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Marvin Miller, MLB Union Advocate, Dies At 95

Marvin Miller, who never played professional baseball, but revolutionized the game in ways that we’re still trying to understand, has died at the age of 95:

Marvin Miller, an economist and labor leader who became one of the most important figures in baseball history by building the major league players union into a force that revolutionized the game, died on Tuesday at his home in Manhattan. He was 95.

His death was announced by the Major League Baseball Players Association.

When Mr. Miller was named executive director of the association in 1966, club owners ruled much as they had since the 19th century. The reserve clause bound players to their teams for as long as the owners wanted them, leaving them with little bargaining power. Come contract time, a player could expect an ultimatum but not much more. The minimum salary was $6,000 and had barely budged for two decades. The average salary was $19,000. The pension plan was feeble, and player grievances could be heard only by the commissioner, who worked for the owners.

By the time Mr. Miller retired at the end of 1982, he had secured his place on baseball’s Mount Rushmore by forging one of the strongest unions in America, creating a model for those in basketball, football and hockey.

Never had the dugout been so professionalized. The average player salary had reached $241,000, the pension plan had become generous, and players had won free agency and were hiring agents to issue their own demands. If they had a grievance, they could turn to an arbitrator. Peter Seitz, the impartial arbitrator who invalidated the reserve clause and created free agency in 1975, called Mr. Miller “the Moses who had led Baseball’s Children of Israel out of the land of bondage.

But not only them. If Mr. Miller had one overarching achievement, it was to persuade professional athletes to cast aside the paternalism of the owners and to emerge as economic forces in their own right, armed with often immense bargaining power. The transformations he wrought in baseball rippled through all of professional sports, and it could be said that he, more than anyone else, was responsible for the professional athlete of today, a kind of pop culture star able to command astronomical salaries and move from one team of choice to another.

Still, though his contributions to baseball were compared to those of Babe Ruth, who made the home run an essential part of the game, and Branch Rickey, who broke the major leagues’ color barrier when he signed Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers, Mr. Miller has not been recognized by the Baseball Hall of Fame.

“There’s been a concerted attempt to downplay the union,” Mr. Miller told The New York Times, referring to the Hall, when he narrowly missed out on election in December 2010, the fifth time he had been on the ballot. “It’s been about trying to rewrite history rather than record it. They decided a long time ago that they would downgrade any impact the union has had. And part of that plan was to keep me out of it.”

Mr. Miller, an economist by training, had bargained on behalf of the steelworkers’ union but lacked the charisma of fiery old-style labor leaders like the mineworkers’ John L. Lewis or the New York City transport workers’ Mike Quill. A silver-haired man with a mustache he had cultivated since he was 17, he was typically described as calm, patient, even-keeled. Nonetheless, he got results.

“Miller’s goal was to get his ballplayers to think like steelworkers — to persuade members of the professional class to learn from members of the working class,” Malcolm Gladwell wrote in The New Yorker in 2010.

Everett M. Ehrlich, a business economist and an under secretary of commerce in the Clinton administration, felt that Mr. Miller’s victories owed much to the changing structure of the game, particularly baseball’s expansion to the West Coast and the South, which led to greater television and attendance revenue. The new money allowed many ball clubs to spend heavily on players no longer tied to their teams.

 ”Luck is the residue of opportunity and design,” Mr. Ehrlich wrote on his blog in 2010, quoting Branch Rickey. “Free agency,” he added, “was an important accomplishment and it made baseball better, but it also happened at a propitious moment. It takes nothing away from Miller to note that.”

Though he never convinced the owners that they could prosper from an upheaval of baseball’s economic order — they would discover that eventually — Mr. Miller outmaneuvered them at every turn. “I loved baseball, and I loved a good fight, and, in my mind, ballplayers were among the most exploited workers in America,” Mr. Miller wrote in his memoir, “A Whole Different Ball Game” (1991), recalling his decision to take charge of the players association when it was in effect a company union.

He had his share of fights. The players went on strike for 13 days in 1972 (part of the exhibition season and nine regular-season days); they were locked out of spring training for almost a month in 1976; they struck for the final eight days of the 1980 exhibition season, then staged a 50-day strike that began in the middle of the 1981 regular season.

Mr. Miller was portrayed by many on the management side as a harbinger of economic ruin.

“There was about Miller a wariness one would find in an abused animal,” Bowie Kuhn, the baseball commissioner during most of Mr. Miller’s tenure, wrote in his memoir, ”Hardball” (1987). “It precluded trust or affection.”

But Mr. Miller did win the trust of the ballplayers.

“I don’t know of anyone who changed the game more than Marvin Miller,” said Robin Roberts, the Philadelphia Phillies’ Hall of Fame pitcher, who played a key role in the hiring of Mr. Miller by the players’ union. “His legacy is that through his work, ballplayers for the first time attained dignity from owners.”

Today, there is constant criticism of the massive salaries that are paid to baseball players. However, it’s worth remembering that there was a time when some of the game’s greatest players — Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Williams, Mantle, and many others — were trapped inside of a system where they were essentially at the mercy of ownership and paid what is, in retrospect and comparison to their talent, nowhere near the fair value of the services they were bringing to the team. Before Miller, there was no such thing as free agency, where a player could market his talents to the highest bidder, and owners could trade players at will (although that still exists for players who don’t have “No Trade” clauses in their contracts.) Sit their and complaint at the multi-million dollar contracts that people like Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, and Cliff Lee get, but at least they are being recognized for their contribution to the team. And they have Martin Miller to thank for that.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. legion says:

    Today, there is constant criticism of the massive salaries that are paid to baseball players.

    Yes, but this invariably comes from people who have no earthly idea what the team owners make (or from the owners themselves). If I’m one of only a handful of key employees responsible for making my boss a billionaire, I think it’s completely fair to demand a salary that easily makes me a millionaire.

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  2. Gustopher says:

    @legion: MLB takes in huge amounts of revenue, but the owners have contributed jack-diddley to the whole thing.

    Sure, they’ve pressured cities for tax breaks and stadiums, but other than the players, what makes up a baseball team? What do the owners actually own? Uniforms? A name and an icon?

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  3. Rick DeMent says:

    No one has ever paid the price of a ticket to see the owners.

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  4. Rob in CT says:

    The ARod contract, to pick an example, is nutty but I don’t begrudge ARod the money. The Steinbrothers idiotically decided to do the deal (and to be fair, he went nuts in the 2009 post season and they probably don’t win the WS that year w/o him). The Yankees, and to a lesser degree many other MLB teams, are practically printing money. The players are the ones who perform. Another thing to remember here is that MLB is a cartel. It’s not like the MLB players union is corrupting some magical free market here.

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  5. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Sit their and complaint at the multi-million dollar contracts that people like Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, and Cliff Lee get, but at least they are being recognized for their contribution to the team. And they have Martin Miller to thank for that.

    Albert Pujols got that idiotic deal from the Angels for $242 mil for ten years of declining production. I don’t blame Albert. More power to him. Moreno is the idiot in that deal.

    Also. a moment of thought for Curt Flood, who fired the first shot. And lost.

    “After twelve years in the major leagues, I do not feel I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes. I believe that any system which produces that result violates my basic rights as a citizen and is inconsistent with the laws of the United States and of the several States.”

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  6. Geek, Esq. says:

    This was the free market substitute for federal regulation to counteract collusion and anti-competitive behavior by the owners. The alternative to Marvin Miller would have been Congress and the DOJ, likely with the antitrust exemption getting nuked.

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