Along about the middle of spring training the world champion Pittsburgh Pirates locked themselves in their clubhouse at Bradenton, Fla. to vote on a proposal that would authorize action against baseball's owners unless certain moneys were forthcoming to sweeten an already fat pension plan. The Pirate meeting lasted about an hour. Afterward, when Dave Giusti, the team's player representative, was asked why it had taken so long, he said, "The main problem I had was to tell some of the players how to spell the word strike."
By the end of last week, with the opening game only a few days away, all the players knew the word well enough. They vacated training sites in Arizona, Florida and California, forcing the postponement of the remaining exhibition games and imperiling a season that had been rich with promise. Owners and players alike seemed to have their heels dug in over the players' request for a 17% cost-of-living adjustment in the pension plan. At present the plan pays a four-year major-leaguer $2,092.08 a year at the age of 45, or $7,416.48 at 65. Men who play longer are guaranteed increasingly higher benefits under a retirement program unimaginable to most workers in the nation today. Take Joe Gibbon as an example. A 37-year-old pitcher for Cincinnati who has averaged 54 innings of work over the last four seasons, he can cash in at the age of 45 after 12 years in the majors and draw $5,584.32 a year for the rest of his life. Or he can wait until age 65 and receive $19,501.32.
The owners seemed united and militant in their stand, while the players were also united, albeit somewhat confused and, on the whole, anxious to play. Pension money triggered the strike, but the players had another, more emotional, impulse: a feeling that the owners were trying to destroy the Players Association because of their deep-seated dislike of Executive Director Marvin Miller.
John Gaherin, negotiator for the owners, and Miller continued to meet in New York at the end of a fruitless week. The owners were unwilling either to hike the pension or bring in an arbitrator—a way out proposed by the players. And the fans were in a position reminiscent of the people who used to go to the edge of a very crooked creek in Alabama. The creek was so crooked that no matter how hard or often they tried to jump over it they kept coming down on the wrong side. Eventually, of course, they learned to walk around it.
Before the furor, and the unexpected death of New York Met Manager Gil Hodges, the game appeared to be having a delightful spring. Some of the players even seemed to like what they were doing. "It's odd, isn't it," Al Kaline said one day, "that you have to come to the end of the line before you realize how lucky you are." Steve Arlin, a practicing dentist of 26 who pitched in such tough luck for the San Diego Padres last season that he had a 9-19 record and did not even gel his face on the bubble-gum cards, was philosophic. "I'm not in this game to quality for a four-year pension," Arlin said. "Dentistry is my backup job, my insurance policy. I'm in the major leagues because I want to do certain things, and 9-19 isn't what I have in mind. If I pitch until I'm 34 I can still practice dentistry for 30 years. If I didn't play baseball I'm sure I would look back at age 40 and wonder about the blank space in my life. Baseball brings an added richness."
Virtually every day crowds of people flocked to Bradenton to see the Pirates at work—and to scrutinize Manager Bill Virdon and Danny Murtaugh, his predecessor. When Murtaugh retired last fall he was heeding an old saying: "I want to be able to walk through the garden while I can still smell the roses." Today Murtaugh is the Pirates' director of player acquisition and development, and thus a man concerned with youth. One morning he assembled all the young infielders and spoke to them. "Gentlemen," he said, "if you look at the big club you will notice that some of our infielders are getting a little old. A minimum of six times this season Manager Bill Virdon is going to have to reach down into our minor league system and bring someone up. It will seldom be the best athlete. It will be the man the Pirates believe can do the things needed now. In Pittsburgh there is no sitting around. If you get to the Pirates, gentlemen, you will play."
Murtaugh made no such promise to fledgling outfielders. What with Stargell, Clemente et al. around, so talented a slugger as Richie Zisk was sent to the minors last week. "I'm like an extra time player in the New York Philharmonic," said Zisk mournfully.
This year's new franchise is in Arlington, Texas, a community of 110,000 generally considered to be located right where the hyphen is in Dallas-Fort Worth. The Cleveland Indians have been sold again, this time to Nick Mileti, "The Sicilian Bill Veeck." (Indian fans, of course, set their alarm clocks to ring every five years because that's when the tax shelters run out and the club has to be sold again.) There are new uniforms all over the place and the most spectacular are the red, white and blue ones to be worn by the Atlanta Braves. The biggest ovation of the year probably will go to a man wearing one of those new uniforms, Henry Aaron, on the night of July 25, when he steps up to hit in the All-Star Game at Atlanta. Aaron is starting his countdown toward Babe Ruth's record of 714 home runs and he needs 76 to break it. A most popular man, Aaron over the last two seasons has accumulated more All-Star votes than any other player—2,514,163. Next come Johnny Bench, 2,151,785; Boog Powell, 1,833,043; Brooks Robinson, 1,725,561; Willie Mays, 1,669,893; and Carl Yastrzemski, 1,659,739.
Bench, of course, is trying to make a big comeback with the revamped Reds in Cincinnati. And John has a new idea. He has said that he will not tip his cap to fans when he hits a homer. History tells us that two things happen to a man who docs not tip his cap: a) he is booed; b) he becomes manager of the Texas Rangers.
As usual, there were rookies in plenty this spring and some fascinating ones, at that. One seemed to come out of the blue sky over Lakeland, Fla. Fred Holdsworth, a 19-year-old right-handed pitcher, although eventually sent to Toledo for regular work, looks like he might become the fourth starter Detroit has been searching for in its attempt to overtake Baltimore. Holdsworth is a Detroit area boy who was valedictorian of his high school class. "Valedictorian?" Manager Billy Martin said. "Does that mean you get to eat lunch first?"