Miller the right man to fight the first fight

Union chief educated and led players, took on owners in winning important gains

Richard Justice By Richard Justice | Archive 11/27/12 3:27 PM ET

No union leader ever did more for his members than Marvin Miller. As legacies go, that's a pretty good one. Along the way, he helped change baseball forever, and every player owes him a debt of gratitude for his tenacity and fundamental belief that they should have the same rights as workers in every other field.
Would baseball have gotten to this amazing place of soaring revenues and record-setting attendance without Marvin Miller, who died Tuesday at 95?
That question could be argued late into the night. In the end, free agency certainly did not destroy baseball. But free agency as it exists today -- as part of a system of revenue sharing and luxury-tax payments for the biggest spenders -- is not the unfettered free agency Miller envisioned.
Miller was the right man to fight the original fight. He fought relentlessly for free agency, salaries, pension and healthcare. At times, he portrayed baseball players as being exploited as much as coal miners or migrant workers. As salaries soared, those analogies seemed laughable.
He also seemed to fight for the sake of fighting at times. For instance, he battled drug testing at every turn, saying it was a privacy issue, which is a ridiculous notion for an industry built on public trust.
Finally, baseball reached a tipping point of sorts after the crippling 1994-95 player strike. Miller had turned control of the Major League Players Association to Donald Fehr in 1982, but remained an influential figure.
Baseball was fundamentally different when the players and owners sat down to negotiate a new labor agreement in 2002. Commissioner Bud Selig had compelled the owners to speak with one voice, and that voice would be Selig's.
In previous labor negotiations, Miller and his successor, Fehr, believed if they held firm, owners eventually would buckle. They understood that big-market clubs and middle-market clubs and small-market clubs all had different objectives in a labor negotiation. Meanwhile, the players had just a couple: higher salaries and better benefits.
Miller may not have been able to bring himself to make the concessions baseball needed in 2002. That agreement was a factor in the explosive popularity of today's game because it transferred a significant amount of wealth from the higher revenue clubs to the lower ones.

That plan also included testing for performance-enhancing drugs. Some players resisted it at first, but owners simply drew a line in the sand. If the players were going to strike over PED testing, they were welcome to go.
It's difficult to understand the climate that existed when Miller began organizing players in the 1960s. In the beginning, Miller was disliked by almost everyone.
Many baseball owners believed he would destroy the game. Their hatred of Miller did them no favors. Instead of negotiating, they fought Miller in the courts and suffered loss after loss.
Reporters saw him through the same lens, wondering why the game needed fundamental changes when players seemed to have it pretty darn good. Even many of the players for whom Miller fought were skeptical.
Owners had always had complete control over the game, and the idea of challenging that control terrified many players. These were the players who had terrific relationships with their owners and believed they'd been treated fairly. If they sided with Miller, they worried they might lose everything.
Miller did a wonderful job of unifying the players and convincing them to allow him to speak for them. At times through the years, as work stoppages dragged on and players became uneasy, Fehr would summon Miller to rally the troops and explain how far they'd come.
Some wounds will never heal. To a certain generation of owners, Miller did not have the game's best interests in mind. They believed he so distrusted them that he cared more about winning than doing what was right for the game.
There's also the reality that in the years before Selig took over, several teams were drowning in red ink and some people thought the business model made less and less sense.
That model changed dramatically after the 2002 labor agreement, and the years since then have been good for everyone as baseball has been transformed across the board. Franchise values have skyrocketed, but player salaries have continued to rise, too, from an average of $2.4 million in 2002 to around $3.44 million this season.
No history of baseball can be written without several significant chapters on Miller's contributions and his legacy. Miller was not a lovable figure. At various times, he lectured, not just to owners and players, but also to those of us who covered the game.
He wanted us all to look at the game differently than we'd ever looked at it before, and it was not an easy sell at times. In those first days, when owners tried to ignore his existence, Miller probably couldn't have dreamed where the game would end up. Here's hoping players never forget all he did for them.