Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Most Impressive Man I've Ever Met

In the early 1990s I started working on a book about the early years of Marvin Miller’s tenure as the director of the Major League Baseball Players Association. My focus was on how Miller convinced a generation of ballplayers that: (A) owners weren’t the benign sportsmen they were believed to be; (B) although players were a franchise’s essential element and most important commodity, owners treated them poorly; and (C) a strong union was the best way to improve salaries, benefits, and working conditions. I criss-crossed the country twice, interviewing ex-players who had been the union’s player representation on their respective teams, including three league representatives.

But I started the whole project by interviewing Marvin Miller, who was gracious enough to invite me to his apartment in Manhattan even though I had no journalistic credentials or track record as a baseball historian. I wanted to understand more about those early years, from his starting the job in 1966 to the tumultuous 1969 spring training boycott, a key but long-forgotten milestone in the MLBPA’s early history. When the major leagues expanded in 1969 and initiated a playoff system, the television deal multiplied. Since MLB funded the players’ pension program, Miller was eager to see that the players got their fair share.

The owners stonewalled him so he urged players not to sign their 1969 contracts, reasoning that, as he told me, “It defied logic for anybody to put their signature to a contract committing themselves for the following year with this thing unresolved.” The players overwhelmingly embraced the contract boycott, with only a handful of players signing contracts that winter. Three well-attended meetings were held which solidified the union’s resolve; even Mickey Mantle, who had announced his retirement, made a public statement in support of the boycott.

When spring training time arrived in February 1969, hardly any players showed up, though they held workouts on their own. There had been a trickle of signees, but the owners were concerned enough to discuss the possibility of using replacement players, and by mid-March a showdown seemed inevitable. That’s when Bowie Kuhn stepped in. Elected as the new commissioner in February, he didn’t want his watch to begin with baseball’s first work stoppage, so he prevailed upon the owners to pony up some more money for the pension fund, come to some kind of agreement on the future of the pension fund, and play ball.

For the owners, the expenditure was still small change, but it was a huge step for the players. They had taken a stand and, with Miller as their advocate and their public voice, they had gotten what they wanted. The owners had backed down. This lesson was fresh in their minds when 1972 rolled around and Miller persuaded them to engage in their first strike. Would they have had the nerve to strike in 1972 if they hadn’t stared down the owners in 1969? That was just one of the questions I asked Miller in a conversation which lasted nearly two hours. Here are some of the things I learned from him:

PLAYERS IN 1966: “The understanding of the players as to what unionism was and why it was necessary and what it could do, was close to ground zero. . . .Sure they would like to make more money, but they had been told that baseball owners don’t make money, the industry doesn’t make money. They had all kinds of beliefs which were, I was going to say amazing, but not really given their backgrounds. . . .They had no union experience outside of baseball. What they did know about unions was furnished by the press, a good anti-union press.”

PLAYER SAFETY: "I remember having to pry out of the players. . .that there were health and safety issues on the field and in the locker rooms. 'Tell me about the conditions of such-and-such a dressing room. I picked up rumors that the visitors' room in Detroit is atrocious. Tell me what it is.' And I would have to pry it out of the players. There'd be an accident of a player running into a fence in the outfield. I'd have to say, 'What kind of a fence was that?' Even when the reporters wrote about it the next day, you'd never get any details. You'd find out--that's a concrete fence and it didn't have any padding."

1968-1969 WINTER PLAYERS MEETINGS: "We invited five or six players from each team. . .Everybody who was invited came. It was dead winter in New York, so that was the first surprise. The second was the meeting itself. While this was not like the meeting three years later when the players took over and everybody talked and kind of whipped themselves into a strike frenzy. This was a different kind of meeting . .at which they first listened to a long, long report that I gave and which was supplemented by the two league player reps and the Pension Committee reps who had been attending all the meetings. . .They were detailed as all hell, purposely so, because I sensed we were moving into a crisis situation and I wanted them to be able to retain as much as possible to report back to the players. So the meeting was a surprise, secondly, in the way they listened; and then, the forceful manner in which each one got up who did talk. . .I keep remembering Dick Allen. He was so magnificent. . .God he was eloquent and forceful and strong. There was no question that nobody could sign a contract with this kind of situation." 

