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."
Those $18,000-a-year fans keep showing up at the ball parks, though. The traffic has thus far borne its share, despite the doomsayers. "Ballplayers are a dime a dozen," Twins owner Calvin Griffith has said. "The fans are what we should be concerned about." How they will react to yet another strike or lockout cannot be foreseen, but it does seem certain that the game as a whole will take another public-relations licking. Consider the images: Commissioner Bowie Kuhn is seen as a pompous figurehead who had the temerity to banish Willie Mays and who at World Series time will stand on a polar ice floe wearing a blue blazer. The owners' image? How about greedy, foolish, distrustful, concerned only with getting an edge and reaping a big profit? "The management side will always be portrayed as the bad guys," says MacPhail. "But the last thing we want to do is tarnish the image of the players." That, of course, is precisely what they have done in every single negotiation of consequence. The message they convey is that the players are spoiled rotten, pampered like divas, absurdly overpaid and motivated not by love of the game but by the worship of Mammon.
"I have no illusion that we can improve the image of the player," says Miller. "That battle was lost a long time ago. I can only say that we are not out there negotiating those big salaries, only the minimums [currently at $21,000]. George Steinbrenner is an astute businessman. He would not offer the players what he has if it were not economic. Why does the public have such a different perception of high-paid players than it does of someone in the entertainment industry? If a rock group makes millions of dollars, nobody says the record business is coming to an end. A pop entertainer can make more in a two-week stint in Vegas than a player can make in a year. It's almost as if a double value system were involved. People say, 'Well, he's only playing baseball.' But how much did the inventor of the Hula Hoop make? It's as if people are offended that there is not an organized system of compensation. I am all for a value system that would pay a cancer researcher more than Jim Rice, but that isn't the way we operate. There's a low level of economic understanding in this country. There seems to be an iron law in sports that if the player gets more, ticket prices will rise. The relation, I say, is non-existent. For years ticket prices were always rising and salaries weren't. Remember, the primary aim of a good businessman is to maximize his return."
Miller might well take heart from the words of Adam Smith, the Scottish economist and author of The Wealth of Nations, who wrote 200 years ago: "The exorbitant rewards of players, opera-singers, opera-dancers, etc., are founded upon [these] two principles: the rarity and beauty of the talents, and the discredit of employing them in this manner. It seems absurd at first sight that we should despise their persons and yet reward their talents with the most profuse liberality. While we do the one, however, we must of necessity do the other."
And what of Miller's image? Certainly he shouldered the burden of the 1972 strike and may expect to assume a similar load if another impasse is reached. In 1972 it appeared for a time that he had accomplished the impossible: he had made the multimillionaire owners look like underdogs.
There are players today who see Marvin Miller as a sort of messiah. Says Minnesota reliever Mike Marshall, a Ph. D., "He has made baseball and will continue to make baseball the premier sport in regard to the players. Those who can play more than one sport prefer baseball as a career because players get more protection and have a better chance of airing grievances without a unilateral hearing. In football there is Rozelle, and other sports have much the same situation, but in baseball there's a democracy. Miller has the interest of baseball at heart in everything he does, not like the owners who want to scrape every bleeping dime they can out of the game."
"The key word about Marvin is that he is essential," says Ted Simmons, the Cardinals' star catcher. "Perhaps he is the only essential person from a player's standpoint. When you talk about the way major league baseball has changed in the past five to 10 years, you have to talk about Messersmith, Catfish Hunter and Curt Flood, and the funny thing is that paralleling those three names is the name of Marvin Miller. The thing that makes him so different is his sensitivity, something few in his profession possess. He always has a special feel for us players.