THE TWO FACES OF BASEBALL
The world of baseball presents one face to the public, hides another from the public view. The face the public sees (and loves) is the game itself, a game of balletlike precision and skill like no other in the world. But behind the scenes there is the hidden face of baseball. This is the business side of the game without which the spectacle could never take place, and here are the people who own and operate the 16 major league clubs and their affiliates, systems which gained empire status in the carefree days when baseball was just about the only mass summer entertainment Americans could turn to. Perhaps because of this, some of today's baseball administrators seem to regard themselves as divinely ordained custodians of an almost sacred institution. But this hidden face of baseball is troubled today as never before and the men behind the scenes are on a spot that grows hotter by the day. Things are tough now, and in the accompanying factual fantasy, Gerald Holland (who used to work in a behind-the-scenes baseball office himself) imagines what could happen if things get just a little bit tougher.
It is now possible, finally, to reveal the inside story behind the short but sensational administration of Fels Napier as Commissioner of Baseball and at the same time piece together the startling details of the hitherto highly secret Napier Plan to Save Baseball. In this exclusive report, the veritable iron curtain of security that was rung down on l'affaire Napier will be penetrated. Despite the almost frantic efforts of certain major league club owners, managers and publicity directors to suppress all information on the subject, the truth will be told at last. It is felt here that the fans deserve nothing less than the full, shocking story of just how and why Fels Napier was sent streaking across the baseball skies like a meteor. But first, a word of reassurance to Napier's many friends and admirers throughout the nation: Fels Napier is alive and well.
Yes, Napier has been found. The writer (where the author of this exclusive report must, perforce, enter the story, he will refer to himself as "the writer" in order to avoid unseemly use of the first person) has seen and talked at length with Napier and his charming and high-spirited wife. Their generous cooperation has made it possible to get at the facts hitherto withheld from the fans. This writer's exclusive interview with the Napiers will be reported in detail after a review of the events that led up to Napier's appointment as commissioner and his abrupt resignation and mysterious disappearance.
December 22, 1958
The year 1958 (as everyone knows) was a troubled one for major league baseball. The talk of moving the Cleveland and Washington teams to other cities (coming, as it did, after the desertion of New York by Walter O'Malley's Dodgers and Horace Stoneham's Giants) made a bad impression. President Eisenhower himself joined the critics of Owner Calvin Griffith's plan to leave Washington by saying that he saw nothing wrong with baseball in our nation's capital that a few good ballplayers couldn't cure.
At the same time, congressional pressure on baseball increased. Congressman Emanuel Celler (D., N.Y.) continued to issue sharply critical views, and there was growing apprehension among baseball men that the game's privileged status was in peril. Some of these men said privately that is was not inconceivable that "crackpot legislators" might one day declare the game a monopoly and thus destroy baseball's sine qua non, the reserve clause.
Fears mounted as a Senate committee entered the picture and began calling witnesses. Fortunately, however, baseball found an able spokesman in Charles D. (Casey) Stengel of the New York Yankees. Stengel parried the probing questions of the Senators in a masterful way, turning aside the most insistent demands for his views by recalling anecdotes out of his 48-year career in baseball. When he declared at one point that the Japanese were trying to play baseball with short fingers, the Senators were so taken aback by this seeming irrelevancy that they never really recovered. The inquiry was later recessed and the baseball magnates breathed easier.
But there were other irritating developments on the baseball scene, notably the publication in September of the celebrated Furlong Air Vent Papers. The Furlong Papers, as everyone knows, contained a detailed account of proceedings at the traditionally secret meetings of the 'major leagues as they were overheard by William Furlong of the Chicago Daily News, who was eavesdropping at an air vent in a room adjoining the meeting chamber. As is well known, the Furlong Papers shocked the major league club owners—not that they were of a sensational nature, but because they revealed that the discussions among baseball's best brains consisted largely of aimless chatter devoid of conclusion.
In October, baseball's luck seemed to have changed at last. There was one of the most thrilling World Series in the history of the game—again there was a brilliant performance (as field manager this time) by Charles D. (Casey) Stengel of the New York Yankees—and at the same time there was evidence of a strong hand at the top of baseball administration. Although sick in bed with a virus, Baseball Commissioner Ford Frick had watched the games over television. From this prone position, he now slapped fines 1) on the entire Milwaukee team for publicly discussing their plans for dividing their Series money and 2) on Ryne Duren, a New York pitcher, for making a gesture of disrespect toward an umpire. This combination of a great Series and forceful action by the commissioner was hailed by baseball men as evidence that the game was never in a better or a stronger position.
Then the roof fell in again. In November, members of a committee appointed by the mayor of New York called a press conference and denounced the National League, declaring that it had no intention of putting a team into New York ever. Then the committee members said they were going ahead with plans for a third major league, with or without the sanction of Organized Baseball. Baseball people and many oldtime sportswriters hooted at the idea of an outlaw league. In Cincinnati, National League President Warren Giles issued a statement that came to be known as the Giles Pooh-Pooh Doctrine. Giles said that he saw no need for the National League to expand now or in the future and "pooh-poohed" the third league as a wild and impractical dream.
A few weeks later the major league meetings were held in Washington and more troubles presented themselves. The players demanded that the salary budget of each club represent at least 20% of a club's gross income. The proposition was unanimously howled down by the owners. Players of the International League, meanwhile, threatened to strike unless their pension demands were met.
At the same time, the owners were dismayed to hear William Harridge, 72, respected president of the American League, offer his resignation on the ground that a younger man might be better able to deal with the growing baseball crises. Joseph Cronin, general manager of the Boston Red Sox, was fingered as Harridge's successor, to be so designated officially after a decent interval had elapsed.
Two committees were named, one by each league, to study baseball's expansion in the future. On motion of Phil Wrigley of Chicago, who said the question was getting too big for committees, the National League agreed to engage a national research organization to study the subject.
But all these vexing problems were as nothing compared to the bombshell that burst on New Year's Day 1959. It was then that Baseball Commissioner Ford Frick called a press conference at the St. Andrews Golf Club in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y. and read the following statement:
"What I am about to say is not the result of a sudden decision. It has nothing to do with any of the events of recent months. I have been thinking about this matter for some years. I have now come to the considered conclusion that I can no longer defer giving my whole attention to a project which has been occupying me at odd moments for a long time. This project is the writing of a book on the game of curling. As most of you gentlemen of press, radio and television know, I have been playing this grand old Scottish game here at the St. Andrews Club for many, many years. Baseball has always been my first love, true, but curling is a game to which I am also deeply devoted. In this book of mine, I think I may have something to say. Therefore, effective immediately, I am resigning as baseball commissioner to give all my time to the completion of my manuscript. Thank you, one and all.
