Marvin Miller: The Man Who Transformed Baseball
He never got a hit, struck out a batter, stole a base or scored a run.
Yet Marvin Miller was one of the most influential persons in the history of Major League Baseball — a soft-spoken labor leader who completely changed the landscape of MLB by lifting players up from indentured workers at low wages to extremely wealthy athletes free to sell their skills to the highest bidder.
His impact on professional baseball was, according to many people, greater than that of Babe Ruth or the first MLB commissioner, Kenisaw Mountain Landis, and was only surpassed by the duo of Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey, who together integrated MLB in 1947.
Miller was hired in 1966 as executive director of a young and innocuous company union, the Major League Baseball Players Association. In short order he turned it into a substantial force for its MLB player members during successful negotiations against the very anti-union club owners and the MLB commissioner of that time, Bowie Kuhn.
Under Miller’s leadership, the MLB Players Association became the model for all other major professional sports unions in the USA and eventually stood out as one of the strongest unions in the nation.
Described as “the most important figure in baseball in the last 40 years” by Fay Vincent, a former MLB commissioner, Miller died last Tuesday at age 95 of liver cancer.
Born in the Bronx in 1917, Miller grew up in Flatbush, that Brooklyn neighborhood where the Dodgers lived at Ebbets Field. He was one of the Flatbush Faithful who suffered a broken heart in 1958 when the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles.
Educated at New York University as an economist, Miller worked at the National War Labor Board during World War II. Following the war he quickly earned a national reputation as a strong union negotiator for the International Association of Machinists, the United Auto Workers and finally the United Steelworkers Union before MLB players reached out for him.
The MLB Players Association, founded in 1954, was of little use in those days when it had no employees, less than $6,000 in the bank, and no negotiating strength going up against the club owners and courts that backed those owners.
The reserve clause in each MLB player’s contract tied him to the club he signed with for as long as that club wanted him and at what salary the owner wished to pay him. When Miller took over the union, the average player’s salary was $19,000, and a rookie’s starting MLB salary was $6,000.
Actually, Miller was not hired so much to fight for bigger salaries or break up the reserve clause as much as to induce club owners to contribute more money into the MLB players’ pension fund, which was created in 1947.
When Miller retired in January 1983, the average salary was almost $250,000, the stars of the game were earning $2 to $5 million a year, the players’ pension fund was bulging with cash, and expanding MLB was making more money for owners than it had ever generated in its century-long history.
Television was beginning to contribute greatly to this new-found wealth, and Miller was out to see that the players got their fair share.
This progress has only grown since Miller’s retirement as salaries now reach over $100 million for multi-year contracts.
Not An Easy Road
It was not an easy road for Miller, the players and the owners as strikes and lockouts interrupted MLB seasons from time to time, starting in 1972 with the first strike involving all players in a major United States professional sport. That walkout was for the same reason the players hired Miller in the first place — a fight to get club owners to give more into the players’ pension fund.
The strike started April 1, 1972, toward the end of spring training, but lasted long enough to force cancellation of 86 regular season games.
Three years later, the owners lost a major battle with players and the union that changed the entire bargaining structure of all major professional sports in this country. The reserve clause was thrown out, and free agency became the standard of the business, leading to the huge salaries now enjoyed by MLB players and the reason that few players spend an entire career with one team.
Peter Seitz, an arbitrator hired by the club owners, ruled in December 1975 that the reserve clause in all MLB player contracts was null and void, and that a player could sell his services to anyone at the end of a year’s contract, the usual length in those days. Eventually, the Players Association, with Miller leading the way, agreed with owners that a player must spend a minimum of six years with his first MLB team before he could become a free agent. This has been negotiated up and down over the years since.
The owners fired Seitz as their arbitrator shortly after he killed the reserve clause, which had been upheld by federal courts for decades prior to his ruling.
It should be remembered that Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Cy Young, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Warren Spahn, Willie Mays, Robin Roberts and all such MLB heroes of the reserve clause era were bound to their original club until such time as that club felt the player’s career was ended, or the club decided to sell or trade him to another club.
Ruth was involved in the most famous sale in MLB history when the Boston Red Sox sold him to their arch rivals, the New York Yankees, in December 1919. This turned Ruth into the Sultan of Swat who saved MLB from the shame of the 1919 “Black Sox” scandal as big crowds paid to watch him hitting record numbers of home runs for the Bronx Bombers.
But Ruth, like any other MLB player back then, was tied to the one club that held him under contract until that club, the Yankees, was finished with him after the 1934 season.
Had Ruth lived during free agency after Miller came onto the scene, he most likely would have earned close to $30 million a year.
Still Scorned by Owners
No one did more to make rich men out of MLB players than did Miller, who is still scorned by club owners.
Five times in the past decade, Miller has been turned away from the Baseball Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee, whose membership varies greatly from 12 persons one year to as many as 84 in another year. It was obvious that it was owners who carried the vote against him, although no Hall of Fame voting is ever made public other than to announce up or down for the candidates on a ballot.
Following the last such turndown in 2010, when he was 93, Miller claimed that the Hall of Fame electors were speaking out through their votes against the Players Association more than against him.
“You can’t leave out the impact the union has had. You can’t be anything but fraudulent if you pretend that you (the Hall of Fame) are the archivist and recorder of the history of an institution like Major League Baseball and leave the union out of it.”
Writing of Miller in The New York Times last Wednesday, former MLB Commissioner Fay Vincent said, “His death should give rise to some serious feelings of regret by those who failed to elect this good man, the former head of the players union, to membership in the Baseball Hall of Fame. More than anyone else, he transformed baseball.
“Yet the failure of the Hall of Fame to recognize the enormous contribution Marvin Miller made to our great game cannot detract from the facts. The shame of his rejection should greatly embarrass those who voted to exclude him.”
Robin Roberts, the Hall of Fame pitcher for the Philadelphia Phillies who was instrumental in hiring Miller to run the Players Association in 1966, said years ago, “I don’t know of anyone who changed the game more than Marvin Miller.”
Marvin Miller’s name will be on the Veterans Committee Hall of Fame ballot again next year. He deserves to be in Cooperstown.
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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