By Richard Goldstein, The New York Times, 11/27, 11:09 a.m. ET
Marvin Miller, an economist and labor leader who became one of the most influential figures in baseball history by building the major league players union into a force that revolutionized the game, died on Tuesday at his home in Manhattan. He was 95.
His daughter, Susan, announced his death, according to The Associated Press.
When Mr. Miller was named executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association in 1966, club owners ruled much as they had since the 19th century. The reserve clause bound players to their teams for as long as the owners wanted them, leaving them with little bargaining power. Come contract time, a player could expect an ultimatum but not much more. The minimum salary was $6,000 and had barely budged for two decades. The average salary was $19,000. The pension plan was feeble, and player grievances could be heard only by the commissioner, who worked for the owners.
By the time Mr. Miller retired at the end of 1982, he had forged one of the strongest unions in America, creating a model for unions in basketball, football and hockey. The average player salary had reached $241,000, the pension plan had become generous, and players had won free agency and were hiring agents to issue their own demands. If they had a grievance, they could turn to an arbitrator.
And Mr. Miller had taken his place among the most important figures in baseball. Peter Seitz, the impartial arbitrator who invalidated the reserve clause and created free agency in 1975, called him “the Moses who had led Baseball’s Children of Israel out of the land of bondage.”
Still, though his contributions to baseball were considered to be on a par with those of Babe Ruth, who made the home run an essential part of the game, and Branch Rickey, who broke the major leagues’ color barrier when he signed Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers, Mr. Miller has not been recognized by the Baseball Hall of Fame.
“There’s been a concerted attempt to downplay the union,” Mr. Miller told The New York Times, referring to the Hall, when he narrowly missed out on election in December 2010, the fifth time he had been on the ballot. “It’s been about trying to rewrite history rather than record it. They decided a long time ago that they would downgrade any impact the union has had. And part of that plan was to keep me out of it.”
A silver-haired man with a mustache he had cultivated since he was 17, Mr. Miller, an economist by training, had bargained on behalf of the steelworkers’ union but lacked the charisma of fiery old-style labor leaders like the mineworkers’ John L. Lewis or the New York City transport workers’ Mike Quill. He was typically described as calm, patient, even-keeled. Nonetheless, he got results.
“Miller’s goal was to get his ballplayers to think like steelworkers — to persuade members of the professional class to learn from members of the working class,” Malcolm Gladwell wrote in The New Yorker in 2010.
Everett M. Ehrlich, a business economist and an under secretary of commerce in the Clinton administration, felt that Mr. Miller’s victories owed much to the changing structure of the game, particularly baseball’s expansion to the West Coast and the South, which led to enhanced television and attendance revenue that allowed many ball clubs to spend heavily on players no longer tied to their teams.
As salaries soared, so did revenue flowing to the players’ pension fund during Miller’s tenure, a result of a major rise in network payments to baseball for rights to telecast the World Series, All-Star Game and Game of the Week. The pension fund received a third of baseball’s receipts from national TV rights, but that cut went from $8.3 million a year to $15.5 million annually for four years in the contract agreement reached in May 1980.
Rickey, like Miller another Rushmore-level figure in baseball history, said it best — “luck is the residue of opportunity and design” — Mr. Ehrlich wrote on his blog in 2010. “Free agency was an important accomplishment and it made baseball better, but it also happened at a propitious moment. It takes nothing away from Miller to note that.”
Mr. Miller persuaded major league players to cast aside the paternalism of the owners. He never convinced the owners that they could prosper amid an upheaval of baseball’s economic order — something they would eventually discover — but he outmaneuvered them at every turn.
In recalling his decision to take charge of the players association when it was in effect a company union, Mr. Miller wrote in his memoir “A Whole Different Ball Game” (1991) that “I loved baseball, and I loved a good fight, and, in my mind, ballplayers were among the most exploited workers in America.”
He had his share of fights. The players went on strike for 13 days in 1972 (part of the exhibition season and nine regular-season days); they were locked out of spring training for almost a month in 1976; they struck for the final eight days of the 1980 exhibition season; then staged a 50-day strike that began in the middle of the 1981 regular season.
