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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“The difference between a ballplayer’s being required to accept whatever a club offered him, as had been the case almost from the beginning of professional baseball, and the new system of salary arbitration was like the difference between dictatorship and democracy,” Miller wrote in his autobiography.

In 1980, the owners sought to regain control over the players by demanding that each team receive compensation for free agents, a move designed to weaken the free agency system. The owners knew that their demand would provoke a players strike, but they figured that they could outlast the players. They miscalculated. The players voted 967 to 1 in favor of a strike. After more than a year of negotiations, the owners refused to budge. So on June 12, 1981, the players walked out. With the Players Association keeping the players informed about the ongoing talks, they stuck together, from superstar outfielder Dave Winfield (who lost roughly $7,770 for each day of the strike) to players earning the minimum salary of $32,5000 (who lost about $180 a day). On August 10, after 50 days and 712 cancelled games, the owners caved in.

“From the standpoint of labor it was the most principled strike I’ve ever been associated with,” recalled Miller, who took himself off the Players Association payroll during the strike to demonstrate his own solidarity. “Many of the players struck not for a better deal for themselves but for a better deal for their colleagues, and for the players who would be coming into baseball in the future…There were veterans on every team who remembered how it used to be and the role of union solidarity in changing things.”

The Major League Baseball Players Association is now the most successful union in the country. In 1967, the minimum salary was $6,000 and the average salary was $19,000. The first collective bargaining agreement the next year raised the minimum to $10,000. By the time Miller retired, the average player salary had increased to $240,000. Today, the minimum salary is $480,000 and the average salary is $3.1 million.

Baseball today is more popular and prosperous than ever. Last year, Major League Baseball had over $6 billion in revenues and 74.8 million in attendance, one of the highest marks on record. Money from television contracts and commercial endorsements have filled the sports’ coffers. Rather than stifle baseball’s prosperity, the union has simply given players the power to win a greater share of their employers’ growing revenues.

Pro athletes in other major team sports—football, basketball and hockey—saw what Miller accomplished and eventually won the same bargaining rights as their baseball compatriots.

No other figure in history comes close to Miller in terms of his role in revolutionizing the American sports business. So the petty baseball moguls, determined to win retribution, have kept him out of their Cooperstown shrine.

In an interview with us, Miller said he wasn’t concerned about getting into the Hall. He was satisfied with his legacy of turning the players union into a powerful force and a model for what a strong labor movement could achieve. After being rejected five times, he said, “I told myself it wasn’t going to happen.”

In 2009, Miller was inducted into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. But simple justice requires that Miller be admitted to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

If a significant number of Hall of Famers and rank-and-file players join the crusade, it will be difficult for the next selection committee to reject Miller for the sixth time. Every player who donned a major league uniform over the past 40 years owes a huge debt of gratitude to Miller. They can repay it by acting like union members and mobilizing a campaign to pressure the Hall of Fame to end its blacklist of this remarkable labor and sports pioneer.

Peter Dreier, who teaches politics at Occidental College, is the author of The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Nation Books, 2012) . Kelly Candaele, a Los Angeles writer, produced the documentary film, “A League of Their Own,” about his mother’s years in the All American Girls Professional Baseball League.


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