July 5, 2020

The Scapegoat

February 20, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Rule of thumb – you can tell how nice a place is by the number of stonewalled front lawns. The road through Bedford into Stamford is a rock-rimmed capillary, the barricades protecting the homes of the wealthy which sit safely beyond. Turning off the main drag to Ray Grebey’s home, a different picture emerges. Grebey, the lead negotiator for major league owners during the 1981 baseball strike, lives in a typical mid-1960’s suburban house where he has been for 42 years, part of a development that old moneyed Stamfordites referred to as “the slums.” Grebey has cordoned off his sour baseball memories for a quarter-century, but on this May Day, 2009, he was ready to talk. When it comes to Ray Grebey, things are not as they appear.

Baseball was ripped apart in the summer of 1981 by the players’ strike, which hit at the height of the championship season. Major league stadiums were empty for nearly two months; a season of dramatic highlights – Fernandomania, a Yankees – Dodgers World Series – was stained by the loss of 712 games. Back in the fall of 1979, Marvin Miller, who had transformed the players’ union from an illegally run, industry- funded sham into a formidable and independent voice for workers’ rights, met with Commissioner of Major League Baseball Bowie Kuhn, who had fought Miller every step of the way. Over drinks at the 21 Club – proletarian vodka martinis for Miller, establishment gin martinis for Kuhn – Kuhn laid out the owners’ dire need of a victory after a procession of losses to the Miller-led players. Kuhn’s unctuous pleading turned threatening and Miller knew then, as he sucked down an olive, that a strike was inevitable.

Causing the rift was compensation for teams that lost players to free agency. The owners wanted direct compensation for clubs that lost a free agent. Whether a team sought to resign the player and failed or just didn’t want the overpaid stiff anymore, was irrelevant. The “loser” would be entitled to a pretty good ballplayer off the signing team’s roster, starting with the 14th best man. The players balked, arguing clearly that this would restrict signings by punishing a team bent on pursuing a free agent. Think of the 2009 World Series in this way – would the Yankees have signed Nick Swisher last season if they had been forced to part with, say, Hideki Matsui? Possibly, and if they passed on Swisher, would he have ended up signing with anyone, or would he have signed for less money as the Yankee wallet slammed shut? The union thought such direct compensation would deter signings and lower salaries; the owners felt otherwise.

Preparing for battle, the owners had reached into the corporate world in 1978, hiring Ray Grebey from General Electric. Grebey had a reputation as a tough negotiator during his two decades with a company known for cracking down on unions. The players union worried. From where Miller sat, Grebey was violently anti-labor and bent on union-busting. As chief negotiator of the Player Relations Committee (PRC), Grebey became the owners’ point man. Face to face with the media savvy Miller, Grebey never had a prayer and was quickly painted as a villain in the press. When the dust settled, the owners were the clear losers and it was only a matter of time before they and Grebey would part ways. After resigning his position in April 1983, Grebey worked with his darling Chicago Cubs for a little over a year. Since then he has steadfastly refused to talk about his years around the diamond.

Baseball has been a constant throughout Grebey’s life and he still watches games often, following his favorite players. Though he lost his left eye to cancer and wears glasses with one dark lens to cover the area, Grebey is full of energy and his memory seems solid, even at 81. He shares those qualities with his old nemesis Miller, who in his early 90’s recalls the tiniest detail of decades past.

Grebey’s house is fairly baseball-free. Signed baseballs sit on a basement shelf, the steps leading down to the cellar display few framed baseball items, mostly hailing the Cubs – a matted 1990 All-star Game ticket from Wrigley Field, a photo of the outside message board from The Friendly Confines welcoming Ray Grebey to the game. Growing up in Rogers Park on the far North Side during the Cubs’ heyday of the 1930’s, it was hard for young Ray not to worship his Cubbies.

“I knew a lot of the guys, like Charlie Root. I knew Freddie Lindstrom’s son,” the 81-year-old Grebey happily recalled. “I once saw Gabby Hartnett bite off the end of his cigar when he missed bowling a 300-game on his last roll.” Grebey’s affection for the local nine began with his first game in 1932. He and his mother, both seriously injured after they were struck by a car barreling through a stop sign, would often head south to the ballpark. Baseball followed Ray to college, where, at Kenyon, he formed a lifelong friendship with classmate, dropout and future White Sox owner, Bill Veeck, whose father was President of the Cubs when Ray first developed his love for the team.

Grebey began his career as a trainee at Inland Steel. 1949 was his first year with the company and an October strike over the pension plan and wages resulted in Grebey being moved from his junior executive job to that as a mudslinger at the blast furnace. By the late 1950’s he was at GE, working in labor negotiations. Although negotiations with multiple unions were a challenge, Grebey remembers it as a family atmosphere.

“There was a sense that management and union were all part of GE,” Grebey says. “There was a love of the company.” Grebey still has clear affection for his old workplace. “Negotiations were professional, structured, both sides were prepared. There were clear objectives. Not so in baseball, where the individual owners didn’t know what the hell they wanted, and different players came in depending on who was in town.”

When the job as chief negotiator opened up, Grebey interviewed and got it, though he hesitated. A Vice-President at GE assured Grebey he had a job there as long as he wanted, but the baseball opportunity seemed pretty good. Bill Caples, President of Inland Steel, had one bit of advice for Grebey. Caples knew Marvin Miller from his days as an economist and assistant to the President of the United Steel Workers Union, the job Miller held when he was hired to head the players’ union in 1966. “Miller is a bright guy, a nice guy, and you should get to know him,” Caples advised.

