Arbitrator George Nicolau still a beehive of activity at 91

By: Danny Gallagher

Canadian Baseball Network

In the world of journalism, you talk to fascinating people. Most of the time, you deal with these characters in person or the phone. Sometimes, it might just simply be an email or text exchange.

Just the other day, I ran across a mention of a most interesting fellow, a champion of fairness, a settler of grievances and disputes, an arbitrator in baseball, the pro sports world in general and in other sectors of society such as the airline industry. I have long admired the guy.

His name: George Nicolau.  I had emailed him a few years ago to see if he would do an interview with me for a book on the 1994 Expos called Ecstasy to Agony. I was curious if he had thoughts on the labour situation that helped ruin that season. He didn’t think he could help.

Having forgotten his email address, I started to type "gn" a few days ago into a potential email address and the computer technology spilled out his name and his address. Don’t ask me how this magic works, it just does.

So, I emailed him. My research of Nicolau told me that he never gave interviews with the media so this appears to one of the few times the elusive Nicolau has ever agreed to chat at length with a reporter.

“That’s right,’’ the man said.  “Reporters would call me after a decision and I would say, ‘Talk to the parties.’  Some reporters have called me about my cases and I have bantered back and forth with some sports reporters from time to time, but, except for a reporter in my home town years ago, you're the first to interview me.’’

At first, I was grateful 10 days ago that Nicolau gave me a nibble, a trickle of information and quotes from an email exchange so I could write this story. When I pushed the envelope a little bit, I emailed him back with more questions and suggested a phone interview but I never heard back. I would have been quite content with what he had given me in the email but then after a week passed, I received a surprise email from him Feb. 22, saying to call him “when you have a chance.’’

So we got talking and Nicolau asked, “What are you writing?’’ So I told him that I was writing a baseball-themed story.

How remarkable is this man? OK, first off, he’s still young in mind and body.

“I still have a full calendar of cases. I reached 91 Feb. 14 and I have to think about retiring one of these days,’’ Nicolau told me from his Manhattan apartment, with a smile on his face. “I’ve talked to my wife about possible retirement and I told her I’m probably not a very good painter.’’

That sense of humour sure kicks in. Imagine that: he’s 91 and he’s still handling a full calendar of hearings. What makes him all the more remarkable is that he’s been an amputee walking with a wooden leg after losing one over Germany as a U.S. bomber navigator during World War II.  

As Nicolau told Canadian friend and fellow arbitrator Michel Picher years ago, “I wasn’t shot down, I was shot up. I put my head up and then the flak burst shattered my leg. If I had been hunched over, it would have shattered my head, but it threw me about four or five feet against the bulkhead and I thought, ‘I wonder what this is going to be like. ‘

“As it turned out, the bombardier, a fellow named Robert Montgomery, he saved my life. He put a tourniquet on and then shot me with morphine. I was severely wounded and the next day the leg was so shattered that they had to amputate it above the knee.’’

Nicolau told me he was part of a crew of 10 on the plane that day and is the sole survivor now. Understandably, there were periods of anxiety and depression following the loss of the leg and in telling me the story, he recalls saying to himself, “My goodness, what will I do now?’’

In due time, Nicolau got over the stigma and trauma to become a resounding success in life. The son of Greek immigrants, he was born in Detroit and helped operate his family’s restaurants, in particular the Mayfair Grill in Jackson, Mich. for a number of years.

Nicolau and his family left Detroit to go to Jackson when he was five years old and although the city was located 70 miles from Tiger Stadium, he travelled to see the Tigers play often in the 1930s and 1940s. He even remembers catching a foul ball.

“I can even rhyme off the batting order for you: Hank Greenberg, Charlie Gehringer, Mickey Cochrane, Marv Owen, Goose Goslin ...’’ And four more names followed.

“Greenberg was one of my favourite players,’’ Nicolau said. “Oh, yes. He was straightforward, especially when he had to deal with discrimination (as a Jew). Not only that, he was a great first baseman and hitter.’’

