There’s nothing better than good irony, and Marvin Miller’s legacy as head of the Major League Baseball Players Association is fraught with delicious ironies. Perhaps the best is that while Miller was called a socialist, a communist, a union rabble-rouser and a “mustachioed four-flusher” (by Paul Richards), his greatest legacy was unleashing good, old American capitalism and free enterprise on the “businessmen” who ran baseball.
Oh, there are more ironies within that. Miller didn’t quite unleash 100 percent unbridled capitalism on the owners, but those owners would have been wise to have allowed it, and maybe the player salaries they’ve decried for so long wouldn’t have risen so much so fast.
We get to all of that here.
Miller died this week at age 95, outliving many of his antagonists but never _ and to the great shame of many in baseball _ getting into the Hall of Fame. While Miller never played the game on the field, he did as much to change it as Babe Ruth or Jackie Robinson.
And while the owners fought him at every turn, Major League Baseball revenues, as Washington baseball-writing legend Thomas Boswell reminded us in Wednesday’s Daily Herald, grew from $50 million in 1967 (shortly after Miller became head of the players union) to $7.5 billion today. As Miller was putting money into the pockets of the players, the owners were crying about Miller all the way to the bank. Another of those ironies.
In the early days of his leadership, Miller won gains for the players in the minimum wage and in their pensions. Over the years, he kept the players informed and involved in their association and reminded them that he worked for them, not the other way around.
The two biggest gains Miller won were the advent of salary-arbitration and, of course, free agency, both of which fueled the salary explosion that began with an arbitrator’s decision in favor of the players in late 1975. (The foundation for free agency had been set by Miller and player Curt Flood, who unsuccessfully challenged in court baseball’s “reserve clause,” which bound players to their teams in perpetuity.)
Arbitration allowed players to have salary disputes settled by a neutral arbitrator, selected by both labor and management. Most of the owners were for it, save for Charlie Finley of the A’s and Gussie Busch of the Cardinals.
Then came free agency, and even though the players didn’t get full free agency, they ended up with the better of the deal. After the ’75 decision that voided the reserve clause, players and owners had to hammer out a collective-bargaining agreement and define free agency and determine when players would get it. Short-sighted owners, who feared players changing teams en masse ever year, wanted to restrict the market to players who had been in the major leagues for at least 10 years.
The players got it down to six, where it stands today. But again, Charlie Finley saw what was coming. John Helyar, in his landmark book of 1994, “The Lords of the Realm,” (a book I highly recommend), recounts Finley saying, “Make them all free agents.”
Finley, a better businessman than almost all of the other owners, knew that if you gave all the players full free agency at the end of their contracts, you’d flood the market with players every off-season. The greater supply would, theoretically, create less demand, and salaries wouldn’t have risen so fast.
This is where Miller held his breath, because he knew it, too. Helyar quotes Miller saying of Finley: “My main worry was that somebody would listen to him. It would have been an impossible box (for Miller and the players). You could not have said you were opposed to freedom.”
Six years was settled on, and every year, you have a relatively short supply of free agents in the market, with 30 teams chasing after them today. Baseball was in steady decline through the late 1960s and into the ‘70s as football, and its made-for-TV once-a-week spectacle, took hold. But baseball’s comeback began with the exciting 1975 World Series. It was just after that that free agency came into being, and you can argue that the free-agent frenzy each winter added more pizazz to the game.
No doubt many people will associate Miller with nothing but big money, strikes and lockouts. But what he did more than anything was win some basic freedoms for the players in a sport where the owners held sway, and not always ethically, for nearly a century. The paternalistic owners did not want to give up any of their power, or money, so labor disputes were inevitable. Sure, Miller wasn’t the friendliest of chaps. He didn’t suffer fools lightly. And he and his successors, mainly Donald Fehr, never could quite win over large segments of the public even though they almost always held the moral high ground. A little better PR sense certainly would have helped.
Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig issued this statement on Miller’s passing:
"Marvin Miller was a highly accomplished executive and a very influential figure in baseball history. He made a distinct impact on this sport, which is reflected in the state of the game today, and surely the Major League players of the last half-century have greatly benefited from his contributions. On behalf of Major League Baseball and the 30 clubs, I extend my deepest condolences to Marvin's family, friends and colleagues."
Not exactly warm and fuzzy, but Selig was owner of the Milwaukee Brewers during the ascendancy of the players association, and Selig’s side (headed by then-Commissioner Bowie Kuhn) got its brains beat in time after time by Miller.
Kuhn is in the Baseball Hall of Fame while Miller is not. It’s an irony that’s more cruel than it is anything else.