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Come Saturday Morning: What If Harmon Had Played Twenty Years Later?

One of the things that struck me, in the midst of the torrent of well-deserved appreciations of the late Harmon Killebrew, was the near-complete absence of mention of his first wife, Elaine. His five children by her were mentioned, as was his second wife and widow, Nita. But aside from a brief mention by local sports writer Charley Walters that she was to attend the memorial held last month at Target Field, she seems to have been skipped over by the reporters writing about her famous, and now late, former husband. (This really stands out for me as less than three months ago, a dear friend of mine died, and an even more extreme disappearing act seemed to have been done on his first wife in the various published accounts and obituaries done for him.)

Granted, Elaine might be a very private person who shuns the limelight due to temperament or upbringing, and granted that the subject of divorce is always somewhat tricky and sticky. But it seems rather sad that the very fact of her existence should be obscured, if not obliterated, much as the persons writing the eulogies and elegies for Harmon are for the most part skirting around the long-running financial problems that finally came to a head for him and her around the time of their divorce in the late 1980s.

A recurring theme of many of the persons writing on Harmon Killebrew lately, be they professional writer or drive-by blog commenter, is that he was a player of the old school, meaning he played before Marvin Miller and multi-million-dollar contracts and in the era of the reserve clause, which in essence largely kept a player from determining his own career fate. When players of his and all other pre-Miller baseball generations played, they usually needed to find jobs in the off season just to put food on the table — and were hindered in this by the fact they’d spent most of their adult and even their adolescent lives working solely on baseball, which left little room to gain the sort of marketable skills that would have got them into anything beyond door-to-door sales or the sort of manual labor that could threaten their baseball career, should they be injured on the job.

Then Marvin Miller came along:

Miller negotiated MLBPA’s first collective bargaining agreement with the team owners in 1968. That agreement increased the minimum salary from $6,000 to $10,000, the first increase in two decades. In 1970, Miller was able to get arbitration included in the collective bargaining agreement. Arbitration meant that disputes would be taken to an independent arbitrator to resolve the dispute. Previously disputes were taken to the Commissioner – hired by the owners – who generally ruled in favor of the owners. Miller considered arbitration the greatest achievement of the early years of the baseball union.


Baseball’s reserve clause tied players to a team for one year beyond the end of an existing contract, which in practice froze any player’s ability to determine his own career. In 1974, Miller encouraged Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally to play out the succeeding year without signing a contract. After the year had elapsed, both players filed a grievance arbitration. The ensuing Seitz decision declared that both players had fulfilled their contractual obligations and had no further legal ties to their ballclubs. This effectively eradicated the reserve clause and ushered in free agency.

Miller led the union through three strikes, the first in 1972 which lasted 13 days, in 1980 spring training, and again in 1981 which lasted 50 days, and two lockouts, in 1973 spring training and 1976 spring training. During Miller’s era as leader of the Major League Baseball Players’ Association (1966-1982), the average players’ salary rose from $19,000 to $241,000 a year.

Thanks to Marvin Miller, the players that were hired young and never had work experience outside of baseball now were able to fully support their families, set aside money for retirement, and rely on a strong support system should injury cut short their careers. Imagine what this could have done for someone like Harmon Killebrew, who instead of going to college signed his first major league contract before his eighteenth birthday because his widowed mother needed the money, and found himself retired and used up physically at age thirty-nine, without having had much of a chance in between to prepare for a post-baseball career.

I can’t say that it would have saved his marriage, or even that the marriage could (or should) have been saved. But I can’t help but think that it would have made his, Elaine’s and their kids’ lives a lot easier, divorce or no divorce. I think he wouldn’t have felt quite as much pressure to hit the ground running as a businessman, and to take ill-advised risks that would cost him and his family dearly. It would have been one less major stressor on their marriage and family — which is something that the persons who revere the pre-Miller baseball era ought to think about before they set fingers to keyboard to use Harmon’s life as the pretext for yet another “it was better in the old days” screed.

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