Marvin and Ted, a love story revisited

Marvin Miller, Joe Torre

Marvin Miller (left) with then-Cardinals catcher-turned-third baseman Joe Torre at a 1972 press conference.

Yes, Marvin Miller decided before his death that being elected to the Hall of Fame was no longer worth it. Not even if it was no less than his due. “At the age of 91,” he said, “I can do without farce.”

But there’ll be a nice synergy in Miller and catcher Ted Simmons being inducted into Cooperstown Wednesday, along with two more from last year’s class, Derek Jeter and Larry Walker. Miller and Simmons were joined in an unlikely way early in Simmons’s career.

The pan-damn-ic then told the new Hall of Famers, “Wait ’till next year.” Wherever he reposes in the Elysian Fields, perhaps Miller has bumped into Charlie Watts, the lifelong drummer for a band that once sang, “You can’t always get what you want/but if you try sometimes, you just might find/you get what you need.”

What Miller and Simmons needed from the last-convened Modern Era Committee in 2019 was twelve votes minimum. Miller got the twelve, one shy of Simmons’s thirteen. Both men deserved Hall of Fame plaques long enough before they finally got them. And one inadvertently provided the other with invaluable intelligence.

At age 22 Simmons found himself the Cardinals’ regular catcher entering spring training 1972. Self-aware enough, Simmons decided his emergence should be worth more than a $6,000 raise. He refused to sign a new contract that would pay him one penny less than $30,000. The Cardinals’ general manager, Bing Devine, said not so fast, son, holding the team’s offer to somewhere in the lower $20,000s.

That was while Curt Flood’s reserve clause challenge awaited its day in the Supreme Court. (Flood, alas, would lose there, but he’d kick open a door that refused to be shut again.) Simmons started the reason without a signed new contract. The Cardinals renewed him automatically as the rules of the time allowed.

Everyone in baseball trained their eyes upon the sophomore catcher who belied the usual athletic stereotypes. (Among other things, Simmons would serve active and knowledgeable time on the board of a St. Louis art museum in due course.) They also trained their eyes on the reserve clause abused so long by the owners to bind their players like chattel, until they damn well felt like selling, trading, or releasing them.

Simmons played his way onto the National League’s 1972 All-Star team as its backup catcher. Once he went to Atlanta for the game, Devine rang his hotel phone post haste. Would Simmons kindly accept a mere $75,000—as in, the $30,000 he wanted for 1972 in the first place, plus $45,000 for 1973?

Miller watched Simmons a little nervously, too, knowing the kid pondered taking it to court himself. He understood completely when Simmons accepted Devine’s new proposal. But Simmons handed Miller intelligence you couldn’t buy even on the black market: Those  owners would rather have handed a barely-seasoned kid $75,000 than let any arbitrator get a look at the reserve clause even long distance through a telescope.

Miller had once been a United Steelworkers of America economist. After a players committee including two Hall of Famers (pitchers Robin Roberts and Jim Bunning) and two respected other veterans (pitcher Bob Friend, outfielder Harvey Kuenn) chose him to run their embryonic union, Miller won the rest of the players over by being just who he was—a brain, not a bludgeon. It didn’t hurt that Miller instilled an open-door policy: “It’s your union,” he insisted.

Miller didn’t follow the stereotypical union playbook, either. He may have kept the players’ eyes on the ultimate prize, but he knew and convinced them reasonably that it had to be done step by step, from pension and clubhouse issues forward. Even as he told them, as often as need be, “You are the game. Without you, there is no game.”

His two signature triumphs came almost by accident. The first was when then-Athletics owner Charlie Finley reneged on a contracted-for insurance payment to Hall of Fame pitcher Catfish Hunter. Hunter filed a grievance and won. He also became subject of a game-wide bidding war that reached the millions and ended with him taking the third-most lucrative offer put in front of him.

Why only the third? Because the Yankees (whose representative Clyde Kluttz was the former A’s scout who signed Hunter for the A’s in the first place) were willing to divide the dollars Hunter’s way, right down to a certain amount put into an annuity to guarantee his children’s education. It was still enough to make Hunter a rich man on a fair, open market.

But Hunter was a single, isolated case. His triumph didn’t mean the end of the reserve era just yet. To do that, it took then-Dodgers general manager Al Campanis making contract talks far too personal for pitcher Andy Messersmith’s taste in spring training 1975. Messersmith promptly refused to talk to anyone below team president Peter O’Malley. He also refused to sign any contract that didn’t include a no-trade clause.

The Dodgers merely harrumphed that they’d never given no-trade clauses before and they weren’t about to start now. Messersmith said, essentially, that he’d rather be caught naked in a barracuda school than let the Al Campanises dictate his baseball future. He, too, refused to sign a 1975 contract. The Dodgers, too, renewed him automatically under the old rules.

Messersmith pitched on and pitched very well. (He’d lead the National League in starts, complete games, and innings pitched, while throwing seven shutouts and finishing second with a 2.29 ERA.) He withstood the snark of both indignant, ignorant fans and indignant, artery-hardened sportswriters.

“Every time he took the ball,” Simmons once said, “everybody in management wanted him to fail and everybody from the players wanted him to succeed.” Just as long as they didn’t have to bat against him. (The National League’s hitters batted a mere .213 against Messersmith in 1975.)

By that August, Messersmith found himself receiving two things: continuing Dodger offers for then-glandular dollars, and an education from Miller about the reserve clause itself. He was also the only active player left that season who hadn’t signed a 1975 contract. By September, the Dodgers offered him a pot of $540,000 for three years including 1975. “Where’s that no-trade clause?” Messersmith retorted, essentially. Without it, he wouldn’t budge.

