Marvin Miller, The Man Who Reinvented Baseball
Last season, $10,000 would have bought you eight front-row tickets to one regular season game at Yankee Stadium.
In 1966, $10,000 was the average salary of a Major League Baseball Player.
1966 was not one of the years of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency. Inflation since then has not been 7500 percent. Reggie Jackson and Johnny Bench and Nolan Ryan were on the cusp of the majors, the Mets had just gotten the right to sign Tom Seaver, three-year old Jamie Moyer had already thrown a baseball, and Peter Gammons had just begun to write sports for The North Carolina Daily Tar Heel.
1966 is not ancient history. And as Marvin Miller became the head of the nascent Major League Players Association that season, Sandy Koufax was pitching his last campaign for the Dodgers. To get Walter O’Malley Dodgers to pay Koufax just $125,000, Koufax and Don Drysdale had to threaten to sit out the season. Along side them on the Dodgers’ pitching staff, a rookie named Don Sutton was being paid $6,000. Sutton was hoping to soon reach the income of the average major leaguer. Ten Grand didn’t exactly leave you homeless, but if you didn’t also have a regular working stiff’s job in the off-season, it wasn’t enough to raise a family on.
And Marvin Miller changed that.
You can argue that the pendulum Marvin unleashed from its artificial restraint has swung too far to the other side (and you’d be wrong – who is about to sign a six billion dollar contract? The new Dodgers owners, or Evan Longoria?) You can argue that what Marvin wrought has destroyed competitive balance and especially the small markets (and you’d be wrong – in the 18 seasons before his ascent, the Yankees had won 15 pennants and the Dodgers had won nine, and the team then in Kansas City had finished last or in the bottom four 13 times). You can argue that the freedom Marvin enabled has destroyed the continuity of players and made the one-team player nearly extinct (and you’d be wrong – there are 41 Hall of Famers who played for only one team, and a disproportionate number, 11, are from the Free Agent era. The only thing that’s changed is that the players can now initiate their own jarring relocation, not just the owners).
You can also argue that free agency and everything else Marvin Miller accomplished has created that bill for $10,000 for eight tickets at Yankee Stadium, and you’d be wrong yet again. As someone long ago observed, this assumption requires the secondary one that the owners would never have raised prices if there hadn’t been free agency. That assumption ignores the fundaments of business, to say nothing of the reality of baseball pre-Marvin Miller, in which the owners managed to quadruple ticket prices while barely doubling player salaries. As the realities of the new economics of the game unfolded in the ’70s and ’80s it became obvious that for years, for decades, for generations, the owners had been keeping 70, 80, or maybe 90 percent of all revenues, and that even as society grew more affluent and the definitions of disposable income and luxury almost switched places, the owners kept hitting the players over the head with the economic hammer just because they could.
One thing you can not argue is that Marvin Miller hurt the owners. This used to be the first response to the Major League Baseball Players Association that he built: that the man that Braves’ Vice President Paul Richards called a “mustachioed four-flusher” was a communist or a socialist or anarchist who would destroy the game, its owners, and their God-given right to profit. It was an act of faith for owners and Commissioners and even a huge percentage of players (Stockholm Syndrome) that without the Reserve Clause that Miller and Curt Flood and Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally and Peter Seitz brought down, teams would go bankrupt, or at best the small markets would never compete nor last (in the 19 years ending in 1972, 10 franchises moved. In the 40 years since, one moved).
As the first wave of Free Agents mourn him, and all the players since give distant thanks, the owners ought to build statues to Marvin Miller. According to an anecdote told by their then-VPs Buzzy Bavasi and Fresco Thompson, the Dodgers profited six million dollars in 1963 and four million in 1964 (and thus owner Walter O’Malley complained that he’d “lost” two million). That the Dodgers – and everybody else – went from those then-dizzying figures to tens of millions, then hundreds, then to signing multi-billion dollar tv deals – is directly attributable to the new economics that Miller unleashed.
He, personally, put the word “billion” into baseball. Into all sports, for that matter. And via the miracle of imitation, probably into other forms of entertainment.
Marvin once admitted to me that he did not foresee the intangibles that the liberated player would create. Who could have known that player contract negotiations and the covering of them and the kibitzing about them would become an industry that would rival coverage of the game on the field itself? Baseball’s off-seasons used to have occasional trade rumors, an invigorating flurry of deals at the all-too-brief Winter Meetings, and the searing experience of the release of veteran former stars late in Spring Training.
