Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Baseball’s First Big Strike Ends

On July 31, 1981 a strike against Major League Baseball (MLB) ended after the loss of 713 games—38% of the regular season.  Negotiations between the owners and the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBA) were so bitter that MLB negotiator Ray Grebey and Players Association representative Marvin Miller refused to shake hands and pose with each other for a customary bury the hatchet photograph.  Each would have rather buried a hatchet in the other’s skull.

The relationship of Baseball to its employees had been bitter almost from the very beginning of the National League.  Owner regarded players as virtual chattel bound indefinitely by iron-clad personal service contracts that forbad players from seeking higher pay at other teams.  The result was an abnormally low pay scale which kept all but a handful of stars in virtual poverty and gave the stars not much more.  Bitter players sporadically struck individual teams without success, usually finding the so called ringleaders were banned for life from the sport.

As a result the Players' League was formed in 1890 with most of the National League’s top stars.  Although the league had a successful season, it was under-funded and collapsed sending most of its players back to the NL with their tails between their legs and worse off than ever.  Would-be rivals of the NL like the American Association, American League, and Federal League took advantage of player discontent to lure stars to their start-up challengers.  Only the AL survived and was eventually accepted as a peer by the NL and absorbed into the entity that became Major League Baseball.

A fall out of the Federal League collapse left the players in worse shape than ever.  The owners of the former Federal League franchise in Baltimore attempted to purchase an MLB franchise.  They were not only rebuffed, they were blackballed.  They had the same result when they tried to obtain a franchise in the International League, then the top level of the minor leagues which fed players into the Bigs.  The Baltimoreans sued in Federal Court charging that MLB constituted an illegal Trust in restraint of trade.  They one a big victory at the Circuit Court level which was over turned on appeal.  Eventually the case found its way to the Supreme Court in 1922 where in what may have been the worst ruling since Dred Scott the Court held that that baseball “was not the kind of commerce” Federal law was intended to regulate.  Alone of all American industries, Major League baseball was handed a golden exemption from the Sherman Anti-Trust Act.

While the case was winding its way slowly through the courts, members of the stellar Chicago White Sox team chaffing under the notoriously tightfisted rule of Charles Comiskey demonstrated how damaging to baseball could be the players’ resentment.   The team, or at least key members of it, accepted a bribe from gambler Arnold Rothstein to throw the 1919 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds.  The resulting Black Sox Scandal nearly derailed the game as the National Pastime.

To resurrect the tattered reputation of the game, the owners appointed Federal Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis as the Tsar-like Commissioner of Baseball.  From the owners point of view Landis was the perfect candidate.  He won national acclaim for heavily fining Standard Oil of Indiana for attempting to fix freight rates, and as a rabid opponent of unionism, Socialism and radicalism in many forms he had presided over World War I and Red Scare era trials of dissidents handing out draconian sentences and frequently stretching the law to do it.  Most famously he presided over the trial of 101 members of the IWW leadership for sedition, sending all to prison for long terms.  He was also a devoted baseball fan who had maneuvered to avoid an earlier attempt to challenge organized baseball on anti-trust ground in a 1914 suit brought by the Federal League itself. 

Although Landis theoretically represented the interests of all baseball, including players and fans, in fact at least on issues surrounding player salaries, working conditions, and ability offer their services freely to any team, he was steadfastly the owners’ man.  He ruled the game until his death in 1944 blocking all reform.'

It wasn’t until Landis was dead and Ford Frick was Commissioners that players tried to form their first organization since Landis crushed the National Baseball Players Association back in 1922.  Thirty years later in 1952 the MLBPA was formed with highly respected Cleveland Indian pitcher Bob Feller as its first—and as it turned out—only President.

Under Feller the MLBPA attempted to function as a professional association advocating for improved conditions attempting to set up programs for retired and destitute members.  However the owners flatly refused to deal with them or modify any of the terms of employment that bound players to the whim of the teams that literally owned them.  

In 1959 the organization decided it was time to get more aggressive.  I eliminated the executive presidency and brought in a professional Executive Director to lead it.  They really took the plunge to becoming a real labor union seven years later in 1966 when Marvin Miller, a former United Steelworkers economist and lead negotiator and business agent was brought on board.

