The blackballing of Dick Dietz

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.

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Comments

  1. DrBGiantsfan said...

    Thank you for posting this.  I remember Dick Dietz’ 1970 season.  My family moved away from Northern California in 1972 and I lost track of what happened to him.  That is sad!

  2. BobDD said...

    The players union has been pretty tone deaf at times and do things for their members that is not in the best interest of baseball overall, but shenanigans like the above mentioned blackballing is what keeps public sentiment with the players as much as it does.  The owners capricious behavior has surely earned them the strong union they now detest, yet deserve.

  3. Marc Schneider said...

    Great article about an incident I never knew about.  I remember Dietz as a very good hitter for several teams.  In those pre-free agent days, owners felt their teams were like personal fiefdoms and, like authoritarians everywhere, did not brook dissent.  As a Braves fan, I remember Joe Torre having problems with Paul Richards, the GM in the late sixties.  Richards was an old school guy and,while I’m not sure his problems witht Torre were specifically related to labor relations, I do know that he did not like outspoken players.  He eventually traded Torre for Orlando Cepeda, who had a couple of good years but not as good as Torre, who became MVP in 1971.

  4. bucdaddy said...

    “Yet, I do believe that players have been blackballed from time to time, for any one of a variety of reasons.”

    Speaking of Giants with terrific OBPs: You-Know-Who

  5. Paul E said...

    Bruce:
    Great article. I remember Dietz as a very good offensive player. He probably would have really raked as a 1B, but was probably just good enough defensively to be tolerated at catcher.

    I never realized what had happened to Dietz, however, not a real surprise in light of management’s “slaves on the plantation” mentality.
    Apologies for the reference, but “fiefdom” might not be adequate to describe management’s strong hand in all this.

    Thanks again

  6. obsessivegiantscompulsive said...

    Thanks for the article and especially the link to D’Aquisto.  I always wondered what happened to Dietz, though sad to know why now.  And I remember and used to follow John, I’ll have to check out his article there at that site.

  7. Rich Dunstan said...

    Thanks for the article on my second-favorite Giant of all time (behind Willie McCovey). Dietz was a great radio interview, and at least anecdotally a super clutch hitter—he was the guy I wanted to see coming up in key situations. I also vividly remember him jumping up and down with both feet in rage after umpire Harry Wendelstedt ruled he hadn’t tried to avoid getting hit by a Don Drysdale pitch with the bases loaded—a decision that allowed Drysdale to maintain a record scoreless streak.

  8. 87 Cards said...

    Three of the 1972 player reps were one-time Giant catchers—Bob Barton, Russ Gibson and Dietz. 

      Ray Fosse was also a catcher. 1970s receivers were targets on-and-off the field.

  9. Leo Walter said...

    I also remember Dietz as a pretty good player,particularly as a hitter. I had no idea that is what happened to him,or why,but that is a real shame.

  10. KJOK said...

    I don’t doubt the Giants wanted to get rid of him, but the evidence for ‘blackballing’ still seems slim.

    Dietz was awful for the Dodgers, playing only enough for 70 PAs and .161 Batting Average.

    He did rebound the following year with Atlanta, but 2/3rds of his limited appearances were against LH batters, and he played a lot of 1B.

    His catching deficiencies were not imagined either.  He led the league not just in passed balls twice but he was in the top 3 in catcher errors 4 times and first in stolen bases allowed twice – not categories you want to be a leader in.

  11. Mike said...

    Now that I think about it, I always wondered about the guy with that “In Action” card (Topps 1972, I think).  Thanks for the background, Bruce.

  12. Marc Schneider said...

    Paul E,

    With all due respect, I really think your reference to a “a slaves on the plantation” mentality is inappropriate.  The players were not slaves; they were paid for their services and, of course, were free to quite playing and pursue another line of work if they chose. Actual slaves cannot do this. If the owners actually thought of the players as their slaves, why would they ever have bothered to negotiate contracts at all?  I think you can note and object to the obvious unfairness of pre-free agent baseball without going overboard with what I consider offensive exaggerations.  I thought the same thing, by the way, when Curt Flood made references to slavery.  As bad as it was, the reserve clause did not raise to the level of involuntary servitude.

  13. Paul E said...

    Schneids:

    Hence, “apologies for the reference, but ‘fiefdom’ might not be adequate to describe….”

    BTW, I do believe if management/ownership could get away with it, they’d try to negotiate wages downward in every industry across every level across this great nation of ours and overseas. This practice, while not as morally reprehensible as slavery, is certainly profitable :-(

  14. Marc Schneider said...

    Paul E,

    Of course, management would like to have the lowest costs possible.  They are in business to make as much profit as possible.  That’s what markets are for; wages are set by the balance of supply and demand.  Businesses don’t “negotiate wages down.”  They pay the market price.  In industries where the supply of labor is fungible, such as coal and steel, unions exist to counterbalance the power of business. Sports is odd in that the supply of labor is not fungible, ie, you can’t just take someone off the street to pitch in the major leagues.  Obviously, the reserve clause distorted the normal operation of the market; if not for that, there probably would have been no need for player unions. 

    Obviously, a business, regardless of size, would prefer to pay less rather than more and, therefore, make more money.  I don’t see this as particularly morally problematic.  The problem is obviously where business has an excess of power, as it does in many of the Third World countries and in portions of the US economy, such as retail, that does not require particular skills.

  15. Paul E said...

    Marc S:
      I don’t particularly see it as “morally problematic”, either, since, obviously, there exists no social contract or moral obligation for businesses to continue to employ people in this country when the labor overseas is cheaper.

    However, we don’t have a “reserve clause” in baseball and it is still necessary to have a union. This is as much in the best interests of the paying public as the talent at the major league level because God knows Selig & Company would replace them with inferior talent if they could still make as much money doing so

  16. BlahBlahBlah said...

    I’ll agree with this contention. Read Lords of the Realm, pick out the names of players very active in or vocal in support of the unions during the early seventies, then go through the trade wires and see how many of them got traded or cut, especially with hard line owners like Gussie Busch or Grant. Lots of interesting trades, Torre, Seaver among them.
    Its pretty clear that the owners frequently traded and cut players who were hard liners in an attempt to break the union.

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