"And now, fellows, I think there are some refreshments and light luncheon snacks waiting for us in the club bar."
The baseball world was shocked by Frick's resignation. A network television program of farewell was arranged and, as those who viewed it will recall, it was one of the most poignant ever telecast. Sportscaster Mel Allen read a poem entitled A Game Guy's Prayer. Sportscaster Red Barber explained the game of curling, pointing out that it was something like bowling on ice and "really rugged." Sportscaster Howard Cosell wished Frick well with his book on curling and added, "I will go out on a limb with the prediction that this book will make a truly great, a truly magnificent motion picture, one which will not offend any member of the family, young or old." The program closed with a quartet representing the Baseball Writers' Association of America singing Fordy Boy, a sentimental parody of Danny Boy written by Sportswriter Arthur Mann.
Meanwhile, an emergency meeting of club owners was called at once to select Frick's successor.
Quite naturally, Charles Segar, Frick's assistant, was a strong candidate. His supporters pointed out that with his white hair he was beginning to resemble Judge Landis. However, there was equally strong sentiment in favor of William O. DeWitt of St. Louis, administrator of the $500,000 fund set up by the majors to aid minor leagues. DeWitt, who began his career as a peanut salesman in the St. Louis ball park, had risen to be co-owner of the St. Louis Browns, then had served as assistant general manager of the New York Yankees. He was widely respected among club owners as an extremely close man with a buck.
But as vote after vote was taken, neither Segar nor DeWitt could muster a majority. A desperate attempt was made to agree on a compromise candidate. Bing Crosby, stockholder in the Pittsburgh Pirates, and Bob Hope, stockholder in the Cleveland Indians, were nominated, along with Harold Stassen, former special assistant to President Eisenhower. None could get enough support.
At last, near dawn, a middle western club owner asked for the floor. He told his weary colleagues that he had had a sudden inspiration and then proceeded to electrify them with a proposal that was destined to make baseball history. (The writer is reconstructing the following scene from information given him by an unimpeachable source, a waiter who was in the room at the time.)
"Gentlemen," said the middle western club owner, "I am comparatively new in baseball and I ask your indulgence if what I am about to say is out of order. I am going to speak frankly and I ask you to bear with me. Gentlemen, I don't have to remind you that we are on the spot here. Just look back over the last year. Attendance off, the press riding us hard everywhere, players demanding more money, Congress getting tougher and tougher, and I think you'll agree that although Casey Stengel did a great job for us before the Senate committee he has won us nothing more than a reprieve. The publication of the Furlong Air Vent Papers was damaging and this talk of an outlaw league is definitely capturing the public fancy in the face of the Warren Giles Pooh-Pooh Doctrine."
The middle western club owner (according to the writer's waiter informant) stopped and let that sink in. Then he went on:
"You and I know, gentlemen, that if enough money is put behind an outlaw league, they can take us to court and blow the reserve clause sky-high. Or maybe they won't even have to take us to court. Maybe the very creation of a third league will give those crackpot legislators in Washington all the ammunition they need to finish us off."
There was an ominous murmur growing in the room. The middle western club owner raised his voice as he continued:
"We're vulnerable, gentlemen, vulnerable as hell! Although I'm comparatively new in the game, I know something about its history. We, as baseball men, have a long record of fighting progress. There was a time when we refused to put numbers on the players' uniforms. There was a time when we refused to permit a hit or error sign on the scoreboard. We resisted modern plumbing fixtures and paper towels in the rest rooms. We resisted night baseball, we resisted radio, we resisted television—and then we did an about-face and overdid all three!"
The murmur had died away now. The owners sat in shocked silence. The speaker took a kindlier tone:
"What I am getting at, gentlemen, is the fact that, in my view, we must come up with a strong commissioner whose very appointment, whose very name will make it clear that we're forward-looking and progressive, that we mean business in dealing with the many problems confronting the national game, the grand old game of baseball!"
The speaker, a faint smile playing on his lips, looked at the owners, one after the other. Then raising both hands high above his head, he shouted:
"I nominate Fels Napier!"
The startling nomination had a delayed impact. At first the owners nodded agreeably as a sort of reflex action. Then, realizing the full import of what had just been said, owners jumped to their feet all over the room and veritable bedlam ensued. Owners and league executives alike shouted and, indeed, almost screamed. Nerves, taut after the tumultuous all-night session, suddenly snapped. In the back of the room two owners started to trade blows and could not be separated until Branch Rickey, 77-year-old elder statesman of baseball, attending in his capacity as chairman of the board of the Pittsburgh Pirates, thrust his walking stick between them and pried them apart.
Owner after owner shouted at the speaker, who folded his arms and waited for the furor to subside.
"Fels Napier is the boy wonder of the soap industry!" an owner shouted. "What does he know about baseball!"
Another owner cried:
"Fels Napier makes $300,000 a year! Even if the whole idea wasn't ridiculous, how are you going to get a man like that to accept the $75,000 we have budgeted for the commissioner?"
A red-faced National League executive ran up to the speaker, shook his fist and roared:
"I call this shameful! The idea of putting a soap peddler into the commissioner's chair is an abomination on the face of it! Sir, I charge you with attempting to make a travesty of the game!"
Slowly, the hysteria spent itself. The owners sank back in their chairs, exhausted. The speaker was about to proceed when Branch Rickey arose at the back of the room and raised his cane aloft for attention.
"May I have a word, young man?" he said.
"Certainly, Mr. Rickey," replied the speaker.
"Thank you," said Rickey. "First, let me commend you on presenting what is at least an idea to this deadlocked assembly. I believe it was Anatole France who said, 'Give me the errors of enthusiasm rather than the indifference of wisdom.' However, I must confess, young man, I do not see how baseball can possibly turn to the soap industry for a man capable of discharging the manifold and complex duties of the commissioner. I put that in the form of a question to you, sir!"
He thrust an unlighted cigar back into his mouth and sat down.
