August 23, 2017

The Owner Was a Spy

March 8, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

One of the bigger Renaissance men in baseball was Mike Burke.  And when I say Renaissance man, I don’t mean that he went to fairs, got stoned and LARPed on weekends.  He didn’t need to do that.  He was a veteran of the OSS and the CIA.  Before that, he was a football star at Penn.  Afterward, he worked for the Ringling Brothers.  But that wasn’t enough of a circus, so he joined CBS.

It was The Sixties.  Most people think of stuff like Vietnam or the Civil Rights movement or hippies when they think of that decade.  But it was also the age of the Holding Company and I’m not talking about Janis Joplin.  Conglomerates were a big thing on Wall Street in those days as companies would purchase other companies outside of their core competencies.  CBS was no exception.  They purchased the guitar maker Fender and the New York Yankees among other businesses.  William Paley put Mike in charge.

Buy low; sell high is the investing mantra.  But CBS got that wrong; waaaay wrong.  They bought an aging team with no farm system right when it went into a tailspin.  Then they sold out to George Steinbrenner not long before the team returned to glory.  This era in Yankee history was typified by players like Joe Pepitone, Roger Repoz, and Tom Tresh.  And Jim “Bulldog” Bouton.

Bouton was kind of a flake; an outsider in the clubhouse.  Although he once won twenty games in a season, he is best known for co-authoring Ball Four.  What isn’t well known is that CBS turned it into a short-lived sitcom.  Bouton was in it along with ex-football player Ben Davidson.  Davidson also appeared in the movie M*A*S*H.  As I’ve said before, Bouton has other connections to that film, working with Elliot Gould and Robert Altman in The Long Goodbye.

Larry Gelbart turned M*A*S*H into a TV show.  Although not as good as the movie, it was great television until it jumped the shark when a number of cast members left.  I will brook no dissent.  Frank Burns > Winchester, Trapper John > B.J. Hunnicut, and Col. Blake > Col. Potter (that last one is less of a blowout than the others.)  Then Alan Alda got more creative control and got too preachy.  But it was still better than most shows out there. 

Alda’s father was an actor, too.  Robert Alda got his start in vaudeville and burlesque.  He later went on to stage and film.  He’s perhaps best known for playing George Gershwin in Rhapsody in Blue.  He also appeared in a wartime espionage thriller called Cloak and Dagger.  This was a movie starring Gary Cooper and it was loosely based on Mike Burke’s exploits in the OSS during World War II.  In fact, Burke acted as technical adviser on the film.

The OSS had a number of notables on its payroll.  Besides Burke, there was Julia Child and a couple of folks with a baseball connection; the catcher Moe Berg and future Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg.   Goldberg?  Read on.

SABR’s latest Baseball Research Journal is devoted to baseball and the law.  Shysterball, some call this subject.  It seems to be the second most popular topic in the sabersphere after rating players using advanced metrics.  One article mentions perhaps one of the most celebrated cases in the pastime’s history; Flood V. Kuhn.  The defendant was Commissioner Bowie Kuhn.

The plaintiff, Curt Flood, was a centerfielder for the Saint Louis Cardinals who felt that his rights were violated when he was traded by that team to the Philadelphia Phillies.  His attorney?  Arthur Goldberg.  Flood had been with Saint Louis for over a decade.  Won two World Series with the Cardinals.  You may have heard Tim McCarver talk about him.   Before that he was with Cincinnati and their farm system.  They miscast him as an infielder.

But before he became a big league star, he played in Oakland.  Not for the A’s.  They were still in Kansas City at the time.  He played for McClymonds High School.  He was a teammate of Vada Pinson.  A number of players came from that school and its rivals during that era.  They had a helluva coach in George Powles.  Other McClymonds Warriors included Willie Tasby, Frank Robinson, Jesse Gonder, and Bill Russell.

That wasn’t Russell the shortstop.  That was Russell the basketball center.  He would go on to win two NCAA titles with the University of San Francisco, a gold medal in the 1956 Olympics, and eleven NBA titles with the Boston Celtics.  He was also the first black coach in a big-time professional sport when he took over the Celts in 1967.  Before he became player-coach at Boston, the head coach was Red Auerbach.

Auerbach was an alum of George Washington University in the District of Columbia.  He coached and taught in high schools for a few years after graduating from there.  One school he coached at was Roosevelt High.  While there, he noticed that the tallest kid in school was not on the basketball team.  He stopped him in the hall one day and asked him why he was never tried out.

“Because I’m a lousy player,” replied the student.

“Let me be the judge of that.” said Auerbach.

After a weeks worth of practices, they both came to the conclusion that the kid didn’t belong on a basketball court.  The student’s name was Bowie Kuhn.

Kuhn was the first baseball lifer to be named commissioner of the sport.  Around the time that Auerbach approached him, he was also working as a scoreboard operator at Griffith Stadium.  And after being admitted to the bar, he worked for the white-shoe firm of Willkie Farr Gallagher.  The National League retained them as outside counsel.

In 1965, baseball owners elected William Eckert, a former Air Force general as commissioner.  The New York World-Telegram had this to say about Spike Eckert: “My God, they’ve chosen the Unknown Soldier.”  Dick Young of the New York Daily News wrote “They (the owners) have said that they don’t really need a commissioner at all.”  Well, the owners preferred not ceding power to the commissioner (or anyone, for that matter), but Eckert was too ineffectual.  Also, player rep Marvin Miller felt that Eckert’s support for players who refused to play on the day of MLK’s funeral may’ve led to his demise as commissioner.

Kuhn was eventually elected as a compromise candidate in 1969.  This occurred after his predecessor was ousted before his contract expired.  Young Turks among the owners led a successful bloodless coup against Eckert in December of 1968.  This group included Jerrold Hoffberger of the Orioles and Mike Burke.

Jon is the sole contributor to the blog Designated Sitter (http://designatedsitter.blogspot.com/). He Tweets @designatedsittr

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