Baseball’s tepid response to RFK’s death inspired some players to fight back and sit out

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The final speech of Robert F. Kennedy’s life began with a mostly forgotten shout-out to a pitcher who had set a record that night in Los Angeles. “I want to first express my high regard to Don Drysdale, who pitched his sixth straight shutout tonight,” Kennedy said at the Ambassador Hotel across town, “and I hope that we have as good fortune in our campaign.”

Kennedy had just won the 1968 California Democratic presidential primary and was poised to leave the state with momentum going into the party’s convention in August. His hope to carry on Drysdale’s good fortune was left poignantly unfulfilled, snuffed out moments later at the hands of an assassin.

Kennedy’s death 53 years ago Sunday, which shocked and saddened the nation, had a surprising impact on Major League Baseball: It inspired some players to challenge team owners by refusing to play on the weekend of his funeral. This small act of rebellion, at a time when players had very little power, foreshadowed today’s era of activist athletes, including the player-led boycotts last year after the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis.

By now, we’re accustomed to stars such as LeBron James using their platforms to push for social change. This 1968 baseball episode offers a window into a previous era of athlete activism as MLB players started to question some of the orthodoxies in pro sports.

Baseball players had just signed their first collective bargaining agreement before the 1968 season, noted Jim Dworkin, author of “Owners Versus Players: Baseball and Collective Bargaining.” That might have emboldened some of them to mount challenges to playing games following the assassination of RFK and the earlier killing of Martin Luther King Jr.

“They got a minimum wage; salaries were starting to go up,” said Dworkin, chancellor emeritus and professor of management at Purdue University. “The players had some newfound powers. I definitely think that had something to do with it.”

During his brief presidential run, RFK’s passionate advocacy for the poor and minorities, his antiwar stance and his last name helped attract frenzied crowds to campaign events. After his assassination, baseball players — like many Americans — wanted to pay tribute to the fallen candidate, and several called for canceling games in observance of his June 8 funeral, two days after his death.

Instead, Commissioner William Eckert left it up to teams to decide whether to play while directing them to delay their start times until after Kennedy had been buried. But that decision backfired when the train transporting RFK’s body from New York to Washington took eight hours — much longer than expected — and several games wound up starting before his burial at Arlington National Cemetery. Critics assailed MLB for failing to properly mourn the candidate by calling off the full slate of games.

“Baseball’s observance of Senator Kennedy’s death was disorganized, illogical and thoroughly shabby,” Cleveland Press columnist Bob August wrote.

This came just five years after NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle made a similar miscalculation by letting games go on two days after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, RFK’s older brother. Rozelle later called that his worst decision as commissioner.

Robert Kennedy was a senator representing New York by the time of his presidential run, and the New York Mets took the most vocal stand after his death. With the backing of Manager Gil Hodges and chairman M. Donald Grant, Mets players voted unanimously not to play their game against the Giants in San Francisco on the day of RFK’s funeral.

“Senator Kennedy represented our state,” Mets player rep Ed Kranepool said at the time. “He followed the game. He was running for election from New York. We decided it would be disrespectful to play.”

The Giants were so angered by the Mets’ move that they took their case to National League President Warren Giles, who said the game would be a forfeit, but the Giants eventually backed down. They issued a statement agreeing to cancel the game in deference to RFK and because, they said, a forfeit would not be in the best interest of baseball or the public. “The Giants sincerely regret the disappointment of thousands of young fans who had intended to attend the Bat Day game tomorrow and are compelled now to rearrange their plans,” the team added in a tone-deaf comment.

“If we do forfeit, so what?” Kranepool said. “It’s only one game. It’s better than playing.”

The Mets, a relatively new team known primarily as a National League laughingstock to that point, won admirers for taking on the baseball establishment.

“Even the threat of a possible forfeiture of the game and a stiff fine could not get them on the field the day Bobby Kennedy was buried — a lofty principle displayed by a once lowly club,” Oakland Tribune sports columnist Ed Levitt wrote.

Ron Swoboda, a young Mets outfielder who would make one of the most dramatic catches in World Series history in the Miracle Mets’ championship season the next year, said in an interview last month that refusing to play was a no-brainer.

“We felt like there wasn’t any choice at all,” he said. “This guy was probably going to be the next president.”

Swoboda said that he supported Kennedy for president but added there was “zero politics” in the Mets’ decision.

