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.




Play ball! The 2013 season starts

Like Red Sox fans all over, I was extremely happy that we won’t be starting the season with another losing streak.  Well, at least we won’t be 0 for whatever.  And having the first win against the Yankees was icing.  I will have all summer to write about the team so I will just leave it at that and turn to more general baseball spring subjects.

Yesterday, Neil Genzlinger wrote a wonderful piece in the New York Times warning owners of souvenir baseballs to take care of them well.

Baseball’s opening week seems a good time to issue this public-service advisory: If you own an autographed baseball with significant financial or sentimental value, be prepared for it to be destroyed unless you take drastic action immediately.

That cautionary announcement is inspired by television and the movies, which love a good baseball yarn, especially if it involves an autographed ball that comes to a gruesome end. For decades, the big and small screens have been sprouting stories about beloved balls that have been ruined, usually by a child who has not been properly schooled in the importance of sports memorabilia. And in these tales we can find vital lessons for this time of year.

Two of his advisories are my favorites.  First is from “Leave it to Beaver”, a show I watched as a child and later in re-runs.  I don’t remember this episode but it is typical.  Genzlinger advises you live in a roadless neighborhood.

That is the lesson of an episode of “Leave It to Beaver” first broadcast in April 1960, during the show’s third season. Ward, the Beaver’s father, discovers a prized baseball from his childhood in a trunk and puts it on display in his den, a foolish thing to do given Beaver’s already well-established knack for wreaking havoc.

How valuable was this baseball? It had been signed by Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Lefty Grove, Kiki Cuyler, Augie Galan, Bill Dickey and Grover Cleveland Alexander, which means it could have paid for the Beaver’s college education.

Others can research whether those players were ever in the same locker room at the same time, as Ward attests. Our focus here is what happens to the ball. The Beaver’s nitwit friend Larry persuades him to play catch with it, Larry heaves it over the Beaver’s head and into the street, and a passing truck squashes it. So if you own a ball with those autographs on it — or, really, with any one of those autographs on it — find a roadless place to live. No road, no trucks.

The second favorite piece of advice is to get rid of the family dog.  Easy enough for me since I have cats who just roll things around the floor.  Baseballs are much to big for them to bite.

It’s the family pet that does the damage in an episode of the sitcom “George Lopez” first broadcast in October 2002. The son in the fictional Lopez family, Max, is being pressured by his father to improve his baseball skills, which are abysmal, and he practices with one of George’s most treasured possessions, a ball signed by Steve Garvey, Joe Morgan, Jim Palmer and Rod Carew. The family mutt nabs it and reduces it to a gooey lump.

The episode, by the way, features four of the daffiest athlete cameos in television history. Garvey, Morgan, Palmer and Carew appear or, more accurately, their heads do, as George’s bobblehead-doll collection lectures him after he yells at Max.

I thought my picture of the day from opening day would be Jackie Bradley, Jr.’s catch of the day for the Red Sox, but then I saw this of my first favorite player beginning when he was a Brooklyn Dodger, Sandy Koufax, who still bleeds Dodger Blue.

Sandy Koufax threw out the ceremonial first pitch at Dodger Stadium on Monday.

Sandy Koufax threw out the ceremonial first pitch at Dodger Stadium on Monday.

Baseball is all about making memories.  Time to make some new ones.

Photograph Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

Bye, Bye Josh

I woke up this morning to word of the pending trade.  It is now official.  Josh Beckett is gone along with Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez and Nick Punto.  We got virtually nothing in return, but lots and lots of freed up cash since the Dodgers are picking up most of the remaining contracts.  May Josh eat his fried chicken and drink his beer and enjoy his new clubhouse.  Crawford was never healthy enough to figure out if he could have made it here in Boston, but he never really lost that “deer in the headlights” look.  Gonzalez was a contributor despite the fact that he turned out to be whiner.  And Nick Punto?  He tweeted this


Even though Gonzalez looks happy here, he had the grace to tweet this

“Thanks to Red Sox nation for everything. You guys are great!”

But Adrian is happy to be headed for California.  I guess there are west coast guys and east coast ones and he is a west coaster. 

