INSURANCE SALESMAN, AGENT, FICTION WRITER

By Murray Chass

November 29, 2009

Instead of eating turkey on Thanksgiving, I was researching this column, and the choice of endeavor paid off in fewer calories and discovery of previously unknown history. I’m willing to bet you didn’t know this either, and there you ignorantly sat at the dinner table stuffing yourself with turkey and stuffing and pumpkin pie, among other courses.Dennis Gilbert2 225

The name Dennis Gilbert might be familiar. He was a high-profile player agent in the 1980s and ‘90s, representing Barry Bonds, George Brett and Jose Canseco. Gilbert is no longer an agent but remains in the insurance business, in which he served before he became an agent. And he heads one of three groups seeking to buy the Texas Rangers.

Gilbert, a former minor league player known for his speed as “Go Go,” is senior partner and co-founder of Gilbert-Krupin, an insurance and estate planning firm in sight of Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, Calif. But his impact on the world goes well beyond his role with that company. How do I know that? The company’s Web site tells me so.

“Prior to co-founding Gilbert-Krupin,” Gilbert’s page on the site says, “Dennis revolutionized the sport of baseball through developing the free agent system.”

Really? Why didn’t I ever know that? Why didn’t Marvin Miller and Richard Moss know that? Did Gilbert ever meet Peter Seitz? All right, if, like me, you are skeptical, a few lines later on the same Web page, it states in unequivocal terms of Gilbert, “As his insurance business continued to thrive, he took on an additional career as a sports agent. Within a year, Dennis had developed the free agent system; he ultimately transformed the salary structure of professional baseball forever.”

When Miller heard those descriptions of Gilbert’s career, he laughed. “Dennis Gilbert?” he said incredulously. “Who the hell wrote that?” I told him that it had to have been written by Gilbert or someone at his firm. Miller just laughed some more. When I told him it appeared on Gilbert’s Web page, he asked me to send him a copy.

To put it mildly, the revelation that Gilbert created free agency and transformed the salary structure is mind-boggling. How could I have covered baseball for nearly 50 years and not been aware of that vital part of the game’s history? How could you have watched and read about baseball all or part of the past 35 years and not known about Gilbert’s contribution to baseball? You were busy studying physics and calculus maybe?

Andy MessersmithThe wealthy players, at least those intelligent enough to be aware, didn’t know they had “Go Go” to thank for their wealth, their $3 million average salary, their lucrative long-term contracts, their financial security for life. Andy Messersmith? Dave McNally? What did they have to do with free agency?

I decided that the only thing to do was to contact Gilbert and get him to explain how he did what his Web site said he did. I smelled an exclusive here. Can you imagine the impact the confirmation of Gilbert’s efforts would have on baseball history? It would be tantamount to learning that Abner Doubleday did not invent baseball. It would be as if we learned that Homer Simpson and not Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone.

But my telephone calls to Gilbert’s office and his home went unreturned so I will have to await another opportunity to learn the story behind his claim.

In lieu of a telephone call, I went to Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, and found a sociologist named Dennis Gilbert but no one of that name who developed free agency and transformed baseball’s salary structure. That omission was unfortunate for Wikipedia, a blow to its credibility. Surely a man of such historical significance should have a Wikipedia page.

And why is Marvin Miller and not Gilbert on the Hall of Fame ballot for voting next week on former executives and pioneers of the game? Surely the man who developed free agency and transformed the salary structure should be in the Hall of Fame. But the news evidently hasn’t reached Cooperstown either. Gilbert needs a better publicist. Call Howard Rubenstein. Put him to work.

Now for some facts, not a flight of fantasy. Free agency emerged from an arbitration decision in December 1975 and labor negotiations in July 1976. Escalation of salaries began with the advent of free agency, though a case could be made for the start of salary arbitration in 1973.

Gilbert, an insurance salesman, became an agent in 1980. He and his clients benefited from free agency and salary escalation. In his two decades or so of representing players, he rivaled Scott Boras for the position of most prominent agent and best at snatching clients from other agents.

