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Flashback: 1965-76

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Think today’s game is going through some changes? It’s got nothing on the revolution that took the sport from the 1960s into the 1970s

Curt Flood
New era: It was the courage of Flood that forced the free agency gates open.
Photo by: Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

This is an era of big change in major league baseball, and if all the things under discussion between the owners and union come to pass, there will be a lot more change than the current influence of statistical analysis on decisions. But this is outright calm compared to the era from 1965 to 1976.

Then, as now, it was a time of national turbulence — Vietnam, civil rights, Watergate, and much more — and then, as now, the national pastime was having turbulence of its own. The period began with a major move meant to keep the richest teams — well, okay, the New York Yankees — from overwhelming everyone else, and ended with a major move that put the richest teams right back in control.

Prior to 1965, the Yankees had been in the World Series 14 of 16 years, leaving room for just Cleveland in 1954 and the 1959 Chicago White Sox. The Sox, back when they remembered they were in The Second City and not the 29th, couldn’t overcome the Yanks, but also hadn’t had a losing season since 1949.

Something had to be done to make baseball more competitive. Enter, the draft.

Rick Monday went to the Kansas City Athletics with the first-ever baseball amateur draft pick. The Sox, picking 17th, went for a catcher named Ken Plesha. Plesha was no doubt a fine fellow. According to his obituary, he spent 40 years managing the parks and being a leading citizen in his hometown of McCook, where they named the baseball field after him. What he was not, was destined for anything but the very low minors. Sox might have been a tad better off with the catcher the Cincinnati Reds got in the next round — kid named Bench.

Ken Plesha Field in McCook
McCook Park District

That set a bit of a pattern. The only White Sox pick who was in the majors long enough for a second can of chaw was 15th-rounder John Montague, and he didn’t sign — and not signing would become a big habit for Sox draftees. However, the White Sox did better the next year, picking Carlos May and Johnny Oates in the first two rounds, though, of course, Oates didn’t sign.

Heck, the Sox couldn’t even get their player when they had the first pick of the entire draft, Danny Goodwin, in 1971. How do you not work out ahead of time whether the player you’re picking No. 1 overall would sign? The White Sox draft history was one of mostly failure until choosing Harold Baines in 1977.

In 1965, baseball also became an indoor sport, with the opening of the Houston Astrodome. With the development of Astroturf (after the original Astrodome grass died, not because of it being indoors but because it was cooked by the greenhouse effect of the clear-paneled roof) led to a few gazillion fake grass sections of backyards around the world. And also a very important shelter for those made homeless in 2005.

Shelters For Katrina Victims Relocated To Houston
The Astrodome in its post-baseball life as a shelter for refugees from Hurricane Katrina.
Photo by Dave Einsel/Getty Images

In 1966, Los Angeles Dodgers aces Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale staged a holdout. They didn’t get nearly the pay they sought, but it was a sign of things to come. The much bigger deal was that Marvin Miller was elected executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, a move that led to the MLBPA becoming a real union, and a powerful one.

In 1967, Carl Yastrzemski became the last Triple Crown winner of the 1900s. This was important, because it gave teammate Ken Harrelson something to talk about for half a century, instead of, oh, maybe, paying attention to the game he was supposed to be announcing.

The 1968 season marked the Year of the Pitcher, when an increasing dominance of pitchers reached a zenith. Among many incredible totals, hurlers amassed 339 shutouts in 1968. The White Sox proudly upheld their end, getting shut out 23 times and setting the table for the current team by having the fewest runs and walks, and most strikeouts, in the AL.

That ended a multi-year experiment with a larger strike zone, and brought on other major change,s like lowering mounds from 15 inches to 10 — a height now under discussion for further lowering because of today’s pitching domination, along with the possibility of moving the mound back two feet.

Then came 1969. Wow. And that’s even without the Miracle Mets.

The union got players not to sign new contracts, part of a battle over pension funding that led to a boycott of spring training by most players. The boycott lasted until February 28, when the owners gave in on most of the players’ demands. The 1969 season also marked the second big expansion year, leading to two six-team divisions in each league and the first ever postseason with more than just World Series play.

Bowie Kuhn became commissioner, a position he held for 15 years, a term notable primarily because he wore short-sleeved shirts to frigid playoff games to pretend the weather was fine.

The League Championship Series had barely ended when the St. Louis Cardinals traded Curt Flood to the Philadelphia Phillies. The veteran Flood refused to report, and in January 1970 challenged baseball’s reserve clause (which essentially bound players to their original teams for life, if team management so chose) all the way to the Supreme Court. Flood eventually lost — and sat out that season — but the balance of power between owners and players was beginning a seismic shift. Consider that the highest White Sox salary in 1969 was Gary Peters’ $40,000.