"Gentlemen," said the speaker, "I am grateful to Mr. Rickey for putting the question so well. 'How,' he asks, 'can baseball turn to the soap industry for a commissioner?' "
There were mutters of "hear, hear" around the room.
The speaker raised his voice a little. "I will answer that question by asking another."
He paused to heighten the dramatic effect. Then he raised his arms above his head again and cried out:
"Where did the Government of these United States turn when it was in dire need of a Secretary of Defense!"
Again, there was the delayed reaction. Then, in rapid succession, came such excited responses as: "To the soap industry!" "To Neil McElroy!" "Of course, of course, what a fool I've been!" "What an utter ass I am!" And so on.
"Yes, my friends," the speaker went on, "our Government turned to the soap industry and there it found in the chair of the president of Procter & Gamble our able, our brilliant Secretary of Defense, Neil Hosier McElroy! I ask you, if Mr. McElroy has been able to switch from soap to missiles, is it too much to expect that the equally brilliant Fels Napier can switch from soap to baseball?"
The speaker took a deep breath, but before he could go on, a voice rang out:
"I ask you this, sir! Exactly how do you propose to get Fels Napier?"
The speaker shouted back: "By appealing to his love of the game and his well-known zeal for public service! I happen to know he played ball in college and is a rabid fan! Furthermore, I propose that we offer him unlimited authority—in other words, a blank check to deal with our problems in any way he sees fit!"
There was an immediate chorus of protest and the questioner in the back of the room shouted: "What if he goes too far! What if he tampers with our hallowed traditions? Isn't there a danger that a man like Napier might make a travesty of the game?"
The speaker threw back his head and laughed. Shaking his head, he asked, "Gentlemen, gentlemen—beyond a few harmless innovations, what could he do? What could Commissioner Happy Chandler do, what could Commissioner Frick do? Now, gentlemen, be realistic! I give you not a radical, but incomparable window dressing!"
A great hush fell over the assembly. Then, slowly digesting the idea, owners and league executives began to chuckle, then to laugh and slap each other on the back. Two men rushed forward and lifted the speaker to their shoulders and carried him around the room as the others fell into a line that quickly turned into a snake dance. The red-faced National League official who had accused the speaker of making a travesty of the game danced along, trying to reach the speaker's hand as he cried, "I've been an idiot, a blind fool, an insufferable mucker!"
The speaker nodded and asked to be set down, proposing over the bedlam that another secret vote be taken immediately. None was necessary. On a motion by Branch Rickey, seconded by Gussie Busch of the St. Louis Cardinals, Fels Napier was elected baseball commissioner by acclamation. The middle western club owner who had presented Napier's name was appointed chairman of a committee of three to go to Cincinnati and persuade the 38-year-old, $300,000-a-year Boy Wonder of Big Soap to take the job.
As no one needs be reminded, the announcement that Fels Napier had accepted the office of baseball commissioner was an even bigger bombshell than the resignation of Ford Frick. There was (as will be recalled) some bitter press reaction in the beginning. In The Sporting News, the national baseball weekly, Editor J. G. Taylor Spink wrote a signed editorial under the headline, "Travesty of the Game?" But all criticism was quickly silenced when attention was drawn to the fact that Organized Baseball had turned to Big Soap for a commissioner just as the Eisenhower Administration had looked to it for a Secretary of Defense. In the next issue of The Sporting News an unsigned editorial asked the question, "Greatest Commissioner Since Landis?"
The country at large got its first glimpse of Mr. and Mrs. Fels Napier on the Edward R. Murrow Person to Person television program, which originated from the huge, rambling Napier home of brick and clapboard in a fashionable Cincinnati suburb. As will be remembered, the handsome couple completely captivated the audience and television critics as well. Napier was revealed by the cameras to be a tall, handsome man with a trim athletic figure, brown wavy hair (with just a touch of gray at the temples) and a certain boyish (and yet somehow mature) manner that made him an instant idol of the women fans from coast to coast. Mrs. Napier (the former June Sud of Cincinnati) turned out to be a stunning blonde, combining what one television critic described as the best features of Ingrid Bergman, Brigitte Bardot and Marlene Dietrich.
In conducting Murrow and his cameras through their home, the Napiers kept up a flow of refined small talk. Mrs. Napier disclosed that she loved to sew, golf, ski and, above all, go to baseball games when her husband could snatch an afternoon from his busy schedule. Fels Napier himself (who would impulsively kiss his lovely wife from time to time during the program) told of some of his own interests, which included studying American history, government, economics, nuclear physics and Russian and collecting Lawrence Welk records. In the game room Napier picked up an old baseball glove, which he said, boyishly, was a trophy from his pitching days at Cornell. Asked by Murrow if her husband had any special tastes in food, June Napier said he was easy to please, but always ate the same breakfast, consisting of one poached egg and a chocolate nut sundae. After choking on his cigaret, Murrow recovered his poise and reminded his viewers that Secretary of Defense McElroy invariably had a piece of chocolate cake with his breakfast.
There was grave apprehension among baseball men when, against the advice of a committee of major league publicity directors, Napier agreed to appear on the Meet the Press television program two nights later. One publicity director warned, "Those fellows can cut you to ribbons." Napier smiled and replied, "We'll see."
After the first five minutes of the program, all baseball men relaxed. Napier, it was clear, was more than a match for his interrogators. Then, with only a few minutes remaining, a short man at the end of the press table took over the questioning. "Mr. Napier," he said, referring to a paper, "appearing on another network two nights ago, you mentioned you were interested in the study of government, economics, nuclear physics and the Russian language."
"That is correct," said Napier, smiling.
"Aren't these rather unusual interests for an executive of Big Soap?"
"No," said Napier coolly, "I don't think so."
(This reply was scored as a distinct triumph for Napier because it tied in perfectly with the then current Viceroy cigaret commercial featuring business and professional men with odd avocations to prove that Viceroys had "a thinking man's filter, a smoking man's taste.")
"Mr. Napier, there have been rumors going around Washington that you have political ambitions and have taken the baseball commissionership to make yourself better known to the country at large."
Napier raised his eyes to heaven and shook his head.
"If a deadlock should develop in either of the national conventions, with other bright young men like Kennedy, Rockefeller and Nixon unable to get a majority, would you be available for a draft?"
Napier's face grew stern. "Sir," he said, "I have just taken over as baseball commissioner. My only concern at this time is to do the best possible job for our national game. I'd like to make that as strong as possible and I would thank you, sir, to confine your questions to baseball."
