An uninvited guest spills baseball's beans

Seven years ago the author eavesdropped on a secret session of club owners considering major league expansion. Here he reveals how a colleague pulled the same trick on the same people as they bumbled through aimless gab about a new commissioner. Only Walter O'Malley seemed to know what he was doing
November 01, 1965

The way the major league owners go about finding a new baseball commissioner you'd think they were hunting piranha bare-handed. It has gone on so long now that some of the "old favorites," such as American League President Joe Cronin, are going to bed lile firemen—with their shoes on and the motor running—just in case they hear their name called.

Last week they learned they would have to wait a bit longer. For the major league owners, in congress assembled, forged forthrightly to another decision—to procrastinate. They expanded committees, hauled out an organization plan set up secretly months ago so they would look as if they were doing something, now, and strenuously backpedaled on actually making a selection. It was, on the whole, another example of the Byzantine bumbling that afflicts the national game.

Meeting in Chicago, the owners took up the problem of how to avoid selecting a commissioner, but dynamically. ("What'll we tell the press?" was the question that aroused the fiercest discussion.) Their meditations took place at the beige, baroque Edgewater Beach Hotel, a lovely anachronism on the Far North lakefront. The last time the majors met at the Edgewater Beach, their entire conversation was overheard, and they threatened to sue the hotel and vowed never to return to Chicago.

But last week they were back in Chicago, back at the Edgewater Beach and back having their conversations overheard. This time the uninvited guest was George Vass, a mild-looking, bespectacled baseball writer for the Chicago Daily News. He arrived on Tuesday morning to look around the proposed meeting room. It was called the American Room and it was insulated from the corridor by a bank of elevators. Apparently this choice was made in an effort to frustrate enterprising reporters. But Vass made a fascinating discovery, even as his predecessor had seven years earlier: he could hear the conversations in the next room (the Illinois Room). Only the thin paneling of a door connecting the two rooms separated him from the head of the U-shaped table where the owners would gather. Stymied once by the presence of a bartender (the Illinois Room was then set up for the cocktail parties that were part of these sessions) and later by the presence of another meeting, Vass was finally able to get the Illinois Room to himself, settle down in an easy chair next to the door, light up his pipe and listen to the mutterings of the owners.

Among the things he learned:

•That the owners voted 19-1 on Wednesday to select a man from within baseball for commissioner.

•That the much-heralded five-man cabinet for baseball—to help the commissioner do his job—which was announced that day had actually been formed by the owners three months ago. The announcement was held up until this time—when they needed to look as if they were accomplishing something.

•That the owners labored arduously for a year to cut the list of potential candidates to seven, and then last week witlessly instructed their screening committee to accept any and all new names, thus leaving things exactly where they were a year ago.

•That the screening committee had absolutely no power other than to collect nominations and relay them to the owners. It had no power to contact the men named or to find out if they wanted or would take the job. So all of the public and private toying with names was like toying with dreams.

In the end, it was the typical major league meeting: much ado about nothing. To reach the basic list of seven, the owners eliminated a few names at the discussions on Tuesday afternoon. Among them were ex-Football Coach Bud Wilkinson, Peace Corps Director Sargent Shriver, Columnist Bob Considine, American Football League Commissioner Joe Foss. At the opening of the final meeting on Wednesday afternoon John Fetzer of Detroit—who, with John Galbreath of Pittsburgh, had formed the screening committee—pointed out that of the seven men left, "four are in baseball and three are in other fields." That their morning vote had effectively cut nonbaseball men out of contention hardly fazed the owners. They could always vote to reverse themselves.

Very conveniently for the listening Vass, Fetzer read the list of the final seven candidates:

Stephen Ailes, former Secretary of the Army. ("When I heard his name, I didn't know who he was," says Vass.)

Eugene Zuckert, former Secretary of the Air Force.

General Curtis LeMay, retired Air Force Chief of Staff.

Joe Cronin, president of the American League.

Gabe Paul, president of the Cleveland Indians.

Bing Devine, former front-office boss at St. Louis, now assistant to the president of the New York Mets.

Lou Carroll, attorney for the National League.

But the owners could get no further. Their minds weren't on selecting a commissioner but on what the press would say when they didn't. "We started out with 150 names and after a year we've narrowed it down to seven," said one owner. "I think we could elect any one of these seven men and be confident that baseball would be well and capably served. There is no reason to wait 30 days or a year to arrive at a decision."

Another worried aloud: "We are doing baseball irreparable harm by this delay in selecting a commissioner. We have to go out and face the press and tell them that after a year since the search began, and after several meetings since then, we still have been unable to come to a decision. We've got to show the press we've accomplished something at this meeting or, gentlemen, it could be something awful for baseball."

