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Frank Lane, at one time or another an employee of many of the owners in baseball, stood beneath a crystal chandelier in the lobby of the Sheraton-Palace Hotel in San Francisco last Friday morning and watched William Dole Eckert, the 59-year-old commissioner of baseball, as he walked briskly across the red-and-blue carpet. Only five days previously Eckert had opened the 67th annual winter meetings by calling them "historic," and within the next hour they were finally to become so.
There was a strange crackle in the air of the hotel lobby as baseball men gathered in whispering clumps and drew silent as reporters approached them. One floor above, major league owners had gathered for an unprecedented meeting, the purpose of which was known to few people, and they were not talking.
In the lobby, though, Lane delivered himself of a weighty soliloquy. "You can't blame Eckert," he said. "He tries hard, but he is involved in a game he doesn't know a damn thing about. If you sent a watch to a plumber for repairs and it still didn't work you could find one of the biggest reasons why just by looking in the mirror."
For nearly a year rumors had been spreading that General Eckert was in serious trouble with the owners, who had given him a seven-year contract at $65,000 a year only 37 months ago. But few people thought the trigger would be squeezed so fast on this short, hard-working, dull, gray-haired man who tried hard to deal with a game he knew so very little about. And nobody ever imagined that any commissioner in professional sports would have to deliver publicly the results of his own court-martial.
Eckert announced that he was through in the most bizarre press conference in the history of a game that has had some dandies. He stood on a platform before a yellow curtain in the wood-paneled Comstock Room, dressed nattily, as always. The men who only a few minutes before had conspired to oust Eckert were directly in front of him, and the second-floor room was completely filled with not only owners and newsmen but with managers, general managers, publicity men, scouts and farm directors, as well as all the fringe characters who collect around the game.
Not one of the men who had hired Eckert originally or who had agreed to fire him had the courage to stand up and say, "Gentlemen, the commissioner has an important message." Instead, they sat at three long tables covered with green cloths and refused even to look at him. Walter O'Malley, the owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, puffed on a cigar and took notes on a legal pad without ever looking up. Francis Dale, the president of the Cincinnati Reds and publisher of the Enquirer, who had drawn up the statement accepting Eckert's resignation, sat with his back to Eckert, who had been hired with the promise that he would have "full range of authority." M. Donald Grant of the New York Mets kept looking down at the fingernails he was cleaning. Upon completing his statement of "resignation," Eckert looked down at the owners and said sadly, hopefully, "Walter—Mr. Dale." His voice trailed off.
Dale walked to the rostrum and read a hand-written statement: "Lieut. General William D. Eckert has just delivered to the baseball owners his resignation as commissioner of baseball.... The general's statement that he feels that a bold and imaginative restructuring of baseball is needed and that a baseball man can more effectively do the job and plan for the future of the game is entirely consistent with the dedication he has displayed during his three years in office.... The owners have acceded to the general's wishes and have accepted his resignation...."
Once Dale finished, Eckert was called back for questions by the press. Some of his answers were, "Under no sense whatsoever was I fired...it would be presumptuous to recommend my successor... some of the finest men I have come in contact with have been in baseball."
While Eckert answered the few questions put to him, O'Malley whispered to Jerry Hoffberger, owner of the Baltimore Orioles, "Get up and talk, you've got to get up and just talk." Chub Feeney, the vice-president of the San Francisco Giants, whispered to Hoffberger, "Cut him off, cut him off!" And John Quinn, the general manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, said, "They ought to get him off right now!"
Eckert's demise was fated from the start. Having been selected by committee, he entered baseball almost totally unknown to anyone outside of the U.S. Air Force. When the announcement of his appointment was made the morgue of The New York Times could find only one reference to him, and that was in a caption to a picture in which he was standing next to General Douglas Mac-Arthur. "The dossier we got on him," said Grant, "was one of the most impressive I have ever seen.... This man's previous record, if you read it today, would qualify him for any job you could think of. He accomplished things during the last war and afterward that were astronomical in performance."