On Tuesday, Marvin Miller, the “father of sports free agency,” died at the age of 95. In an essay from Jewish Jocks, a new book about important Jewish sports figures edited by TNR’s Franklin Foer and Marc Tracy, Dahlia Lithwick recounts Miller’s battle with sports owners–and the failed efforts to enshrine him in the baseball hall of fame.
When the Sporting News tallied up the “most powerful people in sports for the 20th century,” it ranked Marvin Miller fifth, sandwiched between Branch Rickey and David Stern. Yet five times Miller’s name has been on the ballot for induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame, and five times he has been snubbed. In his case, the conspiracy to deny him entry to Cooperstown is a powerful testament to his significance: although long retired, he remains hated by owners who remember him as a bully and by older players who resent the multimillion-dollar salaries of later players that he made possible.
In recent decades, the only wing of the labor movement that has truly flourished represents highly paid athletes—bitterly ironic given that back in the golden age of unionism, during the postwar years, professional athletes were treated like pieces of furniture and told to be grateful for it. And they were, for the most part, grateful for it.
Before Marvin Miller leveled the baseball diamond, ballplayers had virtually no say in the major details of their own careers. They couldn’t choose their teams or negotiate the terms of their employment, and—worst of all—they were stuck with the club they originally signed with because of the “reserve clause,” which had been a part of every baseball contract since 1878. That provision tied players almost irrevocably to their first team, even if they had signed right out of high school. Players who fussed about the injustice of this arrangement were blacklisted or sent down to the minor leagues. No matter what kind of season a player had, he was reduced to begging, hat in hand, for a raise.
Then along came Miller. Born in the Bronx and raised in Brooklyn, he began walking the picket line as a kid, following the lead of his father, who sold expensive ladies’ coats on Division Street. Young Marvin studied economics at NYU and then at the New School. He compiled an impressive résumé, including stints at the National War Labor Relations Board and the United Steelworkers of America. While he didn’t have much experience dealing with the clubby world of franchise owners, he learned the fundamentals of negotiation and organization, which made him exceedingly dangerous.
In 1965, the Major League Baseball Players Association, a fairly toothless fraternal group, took a major leap toward seriousness when it formed a committee to select a full-time executive director to run the group. A friend of the pitcher Robin Roberts recommended Miller for the job.
Journalist Studs Terkel, speaking years later, described how owners warned their players to have nothing to do with this “teamster thug.” But when Marvin Miller showed up in 1966, polished and mustachioed, looking a lot like Dashiell Hammett or some suave movie hero, something changed. “If at any point the owners start singing my praises, there’s only one thing for you to do, and that’s fire me,” he told his rank and file. “And I’m not kidding.”
When Miller accepted his new job, management immediately announced it was terminating a pension deal with the players. This wasn’t a negotiation. It was a decision. Miller had no staff and no budget and his members had no idea what he was trying to do. But he pushed back on the pension deal and won. In 1968, he helped negotiate the first collective bargaining agreement in the history of professional sports. In 1970, he introduced binding arbitration as a method of resolving disputes. (Until then, owner/player problems were resolved by the commissioner, who almost always sided with the owners.) Under Miller, players won the right to have agents negotiate their contracts.
And then he went after his holy grail. “At every meeting I talked about how the reserve clause made them pieces of property,” Miller later recalled to Malcolm Gladwell. In 1969, Curt Flood refused to be traded from St. Louis to Philadelphia, and decided to bring a legal challenge to the reserve clause. Flood went first to his own attorney, then to Miller, who told him “he didn’t have a chance in hell of winning.” Flood asked Miller if other players would reap the benefits, even if he lost. After he assured him that they would, Miller looked at Flood and said, “You’re a union-leader’s dream.”
As Miller predicted, Flood ultimately lost his case, 5–3, at the Supreme Court. But the backlash against the 1972 decision in both the eyes of the public and the players led to the demise of the indentured servitude that was the ballplayer’s condition. In 1976, pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally agreed to play a whole season without a contract in order to challenge the reserve clause. At season’s end, arbitrator Peter Seitz ruled them free agents, ending the clause once and for all.
Although Miller was a tough negotiator, he was always willing to compromise, and he made it a practice never to raise his voice at the bargaining table. The owners were terrified of him—and the more victories he won, the scarier he became. Under Miller, ballplayers won higher per diem allowances, better training facilities, and improved medical treatment. Money and resources were finally shared with the six hundred or so players, instead of just their owners. Almost single-handedly, Miller turned the players’ association into a powerful labor union by guiding his players through strikes in 1972, 1980, and 1981, and through two lockouts. The share of baseball revenues paid to players went from ten percent in the pre-Miller years to almost 50 percent by the beginning of the 1980s.
Owners predicted that Miller’s changes would destroy the game. They were certainly right to worry about the game itself: Miller, too, must have been instructed at some point that when you upend the means of production, what is produced will also be altered. But what emerged were crisper athletes, who could treat baseball as a fulltime job during the season and off-season, and a reinvigorated game. Half the teams—those in the American League—crafted a position almost designed for expensive veterans, the designated hitter, which led to an increase in offensive firepower. The fans must have liked it: over Miller’s tenure as head of the players’ association, average per game attendance increased 56 percent. In Miller’s own words, “The union was the moving force in bringing Major League Baseball from the 19th century to the 21st century.”
Cooperstown, meanwhile, has chosen to enshrine Bowie Kuhn, the commissioner who attempted to stymie Miller at every turn. But another group has given Miller the canonical status he deserves. On April 1, 2000, the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame inducted him. This is not just merited on the basis of his historical contributions. As much as Greenberg or Koufax, Miller stands as a refutation of the old anti-Semitic canard about the weak Jew. He dared to battle the most imposing forces in sports, and he beat them soundly.
From the book JEWISH JOCKS: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame. Compilation Copyright © 2012 by Franklin Foer and Marc Tracy. “Three Strikes and a Walkout” © 2012 Dahlia Lithwick. Reprinted by permission of Twelve/Hachette Book Group, New York, NY. All rights reserved.