Miller's brainchild, players' union turns 25

July 07, 1991|By Claire Smith | Claire Smith,New York Times News Service n

The Major League Baseball Players Association celebrated an anniversary last week. Twenty-five years ago, the labor organization, as we know it, came into being with the appointment of Marvin Miller as its head.

Miller gave the association its heart, its soul, its spirit. He carried the players light years from where he found them, from the time when they had little more than gloves, bats, uniforms and indentured servitude.

Baseball players now have free agency and salary escalators that are inclusive, not exclusive, when it comes to management's sharing of the wealth.

But there are other heroes of the union, ones the players of today, it is to be hoped, fully acknowledge as being responsible in a major way for the freedoms and riches now enjoyed.

And those labor heroes are the players' predecessors themselves, men like Curt Flood, Ralph Kiner, Jim Bunning, Robin Roberts and Harvey Kuenn, who took the bold step of asking Miller to champion their cause.

"They deserve an awful lot of credit because they didn't know what they were getting into, they just knew they weren't getting their fair share," said Buck Martinez, a former Toronto catcher who represented the second generation of union activists.

"What they they had at stake were their careers, their livelihoods, that's all," said Bob Horner, another player and activist from Martinez's generation. "The Curt Floods, the Messersmiths, the Bunnings, they laid it all on the line. They made the ultimate sacrifice."

Flood, the original, albeit unsuccessful, challenger of the reserve clause, did just that. Others were prepared to follow.

"They deserve a lot of credit because they threw the biggest dice roll of all," Martinez said.

Twenty-five years later, some of those pioneers gathered in New York to honor Miller. And while doing so, they reminisced, for they not only talk of the era of the $7,000 minimum wage, but they also lived it. They also lived with the fear that the money, the job, could be lost if they rocked the boat.

"We all understood how seriously management and the owners would react," said Bunning, who along with Roberts and Kuenn served as the search committee seeking to hire the first executive director of the players association in 1965.

"In fact, a bunch of us were kind of taken to the woodshed by a bunch of club owners. We were asked, 'Are you sure you want to go through with this? You know, we can end your pension. We can do X, Y and Z.'"

By today's standards, such overtures would be labeled union-busting in the illegal context of the term. "It probably was, but we didn't know it at the time," Bunning said.

Kept ignorant of their rights, but well informed about the game's history, the players were aware of the examples of those who had tried but failed to assure more self-determination.

Players who decided to play in Mexico in the mid-40s without the blessing of major league baseball were initially banned for life. The reserve clause, which guaranteed the indentured servitude by binding a player to the team that signed him or traded for him, was deemed inviolate.

To oppose it, players were warned, was to be considered to possess "Communistic tendencies," or so said Branch Rickey, as quoted by Miller in his memoirs.

As Miller wrote, that sentiment, expressed in 1948, "was certainly the right button to push in the climate of the Cold War." For baseball, the scare, red or otherwise, continued well on into the 1960s.

And the rhetoric really picked up when Miller, equipped with a union leadership background that included 16 years with the United Steelworkers of America, came onto the scene.

"At first we didn't know who Marvin was, if he was good for us, good for baseball or what," said former major league pitcher Jim Bouton.

"Then, major league officials started telling players, 'Listen, Miller is from the steelworkers. If you vote for this guy, strikes with violence, bicycle chains, goons, the whole bit, will follow.'"

Bouton laughed. "That clinched it for me," he said.

But not for some other players. To many, dealing with Miller had the comfort level akin to sailing off in the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria and not really knowing if the world was round or flat.

And, added Bunning, "generally, the players were pretty conservative." Conservative and well schooled by people who had a vested interest.

"The first thing you learned when you came to the big leagues was to never discuss salaries," Flood said. "That was ingrained. I guess when you're 17 years old, everything made sense. It took subtle diplomacy and an iron fist to overcome that."

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