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- LettersApril 18, 2011
- PEOPLEAugust 23, 1965
In 1967 we won the championship of the National League and defeated Boston in the World Series. In 1968 we won the championship of the National League and failed by one game to defeat Detroit in the World Series. In 1969 we lost the championship of the National League on March 22, before the season started.
August A. Busch Jr., horseman, yachtsman, beer magnate and proprietor of the Cardinals, is the most baronial of major league club owners. He also has the shortest fuse. During the 1969 pension negotiations, the Major League Baseball Players Association had offended his sense of propriety by demanding a better retirement plan. After the negotiations ended in a compromise, the leading members of the Cardinals added injury to insult. They asked for substantial salary increases. I, for one, did not sign my contract until March 3—having been an official holdout for two brave days. I had rejected a $77,500 offer.
"If you people want a .300 hitter who also happens to be the best centerfielder in baseball," I said modestly, "it will cost you $90,000, which is not seventy-two-five and is not eighty-nine, nine hundred and ninety-nine." I got the $90,000. Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Tim McCarver and several others also did handsomely. Mr. Busch's player payroll became the highest in the industry.
He had a fit. Labor annoyances were not what he had envisioned when he took up baseball. They boded ill for the future of the game. What would become of the fans? The fans! Mr. Busch decided to attack us in behalf of the fans. Accordingly, he staged a happening. He ordered all the Cardinals to a special meeting on March 22 at St. Petersburg, our Florida training base. He summoned the corporate directors of his beer and baseball enterprises. He whistled up the gentlemen of the press. When all had assembled, he addressed himself to the players.
Mr. Busch questioned the integrity of our attitudes. He raised doubts as to the single-mindedness of our professional efforts. He accused us of upstaging and occasionally manhandling our devoted fans. He deplored the methods of our Association. He warned that failure to mend our ways would ruin St. Louis baseball. He depicted us as a rabble of ingrates who were getting fat and headed for a fall. "Fans are telling us," he said, "that if we intend to raise prices to pay for the high salaries, they will stop coming to the games.... They say they can do other things with their time and with their money. It doesn't take a crystal ball, gentlemen, to realize that with so many fans being so aware of the big payrolls in baseball, they will become more and more critical of us." Having humiliated us to the best of his ability, he exhorted us to go forth and win another pennant.
Other professionals might have resigned en masse, but Busch knew that we would not resign (because baseball law does not permit us to seek another employer). He was using the occasion not only to revile us but to reassert the uniquely feudal privileges vested in him and other club owners by baseball's reserve system.
The speech demoralized the 1969 Cardinals. Despite two successive pennants, we were still livestock. A few days before, the front office had started the havoc by trading away our most popular player, Orlando Cepeda. He had symbolized the joyful togetherness of the champion Cardinals. In return for Cha-Cha, the Atlanta Braves sent us Joe Torre, a congenial man and an excellent player. But the glue was gone.
We remained keen about each other as athletes and men, but the opposing team was no longer our chief adversary, nor was the next game the most important problem in our lives. Each of us was miserably aware that the ax was over our skulls. We finished fourth in the National League's Eastern Division, 13 games behind the Mets. The great Cardinals were all washed up.
I protested more vigorously than usual during the '69 season and even broke into print a few times. This did not endear me to management. Especially not at $90,000 a year. Where once my painting of oil portraits had been tolerated, even encouraged, it was now deplored. The front office nagged Lou Brock about his Dodge agency and flower shop, Nelson Briles about his electronics dealership, Hoot Gibson about his Omaha interests, Tim McCarver about his Memphis restaurant. I was the worst offender of the lot. Not only did I paint until all hours, but my name now was associated with a photography business. How could I be expected to keep my mind on baseball?
I'll tell you how. The major league baseball player is even more aware of the perils of distraction than general managers and owners. He cannot excel unless his mind is on the game. He has known this since childhood. If he becomes involved in businesses outside baseball, he does so as an absentee partner. He usually invests little except the use of his name. How could it be otherwise? He is on the road half the time, and tense with athletic concentration when at home. Why, then, does he involve himself in outside interests? Partly in hope of getting extra money. Mainly in hope that his brief prestige may help him to prepare a place for himself in the world. The likelihood is great that baseball will have no room for him after his playing days end. It is little more likely, I might add, that the outside business will jell. But you can't blame a man for trying.