Part 14 of our series on Important Moments in Team Building. See introduction, and up-to-date list.
Although the baseball team-building game had changed many times by the late 1960s, most of the changes were made to help the owners. With the amateur draft in place, what was essentially the only power a player had–selecting which team to sign with to begin his career–was now gone. The owners controlled the entire career. Players could theoretically “negotiate” their annual salaries, but if they showed up with a lawyer the owner would likely throw them both out of the office.
While the Major League Baseball Players Association was formally created in 1954, the players’ only substantive accomplishment in its first 12 years was its pension and benefit plan, first established in 1947 (by a pre-MLBPA group of players) and steadfastly maintained in the years since. The union took pride in its pension plan, and the players otherwise accepted their situation. They had a part-time lawyer for a while, but when he suggested to the owners that he wished to negotiate other issues, the owners told the players to get rid of him. They did.
The players then hired Robert Cannon, a personal friend of many of the owners, as a part-time legal advisor. Cannon was a Milwaukee judge who really wanted to be baseball commissioner. His strategy was to remind the players continually how well-treated they were and to ask for nothing from the owners.
The players’ pension plan had long been tied to revenue generated by the All-Star Game and World Series. As this pool continued to increase, the owners were becoming increasingly uncomfortable giving up so much money to the players, and the tensions related to this disagreement finally caused the players to hire a full-time executive director. After considering a few other candidates, including Cannon, the players ultimately hired Marvin Miller in the spring of 1966. To say this was a watershed moment is an extreme understatement. In 2016 the MLBPA publicly celebrated its 50th anniversary-–the pre-Miller days don’t even count.
The owners were not happy with the appointment of Miller, and they tried to torpedo it. “We could tell from the reaction of the owners that Marvin would be good for us,” iconoclast pitcher Jim Bouton later said. “They hated him. They were saying that he would bring in goons with bicycle chains and baseball bats, and there would be violence and strikes and pickets signs, and we didn’t need that in our union. And of course, we all realized that we did need that.” Miller told the players that his job was not to get along with the owners—his job was to advocate and fight for the players.
One significant thing the players did not have was a collective bargaining agreement, the sine qua non for any union worth its name. Marvin Miller’s goal, from his first day on the job, was to get the owners to agree to a CBA, which would recognize the union as the legal representative of the players, and would subject the relationship to federal labor laws.
Before the first CBA, the owners made all the rules and the players had no recourse. The minimum salary was $7,000, which had been raised once since the 1940s. And even that was squishy-–Bouton claimed in his book Ball Four that some players were given less than that and were scared to complain. The players might ask to raise the minimum salary, and the owners might say “no.” The conversation was over.
Nothing was written down anywhere. The players had spring training allowances and in-season meal allowances, but none of this was strictly enforced. Players were supposed to have travel paid for if they changed teams, but good luck getting the money. “Before the union came along,” said Joe Torre, “player reps used to ask about things like broken shower heads in certain clubhouses or getting more towels.”
After a year and a half of on-again, off-again negotiations, the first CBA was signed in February of 1968 and was in effect for two years. There were now two essential agreements covering the players: a CBA and a pension/benefit plan. The CBA increased the minimum salary to $10,000, standardized the base contract for the first time, increased meal allowances, and added schedule rules (for example: specifying how many days in a row a team could play).
The most important facet of the CBA was its mere existence. Miller recalled a 1966 meeting at which he mentioned that one team’s players were concerned they had a long stretch without an off day. Joe Cronin–the American League president and an early member of the Player Relations Committee–exploded at Miller about the schedule being the prerogative of the league office and who the hell does Miller think he is? Having scheduling rules, even minor ones, in the CBA established the precedent that the players had a voice in these matters.
Another vital component was the establishment of a grievance procedure, which Miller knew was a key component of CBAs of other industries. The procedure was very simple, merely requiring the player or union to fill out some paperwork and file it with the commissioner’s office. Commissioner William Eckert was the sole arbiter, which was not ideal, but the players won more often than not. In 1968, to cite one example, a few American League teams objected to staying in Baltimore’s substandard Lord Baltimore hotel and filed a grievance. Eckert ruled for the players.
Miller wanted the players to file grievances on everything–no matter how small–that violated the CBA. These victories, some for $25 or $50, led to increased compliance from the clubs and increased confidence by the players in their newfangled union.
The early CBAs were fairly short in duration–two or three years–because Miller believed each success was just a small victory in the larger battle. The 1968 CBA was a landmark, but Miller knew the struggle was just going to get tougher.
Compared with what was to come, the players had gained no real power over their careers. The pieces were starting to come in to place, though the owners were wholly unaware of it.