Meet the Man Who Brought Baseball Into the Strike Zone

By David Davis

Published July 11, 2003, issue of July 11, 2003.

Marvin Miller threw a curve ball into baseball history — and sports history — shifting the sport’s balance of power irrevocably. He made his entrée back in the days when baseball players were treated as chattel — making four-figure salaries, not eight — and labor unions had no place in sports. By the time he made his exit, everything had changed. It’s not surprising then that on July 20 he’ll be inducted into the “Shrine of the Eternals” at the Pasadena, Calif.-based Baseball Reliquary, aka “the people’s hall of fame.”

As the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association from 1966 to 1983, Miller challenged the prevailing assumption that unions and sports could not form a mutually beneficial relationship. Going head to head with team owners and commissioners, he emerged with victory after victory that benefited the union. Free agency, arbitration, a decent pension: Miller gained baseball players the rights and salaries commensurate with their place in the game. By the time he retired in 1984, Miller had created one of the most powerful unions — sports or otherwise — in America.

Three years ago, the Sporting News ranked Miller fifth on its list of the “100 Most Powerful People in Sports for the 20th Century.”

Such high praise, however, was followed by a rejection earlier this year when Miller did not win the votes necessary for joining the likes of slugger Babe Ruth and pitcher Sandy Koufax in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. This was especially bitter because many of Miller’s friends — and enemies — expected the doors of the Hall to swing open for him after reforms to the voting structure of the Veteran’s Committee appeared to enhance his candidacy. He finished with just 35 votes, far short of the 60 votes necessary for inclusion; Miller, now 86, must wait four years until the next election cycle.

“Marvin enjoys his outside status in baseball, but the fact that he didn’t receive more support from the players wounded him,” Wall Street Journal sports columnist and longtime friend Allen Barra told the Forward.

Miller says he wasn’t surprised by the results. “I never expected it,” he said during an interview from the Manhattan apartment he shares with his wife, Terry. “I took one look at the voters and knew that it was not going to happen. Without commenting on the wisdom of it, I’m able to count votes.”

The ability to count votes is an important skill for any labor organizer, and Miller spent his life mastering this art. Born in the Bronx and raised in Brooklyn, he grew up not far from Ebbets Field. A die-hard Dodgers fan who ponied up 55 cents for bleacher seats every weekend, he still delights in reminiscing about the heroics of pitcher Dazzy Vance in the 1920s and early 1930s.

Miller began his career in labor activism not long after he turned 10. His father sold women’s coats on Division Street in lower Manhattan; when the industry’s retail and wholesale employees decided to strike, young Marvin joined with his father and marched on the picket line.

Miller and his father disagreed on two things: baseball and religion. Alexander Miller was a New York Giants fan. He was also an Orthodox Jew who wanted his son to attend synagogue daily to prepare for his bar mitzvah. Marvin complained that this regimen left him without any free time. “What sounds like a religious revolt was more a revolt about my schedule,” Miller said. “It finally got resolved when my mother suggested that, after a period without religious schooling, I would have home schooling, with enough time to study for my bar mitzvah.”

He attended James Madison High School, then graduated from New York University in 1938. He took a job with the Treasury Department, which he left to become a social investigator for the New York City Department of Welfare. When World War II broke out, Miller joined the National War Labor Board, where he said he received “the most comprehensive, detailed experience in labor–management relations.”

After World War II, he worked for the International Association of Machinists and the United Automobile Workers. In 1950, Miller became a staff economist for the United Steelworkers of America. By 1966, he was chief economist and assistant to the president of the Steelworkers Union, then the third-largest union in the country.

Miller says that he almost declined when he was offered the baseball post in 1966 because he was asked to hire Richard Nixon as the union’s legal counsel. Miller won that battle, but he soon encountered more serious obstacles. Despite the fact that the sport revolves around the players — and that most of the revenue (from admission tickets to beer sales to television rights) was generated by fans eager to watch their favorite players — these skilled athletes had been cowed into believing that they were “lucky” to play baseball for a living. Most didn’t understand how unions operated; fewer still wanted to rock the boat.

“I was going from a powerful union to a group of people with no clear vision as to what they wanted,” Miller said. “But the more I thought about it, the more I saw that it was going to be difficult to fail. They were the most exploited group of workers I had ever seen — more exploited than the grape-pickers of César Chavez.”

He recognized that the best way for him to gain the players’ confidence was through their wallets. Among his first acts was to negotiate for a hike in the minimum salary (at the time, just $6,000) and to secure a pension plan. His biggest test came in 1972, when the players walked out and struck during spring training. Miller held his breath. Would they stick together? They did. It was the owners who caved.

Three years later, he helped to usher in free agency. The power had shifted: Now, the athletes ruled.

After Miller retired, he served as a consultant to the players association. His legacy, wrote Studs Terkel, is that Miller was the “most effective union organizer since [United Mineworkers union president] John L. Lewis.”

Although he gave up ice skating following hip replacement surgery several years ago, Miller stays active by playing tennis “a couple of times a week.” He still meets informally with Donald Fehr, his replacement as head of baseball’s union, and is contemplating writing a follow-up to his 1991 autobiography, “A Whole Different Ball Game.”

Despite the snub from Cooperstown, Miller has had a productive summer. He just donated his papers — a collection of 400,000 documents, including correspondence, press clippings and contracts — to his alma mater. NYU’s Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives is one of the nation’s leading research centers for labor; a public exhibit tracing Miller’s life is on display at the library through August. (For more information, please visit www.nyu.edu/library/bobst/research/tam/index.html.)

“Labor relations within sports may be the most important success story during a period when organized labor hasn’t been too successful,” said Tamiment director Michael Nash. “Marvin Miller’s papers document this process, along with the rest of his career.”

Miller will gain some revenge on Cooperstown when he is inducted into the “Shrine of the Eternals.” The Baseball Reliquary (www.base ballreliquary.org) annually salutes the game’s rebels, radicals and reprobates. Besides Miller, the Reliquary will honor one-armed pitcher Jim Abbott and pioneer twirler Ila Borders.

“They honor anti-establishment people,” Miller said, chuckling softly. “That’s me.”



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