PROGRESS REPORT ON THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER

When Lieut. General William D. Eckert was named Commissioner of Baseball last fall his appointment was greeted with hoots of cynical dismay. Well, Kenesaw Mountain Landis may be safe in his shrine but Spike Eckert is proving that he is a man who came to play
April 04, 1966

When, last November, the owners of major league baseball suddenly announced that they had selected Lieut. General William Dole Eckert (U.S. Air Force, ret.) to succeed Ford Frick as the Commissioner of Baseball, their surprising choice elicited a great deal of comment, most of it caustic. A typical response was that of Willie Mays, who said of Eckert, "Who's he?" A sportswriter on the New York World-Telegram said, "My God, they've chosen the Unknown Soldier!" Another wrote that in "the monumental filing system of this paper" there was only one insignificant clipping on William D. Eckert. "The owners," declared Dick Young of the New York Daily News, who is much respected as a baseball writer, "have laughed in the face of every fan who pays his buck at the ball park. They have said they don't really need a commissioner at all." And so on.

Subsequent reports on Commissioner Eckert during his first days on the job pointed out that he was not Maxwell Taylor (or any other name-brand general), that he talked in platitudes, that he used cue cards for the most casual interviews, that he relied on an outdated baseball rule book and that he was a master of the oblique retort. He would not even commit himself as to which comic strip he preferred. Furthermore, he was nervous. Nervous. He had an air of insecurity about him. And the odor of an owners' man. As a baseball expert he knew a lot about Air Force nuts and bolts (logistics and supply had been Eckert's military specialty).

If Ford Frick was the do-nothing Commissioner of Baseball, it was said, then William D. Eckert was the know-nothing. He had never played baseball beyond the academy intramural level. He had never been much of a fan. He could not even remember when he last attended a game, though he might have been excused this because he was living in Washington and that would have meant going to a Senator game. How could this know-nothing commissioner, who had finished 128th in the West Point class of '30, be expected to coax baseball down the paths of righteousness if he did not even know the words and music to the Milwaukee-Atlanta franchise roundelay? (Ford Frick said it would not be fair to ask Eckert about that one.) There were suspicions that Frick was not retiring, that he was just reincarnated.

Thus launched in November, the incipient commissioner went about familiarizing himself with the job. For his critics he developed an ostrich stance. "I don't think I was treated unfairly by the press at all," he says in retrospect. "I don't think I took a beating at all." He appeared undisturbed by the criticism. Those who had known him in the past expected as much; from his West Point days he had been known as a man whose emotions ran the gamut from stoicism to constraint. He said it would take three months to get his feet on the ground. And, presumably, the egg off his face.

The three months are up.

All right, then, brethren. To update the question. Beyond biographical incidentals—age 57, 5 feet 8, 160 pounds, gray hair, cold eyes, smokes a pipe, occasionally permits himself a Scotch and soda—who is William Dole Eckert? Is he the redeemer of baseball? Or is he, as Dick Young suggested, the cynical choice of a cynical company—a man who could plunge wholeheartedly and headfirst into the job and never make a ripple?

The answers to these questions are: 1) No, he is not a redeemer. Major league baseball has become too complex ever to be ruled again in the redeemer-dictator fashion of Judge Landis. In fact, when the owners gave the job to Eckert they established a new post in the commissioner's office, that of administrator, and named the experienced Lee MacPhail, former president and general manager of the Baltimore Orioles, to that wheelhorse job. 2) No again. Eckert is a good deal more than a nothing, and even the owners did not really want another Ford Frick.

What, then, is New Commissioner Eckert on the way to becoming? What might he be expected to do with baseball, or it with him?

To begin with, Eckert, nicknamed "Spike" as a West Pointer after a good day on the intramural football field in 1927, is not the totally unimpressive man he might have seemed in November. His bearing—stiff backbone and upper lip—suggests the legacy of 35 years as a military officer. He is a man familiar with command, that loneliest of worlds, a man used to making decisions in often perilous situations. Commissioner Landis never had to jump out of a stricken airplane or watch a sister B-17 get blown apart at his wingtip. Commissioner Chandler never had to decide life-and-death matters for 2,800 combat troops. Commissioner Frick never had to kick a man out of his command on a morals charge, or for using narcotics. Commissioner Eckert had to do all these things, and the fact that he was able to do them would seem to represent a willingness to decide—a conditioning to action.

