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Marvin Miller: 1917-2012

Nov 27, 2012, 10:30 AM EDT

Marvin Miller

Marvin Miller, the legendary leader of the Major League Baseball Player’s Association, has died at age 95.  No word on the exact cause of death, but he had been ill for some time.

It is impossible to overstate Miller’s impact on Major League Baseball. While some — including Hall of Fame voters — have long given Miller short shrift (or piled on utter disdain), baseball today cannot be understood without understanding Marvin Miller’s contributions. He was a truly transformative figure who, after Jackie Robinson, did more to correct the excesses and injustices delivered onto players by baseball’s ruling class than anyone.

When Miller took over as the head of the MLBPA in 1966 there was no free agency. Players were told by ownership what they would make the following year and if they didn’t like it, tough. They couldn’t switch teams. They couldn’t do what any other worker can do and shop their services elsewhere. They were stuck thanks to baseball’s reserve clause and the ridiculous Supreme Court decision which exempted baseball and its owners from the antitrust laws.

Miller took all of that on and he won. He started small, negotiating the union’s first collective bargaining agreement with the team owners in 1968, which raised the game’s minimum salary from $6,000 to $10,000. In 1970 he got the owners to agree to arbitration for the first time. In 1970 Curt Flood, with Miller’s support and guidance, challenged baseball’s antitrust exemption — and the dreaded reserve clause, which kept players tied to one team against their wishes — in the courts. Flood ultimately lost that case in the landmark 1972 Supreme Court decision. The decision did not, however, blunt Miller’s resolve, and he took his fight to other forums.

In 1974 he exploited a loophole — and an oversight by Oakland Athletics owner Charlie O. Finley — to get Catfish Hunter free agency and baseball’s first $1 million contract.  Up next: the whole enchilada. In 1974, he got Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally to play out the season without contracts, placing them in cross-hairs of the reserve clause and giving them standing to fight the provision in arbitration. In 1975 they won, with the Seitz Decision ushering in the age of free agency. Baseball players’ indentured servitude was over.

In all Miller led the union through three work stoppages: two short ones — 1972 and in spring training 1980 — and then the long, season-altering strike in 1981.  In all three stoppages, the union prevailed. Overall during his tenure the average players’ salary rose from $19,000 to $241,000 a year and their working conditions improved dramatically. It is no understatement to say that Miller turned the MLBPA into the most effective and successful labor union in the United States. Not just in sports: in the entire United States.

Miller, however, paid a cost for these victories, being snubbed repeatedly in Hall of Fame voting.  Baseball’s executives — who played a part in his voting — resented him. Some players on the Veteran’s Committee who came before the era of free agency did as well.  Miller never helped his own case, of course — he was at terms feisty, abrasive and mostly dismissive of the Hall of Fame and his own candidacy for it — but the fact remains that his exclusion is a travesty. This is especially true given that so many executives and owners who did so much to harm players’ well-being through greed, racism and other vile impulses have been welcomed in to Cooperstown with open arms.

But whether he ever makes the Hall of Fame or not, baseball would not be what it is today, both as a business and a game, without Marvin Miller. Indeed, you can count the people who have made as great or greater a contribution than Miller to the context in which the game is played on one hand. In this regard his legacy is inviolate.

RIP Marvin Miller. The game will never see his like again.

  1. thomas2727 - Nov 27, 2012 at 10:37 AM

    It is a travesty that Marvin Miller is not in the Hall of Fame.

    His contributions to baseball are enormous.

    I wonder how many of the current players really know who he was or understand his contributions to ending the reserve clause?

    Or how many current day players even know what the reserve clause even was?

  2. florida76 - Nov 27, 2012 at 10:50 AM

    The price the sport paid for Miller’s win at all costs philosophy was enormous. Instead of reaching a compromise with the owners which would have helped the competitive integrity and overall popularity of the game, we got a sport where the last World Series just registered the lowest TV ratings imaginable.

    Miller also made comments over the years deriding smaller market clubs, saying those clubs should relocate if they couldn’t spend like teams such as the Yankees. While the players deserved freedom after the unfair reserve clause, Miller’s quest for victory overlooked what was better for the players, owners, and fans in the long run.

