Marvin Miller, Led Baseball Players to Free Agency

Owners Keep Giant of National Pasttime Out of Hall of Fame

Staunch Unionist: Broadcaster Red Barber called union leader Marvin Miller one of the three most important figures in baseball history, alongside Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson.
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Staunch Unionist: Broadcaster Red Barber called union leader Marvin Miller one of the three most important figures in baseball history, alongside Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson.

By Peter Dreier and Kelly Candaele

Published December 04, 2012.
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At New York University he earned a degree in economics in 1938. During World War II, he worked for the National War Labor Board, resolving labor-management disputes. After working for the International Association of Machinists and the United Auto Workers, he joined the staff of the United Steelworkers Union in 1950. As the union’s chief economist, and then as an assistant to its president, Miller was knee-deep in contract negotiations.

In 1965, the baseball players association — they resisted using the word “union” — was a toothless tiger. Some players, glad just to be getting paid to put on a uniform, opposed joining a union. The players group had no full-time staff , and its tiny budget depended on donations from baseball teams owners. (It had only $5,400 in the bank). That year, upset by their stingy pension plan, three star players – pitchers Robin Roberts and Jim Bunning, and infielder Harvey Kuenn – decided that the players association needed a skilled leader to help them transform the sport’s outdated labor relations. A friend of Roberts recommended Miller, but to get the job he needed to win the votes of the players, so he visited each team to introduce himself.

Before Miller’s initial meeting with the Yankees, “we were all expecting to see someone with a cigar out of the corner of his mouth, a real knuckle-dragging ‘deze and doze’ guy,” recalled Jim Bouton, the former Yankees pitcher, according to John Helyar in his 1995 book, The Lords of the Realm: The Real History of Baseball. But Miller didn’t fit the stereotype. The players were surprised, when “in walks this quiet, mild, exceedingly understated man,” said Bouton.

But that didn’t mean Miller lacked chutzpah or principles. During his first round of meetings with players, Miller explained: “If at any point the owners start singing my praises, there’s only one thing for you to do, and that’s fire me. And I’m not kidding.”

Miller got the job. The owners, and their hired commissioners, fought Miller at every turn. Like all business leaders, baseball’s owners warned that the union, higher wages and stronger workplace rules would destroy the industry. At the time, most baseball writers sided with management and severely attacked Miller and the union.

Before the union could challenge the owners, however, Miller had to get the players to stand up for themselves. “People today don’t understand how beaten down the players were back then,” Miller told us. “The players had low self-esteem, as any people in their position would have—like baggage owned by the clubs.”

During his 1999 Hall of Fame induction speech, Nolan Ryan reminded listeners that when he broke into the major leagues in 1966, he had to spend the winter months working at a gas station from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m., while his wife worked at a local bookstore, to make ends meet. Because of Miller’s efforts, Ryan said, “we brought that level up to where the players weren’t put in that situation.”


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