The interrogator peered over his glasses and smirked.
"Very well," he said, "what is your position on the Warren Giles Pooh-Pooh Doctrine concerning a possible third major league?"
Napier replied: "I have no position on the Pooh-Pooh Doctrine. I am not looking at the past, sir, I am looking toward the future."
"What precisely do you intend to do in the future, Mr. Napier?"
Napier smiled again: "At this moment, sir, I don't know."
"You haven't done anything so far about the problems facing the major leagues?"
Napier cleared his throat and leaned forward.
"I didn't say that, sir," he said. "I wouldn't be a very good commissioner if I were able to come before you after only a few days in office and tell you I had a cure-all in my pocket. But I assure you I have done a great deal. I have assigned a staff of experts from the soap industry to a crash program of marketing research. Within a week or so, I will know every last detail about the quality of the baseball product and its marketing possibilities."
The interrogator looked at his colleagues down the table and turned back to Napier with a leer.
"That," he said, "sounds like you were selling soap."
"So?" Napier asked mildly.
The interrogator leaned forward with a glint of triumph in his eyes.
"Are you saying, Mr. Napier," he asked archly, "that what is good for Big Soap is good for baseball?"
Napier threw back his head and laughed so winningly that the entire press table joined in just as Moderator Ned Brooks broke in with, "I'm sorry, Commissioner, that's all the time we have. Thank you for joining us this evening and now a message."
The effect on the nation of this television appearance was sensational. Napier was hailed as the most appealing character to appear on the national scene since Nelson Rockefeller. As one political columnist wrote, "Like it or not, Fels Napier has joined the ranks of 1960 presidential possibilities, along with his former colleague in Big Soap, Secretary of Defense McElroy."
There was less certainty about Napier's public statements among certain major league club owners and, as an emergency measure, telephonic conference circuits were ordered set up by the league presidents. As the writer later learned from a long-distance telephone operator of his acquaintance, the conference was heated and National League President Giles read from the major league rule-book about activities tending to make a travesty of the game. However, the final decision was to send a committee of five to brief Napier on the limits of his job as commissioner. Included on the committee was the middle western owner who had nominated Napier and was stoutly defending him as "the best public-relations man baseball ever had." This owner continued to remind his colleagues that Napier could not possibly do anything that would seriously alter the baseball structure.
The committee asked for an appointment with the new commissioner, and was promptly invited for breakfast at the Napier home on February 15, two days hence. At breakfast the charm of the Napiers again worked its spell, and the committee members found a feeling of euphoria stealing over them as Mrs. Napier, wearing a low-cut breakfast gown of basic black that set off her golden blonde hair, told delightful little anecdotes about the Napier children, Fels, 8, Kaylo, 6, and Pearl, 3, all of whom were away at boarding school. Over coffee (all the committee members except Branch Rickey declined chocolate nut sundaes), the committee suggested that Napier proceed slowly from now on and urged that he and Mrs. Napier make a leisurely tour of the training camps in order to "soak up atmosphere and get the feel of the game." One committee member pointed out that the tour could begin at once since Casey Stengel's rookie camp had already opened at St. Petersburg, Fla.
At this juncture, the writer desires to mention that he himself visited the Napier home later that same day for the purpose of interviewing Mrs. Napier (the writer's source for the account of the breakfast just described). She was very, very pleased with the article and wrote a note of thanks to the writer. This incident is mentioned only because it has a bearing on later developments.
Napier thanked the committee for its suggestions and said they would be given some thought. But next day he and his wife flew to New York, and after paying a visit to the old offices of Commissioner Frick in Rockefeller Center he called a press conference in his suite at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. He announced 1) that he was bringing in an entire staff of soap-industry personnel from Cincinnati; 2) he was taking over an entire floor of the Waldorf-Astoria as his temporary headquarters, having found Frick's old offices entirely inadequate; and 3) he was calling a convention of all club owners, general managers, field managers, publicity directors and other officials of the major and principal minor leagues. The convention would meet, he said, in the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf one week hence to witness a presentation of what he now officially labeled "The Napier Plan to Save Baseball."
When the Napier announcement appeared in the afternoon papers, the impact on major league club owners was devastating. A committee of six was quickly appointed and flew to New York that evening. When the committee demanded that Napier call off the convention, he merely smiled and reminded them that they had given him a "blank check of authority" to do anything he deemed to be in the interest of baseball. The committee then demanded to know how he proposed to pay for the costs of the convention, rental of the Grand Ballroom, etc. Napier replied that he was having all bills directed to William O. DeWitt, administrator of the $500,000 fund to aid minor leagues. "The convention will aid all baseball," said Napier, "and thus, in my view, qualifies for financing by the DeWitt fund."
The committee then pleaded with Napier that he grant them one concession and bar the press from the presentation. Napier demurred, but finally agreed on condition that a repeat performance be put on for the press next day. The committee said that point would be debated in executive session. Meanwhile, a subcommittee of three was named to inspect all air vents in the Grand Ballroom against a repetition of the Furlong Papers incident of last September.
That night a committee of eight club owners and the two league presidents met secretly in the Concourse Plaza Hotel near Yankee Stadium. At this stormy session (according to a hotel chambermaid whose identity the writer cannot reveal) there was an out-and-out demand that Fels Napier be impeached and that his convention be called off forthwith. Only an impassioned appeal by the middle western owner who had nominated Napier originally persuaded the owners to hold off action. They were unable to resist the eloquent arguments of the middle western owner, who is reported to have said, "You fellows have short memories; you have forgotten the lousy press, the congressional heat, all the other jams we were in before Napier took over. We were hated, and I tell you this boy is making us loved, yes loved! Give him his head, let him put on his show! I tell you, it's all harmless stuff, it will all blow over before opening day!"
When the baseball men arrived in town (Casey Stengel at first refused to leave his rookie camp but yielded to pressure from the Yankee owners, Del Webb and Dan Topping, and flew to New York), their mood was peevish. But after some time at the great bar Napier had set up they relaxed and—old friends meeting for the first time in a year or more—became better humored. When they sat down to a lunch (the menu was planned by Mrs. Napier) consisting of sea-food cocktail, filet mignon, potatoes √† la Ivory, fresh asparagus and ice cream molded in the shape of a baseball, they became almost jovial. Casey Stengel regaled his table with stories of his career. Only William O. DeWitt, administrator of the $500,000 fund to aid minor leagues, cast the merest pall on the assembly by refusing to touch a bit of the food on his plate while he worked frantically on a bookkeeper's ledger he had brought to the table.
