Frank Lane, at one time or another an employee of many of the owners in baseball, stood beneath a crystal chandelier in the lobby of the Sheraton-Palace Hotel in San Francisco last Friday morning and watched William Dole Eckert, the 59-year-old commissioner of baseball, as he walked briskly across the red-and-blue carpet. Only five days previously Eckert had opened the 67th annual winter meetings by calling them "historic," and within the next hour they were finally to become so.
There was a strange crackle in the air of the hotel lobby as baseball men gathered in whispering clumps and drew silent as reporters approached them. One floor above, major league owners had gathered for an unprecedented meeting, the purpose of which was known to few people, and they were not talking.
In the lobby, though, Lane delivered himself of a weighty soliloquy. "You can't blame Eckert," he said. "He tries hard, but he is involved in a game he doesn't know a damn thing about. If you sent a watch to a plumber for repairs and it still didn't work you could find one of the biggest reasons why just by looking in the mirror."
For nearly a year rumors had been spreading that General Eckert was in serious trouble with the owners, who had given him a seven-year contract at $65,000 a year only 37 months ago. But few people thought the trigger would be squeezed so fast on this short, hard-working, dull, gray-haired man who tried hard to deal with a game he knew so very little about. And nobody ever imagined that any commissioner in professional sports would have to deliver publicly the results of his own court-martial.
December 16, 1968
Eckert announced that he was through in the most bizarre press conference in the history of a game that has had some dandies. He stood on a platform before a yellow curtain in the wood-paneled Comstock Room, dressed nattily, as always. The men who only a few minutes before had conspired to oust Eckert were directly in front of him, and the second-floor room was completely filled with not only owners and newsmen but with managers, general managers, publicity men, scouts and farm directors, as well as all the fringe characters who collect around the game.
Not one of the men who had hired Eckert originally or who had agreed to fire him had the courage to stand up and say, "Gentlemen, the commissioner has an important message." Instead, they sat at three long tables covered with green cloths and refused even to look at him. Walter O'Malley, the owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, puffed on a cigar and took notes on a legal pad without ever looking up. Francis Dale, the president of the Cincinnati Reds and publisher of the Enquirer, who had drawn up the statement accepting Eckert's resignation, sat with his back to Eckert, who had been hired with the promise that he would have "full range of authority." M. Donald Grant of the New York Mets kept looking down at the fingernails he was cleaning. Upon completing his statement of "resignation," Eckert looked down at the owners and said sadly, hopefully, "Walter—Mr. Dale." His voice trailed off.
Dale walked to the rostrum and read a hand-written statement: "Lieut. General William D. Eckert has just delivered to the baseball owners his resignation as commissioner of baseball.... The general's statement that he feels that a bold and imaginative restructuring of baseball is needed and that a baseball man can more effectively do the job and plan for the future of the game is entirely consistent with the dedication he has displayed during his three years in office.... The owners have acceded to the general's wishes and have accepted his resignation...."
Once Dale finished, Eckert was called back for questions by the press. Some of his answers were, "Under no sense whatsoever was I fired...it would be presumptuous to recommend my successor... some of the finest men I have come in contact with have been in baseball."
While Eckert answered the few questions put to him, O'Malley whispered to Jerry Hoffberger, owner of the Baltimore Orioles, "Get up and talk, you've got to get up and just talk." Chub Feeney, the vice-president of the San Francisco Giants, whispered to Hoffberger, "Cut him off, cut him off!" And John Quinn, the general manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, said, "They ought to get him off right now!"
Eckert's demise was fated from the start. Having been selected by committee, he entered baseball almost totally unknown to anyone outside of the U.S. Air Force. When the announcement of his appointment was made the morgue of The New York Times could find only one reference to him, and that was in a caption to a picture in which he was standing next to General Douglas Mac-Arthur. "The dossier we got on him," said Grant, "was one of the most impressive I have ever seen.... This man's previous record, if you read it today, would qualify him for any job you could think of. He accomplished things during the last war and afterward that were astronomical in performance."
