Baseball Men - The Leader

Our "Baseball Men" series continues with Marvin Miller, legendary Executive Director of the MLB Players Association

It is difficult to make a Hall of Fame case for Marvin Miller. It's just that his impact on baseball has been so great that it's hard to appreciate the difference between the hidebound old world he entered and the thriving modern game he left behind.

 

To understand how Miller changed the National Pastime, try to picture the game as it existed in the mid-1960's. Team ‘owners' really lived up to the name - they had absolute control over their employees due to a standard reserve clause in all player contracts. The clause meant that salary negotiations were strictly my-way-or-the highway affairs where management whims determined how much players earned. Absolutely. Forever. Anyone who didn't like it could go out and get a day job.

 

It was an ‘old fashioned' system, to be sure, if your definition of ‘old fashioned' goes back to the Dark Ages. Still, the players couldn't do anything about it because their so-called representatives weren't watchdogs, but tame little puppies. Whenever players had the nerve to speak up about the unfairness in the lowball offers, much less management sleaze like retaliatory trades or blacklists, the players' leadership didn't make a peep. The owners' club liked their pet player reps so much that it even offered to finance them.

 

All that changed when Miller took over as Players' Association president back in 1966. The man treated stale old establishment thinking like Barry Bonds treats 85-mph fastballs. Yes, he insisted, the player interests could be represented by independent agents. No, players shouldn't be fined or demoted without some kind of fair hearing. Yes, they deserved pensions and minimum salaries. No, they didn't have to put up with unsafe playing conditions.

 

Most of all, Miller changed the game by demolishing the old reserve clause. He simply argued that all professionals - lawyers, plumbers, teachers, even ballplayers - should have the right to negotiate their own salaries. It was a really revolutionary idea - for the 1700's. The only thing that made it so shocking in the baseball establishment's worldview was the fact that America's game had been shackled with decidedly un-American economics for nearly a century.

 

Once arbitrator Peter Seitz agreed to Miller's eminently sensible argument, all H-E-Double-Hockey Sticks broke out. Miler insisted that the games would go on, but fans fretted that the game would be destabilized. Owners howled that open bidding on player contracts would mean bankruptcy, so that multiple teams would fold. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn once suggested that an entire league might go under.

 

Didn't happen. The serene Mr. Miller was completely right. All his hysterical critics were completely wrong.

 

After the freedom-loving summer of '76, free agent signings became the talk of baseball. Old-line fans cheered as high-profile, high-impact stars like Reggie Jackson and Goose Gossage revitalized the Yankee dynasty. Droves of new fans came into the game when stars like Rod Carew and Pete Rose their drove new teams into the playoffs. Others booed when the likes of Richie Zisk and Oscar Gamble proved to be overpaid busts.

 

Did all the fresh new storylines, team shake-ups, and Hot Stove League signings of the new era end up destabilizing the game? They sure did. Annual Major League attendance went from 31 million in 1976 to over 70 million in 1993 and up to an estimated 75 million fans in 2005. Marvin Miller's free agency destabilized its way to tens of millions of new baseball fans per year, and untold hundreds of millions in new media viewers.

 

And Miller's old adversaries among in the elite little owners' club? They ended up the biggest winners of all in the union's victory. As attendance exploded, the business of baseball exploded. The Major Leagues' gross revenues increased from about $300 million in 1973 to about $4.8 billion in 2005. Far from losing teams, the Major Leagues have added six new teams since free agency came along. Franchise values went through the roof, with appreciations of tens of millions in windfall sales profits quickly becoming a ho-hum norm for any seller.

 

Miller was a player advocate, of course, and he did a bang-up job on that score, too. First, he won player rights. Most notably, superstars - those who played six full years (or nearly 1,000 MLB games) - won the right to determine their salary through the open market. With that right in place, Miller's players won their money, too:  the average player salary rose from about $51,500 per year in 1976 to about $2.6 million in the new millennium.

 

Not quite in owner territory, but still, pretty good scratch.

 

To understand how Marvin Miller's free agency ‘changed everything', however, it's important to look beyond those numbers. Standing up for the players meant far, far more than bigger money. It meant standing up for the principle of competition and that, in turn, directly led to the radically overhauled and improved game.

