A Question of Conscience: Opening Day 1968
Americans have always counted on baseball in tough times. Through war, peace, and social upheaval, it was a constant; able to blot out the troubles of the real world. By the late 1960s, baseball was having a tough time ignoring the outside world. The political whirlwind and grim nightly news reports began to intrude as the death toll in Vietnam rose daily. Urban riots had become regular occurrences, some very close to ballparks. Major League players’ attitudes were changing too. They wanted more power. The players’ union was still in its infancy; true power remained elusive. Locker rooms were simmering powder kegs. Some of the sportswriters could sense it, wondering what event would trigger a revolt.
On Thursday, April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis by racist drifter James Earl Ray. It was another seminal event in a decade already wracked by violence at home and abroad. Urban riots began anew. Whole neighborhoods went up in flames. 46 people died. The nation seemed to be coming apart.
The embers that had been smoldering in the locker room flashed over with the killing of King. Societal divisions could no longer be ignored. Silence would not suffice. This was the case for many black players in Major League Baseball. The season was due to start April 8 and 9th. President Lyndon Johnson declared Sunday, May 7, a day of mourning. The date of King’s funeral remained in question. No one could have known the impact the next few days would have on the future of the game.
Pressure immediately mounted on the Major Leagues. Many felt America’s pastime had to take the lead. But other sports acted much faster. The NBA and NHL suspended their playoff games. Racetracks closed for the weekend. The North American Soccer League called off games and the Greensboro Open, one of the PGA Tour’s major stops in those days, delayed its final 36 holes until Sunday. Even the New York Stock Exchange was closing.
Baseball’s vacillating Commissioner, William Eckhart, seemingly oblivious to the upheaval, left game cancellations up to the teams. He refused to heed the calls from the public and media. Eckhart was not a career baseball man. A former Air Force General, he was brought in by the owners who sought a hard-nosed decision-maker who could also run complex organizations efficiently. The owners got it wrong. The stage was set for a confrontation that the nation did not want; an exhausted fan base wanted their game left off the political landscape. Players had other ideas; they were more media savvy than the owners. The time had finally come to upend the power structure.
Long Time Coming
Twenty years after Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier, African Americans made up only 15% of MLB in 1968 while Latinos made up just 10%. However, in those intervening years, a black player had won the National League MVP Award 14 times and in the American League, three times. Still, they were expected to know their place and not be “uppity.” This would not last.
By the late 60s, the game’s young black players had different ideas; they had come of age as King was beginning his long campaign for civil rights. Progress had started, but change was still needing a push. They were ready to shove. No longer would they suffer the indignities of not eating in the same restaurant as their white teammates or be forced to rent a room on the black side of town.
For all of the players, power still rested with a dictatorial ownership structure. The reserve clause, inserted into all contracts, prevented free agency. Even after a contract expired, the rights to a player were retained by the team. That power was only now being challenged with the growth of the Players’ Association, which had formed in 1966. Taking a stand, for anything, could get you blacklisted by the teams; and the fans seemed to take the side of ownership. The game was sacred to them and they felt the players should be grateful for the opportunity to play. What they didn’t see was the sacrifices so many made to get to the Major Leagues and the struggles after retirement. The minimum salary was $10,000 and agents weren’t allowed. Players negotiated on their own, with very few exceptions.
Veteran players from two organizations, the Pittsburgh Pirates, and the St. Louis Cardinals, finally said enough. They decided to push the conversation forward and ended up starting a movement.
April 5, 1968
As the weekend approached, Major League teams had already left spring training and went on the road for exhibition games with interleague rivals, which were usually sellouts. Many were set up in cities without major league baseball. So the Pirates left their facility in Bradenton, Florida for Richmond, Virginia to play the Yankees on Saturday and Sunday. The Cards stayed in Florida to play the Detroit Tigers, in what turned out to be a prophetic matchup.
The Pirates had the most black players of any team in the Major Leagues, eleven. They were a mix of veterans and strong personalities like Donn Clendenon, Willie Stargell, and Maury Wills. But the leader of this group was one of the greatest Pirates of all time, right fielder Roberto Clemente. About to start his 14th season with the club, he had amassed a Hall of Fame-worthy career with four batting titles, an MVP and seven Gold Gloves. Roberto was shocked by King’s death. He had met him in Puerto Rico several years before. Clemente was inspired; he was dedicated to making not just Puerto Rico a more just place, but all of Latin America. As the son of a sugar plantation worker, he had seen poverty; King’s message offered hope to all.
Wills, a D.C. native, had spent the bulk of his career with the Los Angeles Dodgers as a shortstop, where he became known for his prodigious base stealing. It was during this time that he had met King in 1966. He felt the sting of segregation firsthand having done a minor league stint down south in the 1950s. Moody and taciturn by nature, the pain showed on his face. Wills had received death threats and other nasty letters from fans throughout his time in the Major Leagues. He would share them with another Dodger who was a target because of his faith, Sandy Koufax. Remarkably, the two men would have a morbid laugh over who received the worst missives.
