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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Miller instructed ballplayers in the ABCs of trade unionism: fight for your rights to be treated as more than property, stick together against management, work on behalf of players who came before you and who would come after you, prepare yourself — professionally and financially — for life after your playing days are over, and don’t allow owners to divide players by race, income or their place in the celebrity pecking order.

And like any good union negotiator, Miller helped the players focus on pension issues. Most professional athletes are lucky to have ten-year careers. The average stay in the big leagues for baseball players is 5.6 years, but less for pitchers. So increasing payments and shortening the number of years needed to qualify for a pension became critical issues.

The 1972 baseball strike was primarily about pensions for players. Today, even baseball players who had short and less-than-illustrious careers have good retirement benefits. Duane Kuiper—a second baseman for the Cleveland Indians and San Francisco Giants from 1974 to 1985—told the San Francisco Chronicle, “I don’t think any of us really appreciated Marvin until we all got older.”

Before Miller, players had no rights to determine the conditions of their employment. They were tethered to their teams through the “reserve clause” in every player’s contract. Those contracts were limited to one season. The contracts “reserved” the team’s right to “retain” the player for the next season. Each year, the team owners told players: Take it or leave it.

The players had no leverage to negotiate better deals. Even superstars went hat-in-hand to owners at the end of the season, begging for a raise.

Two years after Miller took the union’s reins, the players association negotiated its first collective bargaining agreement. It established players’ rights to binding arbitration over salaries and grievances.

Players also won the right to have agents to negotiate their contracts. In 1976, they won the right to become free agents. This gave players the right to decide for themselves which employer they wanted to work for, to veto proposed trades, and to bargain for the best contract. The players association also won increased per-diem allowances, improvements in travel conditions and better training facilities, locker room conditions and medical treatment.


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