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Original Issue

Yankee Stadium, Opening Day, 1980?

A strike that could delay the start of the baseball season is brewing, and once more Marvin Miller, the head of the players' union, stands at storm center

Soon it will be spring, and ball parks from Yankee Stadium to Candlestick Park should be filled with the fondly recollected sounds of the national pastime. But this April could be different. Unless the Lords of Baseball and the men who play for them can settle their increasingly acrimonious disputes, the parks will remain empty, the only sounds the sudden beating of wings as flocks of pigeons wheel above row upon row of vacant seats. It happened before, in 1972, when the owners and the players couldn't come to terms. It can happen now. And once again, a single, slight, aging figure stands at the storm center—Marvin Miller, the players' man.

The brotherhood he represents may be minuscule in comparison with most unions, but, even so, a convincing argument can be made that Miller is the most effective labor leader in the country. Consider that in the 14 years he has been its executive director, the Major League Baseball Players Association has:

•Struck down an agreement among the owners dating to 1879 that bound a player to one organization for the life of his career unless his employer elected either to trade or sell him as he might an automobile or a garden tool;

•Got wages increased by a whopping 462% (by comparison, salaries of manufacturing workers in the U.S. increased about 150% in that period);

•Secured provision for impartial arbitration of individual salary disputes;

•Acquired extraordinary pension benefits (a 10-year player may, for example, start collecting $1,276 a month for life at age 55);

•Transformed what were once literally wage slaves into independent contractors who at a specific point in their careers can sell themselves on the open market to the highest bidder, while at the same time united these free spirits into a functioning, formidable organization.

Could Samuel Gompers have improved on this performance?

But what of the industry Miller and his men have evidently fleeced so mercilessly? Well, despite the predictable cup-rattling among club owners, major league attendance records have been set in each of the last four years, with last season's attendance soaring to 43,550,398. And television contracts have burgeoned prodigiously, the latest, signed last year, reportedly approaching $185 million. Indeed, the game from which the owners derive at least a portion of their income has never been more popular or, despite the fantastic salary expenditures, more remunerative—although exactly how remunerative will get you an argument from the moguls. Still, there are those who insist that Miller is "bad for the game," a complaint Miller, a career union man, has been hearing since 1966 when he first took on the "sportsmen" who run baseball. Management's attacks upon him are much more temperate now, but the message is essentially the same: Marvin can't see the forest for the trees.

"I think he can carry the adversary position too far," says Ballard Smith, president of the San Diego Padres and a relative newcomer to baseball's labor-management wars. "He runs the risk of ruining the industry. Marvin's main problem is that he believes the industry is in better shape than it actually is."

"I don't think he understands the depth of the game," says Dick Wagner, president of the Cincinnati Reds. "He probably has overshot the runway with his efforts. I think it has become more of a vendetta to bring baseball to its knees rather than to truly recognize the overall picture."

"I have great respect for Marvin," says American League President Lee MacPhail, who really does. "But if he disappoints me in any area it is that I wish sometimes he were more concerned with the overall welfare of the game and not just one segment of it."

And so, for the third time in the past eight years, the men who own the teams are headed for another showdown with their players, championed by Miller. The word strike is being used once again to describe something other than a ball thrown across the plate, and the possibility exists that this season, like that of 1972, will not open as scheduled.

The basic issue, as league officials and club owners grudgingly acknowledge, is that since the reserve clause, which permitted a team to renew a player's contract in perpetuity, was overturned in 1976, the owners, for the most part, have been unable to exercise any sort of self-restraint in the pursuit of free agents. An apex—or nadir—may have been reached in the "reentry" draft of 1979 when the Houston Astros agreed to pay Pitcher Nolan Ryan a million dollars a year for four years. Ryan, who is 33, had a 16-14 record last season and is barely above .500 for his career. He has also been bothered by arm and leg injuries the past few years. As a native Texan and as the game's most renowned strikeout pitcher, he is a box-office draw, but, a million dollars....

Ryan is at least famous. In the latest draft, a relative unknown like Pitcher John Curtis (10-9, 4.17 ERA) agreed to a long-term contract with San Diego worth nearly $2 million, and San Francisco signed Rennie Stennett, who hit .238 last year, drove in 24 runs and has a bum leg, for $3 million over five years. When nondescript and damaged talent attracts millions simply because it is available, the system, the owners argue, is out of whack, knowing full well that it is out of whack because they can't control themselves.