Will this be what it takes to turn the Sox around?  Too late for this season, I’m afraid, but to quote from Dan Shaughnessy in his column this morning in the Boston Globe

You want them to blow it up?

This would be blowing it up.

The prospective blockbuster would signify a white flag on this horrible season. More than that, it would mark the end of a failed era of big names, big salaries, big egos, and maddening underachievement,

Will any of the prospects the Sox acquire emerge as blue-chip big leaguers? We don’t know. That’s not what this trade is about. This trade is about clearing the air of the stench created by the 2011 and 2012 Red Sox. It’s about saying goodbye to arrogance, unearned entitlement, and poor performance from top-priced talent. It’s about changing the rotten culture of the Sox clubhouse, a malaise that has turned even diehard fans against the once-beloved franchise.

After 12 infuriating months of passivity, sloth, and denial, the Sox look like they’re finally admitting they have a problem. This is always an important first step. The deal would be a whopper . . . in terms of the people who are leaving Boston.

Let’s make sure we keep Clay, Dustin,  Ortiz, and Ellsbury.  Let’s make sure we nurture Middlebrooks, Lin, and our other minor leaguers.  Let’s build for the future.

Peter Abraham argues that the quartet that were traded are not bad people, just good players not suited for the big media market.  Maybe true of Crawford and Gonzales, but Beckett’s bad boy, don’t care what fans think attitude got really old – especially when he had bad game after bad game.  Josh was a star in 2007 and tried to live off that without doing anything new.  Boston fans can be brutal and he did nothing to help.

Don’t know about anyone else, but I’m going to tune in to the Sox tonight, but to check out what is going on.  Good luck to the Sox and good luck to the new Dodgers and their teammates.

Willie Davis, Dodger, and Nomar Garciaparra, Red Sox

I woke up this morning to two surprising pieces of baseball news.  First, Nomar Garciaparra signed a one day contract with the Red Sox so he could retire from baseball as a member of the team.  Then, news that Willie Davis, Dodger centerfielder had died.  Both were great ballplayers who were also complex personalities.

The Boston Globe story describes what happened.

Nomar Garciaparra, who for the better part of seven years was the face of the franchise before his shocking trade in 2004, has come home to the Red Sox.

At his request, the Red Sox today signed the 36-year-old to a minor-league contract at which point he announced his retirement from baseball during a press conference held at City of Palms Park. He was accompanied by his wife, Mia Hamm, and their twin daughters along with his father, Ramon.

“I was getting choked up then, I’m choked up now, and I’ve got the chills,” Garciaparra said.

“But to be able to have that dream come true, I just can’t put it into words what this organization has always meant to me,” an emotional Garciaparra said. “It’s my family, the fans — I always tell people Red Sox Nation is bigger than any nation out there. I came back home, and to be part of Red Sox Nation is truly a thrill.”

During his prime, all the young women I worked with wanted to meet him.  He was “Nomah”.  I don’t know which was more devastating:  His trade or his marriage to Mia Hamm.

Garciaparra walks off the field to a standing ovation during the 1999 MLB All-Star Game played at Fenway Park.

Tony Massarotti has a great piece on Garciaparra.

Most people who follow the Red Sox and the Boston media know much of the history that existed between Garciaparra and reporters, so let’s get this out there: I got along with him better than most, which is hardly to suggest that we’re best friends. We’re not. Garciaparra could be cold enough to walk right past you at a public appearance without acknowledging your existence, kind enough to walk across the room and shake your hand in the same setting. Most of the mistakes he made in Boston were because he did not know how to act, what to say, what to do. In many ways, he was a terrible fit for a place like Boston, where we ask a lot more questions than they do in Dodgertown, Wrigleyville or the Bay Area.

Why do you swing at the first pitch so much, Nomah? What happened on that throw, Nomah? Do you really like it here, Nomah?

Those of us who have always lived here and worked here accept that all as part of the deal. You take the bad with the good. For Garciaparra, it was all a needless reminder of everything that can go wrong, of the things Garciaparra spent far too much of his time thinking about.

