Everybody has a personal Baseball hero, someone idolized and canonized as the man who shaped the game for a team, a town, or even a single fan.
Few people can actually stake a claim to that title. One them is Marvin Miller – The chief of the Major League Players Association through the sixties and seventies, who passed away early this morning after battling liver cancer.
Marvin Miller not only fundamentally changed Major League Baseball, but in a way shaped the future and shifted the balance of power for all professional sports by helping to abolish the long-time (and oft hated) Reserve Clause and ushering in the are of free agency and arbitration.
Today, the baseball world – and those past, present, and future who benefited from his tireless work – look back and celebrate his life.
Amongst fans in baseball, Miller’s legacy is something of a double-edged sword. There are those who grew up in the ‘Golden Age’ of baseball, when players rode out their entire career with the same ballclub and loyalty between team, town and player were steadfast and unbreakable. Behind that veneer, of course, things were not always as it seemed.
Players could be sold to other teams and had to abide by the decision. Objecting – as in the case of Curt Flood – could mean the end of their baseball careers. Player holdouts still existed, but it was largely meaningless as the players held no real power over their ownership. Until Marvin Miller came along.
Miller was a labor economist, who had worked first with the National War Labor Relations board, then the United Auto Workers and the Machinist Union. In 1966, he was the lead negotiator of the United Steelworkers when he became involved in the famous holdout of Los Angeles Dodgers pitchers Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax.
That same year, thanks to tireless visits with players and spring training camps across baseball, he was elected head of the Major League Players Association.
Miller was unquestionably the right person at the right time for the players. He went to work almost immediately on shaping an arbitration system that allowed baseball players to file grievances against their club, allowing them to pursue a contract with any team they wished after fulfilling their contractual obligations. By 1974, the Reserve Clause was a memory and the era of free agency was in full effect. The arbitration system was the groundwork for allowing players to earn more and have more freedom in their careers and Marvin Miller himself considered it infinitely more important than the free agency system that ultimately grew out of it.
But another important step came from Miller’s background in economics. Marvin Miller knew better than anyone that an infinite supply of free agents would destroy the market for all players. With that in mind, Miller limited free agent status to those with six years of Major League service time – thereby keeping interest and demand int he market while also allowing clubs to build and hold onto to younger talent. It was the compromise necessary to satisfy both the owners and the players, and ultimately resulted in more revenue for both parties.
Of course, Marvin Miller’s legacy is also tied into the era of labor turmoil that followed from the shift into free agency. Under Miller’s leadership Major League Baseball saw work stoppages in five separate seasons – lockouts in 1973 and 1976, and three strikes in 1972, 1980, and 1981. Though the strikes were ultimately the onus of the players, Miller’s vocal leadership and unyielding negotiation style made him a scapegoat and villain amongst baseball fans who saw a future filled with work stoppages and the ultimate destruction of the National Pastime.
He continued to consult the MLBPA after he left office in the 1980’s, and even vocally spoke out against the player’s continued history of refusing to be more proactive towards testing of illicit and performance enhancing drugs.
Unfortunately, Marvin Miller was never elected to the Hall of Fame, despite overwhelming support from former and current players, and even Commissioner Bud Selig. Some say the committee that elects non-players to the Hall of Fame – constituted mainly of executives – unfairly kept him from the hall.
Though he may never be enshrined among the immortals of Major League Baseball in Cooperstown, there is no question that Marvin Miller has had an immense impact on baseball. He gave players a voice, a platform, and a launching pad to determine their future independently of the owner’s box.
The unprecedented labor peace in Major League Baseball right now owes itself to the tireless work of Marvin Miller in the beginning of his career of the MLBPA. Every player’s check, every fan’s interest in the off-season, and every owner’s push for that last piece of the puzzle to claim a World Series title owes a debt to Marvin Miller.
He may not have been as well known as Drysdale, Koufax, or Reggie Jackson; but their careers depended upon him. Marvin Miller may never be remembered in the same way as those players, but he unquestionably deserves it.