"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Bronx Banter Interview: Chuck Korr


(Click here for Part One)

Here more of my conversation with historian Chuck Korr. Enjoy.

BB: Ralph Kiner writes about the early days of the Players Association in his new book. But for the most part, did the older generation of players, who grew up during the depression and who played in the 40s and 50s genuinely believe they should be grateful for playing the game, forget about getting involved with a union?

CK: Yes, they did like both the money and the adulation that came with being a major leaguer, but few bought into the idea that they should be grateful. They knew that ownership would get rid of them when they were no longer useful. We also tend to forget that many of these players had also come through World War II and they knew the importance of fighting for themselves.

BB: When did that attitude start to change?

CK: The changes started in the early ’60s. A couple of features are responsible for that. The most important was expansion, since it made even marginal players feel more secure. The corporate entry into baseball (CBS) also showed a lot of players the business dimension of their sport/occupation. Jim Bunning made that point forcefully to me when we talked. Finally, it’s impossible to overestimate the general climate that marked the ’60s–the questioning of authority on previously accepted norms. The idea in baseball of “owner knows best” or someone will “take care of you” was both untrue and was out of step with so much of what was happening in
the country.

BB: I think many baseball fans are familiar with the contributions men like Jim Bunning, Robin Roberts, and later of course, Curt Flood made toward the union. Who are some of the other players who played a significant role in the development of the Player’s Association?

CK: There are two groups of players who were essential to the success of the union–men who were active in the union as player reps or as members of the executive board and those who challenged the system in various ways. In the latter group, you have to recognize the importance of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, even though what they did had nothing to do directly with the union. Their challenge to the Dodgers was a challenge to the whole system and it took place as just the time the union decided to hire Miller. They demonstrated that there was some power in unity and how little they got showed how little strength a player had. Many of the players figured if stars like them could be pushed around, anyone could. That meant finding a new way to fight. Buzzie Bavasi’s famous (some might say, infamous) article in Sports Illustrated in 1967 was a Godsend for Miller and the union. It was sent to every player rep the perfect example of the arrogance of power that ownership had and how much they were willing to lie to the players.

BB: The Cardinals and the Orioles seemed to have a string of player reps that were very involved with the union. What other players were especially valuable to the Association in those years?

CK: There are a number of players who were important to the union as player reps, league reps, and negotiators when the basic agreements (baseball’s term for a collective bargaining agreement) had to be renewed. Sal Bando and Bob Boone served in a variety of roles. Steve Hamilton was one of the veterans who made Miller’s entry into the job a lot easier than it might have been. Joe Torre, Tim McCarver, and Dal Maxvill were steadying forces both on their clubs and on the executive board. Milt Pappas served as player rep for numerous clubs. Reggie Jackson played an important role in the meeting that ratified the decision to strike in 1972. Roberto Clemente, Bob Friend, Tom Haller, Mike Marshall, Gary Peters, Brooks Robinson, Doug DeCinces, Steve Rodgers, Don Baylor, and Mark Belanger are some of the men who were noteworthy in making the union work for the interests of the players.

BB: Can you talk about some of the early challenges to reserve clause.

CK: We have to remember that what kept the reserve system in place was one short clause in the standard player’s contract that gave the club the right to renew the contract of a player for one year if he chose not to accept his contract. The clubs interpreted that as renewing the whole contract, including the renewal option. In effect, it was a rolling set of one-year contracts for life, at least in the view of the owners. The interpretation was not challenged because clubs usually did not allow players to report to camp without signed contracts, and the players would not refuse the opportunity to play.

In 1969, Al Downing approached Miller about playing out his option and challenging the reserve system. The only problem was that Downing was a marginal player at the time, and the Yankees probably would have just released him rather than renew his contract. What the union needed was a star player, preferably a young one, to play out his option and try to become a free agent. That was Ted Simmons in 1972. Simmons is a man of unusual (not just for baseball, but for any profession) intelligence and integrity. When he is convinced that something is right and important, he won’t back down. As a second year player, he was noteworthy to many people for his long hair and his political views that included his opposition to the war. More important was that he was a twenty-three year old switch-hitting catcher looked like he would become quickly one of the best hitters in baseball. He had a remarkable rookie year in 1971 and refused to sign his contract for 1972 because he felt he was grossly underpaid for his performance. The worst way to deal with Simmons is to condescend or act paternalistically. Reminding him that he was young and that the club would take care of him later only reinforced his determination to get a fair salary or to not sign his contract. After Simmons made the decision, he spoke with Miller about free agency at the end of the year. He might well have been Messersmith and McNally, three years before them. What he did become was the first major leaguer in decades to start the season without having signed a contract.

