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BASEBALL BY THE BOOKS

Arrogance and Stupidity
Book Review by Chuck Chalberg

Charles P. Korr. The End of Baseball As We Knew It: The Players Union, 1960–1981. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2002, 336 pp., $34.95, cloth.

 

The title of this history of the rise to power of the most successful labor union this side of Samuel Gompers suggests that the reader is in store for a lamentation over the fall from power of every team owner, successful or otherwise, this side of Walter O'Malley. In fact, any such assertion would be off the mark. Charles Korr may be a chronicler of "end times," but this "end" was both long overdue and thoroughly justified, not to mention achieved with surprising speed—just fifteen years after Marvin Miller replaced Judge Robert Cannon as head of the players' union. Such a finding may be difficult for fans to swallow, what with payrolls still climbing (albeit somewhat more slowly) and player egos still soaring in utter defiance of gravitas. But the weight of the evidence marshaled in this compelling book points to no other conclusion.

Over the years, conventional wisdom—especially among the mainstream media—has held that Miller was the indispensable player in the remarkable achievements of the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA). Arbitration, free agency, and ultimately spiraling salaries, so the argument goes, were the result of Miller's militant agenda and Sven-gali-like control over the players. As Korr demonstrates, however, it was often the players who pushed Miller to forcefully advocate for their cause rather than the other way around. To be sure, Miller was an invaluable strategist and a deft tactician, as well as a skilled publicist and talented polemicist. He was also a man of considerable grist and grit, which is to say a labor leader with a wealth of knowledge and toughness when it came to dealing with his actual enemies (on any and every management team) or his potential adversaries (meaning malcontents within his own ranks). And yet this bright, tough, skilled labor organizer comes off, in the end, as someone who almost fell into the role of being the right man in the right place at the right time.

Korr's story opens with the era of Judge Robert Cannon, who served as legal adviser to the MLBPA in the early 1960s and who, amid controversy, turned down the full-time director's post that ultimately went to Marvin Miller in 1966. It ends with the strike of 1981, which Korr characterizes as the event that "put an exclamation point to Miller's tenure." There is an epilogue that briefly considers the strike of 1994-95, a play-stoppage which Korr lays directly at the feet of the owners and their most recent "set of miscalculations . . . , the most serious of which was to repeat the mistakes they had made in dealing with the players union for almost twenty-

five years."

(While on the inevitable subject of baseball strikes, it should be noted that this history of the MLBPA was completed before the strike-averting settlement of the summer of 2002. Although this settlement may have marked the first setback for the players since they began to act as a collective bargaining unit, the new basic agreement does little to alter the balance of power between the owners and the MLBPA. Unlike management's strategy in the preceding three-plus decades, Miller's successors knew when to make a tactical retreat.)

›he Miller years, accounting for almost 75 percent of the time period that Korr examines in this volume, came about primarily because of growing player dissatisfaction with the way their pension plan was being handled. After Miller took over, the players achieved a few minor gains which ultimately led to their first major victory, the historic Basic Agreement of 1968—the first agreement of its kind between the players and the owners. Although this achievement was "remarkably ordinary," dealing as it did with such relatively minor matters as split doubleheaders, length of the season, and other playing conditions, the new deal "established the credibility of the union," Miller's primary goal. Resolv-ing a few long-standing complaints may have been a far cry from free agency, but it was the necessary first step that helped pave the way for the incredible accomplishments of the 1970s. From the vantage point of the late 1960s, it's fair to say that no one, not Marvin Miller, certainly not the most militant player (and by then there were more than a few), and most certainly not the most obstinate owner (of whom there have always been many more than a few) could have imagined the speed and scope of the victories that were just over the horizon.