 

Under Miller's new ballgame, team owners couldn't survive in the stagnant reserve-clause economics that tolerated decades of third-rate marketing, crony-riddled front offices, and racial segregation. Skyrocketing player salaries forced baseball men to become real businessmen, the kind who had to find new fans through improved outreach and new talent through color-blind personnel policies, international recruiting, smarter front office signings, and upgraded minor league systems.

 

As time went on, baseball's businessmen have become fairly obsessed with innovation through popular, fan-friendly new features. As much as they paid out to the best ballplayers in the world, they sought to gain even more money by introducing interleague scheduling, wild card playoff schedules, and a generation of gleaming new ballparks. As a result, the oldest professional sports league in the country still thrives as America's favorite game.

 

When I was growing up in the early 1980's, Mr. Miller was sometimes known as "the most hated man in baseball," at least among his hard-line opponents in the press and in management. Today he's an 88-year old retiree, as sharp and witty as ever. When he greeted me at the door of his Manhattan apartment, he shared his thoughts on his own past and the game's future.

 

 

The latest major news on the sports labor front is the collapse of the player's union for the National Hockey League. As you know, they lost the recent season, only to give in to an owner proposal that included industry spending caps, team spending caps, and maximum salaries . . .

 

Including a 24% pay cut for players' contracts.

 

Sure. Existing player contracts. I'm not even sure that's legal.

 

 (laughs) I'm not, either.

 

But that deal just brings the NHL players more or less in line with the NFL and NBA, which have similar kinds of restrictions in their collective bargaining agreements

 

Well, the first thing I'd say about that is, what fans don't understand, is that the other player unions in professional sports, whether in football or basketball or hockey, are not really legitimate unions. They are company unions in the worse sense of the phrase - they're owned and dominated by the team owners and they always have been. There never has been a period when there's been a legitimate trade union in football, basketball, or hockey, so it's not surprising when something like this happens.

 

Well, Gene Upshaw of the NFL and Billy Hunter of the NBA aren't exactly amateurs . . .

 

As trade unionists, of course they are. They don't have any advisors from any unions. It's a terrible error for professional athletes to think that if they get a former player as their leader, that's their filling the role.

 

Why do you think that's the case? The NFL players have gone through two strikes since 1981 and the NBA has gone through one. What is it about the players' union in baseball that sets it apart in terms of independent leadership?

 

Well, I'm certainly not going to tell you that it's all my doing. The fact of the matter is, none of these other sports unions have sat down and said, ‘Our problem is that we don't have experience in labor-management relations, so we shouldn't try to recruit a leader from the rank and file of the ex-players'.

 

It's fairly simple. They've always felt more comfortable if they would have an ex-player. In baseball, it was [Miller's predecessor] Judge [Robert] Cannon, who was a familiar figure to them for years. If you start with that as the base, you're really not going to go anywhere, not in hockey, not in any sport or business.

 

Would you say that there's something in baseball players' culture or background that made them more accommodating to independent leadership? I mean, presumably, football players and other athletes must have noticed that the baseball players have been 1) highly successful in standing up to management and 2) led by outside, non-players like yourself and [current Executive Director] Don Fehr.

 

Well, one thing that's occurred to me is that baseball is the one sport where the players have a pre-existing relationship. As minor league players, they worked together, they played together, they lived together, they suffered together - if you know minor league conditions - so they had a greater unity than, for example, football players who came from separate colleges and were big men on campus. Same thing for basketball, who mostly came from the college ranks and were mostly unknown to each other or rivals.

 

The one thing, I think, distinguishes baseball players is that. Maybe that's why they listened.

 

Do you think the NHL deal will influence the Major Leagues' new collective bargaining session in 2006?

 

It's hard to anticipate, but we can do a little guessing.

 

I think what's happened in hockey will make the baseball bargaining situation much more difficult than it would otherwise have been. I think there always at least a few hard line owners who maintain that they'd somehow be better off if they put the screws to the players, even if they sacrifice a season, two seasons, what have you. They'll look to the hockey situation as proof of their theory.

 

It's not inevitable that this will happen, because baseball's in a very good position, a very popular position.