My favorite scene of Gilbert, perhaps of any agent, was his highly theatrical entrance into the ballroom-like Cochran Room of the Galt House Hotel in Louisville, Ky., site of the winter meetings. Accompanied by a sizeable entourage of his firm’s other agents and his client, Barry Bonds, Gilbert swept into the room and strode to the front to await the start of the news conference announcing Bonds’ signing with the San Francisco Giants.

Nearly 30 minutes passed, however, with no news conference. Instead, Gilbert and friends were summoned through a side door and told that the news conference, which Gilbert and his associates had announced the night before, would not be held.Barry Bonds 1993

The Giants were in the process of being sold, and Gilbert had negotiated the $43.75 million contract with the incoming owner, he didn’t own the team yet and the departing owner wouldn’t approve the deal.

Gilbert and the new owner, Peter Magowan, subsequently signed a contract that the outgoing owner, Bob Lurie, approved and everybody lived happily ever after. Well, not exactly. Magowan spent a lot of money for a lot of home runs but no World Series titles, and Bonds hit a lot of suspicious home runs but didn’t get a World Series ring.

Bonds eventually got a new agent because Gilbert left the business and returned to insurance fulltime. He didn’t exactly go willingly; the younger principal agents in the agency, Beverley Hills Sports Council, pushed him out.

He then defected to the other side of the labor divide in 2000, joining the Chicago White Sox as a special assistant to the chairman, a long-time friend, Jerry Reinsdorf. He was part of a group that tried unsuccessfully to buy the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2003, then interviewed unsuccessfully for the general manager’s job with the Dodgers the next year.

Now he heads a group trying to buy the Rangers. Just think of the possibilities if he succeeds. His next Web page bio could say he created the wild card, the three-tier post-season format, revenue sharing, the luxury tax and don’t forget the idea linking the outcome of the All-Star game to homefield advantage in the World Series. Most important of all, the bio could say he was responsible for driving Major League Baseball revenue to record heights, beyond $6.5 billion.

In that version, though, given that he would now be on the ownership side, Gilbert would probably not claim credit for creating free agency and transforming the salary structure forever.

 

A FIREABLE OFFENSE

Recalling his first spring training tour as executive director of the Players Association in 1967, Marvin Miller said that players asked him if as a lifelong trade unionist he could get along with the owners.

Marvin Miller Today“You have to understand,” he recalled replying, “this is an adversarial relationship. People who represent management have a right to act as they do and a trade unionist has to act in the best interests as he sees it of the people he represents. You can’t worry about how the other side is going to feel about you.”

In fact, he added, “If we ever reach a point that you hear favorable comments from the ownership side about me, you should fire me on the spot.”

Which is just another way of Miller’s understanding why the management-dominated veterans committee will not elect him to the Hall of Fame when it votes next Sunday.

Miller is frustrated about this whole Hall of Fame business, not because he has lost in all three votes on which he has been on the ballot but because he appears on the ballot again, facing a vote that he believes is rigged. It’s difficult to disagree with his view that it is a rigged vote.

When Miller’s name first appeared on the ballot, he received 44 percent of the vote. The next time he was up to 63 percent, missing election by only 10 votes. One more election might have done it. “That’s too dangerous,” Miller said.

The veterans committee, made up of all Hall of Famers plus winners of the Spink (writers) and Frick (announcers) awards, elected no one in those two elections, not executives, pioneers, managers, umpires or players, for that matter, and the Hall’s board of directors decided to change the committee.

The directors said the change was intended to enhance the chances of people being elected, and people subsequently were elected under the new voting format. But the makeup of the new committee to vote on executives and pioneers was clearly a way of blocking Miller’s election.

The new 12-man committee had two former players, three writers and seven management people. To be elected, a candidate would need nine of the 12 votes, the same 75 percent that players need on the writers’ ballot, and there was no way Miller would get nine votes from that committee.

