Remembering Marvin Miller on Labor Day
As I have noted several times over the past several years, Labor Day is the only major holiday Major League Baseball refuses to recognize. Oh, it knows it’s Labor Day -- it happily schedules a bunch of Monday day games to take financial advantage of people who have the day off -- but it doesn’t give a rip about the purpose of the holiday. Mostly because it doesn’t give a rip about labor in general. At every turn, Major League Baseball and its owners have sought to run roughshod over its workers, be they players, front office staff, stadium employees, you name it.
But they haven’t always won. Indeed, for a long time, the owners got their butts handed to them by the Major League Baseball Players Association which, from 1966 until 1982, was led by Marvin Miller.
A lot of people have asked me how Major League Baseball could, it it wanted to, recognize workers on Labor Day. That’s not an easy question to answer, as Labor Day is more of a reflective holiday than a celebratory one. But if the league did ever want to recognize the contributions of its workers -- from the star center fielder all the way down to the peanut vendor -- it could start, perhaps, by paying tribute to Marvin Miller in some fashion.
Given that the league has never done that and likely never will, I’ll do so here, with a remembrance of Miller I first wrote at the time of his passing in November 2012.
It is impossible to overstate Miller’s impact on Major League Baseball. While some -- including Hall of Fame voters -- have long given Miller short shrift (or piled on utter disdain), baseball today cannot be understood without understanding Marvin Miller’s contributions. He was a truly transformative figure who, after Jackie Robinson, did more to correct the excesses and injustices delivered onto players by baseball’s ruling class than anyone.
When Miller took over as the head of the MLBPA in 1966 there was no free agency. Players were told by ownership what they would make the following year and if they didn’t like it, tough. They couldn’t switch teams. They couldn’t do what any other worker can do and shop their services elsewhere. They were stuck thanks to baseball’s reserve clause and the ridiculous Supreme Court decision which exempted baseball and its owners from the antitrust laws.
Miller took all of that on and he won. He started small, negotiating the union’s first collective bargaining agreement with the team owners in 1968, which raised the game’s minimum salary from $6,000 to $10,000. In 1970 he got the owners to agree to arbitration for the first time. In 1970 Curt Flood, with Miller’s support and guidance, challenged baseball’s antitrust exemption -- and the dreaded reserve clause, which kept players tied to one team against their wishes -- in the courts. Flood ultimately lost that case in the landmark 1972 Supreme Court decision. The decision did not, however, blunt Miller’s resolve, and he took his fight to other forums.
In 1974 he exploited a loophole -- and an oversight by Oakland Athletics owner Charlie O. Finley -- to get Catfish Hunter free agency and baseball’s first $1 million contract. Up next: the whole enchilada. In 1974, he got Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally to play out the season without contracts, placing them in cross-hairs of the reserve clause and giving them standing to fight the provision in arbitration. In 1975 they won, with the Seitz Decision ushering in the age of free agency. Baseball players’ indentured servitude was over.
In all Miller led the union through three work stoppages: two short ones -- 1972 and in spring training 1980 -- and then the long, season-altering strike in 1981. In all three stoppages the union prevailed. Overall during his tenure the average players’ salary rose from $19,000 to $241,000 a year and their working conditions improved dramatically. It is no understatement to say that Miller turned the MLBPA into the most effective and successful labor union in the United States. Not just in sports: in the entire United States.
Miller, however, paid a cost for these victories, being snubbed repeatedly in Hall of Fame voting. Baseball’s executives -- who played a part in his voting -- resented him. Some still do, even though he’s been dead for years. Some players on the Veteran’s Committee who came before the era of free agency did as well. Miller never helped his own case, of course -- he was at terms feisty, abrasive and mostly dismissive of the Hall of Fame and his own candidacy for it -- but his exclusion is nonetheless a travesty. This is especially true given that so many executives and owners who did so much to harm players’ well-being through greed, racism and other vile impulses have been welcomed in to Cooperstown with open arms.
Whether or not Miller ever makes the Hall of Fame, baseball would not be what it is today, both as a business and a game, without Marvin Miller. Indeed, you can count the people who have made as great or greater a contribution than Miller to the context in which the game is played on one hand. In this regard his legacy is inviolate.
The game will never see his like again. Would that the powers that be in Major League Baseball acknowledge that and, in some way, big or small, make note of it somehow.