Only the most intransigent among them assigns full blame to Miller for what has happened. The owners simply have not been able to live with the system they provoked and he created. "I don't think Marvin foresaw the extremes," says MacPhail. "No one had any conception that anything like this could happen, neither management nor the Players Association. Some of these future commitments to players are equal to the value of the franchise." "For too long, the owners called the tune, and now we're paying the fiddler," says Texas Rangers owner Brad Corbett with rare insight.

It is at times such as these that baseball people invoke the "Good-of-the-Game" principle. And to insure that the game stays good, they are proposing in the current negotiations that a salary structure be imposed on players with less than six years' service and that player compensation be provided for teams losing a free agent. Maximum salaries proposed by the owners: for a first-year player—$40,600; second year—$53,000; etc., up to $153,600 for a six-year player. The compensation formula is complicated and "subject to negotiations," but, in essence, it calls for the team signing a "premium" free agent to provide the team losing him with a player from its 40-man roster. Fifteen players could be protected—as in expansion drafts—so the selectors would be somewhat limited, although there might be good pickings among the leftovers.

In this way, the owners suggest, the deprived team would at least receive a second-line player to compensate for its grievous loss of a star. Under the old Basic Agreement, which expired Dec. 31, the player's former team was entitled only to an amateur draft choice in compensation. The California Angels, Ryan's former team, could well wind up with a high school boy as a replacement for the strikeout king. "It's harder to build in baseball than it is in basketball and football," says MacPhail, accurately enough. "You need time to develop a team. If you lose a starting pitcher, you don't want a high schooler."

It should be observed that the "Good-of-the-Game" doctrine is the only one which is applicable here. When an arbitrator reinterpreted the renewal clause five years ago, and a federal court upheld him, a player was free from then on to move as he pleased as soon as his contract expired and he had played out his option year. The 1976 Basic Agreement, arrived at after months of haggling, imposed limitations on that movement, among them the requirement that a player must have at least six years' experience before being free. The owners have been quick to point out that this arrangement was only "experimental." Their new compensation proposal, they add, is far less restrictive than the rules governing the movement—virtually nonexistent—of free agents in professional football and basketball.

"I hate the word 'compensation,' " says Ray Grebey, the tweedy, energetic former General Electric negotiator who, for the past two years, has been the head of the owners' Player Relations Committee, a management consultant arm of the major league power structure, organized, in part, to play catch-up ball with Miller. "I prefer 'improved player-selection rights.' "

Miller prefers the phrase "taking hostages." He speaks often of the owners as "they," as anyone might who confronts the same antagonists year after year. "They get furious when I compare compensation with hostages," he says, chuckling. Miller and the players, it goes without saying, regard the owners' new proposals as nothing less than an attempt to repeal the Bill of Rights. "It is a backward approach," says Miller. "They are saying that the Players Association should assume the responsibility for policing what an owner might want to pay. Now, how do we get into that? I call this salary thing radical, because it flies in the face of everything we've done. It veers off sharply and fundamentally from the idea that salary should be based on performance. It provides that a future Fred Lynn, who wins the MVP award as a rookie, should be thrown into the same bracket with someone who hit .146. Oh, sure, there is an upper and lower range, but the difference is minuscule compared with what it has always been. Its purpose is to achieve the lowest possible salary range. And it's so unworkable as to be humorous. It would be the biggest incentive to under-the-table deals."

Miller sees the compensation proposal as merely a ploy to limit the mobility of players. Many of them now on the free market would get no offers at all under the owners' proposal, because few teams would be willing to risk losing a valuable second-line man. "The players feel they made a concession four years ago," says Miller. "Motivated in part by the owners' hysteria, they agreed to the six-year arrangement. [They are asking that the six be reduced to four years in the current negotiations.] The Messersmith decision [which abolished the reserve clause] says the players are unrestricted. At the time, the owners expressed fears about competitive imbalance. The exact opposite has happened. Competitive balance has never been better. Now they want us to proceed as if they were right. In any other industry coming off four years of its greatest prosperity, for someone to be clearly moving toward a confrontation would be considered impossible. Why would they provoke such a confrontation? They've never made so much money in their lives."

