Bob Friend, RIP: He helped pitch a game changer

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Bob Friend on the mound during the 1960s.

Today’s baseball free agents and every one who preceded them back to the first such class, following the Messersmith-McNally ruling of 1975, may not know that they owe former Pirates pitcher Bob Friend a partial debt for the Players’ Association’s ultimate growth and triumphs. Even if Friend, who died on Super Bowl Sunday at 88, wouldn’t have been likely to take a bow for his role.

A durable if somewhat hard-luck pitcher during a sixteen-year career, Friend just so happened to be the National League’s overall player representative in 1965 when his predecessor, Hall of Fame pitcher Robin Roberts, asked a small favour: could he, Roberts, attend a meeting of player representatives in Houston late that year?

Roberts had something to give the player reps: his own analysis of the picture around the pension plan due to expire in early 1967, especially what he saw (correctly, as things turned out) as a metastasis of baseball’s television revenues and a question of whether or not the players—who then funded 40 percent of the pension plan to the owners’ kicking in 60 percent—would see a dime of it.

The only television money the players saw for themselves at the time tied to the All-Star Game and the World Series; ABC fed baseball $5.7 million for Game of the Week broadcasts starting in 1965, and the players didn’t get a nickel of it.

Though he was no longer a team’s player rep nor either league’s, Roberts—winding down his career with the Astros, though he’d be dealt to the Cubs to finish a year later—wanted to pitch the reps an idea: it was high time the nascent players’ union found themselves an executive director who could negotiate effectively. Friend was only too willing to let Roberts make his case.

What alarmed Friend at first was player militancy, even though he got Roberts’ message when the former Phillies ace said, “Things are getting more complicated. There’s going to be a lot of money involved, and without a negotiator we won’t get our share. I think we need someone full time to do two things: work on the next pension contract and do more with group licensing.”

An incumbent Phillies ace, Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Bunning, threw another factor into the mix. “The nature of ownership groups was changing dramatically,” Bunning would remember. “We wanted to make sure we knew where we were going even if management didn’t.” Indeed. Baseball’s transformation to mostly corporate ownership had only just begun when CBS bought the Yankees controversially enough in 1964; CBS would have an uneasy time of it with the Yankees and it would take several decades for the transformation to be complete.

The player reps got the message and authorised a search committee to find an executive director/negotiator. The committee would be Friend, Roberts, Bunning, and veteran outfielder Harvey Kuenn. And it meant that Judge Robert Cannon, the owner-imposed director, wasn’t going to be long in that seat. Even though Cannon got the owners to fund a director and office for the Players’ Association, the player reps quaked when Cannon refused to move to New York, where the owners wanted the office.

Friend was a particular ally of Cannon, who happened to have the ear of then-Pirates owner John Galbreath, who also happened to lend Friend and his players an equal ear—as long as it meant Cannon would get the full-time directorship. (Galbreath, in fairness, also agreed with Friend that they needed full-time representation on pension and other issues.) Marvin Miller came into the picture when Roberts approached Kaiser Committee labour negotiator George Taylor to help find a candidate. Taylor suggested Miller.

At first, Miller had only one champion among the four-man search committee: Roberts. Kuenn was nervous about the players’ association becoming more like a trade union; Bunning preferred an attorney who’d once handled a lawsuit for him successfully; and, Friend was still in favour of Cannon, assuming they could find a compromise on the office issue. Miller at first was voted down.

But Cannon decided to resign altogether if the players were as bent as they were (and the owners apparently agreed on this point) on the MLBPA office being in New York. They were, and he did. That enabled Roberts to re-submit Miller for consideration. And Roberts now had a key ally: Friend, who’d seen the light about Cannon versus Miller, realised Miller wasn’t either an owners’ plant or what Jim Bouton eventually referred to as “a knuckle-dragging, ‘deze and doze’ guy with a cigar out of the corner of his mouth’,” and talked to Miller, who’d felt burned over the original vote.

“If the players elect me,” Miller told Friend, “I’ll accept the job.”

It got easier when, little by little, the owners’ attempts to intimidate players out of picking Miller began to dissipate the closer a look the players actually got at Miller, whose mild manner, understated style, and willingness to shoot straight, no chaser changed a lot of minds, just as he had Friend’s.

The players voted for Miller. It would take time, hiccups, and a few nasty surprises to come before Miller and the union found their surest footings and could shepherd the bone-rattling changes to come—mostly for the better, but now and then a shot in their own feet, especially the amended pension plan change of 1980 that left 874 retired short-career players from 1947-1979 devoid of both a pension allowance and health benefits.

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Friend in the 1950s, before the Pirates switched to vest jerseys.

Friend retired as a pitcher after a 1966 season divided between the hapless Mets and the sinking Yankees. (Kuenn and Roberts retired  after the same season; Bunning pitched until 1971.) The first Pirate pitcher to lead the National League in earned run average with 2.83 in 1955, when the Pirates finished dead last, Friend led the league in wins with 22 in 1958, only to lead in losses with 19 in 1959. He retired holding Pirates records for career starts (477), innings pitched (3,480.3), and strikeouts. (1,682.) He’s fourth on the franchise’s pitching wins list (191) but first on its pitching losses list. (218.)

His rubber arm (as they used to refer to seemingly unbreakable pitchers) wasn’t always rewarded with the right results, especially pitching for so many ill-endowed Pirates teams of the 1950s then the teams who couldn’t stay competitive after their dramatic 1960 World Series triumph.

Friend unfortunately was murdered in that Series, starting twice, relieving a third time, and surrendering ten runs (nine earned) and thirteen hits in six innings’ work. The saddest part was how good he was on the 1960 regular season: he led the National League with a 4.07 strikeout-to-walk rate and a 2.54 fielding-independent pitching (ERA with defense removed from the equation), the only season his FIP was under 3.00.

After his pitching career ended, Friend—who looked and acted like his family name except when he was on the mound, and who earned a degree in economics from Purdue University over several off-seasons—kept a home in Pittsburgh, becoming Allegheny County’s controller for eight years before going into the insurance business and becoming an agency vice president. (He was also a delegate to three Republican National Conventions.) He also helped found the Pirates’ Alumni Association and stayed active on its board.

“Friend is articulate, cooperative and knowledgable,” sportswriter Leonard Koppett once wrote of him. “His blue eyes twinkle with a humor that’s softer than Whitey Ford’s, but rich enough. And if there is such a thing as big league atmosphere, Friend exudes it.”

“I never met anyone in my entire life who had every quality that makes a man a man,” said his son, Bob, a longtime PGA golfer. “He was loyal. He was smart. And he worked hard. He had incredible character, and had a great sense of humor. He was a man’s man and a gentleman who stood whenever a lady entered the room and held doors open for ladies.”

He also held a door for the hiring that changed the Players Association and baseball itself irrevocably.

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