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Grebey, led MLB during 1981 strike, dead at 85

09/04/2013 3:16 PM ET
By The Associated Press

Ray Grebey was MLB's chief negotiator during the 1981 strike.(AP)
NEW YORK (AP) -- Ray Grebey, who led Major League Baseball labor negotiations during the tumultuous 50-day strike that split the 1981 season, has died. He was 85.

Grebey died Aug. 28 in Stamford, Conn., and a memorial mass was held Wednesday at St. Timothy's Church in Greenwich, Conn. His son, Clarence R. (Bud) Grebey III, said Wednesday his father was diagnosed with stomach cancer in late July and the disease was aggressive.

Hired by baseball owners in 1978 following 20 years at General Electric Co., the pipe-smoking Grebey succeeded John Gaherin as the sport's chief labor negotiator. After arbitrator Peter Seitz struck down the reserve clause, Gaherin had worked out the deal in 1976 that created free agency.

Grebey went up against longtime union head Marvin Miller in the 1980-81 labor talks, which led to a bruising work stoppage over the issue of compensation for free agents. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn was absent from the bargaining table, leaving Grebey to bear the criticism.

''When they call me a 'liar' and a 'snake' and cast aspersions on my integrity, I am offended,'' Grebey said during a July 1981 interview with The Associated Press. ''I boil inside. I can't describe how much it hurts. And my whole family suffers with me.''

Players struck the final eight days of spring training in 1980, forcing cancellation of 92 exhibition games, and the sides agreed that May to a four-year contract that allowed the issue of free agent compensation to be reopened the following season.

Players struck on June 12, 1981, the first midseason stoppage in the sport's history, and they didn't reach an agreement until July 31.

American League President Lee MacPhail joined the talks for an all-night meeting that led to the settlement on terms similar to the union's original proposal. Compensation would come from a pool of players, not from the team signing a free agent.

The most significant shift under the deal came in January 1984, when the New York Mets failed to include Tom Seaver among their 26 protected players. The future Hall of Famer was claimed by the Chicago White Sox, who had lost Dennis Lamp to Toronto.

The compensation draft was dropped in the 1985 negotiations, and the last remaining vestige - amateur draft-pick compensation - was eliminated last year.

''It was a million-dollar strike over a 10-cent issue,'' Grebey once said.

Owners had purchased $50 million in strike insurance, a payment of $100,000 for each game missed starting 13 days after the walkout and running through July 20. As soon as the insurance ran out, management's solidarity broke down.

''There was a total internal collapse within the ownership in the last 20 days, and the internecine warfare was as bad as anything,'' Grebey told the AP in 1991, adding ''the backstabbing began a little before'' the insurance ran out.

A total of 713 games were canceled by the time the season resumed with the All-Star game at Cleveland's Municipal Stadium on Aug. 9.

''He had a very difficult task but performed it professionally and with courtesy,'' said former players' association head Donald Fehr, who became Miller's top lawyer in 1977.

''In the years since, I spoke to him from time to time and we often shared memories of that time,'' Fehr said Wednesday.

Despite the bitter talks, Grebey in 2009 urged the Hall of Fame to induct Miller.

''No other individual played a more prominent role in creating the structure and process within which today's game is played,'' he wrote in a December 2009 letter to the Hall's board. ''History will not ignore Miller's role in reshaping the game of baseball.''

Grebey's letter was dated two days after Miller fell two votes shy of the nine needed for election by the Hall's Veterans Committee for Executives and Pioneers. Miller finished one vote short in December 2010 and died last November at age 95. He is eligible for the ballot again this December.

Clarence Raymond Grebey Jr. was born in Chicago on March 10, 1928. He was graduated by Kenyon College, received an MBA degree from the University of Chicago and served in the U.S. Army in Korea.

Grebey left baseball in 1982 and was replaced by MacPhail as MLB's labor negotiator, and Grebey was hired as a vice president with Pan American World Airways. In a 1985 interview with The Associated Press, he called the baseball talks a ''living hell'' but said he missed the sport.

He left Pan Am in 1989 to become a founding executive of the Trump Shuttle and stayed on when it was partially acquired by US Airways Group Inc. in 1992. He left when US Air completed the acquisition in 1997.

Grebey was hired as chief labor negotiator for the City of Stamford and appointed to the Connecticut State Board of Labor Relations.

He is survived by his wife of 61 years, Marilyn Isett Grebey; his son; and daughters Nancy Grebey and Chris Grebey.

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