    Hopefully, Miller will never reach Cooperstown.

    • gosport474 - Nov 27, 2012 at 10:58 AM

      You may disagree with Millers strategies and tactics, but how can you deny his profound effect on the state of the game?

    • pmcenroe - Nov 27, 2012 at 11:03 AM

      “Miller’s quest for victory overlooked what was better for the players, owners, and fans in the long run.”

      Uh what? Baseball is more profitable and popular(in terms of total fans) than it has ever been at any point in its history.

    • erikc67 - Nov 27, 2012 at 12:19 PM

      Anyone who has followed the history of baseball’s labor battles will take exception to your interpretation. The “compromise with the owners” is as funny as it is ridiculous. The owners had zero interest in compromise; their only goal was to ensure the reserve clause would survive. And competitive integrity? The first full decade of free agency (1980s) featured how many different World Series winners? Ten.

      And where’s the correlation between Miller’s contributions and the 2012 TV ratings? Absurd.

    • raysfan1 - Nov 28, 2012 at 12:23 AM

      The 2012 WS had horrible ratings because it was an awful series. It was a four game sweep, and only one was at all competitive. Only Giants fans could love that clunker.

      Are you blaming Marvin Miller because the Tigers bats suddenly went cold, and Tigers pitchers couldn’t get outs?

  3. gosport474 - Nov 27, 2012 at 10:56 AM

    Totally agree.
    Whatever your personal thoughts are on Marvin Miller, he altered the landscape of MLB more dramatically than anyone. If we are going to elect the Tim McCarvers of the baseball world to the HOF, then we better get Miller in there also.

    • paperlions - Nov 27, 2012 at 11:36 AM

      McCarver was not elected to the HOF and is not a HOFer. He was given the Ford Frick Award for broadcasters, which doesn’t make him a HOFer…no matter how much broadcasters like to refer to themselves that way.

      • gosport474 - Nov 27, 2012 at 12:07 PM

        Thanks.
        But tell that to McCarver. : )

      • historiophiliac - Nov 27, 2012 at 12:32 PM

        Maybe Buck gave him a novelty plaque.

      • scotttheskeptic - Nov 27, 2012 at 1:43 PM

        Aren’t recipients of the Frick Award recognized with a ceremony in Cooperstown, and inclusion on a plaque in the Hall of Fame? Agreed that they are not elected to the “Hall of Fame”, they are recognized at that level, and commemorated within the building. There is an implied inclusion.

  4. Old Gator - Nov 27, 2012 at 10:56 AM

    I think of Miller as having restored the Balance of Terror in the dystopian labor relations zone that is major league baseball. He deserves to be in the Hall of Fame but I suspect that he was so contemptuous of it and the process of selection that, like Groucho Marx, he’d rather not belong to any club that would admit him to membership in the first place.

    • badintent - Nov 27, 2012 at 12:56 PM

      Well said. The owners had a “old boys club” and Miller hated their their “club” snobbery. And lets never confuse Fehr or Hunter with the brilliance of Miller. My Yankees go Cat Fish and the rest is WS history .

  5. scotttheskeptic - Nov 27, 2012 at 10:58 AM

    Thanks for the quick history reminder. I agree that Miller belongs in the Hall. Some may disagree, but the post 2 hours ago about the Mets and David Wright ($100 million as a lowball offer) stand as testament to his impact.

    RIP, Mr. Miller.

  6. pmcenroe - Nov 27, 2012 at 10:59 AM

    Add him to the list along with Ron Santo and Buck O’Neil (anyone else) of guys its an absolute shame weren’t enshrined in Cooperstown while they were alive…RIP

  7. pmcenroe - Nov 27, 2012 at 10:59 AM

    Add him to the list along with Ron Santo and Buck O’Neil (anyone else?) of guys its an absolute shame weren’t enshrined in Cooperstown while they were alive…RIP

  8. simon94022 - Nov 27, 2012 at 11:21 AM

    Free agency has been a net positive for baseball, which is economically booming today to an extent no one could have imagined during the game’s great decline from the early 1950s through the mid-1970s.

    But the social justice aspect of Milker’s work has always been overblown. Even in the reserve rule era, major league players were very well paid. But they were paid at levels comparable to doctors and lawyers rather than film stars.

