Labor arbitrator known for baseball rulings

Times Staff Writer

Thomas T. Roberts, a labor arbitrator who mediated a number of high-profile labor disputes but was best known for his baseball rulings, which included finding Major League Baseball owners guilty of collusion against the movement of free-agent players after the 1985 season, has died. He was 84.

Roberts, a lawyer who remained an active arbitrator, died Wednesday at his Palos Verdes Peninsula home of complications related to old age, said his son, Gary M. Roberts.

The case that turned Roberts into a national figure was a 1983 ruling that made then-Dodger pitcher Fernando Valenzuela the first baseball player to break the $1-million salary barrier through arbitration.


The low-key Roberts marveled that the case had generated more interest than any other he had heard since becoming a mediator in 1958.

His ruling in the collusion case ultimately affected the pocketbooks of hundreds of players.

After Roberts found that owners had conspired to restrict the movement of free agents, he awarded $10.5 million to 139 players in 1988.

Another arbitrator followed with similar rulings that owners conspired after the 1986 and 1987 seasons.

In 1990, the owners agreed to settle the collusion cases for a $280-million payment to be disbursed by the Major League Baseball Players Assn.

In turn, the players association hired Roberts to oversee the distribution of the settlement fund to about 840 players.

“He had an extraordinary reputation everywhere he went,” Donald Fehr, executive director of the players association, told The Times on Friday. “He was courteous almost to the point of being courtly, and gentle. . . . And he had a really good sense of what the right and what the appropriate result should be.”

After Roberts ruled in 1986 that baseball owners had to negotiate through the players association for random drug testing of players, the owners fired Roberts. The players appealed, and Roberts was reinstated.

In 1974, he was among the first to arbitrate baseball contracts, and by 1987 had heard more than 20 salary disputes, “probably more than anyone else,” Roberts estimated at the time.

“There is a feeling that arbitrators have a tendency to split things, to give one to the club and the next to the player in the hope of not offending either party so he’ll be hired again,” Roberts said in a 1989 article in Florida’s St. Petersburg Times. “That’s an illusion. A successful arbitrator doesn’t pay attention to his box score, in baseball or anywhere else.”

For 50 years, Roberts made his living almost exclusively in arbitration but only a fraction of his caseload revolved around baseball.

He regularly arbitrated disputes in the entertainment, broadcasting, manufacturing and airline industries.

Roberts mediated between General Motors Corp. and the United Auto Workers as umpire of their national collective bargaining agreement from 1987 through 2000.

He also arbitrated worker-management agreements for Hughes Aircraft, Cal State L.A., the Los Angeles Unified School District and the University of California, according to his family.

Labor arbitration appealed because “there are new parties and people in every case. Different industries,” Roberts told The Times in 1983. “My practice takes me all over the country. I enjoy that.”

Thomas Tothill Roberts was born in 1923 in Chicago and moved to Los Angeles when he was 10. He was the eldest of two children of banker Thomas Roberts and his homemaker wife, Geraldine.

After graduating from Loyola High School in 1942, Roberts served as an aerial gunnery instructor in the Navy during World War II.

Upon his return, Roberts enrolled in Loyola University and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in industrial relations in 1952.

In college, he found the debate over the Taft-Hartley labor bill “rather fascinating” and decided to make a career in arbitration, Roberts said in a 1987 New York Times article.

He worked at Douglas Aircraft Co. during the day and at night attended Loyola’s law school, graduating in 1957.

Friends and colleagues have described him as even-keeled, someone who keenly focused on the crux of an issue and paid close attention to detail.

He often worked Saturdays and Sundays, but could be persuaded to take a break to use his Dodger season tickets, which placed Roberts along the first-base line.

In addition to his son, Gary, a lawyer in San Marino, Roberts is survived by his wife of 47 years, Kathleen; a daughter, Lisa Roberts King, a UC Santa Barbara College of Engineering contracts and grants manager who lives in Santa Barbara; and four grandchildren.

A funeral Mass will be held at 11 a.m. Tuesday at St. John Fisher Catholic Church, 5448 Crest Road, Rancho Palos Verdes.

Instead of flowers, the family suggests donating to a class of 1942 scholarship fund at Loyola High School, 1901 Venice Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90006, or to St. John Fisher Catholic Church,