Monday, December 10, 2012

Marvin Miller, RIP: The Liberator

By Jeff Kallman

Let's see. The Hall of Fame includes one or two incompetent commissioners, an odious owner or three, and more than a few players whose credentials are questionable at best. Come to think of it, the Veterans Committee's pre-integration panel just elected the man (Jacob Ruppert) who built the first Yankee dynasties, the longtime ump (Hank O'Day) who called Fred Merkle out on the infamous boner, and a 19th-century barehand catcher (Deacon White) to Cooperstown.

But the shrine doesn't include among its pioneers three other men who changed baseball irrevocably, and for the better. The three men who produced the dissolution of the reserve era and the end of baseball players' treatment as mere chattel.

Curt Flood died of cancer at 59 fifteen years ago. Marvin Miller, the Players' Association executive director who stood by Flood and all his men so long, and so well, died at 95 on November 27. Andy Messersmith, who finished what Flood began and started it over a personal insult and a no-trade clause, retired after a second tour as Cabrillo College's baseball coach in 2009, and probably still lives in California.

No crying in baseball? Bosh. There's still, often enough, no justice in baseball. Shepherding the Major League Baseball Players' Association from what amounted to a company union at the company's pleasure, Miller stood above all for justice for a class of men who had been mere property until he entered and — step by step, element by element, particularly when Flood and then Messersmith entered the canvas — changed their portraiture.

Can people possibly still believe Miller destroyed rather than dignified and enhanced the game? Do people really still believe Miller's legacy is the destruction rather than the definition of competitive balance?

Well, there are those among us who still believe the sun revolves around the earth and the Apollo moon landings were a Hollywood stunt film. Such people are dismissible as cranks. So should be those who think Miller wrecked the glorious alleged golden era of baseball. And the writ of exile should only begin with the one marked, "More teams have won pennants and World Series since the advent of free agency than won pennants and World Series before it."

Not that things were all that simple when Miller agreed to leave the Steelworkers' Union to take hold of the players' association. Even the players who first engaged Miller to think about becoming their union's executive director had a certain wariness.

The players' association assigned a committee to find a director: future Hall of Famers Robin Roberts (nearing the end of his long, ultimately Hall of Fame career) and Jim Bunning (arguably still at the height of his); veteran outfielder-pinch hitter Harvey Kuenn (a former batting champion ground down by leg troubles); and veteran pitcher Bob Friend. Their first choice was Bob Cannon, a judge who'd helped the players land an early pension plan hike and in whom the owners were willing to invest, as well.

Cannon simply didn't want to move his office to New York as the players wanted. George Taylor, a labour adviser to several presidents, happened to know Miller. He wanted to know if Miller knew Roberts, who had called Taylor for help finding a new director. Taylor swung a meeting between Miller, Roberts, Bunning, and Kuenn.

At first, only Roberts was impressed. Bunning, according to several published writings on the matter, favoured an attorney who'd represented him in a lawsuit once. Kuenn seemed non-committal one or the other way other than expressing a wariness about trade unionism. Friend still backed Cannon, until Cannon's refusal to move to New York was certain.

Miller told Friend he'd take the job if the players elected him. His background with the Steelworkers' Union made him anathema to some players until Miller himself made his rounds, and the owners helped sweeten his pot by holding a number of threatening meetings with their players. The players elected him by a landslide.

Miller's original effectiveness came because, unlike the image in which the owners tried to dress him, he went about his business in quiet steps. He also belied the image of the union bosses against whom the rank and file had little influence or recourse. A constant theme, sometimes misunderstood by his own employers, was, "This is your union." He even encouraged players to visit the association offices in New York whenever they were in town, whenever they liked.

When the teams' player representatives first rounded up after Miller was elected, in 1967, Miller handed each one a legal pad and a pen and a single instruction: "List every grievance you've got that you'd like to see addressed. We'll pile them up and go through them one by one."

