For a radical, Marvin Miller was something of a square. He spoke not in the fire-breathing rhetoric of a revolutionary, which he most certainly was. When he walked into a room full of baseball players, he addressed them softly and deliberately, letting facts tell his story. And those facts led them to one conclusion: They weren't changing baseball. They were changing the sporting world.
No union anywhere can compare to the Major League Baseball Players Association, which is funny seeing as the MLBPA is the most oxymoronic of all: a union of millionaires. And the MLBPA is the standard bearer of unions everywhere because of its cohesion, yes, and because of ownership's missteps, sure, but more than anything because of Marvin Miller and his facts.
Miller died Tuesday morning at his home in Manhattan three months after he was diagnosed with liver cancer. He was 95.
Baseball mourned the loss of its greatest visionary, one whose ideas and ideals spawned free agency, spurred the transactional madness that keeps MLB relevant year-round and hastened sports' transformation into the world's greatest entertainment industry.
When Miller was recruited from his job representing steelworkers to run the slipshod union, which had $5,000 in its bank account and no semblance of rights for players, he saw the opportunity to shape the union around his beliefs, with one core principle at the center: freedom for players to choose.
"Baseball players had this terrible situation: They couldn't look for a better job," said Don Fehr, Miller's successor with the MLBPA and now head of the NHL players' union. "He was trying to fix that. And that made a powerful impression on me. It encapsulated the dispute in a very meaningful way that everybody could understand and appreciate without demonizing anyone."
Fehr first met Miller while working on the Andy Messersmith-Dave McNally case that would usher free agency into sports. Miller had won smaller victories before, from funding MLB's pension program to instituting a neutral arbitrator to allowing agents to negotiate contracts for players, which doesn't seem like a huge deal until realizing executive Buzzie Bavasi regularly lied to players about their teammates' salaries to manipulate them into taking less money.
This was the environment in baseball when Miller took over in 1966: a $6,000 minimum salary (that's a little more than $40,000 today), a $19,000 average salary and indentured servitude to the drafting team. That's what Messersmith stood for. Curt Flood had tried, with Miller's help, to overturn the reserve clause that chained player to team. He failed. For sports to truly change, the Messersmith case couldn't.
In 1975, Messersmith (for the Dodgers) and McNally (for the Expos) played without contracts. Since they hadn't re-signed with their respective teams, both argued they should be allowed to sign with other teams the following season. Ownership disagreed.
"It was the linchpin of collective bargaining," Miller said in May. "Nothing was better than that. Without it, you couldn't have any legitimate negotiations. It was all pretense. Andy understood that. Andy sacrificed himself for all of us. He had great faith."
Arbitrator Peter Seitz sided with Messersmith – McNally had retired – and he was the Adam of sports free agency. No longer did Miller have to repeat the painful chestnut he trotted out when asked about the reserve clause: "One year means forever."
"Everybody wanted to shoot him," Twins owner Calvin Griffith told John Helyar in his seminal book, The Lords of the Realm, "but nobody wanted to pull the trigger."
A decade after Miller started at the union to great consternation – the owners had promised a huge lump payment if the players chose not Miller but management's hand-picked candidate – he was standing at the apex of union accomplishments. His constituency was stronger than ever, his resolve equally steeled, and the kid from Brooklyn was happy to prey on the splinters forming throughout baseball's management.
"Gentlemen," Ted Turner once said, "we have the only legal monopoly in the country, and we're [expletive] it up."
Actually, Marvin Miller was [expletive] it up through his simplicity. Fehr marveled at Miller's ability to take an idea and reduce it to one sentence that captured the practical and emotional core of a problem.
Baseball players cannot look for a better job.
It was perfect.
"He told them to try to understand this is not a game," Fehr said Tuesday. "You're an employee. This is an employment situation and you are being employed because you are one of the tiniest fraction of people qualified to do this job, and that's a skill. That skill brings in all the income. Nobody pays to watch an owner or umpire.
"The concepts are not intrinsically very difficult, but baseball players at the time had been led to believe they were special, privileged people, and they should be lucky they weren't working for a living," Fehr continued. "Nobody ever pretended they weren't lucky, but you can say that about anybody who has a gift."
After leading the union through the 1981 strike – which unions across the country see as a leading example of solidarity, along with baseball's strike in '94 – Miller retired. December will mark the 30th year of his leaving baseball, though Miller's principles have gone nowhere. Players still speak of him reverently, and every professional athlete owes him a debt of gratitude.
In his retirement, Miller kept in touch with the union's leaders. He complained about drug testing and lauded them for resisting a salary cap. He saw so many of his contemporaries begin to go – his foil at MLB, John Gaherin, and Hall of Famer Robin Roberts, who stumped for him in '66, and McNally and Flood – and wondered when he might, too. His mind never did, though, not all the way to the end.
The word union is a slur these days, and Miller couldn't understand how that happened. All across America, they were trying to break unions, standing up for management like big business would actually look out for the worker, and he didn't understand it.
"Unions are there for good," Marvin Miller said.
And nobody knew that better than the man who changed sports.
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