New acquisition helps tell story of replacement players
By Matt Cox
The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum tells the story of the greatest players to ever take the field. But the Museum is also dedicated to preserving the entire history of the National Pastime.
That’s where a recent donation comes in.
By early 1995, the stalemate between players and Major League Baseball, which led to the cancellation of over 900 baseball games during the 1994 season, was threatening the start of a new season. Teams recruited replacement players from outside the Major League Baseball Players Association to prepare for the scheduled campaign.
The introduction of replacement players created a division among fans, the media and others associated with the game. Some saw the strikebreakers as ushering in what then sports commentator Keith Olbermann called, “a post-apocalyptic nuclear vision of baseball,” while to others it was simply players trying to fulfill boyhood dreams. Despite the controversy, most replacement players never played a major league game. Federal judge Sonia Sotomayor, who was recently appointed to the United States Supreme Court, issued a preliminary injunction against Major League Baseball and the strike ended on April 2, 1995, one day before the start of the season.
Even though the 1995 season would see the return of Major League Players Association members before a regular season game was played, history was still made.
This baseball was signed by members of the Detroit Tigers replacement team during spring training 1995. Spring training that year was particularly chaotic as more players were brought in for tryouts than usual and many used fake names to avoid harassment from disgruntled fans. Among the 19 signatures on the ball is that of Tom Runnells, the interim manager for the Tigers. Runnells, who had previously managed the Montreal Expos, was the manager for Detroit’s Triple-A team, the Toledo Mud Hens. When Tigers manager Sparky Anderson refused to work with replacement players, Runnells was called up to the big leagues. When the strike ended, he went back to managing minor league teams, but has recently made it back to the majors as bench coach for the Colorado Rockies.
The ball was donated by Karen and John Schenkenfelder, who received it from Willy Finnegan, a business associate who quit his job as a bond trader to play for the Tigers. Finnegan was a pitcher for University of Nevada-Las Vegas and a handful of minor league teams in the 1980s, but never played for a major league club. Then in 1995, the Tigers invited the 35-year-old Finnegan to spring training as a replacement player. Finnegan jumped at the opportunity – and fondly remembers the younger players calling him “Pops” and having a cup of coffee with Hall of Famer Al Kaline on his first day in camp.
The stories to be preserved are not always milestones or records to be documented in Cooperstown. This particular ball will be a useful tool in examining labor issues and the relationship between fans and ballplayers. It will be on display this fall in the new acquisitions case, located in the Cooperstown Room here at the Hall of Fame.
Matt Cox was a curatorial intern in the Class of 2009 Frank and Peggy Steele Internship Program at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.