Miller meant business and set about to make the MPBLA one of the strongest unions in America.  Broadcaster Red Barber would later categorize him with Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson as one of the most important figures in modern era baseball.  Certainly he shook things up.

In just two years Miller obtained the first collective bargaining agreement with the owners which raised the minimum pay—usually for rookies and journeymen utility players—for the first time in twenty years from $6,000 per season to $10,000.  That won the players undying loyalty and built unshakeable solidarity.

Next, in 1970 Miller won arbitration.  Previously when a player and his owner failed to reach agreement on terms for a new contract, the dispute would be referred to the Commissioner, the owner’s creature who naturally tended to always side with them.  Arbitration took it to an independent arbiter who picked between the two sides final offers.  Increasingly the arbitrators found for underpaid veteran players.  And the owners seeing that they had a lot to lose in the winner-takes-all system became more flexible in their negotiations.  Salaries for veteran players started to rise.

Arbitration paid off in a big way in 1974 when Oakland A’s owner Charles Finley refused to honor a contractual agreement to pay a $50,000 insurance premium for his star pitcher Catfish Hunter.  The arbiter ruled that Finley had thus voided the contract and allowed Hunter to become a free agent.  The pitcher then was able to sign with the New York Yankees for a then astonishing 5-year, $3.5 million contract.  That whetted the appetite of plays for effective free agency.

Curt Flood had famously sued MLB with the support of the players union claiming that the reserve clause which kept the “owning team” in control of a player for a solid year after his contract was up, meaning that the player could be kept from playing with any team without the original team’s consent, was an anti-trust violation.  The Supreme Court ultimately upheld the admittedly shaky ground of the anti-trust provision.

After the victory with Hunter, Miller encouraged two other players, Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally to play out the succeeding year without signing a contract. Then both players filed grievance arbitration. The players won the arbitration with a ruling that both had played out their obligations to their teams and were free agents.  The notorious reserve clause was dead and the era of free agency was ushered in.

With victory after victory under his belt, Miller was cordially hated by the owners, but they seemed powerless against the union.  These years were punctuated with short work stoppages—strikes in 1972 which lasted 13 days and in 1980 spring training two lockouts, in 1973 and 1976 spring training.
So the table was set for an epic confrontation in 1981.  The owners sought protections from the effects of free agency.  In particular they sought compensation for losing a free agent player to another team—a player selected from the signing team’s roster not including 12 protected players. The union held that any form of compensation would undermine the value of free agency.

With negotiations at an impasse the union Executive Board set a May 31 strike deadline.  This was extended while a union complaint of unfair labor practices was heart by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).  Finally, on June 15 the players walked out.

Owners were stunned when most of the sporting press and fans seemed to take the side of the fans.  They could not believe that they were not viewed as beloved community leaders instead of as flinty hearted capitalists.  A Sport Illustrated screamed “Strike! The Walkout the Owners Provoked.”

But as the strike wore on, fans became restless.  And cities took a big economic hit.  An estimated $146 million was lost in player salaries, ticket sales, broadcast revenues, and concession revenues. The players lost $4 million a week in salaries while the owners suffered a total loss of $72 million.

Faced with the possible loss of the entire season a compromise, which most considered favorable to the players, was finally reached.  Teams that lost a premium free agent could be compensated by drawing from a pool of players left unprotected from all of the clubs rather than just the signing club and players agree to restricting free agency to players with six or more years of major league service.  Marvin had never really wanted unlimited free agency anyway fearing that a glut of players on the market would drive compensation down.

Play resumed with the delayed All Star Game in Cleveland on August 8.  Because the game was moved from its traditional mid-week slot to a Sunday, a record attendance of 72,086 led owners to hope that fans would return to the game.  They were wrong.  Bitter fans stayed away in droves through the rest of the season and TV and radio audiences shrank.  Newspaper letter columns were filled with fans declaring that they were done with the game.  It took some years for the game to recover from fan disillusion.

