Forty-five years ago, the Cardinals, and all major league teams, were faced with a decision of whether to play games on the day of slain Sen. Robert F. Kennedy’s burial and on the national day of mourning declared in his honor.
Cardinals players said publicly they didn’t want to play on either day. But, facing the prospect of forfeiting if the Reds didn’t join them in sitting out, the Cardinals played three games in less than 24 hours over both days.
Other teams and players acted more defiantly, displaying the leadership and clarity baseball commissioner William Eckert lacked in this case.
Kennedy, the New York senator and candidate for the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination, was assassinated in the predawn morning of June 5, hours after he had won the California primary. He died on June 6 at age 42.
The funeral for Kennedy was scheduled for Saturday, June 8, at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. Burial was planned for about 5 p.m. at Arlington National Cemetery near Washington. A train would transport Kennedy’s body from New York to Washington.
President Lyndon Johnson declared Sunday, June 9, as a national day of mourning in tribute to Kennedy.
Eckert ordered no big-league game on June 8 would start until after the burial.
The Yankees, Senators and Cubs called off their afternoon home games scheduled for June 8. The Astros called off one of their doubleheader games against the Pirates and said the other game would be held after the burial.
At San Francisco, Mets players refused to play the Giants that Saturday. Mets management supported the players’ decision. The Giants front office, expecting a large crowd at Candlestick Park, was miffed, but agreed to call off the game when Mets officials refused to change their stance.
Other afternoon games, including Cardinals at Reds, were moved to night starts. The Cardinals-Reds game was rescheduled for 7 p.m.
But the train carrying Kennedy’s body was delayed by large crowds along the route from New York to Washington. The burial would be pushed back several hours.
Cardinals and Reds players held separate pre-game meetings, took the field for warm-ups, then went into the clubhouse again when they learned the burial wouldn’t be held before the 7 p.m. game time, the Associated Press reported.
Cardinals players wanted to call off the game, The Sporting News reported, but because they were the visitors they left the decision to the Reds.
Reds manager Dave Bristol urged his team to play. Pitcher Milt Pappas, the Reds’ player representative, disagreed. Pappas told Bristol most Reds players preferred not to play the game, the Associated Press reported. Bristol responded that if he could find nine players to take the field the Reds would play.
“If we go out (on the field to play), we all go out,” Pappas replied. “If we do go out, find yourself a new player representative.”
Pappas took a vote of Reds players on whether to play. The outcome was 12-12, with one abstaining, The Sporting News reported. A second vote was held. This time, the result was 13-12 in favor of playing.
Wrote The Sporting News: “Pappas lost a power struggle within the club when several players heeded the urgings of manager Dave Bristol to play the game.”
Pappas, telling the Associated Press his “days with the club are numbered,” resigned as player representative.
The June 8 game began at 7:45 p.m. and the Cardinals won, 7-2, on Nelson Briles’ nine-hitter before 13,368. Boxscore
“Our position was that we had scheduled this game in good faith at a time about an hour and a half after the burial was scheduled,” Reds general manager Bob Howsam said to The Sporting News. “We would have waited if the delay had been a short one.”
Pappas and catcher Tim McCarver, the Cardinals’ player representative, said both clubs voted not to play the doubleheader scheduled for Sunday, June 9, the national day of mourning for Kennedy.
Eckert declared that management of each home club would decide whether to play games that Sunday.
(Two months earlier, Eckert had called off all big-league spring training exhibition games on April 7, the national day of mourning for slain civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Also, in respect for King’s funeral on April 9, all of the major-league regular-season openers scheduled for April 8 and April 9 were moved to April 10.)
The Orioles called off their June 9 doubleheader with the Athletics and the Red Sox called off their game with the White Sox. All other home teams, including the Reds, decided to play that Sunday.
The Reds scheduled a memorial service for Kennedy before the first game of the doubleheader. The Cardinals won the opener, 10-8, on Lou Brock’s three-run home run. Boxscore The Reds won the second game, 7-6, on shortstop Leo Cardenas’ RBI-double in the 12th off reliever Steve Carlton, the Game 1 starter. Boxscore Attendance was 28,141.
Pappas pitched in relief in both games, yielding a run in eight total innings, and was booed by fans. (Two days later, Pappas was traded to the Braves.)
At Houston that Sunday, Astros third baseman Bob Aspromonte and first baseman Rusty Staub, and Pirates third baseman Maury Wills, refused to play, protesting the decision to hold the game on the national day of mourning. All were fined by their teams.
Pirates outfielder Roberto Clemente decided to join Wills in sitting out the game, but changed his mind after a meeting with manager Larry Shepard, The Sporting News reported. “I preferred not to play,” Clemente said. “The disturbing thing to me was the indifferent attitudes of some of our players.”
Frank Mankiewicz, press secretary for Robert Kennedy, sent telegrams to Pappas, Aspromonte, Staub, Wills and Mets manager Gil Hodges (on behalf of the entire team), thanking them for the stances they took. “Please accept my personal admiration for your actions,” Mankiewicz wrote in the telegrams.
He said Kennedy’s widow, Ethel, would write personal letters to those who received telegrams, the Associated Press reported.
Wrote Bob August of the Cleveland Press, “Baseball’s observance of Senator Kennedy’s death was disorganized, illogical and thoroughly shabby.”
Under the headline, “The Aftermath _ Baseball Takes A Beating,” The Sporting News reported, “Baseball wallowed in a morass of confusion and acrimony in trying to decide what to do about paying respect to Sen. Robert F. Kennedy … For the most part, there was no concrete plan on how mourning for (Kennedy) would be handled.”