When Miller took over, all the association had was $5,400 in the kitty and a battered file cabinet. He quickly signed up 99% of the players (100% belong to the association today) and initiated a dues system. He also started a group licensing program, whereby the players act in concert to promote products, such as Coca-Cola. This became such a lucrative venture that by now the revenue from it is returned to the players, effectively canceling out their dues contributions of $3 a day during the season.
A new pension agreement, tied once again to the old television formula, was agreed upon in February of 1969. Three years later, when it was up for renewal, Miller and the players found themselves being put to the test. The owners, who were now fully aware of the big money television was bringing in, sought changes in the pension-fund formula unacceptable to the players, but the real issue, it was apparent to Miller and the players, was the survival of the association itself. When the players voted to strike at the end of spring training, both they and their leader came under heavy fire from the press, which was outraged by a strike involving young men who were handsomely rewarded by any criteria and, indeed, were lionized. To deprive the comparatively impoverished fans of their season was nothing short of an outrage. And Marvin Miller, the players' Svengali, baseball's Machiavelli, was the real culprit.
The reason the players were on strike, editorialized the St. Louis Globe-Democrat at the time, was that "they followed the bad advice of Marvin Miller. Marvin Miller thought he could make the owners cave in on the pension issue and force them to increase their pension contributions against their better judgment. It is evident that Marvin Miller was wrong. He led the players into a disaster that now is costing each team an average of $50,000 a game.... There isn't much inspiration in going to watch a bunch of high-paid prima donnas who think more of getting a few more dollars added to their fat pensions than showing up for the opening game.... Marvin Miller has struck out. He would do the game of baseball a great favor if he disappeared or got lost or found the nearest hole and jumped into it."
Larry Dierker, then pitching for the Houston Astros, said, "There is some kind of plan to either kill the players' group or get rid of Marvin Miller. Marvin has been very tough and the owners don't like him. They've always been able to get tough with the players in the past and there wasn't anything the players could do about it. Now, for the first time, we have a little say in things."
The strike ended on April 14, lasting nine days into the season. Eighty-six regular-season games were canceled. The owners lost gate receipts and concession revenues as well as radio and TV money, and the players lost their salaries for those games. The pension issue was resolved much as it had been in the past. It has come up again, because the players are seeking a contribution of $16.5 million a year for four years, based once again on the owners' television contract. But the biggest victory for Miller and the players in 1972 was their ability to hold fast. They emerged from this critical test of their unity as a power to be reckoned with.
Unified now, the players began exercising their new leverage and in 1973 were able to reach an agreement calling for outside arbitration of salary hassles. But they were looking for bigger fish to fry.
When Miller first read the uniform player's contract in 1966, he whistled in disbelief. "I had seen some documents in my life, but none like that," he says. In his very first year as executive director, he opened discussions with players on resolving "the inequities of the reserve system." Miller felt the system had to be tested. Curt Flood, a $90,000-a-year outfielder for the St. Louis Cardinals, was the first to try. When the Cardinals traded him to the Phillies in 1969, Flood refused to go. Instead, he filed an antitrust suit against baseball and sat out the 1970 season. The suit was eventually resolved on June 19, 1972, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled by a 5-3 vote that baseball was still exempt from antitrust law. In his majority opinion, Justice Harry Blackmun conceded that baseball was, in fact, a business engaged in interstate commerce, but that its exemption from ordinary law was an "aberration" that had survived half a century—or since the court ruled for the game in 1922. The reserve clause, then nearly 100 years old, had survived another major test in the courts. It would not survive the next one.
When Pitcher Andy Messersmith could not persuade Dodger owner Walter O'Malley to sign him to a no-trade contract for the 1975 season, Messersmith decided to play out the year without signing a new contract. Dave McNally, then pitching for Montreal, took the same course. McNally retired in mid-season; Messersmith went on to win 19 games for the Dodgers. At issue was Paragraph 10A of the uniform player's contract, the so-called renewal clause, which, according to the owners, gave a team the right to renew a player's contract forever without his consent. In Miller's view, once a player had completed his option year, he was free of all further contractual obligations.
"If Andy had changed his mind and signed a new contract," says Miller, "it would have mooted our whole case. In every major step, if you don't have principled people, you won't succeed."
Messersmith did not sign. Instead, he declared himself a free agent. Dick Moss, attorney for the Players Association, pleaded his case before an arbitration panel consisting of Miller, John Gaherin, the chairman of the owners' Player Relations Committee, and Peter Seitz, the impartial chairman. Miller's and Gaherin's votes were foreordained; Seitz cast his vote for Messersmith, and shock waves went through baseball. The owners filed an appeal in Federal Court, saying the reserve system was not subject to arbitration. The court ruled for Seitz. After 97 years of enslavement, baseball players were free.