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’:

File footage from MLB Network 11/27/12

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.


  1. anythingandeverything

    Sorry to crowbar this in on your Marvin Miller post. You know Rupert Murdoch bought half of YES, right? I haven’t seen you comment on this. I’m a progressive (former) Yankee fan now. Pretty disappointed about it…

  2. Phil Perspective

    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).

    One nitpick. Sure, only one has moved. How many screwed the taxpayers of their corresponding cities out of millions and million in subsidies, and for stadiums(see Miami!!)?

  3. walt kovacs

    would be great if a law professor could explain how not a single entity has ever risen up to challenge the supreme court’s decision allowing the mlb to be a legal monopoly.

    the 8 black sox were banned from baseball for taking bribes and throwing the series, but those crooks on the court got to serve for a lifetime

  4. LB (@ReasonVsFear)

    Excellent article, KO. I was watching your Cornell speech (Part 2, about labor) again just this morning, and the two dovetail quite nicely. It really is about freedom, isn’t it? As you said in the Cornell speech “We are threatening every low-income American, for whom the safety net is already way too narrow and way too aged, with a choice of their legal right to strike, or their moral right to eat food, not cardboard.” Every American should have the right to strike, and the right to freedom of choice. The outcome might not make everyone happy, but it is much better than the alternative.

    Rights are for all of us, not just the richest few. There are far too many in this country who do not seem to understand that principle. Many are not willing to look past their own skin to the wants and needs of other human beings.

    I think you nailed it with this sentence (from the Cornell speech): “The whole premise of being Republican is the awful thought that somewhere, some poor person has a dollar that some rich person actually deserves.” It seems that would apply to most of those at the top of the corporate world, including those who are at the top of baseball’s hierarchy.

    It’s a shame that they do not understand that we are all human beings, and that their eventual happiness and well-being often depends on the happiness and well-being of those they consider “lesser beings”.

    Thank you for getting it.

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  6. Used2beGOP

    Your expertise in baseball is great. We do, however, miss you being the Standard Bearer of the democratic message. You were/are/will always be THE BEST!

  7. Larry Dietz

    Terrific piece. Yes, Marvin Miller should have been elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame years ago. But in constructing your opening parallels with 1966, you wrote that 1866 “was not one of the years of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency.” Of course it wasn’t; he had been assassinated a year earlier.

  8. Clarke Barry™ © ® (@Clarke_Barry)

    Thanks for this. As it is a part of baseball history I do have some meager understanding of while most of the rest of baseball history is a mystery I can not only appreciate, as always, the writing I can appreciate the point.

    It’ll do me as Special Comment for awhile; something I have been in sore need of for far too long.

  9. Mary Caruso

    I didn’t know anything about Marvin Miller until I read ‘Ball Four’ by Jim Bouton. The phrase “mustachioed four-flusher” did come up and now I understand how the owners must have hated and feared him. They kept warning the players to be very, very careful of Marvin Miller. It is too bad that owners could not see the potential of having great players being paid their worth, and having the representation to protect them. The owners could not bring themselves to be human and understand that these players had families, and responsibilities. The only responsibilities the owners thought about were to themselves and how much profit they could garner. Marvin Miller opened their eyes and their wallets. He also had influence with Topps Cards (not that they would say it outright according to the book) to give the players more for their signed baseballs. In the formative years this was a lot to a player. Marvin Miller did way more for baseball than I could imagine.
    I’m glad you wrote a great piece about Mr. Miller. You went into more analysis, including historical facts, than I could have ever understood. That is why I appreciate your blog so much. I learn a lot from it.
    You were very lucky to meet such a man. He was tenacious and dedicated, not to mention tactically adept. I’m impressed he knew you on sight as that damn fool kid reporter. That made me smile. I’m sure he meant it as a cross-eyed endearment.

  10. Michael Green

    This is the best analysis of Marvin Miller’s importance that I have read or expect to read. The reference to Buzzie Bavasi is striking because after he finished telling the Dodgers how bad Miller would be, one of the players said they realized that if Bavasi was that scared of him, he HAD to be the right guy.