Some of that disillusion was stoked by the slapped together play-off system used to determine teams for the World Series.  The leaders of the first half of the season would face the leaders of the second half of the season in a playoff.  In case the same team won both halves, it would face the team with the second best record.  But the system produced anomalies.  The Cincinnati Reds of the National League West and St. Louis Cardinals of the National League East each failed to make the playoffs despite having the two best full-season records in the National League that season.  On the other hand, the Kansas City Royals made the postseason despite owning the fourth-best full-season record in their division and posting a losing record overall.

Miller retired in 1982 but the union he built remained strong.

The MLBPA continued to frustrate the owners, particularly when they successfully proved in court that the owners and Commissioner of collusion in attempting to circumvent the free movement of players under free agency.  The collusion may also have affected the outcome of both the regular season series and World Series of 1985, ’86, and ’87.  Owners were fined a staggering $64.5 million and had to compensate player for losses related to multi-year contracts and lost bonuses which eventually cost them another $280 million.

There was a one day strike in August of ’85 and owners locked out player for early spring training in 1990. 

In 1994 players struck on August 12 wiping out the rest of the season and the World Series.  The strike only ended the next spring when a U.S. District judge issued an injunction restoring terms and conditions of the expired agreement. That traumatic event did even more damage to baseball.

Since then contracts have been renewed without strikes or lockouts, despite some bluster.  The union remains strong.  Baseball remains the only sport without an effective salary cap.  Player incomes and team profits are at an all-time high.  Meanwhile the other major American sports—Football, Basketball, and Hockey have all had substantial labor turmoil—largely due to week unions.

And what of Marvin Miller?  Well baseball owners have successfully fought back repeated efforts to have him elected to the Hall of Fame despite his undisputed impact on the game.  He died on November 27, 2012 in New York City at the age of 95.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Battle of the Crater—Maybe the Original SNAFU

Black troops attempt to break out of the Crater.

