I enjoy history, but don’t make a habit of playing time machine; day dreaming in the bleachers of Forbes Field-game 7, 1960 World Series, but I do get bored easily, so I pick a poison and flee the here and now.
There I am in full waiter disguise filling up water glasses. It’s 1966-Vero Beach, Florida in some hotel lobby filled with players reps from each team.
There’s Jim Bunning, Harvey Kuenn, Bob Friend and many others. They’re waiting to meet Marvin Miller for the first time. I dig their sideburns, wide lapels, and the shag carpet and bright-colored curtains in the room.
Most of the players peer at Miller with severe judgment wondering who this Brooklyn born intellectual Jew thinks he is, pretending to be Moses? Robin Roberts is the only one who wears intrigue on his face; eyes open and a readiness to listen and learn.
I slip to the window and peek through the curtains remembering it’s 1966. People are protesting in the street about something or other and yet inside the room, there’s nothing but scarecrows and nay sayers.
Miller came with Biblical justice on his mind; eye for an eye. He came to wake up a sleeping giant; to teach players the art of war through negotiation; to drop bombs on the reserve clause and put an end to indentured servitude. He knew the legal cards were in his favor, but he also knew of a justice system that disregarded its own laws; the broken treaties, racist policies and in baseball economics; a reserve clause that made very little sense.
Baseball was not considered interstate commerce and therefore antitrust laws did not apply. One of the consequences of this long-standing rule was owners absolute control over players; for their entire life. Miller knew the hypocrisy in owner’s bulging pocket books and owners in turn, hated him; feared him, and wanted him out.
Players earned a $7,000 minimum salary when Miller arrived. They had a joke for a pension plan, and typically held down second jobs in the winter. There was no free agency, no arbitration and even when there was Curt Flood a few years later, players ran for cover in the hills; safe and sound.
I stood there feeling a bit confused. These players must have known that Babe Ruth sat out many games demanding more money from owners. Or if that was too long ago, they must have known that Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale of the Dodgers were currently holding out for more money.
They knew the legend of Rube Waddell doing whatever the hell he wanted and Jim Brosnan doing the same in his own literary sort of way. One of baseball’s first honest authors earned the label “loner and rebel” from critics, but he still published two books and demonstrated enormous courage. I didn’t get it. What were players so scared about?
I listened to Marvin Miller explain every last detail of constitutional law and watched as players slowly opened their minds to maybe the most influential and significant baseball man ever. Miller helped player’s find their collective voice.
I don’t think they were scared of Miller. They weren’t even suspicious of him or maybe a few of the conservative types believed he was another Jewish communist and that he should be sent back to Russia. But for most of the players, it was probably the idea of change that scared them. The reserve clause was familiar and secure. Players believed the rhetoric from big daddy pimp owner. “Just be happy you’re getting paid to play a kid’s game.”
The alternative of roaming a wilderness of uncertainty scared them right back to bread, water, and a cell for shelter. It’s probably the same emotional instability any revolution must endure. I feel the threat every morning when I decide to start another day and leave the comfort of a quilt.
Luckily for the players, Miller was patient. He knew that in order to enjoy success, a collective front needed to be established. He knew 100 years of slave like thinking doesn’t melt in a matter of months and certainly not after a few cocktails in Vero Beach. The revolution eventually caught fire.
No one including Miller could have ever imagined the ripple effect of his efforts. Maybe, they realistically envisioned free agency would be granted and the reserve clause abolished, but peak player salaries skyrocketing from Sandy Koufax’s $130,000 in 1966 to Alex Rodriguez’s $29,000,000 in 2013? Or minimum salaries of Mario Mendoza types spiking from $12,000 in 1970 to $480,000 in 2012? The earth was once considered flat.
The irony in this rags to riches story is that players seem to be slaves all over again; slaves to money. There’s too much to lose now. They’ve been seduced and won’t run the risk of a ruined reputation and being black sheeped and forced out. Players seem trapped in a state of “too much to lose.” They tip toe except when it comes to asking for more money.
But where’s the courage in that? Marvin Miller has already walked this earth.