Never had the dugout been so business-minded. The average player salary had reached $241,000, the pension plan had become generous, and playeers 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 him “the Moses who had led Baseball’s Children of Israel out of the land of bondage."
But not only them. If 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, often armed with immense bargaining power. The changes 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 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, Miller has not been recognized by the Baseball Hall of Fame.
“There’s been a concerted attempt to downplay the union," 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."
A series of showdowns
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. A silver-haired man with a mustache he had cultivated since he was 17, 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 undersecretary of commerce in the Clinton administration, felt that 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 clubs to spend heavily on players no longer tied to their teams.
“Luck is the residue of opportunity and design," Ehrlich wrote on his blog in 2010, quoting Branch Rickey. “Free agency 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."
Although Miller never convinced the owners that they could prosper from an upheaval of baseball’s economic order — they would discover that eventually — he 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," 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; and they staged a 50-day strike that began in the middle of the 1981 regular season.
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 Miller’s tenure, wrote in his memoir, “Hardball" (1987). “It precluded trust or affection."
But 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, a Hall of Fame pitcher for the Philadelphia Phillies who played a key role in the hiring of Miller by the players’ union. “His legacy is that through his work, ballplayers for the first time attained dignity from owners."
Marvin Julian Miller was born in New York on April 14, 1917, and grew up rooting for the Brooklyn Dodgers. His father, Alexander, was a salesman for a clothing company, and as a youngster Marvin walked a picket line in a union organizing drive. His mother, Gertrude Wald Miller, who taught elementary school, was a member of the New York City teachers’ union.
Miller graduated from New York University in 1938 with a degree in economics. He resolved labor-management disputes for the National War Labor Board in World War II and later worked for the International Association of Machinists and the United Auto Workers. He joined the staff of the United Steelworkers Union in 1950, became its principal economic adviser and assistant to its president, and took part in negotiating contracts.
Late in 1965, there were stirrings within the major league ballplayers’ ranks about the need for improvements in a pension plan implemented by management in 1947. The players had a union of sorts, but their association, established in 1954, had no full-time employees, did not engage in collective bargaining, had never challenged the reserve clause and had just $5,400 in the bank.
Baseball stars Jim Bunning (later a U.S. senator from Kentucky), Harvey Kuenn and Roberts sought a professional bargainer who would get ballplayers better pensions. Miller was recommended to them by George Taylor, who ran the War Labor Board when Miller worked for it.
Miller was uncertain about entering the professional sports world, and many players were hesitant about creating a formal union. Most were relatively uneducated, had little experience with unions and had been told by the owners for years that they should be grateful to be paid for playing a boys’ game.
In the spring of 1966, when Miller toured the training camps in Arizona and Florida to speak with the players before they voted on whether to hire him as executive director, he was often met with suspicion.
Before Miller’s first meeting with the team, “we were all expecting to see someone with a cigar out of the corner of his mouth, a real knuckle-dragging ‘deze and doze’ guy," Jim Bouton, the former New York Yankees pitcher, was quoted as saying by John Helyar in the book “The Lords of the Realm: The Real History of Baseball" (1995). But the players were surprised, he said, when “in walks this quiet, mild, exceedingly understated man."
Working with his newly hired general counsel, Richard M. Moss, Miller educated the players to trade-union thinking. In 1968, the union negotiated the first collective bargaining agreement in professional sports. In 1970, players gained the right to have grievances heard by an impartial arbitrator. In 1973, they achieved a limited right to have salary demands subjected to arbitration.
On April 1, 1972, just as spring training camps neared their close, the players staged the first major strike in professional sports history in a dispute over the level of owner contributions to their pension plan.
Miller wrote in his memoir that when the strike was announced, Paul Richards, a longtime baseball man who was an executive with the Atlanta Braves at the time, remarked that “Tojo and Hirohito couldn’t stop baseball, but Marvin Miller could."
The strike caused the cancellation of 86 regular-season games before a compromise accord was reached.
Later in 1972, outfielder Curt Flood, having refused to accept a trade from the St. Louis Cardinals to the Philadelphia Phillies, was rebuffed by the Supreme Court when he challenged the reserve clause.
But in December 1975, Seitz, the baseball arbitrator, ruling in a case brought by pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally and argued by the union, invalidated the reserve clause in the standard player contract.