After his ordeal during the war, Nicolau graduated with a degree in political science and economics from the University of Michigan before entering Columbia Law School in New York where he acquired his juris-doctor degree. He never left the Big Apple.

A former president of both the National Academy of Arbitrators and the Society of Professionals in Dispute Resolution, Nicolau started out as a labour lawyer, representing locals of the International Typographical Union, the Printing Pressmen and the Atomic Energy Workers. He was one of several attorneys, who led the Actors Equity organization through its initial strike back in 1960, a work disruption that closed Broadway theatres for two weeks.

Over time, Nicolau became a mediator before branching out to be an arbitrator back in 1969. As he battled employers over grievances in the 1950s and 1960s, he appeared before many arbitrators so he got to know first-hand how arbitrators worked their craft. His first case as an arbitrator dealt with an employee fired by the Four Continents Bookstore.

In 2006, Nicolau was called to resolve the strike between New York City and 36,000 transit workers.  He was the umpire who issued the merged seniority list that divided many of the 5,000 pilots of the former America West Airlines and the old US Airways.

Nicolau is best known as Major League Baseball’s main arbitrator for close to 10 years back in the 1980s and 1990s. He had a lot to do with handling the landmark owners’ collusion cases from 1986-87 which affected a number of major leaguers, including former Expos Andre Dawson, Dennis Martinez and Tim Raines.

Remember when Martinez and Raines were un-signed through most of the winter of 1986-87? They eventually signed but the rules dictated that they weren’t allowed to play with the Expos until May 1, 1987. Weird but true. Martinez, for example, signed a contract that was way below market value and the ensuing settlement ruled on by Nicolau gave him considerable back pay. 

In 1990, Nicolau ruled that owners colluded to depress free-agent salaries and contract lengths. Dawson, for example, signed with the Cubs for only $600,000 for the 1987 season, a largely reduced figure that was not market value.

“The ruling ended in a $280-million settlement that over time went to the injured players,’’ Nicolau told me.

By “injured’’, Nicolau meant players who were harmed financially by being forced to sign contracts way below market value. Martinez told me he signed for the minimum salary in 1987, whatever the minimum was in those days. I texted Martinez and Raines the other day to see what they received in collusion money but I never heard back from them. Needless to say, they hauled away a good chunk of coin.

On April 4, 1992, commissioner Fay Vincent’s 60-day suspension of Expos catcher Gilberto Reyes was overturned by Nicolau, who ruled that Reyes should be treated as a first-time drug offender and undergo drug rehabilitation instead of being suspended.

In his ruling, Nicolau said he found out that the Expos never notified the commissioner's office about the first test and therefore it could not count. That made his more recent test failure the first time he had tested positive.

One of the most interesting baseball cases for Nicolau was the one involving troubled Yankees pitcher Steve Howe, who was handed a lifetime ban by Vincent in 1991, his seventh such suspension. Umpire Nicolau ruled in 1992 that although Howe deserved to be banned from pitching for the Yankees from June 8 until the end of the 2001 season, a permanent ban was too severe so he rescinded it.

Nicolau said that after reviewing evidence and submissions that one of the reasons contributing to Howe’s drug problem was an ailment called Attention Deficit Disorder. There was one report that suggested Howe snorted cocaine to treat the disorder.  Nicolau had more than passing interest in the Howe case because the player, like him, attended the University of Michigan. True.

“I was proud of that case,’’ Nicolau told an interviewer many years ago. “Not only did I think the decision was right, but Howe’s wife told me that it probably saved his life. I got hell for that decision. Some members of the press ripped me apart. I don’t think Fay Vincent has forgiven me. Possibly it was my most infamous award, wherein I found that Howe's lifetime ban lacked fundamental fairness and was without just cause.’’

To me, Nicolau said, “I don’t know if it was my favourite case but it was a most interesting and challenging one. The Yankees manager Buck Showalter and two of his teammates showed up at the hearing. That was a marvellous thing, that there was something going on, the disorder thing.’’