One man who has observed Eckert closely for several weeks has reached certain conclusions about him. He is Joe Reichler, the Associated Press's most knowledgeable baseball writer, who became public relations director for the commissioner's office in February. Reichler says you can count on at least three things from Eckert: "He will never say, 'No comment.' He will never say, 'This is off the record.' And he will never, never say, 'This is a league matter and out of my hands.' "

No stretch of the imagination, however, would allow you to conclude that William Eckert knows baseball. He is still groping around in that nether land of obscured significance (Is baseball a business? A sport? A virus?) and impossible terminology (Can a man ever fathom the bonus rule? The reserve clause? Casey Stengel?). But Eckert does not grope blindly. He learns fast. True, he has been partially brainwashed into believing that baseball is a holy calling—he thinks now it should be exported as an instrument of international goodwill—and in this respect he is more Billy Graham than Kenesaw Mountain Landis, but he appears willing, even eager, to exert whatever power he has to police the game. Unfortunately, it is still uncertain how much power that is.

"As far as I know," said Eckert the other day in Clearwater, sitting with his back straight in a box seat near the Phillie dugout, with a Phillie red cap on his head, "nothing is off limits. I may feel differently in a year, but right now I feel I have a free hand and adequate authority to handle all problems. If I don't, then I will go to the owners and ask for more. Or, failing that, for less responsibility."

Feeling his way, Eckert still has an annoying habit of being so impartial as to appear innocuous, even on as small a matter as his lineage: "I am one-fourth French, one-fourth English, one-fourth Irish and one-fourth German. I don't think of any of them as dominating my personality, unless you want to make something of the fact that Dôle is a town in France. I don't."

He does not think of himself as a personality at all—which is reasonable enough—and does not care to be drawn into comparisons with Landis, Chandler or Frick. "They are all great men," he says with bighearted inaccuracy. "But my mind does not think that way—whether I want to be a Judge Landis or a Ford Frick. I will try to profit from what they did, but I will also add my own identity to the job as I see it."

Men like Joe Reichler, who have been around baseball awhile, remember Landis as a jaw stuck out on the top rail of a front-row box, a floppy hat over a reckless white mane, a pair of gleaming eyes cleansing the field with their gaze—the image of baseball's protector. Eckert, from those first days, set out instead to be baseball's buddy. "I think that word 'image' is overworked," he said. He is intent on seeing and meeting everyone, being wherever he might rub an elbow or listen to a problem, as if to make it clear that if he is an owners' man he is also a players' man and a fans' man and a man the press can come to. Not only a judge, but an executive and a PR man, too. "I want to do what's best for baseball," he said.

In Miami he met on equal terms with the executive council, important men named O'Malley and Paul and Giles and Cronin. He talked with Pete McGovern of the Little League and Everett (Eppie) Barnes of the National Collegiate Athletic Association. He met with the player representatives of the 20 big-league clubs and sat with them for a full day. He was particularly proud of that. He spoke often of being "the first commissioner to be invited by the players to their meeting."

He asked a group of Detroit players up to his room for cocktails and small talk. Al Kaline was impressed. "He seems to be for us," he said. Eckert was philosophical. "If I'm going to represent them, to adjudicate, to decide if they need more showers or a better pension plan or whatever, I've got to know them." Hank Aguirre, the Detroit pitcher, was flabbergasted. "I never talked to a commissioner before," he said.

Eckert sat in on a meeting of the major leagues' public relations men. "I did more than just sit," he said. He made it clear he wanted people to know more of the good things baseball does for the world: John Roseboro's work in the Watts section of Los Angeles, for example, Willie Mays's service with the Job Corps and August Busch's donation of a stadium to the St. Louis Boys Club. He said he would try to impress on players and managers and even owners the importance of being available for public relations.

In Florida he haunted the dugouts and batting cages. He chatted with players, coaches and umpires. He shook hands with fans. He joined owners and executives in box seats. It must have been torturous for him, because he does not make easy conversation: he does not tell funny stories or locker-room jokes. The simple amenities of dealing with civilians seemed a strain on him, but he went about them doggedly, as if he had missed something by not having to campaign for his $65,000-a-year job—"The owners came to me, I did not seek them out"—and was now conducting a campaign after the fact.

At the ball park in Clearwater he talked with whole families of baseball people. "That's Jim Bunning." he said. "You probably know him. I was certainly glad to get a chance to talk with his folks." He talked with Richie Ashburn. Richie had been told that Eckert won trophies playing squash in the service. Richie wanted to know how good the commissioner was. "He's damn good," said Joe Reichler, never far removed from Eckert's elbow. "You ought to try him and find out."

