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A Man Who Spoke Hard Truths

The most important man in sports in the past 40 years died at age 95 yesterday. Marvin Miller, whose union won free agency for baseball players in 1975 and thus eventually gained the same fundamental bargaining rights for all pro athletes, lived to see his vilified ideas utterly vindicated. What started as a cause became commonplace. What was once controversial became incontrovertible.

When I started on the baseball beat, there was no free agency, in baseball or any sport. It was a different world. One story from that time defines for me why everything Miller stood for was right — both then and in hindsight — while everything the owners fought dirty to preserve was the essence of greed and exploitation.

Brooks Robinson played for the first team I covered. There was never a gentler, more decent and beloved ballplayer. In his entire 23-year Oriole career, Robinson earned less than $1 million in salary. In 1975, just months before Miller and his union won their court battle for free agency, Robinson won his 15th and final Gold Glove in his last full-time season. His financial timing was awful.

Brooks’s post-baseball plan was his sporting goods store in Baltimore — nothing big, just a local business. What could be more logical and modest? But Robinson hated to nag local youth teams to pay for their equipment. He carried many accounts on the cuff. So, one of my first “scoops” on the beat was to ask one of my childhood heroes how he had gone bankrupt. Robinson blamed himself for not being tough enough in business. I blamed a century of baseball owners who never paid players a fraction of their worth.

Fans inundated Robinson with small cash gifts in the mail. He sent them all back. A local lawyer, Ron Shapiro, was so upset by Robinson’s plight that when the Orioles asked if he would help Robinson handle his bankruptcy, Shapiro ended up becoming a player agent.

Ron’s son, Mark, who became an MLB general manager, has told the story of how Robinson wanted to thank his dad for the help. “Brooks wanted to give my dad his 15th Gold Glove, and my dad wouldn’t take it,” Mark once recalled. “He rang our doorbell and ran away, and there was a Rawlings Gold Glove at our front door.”

Some athletes will still go broke. But thanks to Marvin Miller, none will have to feel such mortification because their employers systematically robbed them of rightful fortunes, keeping the cash for themselves.

From the first free agent class in 1976 until Miller retired after the 1982 season, I interviewed him regularly, because baseball labor-management wars never really ceased, they just took different forms between work stoppages. His primary weapon — aside from a formidable mind, quiet fierceness and an unapologetic personal hatred for most owners (out-and-out evildoers in his eyes) — was the simple truth.

The facts, and American labor law for other citizens, were usually so starkly against baseball that he needed little else. In person, he was handsome, resembling actor Douglas Fairbanks. But his eternal on-point earnestness gave him gravitas. I never heard him laugh, except sardonically.

In a contrast that was almost embarrassing, the owners’ reps, including executive committee members such as Bud Selig, seldom told a fib-free tale over a 20-year period. And the personal attacks on that “sport-wrecking radical” Miller were constant. For the past 15 years, of course, Miller has gotten nothing but outward respect from his old adversaries.

But you’ll notice that Miller is still not in the Hall of Fame. They should throw out every plaque, except Babe Ruth’s and Jackie Robinson’s, into Cooperstown’s street until Miller’s in.

Miller, and those after him, used that history-is-on-our-side stance to swing public opinion, which was largely against free agency for athletes in 1975. It took many years.

Now, the major pro leagues still debate the form in which salaries are set — with salary caps or luxury taxes or revenue-sharing — but no one believes players should be prohibited from switching teams or from discovering the value of their talents in an open market.

Before Miller, no sports owner, and few fans, believed in such basic rights.

Pete Rozelle brought the economic stability and parity of revenue sharing to the NFL, then catalyzed football’s boom with brilliant public relations and marketing. Selig has recovered from his nadir as commissioner after the cancellation of the ’94 World Series and the subsequent PED scandals, with strategies to make MLB rich.

However, Miller’s impact outweighs any one athlete, owner or commissioner of my time. Athletes, once cheated, have become rich, perhaps too rich when you consider that their salaries, for the most part, simply pass through owners’ hands, but are really paid by fans in the forms of ticket or cable television prices. But those nine-figure contracts also have added to the glamour and controversy of big-time sports. The 24/7/365 baseball news cycle, with year-round wheeling and dealing, is in part a byproduct of free agency.

Miller will remain a man of one great fair-mind idea, one simple cause and a long line of tough victories that inspired athletes in every other sport to follow suit. Though none has approached the record of Miller’s union.

Personally, Miller was an easy man to respect, but not an especially easy one to like. If you were in his union, you probably named children after him. But, acerbic by nature, he tolerated only one opinion if you were an outsider: his own. If you played Devil’s Advocate, that brought you perilously close to the Devil himself in Marvin’s eyes. Maybe all original crusaders share that trait.

“Rest in peace” is the least apt epitaph for Miller. That’s exactly what he never let anyone do. By upsetting the peace, constantly, he changed American sport forever.