Marvin Miller: The Most Influential Businessman In Sports

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A month from now, the Cooperstown will announce the ballot for “The 2020 Modern Baseball Committee,” a veteran’s committee of 12 former players, writers and executives who will vote on whether or not 10 individuals whose biggest contributions to the sport were from 1970-1987 will be enshrined into the hallowed Hall of Fame. 

While the ballot isn’t known, one name likely to appear—ridiculously for a fifth time—is the late Marvin Miller. To say that Miller being on his fifth opportunity is derisory would be an understatement. It is preposterous that somebody as influential as Marvin Miller doesn’t have a plaque in Cooperstown. The entire game as we know it 2019 is a domino effect from one of the most successful Labor Union runs in the history of the United States of America. 

Baseball is renowned for having one of the strongest Labor Unions in North America, certainly in sports. The Union itself is considered by most to be stronger than that of the AFT and UFCW just to name a couple. But, it wasn’t always that way. In 1965, baseball had one of the weakest in the Nation. The players were looked at as objects, not commodities, and baseball was a shell of what we see before us in 2019. The players ultimately were at the mercy of the owners, and controlled throughout the entire duration of the career. 

This was until the MLB Players Association made a hire that would alter the course of sports forever. Marvin Miller, an NYU alum who earned his degree in Economics and turned around labor unions such as the International Association of Machinists, United Autoworkers and United Federation of Teachers, turned his attention to diamond. In 1966, Spring Training Camps got paid a visit by Miller, who was attempting to be elected as the Executive Director of the MLBPA by the players, in a democratic vote. The players voted a lopsided 489-136 in favor of Miller.

In 1968, baseball saw its very first Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) due to a negotiation between the owners and Miller. While it wasn’t the longest of documents, nor was it the greatest in perks, it was definitely a very solid starting point. For years, baseball players were extremely under-compensated, and didn’t make livable wages. The idea of, for example, a Nolan Arenado signing a $260M contract was completely foreign. The highest paid player in baseball at the time of the first CBA was a mere $125K for Willie Mays. While that’s certainly a decent living for 1967, that was the very best player in the league and a multi-MVP by that point. In 1967, Mays was elected to his astonishing 17th All-Star game. 

The minimum yearly salary for a player was a mere $7K. To put this into perspective with the times, the bottom social class in 1967 brought home an average of $9,420 a year. The second class was at $26,100. The middle class was $47, 432. Baseball players, for lack of better term, were the definition of poor. On top of this, they had some of the harshest working conditions in the U.S. The average of every player was around $19,000.

The players didn’t see a massive spike in pay, but they did get the league minimum up to $10K and larger expense allowances. The deal was lauded for its structure; giving the players procedures to arbitrate with the commissioners’ office if need be. Unfortunately, the commissioner works for the owners, so the players rarely got their way. It was more of a placebo procedure for the players. 

In 1969, 3x All Star and centerfielder for the St. Louis Cardinals, Curtis Flood, challenged the procedure. Flood, one of the National League’s premiere superstars, was making 90 grand a year. He wanted it upped to $100K, but Cardinals owner August Busch would not budge. Not too long after the season came to a close, Cards’ GM Bing Divine sent Flood a 2 sentence note informing him about a trade. The team was the Philadelphia Phillies, a team in the NL East basement. Flood, however, didn’t have an issue with the teams position, rather its fanbase. The players he was traded for, Dick Allen, had previously resorted to wearing a helmet on the field because his own fanbase would throw things at his head. This is the late 1960s, only 5 years after the abolition of segregation. Both Flood and Allen were players of color. 

Flood was quoted by Miller saying “he had observed that the people at the ballpark, patrons, were as racist as any he had ever met in the south, and he was not going to live or work there.” And, it isn’t like the Philly working environment was great, either. It was well  documented that their facilities were extremely weak, especially in comparison to Busch Stadium which had opened 3 years prior and was state of the art. 