File this one in the “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley” Department.  The plan was brilliant.  Its execution nearly perfect down to the last detail.  The result exactly as desired, until mere mortal men marched into the breach.
By the summer of 1864 the grim carnage of the American Civil War had ground to a stalemate.  Since Gettysburg a year earlier Confederate General Robert E. Lee and his legendary Army of Northern Virginia had been hard pressed by vastly superior Union forces of the Army of the Potomac under the command of Major General George Meade directly and personally supervised by Commanding General Ulysses S Grant. 
Once famous for his audacious and aggressive maneuvers, Lee was forced to defend the Confederate capital of Richmond.  He erected impressive earthen work fortifications in a wide ring around the city.  The old man was proving to be just as adept at what would be the future of war in the Industrial Agetrench warfare.
The key to Richmond was at the rail hub of Petersburg through which the city and the army could remain supplied with food, supplies, and munitions.  Grant called it the “backdoor to Richmond” and proceeded to lay siege to the city and its fortifications.
The armies faced each other along a 20 mile front from the old Cold Harbor battlefield near Richmond to areas south of Petersburg.  An attempt to take the town by assault ended in failure on June 15.  Since then the two armies had pounded each other with artillery, peppered the opposing lines with deadly fire from sharpshooters and snipers, and delicately probed each other’s lines with reconnaissance patrols.  Both commanding generals were frustrated.
It took a mining engineer to come up with a solution to Grant’s problem—Lt. Col. Henry Pleasants, commanding the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry of Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside’s IX Corps.  His proposal was simple on paper—dig a long mineshaft from the Union siege trenches then under Confederate outer defenses until under the major fortification at the center of the Rebel lines, Elliott’s Salient.  Sappers would then plant and set off a huge mine which would blow the fort away and open a breach through which Union forces could pour, smashing the Confederate I Corps and rolling up Petersburg before Lee could muster his forces from elsewhere along the lines.
Burnside was a once promising commander nursing a badly bruised reputation.  His indecision as Army of the Potomac commander at Fredericksburg in December of 1862 had thrown away the best chance for an early end to the war and led to one of the bloodiest defeats the Army was ever handed.  Busted back to a Corps commander, his lack of aggressiveness at Spotsylvania Court House earlier that year had aggravated Grant.  Burnside was determined to prove that he was imaginative and aggressive.  He quickly gave the go-ahead to Pleasant’s plan.  Up the chain of command Meade and Grant also signed off on it but were not much convinced it would work.  Neither lent much logistical support to the effort.
Pleasants’ own troops, tough coal miners from the fields of western Pennsylvania, were just the men for the job.  They were maybe the only men in the Union army who would not consider the task drudgery.  In fact for them digging in the soft Virginia soil must have seemed like a cakewalk.
Digging began in June and proceeded quickly.  The men had to scrounge lumber to shore up the tunnel and for the ingenious ventilation system which sucked fresh air from the narrow mine entrance all the way to the face of the digging via a wooden duct.  Fetid air at the end was heated by a constantly burning pit fire which heated the air and vented it out drawing the fresh air to fill the vacuum.  This system avoided the use of multiple air vents which could have been observed.
The miners dug by hand and removed the soil in wooden soap and ammunition boxes drawn by rope along a crude wooden plank rail. On July 17 the shaft reached under Elliott’s Salient at a depth of about fifty feet.  A perpendicular gallery about 75 feet long extended in both directions.-
All of this had been accomplished un-detected by the enemy.  Confederate intelligence reported rumors of the mine to Lee about two weeks after construction began.  He didn’t believe it.  Finally after receiving new report he began desultory anti-mine efforts which failed to find or detect the shaft.
Confederate General John Pegram in charge of the artillery in the sector took the rumors more seriously, however, and on his own authority as a precaution had trenches and gun emplacements built to the rear of the Salient as a secondary line of defense.
Meade and Grant finally decided to go all in on the plan.  The gallery underneath the Confederate position was filled with 8,000 pounds of gunpowder in 320 kegs.  The main chamber was extended to 20 feet below the fort and was packed shut with 11 feet of earth in the side galleries and 32 feet of packed earth in the main gallery to prevent the explosion blasting out the mouth of the mine.
On July 27 Grant sent Major Generals Winfield Scott Hancock and Phil Sheridan on a combined infantry/cavalry attack along the James River southwest of Richmond and miles from the Petersburg front.  In what became known as the First Battle of Deep Bottom or New Market Road the forces were repelled in two sharp days of skirmishing around Fussell’s Mill and  Bailey’s Creek.  Although Grant held out some hope that Hancock’s infantry could punch a hole in the defenses to allow Sheridan’s cavalry to pour into Richmond, or failing that ride around the city severing rail connections, he was not entirely disappointed when the attacks were repulsed.   They had succeeded in causing Lee to send troops from Petersburg to re-enforce the line along the James.
Grant turned his personal attention to the well-developed plans for the Petersburg mine attack. 
Weeks earlier at an officer’s call Burnside had acceded to the plea of former New York City dance master Brigadier General Edward Ferrero to use his division of United States Colored Troops (USCT) as the leading assault unit.  Burnside, who originally had other plans, agreed.  The division was fresh, well equipped, and most importantly at full strength, 4,200—a rarity when veteran units were often whittled away to half their original size or less through combat loss, disease, and desertion.  The division was given a rarity for the Civil War—two full weeks of specialized training and instructions for this mission.  After the mine went off, they were to move ahead in the confusion of the enemy and secure the crest of the crater on either side to allow the rest of the Corps to pass along the rim or through the crater itself. 
