Marvin Miller, union chief who reshaped baseball, dies at 95

WASHINGTON — Marvin Miller, who transformed the economics of Major League Baseball as the longtime leader of its players union, has died. He was 95.

He died at his Manhattan home early Tuesday morning, the Major League Baseball Players Association said. He had been diagnosed with liver cancer in August, the Associated Press reported, citing his daughter, Susan.

As the first full-time executive director of the players association, from 1966 to 1983, Miller led a labor uprising that established players as so-called free agents who could sell their services to the highest bidder. The shift radically reduced the power of baseball team owners.

Miller’s legacy included big pay raises for players — average salaries rose to $326,000 from $19,000 during his tenure and have reached $3 million — as well as recurring labor wars that hurt the sport. Baseball endured three strikes by players and two lockouts by owners during Miller’s 17-year tenure, twice resulting in canceled games.

That tumultuous legacy made baseball the big-money industry it is today and left Miller both respected and resented.

“If baseball ever buys itself a mountain and starts carving faces in it, one of the first men to go up is sure to be Marvin Miller,” historian Bill James wrote in an introduction to Miller’s 1991 memoir.

Miller’s longtime adversary, baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn, called him “a prisoner of his own ego above all things.” Robin Roberts, a player who helped select him to head the union, later lamented that Miller “often acted like he was just a hired union gun” unconcerned with “the welfare of the game of baseball.”

On three occasions, Miller was nominated for election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame but didn’t earn enough votes from veteran executives, players and sportswriters.

Those paying tribute to Miller Tuesday included union leaders of other major sports. “It is impossible to overstate Marvin Miller’s impact on the growth and structure of the modern sports industry,” Billy Hunter, executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, said in a statement.

“His most powerful message was that players would remain unified during labor strife if they remembered the sacrifices made by previous generations to make the game better,” said DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the National Football League Players Association.

Miller was a 25-year veteran of labor negotiations when he took over the baseball union in 1966. He found a sport that would hardly be recognized today.

Salaries ranged from $6,000 to $100,000. Players lacked the power to change teams and so were “held as property” by owners, Miller wrote in his memoir, “A Whole Different Ball Game.” Many players, grateful for the chance to play sports for a living, looked skeptically at union activity.

“I loved baseball, and I loved a good fight, and, in my mind, ballplayers were among the most exploited workers in America,” Miller wrote.

Over the next few years, Miller’s union made strides in negotiating baseball’s first collective bargaining agreements. The minimum salary was raised to $10,000. Loosened eligibility rules made more current and former players part of the pension plan.

Miller also bargained hard with the Topps Co., doubling to $250 the annual fee to players for appearing on trading cards. More important, the union got a cut of card sales, its first independent source of funding.

The biggest battle was over baseball’s “reserve clause,” which bound a player to his team even after his contract expired.

In 1969 Curt Flood, a veteran outfielder for the St. Louis Cardinals, was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies. Since his contract with St. Louis had expired, Flood wanted to sign with a team of his choosing.

With support from Miller and the union, Flood went to court to overturn baseball’s exemption from antitrust laws, established in a 1922 Supreme Court decision.

Though Flood lost, his case opened up another route to challenge the system. In 1970 Miller got the league to agree to send player-management disputes to an independent arbitrator. Owners had previously insisted that the commissioner handle such matters; now they needed to blunt Flood’s argument that players had no rights.

Miller immediately sought to test the new system by having a player go through a season without signing a contract and then declare himself a free agent. The league, invoking the reserve clause, would say he had to stay put. Then the union would take a challenge to the arbitrator.

In 1975, pitchers Andy Messersmith of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Dave McNally of the Montreal Expos played the season unsigned. Arbitrator Peter Seitz ruled both could sign with new teams, and the reserve system crumbled.

Seitz later called Miller “the Moses who led baseball’s children of Israel out of the land of bondage.” Owners and players agreed in 1976 that players can become free agents after six years in the big leagues. That system exists today.

The era of owner dominance was over. In 1990, baseball owners agreed to pay hundreds of millions of dollars after arbitrators found they had colluded to restrain the free-agent market. Although owners in 2002 created a “luxury tax” on the highest-paying teams in an attempt to control soaring payrolls, baseball remained the only one of the four major American sports without a cap on player salaries.

Marvin Julian Miller was born on April 14, 1917, in New York City and grew up in Brooklyn not far from Ebbets Field, home of the Dodgers. He said his love of baseball, stickball and handball stole time from Hebrew school, forcing him to cram for his bar mitzvah.

His father, Alexander, sold women’s coats in lower Manhattan. His mother, Gertrude, taught elementary school.

Miller skipped grades and entered high school at 11. He said the Great Depression influenced his decision to study economics and advocate for workers.

He graduated New York University in 1938 and worked at the New York City welfare department. After the war he worked as a commissioner with the U.S. Labor Department’s Conciliation Service, then as a negotiator with the International Association of Machinists and the United Auto Workers.

He joined the Steelworkers in 1950 as a staff economist and worked his way up to chief economist and assistant to the president.

In 1965 Miller met with Roberts, a Philadelphia Phillies pitcher active in the players’ union. The players, concerned about the share of television revenue going to their pension plan, had decided to hire a full-time director after years of running the union themselves.

Miller started work on July 1, 1966. By year’s end, baseball had its first agreement reached through collective bargaining, covering pensions and insurance. An agreement on salaries took effect in 1968.

Relations between players and owners deteriorated, culminating in a 1972 strike that Miller insisted was the “very last thing I wanted.” He accused owners of baiting players into the 13-day strike by proposing to cut their contribution to the pension plan.

The walkout was a turning point. “After that first strike, it seems to me that Marvin became a much more confrontational, combative union head,” Roberts wrote in his 2003 memoir.

Owners briefly locked players out of spring training in 1973, part of a showdown that ended with players earning the right to have salary disputes decided by binding arbitration. Another pre-season lockout occurred in 1976, as owners and players haggled over the mechanics of free agency.

Players struck in 1980 and 1981 over proposals by owners for teams to be compensated when they lose a free agent. The 1981 midseason strike forced the cancellation of 712 games over 50 days.

Miller worked as a consultant to the players’ union after retiring as executive director in 1983. He downplayed concerns that steroid use undermined the game’s integrity.

“Alleged to be of crisis proportions, the matter of steroids continues to be a media-driven series of stories, helped along by politicians currying votes,” he wrote in a 2004 afterword to his memoir.

Miller married Theresa Morgenstern. Their son, Peter, has represented the U.S. baseball players’ union in Japan.

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