Mr. Miller was portrayed by many on the management side as a harbinger of economic ruin.
“There was about Miller a wariness one would find in an abused animal,” Bowie Kuhn, the baseball commissioner during most of Mr. Miller’s tenure, wrote in his memoir, “Hardball” (1987). “It precluded trust or affection.”
But Mr. Miller did win the trust of the ballplayers.
“I don’t know of anyone who changed the game more than Marvin Miller,” Robin Roberts, the Philadelphia Phillies’ Hall of Fame pitcher, who played a key role in the hiring of Mr. Miller by the players’ union, once said. “His legacy is that through his work, ballplayers for the first time attained dignity from owners.”
Marvin Julian Miller was born in the Bronx on April 14, 1917, and grew up in Flatbush rooting for the Brooklyn Dodgers. As a youngster he joined his father, Alexander, a salesman for a women’s clothing company on the Lower East Side in Manhattan, in walking a picket line in a union organizing drive. His mother, Gertrude Wald Miller, who taught elementary school, was an early member of the New York City teachers’ union.
Mr. Miller graduated from New York University in 1938 with a degree in economics. He resolved labor-management disputes for the National War Labor Board in World War II and later worked for the International Association of Machinists and the United Auto Workers. He joined the staff of the United Steelworkers Union in 1950, became its principal economic adviser and assistant to its president, and took part in negotiating contracts.
Late in 1965, there were stirrings within the major league ballplayers’ ranks about the need for improvements in a pension plan implemented by management in 1947. The players had a union of sorts, but their association, established in 1954, had no full-time employees, did not engage in collective bargaining, had never challenged the reserve clause and had $5,400 in the bank.
The baseball stars Jim Bunning (later a United States senator from Kentucky), Harvey Kuenn and Roberts sought a professional bargainer who would get ballplayers better pensions. Mr. Miller was recommended to them by George Taylor, who ran the War Labor Board when Mr. Miller worked for it.
Mr. Miller was uncertain about entering the world of professional sports, and many players were hesitant about creating a formal union. Most were relatively uneducated, had little experience with labor unions, and had been told by the owners for years that they should be grateful simply to be paid for playing a boys’ game.
In the spring of 1966, when Mr. Miller toured the training camps in Arizona and Florida to speak with the players before they voted on whether to hire him as executive director, he was often met with suspicion and sometimes with hostility.
Jim Bouton, the former Yankees pitcher, was quoted by John Helyar in the book “The Lords of the Realm: The Real History of Baseball” (1995) as recalling that before Mr. Miller’s first meeting with the team, “we were all expecting to see someone with a cigar out of the corner of his mouth, a real knuckle-dragging ‘deze and doze’ guy” — and that the players were surprised when “in walks this quiet, mild, exceedingly understated man.”
Working with his newly hired general counsel, Richard M. Moss, Mr. Miller educated the players to trade-union thinking. In 1968, the union negotiated the first collective bargaining agreement in professional sports. In 1970, players gained the right to have grievances heard by an impartial arbitrator. In 1973, they achieved a limited right to have salary demands subjected to arbitration.
On April 1, 1972, just as spring training camps neared their close, the players staged the first major strike in professional sports history in a dispute over the level of owner contributions to their pension plan.
Mr. Miller recalled in his memoir that when the strike was announced, Paul Richards, a longtime baseball man who was an executive with the Atlanta Braves at the time, remarked that “Tojo and Hirohito couldn’t stop baseball, but Marvin Miller could.”
The strike caused the cancellation of 86 regular-season games before a compromise accord was reached.
Later in 1972, the outfielder Curt Flood, having refused to accept a trade from the St. Louis Cardinals to the Philadelphia Phillies, was rebuffed by the Supreme Court when he challenged the reserve clause.