Hall officials deny any evil intent to their change, but consider the possibility that the Hall’s directors didn’t like how close Miller was getting with the larger, player-dominated committee. Not that they would necessarily have a problem having a plaque or a bust of Miller in their building – after all, it’s a big place – but they might have been concerned about the induction speech Miller might have delivered.

Baseball officials and other management people might have been squirming in their seats, and Hall officials wouldn’t want to make their most glorious day of the year uncomfortable for their friends, not to mention themselves.  So switch the makeup of the electorate, and that takes care of that.

“The Hall selects the voters,” Miller said in a telephone interview, “and then the Hall selects those whom they vote on and then the Hall selects the vote counters. In between, the Hall formulates the background literature of the candidates that will be furnished to the voters. It’s so comprehensive. They’re not fooling anyone with this kind of manipulation.”Marvin Miller 225

After the last vote, Miller asked that he not be placed on the ballot again, but the Hall ignored his request, saying he merited the chance to be elected.

“A lot of people apparently think that my request that I not be on the ballot is a ploy,” Miller said. “I’ve been thinking of writing a letter to the veterans committee, saying I don’t compare myself to Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman of Civil War fame, but I’ve been an admirer of how clear his comment was: ‘I am not a candidate, I would prefer that I not be on the ballot, I won’t campaign; I never have. If my wishes are ignored and I’m put on the ballot anyway, if elected, I will not accept induction.”

It’s too late for this election. Miller is on the ballot, and the Hall will not remove his name. So chalk up another loss for Miller and a win for the Hall’s management-leaning tactics.

“The thing that is not understood is I never thought it was personal,” Miller said. “For 20 years I wasn’t on the ballot at all. It was fine. The failure is to understand that the labor-management relationship is an adversarial relationship, and in some way management’s action in this whole thing lends credibility to my career.”

 

THIS IS NO MVP

Miguel Cabrera 225Miguel Cabrera of Detroit received a first-place vote in the balloting for the American League most valuable player award, preventing Joe Mauer from being a unanimous winner of the award. But Cabrera deserves another award: LVP, least valuable player, or, perhaps more accurately, MDP, most destructive player.

Why, in fact, would anyone view Cabrera as the league’s most valuable player after he pulled a stunt that was so damaging to his team and its post-season chances?

With two games left in the season, Cabrera, who was primarily responsible for the Tigers’ division lead, partied with members of the visiting Chicago White Sox, got drunk – police said his blood-alcohol level was more than three times the legal limit – and later that morning had a fight with his wife, which prompted her to call 911.

At about 8 o’clock on the next-to-last morning of the season, Dave Dombrowski, the Tigers’ general manager, picked up Cabrera at a police station.

Cabrera was hitless in four at-bats that day as the Tigers played themselves into a playoff for the division title. This is an mvp?

Dombrowski chose not to talk about Cabrera and the m.v.p. Should he have received consideration for the award? “That’s not for me to decide,” Dombrowski said. “Everybody knows he’s a good player. I don’t have a vote so it doesn’t make a difference. He’s a good player.”

Nor would he talk about the incident. “It’s between us what took place,” Dombrowski said. “It’s a private club matter.”

Off-season talk has the Tigers in a trading mood. Has the incident affected Cabrera’s status with the Tigers where they might trade him?

“That does not affect his status with the club,” the general manager said.

 

HE’S NOT THE MONEY MAN

In a column last week about the bidding of three groups to buy the Texas Rangers, I reported that the Chuck Greenberg-Nolan Ryan group was said to have as a major financial backer a billionaire entrepreneur and part-owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Ron Burkle, who is also a close friend of Bill and Hillary Clinton.

However, a person familiar with the Greenberg-Ryan group said Burkle is not part of it, and, in fact, the group “is overwhelmingly comprised of local investors, both in number and dollars.” He did not provide specific details.

Comments? Please send email to comments@murraychass.com.