    These were young guys without education or skills working for 7 months a year playing ball, and earning middle class and upper middle class incomes. I am glad they achieved free agency, pensions, etc. — but this was never the story of southern sharecroppers or New York City garment workers.

    • historiophiliac - Nov 27, 2012 at 12:58 PM

      I don’t understand this. It seems like you are suggesting that ballplayers were valueless slugs (with no education and skills) who were lucky and should’ve been happy for what they got.

      My grandfather didn’t come from a middle class family that could put him through college. They didn’t pass out student loans back then like they do today. He was poor and about all he had going for him was his good throwing arm. He was fortunate to have the opportunity to play ball and he took it — but he didn’t just play 7 months a year. He played in leagues far from home and away from his family for a good part of the year. He also didn’t have relievers to fall back on. He threw the whole game — however long that was — and even filled in at other positions if the team needed it. Baseball was his big chance, and when it didn’t work out, he raised 10 kids on a barber’s salary. Maybe he wasn’t trapped in a burning factory or something, but for guys like him, playing ball was a chance to get out of poverty. Some of them couldn’t fall back on middle class careers if baseball didn’t work out. As with today, if they didn’t earn the big bucks in their playing years, they lived (and raised families) on much lower incomes later.

    • scotttheskeptic - Nov 27, 2012 at 1:46 PM

      Can you cite any time in American history there were fewer doctors, fewer lawyers, or fewer doctors and lawyers than there were Major League Baseball players? Talent is a commodity that is worth an equivalent compensation.

      • historiophiliac - Nov 27, 2012 at 1:59 PM

        Wait, is this a trick question, because I know the answer and am not sure what your point is.

      • scotttheskeptic - Nov 27, 2012 at 3:06 PM

        Historiophiliac, sorry the question was intended for Simon. Hopefully this makes the point a little more clear.

    • raysfan1 - Nov 28, 2012 at 12:17 AM

      Paid like doctors and lawyers? The MLB minimum wage in 1966 was $6000, about the equivalent of $43000 in today’s dollars. That’s less than the US median income–then and now. $6000 was about what auto mechanics made on average in the 1960′s. Average income for a surgeon in 1960 was about $50000 by the way.

      Also, why shouldn’t entertainers like baseball players make the same amount of money as other entertainers?

      • badintent - Nov 29, 2012 at 12:14 AM

        You mean the 98 % of the Screen Actors Guild that make less than 25 K a year ?? Or the 10,000 Lounge Lizard crooners that play for tips ? Of the MLB AA players that make $30 K a year ?

      • raysfan1 - Nov 29, 2012 at 12:55 AM

        Simon’s comment above stated “film stars,” and to that is what I was responding; so no, I do not mean those that you mention.

        As for those you mention, yes, I would basically equate independent league/single A players to those 98% of SAG members you mention, who dream of one day being a star.

  9. dasher521 - Nov 27, 2012 at 11:33 AM

    It’s sort of like “TIME” magazine’s person of the year, the person who has most influenced the year’s events. It may not be a “good guy”. Like him or not Miller had tremendous impact on the game/business of baseball. Like Leo Durocher, Miller would not be inducted in his life time. I think Pete Rose falls in that same category.

  10. Mark Armour - Nov 27, 2012 at 11:53 AM

    I wish to the heavens we could talk and write and learn about baseball history without using the Hall of Fame as some sort of prism. History is not a list. Miller’s place in baseball history is secure, and it was extraordinary.

  11. simon94022 - Nov 27, 2012 at 12:23 PM

    @Mark Armour — great point, and I totally agree. The Hall of Fame is a fun but quirky museum. It isn’t and shouldn’t be the last word on history. IMHO HOF debates are the most boring topic of baseball discussion.

    • Mark Armour - Nov 27, 2012 at 12:36 PM

      The Hall of Fame is a wonderful museum and library, neither of which writers ever write about, both of which do a great job of teaching the history of this game. The list of inductees is all many people care about, but as history it is just a lazy man’s shortcut.

      • historiophiliac - Nov 27, 2012 at 2:03 PM

        That’s true of a lot of museums and historical societies. Hall of Fame inductions bring easy money though — boosters love them and they make for eye-catching events.

