Where’s Players Association to mitigate dangerous cold-weather playing conditions?

By on April 16, 2018

Even top baseball management realizes major leaguers needed a playing conditions advocate.

Some 15 years ago I approached then-Cubs president Andy MacPhail in the Wrigley Field pressbox cafeteria after researching the four consecutive doubleheaders his team played Friday through Monday over the Labor Day weekend at home in 1967.

Manager Leo Durocher, quickly morphing into a slave driver, started Don Kessinger, Glenn Beckert, Billy Williams, Ron Santo, 36-year-old Ernie Banks and Adolfo Phillips in all eight games. Catcher Randy Hundley started seven of the eight contests, and came into the eighth late for backup Johnny Stephenson via a double-switch.

Barbaric, right?

“That’s why you needed the Players Association,” MacPhail said of the country’s now-most powerful union, in 1967 getting acquainted with new executive director Marvin Miller, whom I rated in a book the fourth-most impactful “game changer” in baseball history.

From left, Players Association chief Tony Clark, Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend and Commissioner Rob Manfred before the Fort Bragg Game in 2016. Clark needs to reach across the table to Manfred to establish a baseline of safe playing conditions.

So, that’s why I wonder where Miller successor many-times-removed Tony Clark was when teams played in, again, barbaric conditions over the past two weeks in the extended winter of April 2018?

Worst of all was the now-infamous Saturday, April 14, literally slipshod Cubs’ 14-10 victory over the Braves at Wrigley Field, coming back from an early 10-2 deficit. The conditions were quasi-Arctic, so cold, wet and miserable baseballs were literally squiring out of players’ hands. The risk of serious injury was greatly heightened. Football fans in December at most northern stadiums sat through better conditions.

How unplayable was the game? TV camera lenses were constantly splattered with moisture. A kind of fog blurred some of the televised sightlines.  It would not be surprising that a disgruntled player would have called the Occupational Safety Health Administration (OSHA) to invesigate the unsafe working conditions at Wrigley Field.  Even manager Joe Maddon complained about how unplayable the conditions were on Saturday, April 14 at Wrigley Field.

The Cubs got a ton of negative blowback from all sides over the near-fiasco. They did not dally in postponing games the next two days, including a nationally-televised night contest against the Cardinals on Monday April 16. Perhaps the latter incident is proof the diminished ESPN, having jettisoned so much talent in cost-cutting, is not the all-powerful WorldWide Leader it claimed to be.

We know individual teams are under pressure by Major League Baseball to try to avoid postponements. But where is the pressure from Clark and his player reps on the Lords of the Game to avoid repeats of the Cubs-Braves ice capades and other examples of marginal or worse early-season conditions?

Neither side will advocate cutting the regular season back to 154 games. Baseball now has gone to ridiculous lengths to stretch its season from now Opening Day in late March to a World Series potentially ending the first week of November, after three previous post-season rounds.

We’ll throw out some ideas:

  • Do not start the regular season until April 8. I pick that date because the weather was pretty good when Willie Smith slugged the second most-remembered walkoff homer in Cubs history on Opening Day 1969. Even in more normal Aprils, the weather is too chancy in the northern 1/4 of the country to risk the conditions we just witnessed.
  • To accommodate the later season starts, MLB should schedule a handful of day-night doubleheaders on, say, Saturdays to get the 162 games in. Nothing exists in the Collective Bargaining Agreement to bar twin bills. In consideration of the players, a new rule should be implemented to expand rosters to 28 or 29 just for the doubleheaders. Maybe two extra pitchers and two position players. That way, pitching staffs are not overtaxed and more position players can be given one of the games off. As late as the 1950s, baseball had expanded rosters until mid-May, so why not a touch of nostalgia?
  • Owners and many GMs won’t like playing extended road trips to start the season. But the weather simply is too lousy for consistent outdoor play in the North. Enough retractable-roof  or warmer-weather locales exist to play at least a week before the cold-weather cities have their Opening Days. That’s the price for keeping 162 games and the existing compensation system. At least a week’s worth of games should be played in San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles, Anaheim, San Diego, Texas, Atlanta and covered stadiums in Seattle, Phoenix, Houston, Milwaukee, Tampa Bay, Miami and Toronto.
  • Minimum temperature, wind-chill, precipitation and field-condition standards should be established in order to play a game. This requires agreement with all parties involved and help from the U.S. Weather Service. No games should be played if the air temperature is below 35 or wind-chill is in the 20s, there’s more than just a drizzle taking place and snow has fallen on the field within three hours before first pitch. Only a handful of groundskeepers are as deft as Sox “Sodfather” Roger Bossard using his mowers to remove snow, but even that tactic created only very marginal conditions.

I have seen unbelievable conditions and injuries in inclement weather at both extremes in Chicago. The Mets’ Tim Leary and the Dodgers’ Ramon Martinez were hurt playing in the bitter cold in Wrigley Field. Dallas Green bought a case of beer for a work crew that cleared off snow from Wrigley Field for Opening Day 1982. The Cubs’ home opener in 1975 was delayed two days due to a nine-inch snowstorm. Big snow piles still existed outside the ballpak when they did play amid 37-degree chill, and drunks/drug-addled fans threw ice balls from the bleachers at Cubs right fielder Jerry Morales.

Meanwhile, at old Comiskey Park’s home opener 1974 when the mercury was barely above freezing, a streaker got loose in the left-field corner displaying, as David Niven said of a dashing nudist at that year’s Oscars, “all his shortcomings.” Other exhibitionists bared their wares in other parts of the ballpark. Meanwhile, the Angels’ Nolan Ryan froze the Sox bats with his high heat.

Robin Ventura literally took the heat off inquisitive media in 2012.

At the other end of the temperature range, the mid-July heat wave in 1995 took an under-publicized toll. Gametime temperature at 7:05 p.m. first pitch in a game with the Reds at Wrigley Field on July 13 was 104 degrees. The show must go on — producers packed 81-year-old Harry Caray’s neck in ice towels so he could still helm the superstation broadcast amid the sauna bath.

The next afternoon, in 101-degree heat, New Orleans native Jim Bullinger lasted 6 1/3 innings for the Cubs. Bullinger later said he was “not right” for three weeks after his stint in the sweatbox, despite his upbringing in a tropical city. A night game was staged on Saturday, July 15.  The power went out in the entire neighborhood around Wrigley Field, while the ballpark still was lighted, apparently on a separate circuit. Many of the 40,000 sweatees in the house might not have had any operating taverns to quench their thirst afterward.

Some exceptions to the overly-macho horrible weather plow-aheads existed. In mid-summer 2012, a humanistic Robin Ventura moved his pre-game manager’s talk from the 100-degree-plus G-Rate Field dugout to the air-conditioned ballpark Conference Center.

Given a choice, I’ll take the cold, because I can bundle up on my rounds, while I don’t have to chase a ball down on damp grass or pitch a moisture-laden pitch. But there’s a limit to which I can strip down without the A/C blowing. On that July 13, 1995 evening, as the wuss I am, I took refuge in the press lunchroom. Despite the A/C supposedly running, the thermometer still read 90 degrees due to the outside stickiness creeping in, the accumulation of body heat and the ovens cooking dinner.

I am not worth much except lots of decibels and overly long copy, compared to the $15 million a year big leaguers. So figure my surprise when the owners and baseball geniuses put their prime man-flesh at risk — and the silence of the players’ union leadership with playing conditions that should warrant a boatload of OSHA fines for an unsafe workplace.

George Castle, CBM Historian






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