Almost immediately after taking office, Eckert's first public meeting with baseball people and the press turned into a fiasco. It happened at the Fontainebleu Hotel on Miami Beach in 1965, before a luncheon of managers, writers and columnists. Although by this time the title of The Unknown Soldier seemed to be a permanent attachment, there was a charitable disposition to wait and see.
At the luncheon, however, Eckert, who had been introduced by his then assistant, Lee MacPhail, reached into his pocket and produced some index cards on which he had written a few reminders. Unfortunately, he welcomed the baseball writers and managers by reading from the wrong set of notes. He thanked them for helping the airline industry so much and spoke of technological advances being made in aviation. Managers looked at writers and writers at managers, until finally MacPhail figured out what had gone wrong and went to the commissioner's aid. General Eckert was scheduled to give a speech that evening at a United Airlines cocktail party. It was not a brilliant beginning.
Baseball never seemed more disorganized than it did in 1968. When a rule was passed to clamp down on the spit-ball the American League decided it would do things its way, the National League another. After the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Senator Robert Kennedy, Eckert failed to render swift and forceful decisions as to whether major league teams should or should not go ahead and play. Because Joe Cronin, president of the American League, fired Umpires Al Salerno and Bill Valentine in the last three weeks of the season as "incompetent" after they had served for a total of 13 years, umpires from both leagues were within inches of striking just before the World Series. With no help from Eckert they decided to go ahead and work for "the good of the game."
The breaking straw was the threat of the Major League Players' Association, under its director, Marvin Miller, to strike before spring training unless the players got a larger share of the game's $50 million television contract. Angered, the owners went to a cocktail party and dinner on the next-to-last night of the winter meetings. The long subdued feeling toward Eckert surfaced, and some of the young owners and a few of the older ones decided to drop him—but easily, on a quarter of a million dollar cushion, his pay for the next four years. Among the owners were Bob Reynolds and Gene Autry of the California Angels, Hoffberger, Michael Burke of the New York Yankees, Grant, John Fetzer of the Detroit Tigers, Gabe Paul of the Cleveland Indians, John Galbreath of the Pittsburgh Pirates, O'Malley and Gussie Busch and Dick Meyer of the St. Louis Cardinals.
Following a joint meeting the next morning, the owners went to the Comstock Room, while Eckert went down-stairs to conduct a stormy and confused press conference. That over, thankfully, Eckert was standing in the hotel lobby and thinking ahead to the next day when he would go down to visit his son, a student at UCLA, when suddenly Hoffberger moved quickly through the lobby and asked him to follow him upstairs. After a preliminary stop on another floor, Eckert was escorted into the Com-stock Room and ouster. The entire business was accomplished in the only way, it seems, that baseball—the best friend pro football ever had—can do things. Clumsily.
The meaning of Eckert's firing is twofold. First, in trying to build yet another new image baseball will seek to establish an organization strong enough to prohibit owners and leagues from going off in different directions, but not so strong that the owners cannot control it. Second, it means that the reign of Walter O'Malley as the high priest of the game has ended. No longer will the influential group of young owners and club presidents that fired Eckert sit back and let O'Malley influence the major decisions merely because baseball is his prime source of income while to many of them it is only a hobby.
Within the next few weeks Hoffberger, a close friend of Bill Veeck, will go to work with Dick Meyer and try to find someone capable of putting the game's house back into some kind of order. While they are definitely looking for a man with baseball experience, they are not exactly juggling in the dark. Already Feeney and Burke have been given support in their own areas, but baseball today has 24 teams instead of the 16 it had only eight seasons ago. This time even the heavy-handed baseball owners seem to favor sending the watch to a watch repairman rather than a plumber.
Probably the best man available is Robert Cannon, a Circuit Court judge in Milwaukee who would take the job only if it contained the whip of authority. Cannon is 51 and knows everyone in baseball. While serving as legal adviser of the Players' Association he was able to accomplish things by dealing directly with the owners and the players.
The idea of having a judge in office has a good ring to it. Cannon has something else going for him. He watched closely the administrations of Ford Frick and William Eckert. What better way to learn from mistakes?