  12. shynessismyelguapo - Nov 27, 2012 at 12:27 PM

    “1968, which raised the game’s minimum salary from $6,000 to $10,000″

    Couple of interesting points:
    1. At $6,000, a player making the league minimum earned *less* than the average US income of $8,200

    2. According to an inflation calculator I googled for and will just blindly assume is correct, that means the league minimum before Marvin Miller go it bumped up was the equivalent of $38,000 today.

    Wow.

  13. jdvalk - Nov 27, 2012 at 2:22 PM

    Marvin Miller was the difference maker who managed to dent the unlimited power of the ownership cabal, which we’ve seen through every subsequent pro labor dispute is no mean feat. RIP.

  14. jdvalk - Nov 27, 2012 at 2:32 PM

    Florida76, please enlighten us as to what compromise the contraction-threatening ownership was ever offering that who’ve produced this utopia that was there for the taking Dave for Miller. Also, who can blame Miller if he didn’t buy into the idea if endlessly subsidizing the McClatchys and David Glasses of the world when they were pocketing revenue sharing money for their bottom line for years rather than re-investing in the on-field product. I’ll take Miller’s approach over that of two-bit relocating owner turned capricious autocrat Bud Selig any day.

  15. chaz016y75u43 - Nov 27, 2012 at 3:04 PM

    Mr. Miller did have a big influence on the game of baseball and getting rid of the reserve clause was a good thing but because of what he did and due to the popularity of this game (and other major league sports) where huge the amounts of money being made from television, cable, licensing of brands in addition to overinflated prices to actually attend games ended up producing a bunch of overpaid crybaby millionaire players and going to games out the price range of a lot of modestly incomed baseball (and other sports)fans. So I think it went from one extreme, before free agency, to the other and now is a game for the elite (players and game attendees). Miller’s legacy both is good and not so good. Hall of fame? Is it for those who have an influence or only a good influence. In Miller’s case I think it’s mixed. So if he is admitted so also should Pete Rose, Shoeless Joe Jackson etc. be admitted.

    • shynessismyelguapo - Nov 27, 2012 at 4:59 PM

      Nothing like being a crybaby while disparaging “overpaid crybaby millionaire players”.

      Also, Pete Rose and Joe Jackson bet on baseball, Marvin Miller never did. Pete Rose and Shoeless Joe Jackson were players, Marvin Miller wasn’t. In summary, there are at least two *major* differences preventing any comparison between Pete Rose/Joe Jackson and Marvin Miller.

      • chaz016y75u43 - Nov 27, 2012 at 5:04 PM

        missed my point, both Rose and Jackson goods things that should put them in the hall and bad things that should prevent them from going. My opinion is that Miller did some very good things and things that ended up being not so good.

  16. franklb - Nov 27, 2012 at 6:34 PM

    The one thing I think the owners are missing, and I haven’t seen anyone comment on, is the tremendously increased value of major league franchises since Marvin Miller came on the scene. Think about what The Boss paid for the Yankees in 1973 ($10 million, or $8.8 million if you don’t count the parking lots), and think about what the franchise is worth now ($1.85 billion, according to Forbes). Go ahead and whine about player salaries if you’re an owner, but there is a non-trivial correlation between payroll size and franchise value.

    As a fan, I am not amused at what I have to pay to get in to some ballparks. I have the option to vote with my feet, and just stay away. If I choose not to do that, then I shouldn’t be whining, either. If the prices are too high, then don’t go to the games, and don’t buy the merchandise (the licensing value in that stuff is even more shocking than the ticket prices, by the way). Otherwise, sit back and enjoy the show.

    One other point. The only thing dumber than an owner writing a Tom Hicks sized check to A-Rod is an A-Rod declining to cash the check. None of us would turn down big money if it were offered to us, especially when our career could end tomorrow.

    RIP, Mr. Miller. And thank you.

  17. ww2chas - Nov 27, 2012 at 8:18 PM

    Thanks to Mr. Miller, you have to take a loan out to go to a baseball game!

  18. protius - Nov 28, 2012 at 1:16 AM

    Wasn’t Marvin Miller involved with some shady New York politician in a scandal over a few thousand cases of untaxed scotch during the mid-1950′s?

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