Editorial: Marvin Miller; The Man Who Transformed Sports

That Marvin Miller, the most important figure in baseball over the past half century, was neither a player nor a manager nor an owner is but one of many ironies in a life’s work that abounded in them.

Miller, who died this week at age 95, transformed the game and transcended it, building the Major League Baseball Players Association into arguably the nation’s most powerful union. In doing so, he revolutionized the economics of the game and forged the template for other sports, including basketball, hockey and football.

As The New York Times noted, when Miller was hired as executive director of the association in 1966, baseball owners ruled the game as absolute monarchs. Players had little bargaining power because the reserve clause chained them to their teams as long as the owners saw fit to keep them. The average salary was $19,000, and the minimum was $6,000, virtually the same as it had been for 20 years. Grievances were heard by the commissioner, who, of course, worked for the owners. The pension plan was negligible.

In 1968, Miller negotiated the first collective bargaining agreement in professional sports, and by the time he retired in 1982, the average player salary had reached $241,000, the pension plan was robust, and players had won the right to sell their services to the highest bidder as free agents and to have their grievances heard by an impartial arbitrator. After the baseball revolution that Miller wrought, the average player salary is now $3 million, and the playing field on which labor and management contend has been leveled.

That the revolutionary himself was quiet, calm and even-keeled rather than a fire-breather is another irony. Jim Bouton, who was a pretty good pitcher and a better writer, recalled his first encounter with Miller at spring training in 1966 this way: “We were all expecting to see someone with a cigar out of the corner of his mouth, a real knuckle-dragging ‘deze and doze’ guy,” when “in walks this quiet, mild, exceedingly understated man.”

Appearances could be deceiving. Miller, an economist by training who had worked for the International Association of Machinists, the United Auto Workers and the United Steelworkers Union, wrote in his memoir that, “I loved baseball, and I loved a good fight, and, in my mind, ballplayers were among the most exploited workers in America.”

Peter Seitz, the arbitrator who created free agency when he declared the reserve clause invalid in 1975 in a case that was argued by the union, described Miller as the Moses who “led Baseball’s Children of Israel out of the land of bondage.”

Ironically — there’s that word again — Miller remained until his death a prophet without honor in his own country. On five occasions, electors to Baseball’s Hall of Fame have rejected his candidacy, which says a lot about the lingering feudalism of the game’s establishment and the enduring scars inflicted on the owners by Miller, who managed to outwit them at almost every turn during years of labor unrest. They apparently fail to realize that much of the game’s current prosperity, and their own, is attributable to Miller.

For all of Miller’s accomplishments, perhaps the greatest was wielding a labor force of highly skilled and individualistic professionals into a potent union that displays almost unmatched solidarity in a highly competitive industry. The degree to which both these workers and the business of baseball have benefited from the power of collective bargaining is a lesson from which the rest of America could profit.