Robert Cannon came to love baseball as a boy growing up in Milwaukee. His father, Ray Cannon, represented several of the accused Black Sox in salary disputes and took Charles Comiskey to court in 1924 on behalf of Joe Jackson. Ray Cannon also fought on behalf of all the players as head of a short-lived players’ union in the 1920s. As an adult, Robert Cannon, a local judge, attended as many games as possible and was ecstatic when the Boston Braves relocated to his hometown. When the Braves challenged for the pennant, Cannon rearranged his judicial calendar each fall so he could catch the critical games and attend the World Series. He became a local sports booster and hosted annual Associated Press award ceremonies honoring the best national athletes.
At the end of 1959 Cannon was installed as legal advisor to the Major League Baseball Players Association. He was more of a conciliator and go-between than an attorney who fought strenuously on behalf of his client. The half-dozen years he worked for the association are noteworthy yet unremarkable. His term would probably gather little interest today if he had not been followed by one of the most influential figures in modern baseball history, Marvin Miller.
Imagine the players’ representative telling Congress, as Cannon did in 1964, “The thinking of the average major league ballplayer, ‘We have it so good we don’t know what to ask for next.’” Rather than pushing the owners and league officials on behalf of the players, he went to great lengths to please management. In his words Cannon would “make no demands, no public statements.” He thought the players were extremely fortunate to be in the position they were, working in perhaps the finest industry in the world. He believed the benevolent owners would in time give the players everything they required. He also believed the league administrators, though hired and paid by management, would be fair and impartial toward the players. Cannon’s viewpoint was colored by his envy of the players’ pension plan. He believed it was the finest in the land and evidence that the owners must be benevolent at heart. Thus, Cannon repeatedly advised the players to proceed gently and cautiously in their negotiations with management so they could reap greater rewards at some undefined time in the future. He didn’t want them to jeopardize what they already had, a growing pension fund. Perhaps defining Cannon’s term was his inability to negotiate a raise in the minimum salary, despite baseball’s apparent financial health, highlighted by expansion, relocations and richer media contracts.
Robert C. Cannon was born on June 10, 1917 in Milwaukee, the first child of Raymond J. Cannon and Alice Carey. The Cannons were married in 1915 and had three children, including daughters Mary and Jeanne. Raymond was a lawyer, politician, and sports fan who represented several prominent sports figures, including Jack Dempsey. Raymond was also a semipro pitcher who played off and on from 1908-1922. In the aftermath of the thrown 1919 World Series Raymond was hired by one of the banned Black Sox, Milwaukee native Happy Felsch, to regain back pay, unpaid World Series earnings, and damages for termination of his major league career from Charles Comiskey and the Chicago White Sox. Felsch’s teammates Buck Weaver, Joe Jackson, and Swede Risberg also became Cannon’s clients. Cannon dove into baseball politics in 1922. He detested the U.S. Supreme Court decision that gave baseball an anti-trust exemption on the grounds that the sport was not involved in interstate commerce. Raymond Cannon formed the National Baseball Players Association, an early players’ union that did not survive for long.
The Cannon family moved to Washington, D.C., for part of each year while Raymond served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1933-1939. Robert attended the local Catholic and Georgetown Universities. After graduation he entered his father’s alma mater, Marquette University, earning a law degree in 1941. He joined the bar in Wisconsin and landed a job as a special assistant to the U.S. district attorney. A year later, he joined the navy during World War II. In 1945 Robert Cannon was elected a judge in the Milwaukee civil court. The 27-year-old was the youngest elected judge in the United States. In 1953 he was elevated to the circuit court, where he served for the next 25 years. He married his high school girlfriend, Helen E. Gildea. They had six children.
Growing up with his father’s interests and associations, Robert Cannon naturally became an avid sports fan. In 1956 he started hosting the Associated Press’ award ceremonies each year. He was also a boxing fan and a frequent visitor at Milwaukee ballparks. No one was happier to have the Boston Braves relocate to Milwaukee in 1953. During the close pennant race in 1956 Cannon scheduled his judicial calendar around potential postseason games. The Braves fell short that year, but he attended the two World Series against the Yankees in 1957 and ’58.
