Lew Krausse, RIP: Accidental co-pioneer

Lew Krausse, warming up on the sideline at Yankee Stadium when he was young and an Athletic.

Being suspended and fined by Charlie Finley over a nebulous accusation put righthanded pitcher Lew Krausse into a very unlikely position. Inadvertently, he helped baseball players still bound by abuse of the old reserve clause see what could be had if they were allowed to negotiate on a fair, open market for their services.

The first six-figure bonus signing in Athletics history, Krausse died at 77 two days after Valentine’s Day. Finley’s foolishness involving a notorious 18 August 1967 team flight provoked outfielder Ken (Hawk) Harrelson’s release, a public remark from Harrelson that made him persona further non grata with the A’s, and into unexpected and profitable free agency.

Aboard a 3 August flight from Boston to Kansas City, Harrelson and pitcher Jack Aker sat near the rear of the aircraft, knocking back drinks while Harrelson tried getting Aker to relax over the reliever’s frustration over a spell of bad pitching. How that translated to trouble was anybody’s guess, because when the A’s flew from Kansas City to Washington on 18 August, Finley ordered the flight crew not to serve drinks to his players.

That flight landed with the players learning Krausse was singled out, suspended, and fined $500 for . . . who the hell knew exactly what? “Conduct unbecoming a major league player,” Finley’s public statement said. A’s manager Alvin Dark apparently talked to several players and concluded that Krausse did nothing more than play soft in-flight pranks on broadcaster Monte Moore. If there’s one behaviour that’s never been unbecoming of major leaguers, it’s been practical joking.

The problem was that Moore, reportedly, decided to lose his sense of humour about it and to lie about it. He told Finley a very different story, one involving Krausse addressing a pregnant woman aboard the same flight in “deplorable language.” That accusation had the same credibility as a seven-dollar bill.

Dark refused to deliver Finley’s suspension order to Krausse. Finley promptly demanded a meeting with Dark at the team hotel, after the A’s landed in Washington for a set with the Senators. The meeting lasted as long as some doubleheaders did. During the meeting, Finley fired Dark, un-fired him, then fired him again—after the manager was handed a players’ statement having his back and zinging Finley both for the Krausse incident and, among other things, for sending spies out to follow them off the field.

Harrelson was one of the more vocal A’s having Krausse’s back. He even called Finley a menace to baseball while he was at it. Meanwhile, Major League Baseball Players Association director Marvin Miller filed a formal complaint with the National Labour Relations Board after Finley, apparently, tried coercing his players into dropping their support for Krausse. The capricious owner also withdrew Krausse’s suspension but refused to budge on the $500 fine.

That in turn prompted Krausse and fellow A’s pitchers Aker and Jim Nash to demand trades. In due course, Aker would be left open to the expansion draft that made him an original Seattle Pilot, and Nash would get his wish after that 1969 season when he was traded to the Braves for veteran outfielder Felipe Alou. And Krausse would be traded to the Pilots in January 1970 . . . before their eleventh-hour move to Milwaukee to become the Brewers.

After his 25 August 1967 release, Harrelson found himself the unlikely subject of a bidding war on his unexpected open market. If Hall of Fame pitchers Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale showed players what could be done when they bargained together in spring 1966, the fun-loving Hawk was about to show them something Koufax and Drysdale couldn’t quite show.

According to Peter Golenbock’s Fenway, Harrelson refused to retract his public remarks, rejected Finley’s initial attempt to send him to the minors, challenged Finley to suspend him, yet said he didn’t want to be released for fear of being blackballed out of the game. Finley released Harrelson on 25 August, anyway. Baseball’s jaw dropped.

Finley had just dumped the hottest hitter on his team; in 61 games with Kansas City following a trade back to the team from Washington, Harrelson’s slash line was .305/.361/.471. “Now,” Golenbock wrote, “Harrelson was scared. He blinked back tears. Was he through?”

