USA TODAY Sports Weekly
Marvin Miller’s time: The players union head who fought and won groundbreaking contract rights set to be enshrined.
The Baseball Hall of Fame does not include coaches, scouts, agents or many of the other individuals integral to the success of the game in the second half of the 20th century.
Nor does it have an election category covering Marvin Miller, a man who never played or managed in the majors but had a major influence over thousands who did.
From 1966 to 1982, the feisty New Yorker not only served as executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association but helped changed the game from a sport to a business.
Responsible for free agency, arbitration, pension fund increases and killing the reserve clause that bound a player to his team in perpetuity, Miller was a master negotiator who was loved by the players. He was hated by the owners and vilified by fans frustrated by the frequent work stoppages that marked his tenure.
But broadcaster Red Barber once called him one of the three most important men in baseball history, along with Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson. To Joe Torre, Miller was a great communicator and a groundbreaker. Hank Aaron, the game’s longtime home run king, was outspoken in his endorsement of Miller for the Hall of Fame.
Controversy followed the crafty union chief everywhere. Even the voters on several veterans committees couldn’t conjure up the required 75% when his name came up on their ballot.
Rejected seven times, he finally won election in December 2019 – seven years after he died at 95. The long-running quest for enshrinement was the crowning achievement of Miller’s career.
Miller fought Charlie Finley, George Steinbrenner, Bowie Kuhn, the U.S. Supreme Court and myriad others, showing a savvy understanding of economics and labor relations.
Two years after the players union hired him away from the United Steelworkers, he engineered an increase in the minimum salary ($7,000 to $10,000). He won arbitration for the players in 1970, free agency six years later and an increase in the average salary from $19,000 in 1966 to $245,000 in 1982.
Although he lost the Curt Flood case in 1972, when the Supreme Court declined the player’s challenge to the reserve clause, Miller succeeded two years later in freeing Oakland Athletics ace Catfish Hunter by persuading arbitrators Finley violated the pitcher’s contract.
As the first unrestricted free agent star on the open market, Hunter signed a five-year, $3.5 million deal with the New York Yankees – ushering in the age of free agency and contracts rich in years and dollars.
Emboldened by his success, Miller nudged pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally into testing the reserve clause by not signing 1975 contracts. Arbitrator Peter Seitz declared
both pitchers free agents, effectively killing the reserve system.
Aware that freeing all players at once would lower overall salaries, Miller reasoned that free agency should begin after players give clubs six years of service.
He also adamantly opposed owners in their bid to place a salary cap on player payrolls. Baseball is alone among the four major North American professional sports without one.
‘Most important baseball figure of the last 50 years’
Miller was a Depression-era kid and the son of a clothing salesman and schoolteacher. He got an economics degree from New York University, worked for the National War Labor Board and United Auto Workers and eventually became lead contract negotiator for the steelworkers union.
Never a lawyer but always an exceptional debater, Miller won the baseball players over by parlaying his soft-spoken style
and a superior intellect.
Miller’s main goal, from the time he took over, was to kill the reserve clause, according to his memoir, “A Whole Different Ball Game.”
“Paragraph 10(a) in the Uniform Player’s Contract clearly stated that the owners had the right to renew an unsigned player for one year and one year only,” he wrote.
He tested that theory, advising the players not to sign their contracts for 1976. Owners locked players out of spring training camps for about two weeks. It took four months before labor and management agreed on a new deal that included the right to free agency after six years of service time and also the right of five-year men to demand a trade.
The new system created something called the re-entry draft, allowing teams to draft negotiating rights to available players declared free agents after the season.
Things were suddenly a lot different in baseball than they
were when Miller rooted for the Dodgers at Ebbets Field in his native Brooklyn.
Even though owners balked at sharing their riches with their employees, the game enjoyed an economic revolution. More teams, expanded playoffs, bigger and better ballparks and exploding broadcast revenue all resulted from the need to enlarge player payrolls.
As Miller wrote in his memoir, “Considering how momentous these changes were and how many obstacles we had overcome to get there, I was as elated as a manager who had just won the pennant.”
Owners tried to roll back the newly won player advances – and to prevent new ones – but Miller never budged.
Even after he left the MLBPA in 1982, he remained a key adviser to hand-picked successor Donald Fehr for 11 more years – allowing Miller to match the record 27-year tenure of a player he represented, Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan.
When he died on Nov. 27, 2012, Miller was called “the most important baseball figure of the last 50 years” by former Commissioner Fay Vincent.
“He changed not just the sport but the business of the sport permanently and truly emancipated the baseball player – and in the process all professional athletes,” Vincent said.
His influence is still reverberating throughout the game, with many historians calling the MLBPA one of the strongest unions in the United States. That wouldn’t have happened without the determination and tenacity of Marvin Julian Miller.