Few people in baseball have altered the course of the game's history in an overwhelmingly positive fashion. Marvin Miller was one of those people. A champion for organized labor, Miller, 95, died today after a year-long battle with cancer. For those who love the game, he will be remembered as a man who changed everything. And though he wasn't perfect, the vast majority of those changes have left the game, its fans, and its players in a much better place.
When Marvin Miller took over as Executive Director of the Baseball Player's Association in 1967, the average player salary was $10,000. By the time he left in 1984, that average had risen to $329,000. Miller wasn't just an advocate for the best players in the game, either. During his tenure, players saw the league minimum salary jump by more than 600% - an increase from $6,000 to $40,000.
Miller was raised in Brooklyn and, like most kids in that borough, grew up a Dodger fan. Before he was a leader in baseball, Miller sharpened his trade union credentials at the National War Labor Relations Board and the Machinist Union. He later worked for the United Auto Workers and became the top economist and negotiator for the United Steelworkers. A staunch opponent of draconian management, Marvin Miller was well-prepared for the baseball fight by the time he entered that fray.
And what a fight it was. When Miller took over, low salary was among the least important of the players' problems. They were reserve-claused - a quirk in traditional baseball language that, until late in 1975, allowed the owners to control a player's rights in perpetuity. Miller challenged the wording of player contracts, noting that the language indicated the owner's right to extend the contract for one year beyond the contract's completion. Up until that point, the owners had piled one-year extension on top of one-year extension, holding on to players at low salaries until they were all used up.
Miller challenged this practice in the cases of Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally, two pitchers who played out their one-year extension without signing an additional agreement. When an arbitration panel ruled in favor of the players in December of 1975, Miller had officially changed the game. This began modern free agency as we now know it, and allowed players to take advantage of a marketplace where teams had to bid higher amounts for their services. Some players - including Catfish Hunter - saw their salaries rise by a factor of ten.
Miller's success came mostly from his ability to unite the players. A consistent idealist, he once refused to draw his own salary while his players were striking. He initially refused the high office in the Players Union when they told him Richard Nixon would be his legal counsel. A loyal Democrat, Miller opposed working with Nixon even before Watergate. Three times, his players stopped working. They sent a clear message to the owners who had once exploited their skills - we are the reason this people watch these games.
Over the course of his storied career, Miller was not shy about going to battle with league ownership. He worked to secure better playing conditions. He won for the players the ten-and-five rule - an automatic no-trade clause for players with ten years of service time, the last five coming with the same team. Perhaps his biggest win for the players was the adoption of the arbitration system. Now, some third-year players and all fourth-year players have their salaries determined by an arbitration panel. If they perform, they receive substantial raises. The arbitration system has proven a winner for all players, as it's forced salaries upward since its inception.
Miller's combative relationship with league ownership has kept him out of the Hall of Fame to this point. The Veteran's Committee - the Hall of Fame arm that decides entry for non-players and players past their period of initial eligibility - has neglected to acknowledge Miller's contributions to the growth of the game. Still, players remember and they understand that without Marvin Miller, their talents might still be underappreciated and their quality of life would not be where it is today.