"Well, I don't know, now that you put it that way," said Ashburn.

"Oh, you're fired, Joe," Eckert said. "That's no way to line up a match." He smiled, enjoying his joke.

He smiled a lot more as he went from camp to camp and in and out of receiving lines. The Eckert smile turns up at the ends, like that of a porpoise, and it is in such contrast to the usual severity of his expression that you would think it difficult to muster. A woman associated with baseball made conversation with him at cocktail hour and found him "charming, in a very dignified way." Occasionally he would show the strain and become petulant over trifles. A bellboy at his hotel picked up a paper he thought Eckert had discarded. Eckert asked for it back. "If you want one that bad I'll buy you one," he snapped. He stewed when delays kept him from appointments. Punctual to a fault, he would arrive 30 minutes early, in the military tradition.

He said he liked people and liked talking with the press, and to prove it he endured as many as three interviews a day, some of them tape-recorded. He answered without cue cards. He never once said No Comment, Off the Record or It's a League Matter. "I believe that the press—that means all the communications media—have a priority," he said. He gave Dick Young three hours in a hotel room in St. Petersburg, and afterward Young wrote, "It could be the Lords of Baseball picked a commissioner in spite of themselves." High praise.

He almost never refuses an invitation. "He can't say no," groaned Reichler. "I tell him, 'Let me say no for you, let me be the slob,' but he keeps right on accepting." To accommodate his schedule, the new commissioner changed clothes in baseball dressing rooms. He rehearsed speeches at the wheel of his car en route to a ball park, where he more often than not delivered the speech without flair but also without flaw. Once, getting to Anna Maria Island for a memorial service for Freddy Hutchinson, the late Cincinnati manager, he asked if Reichler would mind if he speeded it up a little. "Go ahead, Commissioner," said Reichler. Eckert bore down on the accelerator. The speedometer on the rented Chrysler Imperial was soon pressing 100.

"Hey, Commish," said Reichler, becoming alarmed. "You realize how fast we're going?"

"For a man who has flown jets this is not so fast," said Eckert, unsmiling. He pulled down on the steering wheel to improve his sitting posture, already starkly erect. "But don't worry, Joe. I know something about these speedometers. The needle may show 100, but we're probably not doing more than 90."

At night he read himself to sleep with an up-to-date edition of the baseball rule book. "If I am going to judge I must know the law?," he said. But wasn't it a bore? "Well, rule books were not meant to be literature."

Almost everywhere Eckert went he had Reichler as his coach and confidant. They make an interesting pair. Eckert's reserve is monumental, his language precise, his clothes conservative. Reichler talks fast and often and waves his arms; his vocabulary is richly colored; he leans to sports clothes that Say Something. He has a roundish face and dark hair and he wears horn-rimmed glasses; when he smiles he looks a little like a jolly Charlie Chan. Reichler was an institution at the AP, an impeccably honest reporter who knew baseball and was candid with his opinions. Not every owner wanted him for the job ("I would not be much use to you, Commissioner, if they did," he told Eckert). He had always been "on the other side" but, once accepted, he gave himself to his new job completely. He does not think there should be two sides.

Eckert relies heavily on Reichler. He knows Joe is not a yes-man or an owners' man. Reichler monitors the commissioner's activities ("How's he doing, Joe?" baseball executives ask when they see Reichler) and is teaching him baseball. Eckert uses Reichler as a sounding board: "Wasn't that a key play, Joe, that double steal?" "How was my speech, Joe, too long?" Reichler calls him Mr. Commissioner, or, occasionally, when he wants to loosen him up or slow him down, "Commish." If he was dubious at first Reichler is no longer. He says Eckert grows on you. "I will be surprised if this man does not become an excellent commissioner."

Studied dispassionately, it is not impossible to see the logic in the selection of Eckert. He has that history of command. He has a master's degree in business administration from Harvard. He has been comptroller of the Air Force and, after a heart attack hastened his retirement in 1961, a director of the Logistics Management Institute, which advises the Pentagon. On the board of directors of several companies, he has been involved with industries, labor unions, personal contracts, rules and regulations. He is familiar with Washington, where major league baseball could use some connections for whatever trouble lies ahead over its antitrust exemptions. (But Eckert thinks "lobbyist" is an odious term and does not consider himself one.)