When Peter came up with the dough, I was adamant. The money was incredible, but they wouldn’t bring the no-trade to the table. I’d gotten stimulated by Marvin and Dick [Moss, the players’ union’s general counsel]. Now I understood the significance of what this was all about. I was tired of players having no power and no rights.

Ted Simmons

Now a Hall of Fame catcher, Ted Simmons as a Cardinal helped Miller build his leverage against the old reserve clause abuse.

That August, too, Messersmith agreed to file a grievance seeking his free agency if he remained unsigned. The season ended; Messersmith’s stout pitching alone couldn’t keep the Dodgers from finishing second in the National League West. He filed the grievance.

(Arm-and-shoulder-troubled pitcher Dave McNally, technically unsigned but intending to stay retired after leaving the Expos in June, agreed to join the grievance in August, upon Miller’s persuasion—as insurance, in case the Dodger dollars finally seduced Messersmith, who refused to be seduced by dollars alone.)

The owners had no essential argument better than “this is the way we’ve always done it.” The evidence in the grievance included a newspaper article, in which penurious Twins owner Calvin Griffith basically admitted proper reserve clause application allowed a player’s free agency after one contracted season and a second team option season and no more.

Messersmith won. (The owners promptly fired arbitrator Peter Seitz.) The Lords of the Realm author John Helyar described Simmons as “choked up” when he said, “Curt Flood stood up for us. [Catfish] Hunter showed what was out there. Andy showed us the way. Andy made it happen for us all.”

Miller was smart enough not to demand immediate free agency for all. Even he recognised teams had certain rights in players they developed, even as he insisted baseball players deserved the same rights as any other American—from the greenest labourer to the most seasoned executive—to test their value on a fair, open job market when no longer under contract.

It did far more for the good of the game than the artery-hardened hysterics of 1975 would have had you believe, especially when they mourned the death of “competitive balance.” Pace Mark Twain, the rumours of that death would prove greatly exaggerated. More teams have won the World Series since the Messersmith triumph than won the Series before it.

It’s not the players’ fault that the owners since have tried everything in their power, and sometimes beyond it, to try putting them back into their “places.” (The 1980s collusion, anyone? Isolated front-office executives willingly handing the gold to players who’d barely proven themselves worth copper? The 1994 strike born of the owners insisting the players stop them before they overspent/mis-spent/mal-spent again? Tanking?)

And they said free agency would destroy the undestroyable game. If you’d asked former commissioner Fay Vincent about that, he’d tell you what he told ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick in 2009: Blaming Miller for “destroying” baseball was “like blaming Thomas Edison for putting the candle industry out of business,” which didn’t happen, either.

Perhaps the only thing more astonishing than the owners’ post-Messersmith chicaneries was the years passing by with the idea of Miller in the Hall of Fame not so popular with his former clients (he left the union in 1982) as his work on their behalf. No less than Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson said the Hall of Fame should be for players only. You wonder what he thought when the Hall inducted Effa Manley—co-owner of the Negro National League’s Newark Eagles—as a pioneer in 2006.

“Instead of pointing to the sky,” the late Jim Bouton told Crasnick, referring to gestures often made by players crossing the plate after hitting home runs, “today’s players should be pointing to Marvin Miller.” As also to Curt Flood, Ted Simmons, Catfish Hunter, Andy Messersmith, and others who collaborated to do the once unthinkable.

Simmons himself went on to enjoy a career that should have gotten him elected to Cooperstown. His peak value matches that of the average Hall of Fame catcher. He went one and done in his only year’s eligibility on the Baseball Writers Association of America’s Hall ballot. Exactly why never really seemed clear. If he was a better hitter than catcher, the metrics simple and complex alike still show him the number eleven catcher ever to strap it on.

Maybe it was residual ill will over Simmons’s late-career tangle with Whitey Herzog. (Herzog traded him to the Brewers citing defensive shortcomings, after he declined moving to another field position. Yet Herzog eventually became a member of the Modern Era Committee that finally elected Simmons.) Maybe they had a problem marrying baseball’s most honorific museum to an art museum board member.

Miller died in 2012 with only one other regret: not having been able to convince the MLBPA to revisit the 1980 pension realignment that froze players with short careers prior to 1980 out of the pension plan. Players since 1980 need only 43 days major league time to receive a pension and one day to receive health benefits.

The only thing the frozen-out have received since comes from a 2011 deal between then-commissioner Bud Selig and then-MLBPA leader Michael Weiner: $625 per quarter for every 43 days’ major league service time for up to four years. Before you say that’s something, at least, be reminded that they can’t pass those dollars to their loved ones if they pass before the final dollars are collected.

The MLBPA leadership since Miller’s departure has little to no known desire anywhere in its ranks to redress that or anything else involving the pension freeze-out. Attrition has reduced the number of affected players from over 1,100 to just over 600. Would anyone with leverage in the game now think to resolve Miller’s regret?

“Nobody has picked it up,” former Twins pitcher Tom Johnson, one of the affected, told me last December. “Don Fehr [Miller’s successor] didn’t pick it up, [present MLBPA director] Tony Clark hasn’t picked it up, nobody has picked it up and cared about it. I wish they’d go back and listen to that.”

Listening was one of Miller’s strong suits. “It took forever for each of us to get in,” Simmons has said. “He was the real deal. During my career, Marvin was the Players Association. He was an incredible man who was very special to me specifically. It’s an honor to be inducted with him. It’s bittersweet for his family but I’m lucky I can arrive in the flesh.”

Simmons has also said he hoped restoring the Hall inductions would be a stride in the right direction of returning life to something resembling normalcy. Surely he knows that “normalcy” doesn’t always mean without hiccups or pratfalls, both of which baseball has had in abundance for too long.

Portions of this essay have been published previously.

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