The blackballing of Dick Dietzby Bruce Markusen
October 25, 2013
I am not a conspiracy theorist. I do not see spies at every turn. I believe that it is difficult to bring together many people, all with divergent wants and needs, in creating a sinister master plan.
Yet, I do believe that players have been blackballed from time to time, for any one of a variety of reasons. One of those players was a onetime star with the San Francisco Giants.
A recent article by former major league pitcher John D’Acquisto, which appeared at InStream Sports, not only brought fascinating insights into the career of Bobby Bonds, but also cast light on the career of another former Giant, catcher Dick Dietz. Several years ago, I wrote an article about Dietz, contending that he was blackballed by major league baseball because of his involvement in the player strike of 1972. Here is what I wrote in 2005, shortly after Dietz passed away from a heart attack:
“Why didn’t Dick Dietz play beyond the 1973 season? As a valuable backup catcher-first baseman for the Braves, Dietz batted .295 and compiled a remarkable .474 on-base percentage in 1973. In today’s game, most teams would kill for a backup catcher like that. Yet, no major league team saw fit to offer Dietz a contract for the 1974 season.
“While his name might not be familiar to younger generations of fans, Dietz was certainly a recognizable player to those who grew up with baseball in the 1960s and seventies. He was an underrated player and a fun-living teammate. He was also a Sabermetric favorite, in much the same way that Gene Tenace and Mickey Tettleton garnered preference in later decades. And for one season, Dietz was just about the best catcher in the National League–playing at a level that put him in company with Hall of Famer Johnny Bench.
“In 1970, Dietz batted an even .300 for the Giants while compiling 22 home runs, 109 RBIs, and 84 runs scored. Even more impressively, Dietz drew 104 walks, an excellent total for any player and a remarkable figure for a catcher who lacked the reputation of a Bench or Joe Torre. Although Dietz’ home run and RBI totals didn’t come close to matching those of Bench, his high walk total gave him a stunning on-base percentage of .430–a 79-point advantage over Bench (.351).
“On the heels of a respectable 1971 season, Dietz was surprisingly sold on waivers to the rival Dodgers during the spring of 1972. The reason? As the Giants’ player representative during the strike of ’72, Dietz had drawn the wrath of San Francisco management. The Giants decided to punish Dietz by selling him to another team, but they mostly punished themselves by receiving nothing of consequence for a highly competent major league catcher.
“And then, after a productive offensive season in 1973, when he compiled a near .480 on-base percentage in a backup role and helped make the Braves’ clubhouse a fun place, Dietz never again played in the major leagues. Believing that he still had ample ability to hit the ball, Dietz felt that major league teams had colluded against him because of his active involvement with the Players’ Association.”
I wrote this mostly on supposition and circumstantial evidence, based on what I had read about the 1972 player strike. Well, D’Acquisto now provides some confirmation that Dietz was, in fact, blackballed, first by the Giants and then by the baseball establishment.
In 1971, Dietz served as the Giants’ No. 1 catcher, and while he didn’t match his career season of 1970, he still posted decent numbers. Bolstered by 19 home runs and 97 walks, Dietz put up an OPS of .806. For a catcher of that era, those were very good numbers, making Dietz one of the best offensive catchers in the game.
But there was more to the story. Off the field, Dietz served as the Giants’ player representative. Beyond that, he took on an aggressive role in supporting the strike that wiped out the start of the regular season in 1972. Dietz’ involvement in rallying the Giants player caught the attention of the Giants’ front office, which was led by Horace Stoneham, who was both the team’s owner and general manager. “Dietz was very active in the Major League Baseball Players Association at a time when the major league owners were not at all fond of it,” says D’Acquisto, “and Dietz felt that his involvement might have shortened his career. Dietz fell from favor with the Giants’ management for his role as player representative during the 1972 strike that delayed the start of the season. This hurt the turnstiles for Horace Stoneham and probably led to Stoneham’s demise as an owner.”
When the strike ended, Stoneham did not forget. On April 12, just three days before the Giants were scheduled to start the season against the Astros, the Giants placed Dietz on waivers. The Dodgers needed some help behind the plate and placed a claim on Dietz. The Giants did not withdraw Dietz from waivers, instead satisfied to take the money that came as compensation for players claimed on waivers.