The original grievances? According to John Helyar (in The Lords of The Realm), they had almost nothing to do with contracts. They included ballpark safety (the old Crosley Field scoreboard, for one, right on the field at the top of left field's ridge), hotel accommodations on road trips ("'fleabag' was too kind a term for some," Helyar noted), clubhouse conditions ("the wire that powered the Tiger Stadium whirlpool ran through water), and scheduling. (Players then were frazzled by doubleheaders the day after night games.)

"The players come and go," American League president Joe Cronin advised Miller, "but the owners stay on forever." Soon enough, Cronin, his National League counterpart, and the eternal owners would learn how wrong they were. (Trivia: Only two teams today are owned by the men who owned them during Miller's final years: the New York Mets, and the Chicago White Sox.)

Miller understood how new bargaining was to baseball players. He also understood he wasn't going to yank them overnight into a formidable force. "He never let the cart get before the horse," recalled Tim McCarver, at the time a Cardinals catcher. "Everything was building from a base." From the minimum salary (Miller and company bargained it up to a whopping $10,000 a year by 1968) to pension fund contributions.

The reserve clause was barely a mark on a radar before Cardinals owner Gussie Busch, outraged at the very idea of a players' association pushing for a pension fund hike, decided to dress his players down in spring training 1969. Those players included Flood, who'd just negotiated himself a salary hike following a small holdout. But the center fielder seethed at the idea that Busch could, and did, think of his players as "green recruits" who could be told to behave or get out, when they had no real right to go that way thanks to the reserve clause's deployment.

Read very carefully: Miller didn't approach Flood. When Flood was traded (with McCarver, relief pitcher Joe Hoerner, and outfielder Byron Browne) to the Phillies (for Dick Allen, middle infielder Cookie Rojas, and a minor player named Jerry Johnson), he called Miller. He wanted to sue baseball, after first filing a formal request with Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. Flood lost, all the way to the Supreme Court, but he'd kicked a door open. Miller and the Players' Association paid the legal expenses.

Miller also didn't initiate an approach regarding another Cardinal, a kid named Ted Simmons, who refused to sign for 1972. (When the players struck briefly over another pension issue, in 1971, Simmons made so little he moved in with his in-laws.) He'd sought a raise to $30,000; general manager Bing Devine thought it was too much, too fast, even if what Simmons wanted was far below the league average.

The Cardinals wouldn't challenge Simmons by way of the rule then in force that an unsigned player couldn't play. Simmons refused to budge. He played on, hit like hell, and suddenly began gaining sympathy, especially when he made the all-star team. Miller, who'd only advised Simmons to do what he thought right, got handed some powerful ammunition when the Cardinals finally offered, and Simmons signed, a two-year deal for the $30,000 he sought for 1972 plus $45,000 for 1973.

"The Lords," Helyar wrote, "betrayed how they really felt. They didn't want to see (the reserve clause) tested. They'd rather give a kid catcher $75,000 than hand [the reserve clause] over to an arbitrator."

They'd prove themselves willing to give a lot more when Charlie Finley reneged on an insurance payment mandated in Catfish Hunter's contract and Hunter — who accepted when Miller asked if he'd like the players association involved — challenged him on it. An arbitrator ruled for the future Hall of Fame pitcher. The bidding war went as high as the Royals' $3.8 million five-year package. Hunter ended up taking less than that to become a Yankee. (The key issues included guaranteed annuities to ensure his children's education.)

The Hunter case yielded an issue the owners probably lived to regret. Miller and a few of the Lords (Helyar has mentioned Walter O'Malley and the Montreal Expos specifically) favored salary arbitration. The problem was that the owners got on board too late. They'd refused it for long enough; now, the Hunter case showed what free agency could yield. "If we'd started salary arbitration earlier," said John Gaherin, a negotiator on the owners' Player Relations Committee, " we might have forestalled [any reserve clause challenge]. But I got no interest in our camp for years."

Then came Messersmith. Again, Miller didn't make the first move. Dodger general manager Al Campanis did. He angered Messersmith during contract talks, with personal issues thrown in, to the point where the right-hander wouldn't talk to anyone lower than team president Peter O'Malley. Then, he demanded a no-trade clause in his new deal. The Dodgers refused to think about it, so Messersmith refused to sign his 1975 deal.

