The Thirty-Year Journey of a Major League Pitcher and Broadcaster

11 December 2009

Labor-Management Relations in the B.C. ("Before Cash") Era of Major League Baseball

In an age when some Major League players earn millions of dollars a season, younger baseball fans know little about the "B.C." era of the game, when players counted themselves lucky to receive $40 a week. Those who played the game in the "Before Cash" era also lacked long-term pension plans or other economic "safety nets" unless they spent more than four years in the Major League.  Nellie was just such a player. Here he recounts his shock upon realizing how little power players had when he attended an MLB Players Association meeting in New York City in the fall of 1956.  

Happiness is Like a Cur Dog makes a great Christmas present for young and not-so-young fans of baseball and anyone who wishes to understand baseball's role in 20th century American history.

An Eye-Opening MLBPA Meeting

After the 1956 season, my wife Bernadette and I returned to Newark, NJ, where I found work at the Newark Star Ledger in the circulation department. In the early fall I received a phone call from Bob Friend, the Pirates’ player representative for the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA). I was informed there was a MLBPA meeting in the offices of Norman Lewis on Park Avenue in Manhattan. Given my proximity to New York, he asked me to attend the meeting for him and take notes. I eagerly accepted.

Park Avenue was virgin territory for me. I was impressed with the tall buildings and luxurious surroundings. I went from being impressed to awed when I entered the offices of J. Norman Lewis, then the player’s representative, and was introduced to the other team representatives–Robin Roberts (Phillies), Sherman Lollar (White Sox)), Bob Nieman (Baltimore), Early Wynn (Cleveland), Roy Sievers (Washington), and others. With a long history in the game, I knew every player in the room. I can’t say they had the same knowledge of me, but it was exciting to be in their company and to be a part of their deliberations.

Robin Roberts, with the aid of Norman Lewis, handled the meeting before a scheduled visit by Commissioner Ford Frick. Lewis informed us that the commissioner could give us only 30 minutes of his time for the meeting, which raised some eyebrows. We wondered what could make him so busy after the World Series and end of the season. Lewis emphasized that we had better use the limited time wisely by choosing a few topics that were of most importance.

After some discussion, we agreed there were two specific subjects we wanted to address. First was the increase in television revenues from the All Star Game and World Series. We desired to have portions of the additional money allocated for funding the players’ pension plan. The second item was to include the wives and children as participants in the health care plan that at the time covered only the players. Sure of our decision, we awaited the commissioner.

Ford Frick arrived on time and was introduced by Norman Lewis to all the players. Following the introductions, Robin Roberts began the meeting by expressing our appreciation for the commissioner taking time to meet with us. Aware of the time limit, he informed Ford Frick there were only two items we want to seriously discuss with him.

Robin was very articulate in expressing our views about the need for additional money to  fund the pension plan given the increase in television rights and advertising revenue. As he turned to Frick for a comment we were surprised to hear the commissioner say, “Well, you know I can’t discuss such a proposal with you. You’ll have to take that up with the Owner’s Pension Fund committee.” That ended further discussion on that topic.

Robin quickly approached the subject of providing health insurance for the wives and children of major league players. Frick shot that down as quickly as he had the pension funding. He stated we would have to take that up with the Owners’ Committee.

Our two discussion items took up less than five minutes of his time, and both were shot down.

The conversation with the commissioner then turned to items so trivial they were embarrassing, but quickly caught the attention of Frick. Bob Nieman informed the commissioner of the background in center field at Baltimore that caused problems for hitters. He said, “There is a house painted in glowing white, located just to the left of center field. When a right-hander is pitching it makes it difficult for batters to pick up the pitch." I noticed the commissioner begin to take notes.

Someone followed with a complaint about the situation in Cleveland: no toilet was available for players in the bullpen. They had to go behind the bullpen, or walk back to the dugout to take care of these bodily functions. Frick continued taking notes.

A similar complaint was made about Kansas City, then a relatively new team in the American League. There was no toilet in the bullpen, but also none in the dugout, so player had to go all the way back into the clubhouse to relieve themselves.

These discussions took up the remainder of the time. The commissioner put the pencil and paper away and before leaving told us how good is was to have a discussion with the Players’ Association. Norman Lewis then escorted Frick out of the office to the elevator. When he returned, his comments were brief but educational. 

“Gentlemen, you have just spent thirty minutes discussing your problems with the most powerful man in the game, the Commissioner of Baseball.” Pausing briefly, shaking his head in disbelief, he continued, “You know what he’s going to do for you? He’s going to change the background in Baltimore for hitters. He’s going to put a toilet in the bull pen in Cleveland and one in the dugout in Kansas City.”

Lewis summed up the futility of our situation, “Gentlemen” he began, “You think you have problems. And you
do have serious problems: Nobody is listening to you!” Baseball then was a paternalistic system. The owners were the parents and we were the children and each party accepted their role.

Eventually, a man with experience, knowledge, fortitude, and a keen understanding of labor management problems became head of the Major League Baseball Players Association. That man was Marvin Miller, who, along with Curt Flood, forever changed the relationship between owners and players. 

Players no longer believe they need someone to take care of them when their career is over. Marvin Miller made them believe they had power. The motto became, “Take care of me now and I’ll be able to take care of myself later.”

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The Thirty-Year Journey of a Major League Baseball Pitcher and Broadcaster