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Flashback: Lockout 1976

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Bill Veeck’s second run as White Sox owner was ill-timed, beginning with a freeze-out of players in spring training

New Beginning: Bill Veeck’s second stint as White Sox owner began with little pomp and circumstance, as evidenced in this early 1976 spring training game at Payne Park in Sarasota.
John Iacono /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images

It had been 15 years since Bill Veeck possessed the keys to Comiskey Park.

His second run with the team, though stretching more than twice as long as his initial, 1959 pennant-winning stint, was less than half as fun.

Why? Money.

The ultimate failure of Veeck’s last run with the Chicago White Sox (1975-81), indeed his last run in professional baseball, was money. Veeck never had it, and in the dawning days of his return to the White Sox, he’d desperately need it.

In 1970, Curt Flood filed suit to strike down major league baseball’s reserve clause—a win for Flood would mean some form of free agency for players. Veeck was one of the witnesses testifying in the lawsuit — on Flood’s side, not the owners. (Only Veeck, Jackie Robinson and Hank Greenberg among baseball luminaries supported Flood in court, Veeck calling the reserve clause “human bondage.”)

Flood would never resume his career, but his efforts led to free agency years later.

You can smell the irony, out there on the horizon.

Veeck’s purchase of the White Sox from John Allyn on Dec. 10, 1975 came with enormous celebration, in that with Veeck in charge, the White Sox were safe from a rumored relocation to Seattle.

Veeck’s purchase also came with an extremely short honeymoon. Not two weeks after Veeck’s ownership was approved, federal judge John Oliver upheld an earlier ruling that effectively created free agency in baseball; Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally, two pitchers who played a full season without a signed contract in order to render the reserve clause moot, were ruled free agents.

The owners were much displeased, and opted to lock players out of spring training as a result.

The concept of free agency, one which Veeck supported, would ruin his chances at making the White Sox a success.

Duty Bound: Rather than opening spring training in Florida with his non-rostered troops, Veeck was working the phones at Comiskey Park on March 1, 1976.
Stephen Green-Armytage/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images

Free agency would be Veeck’s undoing. That was the case even in the early years of free agency, when the process was like pulling a tooth for owners and thus weird permutations of true free agency arose; the first class of free agents were subject to a re-entry draft, where teams “picked” negotiating rights like some goofy predecessor to Rotisserie baseball.

But free agency was here to stay, which meant the financially-hamstrung Veeck had to kiss his hopes for a division title goodbye.

His one shot came in the form of the South Side Hit Men in 1977, a ragtag collection of hapless and lame major leaguers who somehow entered August in first place and finished the season with 90 wins. His Rent-a-Player model proved to be lightning in a bottle, and repeat success in 1978 was not to be decanted.

So, 42 years ago today, the White Sox opened training camp in Sarasota, but only with minor leaguers and any other players not under contract with the White Sox. Granted, with Veeck’s open tryouts and soon-to-be-born Rent-a-Player schemes, it wasn’t always easy to tell White Sox major leaguers from a replacement roster.

On the field up there in that picture, somewhere, there were minor leaguers and tryout-invite players toiling under the Sarasota sun, with the same love of the game Veeck had, as he sat in his office back at Comiskey Park, chain-smoking Camels and desperately trying to stitch together a team that could take the AL West.

That team up above is wearing 1975 White Sox uniforms, not Veeck’s new/retro softball unis that Chris Sale was so very fond of, in a game on March 4 at Payne Park.

That team was apprehensive about what the future would bring.

Just like Veeck.