Game changer

Marvin Miller ushered in lucrative free agency era

November 04, 2013
2014 Expansion Era candidate Marvin Miller. (Milo Stewart, Jr./NBHOF)

The business of baseball, with some minor bumps, ran in the owners’ favor for almost 100 years.

Marvin Miller changed that.

Miller, who served as the executive director for the Major League Baseball Players Association from 1966-82, is one of 12 finalists on this year’s Expansion Era Committee ballot that will be considered by the committee on managers, umpires, executives and long-retired players at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. The 16-person committee will vote on Dec. 8 at baseball’s Winter Meetings in Orlando, Fla., and the results of the vote will be announced Dec. 9.

The 12 candidates on the Expansion Era Committee ballot are: Dave Concepcion, Bobby Cox, Steve Garvey, Tommy John, Tony La Russa, Billy Martin, Dave Parker, Dan Quisenberry, Ted Simmons, George Steinbrenner, Joe Torre and Miller. Any candidate who receives at least 75 percent of all ballots cast will be enshrined in the Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 2014.

The Committee consists of Hall of Famers Rod Carew, Carlton Fisk, Whitey Herzog, Tommy Lasorda, Joe Morgan, Paul Molitor, Phil Niekro and Frank Robinson; executives Paul Beeston, Andy MacPhail, David Montgomery and Jerry Reinsdorf; and media members Steve Hirdt, Bruce Jenkins, Jack O’Connell and Jim Reeves.

Miller was born in New York City on April 14, 1917, and graduated from New York University in 1938 with a degree in economics. He worked for the government for nine years, including a stint at the National War Labor Relations Board. He then worked as a labor economist for the International Association of Machinists, the United Auto Workers and the United Steelworkers – becoming the latter’s lead negotiator.

In 1966, Miller was elected head of the MLBPA – an organization which never had a full-time representative.

“The biggest problem in the beginning was the low self-esteem of the players,” Miller said. “They had been so beaten down that they really didn’t understand their value in the game.”

Miller, however, quickly changed the players’ thinking. By 1970, Miller had increased the minimum salary by more than 25 percent to $10,000 and won the right for the players to seek arbitration to resolve contract disputes. Miller counseled Curt Flood during his 1971 Supreme Court case against the reserve clause – the provision which bound players to their teams forever – preparing Flood for an eventual loss but using the case as a trial ground for future action.

In 1975, that action came when Miller and the union tested the reserve clause through arbitration. Pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally played the 1975 season without signing their contracts, then contended that they were free agents due to the wording of reserve clause. Arbitrator Peter Seitz agreed, and suddenly baseball’s economic structure was thrown on its ear.

Free agency began in earnest following the 1976 season, when the average major league player was making $50,000 per year. When Miller retired in 1982, the average salary was $241,497.

Today, the average player makes more than $3 million per season.

Miller’s tenure also included several work stoppages, including the surprising strike of 1972 and the 1981 strike that shut down baseball for 50 days. In 1982, Miller stepped down as the MLBPA head in favor of Donald Fehr.

“I take a great deal of satisfaction in what we accomplished,” Miller said. “The changes that needed to be made were so fundamental and basic that it didn’t take a rocket scientist to say what needed to be changed.”

Miller passed away on Nov. 27, 2012.

Craig Muder is the director of communications at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum