"Heh," Marvin Miller chuckles. "I haven't talked to Jim for a long while." Jim is Jim Bunning, the obstreperous shitbag who sought to deny thousands of Americans their jobless benefits but who, once upon a time, fought baseball's good fight.
Miller is of course the former executive director of the Major League Baseball Player Association. Under his stewardship, a weak company shop that existed more or less at the whim of the owners became one of the country's strongest unions, and for that, in a lot of ways, baseball has the junior senator from Kentucky to thank. Bunning, Miller says now, was "instrumental in my being elected in the first place." And to find Jim Freaking Bunning at the center of this relatively progressive piece of history is a little like learning that Dick Cheney once ran guns to the Sierra Maestras.
Bunning, then pitching for the Phillies, was one of four players on the MLBPA's search committee that ultimately nominated Miller, an economist with United Steelworkers, and shepherded him through a membership vote in 1966. Bunning was no radical then, to be sure (Miller characterizes the pitcher's views even at that stage as "way over to the right"); he was just another player with a lot of grievances about the way the sport was run.
Miller met with Bunning and the search committee in 1965. Free agency wasn't even a gleam in Andy Messersmith's eye yet, and the players' complaints at that point centered mostly on a pension plan that its union had long underfunded. "I was doing my level best to try and understand what their problems were," Miller says, "what they hoped their organization could become. I was having a terrible time, because whenever I would manage to steer the conversation that way, I would get responses about the pension plan and almost nothing else. Finally, I said, 'You know, there are other things to be concerned about.' At that point, Bunning opened up a little. He talked about scheduling problems, about back-to-back doubleheaders, getaway days, playing at night and having to take a plane in the middle of the night to another city and having to play the next day — all kinds of problems like that. And he was pretty voluble about such things once I primed the pump a little."
Which is how Jim Bunning, of all people, briefly became a labor activist. He was out of the majors by 1972, and whatever pro-worker fervor he'd whipped up as a member of the union had dissipated by the time the players got around to staging the first strike in their sport's history. (The nominal issue in the '72 strike was a cost-of-living increase in pension fund payments; the real issue was management's fond wish to break the union over its knee.) Bunning was managing the Phillies' Double-A team in Reading, and Miller recalls fielding phone calls from his former sponsor, urging him to put a stop to the strike. "He was basically spouting the management line to me," Miller says. "In the '72 strike, the union was so, so correct. There's just no argument. We had Charlie Finley on the other side ... and he was absolutely puzzled. He just couldn't deal with his fellow owners. ... They wanted to destroy the union. So when Bunning would call me, while the strike was going on, and spout the management line, I finally had to say to him, 'You know, you really ought to study this issue carefully.'"
I talked to Miller a few hours before Bunning at last stepped off his milk crate on the Senate floor. He wasn't surprised in the least that the player who helped build one of the country's most formidable trade unions would later stage a one-man filibuster to deny hundreds of thousands of workers their unemployment benefits. This was a guy, after all, who never dared use the word "union" in reference to the MLBPA, Miller says.
"He wasn't the only one," he adds. "Even when they created a search committee and were determined to have a more effective organization, they still weren't thinking in terms of a union. They were thinking more along the lines of a professional organization. ... Most ballplayers are drafted out of high school, a few out of college. None of them had real experience in the workforce. They had no personal experience with the value of a good trade union. But they were subjected to all the rotten anti-union propaganda. As Robin Roberts [the spokesman of the search committee] explained to me at the time, they come from non-union areas. They come from Southern states. They come from Orange County. They come from Arizona. They come from climates where you can play ball most of the year, and in all those places, you're dealing with an anti-union society."
Miller and Bunning remained friendly over the years, even after the latter entered politics. (He sought out Miller's advice when he was mulling a run for governor of Kentucky.) From afar, Miller followed Bunning's 2004 Senate campaign, during which the senator did just about everything short of howl naked at the moon. "Peculiar" is Miller's gentle characterization of his old friend's behavior. "I tell you," he says with a small sigh, "I'm a little worried about him."