It’s usually forgotten these days, but new Cubs manager Lou Piniella has a cameo in one of the most important baseball books ever written. He turns up in the early pages of Jim Bouton‘s Ball Four–in fact, in the first actual diary entry of Bouton’s account of the 1969 season. That spring saw Marvin Miller lead the first players’ strike at the start of training camp. The disruption was short, the gains minimal by today’s standards, but it was the first baby steps in a labor movement that has seen baseball players form the most powerful union in any sport. Anyway, Bouton was one of the de facto player reps on the expansion Seattle Pilots, and after attending a union meeting in New York was assigned to call a few of the new Pilots to tell them what was going on. Piniella, then slated to be a rookie–if he made the team–was one of his players.
Here’s how Bouton describes it: “I reached Lou in Florida and he said that his impulse was to report, that he was scared it would count against him if he didn’t, that he was just a rookie looking to make the big league and didn’t want anybody to get angry at him. But also that he’d thought it over carefully and decided he should support the other players and the strike. So he was not reporting.” That inspires Bouton not to report–although in his typical cowardly fashion he finds an out by insisting the team find housing for himself and his family, and by the time they do the strike is over. Yet there’s no denying Piniella comes off well.
It did seem to have an effect on his chances of making the team, however–at least with the Pilots. Bouton later writes of Piniella asking, “Who do we play tomorrow?” Manager Joe Schultz replies, “Boys, if you don’t know who you’re going to play, you don’t have your head in the game.” Piniella was dealt on April Fool’s Day to the Kansas City Royals–where he proceeded to win the Rookie of the Year Award to begin a career that saw Bill James place him in the top 100 left fielders of all time. So don’t worry if Lou doesn’t know about the Billy Goat curse or who Steve Bartman is–or even who the Cubs are playing tomorrow. History shows he’s got his head in the game.