When coffee had been served, the delegates swung their chairs around to face the stage. Suddenly a voice shouted over the public-address speakers, "One and a two and a..." and then came a spirited arrangement of Take Me Out to the Ball Game. The curtains parted to reveal a huge orchestra, and the convention delegates (in spite of themselves) broke into spontaneous applause as they saw that the dancing bandleader was Lawrence Welk. Then a spotlight beamed on a corner of the stage to reveal the McGuire sisters, who sang the following lyrics to the traditional baseball theme:
Let's drive out to the ball game,
There's plenty of room to park!
We'll dine on the terrace over third base,
And chill with the thrills of a great pennant race!
As we root, root, root for the home team,
We'll say, "Waiter, bring more of the same!"
For the food's great and the drinks are tops
At the new—we said new—at the new and improved ball game!
Before the delegates had time to react to this tampering with an almost sacred baseball song, Welk's orchestra had segued to America the Beautiful, and the spotlight swung to the center of the stage, where Fels Napier stood with his wife, becomingly attired in a low-cut cocktail dress of fire-engine red. Welk faded his music down to a soft background and Fels Napier took Mrs. Napier's hand and, leaning forward toward the microphone, said simply, "Gentlemen, good friends of baseball—my wife!"
Welk's music came up and segued into I Love You Truly and the effect (thanks to the astonishing good looks of the couple) was so striking that the entire assembly arose in a standing ovation. Mrs. Napier waved prettily, kissed her husband lightly on the cheek and then walked across the stage with feline grace. The spotlight followed her into the wings and the music was cut off abruptly. The spotlight was swung back to Napier, who stood with his hand held at his forehead in a smart military salute as the band struck up the national anthem. The delegates arose and all saluted with the exception of William O. DeWitt, administrator of the $500,000 fund to aid minor leagues, who stood holding his bookkeeper's ledger over his heart in lieu of a hat.
At the conclusion of the national anthem the delegates sat down heavily in their chairs and the curtain fell on the Lawrence Welk orchestra. There was dead silence as Fels Napier stood at his microphone, the smile gone from his face which slowly hardened until the boyish look was gone entirely. His chin jutted out and his fists clenched and his eyes flashed and when he began to speak his voice crackled like a bullwhip. (The writer later learned this was the Napier technique of "hard sell" which had sent him to the top of Big Soap upon the departure of Secretary of Defense Neil McElroy.)
"Men," rasped Napier, "a staff of experts on loan from Big Soap has just completed a crash survey of your marketing methods."
The curtains parted to reveal a map of the U.S. with major and minor league cities designated by varicolored lights.
"We find your methods atrociously bad!" roared Napier. "Incredibly inept! You have turned your back on the greatest natural market for your National League product—New York—and you have talked seriously of abandoning prime markets in Washington and Cleveland. I will not go into the appalling psychological implications of taking our National Game out of our National Capital. For the present, I will confine myself to a discussion of your business methods."
A red-faced National League official, seated near Branch Rickey, jumped to his feet and started to protest, but Rickey reached out with the crook of his cane and pulled him back into his seat.
Napier apparently did not notice the incident. He continued:
"Can you imagine, gentlemen, Big Soap, Big Steel or Big Motors refusing to make their products available in the markets I have mentioned? What would you say if suddenly Oxydol or Lux Flakes or Rinso were removed from the shelves of supermarkets in New York, Washington and Cleveland? Would you not be justified in concluding that the men of Big Soap had suddenly taken leave of their senses?"
Napier let it sink in. There was silence for perhaps half a minute. Then the voice of Branch Rickey rang out. "Bravo, Fels Napier," he cried, brandishing his walking stick, "carry on!"
Napier ignored Rickey and went on:
"Not only do you abandon markets, gentlemen, but you refuse to make your product available in new markets, new great population areas that are actually pleading for your major league product!" He waved at the map again and lights flashed. "There they are, gentlemen, your unexploited markets—from Seattle in the West to Houston in the South, to New York in the East and Toronto in the North."
The backdrop was raised to reveal still another one. This carried in great block letters set off in quotes, "We don't need the newspapers, the newspapers need us!"
"Observe, gentlemen," cried Napier, "your rallying cry, your sales slogan, your bedrock sales philosophy! 'We don't need the newspapers, the newspapers need us!' A quotation, gentlemen, representing the most obtuse, the most antiquated, the most puerile sales and public-relations policy ever pursued by an industry made up of 16 multimillion-dollar corporations!"
[The quotation was run down by the writer. It appeared in the newspaper trade paper, Editor and Publisher, Oct. 11, 1958 and was, in fact, a quotation from a statement by Publicity Director Arthur (Red) Patterson of the Los Angeles Dodgers.]
"Publicity, gentlemen," Napier shouted, "does not necessarily sell. The fact that your product is mentioned at great length in the daily newspapers and over television and radio does not automatically create a demand, a desire for it. On the contrary, in many cases, your publicity may actually discourage sales. Automobiles are in the news every day, but are the automobile makers content with that? Soap is in the news frequently, soap is in the hands of 96.2% of the American people every day! But do we rely on familiarity with the product to sell soap?"
Napier crouched like an oldtime evangelist and thrust out an accusing arm:
"Gentlemen, you've got to sell your product! This isn't 1903 when people had nowhere to go but the ball park on a summer's afternoon! You've got competition in this modern day when a man can fly to London in the time it takes to play a double-header! Gentlemen! In New York alone last year, there were nearly 2 million fewer paid baseball admissions! This is the handwriting on the wall, men. You can't sit back and wait for some miraculous turning back of the clock, you've got to get out and sell, sell, sell!"
(The writer was unable to obtain any truly coherent account of what followed. His informant, a television actress who was present, tried to take shorthand notes, but she is only a student of this art and her notes were incomplete. However, it appeared that there was a veritable razzle-dazzle of effects: blowups of newspaper and magazine ads flashed on the screen; live excerpts from projected television serial dramas, I Married a Shortstop, scheduled for NBC, and Bullpen Wife, scheduled for CBS. With the Lawrence Welk orchestra supplying alternately rousing and tender musical backgrounds, the presentation whipped up a fever of excitement. There were singing commercials which seemed to consist mostly of "Ooowah, ooowah, baseball, baseball," repeated over and over again. All of the elements of the show built up to a terrific climax that was cut off as abruptly as the opening had burst on the delegates.)