What was compelling was that Howe’s teammates, Showalter, general manager Gene Michael and the Yankees’ brain-trust wanted the lefty-throwing Howe back because he was a stellar reliever and highly admired in the clubhouse.

Nicolau was so involved in baseball cases for so long that at one point he told an interviewer years ago that he wanted to make one point very clear.

“I just want to make one comment that I’m still proud of, that I am the Cal Ripken of the baseball industry,’’ Nicolau said. That was until Shyman Das came along and surpassed Nicolau with 13 years of service, compared to his nine.

Nicolau has also handled cases for the NBA, indoor soccer and is currently available to work on NHL/NHLPA cases. A Sportsnet report by John Shannon a few days ago suggested that Nicolau would be handling the suspension-appeal case involving Dennis Wideman of the Calgary Flames.

“I do not think I will be handling the Wideman matter,’’ Nicolau said. “I am the Impartial Arbitrator for the NHL/NHLPA but under the contract there is also a Neutral Discipline Arbitrator (NDA) who handles discipline appeals. I believe it's still Georgetown University professor James Oldham.’’

As he told Picher in 2006 in an interview 10 years ago and confirmed with me, Nicolau became the first independent, impartial arbitrator to work for the NHL and his first case dealt with Ottawa Senators’ forward Alexei Yashin.

“The first case I had to do was with his contract with Ottawa and he wanted to break it, as I recall, for some reason or another. I had more than one case with him. Until 1990, the impartial person who decided grievances was the commissioner or president of the league,’’ Nicolau told Picher. Of course, the notion of the league’s top executive like John Zielger handling league grievances perplexed Nicolau, who was an impartial judge.

“I worked for the NHL/NHLPA for a few years before I left but then a few years ago, they came back and said, ‘Do you want to do this again?’ ’’ Nicolau told me.

Picher just so happened to be president for a period of the National Academy of Arbitrators just like Nicolau and arranged to interview Nicolau when Nicolau visited Picher at his home in Cantley, Quebec, across the river from Ottawa in 2006. It was what the NAA called a “History Committee Interview.’’

“There are few arbitrators in North America who command the universal respect that is given to George Nicolau,’’ Picher told me the other day. “His expertise has extended beyond the word of sports into leading areas such as air transportation. His work has known no limit. There is no one more respected in labour arbitration.’’

In August, 2012, Nicolau ruled in favour of Mark Messier in his long-standing dispute with the Vancouver Canucks by awarding him $6-million. The grievance centered on deferred money that Messier felt he was owed.

“That’s when I met Brian Burke when he was with the Canucks. He was a great guy,’’ Nicolau said.

In late May, 1996, Nicolau ordered the Boston Bruins to give injured player Al Iafrate $900,000. The list of cases Nicolau has ruled on are seemingly endless.

“It’s fair for me to say that George is the foremost and most respected arbitrator in the field of sports arbitration in North America,’’ Picher said. “He has the universal respect of parties on both sides and he has the profound admiration of arbitrators generally. His writings are clear and concise, his handling of hearings good natured and efficient.

“George and I have worked on arbitration committees. He’s been a guest at my home near Ottawa several times and I have had occasion to visit him in New York. We’ve struck up both a professional and personal friendship. He’s a pretty unique individual.’’

He sure is. He works on one or two cases per week and he remains in stellar health. His hearing is nearly perfect as I found out on the phone and his eyesight is wonderful. He doesn’t wear glasses all the time.

“I don’t work Monday to Friday,’’ Nicolau said. “This week, I’m working on a case involving a power-plant company and its union. Next week, I have two cases. I do a lot of work in the airline business, especially with flight attendants.

“I’m literally in good health. Last fall, I had a severe case of pneumonia. I didn’t realize how bad it was until all of my children from all over the U.S. showed up at the hospital. But I survived it and I’m in good shape.’’

Danny GallagherComment