Try to think of a game-changers who altered and reshaped the great American pastime, and it’s usually a player who comes to mind — someone like Babe Ruth, the slugger who introduced the long ball in the 1920s, or Jackie Robinson, the infielder who not only broke the color barrier in the 1940s but also presaged the modern, speed-oriented game with his aggressive, daring base-running. But there’s another man who forever changed baseball, even though he never went to the plate or played a position in the field.
Marvin Miller, who died on Nov. 27 at age 95 in New York City, was an economist and labor organizer who headed the Major League Baseball Players Association from 1966 to 1982. During that time, he helped to transform not just baseball, but other professional sports as well, from an industry in which owners wielded overwhelming power to one where athletes can command salaries commiserate to the value of their abilities and choose which team they want to play for. “This is a man who would have been inducted into the Hall of Fame years ago, even decades ago,” ESPN’s Jayson Stark opines.
According to baseball historian Albert T. Powers, Miller, the son of working-class immigrant parents, was an official with the United Steelworkers of America when George Taylor, then the dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, recommended him to the baseball union. Initially, Los Angeles Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley reportedly dismissed him by saying, “Tell that Jewish boy to go on back to Brooklyn.” But Miller’s ability to educate the players about labor negotiations and his skill at persuading them to fight for their rights soon made the owners take him seriously. “He was a master at never telling anybody how to do anything,” Phillies catcher Bob Boone explained to Powers. “He would just ask questions until you could see the answer for yourself. Marvin was a master at leading you down the right road.” Baseball arbitrator Peter Seitz hailed Miller as “the Moses who had led Baseball’s Children of Israel out of the land of bondage.”
When Miller joined the MLBPA in 1966, the average ballplayer’s salary was $19,000. When he retired in 1982, it was $241,000. According to Stark, the 1966 minimum salary of $6,000 is about a third of what Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez earned each inning this past season. Additionally, unlike their mid-1960s predecessors, today’s players engage in collective bargaining, can settle grievances through arbitration, and even become free agents who sell their services to the highest bidder — thanks in large measure to the challenge that Miller led against baseball’s exemption from federal antitrust laws, which had been granted by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1922.
Here’s an interview that sports journalist Fran Healy did with Miller.