When Meade reviewed the plans he fretted that the unit which Burnside considered fresh was simply green and therefore unreliable in combat, especially in a critical role.  He also worried that if the Colored Troops failed, they would discourage commanders from accepting and fighting alongside of others.  Although Colored Troops had proved themselves in other theaters, they were new to the elite Army of the Potomac.  Grant agreed and ordered Burnside to revise the order of battle less than 24 hours before the attack.
At another officer’s call Burnside conducted a lottery among his three white divisions to select a lead.  Brigadier General James F. Ledlie of the 1st Division won the draw.  The Colored Division would join the two others in the second wave of the attack.
Ledlie returned to his unit but never issued the special instructions for taking the flanking rim first.  The men were told only that they would have the honor of leading a full frontal assault.
Meanwhile Col. Pleasants was deep underground personally supervising the final placement of the explosives and making sure the earthen plugs in the tunnel were strong.
The mine was supposed to be detonated at 3:30 in the morning of June 30.  But the Army had provided inferior fuses.  Two attempts to light it failed.  Finally two volunteers crawled into the mine, found where the fuse had burned out and broken, and spliced a fresh fuse on the end.  It was after dawn when the mine finally blew up at 4:30, with enough light for Confederate pickets to recognize that there were large Union forces inside their lines.
The explosion itself went off flawlessly.  And impressively.  The fortifications of Elliott’s Salient were blown sky high killing most of the garrison.  Despite a little warning, the Confederate line was thrown into the anticipated confusion and panic.
Ledlie’s men at first seemed as stunned by the spectacle as the enemy.  They paused to take in the scene and had to be prodded forward by their officers and sergeants.  Ledlie himself was nowhere to be found.  He was well to the rear, completely out of line of sight of the battle in a bombproof bunker with Ferrero of the Colored Division.  Passing a bottle between them the two officers were getting quietly drunk.
When the 1st Division reached the crater instead of securing the rim, they charged directly into it.  And at the bottom they stopped to gape the destruction.  The delays allowed time for Brig. Gen. William Mahone to cobble together a Confederate force to rush to plug the breech.  They quickly occupied the vacant rim and commenced a Turkey shoot of the defenseless men in the Crater.  Troops madly tried to scramble up the sides, but found the dirt gave way under them.  They were trapped.
But they were not to be alone.  Burnside, refusing to be charged once again with indecision and lack of aggression, ordered the Colored Division forward to reinforce the trapped 1st.  Denied the rim, they followed into the Crater.  Their appearance enraged the Confederates who intensified fire, including volley after volley of intense artillery fire.
The Turkey shoot continued for more than two hours.  At one point some troops supporting troops did manage to flank the crater and advance inside the Confederate line taking trenches in brutal hand to hand combat. But there were not enough of them and could not be reinforced.  After holding out for a short while they were cleaned out of the trenches by a counter attack.
As the battle wound down, Confederate troops summarily executed Black soldiers trying to surrender.  Fearing retaliation by the Rebels, some White Union troops bayonetted Blacks as well.  The Colored Division was virtually wiped out as an effective unit.
In all Union forces suffered 3,798 casualties including 504 killed, 1,881 wounded, and 1,413 missing or captured.  The Confederates lost 1,491—361 killed, 727 wounded, and 403 missing or captured.
Probably the best chance of the year at an early end to the war was thrown away.  Grant reported to Army Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck, “It was the saddest affair I have witnessed in this war…Such an opportunity for carrying fortifications I have never seen and do not expect again to have.”
The finger pointing and blaming began immediately.  A Court of Inquiry pinned the rap on Burnside, who was relieved of command and never entrusted with another.  His reputation was ruined beyond repair.  All of his division commanders were censured, especially Ledlie and Ferrero.
One of the few to come out of the affair with an enhanced reputation was Pleasants, whose troops were not engaged in the actual fighting that day.  He was rewarded for his plan and execution with a brevet to Brigadier General.
At war’s end in 1865 the Congressional Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War opened an inquiry into the debacle.  Pleasants testified that if Burnside had been allowed to retain his original order of Battle, that the operation would have been a success.  Grant concurred.  He wrote to the Commission:
General Burnside wanted to put his colored division in front, and I believe if he had done so it would have been a success. Still I agreed with General Meade as to his objections to that plan. General Meade said that if we put the colored troops in front (we had only one division) and it should prove a failure, it would then be said and very properly, that we were shoving these people ahead to get killed because we did not care anything about them. But that could not be said if we put white troops in front.
In the end, the commission agreed, laying the blame at Meade’s feet and exonerating Burnside.  Little good did that do for the generals already destroyed reputation.
On the Confederate side Mahone was hailed a hero and became one of Lee’s most trusted division commanders in the last year of the war.
The Siege of Petersburg ground on for months more into a new year.  Union successes elsewhere, especially William Tecumseh Sherman’s operations in the Deep South, were sealing the fate of the Confederacy.  After Grant’s bloody Wilderness Campaign offensive, Lee was finally forced out of his trenches.  Richmond fell.  Lee surrendered.  The South was defeated.
But had the operation at the Crater gone as planned, maybe a million lives might have been saved.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Booth Tarkington—The Man Who Remembered

