What ‘s your most memorable scene from a gangster film?
“Hey, Johnny,” a deep, strong, familiar voice woke me up at 2:30 A.M., “It’s Donny Baylor. You have to come up to Anaheim tomorrow. We’re sitting down with the owners. I need you here with me.” Don Baylor was on the players’ executive director board as well as player Representative of the Angels for the Major League Baseball Players Association.
It was June 1981. The players’ strike was reality. This wouldn’t be the week’s extended golf outing like ’72. This wouldn’t be the abbreviated strikes of ’73 or ’76. This was real. Don had been up half the night for many weeks with the executive board, fighting for the benefits of every baseball player in 1981. The nights and the worries about the upcoming work stoppage affected many of us, both off and on the field. Baylor himself was hitting .173 on May 31st, a week before the strike, the lowest batting average of his career to that point in the season. Don had the responsibility for many players and their families in his hands. It’s obvious that emotional pressure, in addition to long, stressful nights at the negotiating table, weighed down on his performance.
I was driving home last week, listening to one of those oldies radio stations that play tunes I actually recognize. The Commodores came on. A dear friend and mentor of mine has been ailing for quite some time and been very much on my mind in recent weeks. You know how you hear a song again and again, but then one day you actually stop and listen to it? This just happened to me and remarkably, paying attention to those lyrics for the very first time, I could have sworn The Commodores were singing about Marvin Miller.
During Spring Training at Phoenix Municipal Stadium, 1972, I really had no chance of making the ballclub. Juan Marichal was still our ace. Ron Bryant was about to come into his own as a dependable southpaw starter. We just acquired Sam McDowell for Gaylord Perry from the Indians and expected great things from his powerful left arm. Steve Stone was a young pitcher the ballclub had hoped would fill the fourth spot in the rotation. No, this was simply a thank you invite from the organization for my 244-strikeout effort at single A for 1971. I was still in the phase of my career where the first day of big league spring training, the first moment you step onto that field is like a six year-old child’s first time seeing the Magic Kingdom at Disneyland. All wide-eyed awe, wonder with a touch of fantasy.
I walked across the diamond and this older gentleman in rolled-up shirt sleeves and loosened tie lectured my teammates right on the edge of the infield behind second base. Mays, Marichal, McCovey, they were all there. Some guys were standing, other sat on the grass, arms over knees like high school freshmen at basketball practice. First time I had ever seen my idols, my heroes looking up at another man, listening obediently. Marvin Miller gave the speech. Right beside him was his assistant, Bob Moss – they were the Players Union’s version of the M&M boys. Marvin spoke about why the work stoppage was necessary, why we needed to be concerned about our future and the future for the players that come after us. If not, then why even have a union, Marvin reasoned. He asked for questions. I raised my hand.
“How is this going to affect our families and insurance later on,” I asked.
“How old are you, John,” were the first words Marvin Miller ever said to me. I was in shock.
“20,” I chuckled nervously. Still stunned. “You know my name?” Remember, this was also before last names on the backs of uniforms were an accepted practice.
“I know everyone’s name,” he smiled, a smile you needed to take seriously as his eyes met every player one by one. “You’re all important to me.”
I was hooked right then and there.
“John, you’re 20 years old,” Marvin continued. “Just breaking in. What’s gonna happen if you don’t play four years in the major leagues?”
I shrugged, willing to listen without having any idea where this was leading.
“If you don’t play four years, you don’t get vested in the pension plan. That’s what we’re trying to do. Get you guys in the pension and benefits plan, get you something – it might not be a lot, but it’s enough to supplement income when you do retire, to supplement your social security or your next job. You’ll have enough to survive. ”
“I got it, so we’re fighting for players’ benefits and insurance.”
“Yes, exactly that.” He got us exactly what we needed. Inclusion in the pension plan, expanded payments and binding arbitration for player contract disputes. It was a major victory for the Union.
* * * * * * * * * *
During my first full season with the Giants, 1974, I began to pal around with a number of other Bay Area athletes. We’d see each other at many charity functions, banquet dinners, golf tournaments, autograph signings. Rollie Fingers of the A’s, Ted Hendricks of the Raiders, guys like that. Rollie and I would hang out a lot when we’d see each other. Gene Tenace, too - we used to call him “Black Jack,” a cute reference to his last name. It was all in good fun, but the atmosphere around the Oakland players was always clouded with front office drama. Owner Charlie Finley was always messing around with his players’ compensation. This was nothing new. The well-known contract dispute with Vida Blue that ruined his 1972 season. Catfish Hunter, especially Catfish Hunter. “Charlie’s jerkin’ Catfish around,” Rollie told me back then, baffled by the sheer stupidity of it all. Finley had refused to make some payments on an annuity to his team’s superstar pitcher. At the end of the 1974 campaign, after Hunter led Oakland to their third straight World Series title, Finley still had not made the payment. Marvin stepped in and had an arbitrator settle the dispute. “We’re gonna end up losing this guy,” was the fear in the A’s clubhouse. And they did. The resolution basically said Finley owed Catfish and Finley didn’t pay, thus breaching the contract. Hunter became a free agent on the spot and could negotiate with any other club for his services. When the Yankees signed Catfish to a $3.5 million-dollar contract, everyone took notice. The players took notice. Young contract lawyers with some connections to pro athletes decided to get into the agent business. Marvin knew it would happen like this. He knew how big this could get.