In 1970, the Seattle Pilots went bankrupt, the first — but not last — MLB team to do so, and were bought by Bud Selig and moved to Milwaukee. The White Sox only went bankrupt in a baseball sense, losing a team-record 106 games.

It was also 1970 when Jim Bouton’s Ball Four, mostly about his 1969 season with the Pilots and Houston Astros, was published, giving Kuhn apoplexy. Well, giving Kuhn and many players and coaches apoplexy, since it laid out behind-the-scenes reality that didn’t show them as civic role models. The book was hated so much it became a classic, making Time’s list of the 100 greatest nonfiction books ever.

Jim Bouton Releases ‘Ball Four: The Final Pitch’
Jin Bouton and THE Book.
Photo by Tim Boyle/Newsmakers

Baseball survived.

In 1971, the Pirates became the first team to field an all-black lineup, and the first to wear double-knit uniforms. All teams followed shortly — on the uniform front, that is.

The 1972 season brought the first players’ strike to actually bleed into the regular season, a battle over pensions and arbitration that eliminated the first week or two of games. The owners agreed to add arbitration to the collective bargaining agreement, another major shift. The Flood case eventually ended over the summer, but player momentum continued.

It was also a year of AL division shuffling, when the second Washington Senators team moved to Texas and the Western Division, and some team had to move to the Eastern. The White Sox actually wanted to make the move, but Milwaukee went instead. Whew! Imagine how horrible recent years would have been if the Sox were in the AL East.

Oh, yeah: After the season, the AL decided to experiment with something called the DH.

The 1973 season featured the first designated hitter year, a boon to the White Sox because Carlos May was their primary DH and led the team with 96 RBIs. Fresh off an MVP year for the White Sox, Dick Allen signed the largest contract in MLB history, $250,000 a year, and promptly missed more than half the season with injuries.

In 1974, the free agency clause came into play for the first time, when the famed Dick Woodson won an arbitration case with Minnesota, getting $30,000. The Twins soon traded him. At the end of the year Catfish Hunter, who got out of his prior contract because the A’s missed insurance payments, signed for $3.75 million, dwarfing of the prior record.

In between, Hank Aaron passed Babe Ruth.

In 1975, the Sox almost ended up in Seattle, with the A’s moving to Chicago. That would have given us a better team, but also Charlie Finley. Instead, the Sox were sold to Bill Veeck for his second ownership round, and they stayed put. Frank Robinson was named manager of Cleveland, becoming the first black manager in MLB history.

But the big event was a present for the players two days before Christmas — arbiter Peter Seitz declared Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally free agents. The owners then showed their sportsmanship by firing Seitz, but it was game over for their side. McNally retired, but Messersmith got a million-dollar contract.

That led to huge doings in the final year of our baker’s decade. Miller worked out a deal with the owners for players to become free agents if they had six years of service and their contracts had expired. The six years was actually Miller’s idea, to prevent the free agency system from being overwhelmed every year.

Before the season, Finley tried to sell off all the pending A’s free agents, only to be nullified by Kuhn. If only he’d thought to call what he did “rebuilding,” instead of a pariah he would have been a visionary.

The original free agency was a complicated mess, with up to 12 teams being able to acquire bargaining rights to be allowed to bid, but it did the job from the players’ perspective. Fifty players, from in-their-prime Hall-of-Famers to some on the tail end of their careers, filed for free agency.

A total of 32 of those players got contracts. Surprisingly, only two went to the Yankees — Reggie Jackson and Don Gullett.

The White Sox led the way with four signings, though none of the big names – Veeck didn’t have the cash for that. Two of the new players were useful, Eric Soderholm and Steve Stone. Two – Royle Stillman and Tim Nordbrook — foreshowed the White Sox’s future at such things, combining for a negative career WAR.

Portrait of Steve Stone Of The Chicago Cubs
Stoney in some other team’s uniform between his two stints with the Sox.
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The White Sox only lost one player, who was able to be a free agent because Veeck brought him back for three games at the end of the season. Alas, no one bid on Minnie Miñoso, perhaps because he was 51 at the time.

In another indicator for today, three of the signings didn’t take place until March 1977.

From 1965 to 1975, the Yankees never made the playoffs. Then they were in three straight years. But free agency didn’t immediately prove to be a disaster for less affluent teams, and the Yankees never quite regained the dominance they’d had before the draft.

It was a busy, busy 11 years. And there was stuff that happened on the field, too.