THE BOWIE KUHN FACTOR: "Kuhn became commissioner, and the same day or the next day he was in my office. It was his first official duty, he made no commitments at the time, but I remember the conversation in which he made it clear to me that the last thing the new commissioner wanted was to start the season with a shutdown of the whole industry. . .Within a couple of days after that, things began to move. [John] Gaherin would come into a meeting--Gaherin was a good negotiator and a professional, but he had a couple of weaknesses. His facial expressions--he was not a good poker player--and I knew him well enough to know that things were changing and he was no longer being told to 'tell them to go screw themselves, let 'em strike.' I could tell when that had changed, and it changed almost immediately."

THE ANTI-TRUST EXEMPTION: "One thing that they [the owners] had always used as an argument. . .long before I came on the scene, was that baseball is a self-regulated industry, that this is why we don't need to be worried about anti-trust implications, we handle our own affairs. This dates back to the Black Sox scandal, it dates back to Holmes, this is how they fended off federal regulation of baseball after that scandal. 'We're a self-regulating group, we hired a judge from the United States Federal District Court, and he's going to be the all-high commissioner, and he's going to have all kinds of authority the way we lay this out, and we regulate these things internally, so you don't have to worry about abuses like you have to worry about G.E. using people with its power, etc. We're going to have this self-regulating system.' Except that they had to worry that this time [Curt Flood's lawsuit], unlike prior cases, we were going to testify in court that this self-regulation was a sham. That the commissioner was no neutral person despite that title, that the commissioner was the chairman of the board. What kind of self-regulation do you call this?"

GAINING IMPARTIAL ARBITRATION IN 1972:."I had said it a thousand times in the negotiations: 'You can't have a bona fide labor-management situation where a grievance dealing with a contract that you think you've negotiated in good faith, where a decision about a dispute as to whether the contract is being followed will be rendered by an employee of one of the sides in the dispute.' So they agreed to this impartial arbitration." 

MY MAGIC QUESTION: “That’s a guess, obviously. I think it was a very important precedent. For those players in ’72 who had been there in ’69, which represented a clear majority, I think the memory of the success of ’69 had to have been a factor in the ’72 strike. Absolutely. All they had to do was recall what the bargaining position of the owners had been prior to the boycott being obvious and coming down to the deadline, and they taking a look at that agreement which came out of it—which was a tremendously good agreement.”

Twenty years later, I vividly remember my two hours with Marvin Miller. I could see why he had led the players out of the Dark Ages and into the Promised Land—and why the owners thought he had mesmerized the players. He was calm, reasoned, methodical, and insistent. Strengthened by the moral certitude that he was righting decades of wrongs—most notably the reserve clause, which took him a decade to overturn—he exuded the patience needed to wear down the owners’ intransigence time after time. He was the most impressive man I’ve ever met. 

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Bill Deane Sets the Record Straight

Bill Deane is a baseball crusader, always has been and always will be. In the mold of Bill James, he takes nothing for granted just because some expert or eyewitness said it's the case, or because it has been an accepted truth for a century or more, or because so many people have repeated a story that the general public believes it must have happened. For more than two decades, he has been trying to separate truth from myth in the murky realm of baseball history. He happens to be excellent at what he does--unflinching analysis based on comprehensive, dogged research. The result is his long-awaited and fascinating new book, Baseball Myths: Debating, Debunking, and Disproving Tales From the Diamond (Scarecrow Press).

Deane divides his book into five sections--Baseball's Infancy, The Truth About Ruth, The Lively Ball Era, Timeless Myths, and The Expansion Era--covering 91 issues, starting with the biggest myth of all, that Abner Doubleday invented baseball, a piece of hokum long since discredited, though announcers occasionally slip up and Commissioner Selig stubbornly clings to it. The final myth here is the current wisdom that shorter fences have aided current home run hitters, a notion he refutes by showing that home run distances have hardly changed since the 1960s. In between, he tackles everything you ever thought might be questionable, and plenty of things you thought were etched in stone.

