MARVIN MILLER served as executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association from 1966 through 1982, transforming the association first into a bona fide labor union then gradually into one of the strongest collective bargaining units in the United States.
Club owners had ruled baseball with an iron fist for nearly a century prior to Marvin Miller's appointment as the MLBPA's executive director. Players had no ability to choose their employer because they were tied to their original club by a “reserve clause” in every player contract that provided for automatic renewal. Salaries and benefits were low, working conditions abysmal.
Miller, who graduated from NYU with an economics degree in 1938, worked for the National Labor Relations Board resolving labor disputes during World War II, then worked for the International Association of Machinists and the United Auto Workers before joining the United Steelworkers in 1950 and becoming the union's chief economist.
So Miller brought a wealth of knowledge and experience to the players' cause in 1966 when at age 49 he was recruited by an MLBPA committee led by Robin Roberts and Jim Bunning.
Combining deft analytical and communication skills with a clarity of vision, Miller convinced the initially skeptical players of the strength they could wield through solidarity and collective bargaining and guided the players over a 16-year period during which the industry grew exponentially.
“I loved baseball and I loved a good fight, and in my mind, ballplayers were among the most exploited workers in America,” Miller wrote in his 1991 memoir, “A Whole Different Ballgame.”
In 1968, Miller led a committee of players that negotiated the first collective bargaining agreement in the history of professional sports. The agreement raised the minimum salary in baseball from $6,000 – the level at which it had been stuck for two decades – to $10,000 and set the tone for future advances.
In 1970, Miller helped players negotiate the right to arbitration to resolve grievances – an achievement Miller considered the most significant of the union's early years. The impartial dispute resolution process paved the way for nearly all of the gains the players would achieve in ensuing years.
That breakthrough led five years later to free agency when Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally played out the option year of their contracts and challenged the “reserve clause” before arbitrator Peter Seitz. The arbitrator's decision in favor of the players was later upheld in federal court.
A compromise that allowed all players free agency after six years' service was formalized in the next collective bargaining agreement. Miller embraced the compromise knowing that the six-year waiting period would limit the supply side of the market and drive salaries upward through competitive bidding.
In all, Miller helped players collectively negotiate enormous advances in salaries, benefits and working conditions over five collective bargaining agreements with the owners during his tenure. To reach those agreements, Miller guided the players through strikes in 1972, 1980 and 1981 as well as lockouts in 1973 and 1976.
The often contentious labor disputes only served to strengthen the players' resolve, and Miller helped preserve that strength by emphasizing to each succeeding group of players the sacrifices that had been made on their behalf by players who came before them.
Miller died at the age of 95 on Nov. 27, 2012 at his home in New York City.
Marvin Miller Career Accomplishments:
- Established the first collective bargaining agreement – Miller led the Players' efforts in agreeing to the first collective bargaining agreement (CBA) in professional sports – reached in 1968 – which established a new minimum salary of $10,000 – a 42 percent increase from the previous minimum – and the first increase in 20 years. The CBA also included new scheduling rules, a formalized grievance hearing structure and a standardized contract form.
- Neutral Arbitration – In 1970, Miller helped players negotiate the right to arbitration to resolve grievances – an achievement Miller considered the most significant of the union's early years. The impartial dispute resolution process paved the way for nearly all of the players' major gains in ensuing years, including free agency.
- Sport's first organized strike – In 1972, Miller led the Players to sport's first organized strike over pension negotiations with ownership. In a landmark move, Miller and the Players set the tone for labor negotiations for the entire sports world. The strike would last 13 days and end in ownership contribution to the Players' pension plan rising to $5.94 million, up from $2.85 million in 1966.
- “A rising tide lifts all boats” – Miller pushed for free agency for Players, which he believed would ultimately raise salaries around the league by first paying the superstar players a higher rate. In 1975, Miller got his wish with the removal of the Reserve Clause by an independent arbitrator and established free agency for the following year. His belief was proven true. Under Miller's direction, average player salaries rose 1,189 percent – from $19,000 in 1966 to $245,000 in 1982.
- The Pension Plan – The bedrock of the modern-era MLBPA, it was the collective desire of the players in the mid-1960's to protect their pension plan that led to Miller's hiring. More than 50 years later, the Players' pension and benefit plan remains one of the Players' most protected and defended subjects of bargaining.
Marvin Miller and Former Players Talk About The Early Days of the MLBPAVideo
Tony Clark, MLBPA Executive Director: “Marvin Miller saw baseball players as among the most exploited employees in America in the mid-1960s when Player leaders of that era asked him to head our fledgling union. Based upon his considerable experience with a number of labor organizations, including the auto workers', the machinists' and the steel workers' unions, Marvin's principled leadership and grasp of the facts helped the players quickly come to understand their importance and value to the industry. These early efforts laid the groundwork that linked successive generations in the common cause of advancing and protecting players' interests on and off the field. Not only did Marvin know where the players needed to take their union; he knew how to get there. Everything players have today can be traced directly back to Marvin's sure-handed stewardship in our union's early years. He was an industry visionary whose ideas and concepts have stood the test of time.”
Michael Weiner, former MLBPA executive director: “What the players did under Marvin's leadership is the foundation of everything there is today. The message that has been communicated to players ever since I started here, by the staff and by player leadership, is the connection between generations of players. The players today understand they have the rights of today because players before them sacrificed, fought and stood their ground to get that. They understand that Marvin was the start of all that. Everybody understands that legacy.”
Dave Winfield, Hall of Famer and 22-year MLB veteran : “...One of the most historic and most important people in the history of baseball. A person who has influenced my life and my career ...”
Red Barber. former Brooklyn Dodgers radio play-by-play announcer: “Marvin Miller, along with Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson and Branch RIckey, is one of the three or four most important men in baseball history.”
Arthur Ashe, tennis legend: “Marvin Miller has done more for the welfare of black athletes than anyone else.”
Steve Renko, 15-year MLB veteran: “There wasn't anything that got by Marvin. He was an amazing man, more intelligent than we probably will ever know.”
Murray Chass, journalist: “There were some qualities that Marvin had that you had to admire. The man was honest. He didn't know how to lie. Everything he said was the truth and he set a tone for the union.”
Rusty Staub, 23-year MLB veteran: “I think every time somebody signs one of these wonderful contracts – and there are so many of them out there – I think before they get the first check, they should have to write an essay on Marvin Miller.”
Nolan Ryan, Hall of Famer and 27-year MLB veteran: “I came into the game when I broke into the major leagues, and the minimum salary was $7,000, and I had to go home in the winter time and get a job. And the first year that I was in the big leagues, the job I had was at a service station pumping gas from 3 to 9 pm and closing the service station so Ruth and I could live through the winter until baseball season started. She worked in a bookstore at the college. And because of Marvin's efforts and the people in baseball, we brought that level up to where the players weren't put in that situation. Marvin, I appreciate the job that you have done and the impact that it's had on my family. Thank you. “
[Top photo: AP]