He opened up our minds.
* * * * * * * * * *
The following season, 1975, Marvin backed two players, Andy Messersmith & Dave McNally, pitchers who would spend the year “playing without a contract” with the intent to become free to join the team of their choice, fighting the reserve clause system that had been in place for close to a century. McNally had all but retired by June of 1975 after a bad half season In Montreal, was bitter and upset by what he believed were forgotten promises of Expos management to accept a trade from the Baltimore Orioles, his team of 11 years. McNally was angered by the club, but knew it was time to walk away from the game. Marvin asked McNally to add his name to Messersmith’s suit against Major League Baseball. The Dodgers had hoped to sign Messersmith before this dispute escalated any further. The Expos actually offered McNally a bonus plus a six-figure salary if he made the team in 1976. Both sides knew McNally wasn’t coming back, but Marvin still asked him not to sign the contract. There was no way Messersmith was re-signing with Los Angeles; he knew to follow Marvin, that there was gold at the end of this legal rainbow. He also convinced McNally to join the lawsuit, which they sought binding arbitration to settle. The owners brought in Peter Seitz, whom Marvin agreed to mediate the dispute. Seitz ruled that Messersmith & McNally were “free agents,” that once the 1975 season ended, by playing without a contract, they were able to negotiate with any ballclub they chose. This outcome stunned Major League Baseball and changed the game forever. Another victory for the players union and another big victory for Marvin Miller.
So now it’s 1977, I was traded from the St. Louis Cardinals to the Padres, my hometown of San Diego. I was friends with pitcher Randy Jones, the reigning Cy Young Award winner. When I joined the club, he asked me to be his assistant.
“For what,” I replied. “Assistant player representative for the Union,” he said. This role differed from the actual player rep, who dealt with issues relating to pensions, union membership matters. Lots of paperwork. My role was basically policing the clubhouse and keeping certain guys out of compromising situations and making poor decisions. If there was a problem with a player, Randy and me decided, “Better talk to Marvin.” There were a few long nights because of certain off-the-field issues. Marvin made them all right. He was our leader.
Randy was a great player rep. He looked after the guys; made sure the rookies had everything they needed, dealt with matters using a practical outlook and a great sense of humor. He also could see the future. “You think free agency is big now,” he’d say over beers every so often when we’d hang out on the road, “This is nothing to what you’re gonna see in the ‘80s. Just you wait.” It came even sooner than that.
* * * * * * * * * *
Dave Winfield had an absolutely monster season in 1979. Keith Hernandez was the coolest customer in the league and Willie Stargell was everything you could ask for in a team leader, but by any metric you care to utilize, Winfield was the best player in the National League that year. An absolute superstar. He knew it. His agent knew it. The team knew it, and he only had a year left on his contract. It was no secret . Winny (what we called him) wouldn’t be a Padre for much longer.
“Winny’s gone and he’s goin’ to New York,” I would hear from people very close to the situation. “We’re goin’ big market with David.” I talked to Winny about this myself at the end of ’79, hanging out one night after a game. “So is it true?” I asked him.
“Is what true,” David replied. I simply shrugged one of those “You know exactly what I’m talkin’ about” shrugs. David flashed that soon to be million-dollar smile. “Oh, I’m testing the free agent market.” There really wasn’t much Padres owner Ray Kroc could do to compete. Superstar talent like that, well-heeled owners like George Steinbrenner, Gene Autry and Ted Turner getting bolder and bolder with their contract offers. You knew George would make a big play for Winfield. There was no way around it. A five-tool player with his numbers. They’ll pay him anything he wants. Randy Jones called it. By December 1980, David found another home in New York. Thanks to Marvin Miller.