The owners would beg to differ. In a recent management newsletter, Grebey wrote, "It is not our intent to poor-mouth baseball. The ability of individual clubs to pay is not the current issue. The important thing for Major League Baseball and everybody connected with it is how this rapid rate of [salary] escalation will affect baseball as an industry. And right now baseball as an industry [the 26 clubs] is not turning a profit.... With nearly three-fourths of increased revenues going to players' salaries, it seems apparent that the rapidly rising trend in salaries should be slowed down."

Miller understands this reasoning. A businessman's obligation is to make or save a dollar. But he sees, as he always has, a darker motive. "One owner said to me that the negotiations should go well because the players don't need anything and the owners need compensation. I said, 'Why?' He said, 'You know. They've got to have a victory.' A victory? Well, I'm not trained to deal with that. That appalled me. They've talked themselves into the idea that we've kicked them around. Sometimes the facts are not important, the perception of the facts is. Part of the problem is me. They want a victory not over the players but over that s.o.b., Miller. I'm symbolic. The players have grown in understanding the importance of unity, but they [the owners] are going to test it again."

Miller may be part of the problem, but probably not as large a part as he likes to think. "Nobody's out to bust the union," says Grebey. "All professional sports are organized. That sort of hostility, natural as it once was, is a thing of the past, an anachronism." Still, Miller can be exasperating. He first took on the owners after 16 years with the Steelworkers Union. He was an outsider, definitely not a member of the club. He could not be cowed, as the players had been. He sought fundamental change. He used union tactics. He was more skilled in collective bargaining than either "they" or their representatives were. He was able to achieve epochal victories. Worst of all, it was he, not they, who seemed supercilious. It was he who had the condescending manner, he who regarded them as mere babes in the woods.

"Marvin sighs a lot," one major league executive said. "We will put forth an argument and Marvin will turn his head and give out a long sigh, as if what was just said was too ridiculous to consider." He also feigns amusement. Miller did not so much express shock or outrage at the owners' latest contract proposals—which he surely must have anticipated—as amusement. "They do my work for me," he will say, sighing, then chortling. "They do it to themselves. They have given me far more credit than I deserve."

Even the most fanatical Miller-haters reluctantly concede that he has the full support of the players, but they yet harbor a thin hope that somewhere there will appear a fissure in this united front. If there is to be a strike, will there not be someone out there who will defect out of greed alone? And will others not follow him? Carl Yastrzemski, whom they perceive as a reluctant union man, sent these hopes aloft once more when he told an interviewer recently, "It was different in '72. That year I think there were only three guys in the game making what would now be considered big money—myself, Hank Aaron and Harmon Killebrew. This time some guys would be losing thousands of dollars each day if the owners went ahead and started the season with minor league players. If this happened, I think a lot of them [major-leaguers] would come back." And Johnny Bench told Jerome Holtzman of The Chicago Sun-Times that the headier lifestyle of the modern player might work against a strike. "If you've got to come up with $5,000 or $10,000 by the end of the month, and you don't have a job or an income, that's pressure," the wealthy catcher said. "You just can't reach out and grab some money."

Sentiments such as these may be music to the owners' ears, but they should not be lulled by them. A player more representative of the association's true position is Ranger Relief Pitcher Jim Kern, who stoutly declares, "If we take a strike vote in spring training, I'll be fishing the next day, and if they cancel the season, there will be some damn strong leagues in Japan and Mexico. We owe it to the guys who are coming up behind us to stand together on this thing. If it wasn't for Marvin and the guys who put themselves on the line three and four years ago, we wouldn't be making nearly as much money as we are now."

And Reggie Jackson, ever voluble, said only a few weeks ago while paying a visit to Miller's apartment, "They've tried to make an orphan of Marvin. You hear it all the time: he's not a baseball man, he's a union man. They'll say, if you miss five or six games because of a strike, you won't stick together. They think we'll come back because we're selfish. Well, I just want them to know that we've gotten ourselves into a position where we can stand on our own two feet with unity. I want to say to them, 'Gentlemen, we are prepared to go to the wall with this man.' "

Miller himself enjoys recounting the story of a highly paid player who complained bitterly about losing $6,000 because of the 13-day 1972 strike over pension benefits. "Well, he's one of those who signed a contract close to a million as a result of what we accomplished by staying together in the strike. It seems to me that $6,000 was quite an investment."

