For baseball fans, Opening Day is in the middle of April. For baseball players, it is in the middle of winter. The Uniform Player's Contract says that the club "may" offer a contract to the player by January 15. "May" in this case means "must." If no contract is forthcoming, the player is given his release.
Nervous apprehension thus becomes the natural state of mind for a professional athlete the year round. During the playing season his human fallibility invites a consequent cut in his standard of living it up. In the off season he waits, warily, for the Ides of January.
A nine-year major league veteran, I was chewing my nails expertly by the second week of January.
"When are we going to Tampa?" my 8-year-old daughter Jamie asked.
"Yeah," said my son Tim, 7. "My teacher wants to know. She says I'm lucky."
My 3½-year-old daughter, Kimberlee Anne (we call her Boo), had no comment.
"We don't go to Tampa this year," my wife Anne explained. "That's where the Reds train. Daddy's team doesn't train there."
"What team are you with now, Daddy?" asked Jamie.
The pre-teen-age female feigns ignorance of baseball. Insecure child, she refuses to admit that her father, a transient worker, is a publicly acknowledged "well-traveled veteran."
"The White Sox train in Sarasota," my wife informed her.
"Oh, goody! That's where the circus is!"
"And Jungle Gardens!" Tim said.
"When do we leave?" Jamie asked.
"Have to be invited first," I said.
My wife looked at me.
"You will be, won't you?" she asked.
"Don't have to be," I said. "They can release me anytime they like. They don't owe you anything, you know. When a pitcher has a poor season the year before, he never knows." My 1963 season had not been stellar by relief-pitching standards, but it had not been particularly bad, either.
"But Daddy, you had a good year," Tim said. "The White Sox finished second!"
"That should make them happy," Anne said.
"No," I said. "Finishing second makes them sad."
January 15 came and went, but the White Sox might have mailed the contract late in the day, before the midnight deadline. At noon on January 16, the postman rang, once.
"Registered letter," he said. "Sign here and here."
I did so, mumbling something like, "About time."
"Your contract, huh?" the postman said. "The White Sox can use you, boy." Shows what postmen know.
Inside the house I opened the envelope and looked at the contract it contained. Another clause in the Uniform Player's Contract says that the club cannot cut a player's salary more than 25%. The White Sox did not cut my salary more than 25%.
"Read it and weep," I said, handing the contract to my wife. After 11 years, baseball wives can take in a contract at a glance. Anne noticed not only the shrunken salary but a phrase in the covering letter from White Sox General Manager Ed Short stating that I would not be allowed to write during the season.
"He can't be serious," Anne said.
"You've never seen him finger a dollar bill," I said.
I didn't sign the contract. I waited. I felt an immediate reaction to the contract on my part would not be seemly in the circumstances. After a couple of weeks I took a deep breath and wrote a letter to Ed Short. Just as I was finishing it, I got a phone call from Brent Musburger, a Chicago sportswriter.
"Are you going to be allowed to publish anything this season?" Brent asked, among other things.
"I'll have to call Short about it," I said.
"I'll call him," said helpful Brent.
He did, and newspaper accounts of his telephone conversations hit the streets just about the time my letter hit Short's desk. I was quoted, accurately, as saying, "Whether I play or not next season will depend on what is done about that clause. I couldn't publish at all during the season last year, and this time I'm going to argue." Short was quoted, accurately I guess, as saying, "We had that probation in effect with Mr. Brosnan last season and, prior to that, stopped Early Wynn and Nellie Fox from writing, and I don't see any reason to lift it." The stories also pointed out that my contract called for a pay cut, but that I had expected it and the question that had to be resolved was not money but permission to write.
My wife, with wifely candor, said, "Now you've had it. What are you going to do, get a job?"
"I've got a job," I told her. "I'm a writer."
"That's not a job," she said. "Ask Short."
The phone rang, and Short was there.
"Hello, Broz? I got your letter this morning. You took your time writing it."
"You took your time sending a contract."
"Well, I feel this way. If I have to offer a contract that a player might not like—a cut in salary or something like that—I don't send it out early because I don't want to ruin his Christmas."
"Well, I didn't answer quickly because I didn't want to ruin your Valentine's Day."
The serious matter of negotiating a baseball contract usually must wait for such an inane exchange. It establishes an Alice in Wonderland setting in which logic is abandoned.
"I'll make this short," he said. This gambit is known in the trade as the Short Shrift. He spoke harshly but with authority, as though reading God's word.
"First, you will not be allowed to write or publish what you write during the season. Second, I will not discuss salary terms. What we have offered is final. Third, if you don't accept this contract you are free to make a deal for yourself. If it is acceptable to us—if you get a player we like or even enough cash—we'll let you go."
"Beautiful," I said. "Look, you know that I make a living of sorts by writing. Now you're taking that away from me. I've been writing all winter, and I hope to market these articles when and where I can. I can't control publication dates. And anyway, what's your objection to my writing?"
"It's always been club policy not to allow players to write during the season."
"I think that's perfectly clear. Anything that goes on in the clubhouse and the dugout belongs there. If you've got two, three players writing columns, competing with each other in papers, it's bad for morale."
"Are you going to bar reporters? There are as many newspapermen as ballplayers in the clubhouse some nights."
