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Bronx Banter Interview: Chuck Korr

Part One

One of the best books that I’ve come across in my research for the Curt Flood biography for teenagers that I’m currently working on, is a history of the Players Association by Chuck Korr, “The End of Baseball As We Knew It: The Players Union, 1960–1981.” Korr is a professor and sports historian at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. His book on the union is the ideal companion to John Helmer’s “Lords of the Realm” (not to mention the “A Whole Different Ballgame,” by Marvin Miller and “Hardball,” by Bowie Kuhn). Now available in paperback, “The End of Baseball As We Knew It” won the Elysian Fields Quarterly’s Dave Moore Award as the best baseball book published in 2002 and was runner up for SABR Seymour Medal for the North American Society for Sport History’s award best sport history book of the year.

What distinguishes “The End of Baseball As We Knew It” is the fact that Korr had complete access to the Association’s papers and files. It is a remarkably well-documented work, a simply fantastic resource for anyone interested in the history of the union. But Korr wasn’t only interested in the Association’s point-of-view; his interviews with Judge Robert Cannon, who presided over the union before Miller entered the stage, as well as John Gaherin, the owners’ head negotiator during the Miller-Dick Moss years, give the book balance and depth. These two men, along with Frank Scott, who ran the Association on a part-time basis during the Fifties, are often overlooked. But they were key figures in baseball’s labor saga, and Korr makes sure to get their side of the story.

I recently had the opportunity to chat with Korr, who is a generous and engaging guy. Here is the first part of our conversation. Enjoy.

Bronx Banter: How did you manage to get access to the records at the Association and how did that help form your book?

Chuck Korr: Ted Simmons read an article I’d written that analyzed how free agency and large salaries for professional athletes in the U. S. and Britain had changed the relationship between them and the fans. He sent a copy of the article to Don Fehr, who was interested in it. Maryanne Ellison Simmons (Ted’s wife and the founder of a very important magazine for wives in baseball, The Waiting Room) and Ted thought it was important to have a historian write about the union and suggested that I should look into the idea. I contacted Fehr and Marvin Miller and when both of them said they would make the records of the union available to me, I decided to set aside the work I was doing and see if it would be possible to write a history of the union. Fehr, Gene Orza, and Mark Belanger did everything possible to assist my work–they gave me an office space when I needed it and wrote letters to everyone whom I wanted to interview. Everyone involved with the union made a commitment to have no control over the final product. In fact, no one involved with the union saw any of the manuscript until after it had gone to the press for outside peer review.

BB: How long did the manuscript take to write?

CK: I did the first few interviews in 1987, but I started the research in 1989. While I worked on it, I was teaching full time and was a department head and director of a research center. I finished the manuscript in 1999 and, after a series of revisions, it was published in 2002.

BB: Did your vision of the book alter during the course of writing?

CK: There are many ways my vision of the book changed as I was doing the research, both while going through papers and conducting interviews. That’s the nature of historical research – the sources should lead you constantly to ask new questions and re-define the whole project. I’m very much a source-driven writer, not one who comes to the material with a firm theoretical framework.

For example, Miller’s role was very different than I had assumed. My earlier view had been formed by the press that emphasized him as the driving force behind the union. In its worst versions it followed Dick Young’s idea that Miller was a Svengali figure leading innocent, naive, even stupid players in a direction that they did not understand and was against their best interests. It became clear to me that it was the player’s union, not Miller’s. I also came to understand that the 1972 strike was the players’ idea, not Miller or Dick Moss’. They actually opposed the strike on tactical grounds, but the players overrode their reservations.

I found it difficult for a long time to accept how much the owners did to harm their own cause–how they hamstrung John Gaherin, how they alienated the players and forced them into a situation where they had to beat the owners, how the owners misjudged the Messersmith/McNally situation, and how the owners damaged the popularity of the game by portraying the players (the only reason fans come to a game) as selfish and having no interest in the welfare of baseball. It’s very important to understand that the union’s victory was neither pre-ordained nor certain. Every gain was the product of a struggle.

BB: Why did you begin your story six years before Marvin Miller came to the Players Association?

CK: I started with Judge Cannon since he was involved with the players for years and was offered the job as the first full time Executive Director of the Association. From 1966 to 1981, Marvin Miller stamped his personality on the union. However, I became convinced that the only way to understand the union was to see how the players took responsibility for their own careers and how Miller worked to achieve the goals that the players identified. 1981 was a good place to end the book–it was the end of Miller’s tenure, and the union’s success in the 1981 strike insured that it would maintain the gains it has achieved in the previous fifteen years. Judge Cannon is usually seen as nothing more than the lead-in to Miller and Frank Scott is ignored. But they both played important roles.

BB: Miller later categorized the Association during Scott-Cannon years as a company union.