 

In a sense, baseball's current boom in attendance and revenues can be a double-edged sword. It's been proven that you don't have to tinker with the current system to get very, very rich under the current system, but it's also encouraged some to say, ‘Hey, just think of how much we can make if we finally do break the union'.

 

I think that's right. And, the losses and pain that occur in a hard-line policy have to be reckoned with. There are also a number of people in ownership and management who will say, ‘I've been around ‘x' years and I've seen this union operate. They're not the hockey union and they won't fold'.

 

Well, MLB revenues have grown at least 15 times over in little over 30 years and the average player salary has, famously, increased from little under $50,000 per year to over $2.3 million or more nowadays. It may grow harder and harder to encourage players to stick together in standing up to management's rollback proposals.

 

I agree. Probably the biggest problem Don Fehr and his people have to deal with is the fact that not a single player has had any experience playing major league ball without free agency. Not one. Think about that. It's such a problem, in that there was no way to compare what it was like, no way to figure out that it was the union that brought it about.

 

One of my real frustrations in trying to talk about baseball's labor relations,  I guess, is that, first off, most people don't want to talk about it. Baseball's a kind of release from the real world and the sports pages aren't the business pages. But, beyond that, it's the willful insistence that labor-management relations are some kind of millionaires vs. billionaires money-grabs.

 

There never seems to be an acknowledgement that, hey, the union's fight for free agency has lead to incredible increases in attendance, revenues, international outreach, new ballparks, and the rest, and the boom basically happened because the union fought tooth-and-nail to open up the game's off-field financial competitions.

 

Well, consider that the fans, as such, don't still don't have their own sources of information. They get information from the media, from newspapers, magazines, radio, television, so on, and I don't mind saying that I think the coverage of sports by the traditional media has been remarkably poor. There's just no place for fans to get a feel for all of that.

 

For example, a typical fan attitude is ‘a plague on both their houses'. If these people [the media] were covering World War II, they would say, ‘The Germans and these people are having this war, and they're both to blame'.

 

‘Oh, but the Germans marched in . . .'

 

‘Yeah, but, you know, but they could have talked to them, you know . . . ‘ (laughs)

 

This attitude, I personally came across it, in the '81 dispute. The contract was only opened by the owners. Yet the attitude was, ‘A plague on both your houses'. I'd say to a writer, ‘What are you talking about?" He'd say, ‘Well, it's disrupting the game'.

 

What is that?

 

‘The playground of the news', it's been called.

 

I once came across a writer who suddenly became hostile during, I think, the '69 negotiations, which postponed Spring Training. And I finally said to him, ‘Where did this attitude come from, you know?' And he says to me, ‘Here it is in the middle of the winter, and I'm in Chicago instead of Florida. And it's the union.'

 

They just didn't want to hear the merits of the arguments.

 

Well, I think of myself when I was much younger. I didn't do a lot of thinking about what the reserve clause was, I simply didn't know. It took me a long time to realize the injustice of baseball's drawing the color line, for example.

 

Do you regard owner collusion to suppress salaries as a realistic future danger in the game?

 

Oh, yeah.

 

Twenty years after the original collusion/racketeering case?

 

Oh, yeah. The single thing I worried most about after the [Peter] Seitz decision [to overturn the reserve clause in 1976] - well, the first thing I worried about was what we were going to do to negotiate a whole new agreement and a whole new system.

 

But, apart from that, what was worrying me was that it was fine to say ‘Well, we've won, we're going to have an open market now, players are going to be able to negotiate their worth in a competitive market and so on'. Then I stopped to think that this is an industry, that if it didn't perfect collusion, it's very close to the one that did. It had total collusion in terms of the color line, you couldn't break that even though there were some owners, like Bill Veeck, who would have liked to. They could hold the line even for clubs dying to improve talent.

 

These were the experts on maintaining the collusion model, and this cautioned me that we're not out of the woods yet. I guess my point is, I don't think you can ever relax. There are always ways to beat the system, even today. Could this happen again? The answer is, yeah. I'm sure there are ways you could happen again, and in ways we don't even know about.

 

You've been very skeptical about the steroids issue in the game, and critical of the union for opening up the Basic Agreement to toughen up the testing regime. Do you think the controversy will complicate future labor-management relations?