One individual who might have predicted the decline and fall of the owners was John Gaherin, baseball's chief negotiator during the early phase of these wars. While Gaherin was the first of Miller's many victims, he was also a victim of the stubbornness of his bosses, who refused to heed Gaherin's reasoned counsel. And just as Miller did not create the players' anger and resolve but knew how to channel it, he was able to use the owners' shortsightedness and arrogance against them. Because without the unwitting—or should it be "witless"—cooperation of the owners, the MLBPA might never have gotten much past first base.

So powerful was that hierarchy of owners in 1960 that its members could not have imagined that its downfall would be just around the corner, historically speaking. So entrenched was that hierarchy by 1970 that it saw no reason for making any meaningful concession to Miller and his minions.

The year, 1970, of course, was when Curt Flood challenged baseball's reserve clause. Most owners presumed that it was Marvin Miller who put the Cardinal (who did not want to accept a trade to the Phillies) up to this legal confrontation, but the truth is that Flood was willing to pursue the matter on his own. In the end the union's executive board voted unanimously to support Flood, but only after grilling him intensely and in the process laying bare their worries that his motivation was strictly personal and essentially race-based.

Flood lost his battle, but by fighting it he helped his fellow players win their larger war. As Korr notes, Flood "emboldened other players to pay attention to what was being done to them by the system," to recognize what the owners refused to acknowledge. Initially suspicious, the union leadership came to understand that Curt Flood was a man of "sincerity and determination." Forever suspicious, management never jettisoned its prejudgment that Curt Flood was nothing more than a Miller stooge.

Baseball's hierarchy was populated by sincere men as well, but the sort of sincere men who had come to believe in their own propaganda. Having convinced themselves that the players were essentially content with their lot, they refused to believe that they had to negotiate in good faith following the Supreme Court ruling against Flood.

In Korr's estimation, the hiring of Miller should have been a "sufficient wake-up call" for the owners. It wasn't. Nor was the unanimous decision of the MLBPA executive board to support Flood in his legal action. As a result, the Flood decision opened the gates to the deluge of player victories that would follow. Korr expertly takes us through the subsequent wake-up calls that were ignored by the owners culminating with the strike of 1981, which proved to be just one more miscalculation piled on top of a mountain of miscalculations.

In the aftermath of that strike Miller did what any successful coach or manager always does: he gave all the credit to the players. They were, he gushed, "simply magnificent throughout. . . . The owners gambled that the players could be forced to their knees—and lost the gamble." With the double whammy of arbitration and free agency solidly in place, the war had been won. Miller, to be sure, deserves his fair share of the credit for that success. But in his victory speech he failed to give credit where it also belonged: to the terminally sincere but forever-befuddled men on the other side of the table. Miller couldn't have done it without them.

In some ways, Korr has simply retraced a lot of ground that Marvin Miller covered in his own book, A Whole Different Ball Game: The Sport and Business of Baseball (Birch Lane Press, 1991), an informative and de-tailed account of Miller's years as union head. But that book suffered from Miller's occasional self-serving comments and what Stephen Jay Gould called "a little mean-spiritedness," characteristics not present in Korr's scholarly approach. Korr also provides a more balanced perspective, having thoroughly mined the archives of the MLBPA (for which he was given unfettered access) and interviewed many of the participants who were part of the labor struggle that Miller spearheaded.

Prior to this year's Hall of Fame balloting, there was some speculation that Miller might be a surprise choice of the newly constituted Committee on Veterans, given that its makeup now includes several former players. While such an honor was not bestowed upon the former union head this time around, don't be surprised if the now eighty-six-year-old Miller gets the nod next year—or in 2005. Does Marvin Miller deserve a plaque in Cooperstown? Korr is silent on this subject, but his excellent work on the growth of the players' labor movement speaks volumes about Miller's historic accomplishments.

—EFQ

 

CHUCK CHALBERG teaches American history at Normandale Community College in Bloomington, Minnesota. He is the author of Rickey and Robinson: The Preacher, the Player, and America's Game, and performs a one-man show as Branch Rickey.

© 2003 Chuck Chalberg

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