But in December 1975, Mr. Seitz, the baseball arbitrator, ruling in a case brought by pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally and argued by the union, invalidated the reserve clause in the standard player contract. Mr. Seitz found that this clause, allowing all contracts to be extended for one year at management’s option upon their expiration, did not mean that contracts could be extended in perpetuity. Once a player refused to re-sign after the expiration of that one-year extension, Mr. Seitz ruled, he could sell his pitching prowess or hitting skills to the highest bidder.
The owners immediately fired Mr. Seitz, mounted a futile court challenge to his ruling and, in late February 1976, put off the opening of spring training camps in a manifestation of their rage. Mr. Kuhn, the commissioner, ordered the camps opened in mid-March.
In July 1976, the union and management agreed on limitations to free agency: a player would need six years of major league service before he could seek a deal with another club. That accord seemed like a concession Mr. Miller did not need to make. But he concluded that limiting the stream of free agents would fuel the ball clubs’ bidding wars.
He was proved correct. In 1976, the average annual player salary was $51,000. Soon the checkbooks were open. George Steinbrenner signed a pair of future Hall of Famers for the Yankees: the power-hitting outfielder Reggie Jackson, who received a five-year, $2.9 million contract after the 1976 season, and the brilliant relief pitcher Rich Gossage, who got a six-year, $3.6 million deal after the 1977 season.
The spending sprees eventually encompassed the entire major league landscape.
But free agency remained a highly contentious issue. On June 12, 1981, the players began a 50-day strike over the owners’ demands concerning compensation to teams that lost players who became free agents. Management ultimately obtained only minor concessions.
Kenneth Moffett, the federal mediator in the 1981 strike, became the union’s executive director in January 1983, when Mr. Miller retired, but was dismissed after 10 months and ultimately replaced by Donald Fehr, the union’s general counsel since 1977. Mr. Fehr guided the union through a host of battles with management, including a strike that canceled the 1994 World Series. He retired from his union post in 2009 and was replaced by Michael Weiner, the union’s general counsel at the time, who remains its chief. Mr. Fehr is now the executive director of the National Hockey League players’ union.
Mr. Miller’s candidacy for the Baseball Hall of Fame fell short five times in balloting between 2003 and 2010 by committees voting on retired executives. In December 2007, when Mr. Miller was turned down for a second time, Mr. Kuhn, the baseball commissioner who had been his longtime adversary and had died the previous March, was elected to the Hall.
The management of the Hall does not vote on candidates for Cooperstown, but the committees that considered Mr. Miller have included baseball executives. The breakdown of the voting has not been known, since the Hall asks voters not to reveal whom they selected or turned down. Mr. Miller’s candidacy will not be up for a vote again until 2013.
Mr. Miller advised the union as a consultant through his 80s. He spoke out against contractual givebacks and changes in baseball’s economic structure that might weaken the union. While in his 90s, he criticized the union’s acceptance of mandatory drug testing, saying that it could hurt union solidarity and that “it was clear that the government was going to get involved, and when the government gets involved they will pick out targets and the media just goes along with it.”
As players grew richer, and the baseball figures from his union days faded from the scene, Mr. Miller worried that pioneering battles were being forgotten.
“I do feel a little irked and chagrined when I realize that the players have no idea that it was the union that changed everything,” he told The New York Times in 1999. “What’s taken for granted are the salaries, the perks, free agency rights, salary arbitration rights, all of which were tremendous struggles.”
Still, Mr. Miller said, the owners tried hard to “turn back the clock” during his tenure — and, he added, “I don’t believe they’ve ever given up.”
But baseball management and labor have been at peace since the 232-day strike that forced cancellation of the 1994 World Series. Today’s ballplayers in the union that Mr. Miller built nearly a half century ago earn an average of over $3 million a year.
In his mid-90s, Mr. Miller expressed satisfaction over more than the huge salary gains and freedom of movement his members enjoy, and he ultimately came to believe that the players finally appreciated what unionism meant.
“Succeeding generations of players know so much more about trade unionism, solidarity and what it can produce than their predecessors did,” he told Sports Illustrated in 2011. “I’m proudest of the fact that I’ve been retired for almost 29 years at this point and there are knowledgeable observers who say that this might still be the strongest union in the country. I think that’s a great legacy.”