WASHINGTON — The baseball players' union will want to make sure that any financial books shown by the club owners in the negotiations for a new basic contract are the real books and not partial records designed to give a gloomy picture of baseball's economic situation, a top union negotiator said Thursday.
Marvin Miller, interviewed from his New York home, said that before the union even agrees to look at the books--as has been suggested by Peter Ueberroth, the new baseball commissioner--it will insist on discussing means of verifying their accuracy.
Both Miller and the owners' chief negotiator, Lee MacPhail, agreed Thursday that such discussions and a comprehensive review of the books, should they eventually be released, will almost certainly push the contract talks well beyond the beginning of the baseball season, April 8.
That means the players will begin regular-season play without a contract. The old contract, agreed to after a long strike during the 1981 season, expired Dec. 31. This time, however, the union has indicated that it is willing to give the talks considerable time to bear fruit before contemplating another strike.
Ueberroth has said since he became commissioner last October that most of the 26 major-league clubs are losing money and has suggested that the union be shown what he has repeatedly termed baseball's serious financial straits. This, presumably, would make the union more willing to compromise in the negotiations.
Miller and union leader Donald Fehr are aware, however, that when Ueberroth was president of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee, he repeatedly claimed that the Olympics would make a profit of only $15 million.
Later, when the profit turned out to be more than $225 million, Ueberroth insisted he had been surprised by unforeseen financial developments.
Other Olympic officials had reported months before the Games that they had seen financial projections on Ueberroth's desk that indicated a far greater potential profit than he was publicly acknowledging. These officials said that Ueberroth kept two sets of books--one to show the public and one for his own use.
Miller said Thursday that the union will want to see U.S. tax returns filed by the various clubs in order to verify that whatever books they may eventually be shown reflect the true financial situation.
He added that the union will not be satisfied with "a combined statement of any kind but will want the actual figures, an actual breakdown of income items by each club."
Even before Miller posed the conditions, Fehr had cautioned that despite any indication in the books that many clubs were in financial difficulty, the union would want to establish the causes of the difficulty before considering whether to alter its demands. He said that if these causes were because of poor management and not high player salaries, the union would insist that the poor management be addressed before making any concessions.
It has been evident since last fall that the underlying financial state of the game would be a critical issue in the contract talks. The union, for instance, has been demanding that the players retain--for their pension fund--their traditional one-third share of baseball's national television contract, which has burgeoned to $1.1 billion for its current five-year life. Ueberroth and the owners have been suggesting that such a one-third share is unreasonable.
Ueberroth, while employed and paid by the owners, has repeatedly insisted that he will act in the best interests of the game as a whole. In December, he took an unprecedented step for a commissioner by flying to Las Vegas to speak to a players' union meeting.
Never before have the owners been willing to open their books to the union. But federal labor laws require that if they make a claim in the negotiations of financial difficulties, they must provide the books.
Fehr said last November that if the books were made available, they might conceal more than they would reveal. He pointed out that some teams, such as the Atlanta Braves and the Chicago Cubs, are parts of vast corporate enterprises, and he suggested that it would be easy to shuffle records in such a way as to keep the clubs' real financial situations secret.
Ueberroth, while claiming that 22 of the 26 clubs have been losing money, has never specifically listed which clubs are losing money.