Influential union chief Miller dies at age 95

Led organization of players as they gained rights to arbitration, free agency and more

By Marty Noble /11/27/12 10:51 AM ET

One of baseball's foremost difference-makers, one who didn't pitch, hit or field, has passed on. Marvin Miller, who helped bring balance to the financial playing field of Major League Baseball as the executive director of the players union, died Tuesday. Miller, who was ill with cancer, was 95.
Taking over the reins of the Major League Baseball Players Association in 1966, Miller served as the MLBPA head for 17 years and remained closely associated with the union until his death. The success of the baseball players association fueled collective bargaining advances by unions in the other major team sports.
"Marvin Miller was a highly accomplished executive and a very influential figure in baseball history," Commissioner Bud Selig said. "He made a distinct impact on this sport, which is reflected in the state of the game today, and surely the Major League players of the last half-century have greatly benefited from his contributions. On behalf of Major League Baseball and the 30 clubs, I extend my deepest condolences to Marvin's family, friends and colleagues."
Through his efforts and those of union attorney Richard Moss -- they were a different set of M&M boys -- baseball players gained and retained the freedom to sell their services in a virtually unrestricted market. Donald Fehr, the second of Miller's three successors, and zealous counsel Gene Orza moved the union forward. Beginning in the fall of 1976, the open market and the willingness of clubs to bid for precious, specialized talent increased the earning power of shortstops and sluggers, Cy Young Award winners and utility infielders well beyond levels unfathomed by players of earlier generations.
"All players -- past, present and future -- owe a debt of gratitude to Marvin, and his influence transcends baseball," MLBPA executive director Michael Weiner said. "Marvin, without question, is largely responsible for ushering in the modern era of sports, which has resulted in tremendous benefits to players, owners and fans of all sports."
The sea change began with the men who saw a need for players' independence and sought out Miller, a native of the Bronx who grew up in Brooklyn -- he was a Dodgers fan -- and worked first as an economist for the National War Labor Relations Board and later for the International Association of Machinists, the United Automobile Workers, and most notably, the United Steelworkers of America before moving to baseball. His appointment as executive director was the result of strong support from two future Hall of Fame pitchers, Jim Bunning and the late Robin Roberts.
The changes that occurred because of Miller's wisdom, foresight and strategies prompted Red Barber, the candid, astute and esteemed baseball announcer, to group Miller with Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson as one of the three most influential people in the game's history. A number of people in and around the game supported that assessment, some begrudgingly.
"Marvin was the most extraordinary man I ever met," said broadcaster Tim McCarver, a Major Leaguer from 1959-80. "You know, the players knew nothing before Marvin took over. The minimum salary had been the same for 22 years. Riding trains was considered first-class travel, and West Coast teams were involved by then. That the standard player's contract was unchanged for so long is mind-boggling. We knew so little that he had to teach us before we could move on anything. And he taught us and we did move on."
Though the introduction of free agency is the most widely recognized component of Miller's legacy, the players' ability to have disputes settled by arbitration cleared the path to free agency. And salary arbitration allowed the wages of select players to reverberate throughout the workforce and do as much to increase player compensation as free agency. Miller considered arbitration the cornerstone of what he and his colleagues built.
Indeed, it was a 1975 ruling by an arbitrator that struck down the reserve clause that contractually bound a player to a team for life and led to the creation of modern-day free agency.

