Are baseball players happy? A personal memory of Marvin Miller | MLB
Major League Baseball is undergoing a revolution. As more and more teams embrace sabermetrics as a way of life, club owners are casting a jaundiced eye at longterm contracts for players in their thirties. This, in turn, has led to a ripple effect on salaries across the board. One wonders what Marvin Miller would think of it all.
Miller is a towering figure in sports history. In 1966, when he was elected executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, players were bound to their club by a “reserve clause” that precluded free negotiation. Pensions were negligible. Most labor issues were resolved by club owners in a dictatorial manner.
In 1968, Miller negotiated the first collective bargaining agreement in the history of professional sports. The agreement raised baseball’s annual minimum salary from $6,000 to $10,000. More significantly, it began the process of laying a foundation for an effective labor movement. The tide turned irrevocably in 1975, when an arbitrator (and later, the federal courts) upheld a challenge to baseball’s reserve clause. Free agency for players with six years’ service in the major leagues was incorporated into the next collective bargaining agreement. In 1970, the average salary for a major league baseball player was $29,303. In 2018, it was $4,095,686.
Miller’s creation became the standard that other sports unions aspire to. He formally stepped down as executive director of the MLBPA in late 1982. One of his last acts of leadership was mean-spirited and destructive. I know, because I was on the receiving end of it. And I think it constituted a disservice to the players he served so effectively for most of his reign.
Let me explain.
As a child, I was a passionate baseball fan. I went to doubleheaders regularly at Yankee Stadium and knew the names of virtually every player in the major leagues.
Fast-forward to 1982. I was 36 years old. Five year earlier, I’d left my job as a litigator with a prominent Wall Street law firm to pursue a career as a writer. I was no longer a passionate baseball fan but still followed the sport with interest.
Baseball in 1982 was in a state of transition. A 1981 strike had led to the cancellation of 706 games (38 percent percent of the season) and engendered considerable public resentment toward the players. Times are different now. The public is used to astronomical salaries for athletes. But in 1982, $241,497 (the average player salary) struck many as an exorbitant amount of money for “playing a game”.
I had a friend (a professor of psychiatry named Bill Hoffmann) who dabbled in sports psychology. Bill and I were of the view that a baseball player’s life was harder than it seemed. But could we quantify that notion?
In September 1982, Dr. Hoffmann and I proposed an article to Sports Illustrated. The first paragraph of our proposal read, “Countless articles have been written about what makes professional athletes win, but little has been said about what makes them happy. The popular perception is that ballplayers have a great life – good pay, lots of adulation; they don’t even ‘work’ for a living. But scratch the veneer of a professional athlete and two demons surface: fear of failure and the fear of growing old.”
We then proposed putting together a psychological testing questionnaire and sending it to every member of the Major League Baseball Players Association as the foundation of our research, analyzing the results, conducting follow-up interviews with players, and writing about our findings.
Sports Illustrated found the idea intriguing and asked us to prepare a draft questionnaire. If it was satisfactory, the magazine would pay the cost of copying and postage. Once the data was in, SI would decide whether or not it wanted to commission the article. If it didn’t, Dr. Hoffmann and I would be free to sell our work elsewhere.
At that point, I telephoned the Major League Baseball Players Association and was referred to Peter Rose (associate general counsel for the organization). I asked him if the MLBPA would cooperate by making mailing labels available. Rose said he liked the idea but that an updated list of players’ addresses would not be compiled until sometime in November. He also told me that the MLBPA had a policy against releasing the home addresses of players but that, if I brought the stuffed envelopes to MLBPA headquarters, mailing labels would be affixed to them and they could be mailed from there.
Thereafter, Dr. Hoffmann and I prepared a seven-page questionnaire with 61 questions. Some of the inquiries asked for basic biographical data. Others delved more deeply into likes and dislikes, hopes and fears, how the individual player’s happiness was affected by on-field performance, personal and professional relationships, salary, the media, fans, off-season activities, education, religion, and numerous other variables. Sports Illustrated approved the questionnaire with minor changes, and I telephoned Rose to ask how much advance notice would be needed prior to mailing. He said that 48 hours would be adequate.
On the first Friday in December, I telephoned the MLBPA to advise Rose that the mailing would be ready in three days and was told by a secretary that he was at the winter meetings in Hawaii and would not be in the office until Monday, December 13. After several more calls, the same secretary told me that I could pick up the labels and mail the letters myself if I promised that I would make no copies of the labels and show the addresses to no one. I agreed and kept that promise. The questionnaire was sent to 894 players (814 in the United States and 80 in foreign countries).
Then we waited. And the questionnaires began flowing back. The respondents ranged from career utility players to future Hall of Famers. We’d hoped for a cross-section of the baseball community, and we got it. Some of the names were familiar to me. Others meant nothing until I began reading their answers and then they became flesh and blood.