And then suddenly you could spend weeks wondering where Reggie Jackson would go – and the Free Agent Season was born. And suddenly fans, battered by decades of owner disloyalty and now confused by the added mobility of the players, decided they could create their own teams – and Fantasy Baseball was born. And then teams began to offload unsignable players and the drama of the Trade Deadline took on new form and dimensions. And then the idea of trying to scientifically put the proverbial dollar sign on the muscle replaced the “Sign Wayne Garland – he won 20!” methodology, and SABRmetrics began to gain a head of steam that is years away from culmination.
In that he utterly reshaped the way the game was played on the field, Babe Ruth probably reigns supreme on the list of those who changed baseball most. In that they reshaped its color (and our nation’s attitude – and laws), Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson probably share second place. But only they can even be considered above Marvin Miller as men who had greater influence on the history of baseball. As an aside, I do not slight Curt Flood here. I revered him, and was honored to have met him. Conceivably he sacrificed a Hall of Fame career to try to gain for himself and his colleagues the freedom Miller and the arbitrator Seitz and some lunkheaded owners, and Dave McNally and Andy Messersmith finally gave them. But remember that Marvin Miller tried to talk Flood out of suing, and warned him that he was not operating from a position of strength, and that the players did not yet understand why they needed to support him, and that he would probably lose his case. As always, Marvin was – tragically – right. Curt Flood is just behind Miller on this list.
My first personal exposure to Marvin Miller came while covering the second wave of the union’s struggles, in the 1980’s. By 1981 the owners still didn’t see what gifts he had bestowed upon them, and they stubbornly tried to force him to take them back. The players had no choice but to strike, and for 50 days I got to cover Marvin’s profound sighs. I found myself fascinated watching him conduct himself with such an even keel, such aplomb, amid chaos and confusion and anger and fools who would not suffer him, gladly or otherwise. It was an unintentional education, and I later got to tell him so. I’d love to be as good at it some day as he was on his worst day.
Update 4:00 PM EDT: I was just re-watching Hot Stove’s coverage of Marvin’s passing and I thought this was a fitting picture to freeze from the ‘b-roll':
Marvin Miller, before or during the 1981 baseball strike negotiations. The guy in the mustache and the all-too-thin tie, back left, is a 22-year old radio reporter who would get his first tv shot because CNN’s strike correspondent took two weeks off after the strike was settled.
The original post resumes here:
Even in 1983 the union had its own internecine growing pains. One night I was coming home from CNN and walking up Third Avenue when I saw his unmistakably dapper figure walking down it, towards me. I was going to say hello, but even at a distance I could read that there was something even more focused than usual, even more purposeful, even more burdened, about the look on his face. I thought the least I could do as thanks for all his cooperation with me was to leave him alone.
Later that night I was bowled over to discover that the Union, the direction of which he had turned over to the mediator who had worked the 1981 strike, had rebelled against and unseated his successor. When I passed him on the street Marvin had been on his way to the meeting at which he would help the players rid themselves of the new director, and himself semi-reluctantly came out of semi-retirement to help Don Fehr get on his feet as the new chief.
I mentioned that to him when we spoke two Fridays ago. “I remember,” he said with a laugh. “I thought I was fortunate that that damn fool kid reporter didn’t recognize me!” The conversation did not dwell on the embarrassment that is his absence from the Hall of Fame, nor his complete repainting of the baseball landscape, nor the strikes and other tortures of his 17 years giving birth to his union. It was mostly about his fears for the loss of individual freedom in the American society that would so soon be without him.
Fitting, that, because whatever happened after he achieved it, Marvin Miller’s original goal as the head of the players’ union was freedom – to eliminate the nonsensical conclusion (improbably upheld by the Supreme Court) that because baseball players “played,” their bosses were not truly running interstate commerce. And thus, a 17-year old kid who signed a one-year contract with, say, the Philadelphia Phillies, was actually signing a 25-year contract. Each “one-year” agreement had a proviso allowing the owners to “renew” the contract for another year. And in the renewal year, the proviso re-set, and the contract could be “renewed” again.
It wasn’t actually slavery, but it sure as hell wasn’t freedom.
And that one word was what Marvin Miller was all about.