Not even close. His telephone rang just a short while after Finley released him. The White Sox’s general manager Eddie Short called to say that, four days later, after he cleared the irrevocable waivers list, the Hawk would be a free agent. He could sign any old place he pleased. How much would it take to bring him to Chicago? Harrelson, whose 1967 salary was $12,000, replied: $100,000.

Short didn’t faint. He said only that he’d get back to Harrelson. Then came calls from the Tigers and the Red Sox, and the Braves. The Tigers and the Red Sox didn’t make offers at first, despite Red Sox executive Heywood Sullivan once being a Harrelson teammate, but the Braves—whose then general manager Paul Richards just so happened to be one of Harrelson’s golf friends—offered him $112,000.

Lew Krausse, after throwing a ceremonial first pitch to mark the A’s fiftieth anniversary in Oakland.

“Harrelson called Sullivan,” Golenbock wrote, “and told him he had an offer from another club worth over a hundred thousand and was taking it. Once Sullivan learned the club was in the National League, he wished Harrelson luck. Both Detroit and Baltimore said they would give him more than the Braves, but Harrelson decided he’d have more fun with Richards. Money was important, but not that important.”

Enter Red Sox GM Dick O’Connell. The pennant-challenging Red Sox were desperate for outfield help after Tony Conigliaro’s tragic beaning the day after Finley tried suspending Krausse. Harrelson told O’Connell he’d committed to “another club” without naming the Braves, but O’Connell wouldn’t surrender without a fight. “You don’t understand, Kenny,” the GM said. “We’ve got to have you here. How much money would it take for you to play in Boston?”

Money may not have been that important, but Harrelson was no fool, either. His reply was $150,000. O’Connell simply said it’s a done deal. In an unexpected bidding war, the Hawk bagged himself a $138,000 pay hike.

He went to the Red Sox, where he didn’t hit often but made it count when he did hit with thirteen runs batted in down the stretch, and mostly let his outsize personality take the press pressures away from other players as the Red Sox nailed the 1967 pennant at the eleventh hour themselves. (The Hawk would have an outstanding 1968 in Boston and make himself a fan and player favourite alike.)

Seven years later, when Dodger pitcher Andy Messersmith finished what former Cardinals outfielder Curt Flood started, Hall of Fame catcher Ted Simmons said, “Curt Flood stood up for us. [Catfish] Hunter showed what was out there. Andy showed us the way.” Simmons forgot about what Harrelson reaped in the immediate aftermath of the bungled Krausse incident. Hunter may have shown the millions, but Harrelson showed six figures on an unexpected open market.

Krausse probably had no idea of the chain reaction he’d provoke on that fateful August 1967 flight.

You’d love to say that Krausse went on to great triumph himself, but it wasn’t to be. He had the talent–he won his first major league start with a three-hit shutout against the expansion Angels in 1961, days after receiving his $125,000 bonus; he eventually pitched the first shutout from any Brewers pitcher in July 1970. But he also had arm and elbow issues that may or may not have been ignored by the A’s.

In 1966, The Sporting News quoted then-A’s director of player development George Selkirk as quoting in turn a doctor who, in 1961, “said the boy had the arm of a man of 25 because Krausse had pitched so much as a boy. The doctor said he doubted Krausse could pitch over a period of years.”

The namesake son of a short-lived 1930s Philadelphia Athletics pitcher–who ended up signing his own son as an A’s scout–managed to eke out parts of twelve major league seasons between starting and the bullpen. When he was good, he often pitched through terrible run support. After doing assorted jobs during his off-seasons, he had a successful post-baseball career running a metals business.

He had just as successful a marriage to Susan Wickersham, whom he met when she was a flight attendant in 1969. In fact, Mrs. Krausse told the Kansas City Star something telling about the man: her husband not only went unforgotten by Kansas City fans, he received daily letters including baseball cards a day in the mail to autograph–and, when those requests included a few dollars, “Lew always returned the money.”

May the Lord have welcomed the inadvertent pioneer home to the Elysian Fields gently but warmly.