Feb 18

Spring Training – 69 Senators

Part 1 of a Five Part Series on 1969 Spring Training

“Bob Short’s Picnic Table Diplomacy”

1969’s spring training may have been the most unique in Washington baseball history. Change abounded. The club sported a new owner, Robert E. Short, a celebrity manager, Ted Williams, and even new uniforms (the elegant navy blue pinstripes replaced by gleaming white home uniforms and gray road threads,  with, ominously “Senators”, not “Washington”, written in script across the front).

Baseball itself experienced fundamental changes. A new commissioner, Bowie Kuhn reigned, and, in the wake of the snooze-inducing “Year of the Pitcher”, the strike zone shrunk and the pitching mound was reduced from 15 to 10 inches. In Spring Training, baseball began an odd experiment. Instead of the pitcher batting for himself, team’s could designate a “designated pinch hitter” to bat for him. Purists sneered.

New commissioner Kuhn and new Senators’ owner Short also got their first taste of the confrontational style of Marvin Miller, the head of the Major League Baseball’s Players Union. With data from Senators’ pitcher Jim Hannan, Miller succeeded in getting players to strike for more favorable pension benefits.

Most of the players and all but one of the Senators held firm to their demands. Camps opened, but most of the players stayed away. In Pompano Beach, where the Senators trained, only utility man Rich Billings showed up for camp saying, “I need this job.” In time, many players, including stars like Tom Seaver, broke ranks, but Miller succeeded in getting pension payments increased and the years required to vest reduced from five to four. Many players on the 1969 Senators — Jim French, David Baldwin, Ed Stroud, and Hank Allen to name some — received pensions due to the agreement reached in 1969.

For his part, Short recommended locking the players out and using replacements, much like the NFL did in 1987. Short was, indeed, a man ahead of his time.

The strike over and the Presidential Opener in Washington scarcely a month away, Short got to work signing his players to their 1969 contracts. In the innocent days before player agents and free agency, owners had no worries about signing their players to multi-year contracts. The reserve clause bound players for life to their teams or until they were traded or released. One-year deals were all that was necessary.

Short decided to hold his player negotiations at a picnic table behind the Senators’ batting cage. After players arrived and unpacked their belongings, they sat down across from their new owner.

Pen in one hand, cigarette in the other, Short offered his terms. He started with expected opening day starter Camilo Pascual. Washington sportswriters creeped nearby to eavesdrop. Pascual had a reputation as a tough negotiator and much drama surrounded his contract talks each spring. The reporters looked forward to seeing their favorite pitcher school the rookie owner.

As the writers settled in for the spring training theatre, the talks ended almost as soon as they began. Pascual and Short shook hands. In 20 minutes, the deal was complete, reportedly $45,000. Short spoke to the dumfounded reporters: “He said he was one of the best pitchers in the American League and I said I was one of the poorest owners.”

Other players signed quickly, falling to Short’s silver tongue.  Those not in camp yet agreed to terms by phone.  Catcher Paul Casanova received permission to take care of some loose ends at his home in Connecticut before negotiating his contract. Only one, the team’s best known, largest, and most talented player, held out. No upstart owner was going to tell Frank Howard what to do (more on that in Part 4).

As soon as the players signed, Williams put them to work in the batting cage. With the first spring training game just around the corner, he wanted his men well-prepared.

In Part 2,  see how that first game, really the entire first week of the preseason, unfolded in ways that tested Teddy Ballgame’s patience beyond what anyone thought he could endure.

Steve Walker is the author of the  book, “A Whole New Ballgame: The 1969 Washington Senators” available on Amazon: http://amzn.to/AzaNta or direct from the publisher, Pocol Press: http://bit.ly/y51taI