Born in the Bronx on April 14, 1917, Marvin Miller worked as a labor economist before becoming a transformative figure in baseball. He worked for the National War Labor Relations Board, the Machinist Union, the United Auto Workers and the United Steelworkers before becoming executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association in 1966.
Former union chief Marvin Miller forever changed the face of baseball, both in the business office and on the field, with his fierce fights for player rights. He was considered by special committees for Hall of Fame induction in 2003 and 2007 but fell short each time. He had an unlikely supporter for his inclusion. "The criteria for non-playing personnel is the impact they made on the sport," commissioner Bud Selig told The Associated Press in 2007. "Therefore, Marvin Miller should be in the Hall of Fame on that basis. Maybe there are not a lot of my predecessors who would agree with that, but if you're looking for people who make an impact on the sport, yes, you would have to say that." Miller died Nov. 27, 2012 at age 95.
Marvin Miller stepped down as executive director of the MLBPA in 1983. He remained outspoken on sports labor issues for the next 29 years. He is pictured, center, with his MLBPA successors, Michael Weiner, left, and Donald Fehr, on April 24, 2012.
As MLBPA executive director, Marvin Miller oversaw player strikes in 1972, 1980 and 1981 and owner lockouts in 1973 and 1976. The last strike was the longest. Players walked out on June 12, 1981 and stayed out until a settlement was reached July 31. Owners decided to stage a split season, with divisional playoffs between clubs that won that half before the strike and the half after the strike. The central point was the owners seeking compensation for clubs that lost a free agent. Owners wanted the right to draft a player off the club that took one of its free agents. The compromise was to set up a pool of unprotected players from all teams that could be picked as compensation. It was a short-lived system.
The CBA was up for renewal in 1976 in the wake of the Messersmith-McNally arbitration case that struck down the reserve clause. Though owners put up the facade of a fight with a spring training lockout, Marvin Miller knew power had shifted to the players. His union negotiated the framework of the first major league free-agency system, which allowed a full class of free agents following that season. (Reggie Jackson signed with the Yankees in that class.) Miller, pictured in a coffee shop with pitchers Joe Niekro and Nolan Ryan in 1980, made a shrewd concession to owners in the 1976 CBA talks. He allowed a six-year waiting period for free agency, knowing that reducing the supply of free agents would create greater demand for the players who hit the market each offseason. The fewer star players up for bid, the more ballclubs would bid on each. Salaries began to skyrocket.
Free agency begins
As Catfish Hunter was redefining baseball economics after the 1974 season, union chief Marvin Miller was plotting another path to free agency. He convinced pitchers Andy Messersmith (pictured) and Dave McNally to play the 1975 season without a contract. The union argued that invalidated the reserve clause, which tied players to their current teams on a year-to-year basis. Arbitrator Peter Seitz agreed in 1975, ruling that the pitchers had fulfilled their contractual obligations and earned free agency. Messersmith jumped from the Dodgers to Braves for $1 million over three years. McNally retired, having lent his name to the cause for the benefit of future players.
That 1970 agreement to include arbitration in the CBA began to pay off in 1974. Oakland A's owner Charlie Finley failed to make an annuity payment to Jim "Catfish" Hunter, as called for in the pitcher's contract. The case went to an arbitrator, who granted Hunter (pictured) free agency. When he landed a five-year, $3.5 million contract from the Yankees, it emphasized the disparity between players' salaries and what the open market could bring. Though the arbitration ruling was specific to Hunter, the free-agent money emboldened players for another challenge to the reserve clause. Union chief Marvin Miller was quick to act.
For the first time in US sports history, players went on strike in 1972. The issues seem trivial now — pension and salary increases — but the impact was lasting. MLBPA executive director Marvin Miller demonstrated to owners that he had a unified front, that owners could not pressure players to turn against their union. Nearly 90 games were lost as the season started more than a week late, the first time games were lost to a labor dispute. And the owners capitulated to the players' demands. Miller is pictured with then-Cardinals player Joe Torre on April 13, 1972 as the end of the strike was announced.
A key victory
In 1970, Marvin Miller and the players' union were able to get arbitration to resolve disputes between players and owners included in the collective-bargaining agreement. A seemingly minor victory at the time, it would result in the introduction of free agency as we know it before the decade was done.
Challenging the establishment
For nearly a century, baseball owners wielded power over players through the reserve clause. That tied players to a ballclub in perpetuity, unless they were released outright. When outfielder Curt Flood was traded from the Cardinals to Phillies in 1969 against his wishes, union chief Marvin Miller made his first attack on the reserve clause. He had the union bankroll Flood's lawsuit challenging the legality of the reserve clause and seeking free agency. The case reached the US Supreme Court before the reserve clause was ultimately upheld. Flood's career ended prematurely, but he and Miller had planted the seed for future challenges to the reserve clause.
At the table
Marvin Miller's first round of negotiations with baseball owners came in 1968. He succeeded in raising the minimum salary from $6,000 to $10,000, the first time in two decades the floor was raised.
In the big leagues
When Marvin Miller became executive director of the MLBPA in 1966, the minimum salary for players was $6,000 and the average salary was $19,000. At the end of his tenure, in 1983, the average salary had risen to $241,000. It exceeds $3 million today.