After the curtain had fallen, the great ballroom was in complete darkness for perhaps five seconds. Then a single spotlight picked up Fels Napier at his center stage microphone. Again, amazingly, he was the boyish, lovable character. For the balance of his speech, he was smiling and soft-spoken. (The writer later learned that this was the "soft sell" technique he used for dramatic effect.)
"Gentlemen," he said, "just a word about that last singing commercial, that 'ooowah, ooowah,' thing. Well, to those of you unschooled in advertising and exploitation, it may have sounded like meaningless gibberish. But actually it is a first-rate, thoroughly tested example of the irritant commercial which, repeated often enough, plants itself in the subconscious and has some of the compulsive effects of the subliminal message. This is the kind of thing that sells soap and, I guarantee you, it will sell baseball."
He gazed off into space and swallowed, blinking his eyes as if searching for his next topic.
"Oh, yes," he said, "a word about our new T.O.—our table of organization. I am abolishing the position of league president and creating the new position of managing director to replace it. I will select managing directors from my staff a little later. Messrs. Cronin [Cronin was named to the Harridge post in January 1959] and Giles will now become chairman of the board in their leagues. Congratulations, gentlemen."
The audience sat transfixed as if they were viewing a horror movie.
"I am also appointing," Napier went on, "an assistant to the commissioner in charge of publicity, promotion, exploitation and entertainment. All club publicity men will report directly to this assistant and carry out his instructions for pregame entertainment and so on. We intend to give the fans a real afternoon or evening's show in addition to the usual ball game. I think you will be happy to learn that I have selected as my assistant in this department a great guy, a real baseball man, a former club owner, a fellow who speaks your language, Mr. William Louis Veeck of Cleveland."
Napier paused, apparently expecting applause, but there was not a sound. (Veeck, notorious for his "circus" methods of baseball promotion, is anathema to most club owners.)
"Bill Veeck," said Napier, "has gone into action already and booked such stars as Red Skelton, Milton Berle, Martha Raye as well as some top animal acts for our pregame shows. This kind of thing will be of great help to the second-division club. Now..."
Again Fels Napier stopped, seemingly puzzled by the total lack of audience reaction.
"Now," he continued, "as for a third major league. Our research convinces us that there is no reason why it cannot be started immediately along the lines suggested by the mayor's committee in New York. My staff is working with IBM on a player draft that will take sufficient players to man the new league from the rosters of the 16 major league teams and the top minor league organizations. We are at work on some equitable form of player pensions and have six insurance companies cooperating in a crash program there. In the further interest of player morale, I am ordering a blanket 10% raise in salary throughout the three major leagues. Naturally, there will be a bonus plan to reward superior performances by any player."
There was a loud crash at the rear of the ballroom. The waiters quickly carried out a limp body. The man, the treasurer of one of the eastern clubs, later recovered and the writer has promised not to reveal his identity.
Napier went on talking, almost carelessly:
"As for ball parks in the third major league, we will use existing facilities, like Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, pending construction of new plants along the lines of the trotting tracks, with adequate parking facilities, escalators, terrace dining rooms, so on and so forth."
A pin would have sounded like a thunderbolt.
"Oh, yes," said Napier, "one final point about the third major league. Many of you gentlemen may be asking yourselves, 'But can the uniforms be ready by opening day?' Well, gentlemen, I am very happy to tell you that Rawlings, Wilson and Hart Schaffner and Marx have agreed to cooperate in a crash program. Yes, gentlemen, the uniforms will be ready in ample time!"
He looked all around, from left to right, blinking his eyes, straining to hear a reaction that never came. Then he made a gesture toward the wings and the lights went up all over the ballroom.
"Well, that's it, fellows!" cried Napier. "And now, before I throw this meeting open to questions from the floor, what say we all take a powder-room break?"
The assembled baseball men sat as if they were literally paralyzed—with two exceptions. Branch Rickey, eyes darting back and forth, was thumping the floor nervously with his cane and Casey Stengel was busy eating off the untouched plate of William O. DeWitt, administrator of the $500,000 fund to aid minor leagues. In a moment, Rickey jumped to his feet and raised his cane aloft, shouting to Napier, who was walking off stage.
Napier turned and said, "Yes, Mr. Rickey?"
"Young man," growled Rickey, "allow me to congratulate you on behalf of my colleagues here on a most—uh—a most formidable presentation of your ideas."
"Thank you, sir."
"I propose to you, good sir," said Rickey, "that instead of conducting an open question-and-answer session at the conclusion of the powder-room break, you consent to sit down with a single representative of ours to answer whatever small questions we may have in mind."
Napier shrugged his shoulders. "Quite agreeable to me, Mr. Rickey. Perhaps you yourself would consent to represent your colleagues?"
Rickey shook his head vigorously. "I would not presume to do so, sir," he said, "without consulting my associates. Shall we say that we will designate our spokesman in a 15-minute executive session and send the man of our choice here to meet with you and you alone?"
Napier looked puzzled, then nodded. "Quite agreeable, Mr. Rickey." He bowed and smiled and walked off stage. Immediately Rickey began rousing his stupefied colleagues, laying about him with his walking stick, prodding one after the other and herding them into an adjoining smaller banquet room. Casey Stengel, mopping up the last of the gravy on William O. DeWitt's plate, arose and followed them.
Rickey's speech to the executive session has never been even partially revealed until now. The following excerpt from it was obtained by the writer from the most authoritative source available, a steam fitter who happened to be repairing a broken radiator in the room at the time.
"Gentlemen," roared Rickey when his glassy-eyed associates had taken their seats in the smaller room, "I believe it was Benjamin Franklin who said, 'Give me the errors of enthusiasm rather than the indifference of wisdom.' Gentlemen, in my considered view, Franklin was wrong. I yield to no man in my admiration for the young and forward-looking. I salute our commissioner, Fels Napier, for his brilliant career in soap. But, gentlemen, baseballwise, the man is a raving lunatic. He must be got rid of—now—at once!"