CK: The Association existed in its early form because Scott took care of what work there was to do. The meetings that the player reps had were an important way of getting players to talk about problems. The mere existence of the Association was proof that some of the leading players thought there were some problems (however ill-defined) and that they might be able to accomplish something in an Association that they could not do on their own. The decision to use Cannon on a very part-time basis was further evidence that the players thought they needed someone with expertise. There is little question in my mind that Cannon was not able to provide the players with what they needed, but I think the reasons for this were less devious than often portrayed. He probably did want to be commissioner, but I don’t think he tailored his actions to ingratiate himself to the owners and he did not think he was selling out the interests of the players. The real problem was that he didn’t see that the players had interests other than those of the owners. He truly believed that “THE GAME” was an entity unto itself and had no divisions between players and owners. Was that naive? Yes. Was he wrong? Yes. Could he ever have achieved any real equity for the players? I doubt it.

Ironically, Cannon contributed unwittingly to the later success of the Association, despite his opposition to both its goals and its tactics. Miller was different from him in so many ways and impressed the players with his ardent desire to listen to them. He did not start by telling them what was best for them. Cannon believed in the “paternalistic Judge Cannon” taking care of the players. You can’t get much further from Miller in those respects. Cannon’s willingness to see the best in the owners also led the owners into a false sense of security. Many reviewers of the book have focused on the mistakes the owners made–what I described as the arrogance of unchecked power. If that was true, Cannon’s tenure played a significant role in supporting the development of that trait amongst the owners. You might say that Cannon contributed to the downfall of the
owners by lulling them into not taking the union seriously enough.

BB: You interviewed John Gaherin. Talk a little about what kind of man he was and the kinds of problems he faced representing the owners as a collective group.

CK: A couple of people have said that I made John Gaherin look like the most sympathetic character in the book. That might be an overstatement, but I took it as a compliment. I read hundreds of pages of his correspondence, minutes of meetings he attended, legal documents, and other accounts of him before we ever met. The more I learned about him, the more I respected his professionalism and the more I appreciated the difficulty of his job. He was tough-minded and direct, albeit he had the skills of a trained, experienced negotiator. He and Miller related to one another as fellow hardened professionals. He got along well with many of the players that he faced across the negotiating table, tough men like Joe Torre. Gaherin seldom was allowed to exercise his talents or draw on his experience thanks to the interference of the owners and their commissioner and lawyers. It would have been hard enough to work for an industry that had multi-party ownership, but he had done that in the past.

Baseball was different in so many ways. The biggest problem might be summed up in a conversation I had with him where I asked if his job was so difficult because some of the owners thought they knew more about his job than he did. His reply was, “No, I worked for a bunch of guys, each of whom thought he was the smartest man in America.” They repeatedly scorned his advice on tactics as well as substance when it didn’t agree with their view of how the world operated or should operate. I understood what Gaherin faced when, in 1991, Bud Selig explained to me why he thought so many owners had trouble dealing with the union, even though they dealt with unions in their other business. He concluded, “That’s baseball, and baseball is different.”

That’s what Gaherin had to face. He was a labor negotiator representing people who didn’t think the men who worked for them were “labor” and were convinced they had no obligation to negotiate with anyone. They turned down his advice in Messersmith/McNally when he could have saved them time and money and probably negotiated something short of what they had to accept. They went to court in Kansas City even though he was positive they would lose. In the end, they blamed him for their losses.

BB: You mentioned Dick Young earlier. Why role did he play in how the union was perceived?

CK: I did not get to interview Young. He was probably the most quoted columnist [of his era], both because of his role in New York and with The Sporting News. His characterization of the union became common currency. Young also unwittingly helped the union in a couple of ways. The sheer venom he directed towards Miller made players feel that their man must be going the right way. It gave the players another reason to stick together. Young also engaged in some wishful thinking about supposed problems within the union and its weakness. That also emboldened the owners to do some very silly things. They believed what Young said about them and the union. What the owners needed was someone like the little boy in the “Emperor’s New Clothes” and what they got in Young’s columns was just the opposite.

BB: It’s hard to image a columnist today having the kind of influence Young had.

CK: The relationship between the press and the union is a fascinating story. The vast majority of the writers disliked and distrusted the union and held a special contempt for Miller. Jackie Robinson once said that since the owners could always buy the writers steaks, they would always take their side against the players. Many players shared the view that the writers were bought off and that accounted for their hostility. I think that’s a too narrow view of writers. Almost all of them genuinely shared the owners’ view that the “game” was fine, that the owners knew best and could be trusted to take care of the players, that the players were adolescents who should feel happy to get paid to play a game, and that the union (personified by Miller and Moss) was the cause of dissension rather than the result of it.

It’s also worth remembering that the writers had a lot more in common with owners and executives than they did with the players. They also depended on the management for stories and for access. The more assertive the players became after 1966, the more the writers found them to be objectionable and ungrateful. Most writers thought that players who spoke their own minds, whether it be about politics, race, or the union, were naive, arrogant, or both. After a while, we reached a situation where the players distrusted the motives of the writers when they discussed the union and the writers thought the players were un-cooperative in almost every way.

BB: For the most part, Miller was dealing with a completely unsympathetic media.

