Flashback (Part 1): Jim Bibby v Gabe Paul

Jim Bibby

Note: This is part 1 of a three-part series. For the others, see part 2 and part 3

OK, here’s something completely off the beaten track, done purely for a friend.

If I had to pick the most dedicated reader of my sports work, it wouldn’t be a contest. Bob Maistros, for reasons not entirely clear, hasn’t lived in the Cleveland area for 30+ years, but continues to root for the Cleveland teams. You’d think living in the DC area would have permitted him to shift his allegiances to the teams in that area– which even includes a team with a horrifically racist marketing plan.

You’d be wrong. Bob, like Elizabeth Warren, has persisted. Cleveland teams or nothing.

Anyway, he has a project to jam the Facebook newsfeed with essays about older baseball players with a connection to Cleveland. He posted one on Dennis Eckersley, which reads:

“It’s hard to believe, but we longtime Tribe fans remember that The Eck launched his storied career with Cleveland as a starter at the young age of 20 with a 13-7 campaign in 1975. He pitched a no-hitter for the Tribe in 1977 (one walk away from a perfect game in a 1-0 win). Barbara and I saw a later start, which wasn’t quite as terrific. Over three seasons with a subpar team, he was 40-32 with a sparkling 3.32 ERA.

“In one of the dumbest trades of all-time, Eck was traded from Cleveland to Boston just before the 1978 season along with Fred Kendall in exchange for Rick Wise, Mike Paxton, Ted Cox and Bo Diaz. Cox, a supposedly sure-fire rookie 3rd baseman, was the key to the trade. He batted .224 with 5 HRs over 2 sorry seasons with Cleveland. Wise (who once pitched a no-hitter and hit two home runs in the same game for the Phils) was similarly a bust with the Tribe. Diaz actually stuck with Cleveland for a few years, hitting .254 and appearing in the 1981 All-Star game.”

Bob missed an important point about the trade, and I was was going to post a comment, but then I thought– “Hey, wait a minute. I wasn’t asked to do a post. Why am I excluded from the reindeer games?” So…

The photo below is Jim Bibby pitching in the 1979 World Series. He’s one of the reasons the Pirates won– and the reason that the Indians traded Dennis Eckersley to Boston.

Actually, Gabe Paul was the reason… with the Indians’ ownership possibly a root cause. But Bibby was the causus belli that triggered the event.

One of the many changes that resulted from the players union and the nullification of the reserve clause (allowing free agency) was the arrival of agents who were qualified to negotiate contracts.

For the past hundred years, teams hadn’t negotiated contracts. They drew up the contract; the player signed it, Sometimes they argued about how much he would be paid. Sometimes the team would put in a set of penalties for ill-behaved players (like a weight clause).

But basically everyone signed the same contract. The player’s “agent” was mostly a gofer– a guy who fielded offers– who was often a family member or friend.

In the 70’s, smarter people got into the business, and started using strategies to help the players keep more of their money– things that could (and should) have been done decades ago.

  • One player set up an LLC that the team paid the money to– and the corporation paid him a salary, took out expenses and sheltered income.
  • Another guy got the team to use part of his compensation to fund an annuity / trust for his children’s education, so he paid lower taxes and the kids were taken care of.
  • A lot of guys used deferred payments– 10 years after their retirement, the team would pay X% of the salary.

Teams, without exception, detested this stuff. It represented change (which baseball always hates). It also meant they had to hire lawyers and accountants to see if the deal caused problems for them. It created a situation common to most businesses during mergers– both sides want to do the deal, but the attorneys are arguing about some of the provisions.

Teams just wanted to give the players money– the same way they always had– and let the players deal with the issues.

Gabe Paul, who had been with the Yankees from 1973-77, hated this most of all.

To be fair. he had been doing it longer than anyone else. The Yankees had signed the first free agent (Catfish Hunter) and had signed as many (the Angels and Padres were doing it too) high-dollar free agents as anyone.

Also, the Yankees already had the most complex contracts. They were in New York, a major media market. They;d had lots of superstars who were celebrities (Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle) and had used them to make appearances on the team’s behalf. They had personal service contracts and licenses and all the tools the Yankees used to enrich the franchise.

Then George Steinbrenner bought the team. Steinbrenner owned the American Shipbuilding Company– and the construction, sale and purchase of ships was entirely about high finance and tax avoidance. He made things even more complex– plus he made suggestions to his players about how to save money.

Gabe never said it, but I’m sure he felt going back to the Indians would make things simpler.

He was mistaken at least once.

By the standards of some of the contracts, Bibby’s was simple– basic salary, but with incentives. One was a $10,000 bonus if he stayed healthy and made at least 30 starts– which he did in 1977.

The contract specified the bonus was to be paid after December 31 of the calendar year but before the beginning of the following year.

The goal was very simple: avoid a huge, unplanned bump in his income (it wasn’t like you could know you were going to stay healthy and pitch well) that would force you to pay higher taxes. Bibby would get the money in the next fiscal year– giving him 3-5 months to find some way to shelter it (start a business, buy a building).

The reason for the deadline was– well, you remember the Indians of the 1970’s and how cash-strapped they were. If there wasn’t a deadline, they wouldn’t have paid it. And you already know where this is going.

The basic agreement defines “the beginning of the season.” It is, of course, the date players have to report to spring training– the point when the club can demand that they be in a certain place at a certain time and fine them if they aren’t.

As the date that pitchers and catchers had to report approached, Bibby and his agent (who, like most players didn’t want to be on the Indians),warned the Indians that they’d better pay the bonus– and when that was met with “yeah, yeah, yeah” (not the Beatles kind), went to the papers.

Gabe was infuriated– no stinking worker was going to tell him what to do– and said he’d get the bonus when the Indians were good and ready. Maybe they didn’t have the money lying around– but then they should have gone to the bank.

When the deadline passed, Bibby and his agent announced that the contract had been breached and that they considered Bibby a free agent. The Indians said “Like hell you are!”, gave him the bonus and said “Now shut up and play!”

Bibby and his agent asked the arbitrator to rule on the issue. The Indians said “Beginning of the season means opening day” and “We didn’t have to let him start 30 games– we could have put him in the bullpen” and “We gave him the money and he took it, so no harm no foul.”

They really said that. I met Bibby’s agent in the 80’s and he told me about the case. They made a big thing about letting him start 30 times. Jeff Torborg wanted to experiment with Bibby (who had a huge fastball) as a closer– and used him in relief seven times late in the year. But since he had the clause in the contract, they let him get 30 starts to avoid an “Eddie Cicotte with teh Black Sox” style grievance.

On March 6, 1978, the arbitrator ruled (correctly) that the wording of the contract meant “By the start of spring training” and that taking the money didn’t mean Bibby was waiving his rights– it just meant he was accepting what he was owed.

On March 15th, Bibby signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Two weeks before opening day, the Indians were missing 20% of their starting rotation.

Note: This is part 1 of a three-part series. For the others, see part 2 and part 3


One thought on “Flashback (Part 1): Jim Bibby v Gabe Paul

  1. You WERE asked to do a post and have more than complied. And I haven’t lived in NE Ohio since Sept 1977, which is coming up on FORTY years. I still cheer for Cleveland teams because I never quit until the job is done. And I still have two teams to get to championships.


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