Free agency, though not initially favored by the clubs, nonetheless afforded them a new means of fortifying their rosters. The clubs' prolonged, annual pursuits of talent and eventual investments in players such as Reggie Jackson, Barry Bonds, Greg Maddux and Alex Rodriguez changed the sport into a year-round event, fueled increased public intrigue about the industry, and had profound impact on some pennant races; witness Jackson with the Yankees in 1977, Maddux and the Braves in the '90s and CC Sabathia and the Yankees in 2009.
"Marvin possessed a combination of integrity, intelligence, eloquence, courage and grace that is simply unmatched in my experience," said Fehr, executive director of the MLBPA from 1983-2009 who was general counsel from 1977-82. "Without question, Marvin had more positive influence on Major League Baseball than any other person in the last half of the 20th century. It was a rare privilege for me to be able to work for him and with him. All of us who knew him will miss him enormously."
Labor acrimony that existed from the 1970s through the '90s has been replaced by a more tranquil coexistence that both sides recognized as a means for bolstering the game's economy and stabilizing the industry. Baseball has gone without a work stoppage since the players' strike that cut short the 1994 season and delayed the 1995 schedule, the longest period of uninterrupted play since the inception of the MLBPA.
"I am saddened to hear of Marvin Miller's passing," Texas Rangers CEO and president Nolan Ryan, a Hall of Fame pitcher, said. "Marvin had a tremendous impact on the game and always had its best interests at heart. He helped create a true partnership between ownership and the players."
Educating his membership and then reflecting its views, Miller was at the forefront of the brief stoppages in 1972 and 1980 and the strike that interrupted the 1981 season for seven weeks (a work stoppage in 1976 was a lockout). His image as a villain grew primarily out of the '81 strike, as well as his fierce, unyielding nature.
Miller wasn't initially in favor of a strike in the late stages of Spring Training in 1972 and was surprised by the players' preference for such action. Similarly, he was moved by the players' action in 1981 because the issues then did not affect active players so much as those who would follow.
Miller's appearance -- some pointed to his pencil-thin mustache and characterized his "look" as sinister -- added to the image. His skill at the bargaining table and in the public forums that followed the almost daily collective bargaining sessions in '81 kept his coast-to coast membership well-informed and steadfast and swayed public opinion in some cases. The union's solidarity gratified him.
After he was replaced by Ken Moffitt and then Fehr in the early '80s, he remained quite aware of union activities and often was consulted by his former colleagues and quoted by the media at times of collective bargaining distress. Miller didn't always agree with the directions in which the union moved, particularly in recent years when drug testing became a hot-button issue. Fully aware of the pressure applied by Congress, Miller scolded the union for its less rigid stance.
Although he is not enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame, Miller achieved a profile higher than most of the men he represented, improving their general working conditions as well as their financial well-being.
Commissioner Bud Selig: "Marvin Miller belongs in the Hall of Fame, if the criteria is what impact you had on the sport, whatever way one wants to value that impact. Yes, Marvin Miller should be in the Hall."
Tom Seaver: "Marvin's exclusion from the Hall of Fame is a national disgrace."
Bob Costas: "He's a transformative figure of the game. ... There is no non-player more deserving of the Hall of Fame."
Jim Bouton: "Instead of pointing to the sky, today's players should be pointing to Marvin Miller."
Tom Glavine: "He had more influence on what became of players, generally, than anyone. He took up the fight for players so they weren't just pieces of meat that were discarded at someone else's whim. And he carried on after he retired. That's when I got to know him a little. Very intelligent. To say he knew his stuff is an understatement. I'd thought the Hall of Fame was a no-brainer with Marvin."
Bill James, a writer, historian and statistician who is currently a senior advisor on baseball operations for the Red Sox, suggested that Ruth, Robinson, Miller and Branch Rickey would constitute baseball's Mount Rushmore.
Even Raymond Grebey, the clubs' lead negotiator during the strike in 1981, publicly endorsed Miller's Hall of Fame candidacy, a startling development given their adversarial roles and the stated, mutual mistrust that evolved between them.
But even when the electorate for Hall of Fame induction included only former players already enshrined, Miller fell short. More recently, with other committees responsible for the vote -- former club and industry executives were included -- he didn't receive the required support, prompting him and others to believe that some of the voters were on a mission to rebuff his candidacy. The resolve of some voters evidently was stronger than the reserve clause Miller's initiatives had eliminated in 1975.
Four years ago, Miller wrote a letter requesting that he no longer be considered.
"I'm kind of amused by it," he wrote. "I asked not be included on any ballots and gave them notice in writing. And they got their backs up and said, 'Nobody can tell us what to do.' It was a reasonable request in light of the circumstances. Why would they keep putting me on a list and, at the same time, rigging the election so I can't be elected?"
Those who knew Miller well said election once appealed to him. As a genuine fan of the game, he fully grasped the significance of the recognition. But in time, possible election lost its appeal.
"That this man still isn't recognized as one of the great leaders and still is looked upon with scorn by some people in the game is one the great injustices in my lifetime," McCarver said.
Miller's legacy is recognized elsewhere. The union named its Man of the Year Award after its first leader. And a grass-roots demonstration of the players' sense of Miller's contributions and accomplishments exists, one that Miller found quite gratifying -- a website named, launched by former players.
A portion of the preface on the site reads: "As the director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, Marvin led us from a history of no rights to parity with the owners. Most of us were very respectful of our opportunity to play a sport for a living, and certainly didn't want to offend our employers. But Marvin pointed out how grossly unjust the situation was. With grace and dignity, he slowly but surely led us into a position of equality."
Said Weiner: "It was an honor and a privilege to have known Marvin. The industry has never witnessed a more honorable man, and his passion for helping others and his principled resolve serve as the foundation of the MLBPA to this day. On behalf of all Major Leaguers and MLBPA staff, I extend my heartfelt sympathies to Marvin's daughter, Susan, son, Peter, their families and Marvin's many friends and admirers. Marvin was a champion among champions, and his legacy will live on forever."