Marvin Miller was not only one of the most important figures in baseball history, but also one of the most important figures in American labor history.
Think about it:
Has there ever been a union, anywhere on the planet, as financially successful as the Major League Baseball Players Association?
The answer is no. And Miller, who died on Tuesday at the age of 95, is the man most responsible for that success, the man who formed the union and led it from 1966 to ‘83.
The players had virtually no rights before their first collective-bargaining agreement in ‘68. Salary arbitration, free agency, a minimum salary that increased from $6,000 to $10,000 in the first CBA and today is nearly $500,000 — all of those were Miller’s babies.
It goes without saying that Miller should be in the Hall of Fame — his impact on the sport rivaled that of Babe Ruth and even Jackie Robinson. The Veterans Committee, in various forms, never elected Miller. The oversight eventually figures to be corrected, but too late.
Not that Miller especially cared about individual honors. He was a true believer in the labor movement, an economist for the Machinists’ Union, United Auto Workers and United Steelworkers before moving to baseball. The MLBPA is his living monument, his true Hall of Fame.
Was Miller intractable? Yes, but only because he had to be. He had to educate his players. He had to challenge the owners. As a pioneer — a revolutionary — he could not compromise. And if lockouts and strikes were the frequent result, so be it.
The other major professional sports followed baseball’s lead, adopting free agency after Miller fought to overturn the reserve clause. Players, owners and fans benefited as the games became more popular. But the other sports later adopted a salary cap, and on that issue the MLBPA never wavered — a lasting part of Miller’s legacy.
Miller, after leaving the union, remained his crusty hard-line self, criticizing his successors for giving back a year in salary arbitration, casting a shadow over every labor negotiation. In recent years, he objected vehemently to drug testing, believing it was an infringement on the players’ rights.
He was wrong on that issue — the sport needed testing not simply to clean up its image, but also as an attempt to create a level playing field for its players. Donald Fehr and Michael Weiner, the union leaders who followed Miller, might have disagreed with Miller on occasion. But they always held him in the highest regard, and they issued glowing statements about him Tuesday.
Miller, the old economist, was smart enough to limit free agency only to players with six years of service, knowing that complete free agency would have depressed the market. He outfoxed the owners at various other turns as well, often because he had the better argument.
Some fans cringe at the money that players now earn, but professional sports is entertainment, and salaries reflect revenues. The influence of labor unions in this country is not what it once was. Still, most Americans would have loved a Marvin Miller fighting for their rights in the workplace.
He was that good at what he did, that much of a force.