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Few people in baseball have altered the course of the game's history in an overwhelmingly positive fashion. Marvin Miller was one of those people. A champion for organized labor, Miller, 95, died today after a year-long battle with cancer. For those who love the game, he will be remembered as a man who changed everything. And though he wasn't perfect, the vast majority of those changes have left the game, its fans, and its players in a much better place.

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When Marvin Miller took over as Executive Director of the Baseball Player's Association in 1967, the average player salary was $10,000. By the time he left in 1984, that average had risen to $329,000. Miller wasn't just an advocate for the best players in the game, either. During his tenure, players saw the league minimum salary jump by more than 600% - an increase from $6,000 to $40,000.

Miller was raised in Brooklyn and, like most kids in that borough, grew up a Dodger fan. Before he was a leader in baseball, Miller sharpened his trade union credentials at the National War Labor Relations Board and the Machinist Union. He later worked for the United Auto Workers and became the top economist and negotiator for the United Steelworkers. A staunch opponent of draconian management, Marvin Miller was well-prepared for the baseball fight by the time he entered that fray.

And what a fight it was. When Miller took over, low salary was among the least important of the players' problems. They were reserve-claused - a quirk in traditional baseball language that, until late in 1975, allowed the owners to control a player's rights in perpetuity. Miller challenged the wording of player contracts, noting that the language indicated the owner's right to extend the contract for one year beyond the contract's completion. Up until that point, the owners had piled one-year extension on top of one-year extension, holding on to players at low salaries until they were all used up.

Miller challenged this practice in the cases of Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally, two pitchers who played out their one-year extension without signing an additional agreement. When an arbitration panel ruled in favor of the players in December of 1975, Miller had officially changed the game. This began modern free agency as we now know it, and allowed players to take advantage of a marketplace where teams had to bid higher amounts for their services. Some players - including Catfish Hunter - saw their salaries rise by a factor of ten.

Miller's success came mostly from his ability to unite the players. A consistent idealist, he once refused to draw his own salary while his players were striking. He initially refused the high office in the Players Union when they told him Richard Nixon would be his legal counsel. A loyal Democrat, Miller opposed working with Nixon even before Watergate. Three times, his players stopped working. They sent a clear message to the owners who had once exploited their skills - we are the reason this people watch these games.

Over the course of his storied career, Miller was not shy about going to battle with league ownership. He worked to secure better playing conditions. He won for the players the ten-and-five rule - an automatic no-trade clause for players with ten years of service time, the last five coming with the same team. Perhaps his biggest win for the players was the adoption of the arbitration system. Now, some third-year players and all fourth-year players have their salaries determined by an arbitration panel. If they perform, they receive substantial raises. The arbitration system has proven a winner for all players, as it's forced salaries upward since its inception.

Miller's combative relationship with league ownership has kept him out of the Hall of Fame to this point. The Veteran's Committee - the Hall of Fame arm that decides entry for non-players and players past their period of initial eligibility - has neglected to acknowledge Miller's contributions to the growth of the game. Still, players remember and they understand that without Marvin Miller, their talents might still be underappreciated and their quality of life would not be where it is today.

Originally posted to Coby DuBose on Criminal Injustice, Race, and Poverty on Tue Nov 27, 2012 at 08:09 AM PST.

Also republished by The Wide World of Sports.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (8+ / 0-)

    "I believe that, as long as there is plenty, poverty is evil." ~Bobby Kennedy

    by Grizzard on Tue Nov 27, 2012 at 08:10:00 AM PST

  •  I support "labor" but he wrecked the game (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    for me.

    I can't afford to go anymore, let alone take my kid, or buy beer.  

    And that cost inflation has mostly been about trying to keep up with the insane salaries of handful of baseball players.  

    Pretending major league baseball is a "labor market" in the same way manufacturers or retailers is, has always been a false analogy.

    Baseball has been operating as a de facto local utility (a monopoly nobody can compete with) and there is no "market" when there is no competition.  Rich guys make baseball players rich in a vain race to buy them, and compete with other rich guys.  

    And baseball fans get the bill.

    Miller was less interested in baseball, or the future of the game, or even the interests of the average baseball player, then he was about money.  Money.  And baseball is not about money.

    •  Totally, 100% false (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      the cost inflation has nothing to do with the players - and everything to do with the corporate customers.

      The players salaries are determined by what the market can bear, period.  Fans get the bill because they can pay it.  

      Miller was about freeing the players from the reserve clause - not slavery, but surely not freedom.  The owners (and to a degree the fans) have been trying to roll it back every since.

  •  A major irony is that Hall of Famer Jim Bunning (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    was one of the players who was instrumental in making the Players' Association into a real labor union and selecting Miller as their representative.  Bunning later was elected to Congress and then Senate from Kentucky, where his labor rating was close to zero percent.   A timely metaphor about many who were helped by the labor movement and then turned against it.  

    A fitting tribute to Marvin would be for players to be out there supporting Walmart and other workers who are sticking their necks out to fight for justice.  Perhaps the MLBPA is making financial contributions, but something more visible would be great.

    "Hope, not despair, is the fuel for action." - William Manchester

    by brae70 on Tue Nov 27, 2012 at 08:43:06 AM PST

  •  Mixed legacy, in my view (0+ / 0-)

    Most owners are scum, but Miller helped bring about a wrld where .250 hitters make $100,000 a week and cry about taxes and vote Republican. Yes, I'm casting a wide net there, but when I think 'modern ballplayer,'  I think Curt Schilling. At least he was good, but still.  

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