Sal Bando, RIP: One grave mistake

Sal Bando

Sal Bando, a solid third baseman and peacemaker/keeper for the Swinging’ A’s, but the eventual American League player representative helping change the player pension plan in 1980 with a grave error.

“Sal Bando,” said Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson about the third baseman for the 1970s Athletics, “was the godfather. Capo di capo, boss of all bosses on the Oakland A’s. We all had our roles, we all contributed, but Sal was the leader and everyone knew it.” In more ways than one.

When then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn decided to put the brakes on A’s manager Dick Williams’s seemingly endless mound conferences in a World Series, Williams chose Bando as his end-run around Kuhn’s edict. This enabled Bando to visit Hall of Famer Catfish Hunter as often as he wanted or needed to settle Hunter down.

“Take him away,” said the Mustache Gang’s 1973 traveling secretary Jim Bank of Bando, who died of cancer Friday at 78, “and that team was nothing.”

That team was also saved a few moments when mere testiness might have turned grave. The early-to-mid-1970s A’s were known as the Swinging’ As, partially for beating everyone else on the field and partially for swinging on each other almost at will, or the drop of a single brickbat. Bando himself had to thwart a few such swings including one that involved more than a flying fist.

After the A’s beat the upstart Mets in the 1973 World Series—and it took seven games to do it—shortstop Bert Campaneris, fuming over Jackson being named the Series MVP despite Campaneris having an arguable better Series, grabbed a table knife during the team’s closed victory dinner and headed for Jackson.

Bando headed Campaneris off at the pass. After enough Series hoopla, including the unconscionable bid by owner Charlie Finley to scapegoat hapless second baseman Mike Andrews over a pair of errors in the Game Two twelfth, the last thing Bando needed was one teammate trying to shish kebab another.

“Because no media was there to document it,” wrote Jason Turbow in Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic: Reggie, Rollie, Catfish, and Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, “the incident was quickly lost amidst the annals of team drama. What really could be said? This, apparently, was how the A’s relaxed.“

“[T]hey didn’t have many rules,” wrote the late Jim Bouton in I Managed Good But, Boy, Did They Play Bad. “Oh, maybe they weren’t allowed to punch each other in public. No punching a teammate, I suppose, in a nightclub. Fighting only allowed in the clubhouse. No screaming at each other when the wives are around. And don’t embarrass the manager to more than two wire services during any homestand.” (Ancient evenings, of course. Today, Bouton would write, “Don’t embarrass the manager to more than two social media sites.”)

A rock-solid third baseman who was too often underrated for his sterling defense (he retired with 8.5 defensive wins above replacement-level among his 61.5 total WAR, and with +35 defensive runs above his league average), Bando couldn’t resist when manager Dick Williams made good on his threat to step down over Finley’s abuses after the ’73 Series and Alvin Dark—a former A’s manager canned after he refused to go along with ginning up an incident and fine against pitcher Lew Krausse—was hired to succeed him.

“When you have a championship club, you don’t make many changes,” Bando told a reporter after Dark’s formal reintroduction. “I hope he doesn’t have too many strict rules, because we haven’t had many the past two years and we don.” As Bouton went on to continue, “[It] doesn’t mean the A’s won the championship just because they had long hair, or their manager had long hair, or their manager was permissive and let them do things their own way.”

That was maybe ten or fifteen percent of the reason. The other 85 percent was because they had a lot of good baseball players. Williams could have tried his long hair, his mustache, and his lack of rules with the Cleveland Indians, for instance, and he would have gotten a lot of long-haired .220 hitters. In fact, there would have been a lot of people blaming his permissive ways for why the Indians didn’t do so good.

Bando, Willliams would remember in his own memoir, No More Mr. Nice Guy, was “the only player I ever socialised with. I’d invite him to my hotel suite after games or during an offday, and we’d just talk baseball. The rest of the [A’s] saw this and figured I must be all right.” Small wonder they didn’t exactly plan a celebration when the fed-up-with-Finley Williams wanted out.

Bando also criticised Finley unapolgetically for his notorious meddling in their off-field lives and for his weaknesses in delivering television contracts to broadcast the team on their own home turf. “In another town, someplace back East,” Bando told The Sporting News in May 1973, “we might be heroes. Here we’re not even something special.”

The Messersmith ruling ended the reserve era near 1975’s end. Bando was one of seven A’s refusing to sign 1976 contracts, electing to play their lawful options out to become free agents at the end of that season. When Finley’s subsequent bid to fire-sale Hall of Fame reliever Rollie Fingers plus pitcher Vida Blue and outfielder Joe Rudi was blocked by Kuhn, and Finley ordered manager Chuck Tanner not to play the three, Bando intervened, threatening a team strike until Finley caved.

The third baseman signed as a free agent with the Brewers, then still in the American League. A player-coach in due course, he finished his playing career in Milwaukee as the team’s and then the American League’s player representative. Which is where Bando made perhaps his worst mistake, even ahead of eventually letting Hall of Famer Paul Molitor escape as a free agent in 1991 when Bando was the Brewers’ general manager.

When the Major League Baseball Players Association joined with the owners to revamp the player pension plan in 1980, the result was 43 days major league service time to qualify for a pension and one day’s major league service time to qualify for health benefits. But it excluded players with major league careers shy of the previous four-year vesting requirement even if they had 43 days or more major league time.

Their redress since has been a 2011 deal between then-MLBPA director Michael Weiner and then-commissioner Bud Selig, giving them $625 per quartet for every 43 days’ worth of MLB time, up to four years’ worth. And, a fifteen percent hike in that stipend as a result of last winter’s lockout settlement. The kickers: It’s still not a full pension, and the players can’t pass the money to their families upon their deaths.

Today, there are 514 pre-1980, short-career players without full baseball pensions. The most recent such affected player to pass was Bill Davis, a first baseman/pinch hitter who played in part of two 1960s seasons with the Indians and one with the expansion Padres.

Bando and his National League player rep counterpart, Montreal Expos pitcher Steve Rogers, voted in favour of the 1980 change and the exclusion. Various surviving affected players even now suspect the reasons included perceptions that they were mere September callups. But a majority of the affected players actually made teams out of spring training, or came up to play in the Show in months prior to September in various seasons.

The solid third baseman who didn’t suffer Charlie Finley’s act gladly suffered a momentary lapse of reason that left several hundred players with short careers but long vision in supporting their union on the undeserved short end of a big economic stick.

A man smart with his own money during his playing days, working off-seasons in banking before the free agency era, then creating a successful investment firm after his playing days ended, should have been smart enough to know better.

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