Marvin Miller, who succumbed to liver cancer on Tuesday, turned diamond dogs into millionaires.
As the first full-time executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, commonly known as the players union, he warred with big league owners and won a series of victories, victories they still hold against him by helping to keep him out of baseball’s Hall of Fame.
Under Marvin Miller’s leadership, the players would no longer have to beg or be at the mercy of baseball’s lords. He turned what had been a toothless association into arguably the most powerful union in America.
Miller forced owners to negotiate the first collective bargaining agreement in the history of professional sports. That was in 1968. The minimum salary in baseball at the time was $6,000 and the new agreement raised it to $10,000. Today, thanks to him, the minimum salary is $480,000.
In 1970 he won for players the right to use agents in salary negotiations and later the right to have an arbitrator settle disputes between players and owners. That seemingly small victory would soon lead to his greatest victory in 1975, a decision by an arbitrator declaring that pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally could become free agents. (Interestingly, an appeal of that decision was heard in a Western Missouri district court—Kansas City Royals Baseball Corp. v. Major League Baseball Players Association.)
That 1975 arbitrator’s decision essentially killed baseball’s “reserve clause,” a devilish contract provision that was invented by greedy 19th-century owners who knew that if players were free to offer their services to the highest bidder, it would empower players and cut into owner’s profits. (For more on the reserve clause, see this 2009 piece on Curt Flood.)
The reserve clause had essentially made players the property of team owners, and players were bound to the teams that first signed them unless the owner traded them or released them. Ridding baseball of the reserve clause changed the game and finally allowed players to fully benefit from their skills and labor.
And speaking of labor, Marvin Miller was a real union man with a working class background. His father was a New York garment district salesman and his mother was a teacher. Miller started his career in government working for the National War Labor Board and then worked as an economist and negotiator for the United Steelworkers union. In 1966 he became head of the players association, and using his knowledge as a labor economist, his skills as a negotiator, and a union’s right to strike, players became at least the equals of owners at the negotiating table.
Passing away at the age of 95 , Miller never made it into the Hall of Fame, where he unquestionably belongs and where, eventually, he will end up. The owners, as he knew, had a lot to do with his rejection, time and again. Former White Sox pitcher Bob Locker, who created ThanksMarvin.com, noted how Miller’s accomplishments transcended baseball by saying:
He ought to have a statue in front of the Baseball Hall of Fame — and every other sports hall of fame.
Many former players, writers, and broadcasters have protested Marvin Miller’s exclusion from the Hall of Fame, including former Yankees pitcher and author of Ball Four, Jim Bouton, who said,
Essentially, the decision for putting a union leader in the Hall of Fame was handed over to a bunch of executives and former executives. Marvin Miller kicked their butts and took power away from the baseball establishment—do you really think those people are going to vote him in? It’s a joke.
Marvin Miller will, though, have the last laugh. He will be a Hall of Famer and live forever as part of baseball history, while his spiteful owner-critics will be forgotten. As the great baseball historian, Bill James, put it,
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.
Knowing that, may he rest in peace.