Marvin Miller (1917-2012)

There are few institutions that commemorate tradition quite like Major League Baseball. A uniquely American establishment, its history mirrors that of the country of its origin. As baseball grew as a sport, the United States developed as a nation, battling corruption, racism, labor inequality and drugs to emerge as an imperfect endeavor perpetually attempting to push itself forward in the right direction.

Despite all of the commonalities, perhaps no feature acts as more of a link between baseball and America than the celebration of the individual. Just as Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther King Jr. and Neil Armstrong have come to represent American Independence, the Civil Rights Movement and the Apollo Moon Landing; baseball fans are more likely to cite Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays than the 1927 New York Yankees, the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers or the 1954 New York Giants.

It therefore seems strange that one individual, whose lasting impact on baseball outweighs almost any other single person’s contribution, should be so frequently overlooked, not only by a younger generation of baseball fans and players, but also by the very institution whose duty it is to preserve the game’s history, the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

I am writing about labor economist and former executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association Marvin Miller, who died today at the age of 95. As iconic sportscaster Red Barber once said, “Marvin Miller, along with Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson, is one of the two or three most important men in baseball history.”

After cutting his teeth as an analyst and negotiator with the National Labor Relations Board, Machinist Union, United Auto Workers and the United Steelworkers, Miller was hired by the MLBPA in 1966 to lead the organization. Despite forming in 1953, the fifth incarnation of Major League Baseball’s players union was largely ornamental prior to Miller’s arrival. He changed that rather quickly, negotiating the very first collective bargaining agreement between players and owners in 1968, achieving a 67% raise in minimum salary, increasing pension contributions from owners and limiting the maximum salary reduction.

In 1970, Miller continued what he started by negotiating a process by which disputed contracts would be ruled on by independent arbitration, as opposed to the owners-controlled Commissioner’s Office. Two years after the introduction of arbitration, the MLBPA would strike for the first time in its history, in opposition to the refusal of the owners to contribute more funds to the pension plans of the players. The owners eventually relented, agreeing to a $500,000 increase in payments.

However, Miller’s greatest achievement as the head of the MLBPA was to abolish MLB’s reserve clause and introduce the prospect of free agency to its players. Prior to its effective elimination, baseball’s reserve clause allowed owners to retain the services of a player whose contract had expired with a perpetual series of one-year contracts.

The struggle against the Draconian measure began in 1970 when Miller aligned himself with star player Curt Flood, and together, sued MLB for invoking the reserve clause as a means of forcing the player to play for a team to which he did not want to be traded, a breach of antitrust law. The case reached the United States Supreme Court in 1972. Unfortunately, Flood and Miller lost the hearing, but inroads were made, and before too long, the 5/10 Rule was introduced whereby players who have been with a club for five consecutive seasons and have been a Major League player for ten years cannot be traded without consent.

In 1974, Miller used the established route of arbitration on behalf Catfish Hunter to earn the pitcher free agency, after Oakland Athletics owner Charlie Finley failed to meet the terms of the player’s contract. Hunter signed an outlandishly lucrative five-year contract with the New York Yankees worth $3.5 million, alerting every player in baseball to the financial windfall that free agency represented.

After Hunter’s deal, Miller was able to convince Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally to essentially play without a contract for the 1975 season. At the conclusion of the season, an arbitrator, Peter Seith, invalidated the reserve clause by declaring the Messersmith to be a free agent, ruling that MLB could not maintain a player’s services indefinitely. After a series of failed court appeals, MLB and the MLBPA signed an agreement in 1976 that allowed players with six years of experience to become free agents, forming the basis for baseball’s modern version of free agency.

Not only was baseball forever changed, professional sports would never again be the same, and by the time that he retired in 1983, the Major League Baseball Players Association had become one of the most powerful unions – sports or otherwise – in North America.

Despite the massive improvements he made to labor relations in baseball, Miller was quite controversially left out of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, in a series of successive votes by the Veteran’s Committee. Four years ago, Miller requested that the committee no longer consider him for election.

According to Miller:

I took one look at the voters and I formed an immediate conclusion that it was not going to happen. Without commenting on the wisdom of that, I’m able to count votes. First, there’s a whole group of players in the Hall who were pre-union. Worse, they include a fairly significant group who feel that modern players are overpaid. They don’t feel any kinship with the union or anyone connected to it. Second, people make the mistake of mentioning the block of players [in the Hall who played] during my tenure. Certainly, they have benefited. But they leave out the large number who currently work for management. These are management people. They were once players, but they are now management. No small matter.

While it remains disappointing that such an important figure in the sport should not live to see himself honored in a deserving fashion, Miller’s achievements in baseball extend far beyond the decision or indecision of a petty few. His accomplishments were so enormous that induction in a hall of fame is every bit as meaningful as a post-coital handshake.

Far more disappointing is the lack of appreciation from the younger generation of fans and players.

I understand that while we may honor individual players before teams, it’s the teams for which we ultimately cheer. This is what leads us to describe the goodness or badness of a contract solely in terms of how it relates to the team. We do this without reference to what a contract means for the player.

A fan’s devotion to a team, and the fact that well-spent dollars theoretically translate to an increased number of good players playing for the team that we support, combined with difficulties in relating to well-paid professional athletes outside of our visceral appreciation for what they do on the field, lead to the exclusion of our consideration for their end of contract negotiations. However, if we find it difficult to empathize with millionaire players, why is it so relatively easy to side with billionaire owners whose revenue and equity seems to always be increasing?

It shouldn’t be, and that’s the lesson that Marvin Miller teaches us with his life. It is a lesson that I will endeavor to apply in my own writing from now on. Instead of using a good/bad dichotomy to describe a new contract in terms of what it means to the club alone, I’ll refer to newly formed agreements with terms like  ”team-friendly” or “good for the player.” It’s a small way to honor a great man who was able to achieve a greater push forward in the right direction than either baseball or America has ever been able.

Perhaps this sentiment is best described by Bill James:

If baseball ever buys itself a mountain and starts carving faces in it, one of the first men to go up is sure to be Marvin Miller.


The Early Days Of Free Agency. [ESPN]
Influential Union Chief Miller Dies At Age 95. []
The Economic History of Major League Baseball. []
Hall Of Shame. [Village Voice]