Seitz found that this clause, allowing all contracts to be extended for one year at management’s option upon their expiration, did not mean that contracts could be extended in perpetuity. Once a player refused to re-sign after the expiration of that one-year extension, Seitz ruled, he could sell his pitching prowess or hitting skills to the highest bidder.
The owners immediately fired Seitz, mounted a futile court challenge to his ruling and, in late February 1976, expressed their rage by putting off the opening of spring training camps. Kuhn, the commissioner, ordered the camps opened in mid-March.
In July 1976, the union and management agreed on limitations to free agency: A player would need six years of major league service before he could seek a deal with another club. That accord seemed like a concession that Miller did not need to make. But he concluded that limiting the stream of free agents would fuel the clubs’ bidding wars.
He was proved correct. In 1976, the average annual player salary was $51,000. Soon the checkbooks were opened. George Steinbrenner signed two future Hall of Famers for the Yankees: the power-hitting outfielder Reggie Jackson, who received a five-year, $2.9 million contract after the 1976 season, and the relief pitcher Rich Gossage, who got a six-year, $3.6 million deal after the 1977 season. The spending sprees eventually encompassed the entire major league landscape.
As salaries soared, so did revenue flowing to the players’ pension fund during Miller’s tenure, a result of a major rise in network payments to baseball for rights to telecast the World Series, All-Star Game and Game of the Week. The pension fund received a third of baseball’s receipts from national TV rights, but that cut went from $8.3 million a year to $15.5 million annually for four years in the contract agreement reached in May 1980.
But free agency remained a highly contentious issue. On June 12, 1981, the players began a 50-day strike over the owners’ demands concerning compensation to teams that lost players who became free agents. Management ultimately obtained only minor concessions.
Kenneth Moffett, the federal mediator in the 1981 strike, became the union’s executive director in January 1983, when Miller retired, but he was dismissed after 10 months and ultimately replaced by Donald Fehr, the union’s general counsel since 1977.
Fehr guided the union through a host of battles with management, including a strike that canceled the 1994 World Series. He retired from his union post in 2009 and was replaced by Michael Weiner, the union’s general counsel at the time, who remains as its chief. Fehr is now the executive director of the National Hockey League Players’ Association, which remains locked in a labor dispute with owners that has delayed the opening of the season.
Shut out of Cooperstown
Miller’s candidacy for the Baseball Hall of Fame fell short five times in balloting between 2003 and 2010 by committees voting on candidates who had not been elected in the regular balloting by baseball writers. In December 2007, when Miller was turned down for a third time, Kuhn, the baseball commissioner who had been his longtime adversary and had died the previous March, was elected to the Hall.
The management of the Hall does not vote on candidates for Cooperstown. But the committees that considered Miller — their numbers ranging from 12 to 84 over the years — have included baseball executives. The breakdown of the voting has not been known, since the Hall asks voters not to reveal whom they selected or turned down.
In 2010, Miller received 11 of the 12 votes required from a 16-member committee, consisting of eight Hall of Famer players or managers, four executives and four baseball writers. Miller’s candidacy will be up for a vote again in 2013.
Miller advised the union as a consultant through his 80s. He spoke out against contractual givebacks and changes in baseball’s economic structure that might weaken the union. While in his 90s, he criticized the union’s acceptance of mandatory drug testing, saying that it could hurt union solidarity and that “it was clear that the government was going to get involved, and when the government gets involved they will pick out targets and the media just goes along with it."
Besides his daughter he is survived by his son, Peter; a sister, Thelma Berenson; and a grandson. His wife, Terry, died in 2009.
As players grew richer, and the baseball figures from his union days faded from the scene, Miller worried that pioneering battles were being forgotten.
“I do feel a little irked and chagrined when I realize that the players have no idea that it was the union that changed everything," he told The New York Times in 1999. “What’s taken for granted are the salaries, the perks, free agency rights, salary arbitration rights, all of which were tremendous struggles."
Still, Miller said, the owners tried hard to “turn back the clock" during his tenure — and, he added, “I don’t believe they’ve ever given up."
But baseball management and labor have been at peace since the 232-day strike that forced cancellation of the 1994 World Series. Today’s ballplayers in the union that Miller built nearly a half century ago earn an average of more than $3 million a year.
In his mid-90s, Miller expressed satisfaction over more than the huge salary gains and freedom of movement his members enjoy and he ultimately came to believe that the players finally appreciated what unionism meant.
“Succeeding generations of players know so much more about trade unionism, solidarity and what it can produce than their predecessors did," he told Sports Illustrated in 2011. “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."