CK: Many journalists didn’t like what he was trying to do, thought that an outsider had no role in baseball, and resented that he refused to accept their version of baseball. Before I met Miller and went through his papers and correspondence, most of what I knew about him were the accomplishments of the union and the picture of him that emerged through the press. After I spent some time with him, I realized that my reaction was almost exactly what so many players had described to me. They had been conditioned to expect an aggressive, almost fire-breathing ideologue. Time and time again, players would comment to me how they were amazed that the Miller they met was slight, soft-spoken, had a sense of humor, didn’t speak in slogans, and actually spent a lot of time not speaking at all.

BB: How did the union deal with a hostile media in the early days?

CK: I learned a lot about Miller’s relationship with the press, a subject that plays an important role in the book. He and Dick Moss thought it was important to have a good clip service. They kept close track of what the press was saying about them. They had to be aware of that in order to know the pressures that were being put on players. The solidarity of the union was absolutely essential to its success and monitoring the press was critical to maintaining that.

This did not mean that Miller and Moss ever harbored any belief that they could bring a sizeable segment of the press to support the union or that it was worth every trying to compete with the owners for public support. The union didn’t have the resources to win that battle, the press and the public were not going to support the players in any case, and the backing of the fans was a luxury the players could not afford. In order to gain that, the union would have had to forego virtually all of its goals.

In any case, collective bargaining gains are made at the negotiating table, before arbitrators and in the courts of law, not in the so-called court of public opinion. That did not mean that Marvin was impervious to criticism or that he ignored what was written about him and the union. There is a massive file of his letters to writers where he corrected what he claimed were misstatements of fact or misinterpretations of the positions taken by both sides. He could go into great detail when he was correcting a story. I found very few letters of praise to reporters and when I asked Miller about that, he replied, “I wanted something in writing when I tried to show a writer where he was incorrect…If I liked a story, I would often phone the writer and tell him about that.”

BB: If Young was one of the union’s most prominent detractors, talk about the even-handed coverage that they received from Leonard Koppett.

CK: Leonard Koppett is a story unto himself. I was lucky enough to be his friend for almost twenty years and to spend a lot of time in the last couple of years of his life either with him or talking to him on the phone. He probably knew more about more things (most of them having little to do with sports) than anyone I’ve ever known. And he relished conversations about subjects he didn’t know as a way of learning something. But I had admired his skill as a journalist long before we ever met. He was one of the first sports writers who used numbers to prove a point or illustrate a subject, rather than for their own sake. He may have been the walking embodiment of Casey Stengel’s admonition that “you can look it up.”

The owners looked upon Koppett as an advocate for the players because he took the heretical position that the players and their union might actually have a case. At minimum, he wanted to listen to what they had to say. The more he listened and the more he looked into the legal and economic realities of baseball, the more he came to agree with many of the positions taken by the union. He supported Curt Flood and he described the 1972 strike as “a self-inflicted wound” on the part of the owners. Koppett spent a lot of time in his columns trying to show the owners that they had to recognize the reality (however unwelcome) of labor-management relations and cautioning them about the folly of demonizing the players in the eyes of the public. It might seem strange, since so many owners saw him as an opponent, but much of his advice echoed what their negotiator John Gaherin was trying to tell them. Sadly, for the owners and for the stability of the sport, they didn’t pay much attention to either Koppett or Gaherin. Koppett’s evaluation of Miller’s success with the players is an example of Koppett’s cool judgment and unwillingness to embroider things. “[Miller] could be persuasive because he was right and had the facts right. It all came back to that.” If that applies to Miller’s success as the leader of the union, it is just a fitting as an analysis of why Koppett’s articles and books were so persuasive at the time and hold up so well after many years.


1 studes   ~  Mar 31, 2005 2:23 pm

1.  Hey Alex, superb interview as always. John Gaherin has long been one of my favorite yet least-appreciated men in the history of baseball business. Dick Young was villanous, Leonard Koppett was virtuous. It's nice to see Chuck Korr uncover even more of this era. thanks.

2 Alex Belth   ~  Mar 31, 2005 7:03 pm

2.  Thanks. Yeah, I think Gaherin is a very compelling character and Korr should be commended for getting his side of the story. Years later, Gaherin said that if the owners were looking for a negotiatior that was a union-buster they had hired the wrong man. He was in a really tough spot, working for the owners, but I think he was a sensible and professional man.

3 Alex Belth   ~  Mar 31, 2005 7:07 pm

3.  Oh yeah, and Koppett is just the best. Without sounding like some kind of self-important boob, I think I'll always regret not getting a chance to talk with him and interview him. But when he passed away, it motivated me to contact each and every person I was interested in talking to sooner rather than later, cause you never know when you are going to go. I've been fortunate enough to talk to Mr. Miller about a half-a-dozen times. At 87, he's still extremely lucid.

I haven't read Koppett's book on managers or his concise history of the game, but I sure look forward to. And I love his book, "The New Thinking Fan's Guide to Baseball."

Someone I work with, who is in his early 50s, thinks that Dick Young would be a great subject for a movie. There sure isn't any columnist--Mike Lupica or anyone--who is quite like Dick Young was, is there?

4 Rich Lederer   ~  Mar 31, 2005 9:38 pm

4.  Nice job, Alex. Bring on Part II.

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