This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: “We’re not going to give them another goddamn cent. If they want to strike, let ‘em.” Gussie Busch’s outburst in 1972 in response to the possibility of a players’ strike convinced players of a need for a strong union and to take a strike vote. Under the leadership of Marvin Miller, the Major League Baseball Players Association became arguably the most successful labor organization in the past half century. When Miller was hired in 1966 the minimum salary for players was $6,000 and the average salary was $19,000. When he retired in 1981, those figures were $32,500 and $185,651. Today, they are approximately $490,000 and $3.1 million.
Miller, who died in December at age 95, left behind a legacy that led Red Barber, the Hall of Fame broadcaster to call him one of the three “most important men in baseball history,” along with Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson
Miller came from the Steelworkers Union to a company union that depended on the owners for its operating expenses. Its members had no bargaining rights, individually or collectively. Any grievance against the club owners was judged by the commissioner, who was employed by those owners.
The owners warned the players that if they voted to hire Miller they would be getting a labor goon who would bring discontent and violence to baseball. What the players saw was a slight, soft spoken man who never talked down to them.
Over the years, many commentators have described Miller’s skill as a negotiator, his mastery of labor law, and his ability to hold together a group of men who had short careers and were supposed to believe they should feel lucky to get paid to play a game. But his greatest asset was his talent as a teacher, a quality emphasized by every former player who spoke at a recent memorial celebration for Miller at the NYU School of Law.
The end of the reserve system, which tied a player to one club for life, and the resultant creation of a modified form of free agency were the signal accomplishments of the union. They were the result of a series of incremental successes.
Three events set the union on the way to free agency. The decision of a committee of the union to bring in an outsider showed how frustrated the players had become at obtaining any meaningful changes in their situation. The creation of an impartial grievance procedure in the first basic agreement between the union and the owners gave the players a chance to have a fair resolution of disputes with the owners. The successful strike in 1972 showed that the union could present a solid front and that the players were willing to sacrifice to make long-term gains.
Miller’s patient discussions with the players helped them to realize their worth and to question two of the favorite myths of baseball ownership and the baseball press: Only the owners cared about “the best interests of the game” and if players didn’t cause trouble, the teams would “take care of them” after they retired. Miller cut through the romantic mythology of baseball and viewed it as a business populated by employers and workers, an analysis that increasingly made sense to the players.
Sports writers overwhelmingly opposed the union and portrayed Miller as some sort of Svengali leading gullible players down an uncertain path just to satisfy his own anti-business prejudices. That was a total misreading of the union.
The players were the driving force behind the union’s positions and were responsible for its successes. Miller provided organizational skills and counsel. The players made the decisions. A number of Cardinals played an important role in the union. Tim McCarver, Dal Maxvill and Joe Torre were active members of the executive committee at critical junctures. In 1972, Ted Simmons came within weeks of lodging the same challenge to free agency that succeeded three years later. Curt Flood battled all the way to the Supreme Court to end free agency. He lost his case and his career, but he inspired players to pick up the fight.
Long after Miller retired, his name evoked antipathy among baseball executives, writers and fans. There were multiple attempts to have him elected to the Hall of Fame section for “contributors” to baseball. There were always enough members on the committee from management and the press to ensure Miller’s exclusion while he was still alive. The wisdom of that decision was summed up by Jim Bouton at the memorial service: “Putting Bowie Kuhn in the Hall of Fame and not Marvin Miller is like putting Wiley Coyote in the Hall and not the Road Runner.”
Korr, historian and professor emeritus at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is one of 13 people who spoke at the "Marvin Miller Memorial Celebration.” Korr is the author of “The End of Baseball as We Knew It: The Players Union, 1960-1981.” As a new baseball season gets underway, Korr offers a perspective on Miller’s contributions to the game.