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Gerald Holland
December 22, 1958
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December 22, 1958

Commissioner Fels Napier's Plan To Save Baseball

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The world of baseball presents one face to the public, hides another from the public view. The face the public sees (and loves) is the game itself, a game of balletlike precision and skill like no other in the world. But behind the scenes there is the hidden face of baseball. This is the business side of the game without which the spectacle could never take place, and here are the people who own and operate the 16 major league clubs and their affiliates, systems which gained empire status in the carefree days when baseball was just about the only mass summer entertainment Americans could turn to. Perhaps because of this, some of today's baseball administrators seem to regard themselves as divinely ordained custodians of an almost sacred institution. But this hidden face of baseball is troubled today as never before and the men behind the scenes are on a spot that grows hotter by the day. Things are tough now, and in the accompanying factual fantasy, Gerald Holland (who used to work in a behind-the-scenes baseball office himself) imagines what could happen if things get just a little bit tougher.

It is now possible, finally, to reveal the inside story behind the short but sensational administration of Fels Napier as Commissioner of Baseball and at the same time piece together the startling details of the hitherto highly secret Napier Plan to Save Baseball. In this exclusive report, the veritable iron curtain of security that was rung down on l'affaire Napier will be penetrated. Despite the almost frantic efforts of certain major league club owners, managers and publicity directors to suppress all information on the subject, the truth will be told at last. It is felt here that the fans deserve nothing less than the full, shocking story of just how and why Fels Napier was sent streaking across the baseball skies like a meteor. But first, a word of reassurance to Napier's many friends and admirers throughout the nation: Fels Napier is alive and well.

Yes, Napier has been found. The writer (where the author of this exclusive report must, perforce, enter the story, he will refer to himself as "the writer" in order to avoid unseemly use of the first person) has seen and talked at length with Napier and his charming and high-spirited wife. Their generous cooperation has made it possible to get at the facts hitherto withheld from the fans. This writer's exclusive interview with the Napiers will be reported in detail after a review of the events that led up to Napier's appointment as commissioner and his abrupt resignation and mysterious disappearance.

The year 1958 (as everyone knows) was a troubled one for major league baseball. The talk of moving the Cleveland and Washington teams to other cities (coming, as it did, after the desertion of New York by Walter O'Malley's Dodgers and Horace Stoneham's Giants) made a bad impression. President Eisenhower himself joined the critics of Owner Calvin Griffith's plan to leave Washington by saying that he saw nothing wrong with baseball in our nation's capital that a few good ballplayers couldn't cure.

At the same time, congressional pressure on baseball increased. Congressman Emanuel Celler (D., N.Y.) continued to issue sharply critical views, and there was growing apprehension among baseball men that the game's privileged status was in peril. Some of these men said privately that is was not inconceivable that "crackpot legislators" might one day declare the game a monopoly and thus destroy baseball's sine qua non, the reserve clause.

Fears mounted as a Senate committee entered the picture and began calling witnesses. Fortunately, however, baseball found an able spokesman in Charles D. (Casey) Stengel of the New York Yankees. Stengel parried the probing questions of the Senators in a masterful way, turning aside the most insistent demands for his views by recalling anecdotes out of his 48-year career in baseball. When he declared at one point that the Japanese were trying to play baseball with short fingers, the Senators were so taken aback by this seeming irrelevancy that they never really recovered. The inquiry was later recessed and the baseball magnates breathed easier.

But there were other irritating developments on the baseball scene, notably the publication in September of the celebrated Furlong Air Vent Papers. The Furlong Papers, as everyone knows, contained a detailed account of proceedings at the traditionally secret meetings of the 'major leagues as they were overheard by William Furlong of the Chicago Daily News, who was eavesdropping at an air vent in a room adjoining the meeting chamber. As is well known, the Furlong Papers shocked the major league club owners—not that they were of a sensational nature, but because they revealed that the discussions among baseball's best brains consisted largely of aimless chatter devoid of conclusion.

In October, baseball's luck seemed to have changed at last. There was one of the most thrilling World Series in the history of the game—again there was a brilliant performance (as field manager this time) by Charles D. (Casey) Stengel of the New York Yankees—and at the same time there was evidence of a strong hand at the top of baseball administration. Although sick in bed with a virus, Baseball Commissioner Ford Frick had watched the games over television. From this prone position, he now slapped fines 1) on the entire Milwaukee team for publicly discussing their plans for dividing their Series money and 2) on Ryne Duren, a New York pitcher, for making a gesture of disrespect toward an umpire. This combination of a great Series and forceful action by the commissioner was hailed by baseball men as evidence that the game was never in a better or a stronger position.

Then the roof fell in again. In November, members of a committee appointed by the mayor of New York called a press conference and denounced the National League, declaring that it had no intention of putting a team into New York ever. Then the committee members said they were going ahead with plans for a third major league, with or without the sanction of Organized Baseball. Baseball people and many oldtime sportswriters hooted at the idea of an outlaw league. In Cincinnati, National League President Warren Giles issued a statement that came to be known as the Giles Pooh-Pooh Doctrine. Giles said that he saw no need for the National League to expand now or in the future and "pooh-poohed" the third league as a wild and impractical dream.

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