BB: And eventually, the Cardinals blinked.

CK: Right. The Cardinals were faced with the pleasant prospect of their young catcher making the All-Star team and the possible embarrassment that one of the main topics of conversation would be that he was an unsigned player. There were huge pressures on him, including personal visits from Gussie Busch to convince him to sign. Just before the All-Star game, the Cardinals offered him a multi-year contract, something almost unknown. It exceeded the salary that Simmons thought he would get. He had told the team that if they met his terms, he would sign and he had informed Miller of that he had a family to support and he had given his word. The decision to sign was clear. The union lost an opportunity to challenge the reserve system, but everyone involved, especially Miller, had nothing but respect for how Simmons had handled himself. He went on to a great career and to become one of the strongest of supporters of the union.

BB: There are some people who believe that other than Babe Ruth, and perhaps Jackie Robinson, no man has had more impact on the game of baseball than Marvin Miller. Do you agree?

CK: I don’t agree with much that Dick Young wrote after the late 1950s, but I will second his notion that Miller belongs in the Hall of Fame. If there’s any place in the hall for “contributors”, there has to be a place for Marvin. Miller did much more than lead the union that overturned a century of what was wrong with baseball’s structure. The competitive balance of the game became a reality in the two decades following Messersmith/McNally in a way that had never existed before. If baseball is supposed to represent what’s best in American tradition, surely the end of the reserve system accomplished that.

Years ago, the baseball historian David Voigt wrote an article about the nine men who changed baseball more than anyone. He divided them into three epochs and for the post-1945 period they were Jackie Robinson, Walter O’Malley, and Marvin Miller. (In case you’re wondering about Branch Rickey, he was in the previous epoch along with Judge Landis and Babe Ruth.)

The reserve system was patently un-American in its unfairness. If for nothing else, Miller should be in the Hall of Fame for his role in leading the union that ended that aspect of baseball. But there was more than that. The union gave a new sense of dignity to the players and established a relationship of equals between the owners and the players. The myth of the impartial commissioner was laid to rest finally and more teams qualified for post-season play than at any time in the past. I hope that my book, John Helyar’s, and some of the memoirs and autobiographies written by recent players will help to change the way in which baseball fans view Miller. But I doubt that we can really do much to redress the misinterpretations of the past, especially since I think most current journalists have a rather active dislike for both the union and its leadership.

BB: Do you think he’s more appreciated now then he was when he was twenty-five, thirty years ago?

CK: Miller has gotten a series of awards over the past few years and with them comes a lot of praise for him. The fact remains that he had decades of bad press and the effects of that remain to the present day. In Miller’s case, how he is remembered is more a question of “image” than it is of reality. The idea of the fire-breathing radical setting out to destroy baseball still has more currency that the reality of how he operated and what the union accomplished. So many of the players shared stories about how he seemed to know exactly where the other side was going, sometimes even before they might have known it. He could keep quiet during negotiations and never seemed to lose his cool. One prominent player told me he thought of offering Miller $100 (when that was real money) if he would only say “shit” once during a bargaining session.

That brings me to the last part of the Miller myths. The public view was that he came to he union with some kind of detailed long-range plan for how to change baseball. That was not the case. There were some things that he thought were fundamentally wrong from the beginning–the absence of any impartial figure to decide on disputes between players and owners and the existence of the reserve clause were the most obvious. Those had to be changed. But the rest of his actions were a series of incremental changes based on pragmatic considerations. For most of his tenure, the union could not afford a single serious loss since that might destroy all of its gains. The most flamboyant example of the press and the public misreading Miller was the assumption that he and Moss encouraged the players to stage their first strike in 1972. Just the opposite was true–the labor professionals counseled caution, the players decided enough was enough, that they were united and that they could win their strike.

