Baseball, and its Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, took the stand today in what became an examination of his role, or lack of it, in the current labor dispute.
U.S. District Court Judge Henry F. Werker presided as Ray Grebey, the club owners' chief negotiator, testified that Kuhn has no role in formulating or stating the position of the owners in collective bargaining, and Kuhn agreed. Grebey said the commissioner "does not act as an agent for the bargaining committee."
In an affidavit submitted to the court, Kuhn concurred: "I am not a spokesman for the (owners') Player Relations Committee either publicly or in collective bargaining."
As expected, Kuhn's testimony, and the speech he made on the financial state of the game at the annual winter meetings, became the focal point of the first day of hearings on the National Labor Relations Board request for an injunction to put off implementation of management's controversial free-agent compensation plan for one year. The players would retain the right to strike then.
If Judge Werker does not grant the injunction, the players, through an arrangement made with the owners last week, have the right to strike within 48 hours of his ruling.
The Major League Players Association and the NLRB maintain that the owners and the commissioner have injected the issue of clubs' inability to pay player salaries, and the financial stability of the game, into the free-agent compensation issue. As prime evidence, the NLRB has pointed to the speech by Kuhn in Dallas on Dec. 8, 1980, in which he projected an average player salary in 1984 of $320,000 and predicted dire consequences "barring the discovery of oil wells under second base."
In the speech, Kuhn referred to the player-management study committee, then seeking a solution to the compensation issue, and added that "we can all hope . . . a solution will be found for this very real problem."
Under cross-examination by NLRB attorney Mary Schuette, Kuhn insisted that the problem he was talking about was not free agency but competitive balance and "what can be done for that with replacement of players."
In his affidavit, Kuhn said, "As I understand it, the players association contends that my remarks a) connect the subject of rising salaries and financial concern to the issue now in collective bargaining . . . and b) constitute a claim of financial incapacity on behalf of the Player Relations Committee. . . I did not intend to make either the connection or the claim."
Attorneys for the NLRB and for the players association sought to connect Kuhn to management, pointing out under cross-examination that he is hired by the owners, fired by the owners, paid by the owners, and has, in the past, injected himself into the collective bargaining process.
Again under cross-examination Kuhn admitted he had ordered the spring training camps opened in 1976 after the owners had refused to do so without a collective bargaining agreement. "After a period of time, I thought it was hardly serving the best interests of baseball and I ordered them open," Kuhn said.
Grebey testified that the opinions expressed by some owners, several of whom were in the courtroom but were not called as witnesses, linking player salaries to free-agent compensation "carried no weight with respect to the Player Relations Committee."
Grebey, in response to questioning by National League attorney Louis Hoynes, said the owners had paid $2 million for $50 million strike insurance which expires at the end of 1981. Asked by Hoynes if he thought the owners would be able to buy new strike insurance if the compensation issue is put off until next year, as the injunction requests, Grebey answered: "It's not terribly likely in view of the hoopla baseball has received."
This testimony could be significant because the judge, in deciding whether there is reasonble cause to believe the National Labor Relations Act has been violated by the owners, must also take into account what harm would result to both parties if the injunction is granted.
Miller of the players association told the court the players had never accepted last spring's collective bargaining agreement as a final disposition of the free-agent question, but merely as a procedure for deferring the issue.
But the star witness was Kuhn. He took the stand at the end of a long day, which included a motion to quash subpoenas for several reporters, whom the NLRB wanted to testify. Judge Werker granted the motion on jurisdictional grounds.
Werker implored the parties, more than once to "get on with it." At one point during Miller's testimony, the judge interrupted and said, "Let's not have this narrative or else we'll be here until next Christmas."
He scheduled the hearings to be resumed at 10 a.m. Thursday, when closing arguments will be made. One source close to the situation said there might well be a decision on the injunction as early as Friday.