No less a respected baseball observer than Red Barber once wrote that “Marvin Miller, along with Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson, is one of the three most important men in baseball history.”
If that’s true, and an examination of the facts shows that it probably is, Miller should be honored in Cooperstown with a plaque. Here are the highlights of what Miller accomplished as head of the Major League Baseball Players Association:
- The first collective bargaining agreement in professional sports in 1968
- The institution of salary arbitration in 1970
- An increase in minimum salaries for major league players in 1968 (the first in two decades)
- The structured and limited free agency system
Miller’s passing yesterday reminds baseball historians how much the economic landscape has changed over the last four decades. When Miller was named head of the MLBPA, the average salary was $19,000 and many ballplayers kept off-season jobs to make ends meet. They had little to no recourse in contract disputes or disputes with the league office. The commissioner of baseball was a czar who could basically rule with impunity. Team owners could pay their players just about anything they wanted, and few players ever challenged or held out to test the resolve of the front office.
Almost immediately, Miller set out to educate the players on labor relations and he made it his mission to make them realize that they were the product in Major League Baseball. Professional baseball players were valuable commodities. Soon, through his stern and unbending leadership, players would exercise their rights and strengthen their economic foothold in the game. In 1982, when Miller retired from the MLBPA, the average MLB salary was $325,000 and several players had become millionaires.
For obvious reasons, Miller was not well liked by team owners and the commissioners office, especially Bowie Kuhn, who has scathing things to say about Miller in his autobiography. But Miller wasn’t hired to make friends, he was charged with representing his clients. He did so with remarkable success, building arguably the strongest labor union in the world.
Through three strikes (1972, 1980, 1981), and two lockouts (1973 and 1976), Miller’s steady hand guided the players in an almost unmatched streak of success. If Miller said they should have it, the players got it, much to the chagrin of MLB owners. But, as Miller predicted, owners benefited from the collective bargaining process as well, as profits soared, competition was leveled, and interest in the game skyrocketed. The “Hot Stove League” and “Free Agent Watch” that keeps baseball on the front pages of the sports section into the winter months, is in part due to Miller’s vision of a limited free agent system, which ensures that a small portion of players are available for hire every off-season.
Several times, Miller’s name has been on the veterans committee ballot for the National Baseball Hall of Fame. he came close to election twice when the electorate consisted of the living Hall of Famers. But when the committee was narrowed, he fell far short, much to the disappointment of players as prominent as Hank Aaron and Robin Roberts. Even former owner and current MLB commissioner Bud Selig appreciates the impact that Miller had on baseball.
“The criteria for non-playing personnel is the impact they made on the sport,” Selig said in 2007. “Therefore, [he] 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.”
Sadly, it seems that once again, as in the case of player Ron Santo, it has taken the death of a baseball legend to focus the spotlight on his Hall of Fame credentials. I’d urge the Hall of Fame to add Miller’s name to their next special election ballot. As much as any executive in baseball history, Miller made a lasting impact on the game, and his legacy is evident on the baseball landscape today.