For all of the talk about Miller not being a baseball man, he has, by his own accounting, been in the game longer than 20 of the 26 owners—and indeed most of the players he represents. He has dealt with two commissioners, four league presidents and Lord knows how many coaches, managers and general managers. His, in fact, may be the most stable job in all of baseball, which, by conventional employment standards, is not saying all that much.

But Miller is a survivor and a fighter. He looks like neither. He is a small man (about 5'8" and 150 pounds) and he has a withered right arm (one player refused to talk to a New York sportswriter for years after he made a tasteless remark about the arm). Miller's gray hair, once slicked back, has lost the wet look and is more tousled than coiffed these days, and he has become a more conservative dresser than he was when he first came to baseball from Pittsburgh in suits of shimmering blue. The pencil-thin moustache gives him the look of the slippery "mouthpiece," so essential to 1930s gangster films. The heavy sighs, the shrugging shoulders, the mirthless laugh are all deceptive. Miller, who will be 63 next month, is still a vigorous advocate. And his dedication to the organization he virtually created is unflagging.

It is questionable if Miller would have accepted the baseball job if the Association had been other than an "embryo" organization. Reared in Brooklyn, he had been a fan, but his career had taken him far afield, and only a challenge of the sort presented by the foundering players union could have drawn him into the game. An economist educated at Miami of Ohio and New York University, he had been assistant to President Dave McDonald of the United Steelworkers for five years when, in 1965, McDonald was defeated for reelection by I. W. Abel. "Although I was not part of the political fight, I was identified with the outgoing president," Miller says. "But I stayed on as a negotiator, holding my own in the infighting. People outside the union made the erroneous assumption I had no future there, so word got out that I might be available if I got offers."

Somewhat to his surprise, offers did come. One was from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, asking him to undertake a study on the feasibility of employing collective bargaining skills in diplomatic relations. Miller was intrigued by the offer, but he considered the proposal a trifle vague. A second, even more intriguing, came from Harvard, asking him to do some teaching in seminar groups and to do some writing on labor-management relations. Miller was attracted, but he was not certain he was ready to retire from the trenches to the groves of academe. The third offer came from a bunch of baseball players. He took it.

The Players Association was founded in 1954, but before Miller it was a paper tiger. Dominated by and even partly funded by the owners, it emerged as a kind of sop to the canaille from the benevolent hierarchy. In 1957, however, relations became strained when an outside lawyer was employed to negotiate a new pension plan based in part on television revenues, as well as All-Star Game receipts. In the mid-'60s, as that agreement, which had been amended in '62, approached its expiration, the Association girded itself for a more serious pension fight. It needed experienced help. With this in mind, Robin Roberts, then closing out his distinguished playing career, sought the counsel of Professor George W. Taylor, a labor-relations specialist at the Wharton School of Business of the University of Pennsylvania. The professor agreed to help.

A few weeks later, in December of 1965, Taylor bumped into Miller in an elevator at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, where both were attending a meeting. Did Miller know of a Robin Roberts, Dr. Taylor inquired.

"Only by reputation," said Miller, the fan. A few weeks later, Miller was interviewed by a players' screening committee composed of Roberts, Harvey Kuenn and Jim Bunning. "They were straightforward," Miller recalls. "They were the first to admit that the association was inefficient and that it lacked direction and continuity. I went home and thought about it and decided I was interested. What appealed to me was that this was not a hidebound organization. I thought I could make a contribution unfettered by institutionalism. My son was away at college, my daughter was about to go, and, after 16 years in Pittsburgh, the idea of returning to New York appealed to my wife and me."

The owners, fearful of a "labor boss" in their clubbish midst, campaigned energetically against his election, issuing dread warnings of labor goons and gangsters. This, quite naturally, worked as a ringing endorsement. If the owners feared him that much, he was obviously the man for the job. Miller was elected by a considerable majority and took office on July 1, 1966. His opposite number as the management negotiator at the time was a young attorney for the National League named Bowie Kuhn.