The overwhelming majority of players said that their happiest moment in baseball was their first major league game. Others mentioned their first major league hit or first major league home run. Playing in the World Series and winning the World Series were also cited by those who’d had that experience. Pitchers frequently referenced their first major league win, although one hurler noted a bases-loaded double against Nolan Ryan as his happiest moment and another wrote, “striking out Reggie Jackson.”
On the opposite side of the coin, when players were asked about their most unhappy moment in baseball, the most common answer was “being sent back down to the minors.” Others cited the first time they were traded, although most saw trades as part of the game. The consensus was that it was a lot better to be traded to a first place team than to a lesser club. Other unhappy moments derived from a poor individual performance such as “giving up five home runs in a game” or “striking out four times in one game.” Another player’s most unhappy moment was “when we were in the World Series and I didn’t get into a game.”
When asked to identify their greatest professional fear, players overwhelmingly cited the fear of a career-ending injury. “Pitchers never know when their arm is going to blow out,” one respondent wrote. “It’s just a matter of time.”
Were players worried in general about their career coming to an end?
“The worries began on day one,” one player answered. “It’s a fact of life.”
Quite a few voiced regret that they weren’t better educated so that their career options would be more varied when their playing days were over. “It’s a fantasy world, and you have to prepare for when you are out of it,” one player wrote.
Fear of failure in single-game situations wasn’t as pronounced as we’d thought it would be. Professionals understand that losing is part of the game. We also hadn’t expected the response of a pitcher who told us that his greatest fear was “someone shooting me when I’m on the mound.”
A psychological survey of MLB players in 1982 was cut short before meaningful conclusions could be drawn. (Thomas Hauser)
One of the questions we asked was, “Do you ever get depressed about your professional career? If so, what causes it?”
Most of the players acknowledged having been depressed at one time or another. Injury was a common cause of depression. Other causes were a lack of playing time, poor performance on the field, and a lack of job security. “I’m trying never-endingly to fill the void whenever I get depressed,” one player wrote. None of the respondents said that they got depressed because their team was losing.
Quite a few of the players had considered quitting baseball at one time or another, usually when they were mired in the minor leagues or were sent back down to the minors after a stint in the big leagues. One player (who ultimately had an eleven-year major league career) admitted that he’d been very close to quitting. “Never played much, was shown up by manager,” he wrote. “I didn’t [quit] because it was just one man’s judgment.”
The thing that players seemed to dislike most about major league ball was the travel. They found it tiring and anxiety-provoking. “I don’t fear flying,” one player told us. “But everyone in the back of their mind thinks about crashing.”
Questions about fans elicited a range of responses. One question we asked was, “Do you feel that the fans understand and fully appreciate your skills?”
“The true fans understand,” one player responded. But other players answered ”no” followed by comments such as, “They don’t realize how complicated and demanding the job is. The game looks too easy from the stands . . . They don’t know what it takes to be a player. They think it’s easy because they’ve seen it been made to look easy by great players.”
Another question (“Do you feel that the fans understand and fully appreciate your problems?”) evoked a passionate response. At one end of the spectrum were players who answered, “The fans shouldn’t have to understand my problems . . . I don’t expect them to. I would rather the fans not know my personal problems.”
But most players answered “no” followed by thoughts like, “No way . . . All the fans see is the good times . . . They only see the glamour of playing in the big leagues . . . They don’t know the everyday pressure of playing . . . They don’t realize the pressures involved . . . Very few fans have any idea what a ballplayer goes through . . . Fans don’t realize the feeling you have when you go 0-4 that day . . . Most fans don’t comprehend what being a professional athlete is all about. They view it with rose colored glasses and envy . . . They make us out to be more than we are. After all, we are just people with the ability to play baseball . . . They think life in the big leagues is all fun and games. They don’t realize the hardships and that this is more than a game. It’s my job . . . Most fans don’t feel the players are human. We’re supposed to be at our peak all the time . . . Most people don’t realize how hard a 162-game season is. Travel, sickness, family problems. There is not a player in either league that feels 100% for every game. Some days, you only have 80% in you but you give that full 80%, not 70% . . . Fans seem to think this life is one of only glitter and gold. How could anyone making a lot of money have any problems? We’re normal people. We have normal problems . . . There’s no way a fan who attends a baseball game can understand what’s going on in my life.”
Questions and answers from the 1982 survey. (Thomas Hauser)
Suspicion of the media was a repeating theme. Comments included, “Most media people just want to sell papers or fill air time and don’t care about hurting someone . . . They understand our problems, but I don’t think they sympathize with us because of the money . . . Most writers are frustrated jocks, who second guess you and cannot appreciate the dedication or hardships that playing professional athletics involves . . . Most don’t care unless you are a star . . . The media is disappointingly ignorant about sports and they have no desire to improve.”
