Players past and present owe a debt of gratitude to Marvin Miller
Miller was a visionary who championed players' rights as union chief for 17 years
Thanks to Miller, baseball adopted free agency with a near perfect structure
He was out of touch with the Steroid Era but remained a strong union advocate
Marvin Miller died at the age of 95 smack in the middle of another free agent season. There was poetry in the timing of his passing. This is Miller's season, one that reflects his brilliance and his vision. Free agent pitcher Zack Greinke, for instance, though born after Miller's 16-year run as head of the players association, is yet another beneficiary of his leadership.
Since Jackie Robinson in 1947, nobody impacted the game more than Miller, and of the many sonic booms he unleashed upon the hidebound game of baseball, free agency and the nearly perfect structure of it stand today as the most profound. Miller, arguing on behalf of pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally, won a key decision from arbitrator Peter Seitz on Dec. 23, 1975 that effectively struck down the reserve clause.
With that decision the awesome power and control that had been in the hands of the owners suddenly fell into the hands of Miller. He was smart enough to use it discreetly, rejecting the temptation to allow all players to become free agents the year after playing out their contract, regardless of service time. It was Miller who arrived at six years of service time as the perfect springboard to free agency, a measurement that remains unchanged 36 years later and the baseball labor equivalent of 90 feet between bases.
To arrive at the six-year threshold, Miller had to survive a pushback from a faction of players as well as a threat from a rogue owner. After the Seitz ruling, some players argued for total freedom. Seitz had freed them, they argued, and they were ready to maximize their movement.
Miller, a labor economist at heart, understood the true hammer was in maximizing earnings, not freedom. He wanted a threshold that was high enough that only the very best players hit free agency -- enough good years behind them to establish their value-- but low enough so that they were just entering their prime. Six years seemed perfect. The bonus was that freedom for such six-year players would send ripples through the arbitration system, raising the salaries of younger players, too.
Owners, with one notable exception, preferred a 10-year threshold. The exception was Charlie Finley, the outlandish owner of the Oakland Athletics.
"Make 'em all free agents," Finley said.
It was extraordinarily clever. Finley understood supply and demand. Increase the supply of available players and the demand -- thus, the value -- goes down. Miller understood it, too. Finley's position worried him.
As quoted in Lords of The Realm, the definitive book by John Helyar on 20th century baseball ownership, Miller said, "My main worry was that somebody would listen to him. It would have been an impossible box. You could not have said you were opposed to freedom."
Thankfully for Miller, the owners never listened to Finley, a maverick who preferred colorful uniforms, a mule mascot, orange baseballs and just about anything but the status quo. He was dismissed as a crackpot with another crackpot idea.
So the owners offered the 10-year threshold. Miller, containing his Cheshire grin, told them he wasn't sure he could convince the players that any threshold was appropriate. (Miller, in a brilliant feint, even got some players to threaten a suit against him if he bargained for anything less than total freedom.) The owners came back with a proposal of an eight-year threshold. Miller, as his style, held firm in the knowledge that time was an ally -- the more of it passed, the more likely the owners would crack before his players did. Finally, in July of 1976, Miller got his six-year threshold. He didn't have to ask for it. It was the owners who proposed it. It has held firm ever since.
The turn represented Miller at the peak of his game: measured, cool, smart, confident, a binding element to a group of players with diverse agendas and a mismatch against anybody the owners propped up against him on the other side of the bargaining table. He retired undefeated in 1982, though bearing the scars of work stoppages five times in a 10-year period.
Miller's career in baseball is a template in labor leadership. His work and writings will be studied by law students for generations. Players today such as Greinke and Josh Hamilton reap the benefits he sowed, as someday so, too, will Mike Trout and Bryce Harper and a generation of players who might not ever have heard of Miller or, in this era of unprecedented labor peace, have a clue about the labor wars waged for decades. It is a huge and undeniable legacy, far bigger than the imprimatur of the Hall of Fame.
The Hall debate regretfully loomed too large upon his death, detracting from the proper appreciation of his impact upon the game. Actually, there should be no debate; Miller is without a doubt worthy of the Hall, and some day he will be enshrined (though he could be crowded off the ballot in his next such at-bat, next year, when Tony La Russa, Bobby Cox, Joe Torre and John Schuerholz figure to be added to the Expansion Era Committee ballot).
Miller bitterly complained about the Hall vote being "rigged" against him because of the committee compositions, though that doesn't explain what happened to him in 2002. The Veterans Committee at the time consisted of Hall of Famers and the few writers and broadcasters honored with the Spink and Frick Awards -- a community of 81 voters comprised mostly of former players and managers. Incredibly, not only did Miller fall far short of election (he needed 61 votes and received 35), but he also received less support than former Dodgers owner Peter O'Malley. It was an odd, lopsided defeat given everything he did for players.
Labor peace, as it turned out, was bad for Miller in his twilight years. At times he thrashed about in retirement like a decorated general without a war. He admonished the union and its leaders several times for what he perceived as givebacks, such as a tweak to the arbitration system but most especially on the issue of random drug testing. He dug his heels in on steroids and drug testing for so long and without a clue of what was happening to modern sport that he appeared foolish.
He claimed there was no proof that performance-enhacers enhanced performance, as if the wacky numbers of the Steroid Era never happened or that players took them because they tasted great. He said no scientific proof existed that steroids presented harmful health effects, though reams of such studies are available. He excused the chemical freak that Barry Bonds became, suggesting there was nothing uncommon about his massive growth. "Did you ever see a picture of Babe Ruth in his youth?" said Miller, who simultaneously dismissed the ability to hit a ball farther as meaningful. "So you add 10 feet, 20 feet, so what? If you hit them out of the stadium anyway, what difference does it make? I just don't understand the whole argument."
Maybe he simply was just out of touch with what was happening at ground level in baseball. He was born, after all, in 1917, eight days after the U.S declared war on Germany and before such everyday things as grocery bags, pop-up toasters, blenders, the RBI, night baseball and the illegal spitball existed.
Had Miller remained head of the players association, based on his comments, he likely would have continued to fight against steroid testing, even if his rank and file preferred it. "What I don't understand, though, is having players come forward, like some prominent players have done, and talk about how they want the testing because they want to maintain their dignity," said Miller, who regarded the tests as an invasion of privacy.
"I thought the failure to oppose testing was a breach" by the union, Miller said.
Thankfully, his successors, Donald Fehr and Michael Weiner, while giving all due respect to their giant of a muse, brought a more modern understanding to the evolving issue of drugs and sport. They have improved baseball in their own way, in more peaceful times, with drug testing, a better partnership with baseball owners, the international growth of the game and continued improvements in working conditions, health care and, of course, financial gain for their members.
It was Miller, in more difficult days, who had to be the one to level the field and pave the road for such extraordinary growth. It took an outsider to tell the players what was so egregious about the structure of this kid's game they loved so much to play. It took a confident visionary to deliver them to a better place. Miller was the right man at the right time for a huge job. Baseball lost one of its true giants, but forever will gain from his contributions.
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