At the time, the Giants tried to justify their disposal of Dietz by citing his poor defensive play. One member of the Giants’ front office, speaking anonymously, called Dietz the “worst fielding catcher in the National League.” Players like D’Acquisto heard those whispers, but he didn’t give them much credence. “Other reports stated that the Giants gave up on Dick because of his defensive liabilities, having led National League catchers in passed balls in 1970 and 1971,” recalls D’Acquisto. “It didn’t seem to bother the organization much in the prior years while Dick handled the challenging [pitches] of guys like Gaylord Perry and Juan Marichal.”
When the other Giants players heard that Dietz had been sold on waivers for a pittance, they were furious. “The players loved Dick ‘Muley’ Dietz,” D’Acquisto says. “He was a leader on the team, and they were not too happy he was released; his career was just starting.”
Of course, it wasn’t a complete blackball, given that the popular Dietz was joining the Dodgers, who were grateful to have an accomplished veteran catcher. Their two projected starting catchers, Chris Cannizzaro and Duke Sims, were basically platoon players who were on the wrong side of 30. In the meantime, the Dodgers weren’t sure that their catcher of the future, Steve Yeager, was ready to move into the starting lineup.
The Dodgers hoped that Dietz could carry the catching load, but in late July, he broke his wrist, ending his season far too early. The following spring, Dietz joined the Dodgers in Vero Beach, but by now, Yeager was a year more experienced, as was another promising young catcher in Joe Ferguson. So in the waning days of spring training, the Dodgers sold Dietz to the Braves.
The Braves had two good defensive catchers in Paul Casanova and Johnny Oates, but they saw Dietz as a solid hitting backup who could also fill in at first base. Playing a key role as part of a strong bench that became known as “F-Troop,” Dietz hit spectacularly. In 191 plate appearances, he compiled a .905 OPS while reaching base a stunning 47 per cent of the time. On a team with several standout bench players like Frank Tepedino and Chuck Goggin, no one was better than Dietz.
Given his outstanding performance, Dietz had every reason to believe that he would be part of the Braves’ bench brigade when he reported to spring training in 1974. The Braves did not concur with that plan. On March 25, the Braves announced the release of two veterans, Dietz and non-roster outfielder Ron Swoboda. Shockingly, no one picked Dietz up. Not the Pirates, who had several light-hitting backups behind Manny Sanguillen. Not the Mets, where Duffy Dyer and Ron Hodges served as weak backups to Jerry Grote. Not even the Padres, who went through the entire summer with the silent bat of Fred Kendall. And not a single American League team, despite the presence of the designated hitter rule.
When no one called, Dietz had no choice but to call it quits. Dietz’ situation might have been the most extreme, but D’Acquisto thinks other players found difficulty, too. “I believe most of the player union reps had problems if they were on the fringe,” says D‘Acquisto. "Owners couldn’t mess with the stars, just the fringe players.”
That appears to have been the case. Among the 24 player representatives who authorized the 1972 strike, four were given their release before the end of the season (including Billy Cowan, Jack Aker, Jim Merritt, and Russ Gibson). Five others were traded within a year (Ray Fosse, Joe Keough, Don Mincher, Dal Maxvill, and Bob Barton), making a total of nine players who were sent packing within a 12-month period of time. That’s not to say that all of these moves were motivated by the decision to strike, but there does seem to be at least some cause and effect in play here.
Nine years later, D’Acquisto himself felt the brunt of retaliation. “It happened to me during the strike in 1981. I was definitely blackballed for the role I played with Marvin Miller as a rep for the Buzzie Bavasi/Gene Autry-led Angels. Buzzie hated player reps. God only knows, it was worse back in 1971 and 72, when things were really heating up.”
None of those players felt that any more than Dick Dietz. He was only 32 when he played his final major league game, and he appeared to have plenty left in the tank. While it’s true that he did make a comeback as a minor league manager and coach, I’m sure that he would have traded those opportunities for some additional time doing what he did best: playing major league baseball.
Bruce Markusen is the author of seven books on baseball, including the award-winning A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, the recipient of the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research. He has also written The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates, Tales From The Mets Dugout, and The Orlando Cepeda Story.