In countless hours spent digging through microfilm and primary sources, Deane has compiled mountains of evidence both statistical and anecdotal, which he filters through a common sense approach to history. Is 90 feet between bases the "perfection" Red Smith and others claim it is? No, he says. Softball players do just fine with 65 feet to traverse, and if the bases were 85 feet apart it wouldn't result in every ground ball being a base hit because infielders would play in closer and have shorter throws. Was Joe DiMaggio one of the best center fielders ever? How could he be, Deane claims, when he wasn't even the best fielder in his own family? That's what the numbers tell us. Did Sandy Koufax suddenly learn how to pitch in time to put together as dominant a five-year stretch as any pitcher? No, what happened was that his team moved to the most pitcher-friendly ballpark of his era at the same time that the strike zone was expanded, turning the same stuff he'd been throwing all along from borderline effective to unhittable.

Many of Deane's puncturings are simple matters of whether something happened or didn't. Here are some of the ones that didn't: Ty Cobb didn't psyche Joe Jackson out of a batting title; Charles Comiskey didn't gyp Eddie Cicotte out of a bonus for a 30-win season; Harry Frazee didn't sell Babe Ruth to the Yankees to finance "No, No, Nanette"; Enos Slaughter did not score from first base on a single to win the 1946 World Series; and Roger Maris' record of 61 home runs never had an asterisk attached to it.

Other suppositions take more analysis to dissect, for instance the popular belief that "The Catch" made by Willie Mays in the 1954 was on a 480-foot drive by Vic Wertz in the Polo Grounds. Deane makes a persuasive case that the ball traveled no more than 425 feet, quite a discrepancy. Was Ted Simmons, whose record for career hits by a catcher was only recently surpassed by Ivan Rodriguez, quickly eliminated from the Hall of Fame ballot because he was a lousy defender? Take a look at the evidence presented here and you'll be hard-pressed to think that he hasn't been screwed. How about today's controversy about the dangers of headfirst slides? I'm not sure that Deane needed to detail every one of the dozens of serious injuries suffered by runners attempting conventional slides, but it's impossible to argue with his conclusion. In fact, it's difficult to challenge any of his conclusions; that's the point of this definitive book. For the record, I only dispute one out of 91 (his assertion that the Yankees really didn't get the best of the Kansas City Athletics in their numerous trades in the 1950s).

Do you think the Honus Wagner T-206 baseball cards is worth millions because of Wagner's opposition to tobacco? Do you buy the accepted scenario that umpires devised hand signals to accommodate Dummy Hoy, the deaf-dumb star of the 1890s? Do you accept that Curt Flood "pioneered" free agency by filing a lawsuit challenging the reserve clause? Was Fidel Castro a major league prospect? Was Jackie Robinson the first black player in the major leagues? Think twice. Not one of those popular beliefs is true.

One of Deane's favorite subjects will serve here as the rationale for why this book is so necessary. Most of these subjects are of interest to all baseball fans--casual, impassioned, biased, and expert alike. There are things we want to believe about baseball that simply are not true, no matter how many people tell us otherwise. Isn't it great that writers and broadcasters are in the Hall of Fame? Or aren't they? They add so much to our enjoyment and appreciation of baseball and its history, surely they must be Hall of Famers. Why else would there be the writers' and broadcasters' wings at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown? We've all heard announcers call each other Hall of Famers for winning the annual Frick Award, and writers do the same thing, so it must be true, right? Well, it isn't. There are no such wings and there never have been. This myth is perpetuated by announcers who hope that they might be call Hall of Famers someday if they win that award. But it's just an award, not enshrinement. Deane tackles this myth head-on here, as he has been doing in person for many years. He recounts one Spink Award winner asking him where his plaque was. He even notes my experience with fighting this myth on pages 112-113. Once and for all, there are no wings, and nobody has ever been elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame for being a broadcaster. But don't take my word for it. Take the word of Bill Deane, who has gone to the trouble of determining the inventor of the hotdog, the originator of the designated hitter, the driver in Billy Martin's fatal car crash, and so much more. His new book has something for everyone--if you can handle the truth.