Marvin Miller

How the greatest union man in sports history shaped the games we watch today.

Marvin Miller
Marvin Miller, chief counsel for the Major League Baseball Players Association, in May 1981

Photo by AP/Pickoff.

Marvin Miller, the longtime head of the Major League Baseball Players Association who died Tuesday at 95, was no visionary. That was what made him a great man. As he described his own career, in his terrific autobiography A Whole Different Ball Game and in a series of cantankerous interviews in his later years, the revolution he led in American sports was premised on nothing more than an eye for detail, a willingness to let his enemies hang themselves, and a basic sense of right and wrong.

“There was nothing noble about what we did,” he told Yahoo’s Jeff Passan earlier this year. “We did what was right.”

The scope of Miller’s achievements mark him as one of the most significant figures in baseball history, right there with Alexander Cartwright—the closest thing there is to an identifiable inventor of the game—and Branch Rickey, who led the sport’s integration and created the farm system. As outsized as his greatest triumphs were, though—he was more or less directly responsible for the creation of free agency, led the only really successful strikes in the history of American sports, and built what is often described as the most powerful union in the country—his impact is in some ways best described by his smaller victories.

In 1966, when he was elected to run the players’ union, Miller was in some ways too big for the job. An economist and leader in the United Steelworkers union, he had met and directly negotiated with American presidents and been offered both a visiting professorship at Harvard and work directing a long-term study for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Baseball, by contrast, was a backwater. The players were so naïve that he had to explain to them at an early meeting that they were being screwed over because their pensions didn’t have any mechanisms to adjust for inflation. He also warned his soon-to-be constituency that Richard Nixon, a rival for the job, probably had political ambitions beyond heading their union. (Later, he was able to gloat. “I was glad to see he had managed to find work after losing out on the Players Association job,” he wrote of meeting President Nixon in 1969.) When he was finally elected to head the union, newspaper reports didn’t even refer to him as a labor leader; he was instead, according to the Miami Herald, “a liaison and coordinator with Commissioner William Eckert and club owners.”

Any notion that Miller would be a management-friendly patsy like his predecessors was quickly done away with. By the end of 1966, the players had the first real labor agreement in sports; though it only covered pensions and insurance, it marked a beginning. Two years later, he had not only secured an increase in the minimum salary from $6,000 to $10,000—a very big deal at the time, since as of 1967 a third of players were making $10,000 or less—but negotiated a full labor agreement. It codified such common-sense reforms as implementing a formal grievance procedure, so that clubs couldn’t discipline players at will, and an understanding that baseball wouldn’t make any major rules changes without running them by the players.

The two most notable points here were that Miller had made the owners collectively bargain, something they’d never had to do before, and that he’d held his powder. On reading baseball’s infamous reserve clause, which allowed owners to renew player contracts ad infinitum and essentially pay them whatever management wanted, Miller was struck by the fact that its language plainly allowed an owner to renew a contract only once. A ballplayer who played for one year under such a deal and then declined to sign a new one would clearly be a free agent, able to sign with any team he’d like. Rather than pushing this obviously sound interpretation, though, Miller settled for a slower route that would allow the union to amass power and even tried to discourage Curt Flood from his eventually unsuccessful attempt to sue his way out of his blatantly illegal contract.

Where someone else might have put all his energies into demonstratively righting the great wrongs that underlay baseball’s economy, Miller focused on the mechanisms of power. The 1968 accord, for instance, won players the right to appeal decisions their teams made to the commissioner. Building on that victory, Miller argued that the commissioner, an agent of management, was not an impartial arbiter and so won, in 1970, the right for players to appeal to a third-party mediator. In the broader context of labor negotiations, this was nothing radical, but the eventual abolition of the reserve clause in 1975, in the case of Andy Messersmith, a player who declined to sign a renewal of his contract, came as a result of a decision made by such a mediator, Peter Seitz. Miller’s great triumph was the direct result of the patient work of winning minor technical concessions.

His greatest legacy wasn’t the introduction of free agency, though, but building its structure. By his account, the one thing he genuinely feared was that owners would realize that basic laws of supply and demand applied to their industry. As he wrote:

In the wake of the Messersmith decision it dawned on me, as a terrifying possibility, that the owners might suddenly wake up one day and realize that yearly free agency was the best possible thing for them; that is, if all players became free agents at the end of the year, the market would be flooded, and salaries would be held down. It wouldn’t so much be a matter of the teams bidding against one another for one player as of players competing against each other. … What would we do, I wondered, if just one of the owners was smart enough to figure out the money they would save if all players became free agents every year?

There was such an operator, as it turned out: the iconoclastic Charlie Finley, owner of the Oakland A’s. But no one listened to him.

“All I can imagine,” Miller wrote, “is that they had such a fixation on power, such an abhorrence of the idea of the players winning any kind of freedom, that they refused even to consider an idea that clearly was in their own economic interest.”

Miller was able to negotiate a framework that limited the supply of players coming onto the market every year and so created the mechanism that now allows perfectly average players to earn eight-figure salaries. In this, you see everything that allowed Miller to have such an exceptional impact. He understood that the letter of contracts, and not grandstanding, was what would earn power for his union. He also knew that since he was up against idiots who were more concerned with their own egos than serving their own interests, all he had to do was stand aside and let them destroy their own position.

In his autobiography, there is a scene in which Bowie Kuhn, the commissioner at the time, invites him for a drink at a fancy club and begs for him to take a dive in a coming round of bargaining.

“It’s important for you to understand,” Kuhn says, “you’ve had so many victories. Now the owners need a victory.”

“At this point,” Miller writes, “I was ready for a second drink.”

Miller’s legacy is the destruction of the lordly, feudalist mindset summed up in Kuhn’s pitiful plea and the consequent enrichment of the players. When Miller took over the union in 1966, San Francisco outfielder Bobby Bonds made $6,000, and the team’s top player, Willie Mays, made $100,000, which was the game’s unofficial top salary as it had been for a quarter-century. Before another 25 years had passed, Bonds’ son Barry was on his way to making millions, and playing in a game in which $100,000 was the minimum salary. As Miller liked to point out, these were developments that enriched everyone. Reluctant as some are to admit it even to this day, free agency, which allowed every team a shot at the services of great players, put an end to the days when rich teams like the Yankees could develop dynasties that ran for decades at a time.

This legacy was never officially recognized in Miller’s lifetime. Kuhn, the Wile E. Coyote to Miller’s Road Runner, was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2008; Miller never was. As Miller clearly understood, this reflected poorly on that pitiful institution and “its futile and fraudulent attempt to rewrite history,” not him. Even so, nearly 50 years after he was elected to run the union, Miller’s legacy is still growing. Whenever the unpaid professionals of the NCAA finally find someone to slowly and methodically build the legal mechanisms that will allow them to reap the rewards of their labor, they will, whether they know it or not, be furthering the work of a man who wanted nothing more than for athletes to enjoy their due.