In 1969, baseball owners had “reserve clauses” in the contract of every single player. This means that a player could only play for the same team his entire career, unless they traded him because owners could automatically renew their contract at their own will. If a player did not want to play for an organization anymore, they had to sit out of professional ball for a full season before they’re free to negotiate with another club. Flood was quoted saying that he isn’t “property” and sued the league for this. This went all the way to the Supreme Court, and he ultimately lost by a 5-3-1 vote. He sat out the 1970 season because no owner wanted the precedent set that players could “whine” and get their way.

But the winds of change were real, and it was only the beginning. Arbitration became real in 1970. It was that year when Miller signed off a new 3-year CBA, eliminated ownership and their influence from the arbitration process. The arbitration process was more similar to its current model: a three member panel with a neutral chairman was selected by the owners and players to deem a players worth. The reserve clause, unfortunately, wasn’t dead yet. But, it was on its last legs. 

In ’74, Athletics owner Charlie Finley did not pay Catfish Hunter his required annuity payment. Because Finley did not pay him at his specific interval, an arbitrator ruled that the contract was null. The future Hall of Fame righty was declared baseball’s first “free agent” and was free to negotiate with any team of his liking. He signed with the vaunted New York Yankees on a 5 year contract, worth $4.5 million when including the signing bonus. The same season, Miller advised Baltimore Orioles All Star Dave McNally and Los Angeles Dodgers’ All Star Andy Messersmith to play the season without inking an actual contract. They filed grievances after the season and it was ruled they had fulfilled their duties and obligations, and were declared free agents. Miller, McNally and Messersmith had extirpated the reserve clause and officially ushered in free agency. 

In 1981, baseball saw a 50 day strike and and a costly one. The players and owners are estimated to have lost $146 million. But both of Miller’s lockouts in his tenure resulted in stronger CBAs. 

Most MLB commissioner’s have applauded Miller. At the time of his death 7 years ago, Fay Vincent (commissioner from 1989-1992) deemed him “the most important baseball figure of the last 50 years.” “He changed not just the sport, but the business of the sport,” he continued. “Prior to his time, they had few rights. At the moment, they control the games.” Then-MLB commissioner Bud Selig said in an interview with the Associated Press in 2007 that “the criteria for non-playing personnel [for the Hall of Fame] is the impact they made on the sport. Therefore, Marvin Miller should be in the Hall of Fame on that basis. Maybe there are not a lot of my predecessors who would agree with that, but if you’re looking for people who make an impact on the sport, yes, you would have to say that.”

So, why isn’t Marvin Miller in the Hall, exactly? Well, Selig hinted at it. His predecessors and most baseball executives can’t stand Marvin Miller because he’s the reason they have no control. In 2003 and 2007, the voting committees featured 10 non-players, and there were 12 total. With the updated VC format, this shouldn’t be a conundrum anymore. 

Prior to his death, Miller was asked about Cooperstown and ripped into the process, claiming that the executives are the reason he’s never even produced a potential speech. He described it as a “farce.”

Many players, however, have gone to bat for Miller. Hall of Famers Tom Seaver, Joe Morgan, Hank Aaron, Bob Costas (broadcaster), etc all have continually campaigned for Miller’s inclusion. 

While I don’t necessarily agree with the current arbitration process, and have been vocal on this site about how it’s “[eafl id=”27021″ name=”” text=”broken”],” the system itself is a billion times better than what it was. Free agency is a big deal in sports. The players have rights. Baseball is still America’s Pastime. The entire complexion of not only baseball, but really sports in general was a domino effect put in place by Marvin Miller.

Baseball is vastly different without Miller’s profound impact, and it’s ludicrous that he hasn’t been voted into the Hall of Fame. It’s 2019, and it’s time for us to fix this atrocity. The committee will presumably vote on his fate this December at the Winter Meetings in San Diego. 

Follow me on Twitter: @TheJameus
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