  11. S R H (@BlackSheep0ne)

    Keith, would you kindly repost to DKos? This is important info, and there is a discussion in several diaries over there regarding the worthy contributions of the father of the unionization of baseball. Thanks.

  12. lemaraudeurnfl

    Gentlemen, is this a baseball blog or a political one? Please.
    KO, great article as always. While I appreciate your points, first, I still believe fans want to hear about baseball, not money. I was an expos fan, in the end we did not associate with players, but with price tags, which took the fun out of it and drove the fans away. Today, we’d love to see a team trade a 3B for a OF, or a lefty for a righty, but we barely see that anymore because of these contracts. Give me Fantasy/Rotisserie style trade market and the sport would be even more popular. Second, the point of a previous comment about taxpayer funded stadiums is right on.

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  17. Michael Green

    Would the people who want to discuss Olbermann’s career–and they generally want to attack it because they are small-minded people living in a small-minded world–please leave? The rest of us, including Olbermann, are here to talk about baseball. Go back to your hateful, lying, bigoted, right-wing websites that link to the KKK, ok?

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  19. SamYanksGiantsMets

    Marvin Miller is also the name of a character actor in classic movies who tended to play sinister parts, perhaps most memorably in “Dead Reckoning” starring Humphrey Bogart and Lizabeth Scott (Lizabeth is still alive).

  20. drumzit2

    Great article as usual Keith but I sure wish you would review the WS and the team you deemed not worthy, the Giants! Come on now, a little crow is good for you once in awhile…

    • Emerson Burkett

      Oh Yea, could not agree more. Come on Keith, give the Giants the credit they deserve. And how about Buster Posey, pure Baseball guy.
      GO GIANTS!!!

  21. frank

    You people are obviously as stupid as ko! He couldn’t make it on the sorriest cable commentary station (obiously not an actual news source) so he is back to sports, huh? What a laugher!! Omg, there are more out there like him? Say it ain’t so!
    Are all of you as brain dead as he is? Do you all have a unibrow also? He is an affront to journalism. He is a ranter, not a journalist! Come on. I have wondered for some time if he just gave up on socialism and went straight to Marxism. Oh and Rupert? Thank God there is someone to offset the babble of a ko. The lefties lost their monopoly on what they refer to as “news”. Oh my, what is a socialist to do? You are all about as stupid and misguided as he is, obviously! Thank you though, Fox is thriving because of your kind. MSNBC will be lucky to survive, spewing rather than reporting. Keep it up though, really! It, and you, will send people to Fox for actual news!!!

  22. Kenneth Barr

    The continued absence iof Marvin Miller in the Hall of Fame is an indelible stain on the honor of baseball and t hose responsible for voting in the veterans category. Bowie Kuhn, who fiddled while baseball burned, is in because his owner buddies put him in. I have been in contact with Jim Bouton via his Ball Four Yahoo group and he is incensed that Marvin isn’t in. What is needed is a concerted campaign starting now to pressure the Hall of Fame to induct Marvin Miller, to make it impossible for his rejection to occur again. We can’t wait for his year to come up again, the pressure has to be constant and applied over an extended period of time.

  23. Tom

    Oh my gosh! Why does MLB have this moran Olberman on their website. He was lousy at KTLA 5 in LA, lousy at ESPN, lousy at MSNBC and now he shows up here?