In 1959 Cannon’s name surfaced on the list of 10 lawyers who were candidates to replace the Major League Baseball Players association’s legal counsel, J. Norman Lewis. Lewis, a New York City lawyer, had been hired in August 1953 to help player representatives Allie Reynolds and Ralph Kiner negotiate with the owners’ pension committee. The pension plan had been created in 1946 but the players had made little progress after the initial concessions. Lewis, Reynolds, and Kiner reached their first agreement with the owners in April 1954, tying funding for the pension to All-Star Game receipts (60% of the net gate) and radio and television money from the World Series (60%). During his tenure Lewis also attained an increase in the major league minimum salary to $7,000, from $6,000.
Lewis had a lucrative law practice and worked only part-time for the players. The owners constantly pushed for his removal, because they wanted to limit the players’ outside influences and keep them ignorant about employment law. In 1958 Robin Roberts, a leading association member since the mid-1950s, proposed hiring a full-time advisor with a staff and office. He believed the association needed a central office to “make it feasible for ballplayers to register their views and opinions on any matters pertaining to association policy or player welfare.” The part-time director of the Players Association was Frank Scott, a former New York Yankee traveling secretary turned promotional agent, but he basically oversaw financial matters involving product sponsorship and personal appearances. Scott maintained the association’s New York “headquarters” in a file cabinet in his office.
The players and Scott put together a list of 10 potential candidates to replace Lewis as legal advisor. It included such familiar names as former baseball commissioner Happy Chandler, Washington lawyer Edward Bennett Williams, Richard Moss (later Marvin Miller’s right-hand man), and Cannon. Bob Friend, the National League player representative, pushed Cannon’s candidacy. Friend sent a letter to Scott stating, “Please give considerable attention to a recent applicant for player attorney Judge Robert Cannon from Milwaukee. Of all the applicants I would favor this one.” Cannon was hired on December 4, 1959. The players’ initial agenda called for Cannon to protect and grow the pension fund and to assist with player grievances. Cannon became the association’s de facto director and spokesman. He did so as a part-time unpaid advisor, though he had an expense account, and he kept his position as a Milwaukee judge. Cannon handled union business on the weekends and other off hours and during his vacation. He met the players face to face during spring training visits and at mid-summer meetings. In the winters he attended league meetings.
From the outset Cannon made his intentions perfectly clear. He told The Sporting News in March 1960 that he would “make no demands, no public statements.” He wasn’t an aggressive lawyer like his father, who attacked the owners on the players’ behalf in the courts and in Congress during the 1920s and '30s. Rather than pushing the owners on behalf of the players during the Continental League negotiations, Robert Cannon stood back from the proceedings stating, “Whatever determination or decisions they (the owners) come to would be for the best interest of baseball and the ballplayers in general”--even if that meant an extended playing schedule, which increased the players’ workload and travel, and would bring many more men under the pension umbrella. With expansion increasing the workforce Cannon even allowed the owners to unload 100% of the new insurance requirements onto the players.
When Cannon started meeting the players as he toured spring training camps, his message was simple: work with the owners. He constantly reminded the men how good they had it. He wanted the players to make no waves. Above all, the players should foster a greater relationship with the benevolent owners. In essence Cannon was preaching to the players from the beginning, before he even met everyone and understood the demands and responsibilities entrusted to him. He never did grasp the industry from a player’s perspective. For example, after the National League expansion in 1962, the Pirates threatened to rebel in August because they were forced to play five games in three days, including a doubleheader after a night game. Cannon reacted to the owners’ concerns and threats and advised the Pirates to take the field, which they did. Though it’s a single example, it shows that Cannon responded not to the players’ concerns but to the owners’.
Cannon was introduced to the owners on May 17, 1960. If it wasn’t an amiable relationship at the time, it soon would be. Cannon was admittedly “starry eyed” at meeting some of the greats of the past like Joe Cronin, the American League president. As one pundit put it, Cannon “never met an owner he didn’t like.” One could add league officials to that list as well. For their part, the owners embraced Cannon, welcoming him into meetings and letting him speak for the players, something they never allowed J. Norman Lewis to do. In turn Cannon spouted management’s line like he was one of them. He spoke about the “best interests of baseball” and referred to the reserve clause as a “necessary evil.”
To Cannon the best interests of the game were his primary concern; the players, as only a piece of the game, took a back seat in his mind. He very much wanted to be the glue that bonded labor and management in the baseball industry. He even invited the general managers to the players’ annual meetings. Cannon didn’t push the owners to raise the minimum salary and he certainly never asked them to earmark a percentage of their revenue to payroll as Lewis did. As a result, the minimum salary never rose during Cannon’s tenure. Perhaps little more needs to be said about his priorities.
