NEW YORK – Marvin Miller was a labor economist who never played a day of organized baseball; he preferred tennis. Yet he transformed the national pastime as surely as Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, television and night games.
Miller, the union boss who won free agency for baseball players in 1975, ushering in an era of multimillion-dollar contracts and athletes who switch teams at the drop of a batting helmet, died Tuesday at 95. He was diagnosed with liver cancer in August.
“I think he’s the most important baseball figure of the last 50 years,” former baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent said. “He changed not just the sport, but the business of the sport, permanently. 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.”
In his 16½ years as executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, starting in 1966, Miller fought owners on many fronts, not only achieving free agency but making the word “strike” stand for something other than a pitched ball.
Baseball fans argue over whether Miller made the game fairer or more mercenary, and the Hall of Fame repeatedly rejected him in what was attributed to lingering resentment among team owners.
Players attending the union’s annual executive board meeting in New York said their professional lives are Miller’s legacy.
“Anyone who’s ever played modern professional sports owes a debt of gratitude to Marvin Miller,” Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Chris Capuano said. “He empowered us as players. He gave us ownership of the game we play. Anyone who steps on a field in any sport, they have a voice because of him.”
Major League Baseball’s revenue has grown from $50 million in 1967 to $7.5 billion this year. At his last public speaking engagement, a discussion at New York University School of Law in April marking the 40th anniversary of the first baseball strike, Miller said free agency and resulting fan interest contributed to the increase.
“I never before saw such a win-win situation in my life, where everybody involved in Major League Baseball, both sides of the equation, still continue to set records in terms of revenue and profits and salaries and benefits,” Miller said.
Miller, who retired in 1982, led the first walkout in the game’s history 10 years earlier, a fight over pension benefits. On April 5, 1972, signs posted at major league parks simply said: “No Game Today.” The strike, which lasted 13 days, was followed by a walkout during spring training in 1976 and a midseason job action that darkened the stadiums for 7 weeks in 1981.
Miller led three strikes and two lockouts. In all, baseball has had eight work stoppages.
Miller’s biggest legacy – free agency – represented one of the most significant off-the-field changes in the game’s history. The reserve clause that had been in place since 1878 bound a player to the team holding his contract. Miller viewed it as little more than 20th-century slavery.
“Before Marvin, there were no such things as the negotiations. It was take it or leave it,” Hall of Famer Joe Morgan said. “What was your recourse? To quit?”
Miller remained current on baseball events right up until his death, never hesitating to criticize owners for collusion and the union for agreeing to drug testing.
While baseball has had labor peace since 1995, turmoil has engulfed the other major U.S. pro leagues in recent years.
“Marvin exemplified guts, tenacity and an undying love for the players he represented,” said DeMaurice Smith, head of the NFL players union. “He was a mentor to me, and we spoke often and at length. His most powerful message was that players would remain unified during labor strife if they remembered the sacrifices made by previous generations.”