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Yankee Stadium, Opening Day, 1980?
Ron Fimrite
March 03, 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
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March 03, 1980

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

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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."

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