As early as July 1960 Cannon’s name was being tossed about as a possible successor to Ford Frick as commissioner. Cannon garnered more press coverage over this issue than all others during his time as legal counsel. One of his first acts in office was to advise the players not to hire a D.C. lobbyist to plead their case to Congress. He asked the players to “proceed cautiously and carefully” and not to “jeopardize the fine relationship existing between the players and the club owners.” Cannon was “satisfied that the commissioner and the presidents of the respective leagues sit as quasi judicial officers.” He “presumed that they will accord fair treatment to both the player and the club owner.” In fact, when a player dared to speak up after Eddie Mathews was fined by the National League president, Cannon chastised the player, declaring that the remark was in bad taste and telling the player to be thankful Judge Landis wasn’t in office to wield his wrath.
In August 1960 Billy Martin was brought before a National League disciplinary committee for punching rookie pitcher Jim Brewer. Cannon made it clear that he would not defend individual players, only the union as a whole. He sat in on Martin’s hearing but wouldn’t sit beside the ballplayer. In 1961 Cannon took up the cause of African-American players who were facing segregation in Florida during spring training. He also developed an informal employment agency to help players find work in the off-season, an effort that distracted from the true purpose of his office and consumed a great deal of his time, which may have been better spent on other issues.
In 1961 the owners unilaterally refunded to themselves $167,400 from pension monies to cover a tax liability—never mind that it was illegal for management to remove money from the pension fund. Although American League player representative Eddie Yost objected strenuously, Cannon gave his approval. Cannon often publicly praised the players’ pension plan as the finest in the world and told a congressional committee that the players had it so good they “don’t know what to ask for next.” He repeated these sentiments time and again to the players.
The majors had started playing two All-Star Games each year in 1959, before Cannon took office, to increase the revenue flow into the players’ pension fund. The owners soon wanted to do away with the second game, but negotiations maintained the two-game structure through 1962. In 1963 the owners ceded all revenue from the All-Star Game to the players (minus 5% for expenses) and only one game was played from then on. After the settlement Cannon uttered one of his famous lines: “I don’t think there ever has been a better feeling between the owners and the players. We are perfectly happy.” The pension fund grew significantly because of All-Star Game revenue. Cannon rode the goodwill and the players were satisfied to have him looking after their interests. The fact that he did it for free was a plus. He was reelected in 1962 by a vote of 580 to 15.
In 1963, in the wake of scandals in college basketball and pro football, Commissioner Frick cautioned players about associating with undesirable characters and listed specific establishments as hangouts for gamblers and therefore off-limits. Cannon toured the training camps giving speeches on the topic and telling the ballplayers to be respectful and professional with the media and public. Seemingly pushing Cannon’s buttons, Frick boasted, “He’s (Cannon) telling everyone that baseball is not a one-way street, and the players owe an obligation to the game.” Cannon, the players’ representative, was again acting as the mouthpiece of management rather than pushing the interests of his clients.
The Christian Science Monitor stated that Cannon “has a perfectly balanced sense of responsibility in his relations with ballplayer and owner,” as if that was his job. Not surprisingly, the owners loved him. Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey smiled when thinking about Cannon, calling him “one of the major improvements in baseball in my time.” Sounding as if he was campaigning to succeed Commissioner Frick, Cannon made sweeping feel-good statements such as: “The relationship today between player and owner is on a very high level. As long as there is mutual understanding and respect, each trying to understand the other’s problems, we will always be able to sit down and talk things over, no matter what our problems might be.” At no time, even in retirement, did Cannon acknowledge the conflict arising from his close relationship with the owners and his near-reverence for their and the league administrators’ responsibilities.
In 1965 the players decided they needed a full-time, New York-based executive director, something Robin Roberts had been advocating since before Cannon was hired. The pension contract was set to expire on March 31, 1967, and the players wanted an experienced full-time representative on their side in the negotiations. As it stood, the pension plan was increasing by $2.5 million annually by 1966. The players were receiving 60% of broadcasting revenues from the All-Star Game and World Series and feared that the owners would try to reclaim it. The owners steadfastly refused to share regular-season broadcasting money. Since the players received none of the revenue from network television’s Game of the Week, Roberts and others foresaw that the owners would negotiate lopsided deals that pumped up the Game of the Week dollars while undervaluing the All-Star Game and World Series.
