Baseball Labor Leader Marvin Miller Dies

Marvin Miller, the man who dragged baseball into a new era by empowering players at the same time he was despised by owners, died at 95 in New York City Tuesday. Miller’s influence on the sport was so monumental that every player who has competed in Major League baseball since 1975 when Miller shepherded the game into free agency should tithe part of his salary to Miller’s heirs.

For the first century of its existence, the sport was ruled by autocractic owners who established the regulations, who underpaid their employees, and who reaped the majority of the profits. When Miller arrived as executive director of the players’ union in 1966 the landscape began to change. The former official with the United Steelworkers Union had a steel backbone when it came to negotiating with baseball’s powers, and by the time he left office 16 years later Miller had guided the game through its most tumultuous changes and and seemingly left the players with the upper hand for the first time in the sport’s history.

Baseball’s minimum salary was $6,000 a year when Miller became the union’s executive director and $33,500 when he left the job in 1982. Salaries have only skyrocketed since, with the biggest stars making more than $20 million a year and even the lowest paid players on a roster receiving nearly a half-million dollars per season. Rarely, if ever, has one man exerted as much sway over a sport’s decision-making processes. From the time Miller appeared on the scene, baseball owners who had had their way as overseers since the National League was founded in 1876, have had to bargain on more equal footing.

It turned out that the owners were not up to the challenge, and time after time, withstanding some disruptive strikes that turned public opinion against them, the athletes came out on top in negotiations and forced the owners to capitulate on issues.  The, slender, gray-haired Miller, who had a thick mustache, presented firm, carefully articulated arguments in public and did not lose his cool, at the same time those across the table accused him of undermining the game and attempting to ruin the sport.

Owners opposed Miller’s presence in baseball from the start and Miller later revealed that they had campaigned against his hire by the players’ union by spreading false horror stories playing upon stereotypes of labor unions. The sport would be infiltrated by gangsters and be poisoned, Miller said those owners said of him. However, the tactic boomeranged. When players met Miller he came off as a reasonable, soft-spoken man and they figured that if the owners hated him that much he might be exactly what they needed for their cause.

Under Miller’s leadership the players’ union and its membership prospered. But Miller also showed how everyone could co-exist and everyone could make money. Every aspect of baseball now involves far greater riches than anyone dreamed was possible when Miller represented the players. It is remarkable that he has not been elected to the Hall of Fame, perhaps resented even today for being the lightning-rod figure responsible for so much upheaval.

Past commissioner Peter Ueberroth said upon learning of Miller’s death that he should be in the Hall of Fame “without question.” Former commisioner Fay Vincent called Miller “the most important baseball figure of the last 50 years.” Vincent said that Miller not only changed baseball’s way of doing business, but that he “emancipated” baseball players, freeing them from restrictive in-perpetuity option clauses in their contracts. Current commissioner Bud Selig said, “surely the Major League players ot the last half-century have greatly benefited from his contributions.”

When Miller assumed the job as executive director the union had $5,400 in the bank and one file cabinet in its office. In the ensuing years under Miller’s direction players won concessions to improve their pension plan, first negotiated salary arbitration, and then gained free agency.

Born April 14, 1917, Miller was raised by a father who was a salesman and a mother who was a teacher. Miller attended college at Ohio University and New York University and by 1950 was working full-time in the labor field with the steelworkers. Initially, he wasn’t sure he wanted the job representing baseball players and didn’t think that the player search committee would hire him.

Miller was probably as militant in favor of his clients as the owners feared, but they misunderstood his tactics. The labor movement had been marred by bloody strikes during labor-management confrontations, but while players did strike and stuck to their beliefs when owners thought they would fold, Miller also used other weapons, from the court system to arbitration, to undermine the owners’ stances.

To any baseball fan born in the last 35 years the concept of players being bound to a team for life and the idea of players being grossly underpaid, would seem completely foreign. There was the pre-Marvin Miller era in Major League baseball and the post-Marvin Miller era in Major League baseball. It is a shame that likely the majority of those last two generations of fans don’t really know who Marvin Miller was. But at the least every single player in the game absolutely should be awareof  and should be thankful to him.

Tags: Baseball Owners Marvin Miller Players Union

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