Ever pine for the days of yore, when contract deals were made with a handshake? Lifelong baseball man Emil Joseph "Buzzie" Bavasi (father of current Mariners GM Bill Bavasi ) passed away a few weeks ago (May 1, 2008), and he left behind a long and storied legacy. Perhaps his most famous moment was dealing with one of the first instances of concerted collective bargaining in baseball: the Koufax/Drysdale holdout of 1966.
Back then, you see, the reserve clause was still in effect, meaning players were under team control more or less in perpetuity. (It wouldn’t be until 1975, with the watershed Seitz decision, that free agency would become a possibility.) Hall of Fame pitchers Sandy Koufax and Don Drydale had other ideas, however. They decided, just after the 1965 season, that they could have some actual leverage if they made a pact: either both of them were satisfied by the terms of the contract, or neither of them would sign. This leverage wasn’t just imaginary.
In a piece written at the beginning of the 1967 season in Sports Illustrated Buzzie Bavasi details exactly what happened between the Dodgers and their two star pitchers. Be sure to check out the entire piece. It makes for some great reading.
I want to draw your attention to a few specifics, though. Of the barrel Koufax and Drysdale had him over, Bavasi notes: "To tell the truth, I wasn’t too successful in the famous Koufax-Drysdale double holdout in 1966. I mean, when the smoke had cleared they stood together on the battlefield with $235,000 between them, and I stood there With a blood-stained cashbox. Well, they had a gimmick and it worked; I’m not denying it. They said that one wouldn’t sign unless the other signed. Since one of the two was the greatest pitcher I’ve ever seen (and possibly the greatest anybody has ever seen), the gimmick worked. But be sure to stick around for the fun the next time somebody tries that gimmick. I don’t care if the whole infield comes in as a package; the next year the whole infield will be wondering what it is doing playing for the Nankai Hawks"
Now, in fairness to Mr. Drysdale, he was no slouch on the mound, however, in Bavasi’s eyes, it was Sandy Koufax he couldn’t afford to lose. In retrospect, he was absolutely right, at least for 1966. That season, which would prove to be Koufax’s last, was a spectacular one (323 IP, 241 H, 317 K, 77 BB, 1.73 ERA, 27-9 record). At the end of the ‘66 season, Koufax would win the Cy Young for the second straight year, but narrowly lose the MVP to Roberto Clemente, despite receiving more first place votes (9-8). Drysdale, on the other hand, actually had an ERA worse than league average that year (for just the second time in his career), though he was coming off a season in 1965 when he had finished fifth overall in the Cy Young voting (which Koufax had won).
What is most striking to me about this trip down memory lane is Bavasi’s reaction to long-term deals. When asked by Drysdale and Koufax for a combined $1 million for three years, Bavasi scoffed: "As I recall, I said something like, “You’re both athletes, and what you’re selling is your physical ability, and how can you guarantee your physical ability three years in advance? If you guarantee me that you will both be healthy and strong and still winning 20 games each in 1968, I’ll give you a three-year contract.” Since not even Cassius Clay could make a guarantee like that, the meeting broke up."
Wise words. Either things have changed a great deal in baseball since 1966, or sometimes the apple really does fall far the tree. Some bits of baseball wisdom just don’t travel well down through the years, I guess.