Cannon had just lost his bid to become commissioner to William Eckert, and wanted to continue as the association’s executive director. Most players favored his candidacy, especially his staunch ally Bob Friend. Friend often sought advice from Pittsburgh Pirates owner John Galbreath concerning pension issues. Galbreath pushed Friend towards Cannon and Friend in turn pushed the players to hire Cannon. Some of the men wanted to explore their options, so player representatives also interviewed former Vice President Richard Nixon and the United Steelworkers union’s leading economist, Marvin Miller, among others. The night before the election, Friend pushed Cannon’s candidacy hard, playing on the players’ fear that Miller was too much a “union type.” On January 27, 1966, the Players Association’s board named Cannon the new full-time executive director, with a five-year contract at $50,000 a year, double his salary on the bench. He accepted over the phone and Friend made the announcement. The owners were so tickled to have their man leading the union that they immediately committed $150,000 to pay his salary and office expenses.
Within a week Cannon began to have second thoughts. He didn’t want to leave his home in Milwaukee and he wanted to maintain his position on the bench. Cannon then asked about what he truly envied, wanting to know what kind of pension the players would provide for him. The players countered by offering to relocate the office to Chicago, nearer his home, with some financial concessions. Not satisfied, Cannon withdrew his name from consideration on February 4, as his nomination had not yet been ratified by a vote of all the players. He was still interested in the job, under his conditions, but his hesitation alienated members of the executive committee. Friend and others withdrew their support. In a subsequent interview Cannon claimed that the “radicals” Robin Roberts and Jim Bunning were the ones who decided to look elsewhere and blasted Roberts for his “anti-owner” stance. Cannon even declared that his old ally Bob Friend “became a little bit militant.”
The job was then offered to Brooklyn native Marvin Miller, who accepted on March 5. The owners immediately withdrew their commitment of $150,000 for staff and office expenses, citing a legal conflict they apparently hadn’t noticed a few weeks earlier. Cannon remained on the job, as Miller still had to stand for election by all the players. Miller later alleged that a few players, with Cannon’s backing, waged a smear campaign against him in the Los Angeles newspapers. Miller believed Cannon drew up a petition calling on the players to hire someone with a “legal background that the owners can respect.” Cannon actually wrote Miller’s initial employment contract, adding clauses which reneged on the players’ earlier agreements. First, the contract pushed back Miller’s start date until January 1, 1967, which would have been after the pension negotiations. Second, it called for a two-year deal instead of the agreed-upon five years. Third, Miller was granted only $20,000 in office expenses instead of the $100,000 that had been discussed earlier. A “moral turpitude” clause was added; Miller rejected it because it said he could be fired for mere accusations of improper conduct. In the end the employment contract was reworked with a less intrusive hand.
Miller and Cannon traded barbs throughout the years. Naturally, the whirlwind that Miller caused into the 1980s reflected poorly on Cannon, and he was stung by the criticism. He later claimed that he would have eventually pushed through the same advances Miller won because the owners “owed me something.” In Cannon’s words, “Why should I make a damned fool of myself by making demands? I knew how far to push because I knew how far they (the owners) could go.”
Cannon maintained his ties with the baseball industry. He was again mentioned as a candidate for commissioner in 1968, but Bowie Kuhn was elected instead. He was vice president of Milwaukee Brewers Inc., an organization established to return baseball to the city after the Braves left. His assistance was later helpful in the drive to secure an American League franchise for Milwaukee. Bud Selig, for one, was forever grateful for Cannon’s efforts. Cannon was named vice president of the Brewers after the club relocated from Seattle.
Soon after leaving the association, Cannon was back in the national headlines. In August 1966 civil rights demonstrators picketed his house in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin for eleven nights because he refused to quit the Fraternal Order of Eagles, an all-white organization. The activists wanted him to quit the Eagles or resign from the bench. He did neither, despite crowds nearly 1,000 strong parading through his neighborhood. He continued on the bench, moving to the Milwaukee Court of Appeals from 1979-1982 and remaining as a reserve judge until 1997. Robert Cannon died of congestive heart failure on October 22, 2008, at age 91 at St. John’s on the Lake, a retirement community in Milwaukee. He was interred at Holy Cross Cemetery.
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