Marvin Miller dies at 95: Labor leader transformed baseball

David Brown
Big League Stew

Try naming the most influential people in baseball history. Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Ban Johnson, Branch Rickey, Curt Flood — whomever you got. If your list is longer than five names and doesn't have Marvin Miller on it, whip out an eraser and try again.

Miller, a labor leader who used the law to rally professional baseball players to stand up for themselves and out of indentured servitude, died Tuesday at age 95. Reporter Bill Madden of the The New York Daily News writes that Miller had cancer.

Miller's smarts and uncanny leadership skills in the 1960s led to the strengthening of the Major League Baseball Players Association, which enabled the union to collectively bargain with baseball owners. The new relationship transformed the game, leading to frequent disputes that brought strikes, lockouts, landmark court cases, pay increases, pensions for retirees, free agency, salary arbitration — you name it.

Madden writes:

Under Miller's leadership as their union chief, the average players' salary went from $10,000 in 1967 to $329,000 by 1984 while the minimum salary increased from $6,000 to $40,000. All of this was due to two monumental gains for the players which Miller was able to attain through both collective bargaining and the courts — free agency and salary arbitration.

Most of all, Miller's rise meant an unprecedented transfer of power. Before him, players had little or no leverage to be paid fairly, and had little or no control over where they worked. They could take what the owners offered, or leave it, pretty much. Until Miller.

Kansas City Royals pitcher and player representative Jeremy Guthrie broke the news, via Twitter, of Miller's death:

In the obit, Madden tells the story of how Miller came from the trade unions over to baseball:

A native of Brooklyn who grew up a staunch Dodger fan, Miller had had a decorated record as a trade unionist — as a labor negotiator for the International Association of Machinists, the United Auto Workers and as staff economist for the United Steelworkers - when a group of major league players, Jim Bunning, Robin Roberts and Harvey Kuenn, approached him in early 1966 about becoming executive director of their newly-formed players union. At the time, they told him, as an appeasement to the vast majority of conservative players, they were prepared to offer the job of general counsel of the union to former vice president Richard Nixon — a dealbreaker for Miller, an avowed liberal Democrat, who informed them he could not work with Nixon.

Baseball might be a game to you and me, but it's real-life to those who play and run it. Fans understandably bemoan high salaries, the arrogance of some players, the loss of games due to work stoppages, and all of the other messy intrusions Miller's presence helped bring to their favorite sport. And yet, they would be fools to not want Marvin Miller fighting for them, too.

Someday, perhaps, Miller will find himself in baseball's Hall of Fame alongside many of the owners whom he regularly beat.

Read the book, "Lords of the Realm" by John Helyar for more details on Miller's influence.

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