A Tribute to Marvin Miller
Marvin Miller died at age 95 yesterday. More than the compelling change Marvin Miller wrought in baseball and American sports as a whole, he should be remembered for the courage the man brought to every part of his public life. The New York Times eulogy credits Miller with creating the modern professional athlete as “pop culture star,” with commensurate millionaire salaries. And for years his critics decried the escalating salaries as a detriment to the game–pricing it beyond the reach of the average fan and they blamed Miller for that and any other peripheral issue that could be laid at the feet of the players’ hard-won affluence. But there was so much more to the man.
Miller began in the labor movement shortly after the end of WWII. He was a staff economist and a member of the inner circle for the Steelworkers Union in the 1950’s and early 60’s, though he never really shed the role of labor technocrat. When Robin Roberts went looking for someone of consequence in the labor movement to bring more gravitas the the Baseball Players Union, labor elder statesman, George Taylor recommended Miller. It was a chance for Miller to run his own union, and with Roberts running interference for him with other players he won the job in 1965 when he was 49.
The owners fought his initial designation and it was just the beginning of a long and extremely contentious relationship. They fought to keep Miller a labor eunuch without funds and with restricted membership. But the more the owners fought Miller, the more convinced the players were of his bona fides. He started with small issues. He won a rise in the minimum salary–$6,000 when he began–to $10,000. He fought for the pension fund, urging players to hold out for their share of television revenues, which resulted in Miller’s first real test of the owners in the spring of 1969. A threatened labor action as camps opened that year forced the owners to drastically increase their contribution to the pension fund.
In another early success, Miller won binding arbitration for player grievances. The steelworkers had pioneered the concept within the labor movement, gaining it in the late 1950’s. It was an important foundation for other gains that Miller’s would bring for the players and the owners hate it to this day.
Crucial to Miller’s success over the years was the solidarity he built within the union. Baseball players counted among their members many who were outspoken mavericks. Some, like Jim Bouton, were always vocal supporters of the union, but there were iconoclasts like Reggie Jackson and Mike Marshall who were less easy to contain. But Miller crafted a union whose solidarity was repeatedly tested by the owners over the years without cracking.
And from a diverse group that was hardly left of center politically, he created a band of rebellious men willing to fight for their share of an expanding pie. That solidarity and feistiness were the envy of a labor movement that was being marginalized as Miller was building a stronger and stronger bargaining unit. The players respect for Miller grew exponentially in the late 1960’s. Joe Torre described how the players were hushed whenever he spoke to a group of them. “Every time he spoke, you could hear a pin drop,” Torre told John Helyar for the book, Lords of the Realm.
During the sixteen years that Miller ran the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA), they struck three times: in 1972, 1980 and 1981, and were locked out in 1976 in a fit of pique by the owners over losing the Reserve Clause decision that winter. Miller and the MLBPA won them all. It is important to remember the historical backdrop against which Miller operated, winning strikes during an era of labor futility when owner’s men like Ronald Reagan broke the Air Traffic Controllers’ strike. Miller’s run of success was an amazing feat.
But Miller’s greatest achievement was free agency. He did not win it alone. It took the bravery of not just Miller, but the willingness of Andy Messersmith to go it alone during a long season. Starting out as the only unsigned player at the beginning of the 1975 season, he held out until Dave McNally joined as an unsigned player in the middle of the year. McNally gave Miller and Messersmith important emotional support.
The Reserve Clause had been fought many times over the history of the game, but never had the players been able to unite against it. One of the great laments of Curt Flood’s fight before the courts was individual players breaking with Flood’s case. Miller had urged greater caution when Flood decided to take up the fight. Although he was against the suit, Miller supported Flood as much as any individual in the game.
But the support the Miller gave the two players in 1975 was crucial to beating the owners and gaining their final measure of real freedom. Labor arbitrator Peter Seitz ruled against the owners and in favor of Messersmith and McNally at the end of the year. When the courts ruled against the owners as well, the Reserve Clause was dead and buried in the sands of time.
It may have been Miller’s greatest hour, although there were many of them.
Marvin Miller grew up a Brooklyn Dodger fan and never lost his love of the gabaseball. After stepping down as the head of the MLBPA in 1982, he maintained contact with the union and baseball, but restricted himself to writing and speaking on labor issues and his career in the game. His memoirs–A Whole Different Ballgame, were published in 1991.
His greatest disappointment may have been failing to gain the Baseball Hall of Fame. He was voted on five times between 2004 and 2010, but the owners held firm in one final lockout. The New York Times ended their eulogy with something Miller told Sports Illustrated, “I’m proudest of the fact that I’ve been retired for almost 29 years at this point and there are knowledgeable observers who say that this might still be the strongest union in the country. I think that’s a great legacy.”
The quote reflects Marvin Miller the consummate union man. At a time when the salaries of the working class have been plummeting, union membership in the private sector have fallen to minuscule levels, and the economic plight of the nation has never been more precarious, it is indeed an epitaph worth repeating.
Before Marvin Miller took over as head of the union, professional ballplayers had to have off season jobs to support their families. They were as yoked to the vagaries of the market as anyone. Now in the 21st Century, they enjoy an affluence that sets them apart from the rest of working America. They owe it to one man: Marvin Miller. Baseball should honor him for his contribution to the game and the players should bring the pressure to get it done. They owe him that much.
Thanks to Brad Snyer’s, A Well-Paid Slave, John Helyar’s, Lords of the Realm, and the New York Times article, “Marvin Miller, Union Leader Who Changed Baseball, Dies at 95,” in today’s edition.