Book Details Miller’s Early Years, Success with MLBPA
Vince Guerrieri | On 13, Jan 2016
Studs Terkel called him the most effective labor leader since John L. Lewis.
Journalist Dick Young – who effectively invented modern baseball writing with the New York Daily News – called him Svengali. Former Commissioner Bowie Kuhn said he had the wariness of an abused animal. Hank Aaron said he should be in the Hall of Fame even if players had to kick the door down to let him in – a wrong that doesn’t seem like it will be righted any time soon.
Marvin Miller formally retired as head of the Major League Baseball Players Association in 1983 and died in 2012. A lot of what he’d done as head of the players’ union – the fights against the reserve clause, the advent of free agency and yes, work stoppages – has been well documented, but until recently, he’d never been the subject of a full biography.
Retired Muskingum College professor Robert Burk has written a book, “Marvin Miller: Baseball Revolutionary” that aims to tell the full story of the man, from his Jewish upbringing in Depression-era New York City to his years with the United Steel Workers and yes, his time as head of the players’ union, which saw baseball players go from effectively indentured servitude, bound to one team until the team severed the relationship, to the best-paid athletes in professional sports today.
“Marvin himself had said so little in his own book about his life prior to baseball,” Burk said. “Most people were interested how things unfolded from his perspective when he became affiliated with the player’s union. As a professor of American history, 20th century history, labor history, I felt an analysis of those years would inform why he did what he did with the players union.”
Burk had written two books on the labor history of baseball and noticed that baseball players – and really, athletes in general – only saw significant gains in salary and benefits during bidding wars. The Federal League drove up salaries (which owners then tried to tamp down; Tris Speaker, rather than taking a pay cut, held out – and was dealt to Cleveland), and challenges to the NFL from the All-America Football Conference in the 1940s and the AFL in the 1960s ultimately led to bidding wars for players – and hastened mergers and acceptance for the sake of peace.
He saw a book on Miller as the natural progression, and although it wasn’t a fully authorized biography – Miller had no veto power about what went into or was kept out of the book – the subject cooperated fully as did his wife and family. Burk said in hours of interviews with Miller, he was made well aware of the labor leader’s Jewish upbringing in New York, which left him feeling like an outsider, and his liberal politics, which he feared would tarnish the work of the players association.
The fear of McCarthyism – which he lived through – also led to probably his biggest misstep: his continued adamant stance against drug testing.
“To him it was a civil liberty issue,” Burk said. “His attitude was what someone puts into their own bodies is up to them as long as it’s not illegal. I don’t think he appreciated the PR damage done, or the appreciation of the need for strong action for health and welfare. “
Miller likened the players association to a company union when he was recruited as its first full-time director in 1966, a decade after its founding (its first president was Bob Feller). Baseball’s minimum salary was $6,000, its average salary was $19,000, the pension plan remained underfunded (despite four years of Major League Baseball playing two all-star games – one of which was for just that reason) and grievances were heard by the commissioners.
His gains were almost immediate, getting more money from the pension fund, a collective-bargaining agreement and arbitrators to hear grievances. But the players remained bound to their teams through the reserve clause, even after an unsuccessful court challenge by Curt Flood. But in 1975, arbitrator Peter Seitz ruled that the reserve clause was invalid, ushering in the era of free agency, which has been with us since. Salaries now average more than $3 million annually, and the minimum is $507,500. And Major League Baseball, once fraught with strikes and lockouts, has had labor peace since 1995.
“It’s a bit of an oversimplification, but it’s fundamentally true, but Marvin always said that nobody in baseball was making money the clubs weren’t willing to pay,” Burk said. “What Marvin was ultimately trying to achieve was a form of revenue sharing where players would get their fair share.”
If Miller viewed the MLBPA as a company union when he started working for it, until he died, he viewed Cooperstown as a company town. He watched his old sparring partners Kuhn and Larry MacPhail get elected, but there was no call to the hall for him – and because of the way voting has been restructured, there probably won’t be until 2017. And that’s a crime, Burk says.
” I think he should be in the Hall of Fame,” he said. “He’s one of a handful of people – whether you agree with him or not – who transformed baseball in a fundamental way.”
Photo: University of Illinois Press