As everyone knows by now, the major leagues met in Chicago last week to talk over various matters of import to baseball's brass. Nothing startling happened at the meetings (nor, indeed, was anything startling anticipated). The Washington Senators stayed in Washington, the National League did not expand to 10 teams, and the question of reviving the player bonus rule was tabled until next meeting.
The only excitement—and excitement it was—came when Sports-writer Bill Furlong of the Chicago Daily News sauntered into a hall next to the room where the meeting was being held, locked the door, flopped on the floor next to an air vent, cocked his ear and took notes on the supposedly secret discussions going on beyond the wall.
Twice, on Monday and again on Tuesday, did Furlong achieve his journalistic coup, and thus for two days running he had the biggest sports story in Chicago. His copy, which was really not nearly so startling as baseball's outraged protests made it sound, nevertheless had all the fascination of a conversation overheard on a party line. Baseball owners, who like to conduct their games in front of as many people as possible, are notoriously cautious when it comes to speaking their minds within earshot of their beloved fans, and it was rare fun, therefore, to hear them in private, yakking away like ordinary mortals with some pressing problems in common.
Herewith, some excerpts from Bill Furlong's copy:
September 21, 1958
Del Webb of the New York Yankees brought up the matter of expansion of the American League. He said that the realignment committee—which he headed—opposed expansion. Moreover, he said that the committee had not received any applications from any club to move.
The discussion then shifted to the Washington Senators and their proposed move to Minneapolis. The question was where the greatest opportunity lies.
"The trend in Washington is getting to be all colored," said Calvin Griffith, president of the Washington Senators.
Several times his colleagues asked him: "You feel the potential in Washington will never be very great?"
"Yes," said Griffith.
"Not even with a good team?"
Griffith hedged slightly but agreed. Moreover, he indicated that the plans of Congress to build a new stadium for the Senators in Washington were not completely to his liking. The new stadium...would be built near the Maryland state line.... His clientele, he said, came from across the District of Columbia near the Virginia state line. In addition, the Griffiths would lose rental from the Washington Redskins pro football team.... So he was not very ecstatic about Congress' plan to build the stadium.
What would Congress do if it built the new stadium and the Senators didn't go for it?
Griffith felt that if the Washington club didn't agree to use the stadium, the stadium wouldn't be built....
"Let's remain in Washington through 1959," said one of the owners, "then review the whole subject next summer."
Furlong quoted Griffith on the question of moving his Senators to Minneapolis.
"It's in the contract, they'll guarantee us a million people every year for three years," said Griffith. "But a lawyer told me I should have them put money in escrow in case we don't draw a million."
Arnold Johnson of Kansas City brought up the question of the bonus rule, or draft rule.... Throughout the rest of the meeting, Johnson adroitly steered the discussion.... The big problem was what the U.S. Government would do if the major leagues adopted a draft [similar to the football draft]. The owners obviously feared that they'd be hit with some sort of antitrust action....
"If we worked out some reasonable formula of a draft and take it up with the Justice Department—let's exhaust that possibility," urged Arnold Johnson.
But the owners much preferred the bonus rule they jettisoned last winter. Said [League President Will] Harridge: "The Commissioner told me when we passed that bonus rule that it would be hard to enforce. It wasn't six months later before he was back saying he couldn't enforce it."
"It was a good bonus rule," said one man, "if it was enforced. It just wasn't enforced.... Does anyone believe the present system is right?"
If anyone did, he didn't open his mouth.
Two other factors bothered the American League about the bonus, or draft, rule: 1) the attitude of the National League; 2) the attitude of Commissioner Ford Frick....
They feared [Frick] would not risk angering the National League owners by bringing up the subject. Nor that he would act as an enforcement agency for the old bonus rule.
"Why not? He's working for us, isn't he?" said Johnson....
"I think in the meeting tomorrow you should suggest it," [Harridge] said. "I'd like to hear you...discuss it as openly as you did today. You've got to be emphatic with him." "We've still got to put the Commissioner on the spot," said one man.
Next day the Commissioner was on the spot, and so—at his air vent outside—was Bill Furlong:
Frick told the assembled owners that he had been presented with a bill for $150,000 by Robert Coyne, an alleged lobbyist, whose working address is in New York City. The bill, Coyne told Frick, was for his work in getting admission taxes to baseball games—as well as to movies and other sporting events—reduced to 10% of the admission price....
"The Commissioner feels that we have neither a legal nor a moral obligation to pay him," said Frick.
He acknowledged that Coyne had approached him some years ago to offer to lobby for a reduction in admission taxes.
"He's wanted 50, 60, 70 thousand dollars," said Frick. "I told him we weren't interested. I told him if the movies get it [the tax reduction] we get it."
However, Coyne had worked for the majors...to lobby for immunity from the antitrust laws for baseball. The immunity bill...passed the House but not the Senate.
"In all fairness to the man, he did a helluva job for us," said Frick.
He stressed that he wanted to be fair to Coyne because Coyne's work for the motion-picture operators—in getting the tax reduction through Congress—also benefited baseball.
"There's no question that he did a good job on the tax thing," said Frick. "It means that you're saving $100,000 on each million attendance....However, I don't like him coming and saying he was representing us when he wasn't."
Paul Porter, an attorney who represents the major leagues in Washington, warned..."If it becomes known that anybody in organized baseball paid a percentage to get the admission tax reduced, it would be very bad."
[Frick] mentioned the practice of beaming major league games into minor league territories.
"They [the minor leagues] have asked me," he said, "to tell you if you are going into a minor league city, please don't go in on the day they're playing a home game.... They can stand it on Saturday, but feel that Sunday will kill them. There now. I've delivered the message."
Frick reported that 1,185 boys had been signed as free agents since the bonus rule was dropped. Some 366 of these boys were paid bonuses exceeding $4,000. He said that the 16 major league clubs had guaranteed to pay $1.5 million in salaries to these bonus babies in the next four years and $4,790,060 in bonuses. That meant that a total of $6,290,060 has been ticketed for bonus babies in the next four years.
These figures made the owners shudder—and they developed a swift sympathy for the bonus rule they repealed last December.
But they put off doing anything specific until a future meeting. They adjourned, Bill Furlong raced downtown to the Daily News office, and the other sportswriters waiting in the press room were scooped again.