NEW YORK — Marvin Miller was a labor economist who never played a day of organized baseball. He preferred tennis. Yet he transformed the national pastime as surely as Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, television and night games.
Miller, the union boss who won free agency for baseball players in 1975, ushering in an era of multimillion-dollar contracts and athletes who switch teams at the drop of a batting helmet, died Tuesday at 95. He had been diagnosed with liver cancer in August.
“I think he’s the most important baseball figure of the last 50 years,” former baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent said. “He changed not just the sport but the business of the sport permanently, and he truly emancipated the baseball player — and in the process all professional athletes. Prior to his time, they had few rights. At the moment, they control the games.”
In his 16 1/2 years as executive director of the Major League Players Association, starting in 1966, Miller fought owners on many fronts, not only achieving free agency but making the word “strike” stand for something other than a pitched ball.
Over the years, his influence was widely acknowledged if not always honored. Baseball fans argue over whether he made the game fairer or more nakedly mercenary, and the Hall of Fame repeatedly rejected him in what was attributed to lingering resentment among team owners.
Players attending the union’s annual executive board meeting in New York said their professional lives are Miller’s legacy.
“Anyone who’s ever played modern professional sports owes a debt of gratitude to Marvin Miller,” Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Chris Capuano said. “He empowered us as players. He gave us ownership of the game we play. Anyone who steps on a field in any sport, they have a voice because of him.”
Major League Baseball’s revenue has grown from $50 million in 1967 to $7.5 billion this year. At his last public speaking engagement, a discussion at New York University School of Law in April marking the 40th anniversary of the first baseball strike, Miller said free agency and resulting fan interest contributed to the increase. And both management and labor benefited, he said.
“I never before saw such a win-win situation in my life, where everybody involved in Major League Baseball, both sides of the equation, still continue to set records in terms of revenue and profits and salaries and benefits,” Miller said. He called it “an amazing story.”
Miller, who retired in 1982, led the first walkout in the game’s history 10 years earlier, a fight over pension benefits. On April 5, 1972, signs posted at major league parks simply said: “No Game Today.” The strike, which lasted 13 days, was followed by a walkout during spring training in 1976 and a midseason job action that darkened the stadiums for seven weeks in 1981.
Miller led players through three strikes and two lockouts. Baseball has had eight work stoppages in all.
Slightly built and silver-haired with a thick, dark mustache, Miller operated with an eloquence and a soft-spoken manner that belied his toughness. He clashed repeatedly with Commissioner Bowie Kuhn.
Before Miller took over the union, some players actually opposed his appointment as successor to Milwaukee Judge Robert Cannon, who had counseled them on a part-time but unpaid basis.
“Some of the player representatives were leery about picking a union man,” Hall of Fame pitcher and former U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning said in 1974. “But he was very articulate … not the cigar-chewing type some of the guys expected.”
Miller recalled that owners “passed the word that if I were selected, goon squads would take over the game. They suggested racketeers and gangsters would swallow baseball. The players expected a ‘dese, dem and dose’ guy. The best thing I had going for me was owner propaganda.”
He was elected by the players by a vote of 489-136. Baseball had entered a new era, one in which its owners would have to bargain with a union professional.
When he took over, the union consisted of a $5,400 kitty and a battered file cabinet, and baseball’s minimum salary was $6,000. By 1968, Miller had negotiated baseball’s first collective bargaining agreement. By 1970, players obtained the right to take disputes to an arbitrator.
Nowadays, baseball’s biggest stars make up to $32 million a season, the average salary is more than $3 million and the major league minimum is $480,000. While the NFL, NBA and NHL have salary caps, baseball does not.
Miller’s biggest legacy — free agency — represented one of the most significant off-the-field changes in the game’s history. The reserve clause that had been in place since 1878 bound a player to the team holding his contract. Miller viewed it as little more than 20th-century slavery.
“Before Marvin, there were no such things as the negotiations. It was take it or leave it,” Hall of Famer Joe Morgan said. “What was your recourse, to quit?”
Acting with union backing, outfielder Curt Flood finally challenged the reserve clause when he refused to report to his new team when he was traded in 1969 from the St. Louis Cardinals to the Philadelphia Phillies. Three years later, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the reserve clause by a 5-3 vote, keeping intact baseball’s antitrust exemption.
In 1975, however, the union found a new test case, when pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally refused to re-sign with the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Montreal Expos, respectively. Arbitrator Peter Seitz sided with the players.
The owners went to court, saying the reserve system was not subject to arbitration. Two months later, U.S. District Judge John Watkins Oliver upheld Seitz, and a federal appeals court did the same.
In 1976, management and labor agreed to a contract that allowed players with six years of major league service to become free agents and sell their services to any team willing to pay. In a 1982 letter to The New York Times, Seitz called Miller “the Moses who had led Baseball’s Children of Israel out of the land of bondage.”
“Marvin possessed a combination of integrity, intelligence, eloquence, courage and grace that is simply unmatched in my experience,” said Donald Fehr, a successor to Miller as union head. “Without question, Marvin had more positive influence on Major League Baseball than any other person in the last half of the 20th century.”
Yet baseball’s Hall of Fame refused to vote him in, despite five appearances on the ballot.
“I and the union of players have received far more support, publicity and appreciation from countless fans, former players, writers, scholars, experts in labor management relations, than if the Hall had not embarked on its futile and fraudulent attempt to rewrite history,” Miller said after falling one vote shy in 2010. “It is an amusing anomaly that the Hall of Fame has made me famous by keeping me out.”
Miller’s next opportunity for election is December 2013.
Former Commissioner Peter Ueberroth said Miller should be inducted “without question.”
“He changed the game of baseball,” Ueberroth said. “He was very tough, but he was very fair in the end.”
Miller was born in New York, the son of a salesman in the heavily unionized garment district. He was born with a withered right arm, which didn’t prevent him from playing tennis into his 90s. His mother was a schoolteacher. He studied economics at Miami University in Ohio and New York University.
He entered the labor field in 1950 as an associate director of research for the United Steelworkers Union. In 1960, he was promoted to assistant to union president David McDonald. When McDonald lost a hotly contested election, Miller began looking for a new job.
Miller remained current on baseball events right up until his death, never hesitating to criticize owners for collusion and the union for agreeing to drug testing.
While baseball has had labor peace since 1995, turmoil has engulfed the other major U.S. pro leagues in recent years.
“Marvin exemplified guts, tenacity and an undying love for the players he represented,” said DeMaurice Smith, head of the NFL players union. “He was a mentor to me, and we spoke often and at length. His most powerful message was that players would remain unified during labor strife if they remembered the sacrifices made by previous generations.”
Miller is survived by his daughter, Susan; son, Peter; and a grandson. His wife, Terry, died in 2009. Susan Miller said her father wanted his body donated to science. She said the family had not decided whether to hold a service.