As a result, most people saw him as a divisive force when he really wasn’t. Many remember the malcontent at the end of Garciaparra’s time in Boston more than the unbridled enthusiasm of his earlier years. Some see him as part of the problem more than part of the solution.

Remember: the Red Sox were a different team then and Fenway Park was a different place. Frustration had been building for more than 80 years. Lucchino and Co. were learning about Boston as much as we were learning about them, and, along with Pedro Martinez, Garciaparra was the biggest holdover and greatest symbol of a troubled, dysfunctional franchise that just couldn’t seem to get it completely right.


Maybe Nomar was just as frustrated with all of that as you were.

Presumably, Garciaparra knows now that there are certain things he will never escape: the rejection of a four-year, $60 million deal that ultimately cost him about $25 million; the injuries to his wrist, legs and Achilles; the disputes with team doctor Arthur Pappas and, later, Lucchino; the never-ending suspicion of steroid use regardless of whether he ever failed any tests; the perpetual feud with the media; the trade that led to a world title; the fact that Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter, once regarded as his peers, essentially went on to bigger things without him.

In the wake of all that, some of us choose to remember Garciaparra as a fascinatingly complex ballplayer who was probably in the wrong place at the wrong time, as someone who had trouble coping with relatively ordinary distractions, as someone whose intentions were generally good. At his best, he was a great baseball player. At his worst, he came off as ungrateful and impossible.

In the middle, he really wasn’t much different from anyone else.

And then there was Willie Davis who died at 69.  To be honest, I didn’t know he was that close to my age when I was such a fan.  That Dodger team:  Koufax, Drysdale, Podres, Gilliam, Wills and Davis.  I loved that team.  That was back when I was a loyal Dodger fam – even after they left Brooklyn.  That team won with pitching and speed.

The New York Times has his obituary today.

Frank McCourt, the owner of the Dodgers, said in a statement that Davis was “one of the most talented players ever to wear a Dodgers uniform.” Davis played 14 seasons for the Dodgers, on teams that were almost immediately the stuff of legend. Among his teammates were Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale and Maury Wills. His 31-game hitting streak in 1969 is still a team record. It was the longest streak in the majors since Dom DiMaggio’s 34 games in 1949 for the Boston Red Sox.

Davis holds six other Los Angeles Dodgers records, including hits (2,091), extra-base hits (585), at-bats (7,495), runs (1,004), triples (110) and total bases (3,094).

Davis lifetime batting average was .279, and he had a total of 398 stolen bases. He made it to the major leagues in 1960 and retired after the 1979 season.

Over his career, he played more than 2,200 games in center field, was a two-time All-Star and a three-time Gold Glove winner for his defense. He won World Series rings in 1963 and 1965, stealing three bases in Game 5 of the 1965 Series. On one steal, he had to crawl into second base after stumbling and falling.

William Henry Davis was born on April 15, 1940, in Mineral Springs, Ark. His family moved to Los Angeles, where he became a world-class track star at Roosevelt High School. He once ran a 9.5-second 100-yard dash and set a city record in the long jump.

The Dodgers signed him after he graduated in 1958. Playing the next year for the Reno Silver Sox, a Class C minor league team, he scored from first base on a single nine times in one season.

He made his debut with the Dodgers in 1960, and combined with Wills to dazzle the National League with speed. Some called Davis the second coming of Willie Mays. He had a career-high 42 stolen bases in 1964. Dodgers fans loved how his hat flew off when he ran.

He was, in many ways, like Nomar.  Not a media favorite.

But he was a loner who sometimes chanted Buddhist mantras before and after games.

For all his speed and obvious ability, sportswriters sometimes questioned why Davis was not even better. Jim Murray, the syndicated sports columnist for The Los Angeles Times, suggested that Davis had tinkered with his batting stance too much.

“Willie, you see, did imitations,” Murray wrote. “The only way you could tell it wasn’t Stan Musial was when he popped up.”

I will remember Willie in centerfield and Nomar at short.  Different teams and different eras, but two ballplayers who played hard, played well, and in the end just wanted to be known for their game.  And it doesn’t really matter what other teams they played for because Willie is always a Dodger and Nomar is now always a Red Sox.