Today’s guest columnist is Tony Clark, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association.
In the mid-1990s, I got my first taste of Major League Baseball on, and off, the field. I was a young prospect for the Detroit Tigers, who had drafted me in 1990, and after a few years of playing both college basketball and minor league baseball, I played my first full season of pro ball in 1994. Following a solid year in Double-A Trenton, N.J., and Triple-A Toledo, Ohio, I reached the Majors the following season, in 1995.
But it was during my first Major League training camp, in 1994, when my eyes were first opened wide to the strength and unity that somehow seemed like part of a big leaguer’s DNA. While I understood that the main reason these players were here was their competitiveness and determination to succeed on the field, I learned in those weeks and months that those same characteristics drove these players to insist being treated fairly, and with dignity, by the industry.
Major League Baseball and the Players Association were entering what would become the longest labor dispute in the industry’s history. But the veteran players’ confidence and commitment to stand their ground, unified, as owners demanded dramatic givebacks—including a salary cap—was inspirational to a young player like myself. In retrospect, it had a lot to do with why I became actively involved with the union as a player and why I was willing to take on a role with the union after I was done playing.
Surrounding me in the Tigers’ clubhouse were not just some of the most talented players to lace up cleats, but also some of the strongest and principled men I have ever been around. In that room were Cecil Fielder, Alan Trammell, Travis Fryman, Lou Whitaker, Mike Henneman and Lance Parrish. Al Kaline was there, too, and even though he was no longer active, he had lived through the earliest years of our union, understood how we’d reached that point, and shared story after story about our history.
Over the years, I’ve often used the word “fraternity” to describe our organization because that’s what I was quickly learning about the bond between us as Major League players. It didn’t matter when you played, or whether you had just gotten your first sip of coffee, were a veteran, a superstar or a role player. Playing in the Bigs always felt like being a part of something bigger than yourself—a link in the proverbial chain if you will.
In that first camp, I remember hearing the same few phrases often: “We have a duty to protect the advances players who came before us sacrificed to make on our behalf.”
“We have an obligation to leave the game better for the young guys who will someday be assigned to our lockers.”
“As long as we remain unified and stick together to take a principled stand, we can prevail.”
At first, it seemed strange that so many veteran players were expressing nearly the exact same sentiments, but it wasn’t long before I began to understand why. These were the pillars upon which Marvin Miller, the first man to hold my current job, had built our union, instilling a “we’re in this together” ethos that would stand the test of time and serve as the MLBPA’s guiding principles for more than 50 years.
None of this was the product of happenstance or trial and error. Marvin was an experienced economist and labor negotiator who understood the power players could wield collectively. He made it a primary mission to expand how players perceived themselves and the value they brought to the industry. It was his blueprint; he was the architect of the MLBPA. His induction into Cooperstown this week is a recognition of the contributions of Marvin and our union to the industry.
When our executive director at the time, Don Fehr, came to Lakeland, Fla., that spring to speak with our club, the discussion took on a serious tone, but throughout he echoed the same phrases. Again, it was no accident. Don had worked alongside Marvin since 1975 and eventually became general counsel before being named executive director in 1983.
Those principles upon which Marvin had carefully, patiently and methodically built our union had not changed and never would. To Marvin, they represented the essence of trade unionism: that employees were collectively standing up not just for themselves, but also the employees who had sacrificed for them, their fellow employees and future ones.
Those core principles have never been forgotten. They were emphasized by Marvin, by Don, by our late executive director, Michael Weiner, and now I have the privilege to do the same. More importantly, players have understood them and embraced them. Players have seen them work over and over again, passed them down to each succeeding generation and believed in them. Even in the most difficult times.
This generation of ballplayers is no different. The issues have become more complex and nuanced over the decades, but they understand that remaining unified, staying engaged and taking care of each other will enable them to achieve their collective objectives.
The legacy of Marvin Miller lives on in every Major League clubhouse, and we are grateful that Marvin’s leadership, ingenuity and contributions to our great game are finally being recognized on this stage for the impact they had.
Clark, who played 15 years in the Major Leagues, is the first player to serve as the MLBPA’s executive director, a position he has held since 2013.