“I tried to get to know Marvin, but he was aloof, didn’t want to be friends,” said Grebey. Grebey is no Miller-hater, though. Respect for his erstwhile opponent is clear. “Marvin was meticulous and very responsive to his membership. The only time I ever was angry at Marvin was when he scheduled a meeting on the Saturday of my son’s graduation from Kenyon.” Grebey went to the session and flew out to the ceremony on an old prop plane provided by Pirates Owner Dan Galbreath. Grebey is a proud family man, photos of his wife, Marilyn, who he met as a freshman in High School and has been married to for over 60 years, kids and grandkids, cover most of the walls and shelves.

Nothing in Grebey’s corporate background could have prepared him for the high profile job of leading the PRC. Dealing with the press was not in Grebey’s bailiwick and he has no problem conceding the point that his sarcasm and inability to understand the media hurt him. During the negotiations, the Grebey family’s privacy suffered mightily. Often there would be video cameras on the lawn, or a network truck in the driveway. Marilyn found protection at the local golf club, where she would camp out all day long.

While Grebey was unprepared for the limelight, and never once given counsel by his new bosses on how to deal with such problems, he was most shocked at the conduct of those who he was representing. Kuhn was an imperial Commissioner, chauffeured and surrounded by bodyguards, cottoning only to powerful owners who could protect his job.

“Kuhn only listened to those owners he felt could help him stay in power. He took the industry down the wrong path in labor relations, reinforcing the old ways of management superiority.” It’s obvious that Grebey, coming from the order of General Electric, was at sea in the waters of major league business. The owners had no mind to proper labor relations, they were too legalistic, in his view, and that mindset led to a miasma of problems that hurt Grebey’s ability to negotiate properly.

The owners were individuals, each with their own agenda. The players were solid, united, cohesive. What was in the best interests of the Dodgers and Yankees was not in the best interest of the Twins and Royals. Famed Washington attorney Edward Bennett Williams, then owner of the Baltimore Orioles, was an outspoken critic of Grebey’s. Finally, called on the carpet for his comments that undermined the PRC, Williams swore, “Grebey, I’ll get you if it’s the last thing I do before I die.” And this came from his own side!

With ownership ranks split, Grebey had little chance against Miller. While a strike had been averted in 1980, if simply because the explosive compensation issue was tabled for a year, 1981 was heading for disaster, and Miller’s players were committed to fighting the owners’ plan.

“Miller was the only union representative,” Grebey replied when asked about the various players on the union negotiating team. One player stood out among the mixed bag that attended the endless negotiating sessions. Bob Boone, Phillies catcher and National League Player Representative, was “a fantastic guy, well-spoken, bright. He conducted himself properly at the bargaining table.” Boone was an inveterate tobacco chewer. “Bob would sit down and place two empty cups on the table. When the second cup was filled with tobacco juice, the session was over,” Grebey laughs.

Others were not as professional. Some would come to the table after workouts, in sweat suits with a towel wrapped around their necks, stinking to high heaven. Another constantly fed information to owners seeking to end the work stoppage. A revolving door of players would attend meetings. Grebey remembers one hilarious moment.

“Marvin was very meticulous, and to make sure I had his proposals understood, I would read them back out loud. One time, I was reading a union proposal and Reggie Jackson came bolting in. When he heard me speaking, he yelled, ‘Grebey, we aren’t taking any of your crap anymore.’ ‘Reggie,’ I said, ‘this is one of your proposals.’ Jackson stood in stunned silence. Suddenly, he raised his hand, shouted ‘Recess!’ and ran out.”

The negotiations were heated and Grebey vilified. Miller was, and still is, a masterful spokesman, pointed, cutting, sophisticated in his arguments and graceful in conversation. Grebey smarts as he recalls Miller telling reporters that Ray Grebey is the only guy who walks into the room and pisses everyone off. Grebey never had a chance in the court of public opinion. “Marvin got the best of me, I admit it,” he says without a trace of bitterness.

How little bitterness does Grebey have? In December, after Marvin Miller once again failed to be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee, Grebey dashed off a letter to the Board of Directors, imploring them to get his former adversary a plaque. “Put animosity aside,” passionately wrote Grebey, urging a special election to gain admission for the man who tormented him for years.

Nobody ever defended Ray Grebey with similar zeal. “I never got a public show of support from any of the owners.” He would learn, sometimes painfully, of the duplicity of those he argued for, from the Commissioner to league presidents to owners. It was that hypocrisy that led him to leave major league baseball. It was the reason he hasn’t spoken about his baseball days in so long.

After baseball, Grebey helped start the Trump shuttle, was a scholar in residence at Washington University in St. Louis, and worked in the public sector, first for the City of Stamford, then for the state labor board, where nary a union objection was lodged during his appointment hearing. The family travels often, as far as China and as near as Cooperstown, where a recent visit to the Hall of Fame allowed him to share his baseball experiences with his grandson. Grebey said nothing as he stared at Bowie Kuhn’s plaque.

As our day ended, Ray Grebey thought back to his beginnings at Inland Steel. During the strike of 1949, a settlement was near. “How could you settle after a long strike and still get along with the union?” the young trainee asked an executive with the company. “Well, what we do is this. The company picks someone and says, ‘He’s to blame for all this.’ Then the union blames the same guy. This way we both protect the industry.”

Such is the sad tale of Ray Grebey.

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