At least the owners had the showpiece ready. In July, at their meeting in Dearborn, Mich., they had decided to supplement the commissioner's office with a staff of five men: an administrator to take care of details (such as what's happening to the game), a director of information, a director of broadcasting, a director of player affairs, a director of amateur baseball. That would free the commissioner to be only a front man, drifting elegantly about the country, smiling frailly like a wilted chrysanthemum and otherwise cultivating a supple spine. But the owners cunningly refrained from announcing the action at the July meeting. Now they instructed Fetzer to use it. At the luncheon break on Wednesday Fetzer went out to spill the long-kept secret to the press.

That left the owners with a final problem: how could they top the cabinet announcement? They had one session left, on Wednesday afternoon, and nothing to say. What to do? The answer was in the classic tradition of baseball progress. They decided to enlarge the committee, dynamically. For their part, Fetzer and John Galbreath were ready to chuck the whole thing. "John and I would be perfectly willing to step out and turn over all the records we've gathered to someone else and let them do the job," Fetzer told the owners. He also wanted to give the screening committee the power to talk to the candidates. "We are not certain of the availability of all those on the list because we have been careful not to contact them," said John Galbreath. "If a man is chosen, we just can't pick up the phone and tell him. We've got to go and interview him."

The owners thought it over and decided to give the committee the right to talk to candidates. They also added P. K. Wrigley of the Cubs and Bob Reynolds of the Angels to the committee—plus Tom Yawkey of the Red Sox and Walter O'Malley of the Dodgers as "elder statesmen" and "advisers."

If there was any coherence or continuity to the meeting, it was in the canny maneuvers of Walter O'Malley. There is strong suspicion among some men in and around baseball that O'Malley hopes to keep the issue undecided until public pressure induces a sense of panic among the owners. Then, with the owners desperate for a way out of their predicament, O'Malley will humbly offer his own candidate, the owners will fall slobberingly upon him, uttering little animal sounds of gratitude, and promptly name "O'Malley's man" as commissioner. This theory holds that O'Malley's man was not on the list of seven considered by the owners at their meeting last week, and that O'Malley's plans were endangered by the attempt of several owners to place a time limit on seeking a commissioner. He had to turn aside these threats by 1) opening up the list again to consideration of everybody, and 2) eliminating any time limit so that public pressure and owner panic could build up. He accomplished both goals with an ease which suggests that he already controls the game and that the selection of O'Malley's man as commissioner is only a formality.

His platform was a motion to allow the screening committee to interview candidates. With great skill, if not subtlety, O'Malley pushed an amendment that gave the committee the right to bring in as many new names as it wished and assured that there would be no time limit. There was earnest discussion only on the matter of a time limit. Some owners insisted the time for action was near. When the vote came, the motion—and the amendment—passed on a voice vote, with only a few scattered nays.

Two more threats to the alleged O'Malley plan developed, more or less spontaneously. One was the sudden suggestion that all the owners give their proxies to the four-man selection committee and thus endow it with complete power to select a commissioner. That would speed up the process enormously and greatly reduce the opportunity for panic. O'Malley might "advise" the committee but it seemed unlikely he could panic it. So he axed the idea as surely as an executioner. "I am for it personally," he said, "but there may be several lawyer types here who would find it contrary to the major league agreement and bylaws." And that ended that.

Then, about 10 minutes before the meeting adjourned, Bill DeWitt of Cincinnati got up to make one last valiant effort to get the owners to choose a commissioner. "I make a motion that we take an official vote on the seven candidates that have been presented to us by the screening committee," he said. "It may be that we can elect one of these men here and now." The response was thundering: DeWitt's motion "failed for lack of a second."

Through all this, George Vass was interrupted only once. In midafternoon a hotel employee ushered some potential customers into the Illinois Room, but hastily bowed out, perhaps believing that Vass was a security man guarding the door. At meeting's end Vass slipped out into the corridor, where other reporters were waiting to be told what baseball wanted them to know.

Even as Vass's story hit the streets, a three-club group in the American League was trying to figure out how to stop, or at least slow down, O'Malley. The three are Cleveland, Baltimore and Chicago. But they need a fourth club in the American League. With four standing firm, they could veto the choice of any commissioner. Seven affirmative votes are needed from each league. But nobody was sure where they would pick up the fourth club. They would like to woo Charley Finley of Kansas City, which is like wooing an unexploded bomb. In any case, Finley is still playing it cool and coy.

The comment of a Chicago business executive summed up public reaction to all this foolishness and foot-dragging. "The best friends that pro football has," he said, "are the owners of major league baseball."

PHOTOSEEN THROUGH A WINDOW IS THE DEARBORN MEETING THAT SET UP THE CABINET PLAN FINALLY ANNOUNCED THREE MONTHS LATER

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)