"The press is different."
"Won't they print what's going on? What are you afraid of, anyway?"
"This is getting us nowhere," Short said.
"That's where we started," I said.
"Ballplayers are paid well enough that they shouldn't be doing things on the side."
"Ballplayers eat all year round. Aren't they entitled to a choice of jobs off season?"
"Will you agree to our terms?"
"No, sir," I said. "You're taking one job away from me and offering me a chance to gamble in exchange."
"All right. You're free to make a deal for yourself with any of the other major league clubs."
"What do you mean, 'free'?" I almost yelled.
"If you can find some club that will give us a player or even cash for your contract, you can do as you wish."
"That's not free," I said. "I'd be doing your job. You get paid for selling ballplayers."
"Well, there's nothing further to discuss," Short said. "Goodby."
"Who discussed?" I said. "All I did was listen."
I hung up the phone.
"Now I'm a general manager," I told my wife. "It's the first time I ever heard of cattle being told it's O.K. to go ahead and sell themselves as long as they turn the proceeds over to the rancher."
"I think you're getting the old squeeze play," Anne said. "What can they do if you don't sign?"
"Sit on their hands until March 11. Then they can sit on me. If I don't sign by then, the contract is automatically renewed on their terms."
"What kind of business is that?" she said.
"It's all part of the game, honey," I said.
"When are we leaving for Florida?" my daughter asked.
"Don't hold your breath," I told her.
Twenty-four hours later a germ hit me, and I was in bed for three days. I had horrible daymares about having to pay for extended illnesses out of my own pocket instead of the ballplayer pension plan with its hospitalization benefits. Heartrending, maudlin reminiscences followed. Ed Short missed a bet by not coming to comfort me.
But glorious health soon returned, and I could hardly wait for the next round. The Sporting News, baseball's trade paper, published an editorial supporting my side of the argument. SPORTS ILLUSTRATED ran an item. And The Atlantic Monthly scheduled an article of mine for its April issue. Now I couldn't sign a contract without violating Short's Law.
On February 20, Short stirred. Brent Musburger phoned him, and Short told Brent that he had taken no interest in my contract for three weeks. But a while later Short phoned me and told me that he had contacted all the other 19 major league clubs—an act which he implied had been a waste of time. The implication seemed clear. If I insisted on publishing during the baseball season, I could not play in the major leagues.
"So," he said, "we'll ask waivers on you and give you your release."
The White Sox, flushed with second-place success, would give away a pitcher rather than give in to him. Even allowing for the big salary cut, Short was still willing to pay me $24,000—if I would forgo the pleasures of publishing. The scheme of things demanded sacrifice, give up one job for another. Hung on a principle, I was free to meditate the high cost of principles. Moral satisfaction can be morale shattering.
"Goodby sirloin, hello hamburger," said my wife.
"It's only money," I said helpfully.
A radio broadcaster friend of mine said he did not think that Short would let me go for nothing unless he felt certain that no other club would play me if I continued to demand the right to publish during the season. I knew the Reds wouldn't, nor would the Tigers. I called the Mets—New York is such a good town for a writer—but even they weren't interested.
"What now?" asked the inquisitive Musburger. "What can you do?"
"Advertise," I said. "Advertise, man."
I knew the proper medium for my selling message. The Sporting News had already chided Short, and everybody in baseball reads The Sporting News. Or they're supposed to. Writing good merchandising copy is a baffling job for the most skillful wordsmith. My problem was: How do you sell a pitching arm? Hoping for a laugh, if not a job, I wrote an ad (see page 24).
The mail brought an offer from the Italian Baseball Federation saying that Italy could use an experienced baseball man to coach that nation's entry in the European championships in September. "Bring your typewriter and write about Florence," the federation suggested. I was tempted.
A club owner in Kyoto, Japan, suggested that I come to Nippon and pitch for his team this summer. Bob Lemon, ex-Cleveland pitcher and an American contact for the Kyoto club, phoned me from Los Angeles and said, "They're offering good money, Broz, and they'll fly you and your family over and back and provide you with a house and all. I'll tell them you're interested."
"Sushi is better than sirloin," I told my wife. "If you like raw fish."
My wife, with Occidental charm, said, "Nuts."
From Kansas City, Charles O. Finley, who more or less automatically goes in the opposite direction from all other baseball owners, indicated that he was interested in the pitching arm I was trying to sell. He wasn't too keen on my asking price, however.
I was prepared to wait. Pitching staffs look their best at the very beginning of spring training, when everybody is a 20-game winner. Later on, when sore arms and failures develop, my ad in The Sporting News might read better.
Meanwhile, I was still waiting for my official release, a document that would mean that for the first time in 17 years I was not an employed baseball player. The red tape that binds player to club in professional baseball unwinds slowly. I could not reasonably expect it to reach me for at least a week. Ed Short promised to get around to it right after the Clay-Liston fight.
Liston pleaded arm trouble, Clay won, and Short got back to work. The postman rang again. This was it, I thought to myself, a serious moment in a man's life, a moment to remember.
"Registered letter for you," the postman said. "From the White Sox. There's 28¢ postage due."
That Ed Short! I had misjudged him. He has a sense of humor after all.