Bob Feller pitched his way into baseball history in a 20-year career with the Indians.
But after his career was over, he made history of another kind.
On December 11, 1956 – 61 years ago this week – the new Major League Baseball Players Association asked for a meeting with the 16 major league owners. Feller, who was the Indians’ team representative to the players’ committee, was elected its first president. (Feller would announce his retirement as a player at the end of the month.)
The group had been charted two years earlier, organized at the Hollenden Hotel in Cleveland, but was a loose confederation of player representatives, more concerned with shoring up baseball’s pension plan, getting a cut of broadcast revenues and barnstorming, a lucrative source of revenue for stars like Feller in the off-season, but a burden to teams that had to play in-season exhibitions on scheduled off days. Association lawyer J. Norman Lewis denied that this was a step toward unionization, and Feller said two years later that there was no place for collective bargaining in baseball.
However, Feller, always one to speak his mind, did an interview a year later that was absolutely prescient about what was going to come to baseball. Feller had testified against baseball’s reserve clause before Congress, and he reiterated his remarks in an interview with Mike Wallace. Wallace, later one of the mainstays of “60 Minutes,” pointed out how well-paid ballplayers were, with an average salary of $18,520 for the 1956 Cleveland Indians – far above the average U.S. salary of around $3,600. Feller countered by saying, “As far as I’m concerned it’s not the amount that you make, it’s the principle that you’re not in a strong bargaining position,” not that different from Curt Flood, a decade later on the Dick Cavett Show saying, “A well-paid slave is still a slave.”
Feller opposed the reserve clause – but stood alone in doing so. Wallace noted that no other players were willing to speak against it, and Jackie Robinson even said, “I think the reserve clause is all right.” (It’s probably worth noting that Robinson, the first black player in the modern major leagues, was not in a position at that point to fully speak his mind. It’s also worth noting that a noticeable rift developed between Feller and Robinson, both inducted in the same Hall of Fame class in 1962.) But as it turned out, he was on the right side of history, even if it went too far for his liking.
In 1966, the Major League Baseball Players Association was certified as a union, and was looking for a new director. Feller was among the current and former players who went and talked to Richard Nixon about the opening. At the time, Nixon was regarded as politically dead and buried, four years removed from losing the race for California governor, having famously said, “You don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.”
Nixon declined the offer, saying he had political obligations (two years later he’d run for president and win). Fifteen years after the meeting, Feller recalled Nixon’s advice. “Do not get a lawyer and do not get a labor leader. Get somebody who knows something about your game and has some experience.”
The players didn’t listen. Led by former Phillies and Orioles hurler Robin Roberts, who was described as a radical, the association hired as executive director Marvin Miller, who had served as an economist and negotiator for the United Steelworkers, then in its heyday. Feller told Russ Schneider of the Plain Dealer that Miller was a snake-oil salesman, saying, “This guy Miller is a phony. He can’t do the players any good. He can only hurt them … I’m convinced Miller is in this thing for only one reason. Not to help the players or baseball in general, but simply to make a buck.”
On Miller’s watch, the average MLB salary went from $19,000 to $326,000. But it came at a cost – five players’ strikes, including one in 1981 that cancelled 713 games. (The 1994 strike happened after Miller stepped down as director.)
But the reserve clause eventually was struck down. Although a court challenge by Flood was unsuccessful, a federal arbitrator paved the way for free agency. Feller believed that a modest adjustment to the reserve clause while he was players association president could have prevented what he thought was the pendulum swinging too far in the other direction, saying in his autobiography the association had gone too far. “Its leaders seem to have replaced the negotiating table with a stone wall,” Feller said.
Photo: Cleveland Memory Project