He was a '60s radical in a shimmering blue suit. he was an outsider who dared challenge one of America's most cherished and, to his great consternation, most unwavering institutions: the game of baseball. Viewed through the corrective lens of history, though, Marvin Miller advanced an ideology that wasn't at all radical, even if his wardrobe may have been another story.
Miller held that a ballplayer should not be bound to one club for life. He thought a $1,000 increase in the minimum annual salary over 20 years was grossly insufficient. Is that such extremist thinking? Well, it was in 1966, when Miller began what would be his 17 undefeated years as executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association.
Miller, more than anyone else in the past 40 years, changed baseball's very structure, and he did so with the logic of someone not hidebound by the mythology and blind patriotism of the game. "I believe this was the first time the players reached out and got an experienced trade unionist," he says. "It wasn't that it was me. It was my background and expertise that were essential." He had come from the United Steelworkers of America, where he had gained vast experience in collective bargaining. When Miller first looked at baseball's standard player's contract, he thought it was "one of the worst labor documents I'd ever seen." It would have to be changed.
Starting with one battered filing cabinet and $5,400 in the association's checking account, Miller piled victory upon victory. "It's not difficult to make major strides," he once said, "in an industry a hundred years behind in labor relations." In 1968 he obtained an increase in the minimum salary from $6,000 a year (it had been $5,000 in '47) to $10,000; over time he assembled for the players what Ray Grebey, the former owners representative, called "the best pension plan in America"; he secured the salary arbitration system in '73; and he held his membership together through a 50-day strike in '81—"the association's finest hour," as he described it in his memoirs.
Miller's agenda was aided mightily when, following the 1969 season, outfielder Curt Flood of the St. Louis Cardinals made his courageous stand in protest of baseball's reserve clause, under which a club was allowed to control a player's services until it decided to release or trade him. Flood refused to accept a trade to Philadelphia after his contract had expired, claiming that the reserve clause constituted a violation of antitrust law. Flood fought his case all the way to the Supreme Court, which ultimately ruled against him. It was, however, a short-lived victory for baseball owners. On Dec. 23, 1975, when arbitrator Peter Seitz ruled that pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally were free agents after playing the previous season without contracts, the reserve clause was effectively struck down. "The reserve clause was the most abominable thing I'd ever seen," says Miller. "I didn't think it would stand up."
He was better at labor relations than the owners—and he knew it. Baseball's most powerful man was just 5'8", had a withered right arm from a birthing complication and never raised his voice in negotiations. He postured only with deep sighs, a tiny laugh at things unfunny and a sense of righteousness that infuriated the owners. "He is a prisoner of his own ego above all things," wrote former commissioner Bowie Kuhn. The St. Louis Globe-Democrat said that he "would do baseball a favor if he disappeared or got lost or found the nearest hole and jumped into it."
He is 77 now, living in his same 32nd-floor apartment on the East Side of Manhattan and available to the players' association whenever it should seek his wisdom. Having established for the players both purpose and freedom, he is the association's George Washington and Abraham Lincoln all in one. "It's rightfully been called the most solid labor organization in the country, and not just in sports," he says. "Considering where we began, I think I'm proudest of that."
Strangely, while the game's labor wars have reached new heights of contentiousness, Miller's own image has seemingly been enhanced over time—from, at worst, that of some activist heaving homemade bombs at baseball to, at best, that of a champion of reason. Gradually he even earned the grudging respect of his adversaries. The past two years, New York Yankee owner George Steinbrenner has invited Miller to be his guest at the team's home opener.