During the morning workout, a grieving Wills would give a remarkable interview; not for what was said, but for what was left unsaid. He was interviewed by a reporter from Sports Illustrated. Not once was Wills asked about King. The banality of the banter was shocking. Watching him keep his composure was admirable, knowing the range of emotions he was feeling. Such was American culture even as late as 1968.
The decision not to play Opening Day came rather quickly. The African American and Latino players, led by Wills, gathered in Donn Clendenon’s room at the Holiday Inn. Wills was the first one to broach the subject of sitting out Opening Day. Clemente was in complete agreement. The other players quickly got on board. They would play Saturday’s exhibition game but said no to Sunday. A meeting would be held the next day to inform their teammates as well as management.
So began a tense 48 hours within Major League Baseball that would culminate in a confrontation at the Houston Astrodome.
The Cardinals had an equally strong group of African American and Latino players that included Lou Brock, Curt Flood, and Orlando Cepeda. But their unquestioned leader was pitcher Bob Gibson. The most dominant pitcher in the game, he was already on his way to becoming a legend. He had two of the greatest World Series performances 1964 and ’67, winning five games, striking out 57. The Cards were defending champs and were expected to go back again on the strength of Gibson’s arm and attitude. To many batters, he seemed eight feet tall despite being only 6’1 and under 200 pounds.
Gibson, an Omaha native, came to baseball in an unusual fashion. Raised by a single mom in a housing project, he was a sickly child. He still managed to be a three-sport athlete in high school. After graduation, he received a basketball scholarship to Creighton University and ended up pitching for the baseball team as well. He signed with the Cardinals in 1957 but in the offseason, played with the Harlem Globetrotters. Professional basketball in the ‘50s was not paying Major League money and he easily made the transition back to the pitcher’s mound permanent. By the early 60s, he was in the starting rotation.
His battery mate, catcher Tim McCarver was a Tennessee native who had seen the scourge of segregation up close. On the day of the assassination, he approached Gibson to talk about what happened. A white man from the old Confederacy was not the person he wanted to speak with about his grief. In a harsh rebuke, he told McCarver that he could never understand what a black man goes through every day in America; the prejudice, the hate, and the suspicious stares. The young catcher was persistent, trying to engage until he felt they reached an understanding. There was now more to life than baseball.
For Gibson, it just another reminder of his own struggles. While in high school he had dreamed of playing basketball at Indiana University. But they had quotas for black players and was told they had reached their maximum for 1953, one. His first manager with the Cardinals, Solly Hemus, was openly racist, telling the young pitcher he was not intelligent enough to study hitters. Even in his hometown, he and his wife were harassed after buying a new house. Enough was enough.
By late Friday night, the lines had been drawn. The owners did not want to lose gate revenue. But they were far from unified. Some were more attuned to public perception and their young players. A strong Commissioner could have ended the speculation but Eckert made a decision not to make a decision. There were 20 teams in the league; it appeared more than half were ready to cancel at least the games scheduled for April 8.
Major League players throughout the country arose on Saturday morning and went about their pre-game business like any other day. But there was an urgent matter that needed attention. The Pirates held a full team meeting to discuss the decision from the night before. A vote was taken and it was unanimous; they would not play Opening Day. Prior to the exhibition against the Yankees, Roberto Clemente and pitcher Dave Wickersham came out to address the media on the field. They announced the players’ decision not to play tomorrow or opening day in honor of King. Interestingly, players’ rep Wills did not appear at the press conference.
The Pirates owner and GM supported the move. However, the owner of the Houston Astros, Roy Hoffheinz, intended to go on as scheduled. After their exhibition game, the guys packed up and prepared to fly out on Sunday; the entire team uncertain as to what awaited them.
The Cardinals’ players, though they had made no public statement, informed team management of the desire not to play. Surprisingly, they had the support of the owner and GM, Bing Devine. The organization then announced they would not play on Monday against the Braves.
The acceptance of the players’ decision by Devine and the Cards owner, August Busch III was a surprisingly progressive move. Whether it was an attempt at socially responsible business practices or just a good PR move, it didn’t matter anymore. They were lauded for doing the right thing. The Cardinals' willingness to change led to success. They had been signing some of the best black players in the country for over a decade, unlike many organizations such as the Yankees and the Red Sox, their two previous World Series opponents.
The Pirates landed in Houston amid the swirling controversy. Upon arrival at the Astrodome for a workout, they were told the Astros still intended to play Monday. After dressing, Donn Clendenon and Willie Stargell rushed over the Astros’ locker room to meet with their African American players. They first encountered Bob Watson, Houston first baseman and budding star. Watson was impressed by the Pirates’ resolve. Here were two black players sticking their necks out to make a stand. The 22-year-old Watson knew his answer. Other players like Joe Morgan and Jimmy Wynn joined the huddle. They were in complete agreement. The games would not go on as scheduled.
A native of Los Angeles, Watson had experienced Jim Crow after being assigned to a Florida minor league team. Finding an apartment or hotel room was impossible. So the local African American undertaker put them up in the funeral home. That indignity became ingrained in him. Almost all the black players in Major League baseball had experienced similar treatment. No more, he thought. It ends here.
