NEW YORK — Ray Grebey, who led Major League Baseball labor negotiations during the tumultuous 50-day strike that split the 1981 season, died Aug. 28 at the age of 85.
Mr. Grebey died in Stamford, Conn. His son, Clarence R. (Bud) Grebey III, said Wednesday that his father was diagnosed with stomach cancer in late July and the disease was aggressive.
Hired by baseball owners in 1978 following 20 years at General Electric Co., Mr. Grebey succeeded John Gaherin as the sport’s chief labor negotiator. After arbitrator Peter Seitz struck down the reserve clause, Gaherin had worked out the deal in 1976 that created free agency.
Mr. Grebey was part of a turbulent era, when baseball was shut down by eight work stoppages in a 23-year span. The 1981 strike was followed by a two-day walkout in August 1985, a 32-day spring training lockout in 1990, and a 7½-month strike in 1994-95 that wiped out the World Series for the first time in nine decades. MLB has since negotiated three straight labor deals without interruption.
‘‘Ray was a professional who had a decorated career in labor relations, spanning challenging tasks not only in baseball but many different industries,’’ baseball commissioner Bud Selig said in a statement. ‘‘It is my hope that he was proud of the labor peace that the game now enjoys.’’
Mr. Grebey went up against longtime union head Marvin Miller in the 1980-81 labor talks, which led to a bruising work stoppage over compensation for free agents. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn was absent from the bargaining table, leaving Mr. Grebey to bear the criticism.
‘‘When they call me a ‘liar’ and a ‘snake’ and cast aspersions on my integrity, I am offended,’’ Mr. Grebey said during a July 1981 interview. ‘‘I boil inside. I can’t describe how much it hurts. And my whole family suffers with me.’’
Players struck the final eight days of spring training in 1980, forcing cancellation of 92 exhibition games, and the sides agreed that May to a four-year contract that allowed the issue of free agent compensation to be reopened the next season.
Players struck on June 12, 1981, the first midseason stoppage in the sport’s history, and they didn’t reach an agreement until July 31.
American League president Lee MacPhail joined the talks for an all-night meeting that led to the settlement on terms similar to the union’s original proposal. Compensation would come from a pool of players, not from the team signing a free agent.
The most significant shift under the deal came in January 1984, when the New York Mets failed to include Tom Seaver among their 26 protected players. The future Hall of Famer was claimed by the Chicago White Sox, who had lost Dennis Lamp to Toronto.
The compensation draft was dropped in the 1985 negotiations, and the last remaining vestige — amateur draft-pick compensation — was eliminated last year.
‘‘It was a million-dollar strike over a 10-cent issue,’’ Mr. Grebey once said.
Owners had purchased $50 million in strike insurance, a payment of $100,000 for each game missed starting 13 days after the walkout and running through July 20. As soon as the insurance ran out, management’s solidarity broke down.
‘‘There was a total internal collapse within the ownership in the last 20 days, and the internecine warfare was as bad as anything,’’ Mr. Grebey said in 1991, adding ‘‘the back stabbing began a little before’’ the insurance ran out.
A total of 713 games were canceled by the time the season resumed with the All-Star game in Cleveland on Aug. 9.
‘‘He had a very difficult task but performed it professionally and with courtesy,’’ said Donald Fehr, the former players association head who became Miller’s top lawyer in 1977.
‘‘In the years since, I spoke to him from time to time and we often shared memories of that time,’’ Fehr.
Despite the bitter talks, Mr. Grebey in 2009 urged the Hall of Fame to induct Miller.
‘‘No other individual played a more prominent role in creating the structure and process within which today’s game is played,’’ he wrote in a December 2009 letter to the Hall’s board. ‘‘History will not ignore Miller’s role in reshaping the game of baseball.’’
Mr. Grebey’s letter was dated two days after Miller fell two votes shy of the nine needed for election by the Hall’s Veterans Committee for Executives and Pioneers. Miller finished one vote short in December 2010 and died last November at age 95. He is eligible for the ballot again this December.
Clarence Raymond Grebey Jr. was born in Chicago on March 10, 1928. He graduated from Kenyon College, received an MBA degree from the University of Chicago, and served in the Army in Korea.
Mr. Grebey left baseball in 1982.