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Gatekeepers of Americana: Ownership's Never-ending Quest for Control of the Baseball Creed
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NINE: A Journal of Baseball History and Culture 15.1 (2006) 68-87

Ownership's Never-Ending Quest for Control of the Baseball Creed

Mitchell Nathanson

John Gaherin, the chief negotiator for the owners' Player Relations Committee (prc), addressed the congregation of owners at the December 1975 winter meetings with some sobering news: they were very likely going to lose the Messersmith arbitration. He, along with Marvin Miller, the head of the Major League Baseball Players Association (mlbpa), had been invited to independent arbitrator Peter Seitz's apartment a few days earlier following the conclusion of the hearing concerning the contested free agent status of pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally and the proper interpretation of baseball's infamous reserve clause and were told, in so many words, of this impending likelihood. Technically, Seitz told both Gaherin and Miller that he would prefer not to rule at all in the case. "We're dealing with issues that are very important to both sides," he said. "This may be the most serious grievance I've ever been asked to deal with. If I decide this, somebody's going to get hurt." Seitz then turned to Gaherin, reminded him of commissioner Bowie Kuhn's earlier statement that this issue was one that was more properly negotiated than arbitrated, and even volunteered to act as mediator if that would help. Although Seitz addressed both Gaherin and Miller that day, the prc chief understood what was really being said. The owners were going to lose, and Seitz was graciously offering the owners a way to minimize their losses. Therefore, it was prudent to negotiate the best deal possible then rather than wait for Armageddon at Seitz's hands later.

The owners responded to Gaherin's advice by effectively hooting him out of the room. No, they concluded, there would be no negotiations with the players. Instead, they had more pressing business to undertake. Rather than attempt to minimize their losses by sitting down and hashing through the issues with the players, the owners decided to prepare Seitz's walking papers in advance so that they could at least enjoy the satisfaction of publicly firing him on the spot as soon as he read the decision they knew was coming. They also mapped out their postarbitration strategy, which consisted of a seemingly endless succession of hopeless appeals designed to stave off the end of the world (as they had argued during the hearing was imminent should Seitz rule against them). A few weeks later, Seitz proved Gaherin prescient and made official what he not so subtly hinted at earlier: the players had won the Messersmith arbitration, the reserve clause was on life support if not dead, and the era of free agency was about to begin.

As he read his ruling, Seitz acknowledged the concerns of the owners and again proposed the solution he had suggested earlier:

It was represented to me that any decision sustaining Messersmith and McNally would have dire results, wreak great harm to the reserve system and do serious damage to the sport of baseball. . . . I am confident that the . . . damage to the reserve system can be avoided or minimized through good-faith collective bargaining between the parties.

Once again, his suggestion was ignored by the owners, who chose instead to do nothing but wait for their previously filed appeal to be heard. When that ruling went against them as well (as they knew it would), they unsuccessfully requested a stay of the judge's order, appealed it to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, and locked the players out of spring training.

All of this despite the fact that the players were on record as saying they were not opposed to the reserve system on principle. Rather, they merely wanted to sit down and negotiate a modification of the system with the owners. Negotiations with players, however, was completely out of the question as far as the owners were concerned. As New York Times columnist Red Smith so aptly put it when summarizing the owners' attitude toward the players both historically and presently, "'These,' the owners . . . will say as they have time and time again, 'are...



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