Marvin Miller, the labor leader who built the Major League Baseball Players Association into sports’ most powerful union, died today. He was 95.
You won’t find Miller in baseball’s Hall of Fame, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t among the game’s most important figures. The Babe Ruth of labor negotiations, Miller took over a weak union in 1966 and immediately turned it into a force that would be modeled in other sports thereafter.
Miller led the union through a total of five work stoppages and, as adviser to the MLBPA, worked alongside it during three more. His victories were numerous. He led baseball players into the first collectively bargained contract in professional sports history in 1968; in 1972, he led the first major players’ strike in the history of American professional sports. Later that year, he led former St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Curt Flood’s unsuccessful challenge of the reserve clause, the rule that gave owners sole control over player contracts and movement. In 1975, baseball’s independent arbitrator — who existed because of a union victory — invalidated the reserve clause in response to another Miller-led challenge, paving the way for free agency that gave players labor rights they had never had before.
Free agency ensured that baseball’s players wouldn’t be excluded from the new-found prosperity that came from television contracts. When Miller took over the union in 1966, the average salary was just $14,000. By 1976, it had grown to $52,000 and the next year, star players like Reggie Jackson received multimillion-dollar contracts. The rise in salaries bolstered the players’ once-meager pension plan, making it the real retirement program they had long sought. By the time he retired in 1982, the average salary was up to $245,000; on the day of his death, it exceeded $2.3 million.
Critics of professional sports often point to the astronomical salaries players now receive. Those are, in part, Miller’s doing, but that is a point to praise, not to criticize. Miller recognized that the labor of the athletes he represented had substantial value, and a $6,000 minimum salary that hadn’t moved in nearly two decades wasn’t close to meeting it. It was Miller who convinced players to think like union workers (he came from the steelworkers union) who had extracted better salaries and benefits from corporate owners in other industries; it was Miller who got players to hold firm during fights for their rights. It was Miller who, when players were angry at Flood for disrupting the status quo, eventually coalesced them behind the idea that they weren’t just lucky to play a boy’s game for a living, but that they had worth and rights and that neither was being honored by baseball’s employment structure.
His victories resonated both inside and outside baseball, which today is home not just to the strongest union in sports but perhaps the strongest union in America. The 1981 strike he led and the 1994 World Series-cancelling strike that followed still stand as models of solidarity and determination; rather than break the union, the ’94 strike seemingly broke owners, who finally realized they would have to negotiate in good faith. After labor disputes ground baseball to a halt eight times between 1972 and 1995, the sport hasn’t had a work stoppage since. Miller is gone, but the union that has made baseball prosperous for both owners and players today is built on the foundations he put in place.
“All players – past, present and future – owe a debt of gratitude to Marvin, and his influence transcends baseball,” MLBPA director Michael Weiner said in a statement. “Marvin, without question, is largely responsible for ushering in the modern era of sports, which has resulted in tremendous benefits to players, owners and fans of all sports.”
Miller’s victories spurred labor movements in the other major American sports, leaving a legacy that today makes sports one of the labor movement’s strongest fronts. It isn’t implausible to think that without him, sports today would be union-free games where the labor didn’t share in the prosperity gained by the corporate class. Even if baseball owners never get over themselves and put Miller in baseball’s Hall of Fame, his legacy will stand among the giants of sports. Marvin Miller didn’t just change baseball. He made all of our sports better games.