“It was the decent thing to do,” he said. “We just did it out of respect. If it had been a Republican candidate, we would have done the same thing. There wasn’t a whole lot of discussion. No one said: ‘Why is this liberal Kennedy important to us? Why should baseball pause?’ ”

Individual players on other teams took similar actions. Houston Astros infielders Rusty Staub and Bob Aspromonte refused to play in their home game against the Pittsburgh Pirates on the day after RFK’s funeral, which President Lyndon B. Johnson had declared a national day of mourning.

The rest of the Astros players seemed to share their sentiment; the day before that game, team representative Dave Giusti announced they were against playing, but later he had to retreat.

“The Houston players have decided that their convictions are very much the same regarding the recent tragedy, but because of very extreme economic pressures applied by the general manager we are forced to play Sunday afternoon,” Giusti said.

That was a reference to a comment by team publicity director Bill Giles that the players would pay for any refunds to fans rather than management absorbing those costs. Astros GM Spec Richardson declared that “Kennedy would have wanted us to play” and docked a day’s pay for Staub, the team’s leading hitter, and Aspromonte.

Pirates third baseman Maury Wills also sat out the game, which he spent in the visiting training room reading RFK’s book, “To Seek a Newer World.”

And in Cincinnati, on the night of RFK’s funeral, Reds pitcher Milt Pappas resigned as player representative after arguing with Manager Dave Bristol that the team shouldn’t play because Kennedy hadn’t yet been buried. Pappas said most of his teammates preferred not to take the field, but he lost the argument. The next day, Reds fans at Crosley Field booed Pappas when he came into the game from the bullpen. The team traded him two days later.

The players’ resistance got the attention of RFK press secretary Frank Mankiewicz.

“Please accept my personal admiration for your actions,” Mankiewicz wrote in telegrams to Staub, Aspromonte, Wills, Pappas and the Mets players (through Hodges). “Sen. Kennedy indeed enjoyed professional sports but I doubt that he would have put box-office receipts ahead of national mourning.”

Mankiewicz would write in his memoir years later that RFK didn’t follow professional sports, and when the candidate had congratulated Drysdale for his sixth straight shutout, “as I stood next to him, looking at the camera and the reporters writing down his exact words, I thought, ‘If one of you were to ask him what it means to throw a shutout, he might have no idea.’ He knew Drysdale had achieved something amazing, admired by tens of millions of Americans; he just had no idea what that something was.”

Still, if Kennedy didn’t follow pro sports, he could fake it. At an appearance at the New York Baseball Writers dinner in 1965, RFK quipped that he was happy to find “you people different than what Ted Williams said you were like,” referring to the Boston Red Sox slugger’s intense dislike of the press. “I’m also happy to be here as a U.S. senator rather than a Washington Senator,” the awful 1960s baseball team.

Baseball did cancel the New York Yankees and Washington Senators home games on the day of Kennedy’s funeral, given their proximity to the national send-off. (After a service in New York, a train carrying RFK’s body made the 200-mile trek to Washington, with up to 2 million people lining the tracks to pay tribute.) A few other games were also canceled. But the start of some games before Kennedy’s burial proved an unseemly look for the sport.

“The consensus outside baseball seems to be that the national pastime failed its test badly,” New York Times sports columnist Robert Lipsyte wrote a week after RFK’s funeral. “The surprise, however, was an incredible public display by a number of players who openly criticized management’s refusal to postpone more games out of respect to Kennedy’s memory.”

He added that this was a departure for baseball players, whom Lipsyte described as “among the least aware and thoughtful of major league athletes.”

But baseball had faced a similar players’ rebellion at the beginning of that season after the assassination of King, when the Pirates — led by Black players Wills and Roberto Clemente — voted unanimously to sit out Opening Day. Other teams followed suit, and Eckert was forced to delay the season’s first games until the day after MLK’s funeral.

As for Drysdale, his next start after breaking the shutout mark happened to fall on the same day as RFK’s funeral. And in a strange bookend, the Dodgers’ ace set another record that day, eclipsing the scoreless innings streak set by Senators pitcher Walter Johnson in 1913. Wearing a black armband in RFK’s honor, Drysdale pushed his streak to 58⅔ innings before he surrendered a run in the fifth.

Drysdale, who knew Kennedy and considered him a friend, said he didn’t really “feel up” for the game because of RFK’s death, adding that he and his family were still shaken by it. “I felt kind of blah for the last few days,” he said. “It’s hard to put it into words.”

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