 

Sure, absolutely. [Opening up the Agreement] is a divisive measure, and the whole issue is divisive. It's designed to get players who don't use furious at players who may use.

 

But the public relations problem is there regardless of that effect.

 

Well, one of the first things you have to do is to say is that you're not going to mollify the public as long as the press keeps the pressure on. You simply don't have the capability to do that. You don't have the capability to mollify the public's general attitude towards drugs, not as long as the press makes every dispute the fault of the union.

 

I always had the attitude that, yeah, I'd like to have the public on my side, but if it's not going to happen, I'm going to have to live with that. Sometimes the public is simply wrong. The public can be just plain wrong.

 

There was one situation in my career where I had to worry about public perceptions, when I was working with the steel workers. A stoppage in steel was like no other in terms of its impact on the economy, so it was probably going to end up in the White House and arouse anti-labor legislation, so there was a legitimate worry about public attitudes.

 

But, short of that, when it got to baseball and we had anti-union attitudes stirred up by the press, I felt an allegiance to the players. I would like it to be different, but I don't have the power to change that and I don't think it matters.

 

Plus, I know there isn't the slightest evidence, in scientific terms, that so-called steroids enhance the performance of major league baseball players.

 

Major League players, as opposed to sprinters or weightlifters or swimmers.

 

I would go to the public, ‘I don't know [if steroids enhance major league performance], but neither do you'. There's been not one scientific test you could point to. And yet you have one writer after another, and one Congressman after another, who keeps saying, as if he knows, ‘This is a scandal because this is not a level playing field, this improves performance'.

 

Yet you look a the careers of guys like Ken Caminiti, Jose Canseco, and Jason Giambi, you'd conclude that practical experience indicates that steroids have a very real, very destructive effect on player performance and health.

 

Well, again, I don't think you have the scientific data to back that up. I am willing to say that, where the health of the players is concerned, you should bend over backwards, that you err on the side of caution. The Congress that wrote the law should enforce the law.

 

Then how would you protect the players' health?

 

How did they go about protecting the health of the people when you had Prohibition? Congress presumably passed the law because liquor was damaging to the health of the people. How did they enforce Prohibition?

 

Badly.

 

(laughs) Well, who did you give it to for enforcement?

 

The cops.

 

The Justice Department. The FBI. That's what you do with any law - you gather the evidence, but you pay attention to the Constitution, too. And the so-called Olympics testing is not government testing.

 

To have nobody tell the Congress holding the hearings, to have no one tell them ‘You don't know what you're talking about when you say that the baseball testing is not stringent enough '- I don't know what would be stringent enough for some of them -  because everyone's going to be tested under the current system, and more than once, and during the off-season'.

 

I don't think anyone would dispute your point about federal law and Constitutional protections, but Fehr might conclude that some compromise is necessary for the good of the game's image, if nothing else.

 

It just leads to more and more and more retreats. Opening the Agreement [to change the steroid testing regime] was the first mistake. They said, ‘OK, we'll open the contract and it'll mollify these people' - [laughs, mimics a crowd's roar] ‘Yeah!' - ‘we're going to negotiate new testing'.

 

What happens? They said it wasn't good enough. They [Congress] said, ‘Let's do it again, we'll have hearings, we'll do more of this'. And this is still open, an open subject.

 

No doubt there will be more hearings at some point. The March show, with Canseco, McGwire and the rest, got the best C-SPAN ratings since the presidential impeachment hearings.

 

With each retreat - you don't have to be a genius to know this - they get bolder.

 

Would it be alright if I gave you a round of rhetorical batting practice?

 

Sure.

 

Just a list of lines I often hear whenever the subject of labor-management relations comes up. For instance, ‘The union always wants something new'.

 

Well, the union wants the owners to comply with Federal law and their contracts. Apart from that, there's been damn little in way of demands in terms of working conditions. There's been updating of the minimum salary, updating of pensions and health care, those have been improved with each negotiations and I'd expect that to continue. Other than that, I don't see anything startling coming up.

 

‘The union wants more red tape, rules, regulations, and interference in ballclubs'.

 

The critics should understand, in studying this, that the thrust of the union has been to remove red tape, it's been to remove tampering rules.