What began as a personal insult didn't become a larger issue until the season reached the stretch and Messersmith already had a solid season going. (He'd lead the league in shutouts, innings pitched, and complete games, not to mention coming in second with his 2.29 ERA.) Miller didn't reach out to him until August, and Messersmith accepted Miller's challenge: if he remained unsigned when 1975 ended, he'd file a grievance seeking free agency.

He refused to sign anything without a no-trade clause, no matter the money, and the Dodgers were willing to show him the money and then some. ("The money was incredible, but they wouldn't bring the no-trade to the table ... Now I understood the significance of what this was all about. I was tired of players having no power and no rights.")

Messersmith filed. Dave McNally, the former Oriole standout, on the brink of retirement thanks to arm trouble, smarting over the Expos reneging on a promised two-year deal, agreed to join the case in the event Messersmith backed away. Messersmith didn't. Arbitrator Peter Seitz ruled for Messersmith and McNally. (McNally died in 2002.)

And Miller actually refused to reach for the whole pie out of the chute. He had to convince the players that going full throat for a full market right off the Messersmith bat would actually depress and not enhance it. But Miller would protect whatever the pie was, even if the owners sought to punish those among their own who signed more than their presumed share of free agents (who'd be limited thus), which provoked the 1981 players' strike.

Yet Miller could find no substantial support where it mattered when it came to his place in the Hall of Fame. The irony is that, while a couple of voting committees included a reserve-era player or three and couldn't muster enough support to elect him, Miller's candidacy drew support over the years from men who'd fought him at various points among tooth, fang, and claw — including, but not limited to, current commissioner Bud Selig, former commissioner Fay Vincent, and former owners' negotiator Ray Grebey. If you're charitable, you can say better late than never. If you're not, you can fume at the hypocrisy of one or two such late-season supporters.

Miller finally rejected any thought of going into the Hall of Fame, never mind how he deserved (deserves) enshrinement. To hell with Reggie Jackson having said the Hall of Fame was or should be for players alone. (Who would be his first purge target, one wonders?) "The Hall of Fame is about players," Jim Bunning once said, "and Marvin did more for the players than anyone else." (Hank Aaron and Joe Morgan are also on record in favour of Miller's enshrinement.)

So did Flood and Messersmith, though I don't notice any large swelling of support among players Hall of Fame or otherwise for their enshrinement as pioneers, either. "Curt Flood stood up for us," Ted Simmons once said. "[Catfish] Hunter showed us what was out there. Andy showed us the way. Andy made it happen for us all. It's what showed a new life."

Allen Barra, who helped Miller cobble together his memoir, A Whole Different Ball Game, shares two anecdotes from his final visit with Miller, a week or so before Miller's death.

Barra apparently arrived at Miller's New York apartment just after Miller took a call from Sandy Koufax. Koufax retired a year before Miller became the players' association executive director; the Hall of Famer called to thank him for what he'd done for baseball. "Sandy's always been a class act," Miller told Barra. "But can you imagine Sandy Koufax as a free agent?"

Then, Miller told Barra about meeting Alex Rodriguez at a 2009 awards ceremony, shortly before Miller's wife passed away. A-Rod introduced his now-former wife to Miller thus, according to Miller: "This is the man to thank for our vacation home."

"I'd reckon him," said one baseball titan, "to be one of the three or four most important men in baseball history. Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson, of course. I'd have to put Branch Rickey in the top four. But probably Marvin before him." That was Red Barber speaking. Told of Barber's remark by Barra, the man who shepherded baseball players to the rights enjoyed by every employee from the lowest working stiff to the highest management denizen, the right to choose their own career destinies freely, flashed a smile.

"I certainly wouldn't object," said Miller, who must have appreciated an unintended irony (Ralph Kiner once credited the penurious, often devious Rickey with being the ultimate inspiration to a players' union), "if he put me in back of Branch Rickey."

Contents copyright © Sports Central 1998-2009