Das Boot


Ryan Braun

There shouldn’t be any great shock that baseball government has purged arbitrator Shyam Das, and for two reasons:

1) When Das ruled in favour of Ryan Braun’s appeal, and held that the package containing his fateful urine sample had been secured improperly, baseball government handed down a statement, post haste, fuming that oh, yes, we agreed to neutral third parties for reviews in disputed matters, but oh, no, we think Das is talking through his chapeau.

2) Oh, yes, they have long enough agreed to neutral third parties when reviewing bristling disagreements, but oh, no, they’re not exactly strangers to purging those with whom they disagree, vehemently or otherwise.

If you don’t believe me, you can probably ask the arbitrator who ruled in favour of Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally, the men who finally made free agency possible. Peter Seitz didn’t last as long on the job after making that ruling than Das—who still has a job, as an arbitrator for the National Football League, and is preparing to hear a grievance involving the New Orleans Saints’ disgraceful bounty issue—lasted after ruling for Braun.

As a matter of fact, Seitz had summoned Marvin Miller, then the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players’ Association, and John Gaherin, the negotiator for baseball government’s Player Relations Committee, to meet two days before Christmas 1975. He had a sixty-four page decision in Messersmith-McNally, but according to John Helyar (in The Lords of the Realm) both Miller and Gaherin went right to the final page and the net result: The grievances of Messersmith and McNally are sustained. There is no contractual bond between these players and the Los Angeles and Montreal clubs, respectively.

Miller signed the line marked “Assent.” Gaherin signed the line marked “Dissent”—and handed Seitz a letter. The letter said he was canned as baseball’s arbitrator. “Peter,” Gaherin told Seitz, as quoted by Helyar, “I’m sorry, I love you dearly, but you’re out.”

Andy Messersmith

Dave McNally

In other words, baseball government was prepared completely, in advance, and probably with malice aforethought, to execute Seitz if he even thought about ruling in favour of Messersmith and McNally, and after they, the owners, had decided Seitz’s original advice to keep it away from an arbitration decision and negotiate the issue themselves with the players was just so much quackery.

The whole megillah started in the wake of the Catfish Hunter dispute. The Hall of Famer in waiting cried foul when Oakland Athletics owner Charlie Finley reneged on insurance payments called for in Hunter’s contract; Seitz ruled in favour of Hunter, and a ferocious bidding war ended when Hunter signed as a free agent with the Yankees . . . for very big money but less than had been offered by two other clubs. The Hunter case addressed one player with a specified grievance on one clause having nothing to do with the abuse of the reserve clause.

Gaherin had helped negotiate baseball’s first true basic labour contract in 1968. He tried and failed to persuade his bosses, the owners, that salary arbitration just might have preserved the reserve system, knowing Miller was just itching for a case that would torpedo the reserve system once and for all. Now, just as the world had seen what Catfish Hunter as a bona-fide free agent could command on an open market, Los Angeles Dodgers righthander Andy Messersmith—twice a 20-game winner to this point; owner of a 2.77 ERA in four seasons pitching for bad Angels teams; his second 20-win season joining with a 2.59 ERA for the 1974 Dodgers (to whom he’d been traded in 1972)—refused to sign a 1975 contract.

There were two reasons why. Reason number one: While discussing the raise Messersmith had coming after that splendid 1974, during which he’d made $90,000, the Dodgers’ general manager, Al Campanis, reportedly injected a personal issue into the mix that stung Messersmith so deeply that, to this day, he can’t bring himself to talk about it. It provoked Messersmith to break off talks and refuse to deal with anyone lower than club president Peter O’Malley . . . and insert a new demand of his own, a no-trade clause, deciding he wasn’t going to let the like of Al Campanis rule his career.

Reason number two: O’Malley declined the no-trade clause (he was thought otherwise to be very pleasant and fair in dealing with Messersmith’s situation), simply because the Dodgers had never given one. Messersmith decided thus not to sign a 1975 contract, preferring to play out the option year by the strict letter of its spelling out in the infamous reserve clause.

Messersmith pitched 1975 feeling “very alone” until he got an August call from Miller, telling him that among six other players who started the season without newly-signed contracts, only one such player remained to sign: Messersmith himself. And the two men agreed that, if Messersmith finished 1975 unsigned, he’d file a grievance and seek free agency. The Dodgers, for their part, kept sweetening the money pot as Messersmith pitched on; by September 1975, the were offering $150,000 to cover 1975, $170,000 for 1976, and a whopping $220,000 for 1977, all the while with Peter O’Malley insisting he wouldn’t agree to the no-trade clause but had absolutely no intention of dealing Andy Messersmith anywhere.

I never went into this for the glory and betterment of the Players Association. At the start it was all personal. Al Campanis had stirred my anger, and it became a pride issue. When I get stubborn, I get very stubborn . . . 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 . . . Now I understood the significance of what this was all about. I was tired of players having no power and no rights.

So said Messersmith. And the final figures on his 1975 gave him powerful ammunition.He led the National League in starts (40), complete games (19), and innings pitched (322). He finished second in the league’s ERA race, with a 2.29 figure; he was third in wins with nineteen; he led the league in shutouts with seven. It wasn’t enough to get the Dodgers past the division-winning Cincinnati Reds, but it was enough to prove he was not a man to be trifled with in a contract impasse.

Dave McNally got into the picture because Miller still feared Messersmith might not take it all the way, and the players’ union leader wanted a fallback. The lefthander had agreed to a trade from Baltimore (where he’d been a formidable pitcher) to Montreal. The deal required his approval as a 10-5 man; McNally also got promises from the Expos that he’d get a two-year deal at $125,000 each, only to find when the deal got done that the Expos had other plans: one year, at McNally’s 1974 salary, a deal McNally refused to sign. McNally also had another problem: a sore arm, prompting him to retire early in June. The kicker: McNally, technically, remained an unsigned player.

But he agreed when Miller asked to add him to the Messersmith grievance “if Andy decides to sign a new Dodger contract.” After the owners tried and failed to get Seitz pushed away from the case, arguing he’d exposed a bias toward free agency in the Hunter case, Seitz heard the case.

When he concluded the case hearings, Seitz actually preferred the two sides negotiate rather than leave it up to him. Gaherin courageously tried to persuade the owners they would lose the case on the evidence presented, pressing the point that the owners wouldn’t necessarily give anything away just by talking to the players. When the owners wouldn’t budge, Gaherin called Miller to say no change. Then he called Seitz. “The answer is: there’s no change in [the owners’] position. So turn the crank.”

Seitz turned the crank and found himself out of a job post haste. It’s only a wonder that the pressured Gaherin didn’t hand Seitz the letter of termination the split second before he signed “Dissent.”

In more ways than one, Shyam Das got off easy by comparison. But he still stands as a reminder. The idea of baseball’s lordship simply behaving like a lordship when the rules to which they assent produce things they simply dislike is anything but a novel idea.

One response to this post.

  1. Posted by WrigleyRegular on May 15, 2012 at 3:05 am

    Nice post. I knew the general story around the Messersmith decision, but your post really told the full story, and tied it into the move by MLB to fire Das. Thanks.



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