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Soon it will be spring, and ball parks from Yankee Stadium to Candlestick Park should be filled with the fondly recollected sounds of the national pastime. But this April could be different. Unless the Lords of Baseball and the men who play for them can settle their increasingly acrimonious disputes, the parks will remain empty, the only sounds the sudden beating of wings as flocks of pigeons wheel above row upon row of vacant seats. It happened before, in 1972, when the owners and the players couldn't come to terms. It can happen now. And once again, a single, slight, aging figure stands at the storm center—Marvin Miller, the players' man.
The brotherhood he represents may be minuscule in comparison with most unions, but, even so, a convincing argument can be made that Miller is the most effective labor leader in the country. Consider that in the 14 years he has been its executive director, the Major League Baseball Players Association has:
•Struck down an agreement among the owners dating to 1879 that bound a player to one organization for the life of his career unless his employer elected either to trade or sell him as he might an automobile or a garden tool;
•Got wages increased by a whopping 462% (by comparison, salaries of manufacturing workers in the U.S. increased about 150% in that period);
•Secured provision for impartial arbitration of individual salary disputes;
•Acquired extraordinary pension benefits (a 10-year player may, for example, start collecting $1,276 a month for life at age 55);
•Transformed what were once literally wage slaves into independent contractors who at a specific point in their careers can sell themselves on the open market to the highest bidder, while at the same time united these free spirits into a functioning, formidable organization.
Could Samuel Gompers have improved on this performance?
But what of the industry Miller and his men have evidently fleeced so mercilessly? Well, despite the predictable cup-rattling among club owners, major league attendance records have been set in each of the last four years, with last season's attendance soaring to 43,550,398. And television contracts have burgeoned prodigiously, the latest, signed last year, reportedly approaching $185 million. Indeed, the game from which the owners derive at least a portion of their income has never been more popular or, despite the fantastic salary expenditures, more remunerative—although exactly how remunerative will get you an argument from the moguls. Still, there are those who insist that Miller is "bad for the game," a complaint Miller, a career union man, has been hearing since 1966 when he first took on the "sportsmen" who run baseball. Management's attacks upon him are much more temperate now, but the message is essentially the same: Marvin can't see the forest for the trees.
"I think he can carry the adversary position too far," says Ballard Smith, president of the San Diego Padres and a relative newcomer to baseball's labor-management wars. "He runs the risk of ruining the industry. Marvin's main problem is that he believes the industry is in better shape than it actually is."