A red-faced National League official jumped to his feet and fairly screamed: "The idea of paying for space in newspapers and magazines and for time on television could only come from a warped mind! Give sportswriters presents at Christmastime, yes! Go as high as $50 gift certificates, like the Yankees do—but anything more than that is criminal and suicidal! I say pooh! Pooh, pooh, pooh!"
Rickey lashed out with his cane and the man fell back in his chair.
A voice groaned, "How, Branch! In the name of heaven, how do we get rid of Fels Napier?"
"We have one chance," growled Rickey, "and one man capable of saving us from the machinations of this madman. He is the man who saved us from the sinister probings of a committee of the United States Senate. He is our only hope—and there he sits!"
Rickey thrust out his cane and indicated Casey Stengel, who sat picking his teeth.
The baseball men jumped to their feet, eyes bright, clenched fists raised, waiting breathlessly.
Rickey held his cane high like a charging Cossack. "Will you do it, Charles Stengel! Will you speak for us! Will you save baseball from the direst threat the game we love has ever faced! What say you, Charles Stengel?"
Stengel tossed away his toothpick, hitched up his trousers and walked to the door. With his hand on the knob he turned and winked broadly.
A mighty cheer went up from the delegates to the Napier convention as Old Casey Stengel opened the door and walked into the Grand Ballroom, where Commissioner Fels Napier waited to meet with Organized Baseball's official spokesman—alone.
When the word spread to the Men's Bar of the Waldorf that Casey Stengel and Fels Napier were meeting behind closed doors, there was a rush of newspaper, magazine, radio and television people to the corridors outside the Grand Ballroom. They were in for a long wait. It was almost two hours later when the doors of the Grand Ballroom swung open and Casey Stengel strolled out alone.
There was an outburst of shouted questions. Photographers fought for position and television cameras rolled into place. Newspapermen, hands cupped to their ears, straining to hear, struggled for position. Stengel, blinking in the glare of the television lights, raised a hand, signaling for silence. Belatedly, the club owners and other baseball officials who had been napping in an adjoining banquet room rushed out and joined in the melee. It was not until Branch Rickey shouldered his way through the crowd, cracking heads with his cane as he came, that some semblance of order was achieved.
"What say you, Charles Stengel?" cried Rickey.
For reply, Stengel reached into his pocket and drew out a scrap of paper which looked like it might have been torn from one of the souvenir menus.
"I got a statement here to read," said Stengel. "It says, 'To Whosoever This May Concern. I hereby quit my job as baseball commissioner. Signed, Fels J. Naptha.' "
"Napier, man, Napier!" roared Rickey.
Stengel peered at his scrap of paper again. "Oh, yes," he said, "Napier is the name."
As newspaper men raced for the telephones and television cameras trained on Stengel, a voice sang out:
"Where is he, where did the guy go, Case!"
Stengel lifted up his chin and called back, "Mr. Naptha said he was leaving through the kitchen entrance."
"Why did he quit, Casey!" a reporter cried.
"He didn't say," Casey called back.
The baseball men finally remembered to cheer and then to dance and cry in one great release of pent-up emotions.
A cub reporter from one of the tabloid papers called out:
"Who'll be commissioner now, Mr. Stengel?"
Stengel looked at the boy and said, "Son, speaking as one who begun his career in Kankakee, Ill. 48 years ago, taking my uniform with me when I left without being paid the salary coming to me, I suggest they go and ask the other fella to come back on the job."
He waved off all further questions, explaining he was flying back to his rookie camp in St. Petersburg immediately.
Stengel's suggestion was not lost on the assembled baseball men. They rushed to their rented Cadillacs waiting on Park Avenue and roared off to the St. Andrews Club in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y. There they found Ford Frick wielding a broom in a hard-fought curling game. When the game was over (Frick's rink won), a committee of eight (designated on the ride up to Yonkers) humbly explained their predicament and asked Frick to resume his office as commissioner as a patriotic duty to the nation and to Organized Baseball. Appealed to in that way, Frick said he could not do anything but agree.
The return to office of Commissioner Ford Frick and the disappearance of Fels Napier, naturally, was a sensation that burst out of the sports sections and onto the front pages. The press could find no trace of Napier. His administrative assistant, Rensselaer O'Brien—who had been slated to take over the Warren Giles post with the new title of managing director of the National League—protested he did not know what had happened to his former superior. In Cincinnati, executives of Big Soap said they were as mystified as everyone else. At the boarding school attended by the Napier children it was finally admitted that Napier had sent a large check and said in a brief note that the children would be contacted later. At last, as new crises took over the front pages and news from the spring-training camps filled the sports pages, the sensation gradually died away. This writer obtained an interview with Casey Stengel late in March, but he said that all he knew was that Napier had left the Waldorf-Astoria by the kitchen entrance.
Finally, on April 10, 1959, the break came that made possible this exclusive report on the Napier case. The writer received the following telegram:
REMEMBERING FINE PERSONALITY FEATURE YOU WROTE ABOUT ME DESIRE TO GIVE YOU EXCLUSIVE STORY. IF INTERESTED PLEASE CONTACT ME IMMEDIATELY AT HOTEL MUEHLEBACH KANSAS CITY MO.
The message was signed June Sud Napier.
Needless to say, the writer took the next plane leaving for Kansas City. Early that same evening he knocked on the door of Room 1376. It was opened by Mrs. Fels Napier, wearing a low-cut evening dress of pistachio green. She greeted the writer warmly and invited him to come in. Upon entering, the writer observed that there was a small sitting room, with a bedroom beyond.
Mrs. Napier asked the writer to be seated just as Fels Napier himself came out of the bedroom. He had changed tremendously. He was now wearing his hair in a crew cut and had on a pullover sweater and gray flannel slacks. He was smoking a pipe and carried a thick volume under his arm. He started to say something to his wife, then saw the writer. A look of pain came over his face.
"June!" he said, "you shouldn't have done this!"
"Fels, darling," she exclaimed, running up to him and putting an arm around his shoulder, "I had to do something. We can't go on like this. I thought if you could talk to somebody who knows baseball, it might help you—if you would just tell somebody what really happened at the Waldorf-Astoria that evening!"
Napier put the book on a table and took his wife in his arms. "All right, dear," he said, "I know you have my interest at heart." He turned to the writer. "Maybe," he said, "it would do me good to sort of purge myself of this thing."
"Maybe it would, Commissioner," the writer said.
