a labor union — “a very small union, just the two of us, Don and myself.”

Drysdale died much too young in 1993, but Koufax still works with the Dodgers and just this spring was the catcher to Vin Scully’s first pitch.

Photograph:  espn.go.com

 

 

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