Booth Tarkington the American novelist and dramatist, was born on July 29, 1869 into a comfortable, upper middle class family in Indianapolis, Indiana.  His long and very productive career was marked by his close examination of those 19th Century Mid-Western roots in the humorous, nostalgic vein of his popular Penrod novels and Seventeen, as well as more serious depictions as in The Magnificent Ambersons and Alice Adams. 
At first educated in Indianapolis schools, his socially ambitious family had him transferred to Phillips Exeter Academy, the fashionable eastern boarding school that was a conduit to the Ivy League.  But his family lost some of their wealth in the Panic of 1879, and young Booth was sent instead to Indiana’s own Purdue University.  A gifted enough student not to have to work hard for decent grades, he was popular on campus and enjoyed his two years there. 
With improving fortunes he was sent to Princeton to finish his education.  There he joined a theatrical group where he excelled as an actor and first turned his hand as a playwright.  He became one of the charter members when the drama club was re-chartered as The Triangle Club, which continues to this day producing original work by students.  He also belonged to the Ivy Club, the oldest and most prestigious of Princeton’s dining clubs and edited the Nassau Literary Magazine. 
Voted the most popular student of the class of 1893, Tarkington failed to graduate, missing credit in one class.  However, he kept close ties to both of his colleges and made significant gifts to each when he became a wealthy and successful writer.  A residence hall at Purdue was named for him after he underwrote its construction and both schools awarded him honorary degrees.  In fact, he was the only person ever to receive two honorary degrees from Princeton, a measure of his literary prestige in the first quarter of the 20th Century. 
Upon leaving school, Tarkington was able to undertake the traditional grand tour of Europe and spent time in such upper-class enclaves as Kennebunkport, Maine between extended stays in Indianapolis.  He began successfully writing short stories for popular magazines.  In 1900 he had success with his second book, Monsieur Beaucaire.  Uncharacteristic of most of his work the slender novel was a comic historical romance 18th Century England.  It’s themes of social class and caste, however would be reflected in more American scenes.  The book went on to be a successful play, was made into an operetta, and was twice filmed, in 1924 with Rudolph Valentino and 1946 with Bob Hope.  
Tarkington married in 1902 and set up primary residence in Indianapolis. The marriage, which produced one daughter, ended in divorce in 1911 and Tarkington married Susanah Keifer Robinson the following year.  In 1902, the year of his first marriage, Tarkington was elected to a single term as a Republican in the Indiana legislature, which gave him fodder for his book In the Arena: Stories of Political Life published in 1905. 
Tarkington was soon publishing nearly a book a year in addition to a volume of poetry and plays, including adaptations of his books.  Later he would also do screenplays from his work. 
Penrod, the first of a series of books about the adventures of a small town boy of comfortable circumstances, began as magazine stories and was published in 1914 and was widely popular.  The next year Tarkington finished The Turmoil, the first book of the Growth trilogy about the fall of an old wealth family and the rise of the industrial new rich.  The second book of that series, The Magnificent Ambersons was published in 1918 and is considered by most critics as him most important work.  It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1919.  Orson Wells famously made it into a classic film in 1941. 
In between, in 1916 came Seventeen, a much beloved, painfully comic tale of a young man’s unrequited love.  It is still an entertaining and enjoyable read.  In 1922 Tarkington won a second Pulitzer Prize for Alice Adams, his tale of a vivacious small town girl of modest means who plots to snag the handsome son of the town’s leading wealthy family.  It, too, was twice made into a film adapted for the screen most famously in 1935 by my distant kinswoman Jane Murfin for Katherine Hepburn. 
Presenting Lily Mars, published in 1933 told the story of a stage struck young woman and incorporated themes from Tarkington’s lifelong interest in the theater.  It was made into a MGM musical staring Judy Garland in 1943.
In the early ‘20’s Tarkington began to lose his sight and was blind by mid-decade.  He continued to produce a steady stream of novels, plays, and non-fiction by dictation up to his death in 1946. 
In all nine of his novels were top best sellers and several of his stage plays long running hits.  His reputation as a novelist has been eclipsed by harder edged work by later American writers.  Seventeen remains perennially in print as a juvenile favorite, but Tarkington is now best remembered for the films made of his work.