 

‘Marvin Miller, Don Fehr, and the rest are leading these naïve -

 

(laughs)

 

 ‘-naïve jocks to all these hard-line stances against their best interests.'

 

‘Against their best interests'? (laughs) Players used to be pieces of property. They used to have a $6,000 minimum and a $19,000 average and a pension that was pitiful. (laughs) They never decided where they could play.

 

‘The union ruined player loyalty'.

 

I think that most writers and most fans don't know that there was a comprehensive study done by Len Koppett of the Times; he did a study which dealt with the hypothesis that free agency moving around at this tremendous pace, ‘You look around and the whole team's gone', etc. He did that for the ten years before free agency and ten years after free agency. (laughs) Koppett demonstrated that the turnover and change among the players was greater when the owners had total control over player movement.

 

‘There's such a thing as an owner-player partnership for the good of the game'.

 

(laughs) Well, it's theoretically possible. It's like saying, well, it's theoretically possible that General Motors employees will someday own 50% of GM and the stockholders will give up control. It's theoretically possible, but absurd.

 

You made a lot of enemies during your time as Executive Director, though you laugh about it now, and I can't see how it wouldn't have hurt you on a human level. Do you feel any kind of lingering animosity directed toward you still?

 

No. First of all, even when I was active and the focus of all this nonsense, I never met a hostile fan in my life. Not ever.

 

That's hard to believe.

 

I know. I can remember - (laughs) - I had to be in Cincinnati on what would otherwise have been Opening Day, in April, 1972. I thought, oh, ‘This is really a negative town'. I knew it from way back. I went to college in Miami University, in Oxford, Ohio, not far from Cincinnati, so I knew the newspapers and I knew the newspaper writers from the Cincinnati papers, and I knew the general manager and the owners of the Cincinnati Reds. And I thought, what am I doing in this town on, really, what was the first day of the strike?

 

It was a period when I had been on television almost every day and newspaper pictures, et cetera, easily recognizable at that time, and here I am walking down the street where they're bemoaning the lack of baseball and it's all my fault, you know, and instead people recognized me and they smiled and came up and they asked what was likely to happen . . . friendly as could be. Even on a day like that.

 

In New York, of course, it's not surprising. (laughs) Truck drivers would recognize me and say ‘Give ‘em hell', you know.

 

No, the hostility came from individual newspapers and individual newspaper writers. From individual owners and general managers. Sometimes managers. A Leo Durocher or sometimes a Gene Autry, and so on. But not fans.

 

The only time I can remember sometime even approaching that was one time in Spring Training; I was with the White Sox in Florida. And we held the meeting in the outfield grass. The meeting was scheduled for 90 minutes and it went long and there were fans on the other side of the fence, they were getting damned impatient. ‘Come on, get on with the game', you know.

 

Maybe, at this point, the union's successes have been so deep and long-lasting that people just take them for granted.

 

It's well over 20 years since I retired. I get, I would estimate, 15-16 requests for autographs every month. Baseballs, shirts, copies of my book, Topps baseball cards of me, 3 x 5 cards, each one with a letter saying you ought to be in the Hall of Fame, et cetera, et cetera. This goes on, each day, week in and week out. (laughs) Sometimes I get no other mail. So it's not fans.

 

To my mind, an eventual Hall induction is inevitable. When, I don't know.

 

Well, Gene Orza of the Player's Association sent me an email a few days ago, and it had a quote. And quote said something like ‘Marvin Miller never did a thing to ruin baseball in anything he did', et cetera, et cetera., along those lines. Gene Orza says, ‘guess who said that?'

 

Steinbrenner.

 

(laughs) I guessed Steinbrenner, too. A second guess was the Boston ownership, who said, when I wasn't elected [in 2003], that was a terrible thing. But it was neither of the two. It was [long time opponent] Buzzie Bavasi!

 

The fact is that there are enough people in either management or, as ex-players, have become management, or are pre-union, or are executives or media people, some of whom might vote for me, but mostly not. When you break it down into numbers, a 75% [vote for induction] is so unlikely. I'm not going to say it's impossible, but it's highly unlikely.

 

Well, I hope you're wrong for once.

 

(laughs). OK.

 

Thanks for your hospitality and time.

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