    • redpalaceskyeaglebullbluesox

      It wasn’t just about players salaries. It was also about working conditions. It was about having comtpetent medical staffs instead of incompetent doctors that drove star players like Mickey Mantle to seek outside treatment at their own expense. It was about having some choice over where a player chose to play rather than the owners having total control. Prices were kept artificially low because the players got peanuts as did just about everyone who worked for a Major League franchise.. Why is there a Baseball Assistance Team to deal with players who never even got a pension? Ask Joe Garagiola about that, about the former players with no income or health insurance from the game they gave everything to. The reason for the explosion in salaries is the greed which the owners have festered over the years held the pendulaum of progress back for far too long. Once it was released, it swung so far because of all the stored momentum. Then there was the collusion scandal under Uebberoth. It has taken the combined efforts of Bart Giammati, who was killed by the stress, Fay Vincent, who the owners sabotaged, and the halting efforts of Bud Selig to try to drag the game forward while they each continued the nonsensical over-adversarial relationship with the MLBPA that lead to the ruinous 1994 lockout. It only ended when a federal judge named Sonia Sotomayor (yes, that one) ruled the owners could not use replacement players and had not negotiated with the players in good faith. That is not to say the players bear their share of the responsibility, but the overwhelming evidence points to the mis-management by greedy owners. Major League Baseball is still the most affordable of the professional sports, even MLS.

      • Emerson Burkett

        I couldn’t agree more, you have succinctly summed it up. It was very nice to find a couple of comments actually related to the topic gotten in edgewise between the Mountain of totally unrelated verbiage. Getting harder and harder to come on this site as one has to sift through so much BS.

      • redpalaceskyeaglebullbluesox

        Thanks. It’s a shame that folks have to bring in so much irrelevance here as Keith finds a great deal of relaxation with baseball. He also feels very strongly about the exclusion of Marvin Miller from the Hall of Fame, as do many in baseball including “Ball Four” author and retired Yankees, Pilots, Astros and Braves pitcher Jim Bouton.

  24. Emerson Burkett

    NOTHING TO SEE HERE FOLKS, JUST KEEP SCROLLING PAST TO SOME “ON TOPIC” POSTS. Are you getting a blister from all the scrolling past this vast Ocean of unrelated verbiage from this ABUSER of this blog? Yea, I do too, never read any of it, personally.

  25. redpalaceskyeaglebullbluesox

    This message is for history, zoola, mathew and others who are using this blog for purposes other than intended. i don’t care what you think of KO, this post is about Marvin Miller. We don’t need either trolls or troll police. Therefore, i have sent a message to both and asking them to monitor this blog and take whatever appropriate action required to maintain the integrity of the blogger and what is being blogged. You have been warned. The next step will be decisive. I apologize to all for this but now it has become necessary. Meanwhile, on the Miller in the NBHoF, I have noticed an increase in postings on their Facebook page. Please keep it up, Marvin Miller deserved to be enshrined years ago. He has become Ron Santo, who died before his induction. That insulted Cub fans everywhere as well as baseball fans who remember Santo’s brilliant play (although here in New York he was the enemy) and didn’t relaize the struggle he had with diabetes. This is a similar situation. Marvin Miller and his allies dragged baseball kicking and screaming into the modern era. it still isn’t all the way there yet, if the situation in Miami is anything to go by. He must be inducted, with or without the “blessing” of the Expansion Era Veterans Committee, who have covered themselves in shame.

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  27. redpalaceskyeaglebullbluesox

    Well, here we are in 2015 and Bowie Kuhn, the master of of obfuscation, is enshrined in the NBHoF and Marvin Miller, who wrested baseball out of its 19th Century mentality and into the 20th Century, is not. Those who pine for the “good old days” of players being indentured servants can sit smugly in the knowledge that as “guardians of the game,” they have brought the good name of baseball into disrepute. This is not a debate about a player or manager, this is denying history. As long as Marvin Miller is not enshrined, the NBHoF remains incomplete.

  28. redpalaceskyeaglebullbluesox

    Well here we are in 2015 and Bowie Kuhn, the commissioner who tried to stop progress by holding his breath until it went away, is enshrined the NBHoF. Marvin Miller, who dragged baseball kicking and screaming into the 20th Century and ended the plantation attitude that treated players as indentured servants, is not. Those “guardians of the game” that insist on keeping the Hall of Fame as their personal club must be satisfied. The rest of us know that the NBHof is incomplete without the enshrinement of Marvin Miller. The shame of it is those who are preventing this from happening are hurting the integrity of our great national game. One day they will fade away and Miller will get his due at Cooperstown

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