On November 27, 2012, Marvin Miller, the economist who led professional baseball players in America from virtual serfdom to being represented by what might well be the country’s strongest labor union today, died, at the age of 95.
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Today the average annual salary of a professional player exceeds $3 million, and similarities between major league baseball and feudalism may not be obvious. But in the days before Marvin Miller became executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, in 1966, players had minimal control of their professional lives. Their contracts tied them for the duration of their careers to the original team that signed them – unless that team chose to release them. The owners held all the cards, and salaries and other benefits reflected that.
That situation changed, however, during the 16 years Miller ran the MLBPA, during which he successfully challenged the “reserve clause,” giving players much more power to negotiate their own contracts, and convincing management to improve pensions and to agree to have disputes with players resolved by neutral arbitrators.
At the same time, other changes taking place in baseball were bringing in vast new amounts of revenues. Miller was not responsible for those changes – which included the expansion of the leagues and of broadcasting rights – but he guaranteed that the bounty would be shared with players, and this had an impact on all professional sports.
Dodgers and unions
Marvin Miller was born in the Bronx, New York, on April 14, 1917, and he grew up in Brooklyn, a Dodgers fan. His father, Alexander Miller, was a salesman in the garment industry, and an active union man who sometimes brought his son with him to walk the picket line. Marvin’s mother, the former Gertrude Wald, taught elementary school in New York; she too was a union member.
After graduating from James Monroe High School, Miller studied economics at New York University, receiving his B.A. in 1938. During World War II, he worked for the National War Labor Board. After jobs with the International Association of Machinists and the United Auto Workers, he moved, in 1950, to the United Steelworkers Union, where he rose to become the chief economist and a negotiator.
Baseball players elected Miller to head their union in the spring of 1966. In the first contract he negotiated, in 1968, owners agreed to raise the minimum salary for players from $6,000 a year to $10,000; two years later, they agreed that certain disputes would be decided by an arbitration panel chosen jointly by players and owners.
The most dramatic development took place after veteran player Curt Flood, whose team, the St. Louis Cardinals, had traded him to Philadelphia after a salary dispute, decided to challenge the reserve clause in court.
In a letter to baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn in December 1969, Flood stated: “I do not feel that I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes.” He added that the Phillies had offered him a contract, but “I believe I have the right to consider offers from other clubs before making any decisions.”
Flood’s case went all the way to the Supreme Court, in 1972, where he lost. Flood had retired by then, but his stand, and several subsequent challenges by younger players, led the owners to finally agree to a change – albeit one he did not benefit from.
In the 1976 compromise worked out with Miller, players would become free agents after six years in the pros, free to negotiate directly with any interested team. By agreeing to the six-year rule, Miller was knowingly limiting the supply of available players, which he figured, correctly, would help keep salaries high.
The concessions came at a price. During Miller’s tenure, players went on strike three times, and, in 1976, found themselves locked out by the owners for nearly a month. Miller remained an object of animosity for many owners until his death two years ago, more than a quarter century after his retirement. Five times, his candidacy for the Baseball Hall of Fame was rejected, in anonymous balloting.
Not all members of management saw Miller as a negative force. Former Major League Baseball commissioner Fay Vincent told the AP, on Miller’s passing: “I think he’s the most important baseball figure of the last 50 years. He changed not just the sport but the business of the sport permanently, and he truly emancipated the baseball player – and in the process all professional athletes.”