George Nicolau, Arbitrator in Baseball’s Collusion Cases, Dies at 94

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George Nicolau, a prominent arbitrator whose determinations that Major League Baseball teams colluded in the 1980s to restrict bidding for free agents led club owners to pay players $280 million in damages, died on Jan. 2 in a hospital in Manhattan. He was 94.

His stepson John Oppenheimer said the cause was kidney failure.

In 1986, Mr. Nicolau was named baseball’s independent arbitrator. He replaced Thomas T. Roberts, whom owners had fired as he was hearing the first collusion case between them and the Major League Baseball Players Association.

After the owners were ordered to reinstate Mr. Roberts so he could finish hearing the case — which the news media came to call Collusion I — he ruled that owners had conspired to curtail the free market for players’ services after the 1985 season.

Then it was Mr. Nicolau’s turn to enter the caldron of tension. A longtime fan of the Detroit Tigers, he brought an extensive background as a labor lawyer and an arbitrator for the National Basketball Association and its union, as well as in aviation, communications, entertainment and other fields.

Seven months of hearings in a second collusion case, known as Collusion II, produced 8,500 pages of testimony from 50 witnesses.

“He’s a very active arbitrator, not passive at all,” Barry Rona, the owners’ chief labor negotiator, told Sports Inc., a business magazine, in 1988, before Mr. Nicolau ruled. “He asks more questions than Roberts, and will call a halt to questioning when things get irrelevant.”

When he ruled that August, Mr. Nicolau declared that the owners’ conspiracy had continued after the 1986 season, in violation of their collective bargaining agreement with the players.

In his decision, he wrote that a group of 79 players — including the future Baseball Hall of Famers Andre Dawson, Tim Raines and Jack Morris — had not received bids from other clubs if their current teams showed interest in re-signing them.

“What transpired in 1986 occurred because everyone ‘understood’ what was to be done,” Mr. Nicolau wrote in his 81-page opinion. “By common consent, exclusive negotiating rights were, in effect, ceded to former clubs.” In describing the breadth of a conspiracy in which “everyone knew there was to be no bidding,” Mr. Nicolau cited team executives including John McHale, the president of the Montreal Expos, and Roy Eisenhardt, the president of the Oakland A’s.

Soon after the ruling, Mr. Nicolau let 14 players affected by the owners’ conspiracy re-enter the free agent market.

Nearly two years after Mr. Nicolau’s decision, he ruled on a new union grievance: The owners, the union said, had devised another way to collude against the players by forming a databank to compare salary offers to free agents.

In his finding against the owners, Mr. Nicolau wrote that the “databank’s message was plain — if we must go into that market and bid, then let’s quietly cooperate by telling each other what the bids are. If we do that, prices won’t get out of line and no club will be hurt too much.”

He subsequently awarded players $102.5 million in damages (Mr. Roberts had already set damages at $10.5 million for the first collusion case); lawyers for the players and owners used those figures when they negotiated a settlement of $280 million four months after Mr. Nicolau’s ruling in the databank case, inevitably known as Collusion III.

Mr. Nicolau also ruled on a variety of other grievances, including the case of the Yankee relief pitcher Steve Howe. After Mr. Howe had been suspended seven times for substance abuse, Fay Vincent, then the baseball commissioner, banned him for life.

But Mr. Howe appealed, and Mr. Nicolau reinstated him in 1992, partly based on evidence that attention deficit disorder was an underlying cause of his drug addiction.

George Andrew Nicolau was born in Detroit on Feb. 14, 1925, and moved with his family to Jackson, Mich., about 75 miles west, when he was young. His parents were Greek immigrants: His father, Andrew, ran a diner, and his mother, Mary (Naoum) Nicolau, was a homemaker who also worked in the restaurant.

He volunteered for the Army Air Corps in 1943 and, while he was serving as a navigator on a B-17, a burst of antiaircraft fire shattered his left leg during a bombing mission to Leipzig, Germany. The bombardier applied a tourniquet and shot him with morphine but the leg could not be saved; it was amputated the next day.

After recovering, he entered the University of Michigan, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and economics in 1948. He then entered Columbia Law School, having already decided that he wanted to work on behalf of labor unions.

After graduating in 1951, he joined a law firm in Manhattan that introduced him to arbitrations and National Labor Relations Board proceedings. Three years later he left for a larger labor law firm, where he represented Actors Equity, the Newspaper Guild and the National Maritime Union.

He became a deputy director of the Peace Corps in 1962 and three years later was hired as deputy regional director of the federal Office of Economic Opportunity; after a short stint there, he became the first commissioner of the Community Development Agency, an antipoverty organization in New York City, a post he held for two years. He was the executive director of the nonprofit Fund for the City of New York from 1968 to 1970.

His career then shifted. He spent a decade as executive director of the Institute for Mediation and Conflict Resolution, a period during which he also began to hear arbitration cases. By 1980, he was a full-time arbitrator.

In an early case as the N.B.A. arbitrator, he ruled in 1980 that Bernard King, then playing for the Utah Jazz, could not be suspended without pay after being arrested on charges of forcible sexual abuse.

“They didn’t have to play him, but they had to pay him,” Mr. Nicolau said in an oral history interview for the National Academy of Arbitrators in 2006. “King was then alcohol dependent He went to rehab; he became the comeback player of the year” with the Golden State Warriors.

Mr. Nicolau was noted for the clarity of the writing in his opinions.

“Some arbitrators just write, ‘Here’s what the players say,’ ‘here’s what the owners say’ and ‘here’s what I have to say,’” Gene Orza, the baseball union’s former chief operating officer, said by phone. “But George told narratives in a very erudite way.”

The owners dismissed Mr. Nicolau after nine years, saying that they wanted someone with a fresh perspective. He had served longer than any of his predecessors.

Tony Clark, the baseball union’s executive director, said in a statement that Mr. Nicolau had “helped preserve the integrity of free agency.”

In addition to Mr. Oppenheimer, Mr. Nicolau is survived by two sons, Brien and Tony; a stepdaughter, Trudy Oppenheimer; another stepson, David Oppenheimer; and six grandchildren. His wife, Siobhan (Caffrey) Nicolau, died in 2013. A previous marriage, to Sheila O’Brien, ended in divorce.

John Oppenheimer said that his stepfather was working on arbitrations until nearly the end.

“He was most proud when he could save or help one human being at a company get a fair shot,” Mr. Oppenheimer said by phone. “In his last case, a guy was fired; the union brought the case and said, ‘You can’t do that,’ and George got him his job back.”


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