He was 10 days into his 96th year, and Marvin Miller was still speaking in a voice that has grated on baseball club owners’ nerves like a fingernail on a chalk board. To those of us who listened to him Tuesday evening, though, Miller’s words were as melodious and as meaningful as they have ever been.
Collusion, Miller said at an event at New York University law school honoring him, was worse than the Black Sox scandal of 1919, but few are willing to recognize it as such.
“They put the Black Sox scandal into infancy,” Miller said of the owners’ illegal concerted action against free agents in 1985, ’86 and ‘87. “This was really a scandal of major proportion and to this day it hasn’t been treated as such or written about or really researched at any time. It’s kind of shocking when you think about it.”
Collusion wasn’t supposed to be Miller’s primary topic of discussion at the event at which a portrait of him was unveiled before its deposit in the building of the Supreme Court of the United States in Washington, D.C. But the evening was billed as a “celebration of Marvin Miller and baseball unionism,” and it belonged to Miller.
The man of honor devoted most of the nearly 70 minutes he spoke – he had been scheduled for 20 – to the 1972 strike, baseball’s first, but he touched on other topics as well, most interestingly collusion.
“Owners refused to better their teams,” Miller said. “They passed on talent and it amounted in my view to throwing games. That’s what you do when you refuse to improve a team. You purposely will not fill in your weak spots. You purposely will not strengthen your team because you have colluded with the other teams that you will not make any such action. They did this for every championship season over several years and in the league championship series and the World Series as well.”
The word collusion does not appear in Major League Baseball dictionaries. Commissioner Bud Selig, who owned the Milwaukee Brewers during the collusive and corrosive period, knows better than any other management person what went on, but he has never acknowledged that collusion occurred.
When A. Bartlett Giamatti was elected commissioner in 1988 to replace the colluder-in-chief, Peter Ueberroth, I asked him about collusion. He said he had seen the same facts as the two arbitrators who heard the union’s three grievances and he didn’t see collusion.
Fay Vincent, who was commissioner between Giamatti and Selig, was the first and for a long time the only management person who acknowledged collusion, though he came into baseball after it had occurred.
The only other management people who have said the owners colluded are Bill Giles, former principal owner of the Philadelphia Phillies, and Richard Ravitch, onetime baseball labor executive.
When I suggested in articles in 1985 and ’86 that owners might be engaging in collusion, their chief labor executive, Barry Rona, scoffed at the idea that such a thing was happening.
“Owners and club officials swore under oath that there was no collusion,” Miller said. “The arbitrators found, of course, that there was collusion.”
“It was not reported and underreported,” he added. “There were writers and others who just couldn’t understand a collusive possibility existed. They didn’t believe owners and general managers who were competitive people, too, could maintain this kind of air-tight control.”
But he went on, “How do you think Major League Baseball remained lily white for a century or so and ignored the Negro Leagues? How do you think they did that except by colluding that nobody would sign them and nobody did?”
Miller was gone from the union by the time of collusion, and he was longer gone by the 1994 strike.
In August 1994, when major league baseball players went on strike, the club owners acted as if they had won something. Known in prior negotiations for having their bargaining position undermined by some of their group, the owners held together this time and they were ecstatic.
Had they been together, they would have high-fived and toasted each other and exchanged back slaps and hearty handshakes. What were they celebrating? A work stoppage that would lead to the first-ever cancellation of the World Series.
Miller has never engaged in that sort of behavior. “I don’t celebrate a strike,” he said, “but I do celebrate the results.”
“I have a confession to make,” Miller told the audience of about 100. “The first notices I received about this occasion seemed to me to be saying that we were here to celebrate the 1972 strike. I probably misunderstood, but I remember feeling uneasy about celebrating a strike.
“As a veteran trade unionist I never did celebrate a strike. I know there are people who believe labor leaders love to shut down companies and industries and love to have a strike, but I’ve been a trade unionist my entire adult life and I’ve never met one union leader who wanted to have a strike.”
Then Miller added, “I make a sharp distinction between celebrating a strike and celebrating a strike’s result. I think it’s most appropriate to do that when the settlement that the strike brought about is a good one that meets the legitimate needs and desires of the people you represent or in the case of a defensive strike that managed to stave off a reactionary approach by the employer hoping to turn back the clock.”
Not that Miller ever made a public display of his feelings, but he had reason to celebrate at the conclusion of the two strikes and two lockouts he led the players through. The first stoppage was the 1972 strike, whose 40th anniversary was part of the N.Y.U. event.
The players, whose union was less than six years old, struck over their pension plan, which faced devaluation because of an increase in cost of living. “We were requesting that the purchasing power of their pension remain the same,” Miller said.
He related that he and Richard Moss, his general counsel, had met with seven of the 24 teams on their annual spring training tour, simultaneously negotiating with the owners’ labor representatives, when John Gaherin, the clubs’ chief negotiator, told them the owners were withdrawing their offer.
“The eighth club was the Chicago White Sox,” Miller said. “We explained to the players what happened the night before. I said I thought we ought to be at least prepared for bad news the rest of the month and take a strike vote. I considered that to be a shot across the bow to show what we were capable of doing.”
The White Sox voted unanimously to strike. “It was the first time players had considered strike action,” Miller said. “To get a strike vote that was unanimous showed the players understood what we had been telling them.”
One of Miller’s great strengths was his ability to educate the players, explaining issues to them in a way that enabled them to understand them and make decisions on their own. Some of Miller’s critics, most notably the columnist Dick Young, charged that Miller told the players what to do, and they followed him over a cliff.
From the start, however, Miller explained what was at stake, then stepped back and let the players make decisions.
He told about the meeting of player reps and alternates a few days before the end of spring training. It followed an owners’ meeting, Miller recalled, where the St. Louis Cardinals’ owner “Gussie Busch came out and said ‘we took a vote, it was unanimous and we aren’t going to give the players one damn cent.’”
Voting by clubs during spring training, the players had authorized a strike, 663-10. Nevertheless, Miller said, “I worried because despite the growing maturity and understanding of the players of the situation they had never had the experience of striking and they couldn’t possibly know the types of hardships that can result.
“We were up against an industry with very wealthy owners, two leagues and the commissioner’s office and their legal staffs. This wasn’t like a strike in a plant. Our membership would be all over the country. Communications would be difficult.”
In addition, Miller pointed out, while this negotiation was a single-issue matter, a year later everything would be on the table so there was no real need to risk their pay for one year of their pension.
The night before the meeting Miller, his wife Terry and Moss discussed a plan of action. “My feeling was a cautious one,” Miller said. “We drafted a statement that changed our focus and explained to the players why we weren’t recommending a strike. We’d be able to correct it in one year.
“When I finished talking at that meeting – I had never been at a meeting like that one – their hands shot up in the air. The gist of it was this is not what we should do. They literally took the meeting out of my hands for the first and last time and I enjoyed every minute of it.”
The players called for a vote. “In effect,” Miller said, “they were saying to me ‘we respect you but we feel you’ve made a misjudgment. You have underjudged our ability to carry out what has to be done, shutting down this industry to show who we are.’”
The players voted 47-0 with one abstention to strike. “It was a great moment,” Miller said. “I didn’t get surprised easily but it really took me aback. It showed how much maturity there was, how much had developed. It painted a beautiful path to the future. It was something I didn’t expect, something the owners surely didn’t expect.”
“It became the backdrop for everything this union has gained,” he added.
“The irony was it didn’t have to happen at all. It was a monumental misjudgment on the part of the owners as to what the players were about and what their resolve was. They have paid for it ever since.”