What Major League Baseball Taught Me About Workers’ Rights: The Legacy of Marvin Miller

Since the Michigan legislature decided in its late 2012 illegal and hurried “lame duck” session (which gave an all new importance to the word “lame” in that euphemism), the value of unions has again risen to prominence among the politically conscious in our state.

In many conversations with people I have tried to outline why unions are important and how even non-union workers should be pro-union in their own self-interest. I’ve noted that when unions gain some benefit or some new level of wage increase, ALL workers benefit as employers are forced to compete with each other for labor. I’ve pointed out the vast difference in the standard of living when you compare Right-to-Work states with those that still honor union rights.

I’ve also acknowledged that the idea of unions is problematic for many people. The myth that Americans are a strong, sturdy, and independent people who can only find success if they work hard on their own and pull themselves up by their bootstraps is an enduring, if not patently false, legend. There’s just something truly romantic about the Horatio Alger rags-to-riches stories that inspire many Americans to work hard in the false hope that someday they’ll be rich enough to exploit workers the way they’ve been exploited their whole lives. (The very best analysis of the myth comes from Mark Twain. You can find his very short essay here. Read it slowly and revel in the genius that is Twain. (link))

So when Marvin Miller died last year, I had a chance to think about the man who I spent much of my youth hating and much of my adulthood admiring. As Miller comes up again for consideration for the Baseball Hall of Fame, it’s a good time for me to reflect on how this controversial man taught me to understand the value of collective bargaining.

If you already know all about Marvin Miller, skip this paragraph because I sincerely don’t want to condescend to you. Miller was an economist and labor negotiator who made his first big contributions working for the steel unions. In the middle of the 1960’s he was asked to become the head of a very weak association of major league baseball players. In the New York Times obit of Miller, they describe the economic situation faced by players when Miller took over the union. In 1966,”(t)he minimum salary was $6,000 and had barely budged for two decades. The average salary was $19,000. The pension plan was feeble, and player grievances could be heard only by the commissioner, who worked for the owners.” When Miller retired from the union in 1982, “(t)he average player salary had reached $241,000, the pension plan had become generous, and players had won free agency and were hiring agents to issue their own demands. If they had a grievance, they could turn to an arbitrator.”

We know today that Miller’s work has continued to enrich ballplayers in ways that even Miller may not have been able to imagine. In 2012, the average salary was $3,440,000 a year. The minimum salary is now $480,000 per player, more than the salary of entire teams before Miller took over the union. The NY Times argues that Miller belongs on baseball’s Mount Rushmore along with Babe Ruth, Branch Rickey, and Jackie Robinson. In terms of how each of these men dramatically changed the game of baseball, it’s hard to argue with including Miller’s bust on the monument.

And this is where my love/hate of Marvin Miller has its roots. As a young man, I was a Cleveland Indians fan. I was born in Cleveland and spent most of my early teens living 100 feet from the bus line that could get me to the ancient Municipal Stadium on the Lake Erie waterfront in just about 30 minutes. The newspapers in town gave away free tickets for every “A” on your report card and that was reason enough for me to get a bunch of those every semester. (I also had some very bright sisters who at the time didn’t much care for baseball, but who were willing to go with me to the newspaper offices with their report cards so I could get even more free tickets. I’m not sure what that cost me in trade, but it must have been so painful that it’s been wiped from my memory.)

I can still name you the starting lineups of those horrible Indians teams. I remember fondly the arguments I had with my sister Marcia over who was a better pitcher: Sam McDowell or Luis Tiant. I was at the Indians double-header against the Tigers on the day the United States landed on the moon. Cleveland had a terrible team playing in a terrible stadium, but neither of those things was apparent to me in the middle to late 1960’s.

When free agency came to baseball, I loathed Marvin Miller. My Indians, and later my adopted Tigers, were never going to be the same. Players moved around from team to team seemingly at will. Players demanded “outrageous” salaries for a game I would have played for free. I clearly remember when Jack Morris, a great Tiger pitcher of the 1980’s, wanted a new contract and demanded $1.85 million to stay in Detroit. In the season just completed, the Tigers had drawn 1.85 million fans and I was certain that even though Morris was the best pitcher in the game, the Tigers could no way afford to pay him $1 for every person who came to a game. So I hated Marvin Miller.

Costs to attend games were going up and players were moving around so much that it was impossible to keep track of who was playing where. I longed for the good old days (a fairly traumatic emotion for a 25 year old) when I knew the rosters of every team.

But as I’ve grown older and became capable of seeing the big picture, I have come to respect Marvin Miller for what he has done for players and the game. Miller knew that no matter how hard a player worked, no matter how talented a player was, his ability to pull himself up by his jockstrap (ballplayers don’t wear boots) was non-existent. In a very un-American way, the owners’ monopoly on the control of labor meant that the only person who benefitted from the hard work and exceptional talent of the player was the owner himself. If the player didn’t like it, he could go play for another baseball league, which, of course, did not exist. (There’s a great story about Ralph Kiner, who in 1950 lead the league in home runs, while his team, the Pittsburgh Pirates, finished in a distant last place. Kiner went into the owner and demanded a raise. The owner offered him a pay cut saying “We could have finished last without you.”)

By strengthening the union and bringing free agency to baseball, Miller brought genuine opportunities for players to be paid for their hard work and talent. At the same time, owners have been greatly enriched by the growth of the game. Fans, despite massive increases in ticket prices, continue to turn out in record numbers for baseball games. Rather than killing the game, as predicted by Miller’s critics, the growth of the baseball union is a genuine American success story. Individual success almost always comes through collaboration with colleagues and compromise with opponents, the baseball union is a living, breathing example of that.

Moreover, just like in the general economy, when the baseball union starting winning victories for its members, athletes in other sports benefitted as well. Players associations in football, hockey, and basketball all developed because of what baseball did first.

Marvin Miller’s legacy is simply this: he brought dignity and self-worth to a workforce that is a significant part of the American economy. I realize that many people will argue about the value of sports in our society and that athletes are spoiled and overpaid, but there is no denying sports is very significant for millions and millions of American sports fans. So while I had to learn a lot of new rosters because of Miller, I also learned that the American worker was worthy of respect, quite independent of how much of that respect the owners were willing to dole out.

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