In the winter of 1978, when the major league baseball owners were looking for a new man to negotiate of their behalf with the players union, it was only natural that they should turn toward American industry, where hardball had long been the game management and unions played with each other.

John Gaherin, who had directed major league baseball's labor relations for 11 years, would retire on July 31, and the owners were looking for a tough and able negotiator to match against Marvin Miller, the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association and former steelworkers' negotiator, who had achieved some significant gains at the bargaining table over the years.

In due course they settled on Ray Grebey, then 49, the director of employe relations at General Electric and a veteran of 28 years in dealing with labor unions, first at Inland Steel and later with GE.

Announcing Grebey's appointment, Ed Fitzgerald, chairman of the board of the Milwaukee Brewers and head of baseball's player relations committee, was appropriately bland.

"Ray's very broad-based experience in all areas of employe relations and high regard in which he is held by his peers in the field were the deciding factors in his selection," Fitzgerald said. "Baseball is most happy to have with us in this important and demanding position a man with such fine credentials as well as outstanding personal characteristics, including a love for baseball."

He did not mention that baseball was hiring a man with a reputation as a hard-nosed negotiator who had earned his spurs as a labor relations man when the Boulware philosophy of labor relations reigned at GE.

Named for Lemuel Boulware, a GE vice president in charge of labor relations, that philosophy came to be known as Boulwarism and it was generally accepted as synonomous with a tough and unyielding posture in dealing with unions.

Essentially, it was a philosophy in which management figured what it could afford, put it on the table and told the unions, "take it or leave it," and GE took a long strike over that policy of labor relations. It also was a philosophy in which management believed that it, not the unions, knew what was best for the workers.

It has been three years now since Ray Greby left GE, but the image of a tough and unbending labor negotiator still is very much with him.

Silver-haired and a pipe smoker, he is known to feel that the baseball negotiations are receiving far too much media attention and that somehow the process could be more effectively handled without the glare of publicity.

During breaks in the talks in New York he continually is surrounded by a battery of cameras and hordes of news reporters, yet he manages to move through them, fielding questions or responding depending on his mood, without ever breaking stride.

An avid Chicago Cubs fan, the baseball job is his first sports-related professional position, although he is a self described life-long sports enthusiast, and he played basketball and football while a student at Kenyon College in Ohio.

A native of Chicago, Grebey graduated from Kenyon in 1949 and went to work at Inland Steel's Chicago office.

Except for an interruption to serve in the U.S. Army infantry in Korea during the conflict there, he remained with Inland Steel for the next eight years. While there, he held a variety of jobs and was responsible for the handling of investigations and grievances concerning job evaluations.

Moving to General Electric, he spent his first 11 years with the company in the Chicago-based Hot Point major appliance division where he became manager of employe relations and was responsible for all dealings with the unions.

He came to New York in 1967, and worked in a variety of GE projects involving industrial relations in the United States and overseas and eventually was named to the top position on GE's national negotiating team.

Grebey is the father of three children and lives in Stamford, Conn.