BB: Would you talk a bit about the dynamic between Miller and Richard Moss? In John Heylar’s book, he talks about them playing the “good cop, bad cop” routine to perfection. How did they complement one another?

CK: I think Helyar has a point in the “good-cop, bad-cop”, but that it’s usually overstated. They did have different styles because they had different personalities and different backgrounds. One was a labor economist; the other was a labor lawyer. They had worked together with the steelworkers union and they shared a set of values. They also shared a shock of disbelief when they saw the status of the Association in 1966. It resembled nothing they had seen before that was supposedly the bargaining agent for a group of workers. They understood the need to educate the players. Virtually everyone agrees that Moss had a much sharper edge to him and could be very sarcastic when he chose. In some of his correspondence, I’ve discovered a remarkable talent for irony and a delight in puncturing pomposity and status. Almost no one outside of the union and baseball officials ever got to see Moss at work. Reading the transcripts of some of the cases and the arbitration hearings shows Moss at his best, and I don’t envy the witnesses that he was cross-examining. They also were both baseball fans. They cared about the game and had great memories of its past. They shared a belief that there was nothing incompatible with being a fan and wanting to make fundamental changes in the structure of the sport.

BB: What were the most important steps, which lead to the players over-turning the Reserve Option or Clause?

CK: The end of the reserve system (the acquisition of free agency) is the most noteworthy accomplishment of the union. It changed the whole structure of baseball and had a great influence on all other pro sports. It was the ultimate goal of the union from the time Miller arrived in 1966, but the union did not wage a concentrated attack on the reserve system. Rather, it took a set of incremental steps that put it in the position to mount a realistic challenge to something that had existed for close to a century, was considered sacred by the owners, and had been supported by a series of court decisions–including one by the Supreme Court in 1922.

The one exception to this incremental approach was the union’s decision to support Curt Flood when he challenged the anti-trust exemption of baseball as a tactic to overthrow the reserve system. The leadership of the union wanted to take a different approach, but it was clear that both Miller and the player reps felt they had to support Flood’s efforts. He was going ahead, with or without the support of the union. Even though he lost in court, Flood’s courageous stand brought the issue out into the open and reminded the players of the basic unfairness of the system. It also showed Miller and Moss that the players were united, if not unanimous, in their support of the union.

The culmination of the fight against the reserve system was the decision handed down on December 23, 1975 by arbitrator Peter Seitz in the grievance filed by Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally. In a lengthy decision, Seitz made it clear that what he was really doing was defining the word “one” as it applied to the option clause of the standard player’s contract. Did it mean “one” or did it mean “one, renewable in perpetuity”? Seitz tried to get the parties to bargain, rather than force him to decide, but the owners refused. When he decided that “one” meant “one” that meant a ruling in favor of the players. Over the next few months, the union and the owners negotiated a modified version of free agency.

BB: As famous as that moment in baseball history is, it’s funny that McNally’s contribution—which included him turning down a fat bonus from the Expos just to show up at spring training in 1976—is often overlooked.

CK: There is not enough notice made of McNally’s unique part in the arbitration. He was going to retire and was offered a significant bonus just to sign the contract. He had nothing to gain from free agency and a lot to lose by not signing a contract. He remained firm since there was always the possibility that Messersmith might sign a new contract with the Dodgers. Messersmith has insisted on a no trade contract and if the Dodgers had granted that, he might have signed. So long as McNally was there, the union still had grounds for an arbitration hearing on the provisions of the contract.

BB: How did the union secure the grievance procedure?

CK: The foundation for the destruction of the reserve system (and for virtually every other gain the union made) was the incorporation into the 1968 Basic Agreement of a system for third party/neutral party arbitration of grievances brought by a player against his club, the league, or major league baseball. It gave the players a sense of security and status that they had never had in the past. The grievance procedure meant that for the first time a player could get a fair hearing. Until then, the commissioner, who was an employee of the owners, heard the few grievances that were filed. Dick Moss described this situation beautifully as, “partial arbitration”, a situation where the arbitrator was partial to one side. In some hearings, the lawyer for the club or the league was also the lawyer for the commissioner, the supposedly impartial judge.