Miller was scarcely welcomed aboard by the baseball Establishment. Instead, he was subjected to what he now calls a period of "hazing." His "they" and "we" approach to tricky negotiations is attributable in part to this chilly reception. "Labor relations had advanced a good deal from the '30s," Miller says, "so there was no physical intimidation, but the vitriol was there. In some valid sense, it has never changed." When the players asked naively if he thought he could "get along" with the owners, Miller replied, "I think so, but let me add a word of caution: you should not expect them to like me. Look, we're adversaries in a certain sense of the word. If you find a time when the owners are singing my praises, you'd better fire me. This is not a popularity contest."

Miller quickly learned what he was up against. "Joe Cronin [then the American League president] had a unique way of introducing himself. He said, 'I've got good advice for you, young man'—I was 49 at the time. 'You should remember that the players come and the players go, but the owners stay on forever.' I came to realize how wrong he was. The game is the players. That's what they don't understand."

When Miller took over, all the association had was $5,400 in the kitty and a battered file cabinet. He quickly signed up 99% of the players (100% belong to the association today) and initiated a dues system. He also started a group licensing program, whereby the players act in concert to promote products, such as Coca-Cola. This became such a lucrative venture that by now the revenue from it is returned to the players, effectively canceling out their dues contributions of $3 a day during the season.

A new pension agreement, tied once again to the old television formula, was agreed upon in February of 1969. Three years later, when it was up for renewal, Miller and the players found themselves being put to the test. The owners, who were now fully aware of the big money television was bringing in, sought changes in the pension-fund formula unacceptable to the players, but the real issue, it was apparent to Miller and the players, was the survival of the association itself. When the players voted to strike at the end of spring training, both they and their leader came under heavy fire from the press, which was outraged by a strike involving young men who were handsomely rewarded by any criteria and, indeed, were lionized. To deprive the comparatively impoverished fans of their season was nothing short of an outrage. And Marvin Miller, the players' Svengali, baseball's Machiavelli, was the real culprit.

The reason the players were on strike, editorialized the St. Louis Globe-Democrat at the time, was that "they followed the bad advice of Marvin Miller. Marvin Miller thought he could make the owners cave in on the pension issue and force them to increase their pension contributions against their better judgment. It is evident that Marvin Miller was wrong. He led the players into a disaster that now is costing each team an average of $50,000 a game.... There isn't much inspiration in going to watch a bunch of high-paid prima donnas who think more of getting a few more dollars added to their fat pensions than showing up for the opening game.... Marvin Miller has struck out. He would do the game of baseball a great favor if he disappeared or got lost or found the nearest hole and jumped into it."

Larry Dierker, then pitching for the Houston Astros, said, "There is some kind of plan to either kill the players' group or get rid of Marvin Miller. Marvin has been very tough and the owners don't like him. They've always been able to get tough with the players in the past and there wasn't anything the players could do about it. Now, for the first time, we have a little say in things."

The strike ended on April 14, lasting nine days into the season. Eighty-six regular-season games were canceled. The owners lost gate receipts and concession revenues as well as radio and TV money, and the players lost their salaries for those games. The pension issue was resolved much as it had been in the past. It has come up again, because the players are seeking a contribution of $16.5 million a year for four years, based once again on the owners' television contract. But the biggest victory for Miller and the players in 1972 was their ability to hold fast. They emerged from this critical test of their unity as a power to be reckoned with.

Unified now, the players began exercising their new leverage and in 1973 were able to reach an agreement calling for outside arbitration of salary hassles. But they were looking for bigger fish to fry.

When Miller first read the uniform player's contract in 1966, he whistled in disbelief. "I had seen some documents in my life, but none like that," he says. In his very first year as executive director, he opened discussions with players on resolving "the inequities of the reserve system." Miller felt the system had to be tested. Curt Flood, a $90,000-a-year outfielder for the St. Louis Cardinals, was the first to try. When the Cardinals traded him to the Phillies in 1969, Flood refused to go. Instead, he filed an antitrust suit against baseball and sat out the 1970 season. The suit was eventually resolved on June 19, 1972, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled by a 5-3 vote that baseball was still exempt from antitrust law. In his majority opinion, Justice Harry Blackmun conceded that baseball was, in fact, a business engaged in interstate commerce, but that its exemption from ordinary law was an "aberration" that had survived half a century—or since the court ruled for the game in 1922. The reserve clause, then nearly 100 years old, had survived another major test in the courts. It would not survive the next one.