A majority of players voiced a preference for radio or television over print interviews because they couldn’t be misquoted. A sampling of responses on that issue included, “On TV or radio, you say what you say, not what some reporter thinks you should say . . . On television or radio, what I say can’t be turned around. It’s easy to ‘misquote’ in print . . . On radio or television, what comes out of my mouth is what I want people to hear. Print never comes out the same . . . On radio or TV, if I am misrepresented, it’s nobody’s fault but my own.”
However, one player preferred print interviews, saying, “It gives you time to think.” And another answered, “Radio and television can’t really get the whole story right in five minutes. But print is only better when the story is printed as the player said it, not the way the writer heard it.”
The feeling across the board was that Spanish-speaking players had an extra set of problems because of language barriers. Remember; in 1982, there were far fewer Hispanics in the major leagues than there are today.
Another question we asked was, “Are your reasons for continuing to play ball different now from when you started?” Representative answers included, “When I played in little league and high school, we had a lot of fun. In the pros, it’s serious business . . . At first, I played to satisfy my dream and to make it to the big leagues. Now I play to support my family and set up my future financially . . . I started for fun. Now it’s a business . . . When I started in the game, it was for fun. The older I got, the fun went away and the business took over . . . The fun is slowly being taken out of it. It’s a job now.”
Clearly, money was a major incentive. But virtually without exception, the respondents said that they’d rather play regularly and make $200,000 than sit on the bench for $300,000. Although one player noted, “If I’m playing regularly, I’ll get to $300,000.” And another observed, “You can’t renegotiate your contract while you’re sitting on the bench.”
“Do you think you’ll be more or less happy than you are now when you’re no longer playing?”
“Less happy,” one player answered. “I’ll always miss not being able to play. Not everyone can make 50,000 people stand up and cheer.” But another player answered, “More happy. All the pressures will be over.”
And there were numerous nuggets of information.
“How did you feel when Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s record?”
“It made me proud to be a part of a profession that produces these types of people.”
“Do you like giving autographs?”
“Not to adults. Yes, to little kids. You really make their day.”
“What do you like most about playing major league ball?”
“The way little kids look up to you.”
Another question we asked was, “If you could change places with any player, who would it be?”
Most players said that they were happy being who they were. But pitchers entertained the fantasy of changing places more often than position players. And the player they most often wanted to change places with was Steve Carlton (“He has been the best pitcher in both leagues for the past ten seasons . . . He has one of the best mental attitudes in the game . . . He does his job as well as anyone and works hard at it . . . He has changed with the game and has an awesome pitch and he can hit too . . . I think he’s the best”).
Other pitchers on the list included Tom Seaver (“because he has done everything in his career that I hope to accomplish in mine”), Gaylord Perry (“for his consistency and accomplishments”), Phil Neikro (“class and money and fame”), Jim Palmer (“he is my idol”), Storm Davis (“has great attitude and talent and is 20 years old”), and Nolan Ryan (“I just want to make what he pays in taxes each year”).
Rod Carew was the only position player with whom multiple respondents said they’d be willing to change places.
One player wrote, “With the wife and kids I have and the close friends who live near, nobody could have it any better than I do. If I did [want to change places], it would be with a player whose career is so fantastic that the players he played with and against would say he was the best ever at that position. Not the media or fans, but the players. They are the ones I would want the respect from. The one man would be Johnny Bench.”
Many of the players said that their happiness sprang from a belief in God. Their religious faith was extremely important to them. Another wrote, “The luck factor in baseball and all sports puzzles me.”
One comment that I found thought-provoking was, “I think every player should have one great great year just to see what it feels like. Both individual and team-wise, very few do.”
Significantly, a dominant theme in the responses was a love of the game.
“Baseball has been in my life since I was six years old, and I enjoy it as much now as then. I wish I could give baseball as much as it has given me . . . I’m doing what I’ve wanted to do since I was a little boy . . . I’m doing something that every kid dreams of doing . . . I like the fact that I’m playing at the highest level of competition there is in my profession . . . It’s a hard road. But if you make it, it’s very rewarding . . . I’m 38 and still in love with the game . . . All I ever wanted was to play baseball. My goal was to make it to the major leagues. Now that I am here, it makes all those sacrifices worth it. I would not change my nine years of pro ball for anything . . . Baseball is a beautiful game that’s been changed by modern science and media types and aluminum bats and gloves with flashing lights. It’s hard to concentrate on just the game sometimes, but that makes me love it that much more. I hope I never stop playing baseball.”
