November 27, 2012

Marvin Miller, union head who revolutionized sports, dies at 95

The former leader of the Major League Players Association won free agency for players in 1975, forever changing sports.

The Associated Press

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Marvin Miller speaks to reporters after rejecting a proposal to end a baseball strike in this July 16, 1981, photo.

AP

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This 1972 photo shows Marvin Miller, left, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, and Joe Torre, of the St. Louis Cardinals, talking to reporters after Miller announced an end to a baseball strike.

AP

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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."

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A 2003 photo of Marvin Miller at his apartment in New York.

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