The Astros players informed their management, who had no choice but to accept the decision. Saying no to a hard-charging, no-nonsense guy like Hoffheinz impressed many. Word spread quickly and the teams still holding out yielded to common sense and decency. All except one and it surprised both fans and the media: the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The organization that had helped break the color barrier was now adamant about playing their games as scheduled. Despite the public relations nightmare beginning to brew, owner Walter O’Malley did not seem to care. Many players, now feeling emboldened, spoke out about O’Malley’s obstinacy. One of those was Phillies first baseman Bill White, who publicly called the 64-year-old owner greedy. But nothing moved O’Malley to act. Finally, their Opening Day opponent, the Phillies, broke the stalemate by declaring they would not play.
Further trouble had been averted but the black mark for the owners remained. In the coming years, this unfortunate lack of foresight on their part led to unifying the players. Their power would only keep growing.
1968 was the end of an era in many ways. It became known as the “Year of the Pitcher,” as the Major Leagues suffered the lowest batting averages in history. No pitcher exemplified that dominance more than Bob Gibson, who had an ERA of 1.12, the fourth lowest in history. He led the Cards back to the Series, only to lose to the underdog Detroit Tigers, who had two dominant pitchers of their own, Mickey Lolich and 31 game winner Denny McClain. But home runs put fans in the seats. This led to rules changes, such as lowering of the mound from 15 to 10 inches.
The era of the two league system ended after the season. MLB expanded with four teams in 1969. The National League added the San Diego Padres and Montreal Expos while in the American League, the Kansas City Royals and Seattle Pilots became the newest markets. As a result, the leagues split into East and West divisions, with a best of five playoff format.
The standoff over the King assassination became a catalyst for change in other areas. No longer would players knuckle under to salary cuts, last minute trades or dismissive treatment by ownership. The reserve clause would be challenged within a year. The players’ union would go on to have its first strike in 1972 and eventually win free agency in 1975. The MLBPA is now considered the most powerful union in sports and one of the most significant nationwide.
Today’s players owe a great debt to these men who finally decided it was time for a change, just as so many of us owe gratitude for the sacrifices of Dr. King. 1968 was a year of triumph, tragedy, and change. Major League Baseball was never the same.
- Roberto Clemente: Clemente continued his extraordinary career, helping the Pirates win another World Series in 1971. He got his 3,000th hit during his last regular-season game in 1972. After the season, he continued his charity work. But on New Year’s Eve, he was killed in a plane crash off Puerto Rico; he had been organizing aid for the victims of an earthquake in Nicaragua. In 1973, he was elected to the Hall of Fame with over 92% of the vote.
- Donn Clendenon: At the end of the 1968 season, Clendenon was left unprotected and picked up by the Expos in the expansion draft. However, they tried to trade him in early ’69 to the Astros. He refused on the grounds that their manager, Harry Walker, was a racist. The trade did not go through; however, they eventually did trade him to the Mets in June, where he would become a World Series legend. He hit three home runs in the Series, started four games at first base and was named MVP. In retirement, he earned a law degree, published his autobiography and battled drug addiction. He passed away from leukemia in 2005.
- William Eckert: Trouble continued for the embattled Commissioner. He also refused to cancel games after the assassination of Robert Kennedy in June. Frustration grew and the owners began to realize their mistake. This led to Eckert being terminated at the end of the 1968 season. He died from a heart attack three years later at the age of 62.
- Bob Gibson: After his tremendous ’68 season, he came back the following year with another 20 win season despite MLB lowering the mound. He remained consistent over the next few years, winning 19 in 1972. But the Cardinals were in decline. Age and bad trades led to a drop in competitiveness. After a poor showing in 1974 and ’75, he retired. In his retirement, he became a pitching coach for the Mets and an instructor with the Cardinals. He is also the author of two books: Stranger to the Game and Pitch by Pitch. At 82, he’s still a powerful advocate for the game.
- Bob Watson: Watson went on to have a solid career, playing for the Astros, Red Sox Yankees and Braves. But it was in retirement where he made his mark. He became the second black GM in MLB history when he was hired by the Astros in 1993. In 1995, he became the Yankees GM and was the first African American GM to win a World Series in 1996. While with the Yankees, he successfully battled prostate cancer and has since become an advocate for early detection. Bob passed away in May 2020 at the age of 74.
- Maury Wills: After the 1968 season, Wills was picked up by the Montreal Expos in the expansion draft. He played two months for them before being traded back to the Dodgers in June. Despite his age, he again had several solid years for the club, even finishing in the top five of the MVP balloting in 1971. He ended his career with 586 stolen bases before being released by the Dodgers in 1972. In retirement, he went to work as a game analyst for NBC, managed the Seattle Mariners for one terrible season, wrote his autobiography, started a business and worked as an instructor for the Dodgers. He’s still employed by the team as a special advisor. His son, Bump Wills, also played in the Major Leagues. Now 87, he’s become a beloved figure among Dodger fans.
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