Eckert believes his name got placed among the original 150 "candidates" by an unknown business acquaintance, but as time goes on he begins to see the job as more closely related to the military. Driving to the park at Clearwater one afternoon, he began to tick off what he called the surprising similarities. He seemed eager to make the point, as if to convince himself that he was, at last, on familiar ground. He said both jobs dealt with competitive groups of young men, with physical training, with problems of mobility (he equated moving platoons with traveling ball clubs). He said both had problems with community relations, with radical changes (opening and closing bases as compared with shifting franchises and forming new ones) and the assimilation of people from various ethnic and religious backgrounds. Engrossed in the analogy, he missed the turn to the park.

He tried to pick up the thought at the game, but he was so conscious of the recognition the fans gave him that he contracted a case of rabbit ears. A man in the next box passed a remark loud enough for him to hear. "Sir?" asked the commissioner, leaning over and smiling. The man was talking to somebody else. Eckert wore the red cap of the Philadelphia Phillies for five innings, then made Reichler fetch him one from the Cincinnati Reds so he would be sure to remain impartial.

Later, over dinner, Eckert was asked to demonstrate some of his homework on certain issues that have been sore spots for major league baseball. He said, for one, that he favored expansion only if enough players could be funneled into the game to keep the quality of play at its present level. He said he believed he would favor interleague play but was giving it more thought. He said, because of certain inequities, he would like to see an end to the division of big league umpires—at present there are American League umpires and National League umpires. All, he thinks, should be under the control of the commissioner. As for the Koufax-Drysdale-Dodgers contract debate, he was leaving that up to the principals.

He said he had recently made his first judgment. He had ruled in favor of a college in a dispute over a boy who was about to sign a professional contract though he already had started his third year of play on the college team. (He said, however, he thought it made sense for a boy to sign after his second year in college "if he truly wants a career in baseball, because if he starts any later he is jeopardizing his chances.") He said he was working for an improved liaison with the NCAA and, in the future, any time he felt a boy's education was threatened he would step in.

Reichler said Eckert was still being drawn into the Milwaukee-Atlanta dispute by every interviewer, though it was unfair because the case had gone to court before Eckert took office.

"No honest question is unfair," said Eckert.

Then what did he think of that situation?

"I think it is regrettable, but I cannot give an intelligent opinion because I have received certain conflicting reports. Did the Milwaukee franchise make money in 1964? The club says one thing, the state says another."

All right, then, put it this way. If a particularly self-serving, money-grubbing owner wanted to move his club and you weighed the circumstances and found it not in the best interests of baseball, could you stop him?

Eckert put down his fork.

"I think," he said, "that in this great democracy we live in, if a man wants to take his property somewhere else and can do it legally, then I could not stop him. But I could certainly make known my opinion."

It was, said Reichler, the only possible answer.

But not all of these are strong answers, and some of them are circuitous, and they raise afresh the other nagging doubts about the man. For example, he seems to regard as an infirmity his meager baseball background; he glosses it over by reciting the 30 or 35 different sports he has played in his lifetime. He reacts the same way to questions about his heart attack, as if there were shame in it, despite the fact that his recovery was so complete he is back playing squash and tennis. And though he insists those first picky, piddling criticisms did not bother him, he will in the next breath tell how even President Johnson uses cue cards and how you couldn't possibly fly airplanes, from trainers to jets, for 35 years and be a nervous man.

It is part of this curious ambivalence that makes him brush off the true accomplishments of his life—Distinguished Service Medal, Distinguished Flying Cross, Legion of Merit, a three-star general at 51, etc.—in a sentence, and then dwell for as long as you like on the brilliance of his son, Bill. Bill is 6 feet 3 and a great athlete. Bill got straight 800s on his college boards. Bill is on the supe's list at the Air Force Academy. Bill is a lot smarter than his old man.

Still and all, it has been a good three months—four months now—for William D. Eckert. It is possible he will yet live down to those first impressions, but it could also be true that a second impression was more accurate: that the owners have chosen a commissioner in spite of themselves. If nothing has happened that is spectacularly encouraging at least nobody in baseball asks who Spike Eckert is anymore.

TWO PHOTOSHERB SCHARFMANA CONVIVIAL AMBASSADOR is one thing Eckert is trying to be. Above, he wears an Irish hat as he talks solemnly with Jack Sturgis, former mayor of Vero Beach, at a Dodger St. Patrick's Day party. Below, he poses self-consciously with a trio of Florida citrus queens. PHOTO

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)