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. 


Sgt. Schultz the Ewok said...

very interesting piece... seems like a great guy too... doesn't change my opinion though...

cheeseblab said...

Raising a glass to him right now.

Sgt. Schultz the Ewok said...

Oh, and by the way, when I read the title of the article, my first thought was that it was going to be about me...