Feature

Marvin Miller, 1917–2012

The union leader who made baseball players into millionaires

When Marvin Miller took over the Major League Baseball Players Association in 1966, club owners ruled the game much as they had since the late 1800s. Under the “reserve clause,” players were bound to their teams for as long as owners wanted them. The minimum salary of $6,000 a year had barely moved in two decades, and the average pay for ballplayers was just $19,000. The pension plan was lousy, and players’ grievances could be heard only by the commissioner, who worked for management. But by the time Miller retired, in 1982, he had single-handedly changed the landscape. The average player’s salary was $241,000, the pension plan was generous, and players had the right to move from team to team. “Miller took on the establishment and whipped them,” said Reggie Jackson, one of many ballplayers who benefitted from the union leader’s stewardship. Miller, though, was always more circumspect about his achievements. “It’s not difficult to make strides,” he said, “in an industry a hundred years behind in labor relations.” 

Miller was born in the Bronx, said the Los Angeles Times, and “received an early education in trade unionism from his father, a garment district salesman who organized fellow workers.” After graduating from New York University with a bachelor’s degree in economics, Miller took a job mediating labor disputes for the National War Labor Board during World War II, and later joined the staff at the United Steelworkers union. Miller gained a reputation as a cool negotiator and in 1966 was hired by the MLBPA—which at the time had no full-time employees and just $5,400 in the bank—to improve the lot of the players. “Miller started with wages,” said SportsIllustrated.com. He negotiated an increase in the minimum salary, from $6,000 to $10,000 a season; secured an improved pension deal; and persuaded owners to accept arbitration for disputes with their on-field personnel. 

Once Miller had secured the trust of players, he went after the reserve clause, said The New York Times. Just before the start of the 1975 season, two pitchers—the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Andy Messersmith and the Montreal Expos’ Dave McNally—filed a grievance against club owners. The arbitrator ruled in the players’ favor, despite protests from bosses that free agency would bankrupt the game. They were wrong. Shortly before his death, Miller noted that the 20 major-league franchises together had earned $50 million in revenue in 1966. “Last year, revenues exceeded $6 billion,” he said. “That’s the industry we’ve ruined.”

Still, club owners never forgave Miller for his defiance, and they repeatedly blocked the union leader from being inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. “It would mean a lot to me, but I was never holding my breath,” he said in 2004. “I’ve been a trade unionist all my life, and, as such, you learn early that you’re not to court popularity with either management or the public.” 

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