Napier's hands flew to his ears. He shook his head. "No, no," he cried almost piteously, "I don't want to hear that word ever again."
"Sorry, sir," said the writer.
The Napiers sat down on the sofa. The writer waited for him to get hold of himself. Then the writer said, "I know everything up to the time Casey Stengel went into the ballroom to talk to you alone, sir."
Napier took a deep breath, and after a moment he began to talk in a very low voice:
"I've only just begun to realize what happened to me that night. I suppose that's why June thought it was time to get in touch with someone like you. I was sitting there in the ballroom at one of the tables when the door opened and I saw this bowlegged little man come in. Of course, I recognized him right away. I jumped up and put out my hand and said, 'Well, so you're the spokesman for the baseball crowd, Mr. Casey Stengel!' "
Napier shuddered and his wife took one of his hands in hers. He looked at her gratefully and went on.
"Stengel didn't say anything right away. He sat down and started buttering some rolls that had been left over at that table. I said, 'Do you have any questions about the Napier Plan to Save Baseball, Mr. Stengel?' "
Napier closed his eyes. His wife patted his hand. In a moment he was able to go-on:
"I never got in another word. Stengel began to talk. I thought I was following him pretty well at first. He began by telling me how he studied dentistry here in Kansas City, then quit school to play baseball at Kankakee, Ill. There was something about salary due him and how he took his uniform with him when the team couldn't meet the payroll. Then I sort of lost track and yet I found myself fascinated or hypnotized, I don't know which. I remember something about Stengel managing Brooklyn and the Boston Braves and how he had to sell a ballplayer for $10,000 one time in order to pay the railroad to take the team north from training camp."
He faltered again and Mrs. Napier said, "Take your time. Get a grip on yourself, dear. This will do you worlds of good. Just be calm."
Napier shook his head like a groggy prizefighter, but then he relaxed and went on:
"Then—and I remember this quite clearly—he said something about the Japanese trying to play baseball with short fingers. Then there was quite a lot about fingers. Stengel said there were two kinds of people in the world, people with short fingers and people with long fingers. The short-fingered people are not able to do much with their hands, he said, and so they have to depend more on brain power. But the long-fingered people, he said, could do all kinds of things, play baseball, tend bar, hang wallpaper or become dentists. He said a long-fingered man was foolish trying to do things that required brain power when the short-fingered people could beat him every time."
Napier was getting stronger now. He sat up straight.
"This went on and on. Stengel talked of this fella and that fella. He said that if he brought the fella from the outfield in to catch he would perhaps put the other fella on first base. I gathered he was talking about Elston Howard and Yogi Berra, but I couldn't be sure. But he always came back to the short fingers and the long fingers. Soon I was completely helpless. I couldn't summon the strength of will to interrupt him. Finally he asked me to hold out my hands. I did and he said I had fine fingers and could have been a big league ballplayer. But, he said, since I was too old for that he would recommend that I become a dentist. I found myself nodding my head. He said I should go to Kansas City and he would send me some books to study while he was making arrangements to get me into the school he attended. He told me to get my hair cut short. He said long hair drained off brain power. He said I should get started right away and suggested that I leave by the kitchen entrance to avoid the crowd outside. I found myself doing exactly what he said. After I had signed a little piece of paper for him, I left, picked up June and we took the first plane to Kansas City. We checked in here at the Muehlebach, the hotel Stengel suggested. In a few days the books on the table there arrived. I've been studying them and waiting to hear more from Stengel. But I haven't heard a word."
He stopped, exhausted again. "You never will, dear," whispered Mrs. Napier, "you never will. Now tell the writer what you have just begun to realize."
Napier jumped to his feet. He turned to his wife. "By golly, sweetheart, I do feel better. It has been good for me to get this off my chest." He turned back to the writer.
"Look here," said Napier, "I see what happened to me now. I've been an expert on soap-selling techniques, perhaps the leading expert on the irritant commercial technique, you know, the insistently repetitive meaningless gibberish with a few key words that plant themselves in the subconscious and induce a compulsion to buy. Well, now I see that this man Stengel has developed this very technique beyond anything we've achieved in the soap industry. I fell victim to a master of my own craft! Do you see? Maybe I was more vulnerable than most people. But I tell you, sir, when I walked out that kitchen entrance, I felt that I simply had to study dentistry, had to, had to, had to!"
Mrs. Napier, looking more beautiful than ever in her happiness, slowly rose from the sofa and put her arms around her husband's neck. "Oh, sweetheart," she whispered, "you're well again, you're well again!"
The writer looked away in embarrassment. Then he turned back as Napier cried:
"You're doggone right I'm well again and we're going home, home to Cincinnati, sweets! Let's start packing now!"
"Fels, Fels," sighed Mrs. Napier, "I've never been so happy in my life!"
"What if I do have to start all over again in Big Soap—even at $50,000 a year!" said Napier. "We can manage!"
"Of course we can!" exclaimed Mrs. Napier.
The writer thought it was time to go. "I certainly wish you every happiness," the writer said.
"Thank you so much for coming to see us," said Mrs. Napier. "And would you please take those two books on the table and return them to Mr. Casey Stengel?"
"Gladly," said the writer, picking up the books. One was entitled Short Cuts to Dentistry and the other was The Home Dentist.
"Goodby then," said the writer. The Napiers did not seem to hear the writer, who closed the door quietly behind him.
In the Muehlebach lobby, the writer picked up a copy of The Sporting News and went into the all-night coffee shop to read it. On page one there was a statement by President Cronin predicting a tight race in the American League for 1959, another by Warren Giles predicting a tight race in the National League and a third by Commissioner Frick predicting a tight race in both leagues. There was also a story headed, NO MAJOR LEAGUE EXPANSION SEEN IN NEAR FUTURE.
There was also a three-column headline at the bottom of the page on the results of The Sporting News' annual poll of sportswriters concerning the outcome of the 1959 pennant races. The headline said, SCRIBES LOOK FOR YANKS AND BRAVES TO REPEAT.
It was all pretty comforting to the writer as he sipped his coffee. For it had been a rough winter, perhaps the roughest in all baseball history. But now, as The Sporting News suggested, everything was back to normal. Organized Baseball could go on as if Fels Napier had never existed. Ford Frick was back in the commissioner's chair and all was right with the baseball world and, except for serving on a committee once in a while, nobody had to do anything—about anything.