With this balloting, it's voting first, then the debates Returning choice to fans was 'good PR,' says Kuhn

July 11, 1993|By Doug Brown | Doug Brown,Staff Writer

When Bowie Kuhn became commissioner in 1969, major-league baseball was completing a less-than-prosperous decade.

"Baseball struggled in the 1960s," said Bob Brown, the Orioles' public relations director at the time.

"People were saying baseball was slow, boring, dying," said Bob Wirz, who became the commissioner's spokesman.

To rekindle interest in the game, Kuhn gave the All-Star Game voting back to the fans in 1970. They hadn't selected the teams since 1957, when then-commissioner Ford Frick turned voting over to the managers, coaches and players after Cincinnati Reds fans stuffed ballot boxes. The Reds would have had seven starters if Frick hadn't ruled that outfielders Gus Bell and Wally Post be dropped in favor of Willie Mays and Hank Aaron.

"The original concept was that the fans' dream teams would play in the All-Star Game," said Kuhn, now living in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., and president of Sports Franchises Inc., which finds investors for teams.

"Let the fans choose the teams, then. It was important to give them a role, and it was good PR for baseball. We got over that hurdle of ballot-stuffing with a more effective, computerized system. It created wonderful debate."

When fans had the vote for some but not all games in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, they could fill out ballots printed by some newspapers.

"They'd write their choice at each position, clip out the ballots and mail them in," Kuhn said.

It was that system that led to the incidents in Cincinnati in 1956 and 1957. Waite Hoyt, a Hall of Fame pitcher, was a Reds broadcaster then, and he had an entire city whipped into a lather over an All-Star Game that was going to be played in another city.

With the encouragement of his radio station, Hoyt urged fans to vote for Reds players at all positions for the 1956 game in Washington. Never mind Stan Musial and Mays and Aaron. Vote for a Red.

The campaign caught on. Fans stuffed ballot boxes, leading to five Reds players being named starters and three others voted ** to the squad by finishing runner-up at their positions.

This triggered criticism, but nothing was done about it until the following year, when Cincinnati again stuffed the ballot boxes, prompting Frick to take the voting from the fans.

"Hoyt was an idol in our town," said Hank Zureick, then the Reds' public relations director. "Anything he said, the fans would do it. He said to get out and vote, so they got out and voted."

The Reds printed 50,000 ballots, and they were gone by noon of the first day. Local businesses joined the cause and mimeographed ballots for distribution.

"The post office began bringing in bags of mail to the radio station," said John Murdough, the Reds' traveling secretary then and a Cincinnati Bengals consultant now. "I don't know if the signatures were legit, but the ballots were signed.

"Ballots came from West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio -- wherever the Reds' radio network extended. A huge Wheaties carton came from some little town in Indiana. There weren't that many people in the town."

The radio station had people working day and night, counting ballots. As the total mounted, it was reported to Frick. The commissioner was skeptical.

"The commissioner didn't believe the count," Murdough said. "We said to send someone to help count them, then. Frick sent a representative, and the guy took one look at all those mailbags and told the commissioner, 'They got 'em.' "

The Reds, who were en route to tying the major-league record of 221 home runs (including 38 by a rookie named Frank Robinson), moved into first place the Sunday before the All-Star Game.

"We got on a train at the station near Crosley Field and headed for Washington," Murdough said. "We had all those regulars, plus a pitcher and the manager, Birdie Tebbetts, who was going as an All-Star coach. We needed 1 1/2 sleepers and half a club car."

The following year, Cincinnati fans again responded to the call to support Reds players, with a deluge of 500,000 ballots. All of the Reds' regulars, except first baseman George Crowe, were the leaders at their respective positions.

"We ran the ballot on our sports pages every day," said Earl Lawson, then the Cincinnati Times-Star baseball writer. "The ballots came in to a room next to our mailroom. The National League office was in Cincinnati, and the president, Warren Giles, sent one of his aides over to see if we really had all those ballots. We did. An IBM representative was counting them."

Legitimate or not, Frick didn't like it and intervened. He ordered Bell and Post dropped, to be replaced by Aaron and Mays.

"The commissioner was wrong in doing that," said Gabe Paul, the Reds' general manager who lives in retirement in Tampa, Fla. "We followed the rules, each step of the way. We were just more aggressive than other cities. We had ballots all over."

Frick was adamant. It would be 12 years before Kuhn gave the vote back to the fans.


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