But the most gratifying thing about the responses was the way that many players reacted to the project itself. Some acknowledged having sought help from a psychiatrist or other psychotherapists in the past, and all but one considered it to have been a worthwhile experience.
Beyond that, we got comments such as, “Your questions show thought and much deliberation. It is a good questionnaire . . . This sounds interesting. I would like to see the finished product . . . This is good. People might start realizing that ballplayers have emotions and feelings and aren’t just a baseball card . . . Baseball is strenuous, both physically and mentally. If there’s anything to take a little of the stress off of us by filling this out, I’m all for it.”
The final question on the questionnaire was, “Would you be willing to discuss any of these issues further? If so, how would you like us to contact you?”
More than half of the players answered “yes” and wrote in their home address or telephone number.
“If you want the actual truth,” one player told us, “several times I was tempted to withhold something because it was insulting or something that could be used against me later. All the issues are open. Please call.”
We never got the chance.
The questionnaire had been mailed to players on the second weekend in December. On Friday, Dec. 17, Marvin Miller telephoned me. He was not a happy camper.
Miller told me that he had never been informed of the project and asked for a chronology of what had occurred. I explained the undertaking and recounted the events that led up to the questionnaire being mailed to members of the MLBPA. Miller’s comments and tone of voice made it clear that a hard road lay ahead.
“Is there any way we can salvage the project?” I asked.
“That’s my decision, not yours,” Miller answered.
Then the steady stream of responses stopped. A few more filtered in, but not many. Finally, we received one last questionnaire from a player who wrote on the last page, “I got a letter from the players association regarding your questionnaire. However, I think it is a worthwhile survey so I filled it out anyway. Call me.”
The player gave us his home telephone number. He also enclosed a Dec. 21, 1982, memorandum that had been sent to all members of the MLBPA by Marvin Miller.
Miller’s memorandum began as follows: “Early this month, two writers, Thomas Hauser and William Hoffmann, sent a letter and a questionnaire to all major league baseball players. The letter stated that the purpose of the questionnaire was to obtain material for a proposed article in Sports Illustrated.”
Miller went on to state, “The questionnaire, with its 61 questions, was never seen by me or any staff member of the Players Association prior to its being sent to players.” Miller’s letter further advised recipients that the secretary who had given us the addresses had been fired, and closed with the suggestion, “If you have not yet responded to the questionnaire, you may wish to consider whether you should ignore it in light of what has happened.”
Miller’s letter was carefully worded. Without directly saying so, he was telling the players to not respond to the survey. I telephoned him. He wouldn’t take my call. I wrote him a letter voicing my displeasure. He sent me back an unpleasant response. That was the end of communication between us.
The project was dead. Eighty-four players had returned the questionnaire. That wasn’t enough for a valid statistical study. And there was no way our research could proceed to stage two; follow-up interviews with the players who’d indicated a willingness to talk with us.
There was a glimmer of hope in 1983, when Miller was succeeded by Kenneth Moffett as executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association. Later that year, I telephoned Moffett, explained what had happened, and broached the subject of trying again. Moffett asked me to send him copies of the questionnaire and related correspondence, which I did. Several days later, he telephoned and said, “I’m sorry. I’d love to help you on this. It seems like a worthwhile study, but my hands are tied. I’m in a very difficult position here. Marvin would never allow it.”
Two months later, Moffett was dismissed as executive director of the MLBPA. Miller returned to serve as interim executive director until a replacement was named.
And that was that. I put the questionnaires in a closet and went on to other things. Time passed. Bill Hoffmann died of cancer in October 2000. His death was a tragedy and a terrible blow to all who loved him. Recently, on a whim, I decided to look at the questionnaires again. Decades had passed since I’d first seen them.
“Baseball is a great game and it’s a great profession if you can keep everything in perspective,” read the first questionnaire I looked at. “Ballplayers are normal people, and we encounter many of the same problems most people run into.”
Why did Miller do what he did? I think he was angry that the questionnaire had been sent out without his knowledge. Would he have approved the project if it had run through him? I don’t know. It might be that the information we were gathering would have made him nervous. After all, Miller served his players brilliantly on economic issues. His legacy failed when it came to illegal drugs, which continue to endanger the health of union members. And he could have done more to make the players better understood and more sympathetic figures in the eyes of fans.
Are baseball players happy (or were they happy in 1982)? The responses we got seemed to indicate that players have more highs and lows than the average person; a greater sense of opportunity, but also a sense of how fragile that opportunity is.
I also know that some of the comments we received from players were particularly well-thought-out and seemed to come from special people. I’m sorry that we never had an opportunity to get to know them.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. The above article appears in “Thomas Hauser on Sports,” published by the University of Arkansas Press.