* * * * * * * * * *
I sat up in bed after Baylor’s phone call in June 1981. I was to meet with the negotiators for the owners. It was a ballsy posture the Union was taking here, but it had to be done. This was going to test the resolve of the players union. There was a lot of money to be possibly lost by everyone if it didn’t work out. What kept us going was our faith in Marvin Miller. Even we knew the money had gotten a little crazy. Marvin had already made some of us more money than we ever dreamed of, made near millionaires of Reggie, Rudi, Campy, Goose, Pete. Multi-millionaires of Winfield and Nolan Ryan. He made other players extremely comfortable. Let me put it in this perspective. From the first free-agent class after the 1976 season to the summer of 1981, just five years later – I was making more in salary than Don Baylor and Bobby Grich (this would be rectified to a great deal in each of their next contracts, but just to illustrate the point). Marvin told us to have faith in him and this is why we did.
The main issue of the 1981 strike was owners basically trying to get something for their desperation. Take Gene Autry. He was mining the free-agent re-entry draft as much as any owner every year. In 1976, the Angels had the third best starting pitcher in the game AND Nolan Ryan. In terms of offense, not one player hit more than 10 home runs or 54 RBIs. The Cowboy jumped into the free agent pool wallet-first, bringing Baylor, Grich and Joe Rudi onto the roster. The following off-season it was Lyman Bostock. 1979 brought my old teammate Jim Barr and then Rod Carew in a glorified trade-and-sign. From January 1980 to May 1981, Autry acquired Bruce Kison, Geoff Zahn, Bill Travers, Me (a story I will present to you very soon), all to replace his mistake of letting The Ryan Express cruise outta town. He made us all multi-millionaires. All the other owners wanted to be able to pick from a pool of other players – a “compensation pool” – to offset the loss of free agents like us. Marvin didn’t want this. Anything that could possibly deter the escalation of salaries, Marvin wanted no part of.
That’s what brought the Baseball Strike of 1981. The cowboy let a Hall of Fame-caliber pitcher (and a drawing card) in Ryan walk out the door, was left with a Frank Tanana who was in the early stages of learning how to get by in the league without a lightning bolt in his arm, not much else and had to pay up to replenish his stable. He and owners like him wanted some restitution.
This was the toughest negotiation in the union’s short history. Marvin would be in meetings until three, four o’clock in the morning, with the owner’s representative, Ray Grebey. Marvin and Grebey absolutely hated each other. The finest complement I could get from Marvin about Grebey was a simple, yet curt, “That guy’s an ass.” It was in-the-trenches war. We had the best negotiator in the world on our side. Hit the owners full-steam.
Doesn’t mean there weren’t bumps in the road. I had to go to Baylor a number of times with issues. I would handle all the players and deal with their personal problems during the work stoppage. I’d call Don, “So-and-so can’t pay his mortgage.” The Union would help him out because it was the right thing. It also didn’t hurt to keep morale high among the troops in check. Marvin made sure we received the less-publicized concessions. “Meal money” (the stipend the players were given each day while on the road), got bumped up to $125 a day from $25. Rookies were thrilled with the increase because they could pay their rent with the meal money. Benefits and insurance now covered our families 100%. This came in handy for me because my son was born in 1981. The resolution wasn’t one-sided and Marvin fought for us but the owners received concessions as well. They got their compensation pool (this was the vehicle that caused the New York Mets to lose Tom Seaver after the 1983 season). The animosity remained. Marvin and Grebey hated each other so much they refused to take the celebratory “Play Ball” end of negotiation photo together. Baseball was back and all was forgotten. Marvin fought the battle and won for everyone.
Well, almost everyone. And all was NOT forgotten. Five days after I met with Baylor, Marvin and the owners in Anaheim, I was sent down to AAA Salt Lake City. I never pitched another game for the California Angels. I hold no ill will toward Gene Autry. It was Buzzie Bavasi and Bill Rigney doing their magic behind the scenes. The way I saw it, I was probably overpaid by at least half the value of my contract anyway. Marvin Miller made that happen.
* * * * * * * * * *
Marvin and I stayed in touch well after his retirement from Union leadership in 1983. Many phone calls, a few visits, couple dinners. I last spoke to him a couple of months ago. Of course, the issue of the Hall of Fame came up.
“Johnny, I’m not worried about immortality,” Marvin said, “I’m hoping I don’t die tomorrow. I’m done dealing with those guys. If they choose to put me in, that’s fine. If they don’t, that’s their deal. I only care about the love I have from you guys, the players, being able to talk to you kids and knowing that you love me. All I wanna do is see my Terry.”
Terry was his wife of 70 years who passed away three years ago this month. He leaves a daughter Susan, and a son, Peter.
All the boardroom battles , the 2 AM Chinese food breakfasts, the union/owner espionage to get that inch of a edge in negotiations. Miller changed the way each of the men on the 25-man roster were treated, compensated and respected by their employers. Every player who ever “played out their option” or signed a multi-year deal, owes something to this brilliant, wonderful man.
Marvin. He was a friend of mine, and every player that graces the game of baseball today.
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