Monday, March 23, 2009

The Bob Graham Sham, 3/26/79

On March 26, 1979, the front lawn of the White House provided the setting as Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin signed a historic peace treaty brokered by President Jimmy Carter. Who could have imagined, however, that the presence of Florida’s governor, Bob Graham, would spark such controversy here in the Tampa Bay area?

Still, that is what happened when Graham decided to skip the 33rd Governor's Baseball Dinner in St. Petersburg in favor of attending the ceremony in Washington, D.C. The dinner, originally created in the 1940s as a way of thanking those associated with Spring Training for coming to Florida, had outlived its original purpose by 1979. Fewer and fewer "big-wigs" were attending the dinner, and as an event, it had lost most of its cache.

Due to negotiations in the on-going umpire's strike, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, as well as American League and National League presidents Lee McPhail and Chub Feeney, were in Philadelphia and would have to miss the dinner as well. The news of Graham's no-show, in what would have been his debut as the dinner's host, sparked the most heated response from event organizers.

Earle Halstead, one of dinner's long-time sponsors, expressed disbelief that Graham would choose to be in Washington, D.C., rather than attend the dinner.

"He's neither the President of the United States, nor the governor of Israel or Egypt," Halstead said. "He's the governor of Florida. I still say it was a poor decision and a slap at baseball and his constituents."

In a statement explaining his decision telegrammed to team owners, Graham explained that a last-minute request by President Carter to attend the ceremony and state dinner, however, would force the alteration of his plans. Graham said that his decision to skip the dinner did not diminish his belief in the importance of baseball to Florida. As a sign of contrition, he invited all of the owners to attend a dinner at the Governor's Mansion in Tallahassee on April 11.

Up to that point, the only governor to miss the dinner had been Claude Kirk, who underwent surgery on the same day as the 1970 dinner, yet still arranged for a telephone hook-up to deliver his remarks. Halstead was unmoved by the idea of Graham being summoned to the White House as a sufficient reason to miss the dinner.

"Bob Salem (the governor's aide) told me the governor would not attend because he had been invited by the great President of the United States to the peace signing treaty. I told him I guess he might want to stay on and wait tables at the barbecue afterwards. I told him a few other things, too."

With no governor, no commissioner, and no league presidents, dinner chairman Mike Barger decided to refund roughly 900 paying customers and cancel the event. It would be the second time in four years that the dinner would not go on as scheduled, as a labor dispute between owners and players over salaries forced the dinner's cancellation in 1976.

Perhaps in the end, canceling the dinner was for the best. It allowed those who would have otherwise attended the dinner to catch the most-watched college basketball game ever, the national championship between Michigan State and Indiana State featuring two guys named Earvin "Magic" Johnson and Larry Bird.

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