When Pitcher Andy Messersmith could not persuade Dodger owner Walter O'Malley to sign him to a no-trade contract for the 1975 season, Messersmith decided to play out the year without signing a new contract. Dave McNally, then pitching for Montreal, took the same course. McNally retired in mid-season; Messersmith went on to win 19 games for the Dodgers. At issue was Paragraph 10A of the uniform player's contract, the so-called renewal clause, which, according to the owners, gave a team the right to renew a player's contract forever without his consent. In Miller's view, once a player had completed his option year, he was free of all further contractual obligations.

"If Andy had changed his mind and signed a new contract," says Miller, "it would have mooted our whole case. In every major step, if you don't have principled people, you won't succeed."

Messersmith did not sign. Instead, he declared himself a free agent. Dick Moss, attorney for the Players Association, pleaded his case before an arbitration panel consisting of Miller, John Gaherin, the chairman of the owners' Player Relations Committee, and Peter Seitz, the impartial chairman. Miller's and Gaherin's votes were foreordained; Seitz cast his vote for Messersmith, and shock waves went through baseball. The owners filed an appeal in Federal Court, saying the reserve system was not subject to arbitration. The court ruled for Seitz. After 97 years of enslavement, baseball players were free.

The Establishment was in panic. The previous year Seitz had declared Jim (Catfish) Hunter a free agent in another landmark case, one, however, that had nothing to do with the reserve clause, Seitz having found Hunter's boss, Charlie Finley of the Oakland A's, guilty of a contract violation. Still, the bidding war for Hunter evolved into a Communist's parody of capitalism gone berserk, and when the Catfish signed a five-year contract with the Yankees for more than $3 million, the owners' worst fears about free agentry were realized: the rich had gotten richer. What new horrors awaited them now that scores of free agents would be turned loose through the deviltry of Miller and his stooge, Messersmith?

"Without the reserve clause, the stability and balance of the major leagues will be severely impaired and perhaps destroyed by the scramble by the clubs for talented players," lamented Kansas City owner Ewing Kauffman, who had filed a civil action supported by his fellow owners to restrain the Players Association from taking the Messersmith case to arbitration. Miller urged caution. Not every player will want to move, he said. "What you're going to find is that the right to become a free agent will be more important than actually using it, not just to get money from your club but to make management pay more attention to the basic standards of decency and human dignity in the way they treat you. That's just basic management sense in most businesses"—the implication being clear that baseball management is incapable of that reasoning.

But Miller did see the need for some control of the new freedom, although not as much control as the owners felt was necessary. The ensuing impasse resulted in a lockout for the first three weeks of the 1976 spring training, the second break in baseball's seasonal routine in four years. But the players and owners agreed to start the season on schedule, and an agreement calling for the six-year rule was finally arrived at by the All-Star break. Free agentry has not led to the wholesale disaster Kauffman and his confreres so gloomily forecast. The predicted imbalance between haves and have-nots never materialized. The Dodgers, who until this past year more or less eschewed the free-agent market, won two pennants. The Orioles, heavy losers in the market, nearly won a World Series last year. The Angels, big free-agent spenders, finally did win a division title last season, only to lose in the league playoffs to the home-grown Orioles. The Yankees, who had been big spenders and big winners, fell to fourth in 1979.

What has resulted, though, is a skyrocketing rise in salaries. At the beginning of the last decade, the average major league player earned about $22,000 a year. He was up to $32,000 by 1972 and to $46,000 by 1975. Last year he earned an average of $121,900. According to statistics circulated by Grebey, NFL salaries increased by 13.2% between 1977 and 1978, while baseball's went up by more than 30%. Government estimates place the average increase for non-farm workers in that year at 8%. According to a recent survey, the average yearly income of an American family, headed by a full-time worker, is $18,000. Doctors make an average of $55,000, scientists $24,000, police and fire fighters $17,000 and teachers $13,500. In sports, only players in the National Basketball Association make more—$143,000—than baseball players, and NBA teams carry only 11 players and underwrite no farm systems. Thus the owners' efforts to "turn back the clock."