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Hall of Fame

MLB Players Union in Hall of Fame

Miller, first MLB union leader been enshrined in Cooperstown

Kris LaGrange's picture
Sep 09, 2021

On Wednesday, September 8th, Marvin Miller became the first labor leader to be inducted into the hallowed halls of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Born in the Bronx and raised as a Brooklyn Dodgers fan, Miller began his union career working for the International Association of Machinists (IAM) and the United Autoworkers (UAW) before moving over to the United Steelworkers where he worked his way up to principal economic adviser and assistant to its President and took part in negotiating contracts. In 1966, with players now having a newly recognized union, Miller began visiting Spring Training camps in an effort to be brought on by the union as their first Executive Director. He was selected by the players by a vote of 489–136. Over the next two years, he worked on a CBA with the owners that were agreed to in 1968 and were the first CBA among the four major sports in the United States. That first CBA, which covered the 1968 and 1969 seasons, got the players a nearly 43% increase in the minimum salary from $7,000 to $10,000 for the season. The deal also established the arbitration process and formalized the owner-player relationship.

Perhaps Miller’s biggest achievement was ending the reserve clause and bringing free agency into sports. Before Miller and Curt Flood challenged the rule, players were owned by the team and could be traded whenever the owners wanted. Flood challenged the rule in court and declared himself a free agent, a move that essentially ended his career. However, Miller used Flood’s actions to slowly eat away at the reserve clause. First, he used arbitration to get Catfish Hunter out of his deal with the Oakland A’s after they failed the team failed to make an annuity payment that was required in Hunter’s contract. Hunter would be declared free to sign with any team and he eventually went on to sign a $3.5 million five-year deal with the Yankees. Miller then encouraged pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally to play the 1974 season without a contract. At the end of the season, they filed for arbitration and in the “Seitz decision” the players were found to have fulfilled their contract requirements and were free to sign with whichever team they wanted. This effectively killed the reserve clause, although Miller negotiated with the owners that players were only eligible for free agency after playing for six years. This was to limit the number of free agents each year and keep demand and salaries for players high.

Miller served as the Executive Director of the union for 16 years, taking the players out on strike three times as well as going through two lockouts from the owners. This aggressive style resulted in the average salary for a player going from $19,000 a year (about $153,952 in 2020 dollars) in 1966 when Miller took over to $326,000 (about $886,250 in 2020 dollars) in 1982 when he retired. Miller is credited with teaching players the basics of human capital as a commodity and that they were selling their skills to the owners, thus giving them significant power.

In a video highlighting Miller’s achievement, former MLB Player Tim McCarver credited the high salaries that players make today directly to Miller’s work.

Miller was both respected and despised by the owners on the other side of the table. "I think he's the most important baseball figure of the last 50 years,” said former MLB Commissioner Faye Vincent. “He changed not just the sport but the business of the sport permanently, and he truly emancipated the baseball player – and in the process all professional athletes. Prior to his time, they had few rights. At the moment, they control the games."

However Miller’s nemesis Bowie Kuhn, who was the commissioner throughout the 1970’s said "I began to realize we had before us an old-fashioned 19th-century trade unionist who hated management generally and the management of baseball specifically." Perhaps this was really the greatest honor Miller could have gotten from an executive who fought Miller for all those years.

Miller was inducted posthumously with Derek Jeter, Larry Walker, and Ted Simmons who played much of his career during the Miller era.

The path to Cooperstown was a long one for Miller. Consideration for him to enter the Hall of Fame began in 2000 when players like the Home Run King Hank Aaron endorsed his candidacy said "Marvin Miller should be in the Hall of Fame if the players have to break down the doors to get him in." Other players supporting him included Tom Seaver who called his exclusion a “National Disgrace” and Joe Morgan who said the Hall should apologize for not already putting him in. Yet every time his name was on the ballot, he consistently fell short. Miller was considered in the Executives category meaning that many of the same people he went toe to toe with during his career were the ones voting to keep him out. In the last years of his life, Miller even asked to be removed from consideration for the Hall saying:

“I find myself unwilling to contemplate one more rigged veteran's committee whose members are handpicked to reach a particular outcome while offering the pretense of a democratic vote,” Miller wrote in his 2008 letter to the BBWAA. “It is an insult to baseball fans, historians, sportswriters, and especially to those baseball players who sacrificed and brought the game into the 21st century.”

After this, Miller told his family that if he was ever elected that they should stay from the ceremony, a wish that his children honored on Wednesday. Instead, they watched the ceremony online as Miller’s successor Donald Fehr spoke on his behalf.

Now for the rest of eternity, Miller will sit in the hallowed halls of Cooperstown in between the plaques of the players he fought for and the executives he fought against.

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