Almost immediately after taking office, Eckert's first public meeting with baseball people and the press turned into a fiasco. It happened at the Fontainebleu Hotel on Miami Beach in 1965, before a luncheon of managers, writers and columnists. Although by this time the title of The Unknown Soldier seemed to be a permanent attachment, there was a charitable disposition to wait and see.
At the luncheon, however, Eckert, who had been introduced by his then assistant, Lee MacPhail, reached into his pocket and produced some index cards on which he had written a few reminders. Unfortunately, he welcomed the baseball writers and managers by reading from the wrong set of notes. He thanked them for helping the airline industry so much and spoke of technological advances being made in aviation. Managers looked at writers and writers at managers, until finally MacPhail figured out what had gone wrong and went to the commissioner's aid. General Eckert was scheduled to give a speech that evening at a United Airlines cocktail party. It was not a brilliant beginning.
Baseball never seemed more disorganized than it did in 1968. When a rule was passed to clamp down on the spit-ball the American League decided it would do things its way, the National League another. After the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Senator Robert Kennedy, Eckert failed to render swift and forceful decisions as to whether major league teams should or should not go ahead and play. Because Joe Cronin, president of the American League, fired Umpires Al Salerno and Bill Valentine in the last three weeks of the season as "incompetent" after they had served for a total of 13 years, umpires from both leagues were within inches of striking just before the World Series. With no help from Eckert they decided to go ahead and work for "the good of the game."
The breaking straw was the threat of the Major League Players' Association, under its director, Marvin Miller, to strike before spring training unless the players got a larger share of the game's $50 million television contract. Angered, the owners went to a cocktail party and dinner on the next-to-last night of the winter meetings. The long subdued feeling toward Eckert surfaced, and some of the young owners and a few of the older ones decided to drop him—but easily, on a quarter of a million dollar cushion, his pay for the next four years. Among the owners were Bob Reynolds and Gene Autry of the California Angels, Hoffberger, Michael Burke of the New York Yankees, Grant, John Fetzer of the Detroit Tigers, Gabe Paul of the Cleveland Indians, John Galbreath of the Pittsburgh Pirates, O'Malley and Gussie Busch and Dick Meyer of the St. Louis Cardinals.
Following a joint meeting the next morning, the owners went to the Comstock Room, while Eckert went down-stairs to conduct a stormy and confused press conference. That over, thankfully, Eckert was standing in the hotel lobby and thinking ahead to the next day when he would go down to visit his son, a student at UCLA, when suddenly Hoffberger moved quickly through the lobby and asked him to follow him upstairs. After a preliminary stop on another floor, Eckert was escorted into the Com-stock Room and ouster. The entire business was accomplished in the only way, it seems, that baseball—the best friend pro football ever had—can do things. Clumsily.
The meaning of Eckert's firing is twofold. First, in trying to build yet another new image baseball will seek to establish an organization strong enough to prohibit owners and leagues from going off in different directions, but not so strong that the owners cannot control it. Second, it means that the reign of Walter O'Malley as the high priest of the game has ended. No longer will the influential group of young owners and club presidents that fired Eckert sit back and let O'Malley influence the major decisions merely because baseball is his prime source of income while to many of them it is only a hobby.
Within the next few weeks Hoffberger, a close friend of Bill Veeck, will go to work with Dick Meyer and try to find someone capable of putting the game's house back into some kind of order. While they are definitely looking for a man with baseball experience, they are not exactly juggling in the dark. Already Feeney and Burke have been given support in their own areas, but baseball today has 24 teams instead of the 16 it had only eight seasons ago. This time even the heavy-handed baseball owners seem to favor sending the watch to a watch repairman rather than a plumber.
Probably the best man available is Robert Cannon, a Circuit Court judge in Milwaukee who would take the job only if it contained the whip of authority. Cannon is 51 and knows everyone in baseball. While serving as legal adviser of the Players' Association he was able to accomplish things by dealing directly with the owners and the players.
The idea of having a judge in office has a good ring to it. Cannon has something else going for him. He watched closely the administrations of Ford Frick and William Eckert. What better way to learn from mistakes?