If anyone ever doubted the importance of the impartial grievance procedure, the “Catfish” Hunter case proved its importance once and for all. In 1974, he claimed that Charlie Finley, the owner of the A’s, had not lived up to provisions in Hunter’s contract and because of that the contract was void. That meant Hunter could become a free agent. The decision, also rendered by Peter Seitz made it clear that contracts entailed reciprocal responsibilities and while Hunter had lived up to his by performing for the A’s in 1974, Finley had defaulted by not making the required payments. When Seitz declared Hunter to be a free agent, the commissioner was in no position to overturn the decision. The power of the arbitration process was shown when Hunter signed with the Yankees for a multi-year contract that dwarfed anything previous to that time. Commissioner Kuhn has said repeatedly that he thought the decisions in both the Hunter and Messersmith/McNally case were too severe and were incorrect readings of the contracts involved. He would not have ruled in favor of the players in either case. There is every reason to assume that if there had been no impartial arbitrator, the players would not have gotten free agency.

BB: What, if any, kind of influence did the Hunter case have on the Messersmith/McNally challenge?

CK: The Hunter decision showed the players that free agency was more than a principle. The owners had a lot of money that they could afford to pay the players. The system placed an artificial cap on wages, as well as restricting movement for other reasons. Free agency would not only give the players a chance to go to a team where they wanted to play, it also meant a huge rise in wages. All of this was the result of the terms the union were able to incorporate into a series of collective bargaining agreements, and the only reason they were able to accomplish that was that players took a risk with their careers by supporting the union, going on strike when necessary, and taking the flak from the fans. None of the gains made by the players (pensions, arbitration, travel conditions, free agency) were “given” to them by the owners. Every gain was the product of a series of battles and a series of negotiations between equals.

BB: What kind of reaction did the book get? Both critically and from the union?

CK: I was very happy with the reaction to it. It got favorable reviews in a lot of places that you usually don’t see for books published by a university press including a very lengthy review in The Washington Monthly, a magazine dealing with politics ands public policy. It received a lot of attention in the media, including articles in the N. Y. Times, L. A. Times, Hartford courant, Orlando Sentinel, Cincinnati Enquirer, and Dallas Times and interviews on a number of NPR stations as well as local radio and TV.

Since I enjoy conversations with journalists, one of the fringe benefits of the book (thanks to the fact we made sure to get it published in time for the 2002 strike vote) was that I got to talk with a lot of very good reporters. Most of them were new to me. I was really impressed with the questions they had and how they handled different aspects of the book in their articles. It’s very interesting when someone sees something in a book that the author didn’t realize was quite as important.

Everyone I spoke to at the union (Miller, Moss, Don Fehr, Gene Orza, Steve Rogers) were impressed with it and each of them seemed to see different things in it. The former players who have commented to me about it thought that it got their story right and they emphasized how the book told them about things they had forgotten or hadn’t put into a broader perspective.

There were a few responses that were very special to me. John Gaherin’s widow phoned to say how much she enjoyed it and how much of his life I had brought back to her. I had not been able to talk to Robin Roberts, one of the key figures in the book. After he read it, we had a couple of very long conversations. Even though he disagreed with many of the union’s actions, he liked the book a lot and said it helped explain a lot of things to him. He was kind enough to writer a very nice letter to my mother (she was 89 at the time and he had been her favorite player) telling her how much he liked the book. The response that meant the most to me was a note from Leonard Koppett,”You got it right. Kopi”

BB: What is your next project?

CK: The current project is the most important thing I’ve ever dealt with as a historian. I am working on a documentary and a book about the role of sports in the lives of the South African political prisoners who were jailed on Robben Island. They were a remarkable group of men who were imprisoned in terrible conditions because of their race and their opposition to the totalitarian, apartheid regime. The prisoners demanded the right to play sports and then they set up a highly structured set of leagues. They used sports as a way to create their own community, maintain their morale, and teach themselves the skills they would need to govern South Africa when it was a free country. They believed that sports built character and they used that as a part of their struggle against apartheid and injustice.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver