Marvin Miller, the Labor Leader Who Revolutionized Baseball
“It’s a matter of values,” said Marvin Miller, his deep baritone booming out of my Motorola StarTAC as I scribbled into my notebook. “Once upon a time a scab was the lowest thing on earth. That’s no longer the case.”
Those are fighting words, and Marvin Miller—the legendary executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, who died today at the age of 95—was never at a loss for them.
The scab in question was Rick Reed, the pitcher who was starting for the New York Mets in the 2000 Subway World Series against the Yankees. A half decade before, Reed had crossed the picket line and played as a replacement player during the ill-fated scab spring training of 1995, and the players association had quietly refused him membership in the union along with the benefits and slice of the marketing pie that goes along with it.
I thought there was a story here, but no one at Shea, not Mets player rep John Franco or even players association head Donald Fehr (“We never say anything about who participates in games—ever”) agreed.
So I looked for a quiet place and called the one guy who I knew would have something to say: Fehr’s predecessor, Marvin Miller, who spent 16 years at the first executive director of the players association.
“I don’t think the players understand the situation,” Miller told me, his frustration clearly mounting. “They want to be on a team that wins. If the scab proves to be an efficient player, they’re quick to forgive him.”
But while Miller was a fighter—Vito Corleone would have recognized him as a wartime consigliere—he was a realist first and foremost.
“It’s not surprising that he’s playing,” Miller concluded with a tinge of sadness. “What’s surprising is that nobody seems to care.”
More than anyone in baseball’s modern era, post–Jackie Robinson, that is, Miller changed the game. Before his tenure at what he made the strongest union in the country, baseball players were indentured servants—effectively bound to their teams for life. After Miller fought and won the good fight, players had the same rights as workers in any other business, and despite the owners’ predictions of economic doom, the game has flourished, financially and otherwise.
And yet Miller isn’t in Baseball’s Hall of Fame. It’s the kind of inexplicable decision that diminishes not the man, but the institution. When Cooperstown enshrines Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, the rival who matched up against Miller like a third-grader playing chess against Garry Kasparov, what else is there to say? Even his most vehement detractors couldn’t deny that Marvin Miller had game. His strategy for taking on the owners was a thing of beauty, a resilient, multipronged attack that would have made Sun Tzu proud.
Within a year of taking over the union in 1966, Miller gained the support of his rank and file by getting owners to agree, through collective bargaining, to concessions that seem modest in retrospect: better working conditions, bigger pension contributions, and a long-overdue raise of the minimum salary from $7,000 to $10,000.
But that was just the first salvo in a broader war for independence. Miller diverted the revenue from baseball-card marketing into a strike fund, and flexed the union’s muscle with a brief walkout in 1969.
But the real problem remained the reserve clause that bound players to the team they’d signed with even after their contract ended.
Upon being traded to the Phillies, St. Louis outfielder Curt Flood sent a letter to Commissioner Kuhn, asking to be declared a free agent. “I do not feel I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes,” he wrote. “I believe that any system which produces that result violates my basic rights as a citizen.” The letter was followed by a million-dollar lawsuit that went all the way to the Supreme Court.
Flood lost, but Miller, undaunted, countered with a brilliant end run: encouraging two pitchers, Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally, to play out a season without a contract and then take their cases to an arbitrator. The arbitrator ruled that they had fulfilled their contractual obligations and did what the Supreme Court wouldn’t, making them free agents, and tossing out baseball’s reserve clause in the process. The game would never be the same, as players moved freely from team to team.
And that, ironically, may be why Marvin Miller has never fully gotten his due. Baseball fans are, by nature, traditionalists, and that’s a double-edged sword. They mourn Ebbett’s Field, and in doing so, half-pine for the bad old days when players would spent their career on one team—and had to take an off-season job to make ends meet. They fret about a lack of competitive balance today, while conveniently forgetting that the St. Louis Browns and the Kansas City Athletics once functioned as virtual farm teams for the Yankees. They wonder why players aren’t content to simply get paid anything to play a kid’s game, and place the blame for that lost innocence on arbitration and free agency.
Today, Major League Baseball, which had $50 million in revenue in 1967, is a $7.5 billion concern. The average salary is more than $3 millon, and the minimum big-league contract is $480,000.
But by rightly insisting that professional baseball has always been a business, Marvin Miller harshed the fans’ mellow.
That’s why they let Cooperstown—kowtowing to the owners who’ve never forgiven Miller for forcing them to share the games’ wealth—get away with rigging the vote to find him unworthy of the Hall of Fame. “Essentially, the decision for putting a union leader in the Hall of Fame was handed over to a bunch of executives and former executives,” Jim Bouton, the former pitcher and author of the muckraking, groundbreaking Ball Four, told The Village Voice in 2007. “Marvin Miller kicked their butts and took power away from the baseball establishment.”
That, along with a few fighting words, is Marvin Miller’s legacy.