erik lundegaard

Wednesday November 28, 2012

Marvin Miller (1917-2012)

Marvin Miller, the labor lawyer who became Executive Director of the Major League Baseball's Players Association in 1966 at the age of 49 (my age), and who led the MLBPA out of the era of the reserve clause (a player bound to a team for llife) and into the era of free agency and riches, and thus revolutionized the game, died yesterday at the age of 95.

Most of the encomiums in the sports press come in the form of lamentations that Miller isn't in the Hall of Fame. Rob Neyer has a good piece on that as well: “Who Kept Marvin Miller out of the Hall of Fame, Anyway?” He suggests you cut back your anger at the owners; it was the players.

My favorite line about Miller, though, has always been Curt Flood's from Ken Burns' “Baseball” documentary: “The moment we found out that the owners didn't want Marvin Miller, he was our guy.” Would that every industry had its guy.

I read Miller's autobiography, “A Whole Different Ball Game,” in 1996 and wrote the following review, for no one, but I offer it here now. Rest in peace, Mr. Miller.

*  *  *

A Whole Different Ball Game

When discussing the history of the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) my mind tends towards the Danis Moore skit from “Monty Python's Flying Circus.” Danis is a Robin Hood figure whose theme song goes something like this:

Danis Moore, Danis Moore
Riding through the land
He robs from the rich
And gives to the poor
Danis Moore, Danis Moore, Danis Moore...

After awhile the rich he steals from have nothing, and the poor, surrounded by wealth, reject his meagre offerings. The theme song is then amended:

He robs from the poor
And gives to the rich
What a bitch!

Confronted by this fact, Danis (John Cleese) looks confused. ”This economics thing is a bit more complicated than I thought,“ he says.

Marvin Miller, executive director of the MLBPA, and the man most responsible for ending the reserve clause and bringing free agency to baseball, admits no such thing—and with some reason. Yes, the poor of baseball (the players) became rich as a result of Miller's leadership, but the rich (the owners) did not suffer a subsequent loss in income. On the contrary, their industry and individual franchises grew at the same astronomical rates as player's salaries.

So who suffered? The fans, perhaps. Baseball is still one of the cheapest entertainments around, but owners' tendencies to squeeze every ounce of juice from baseball has led to some increasingly suspect innovations. The DH rule. Night-time World Series games. Expansion teams. More divisions and playoffs, so the post-season is extended, so all prime-time World Series games are played in the cold and dark of late October rather than the sun and warmth of early October. And now we have interleague play.

Miller may try to talk like a fan, he may whimsically mention growing up in the shadow of Ebbets' Field and loving the Dodgers, but his position as Executive Director of the MLBPA from 1966 to 1984 necessitates a different perspective than that of the average fan. Mention 1981 and what do most fans think of? A strike. An awful, botched season. Asterisks in the record book. What does Marvin Miller think of? ”It was the most principled strike I've ever been associated with; it was the Association's finest hour.“

Does Miller even write about the fans in this book? Only once that I can recall. In the 1960s, Pittsburgh owner Dan Galbreath was urging Pirate players to sign more autographs and make more public appearances: to be more appreciative of the fans. Pirate star Roberto Clemente then relayed a dream he had the night before, about the days when he would be too enfeebled to play the game, and how the fans, unable to let him go, would buy him a rocking chair and sit him between the stands and the right field foul line where he could rest easy during his retirement.

”You know, Mr. Galbreath, was that dream is?“
Galbreath hesitated. ”No, what?“
Clemente replied firmly, ”It is bool-sheet!“

Granted, fans can be fickle. Granted, fan support is nothing next to a good retirement package. But without fans there would be no Major League Baseball.

It's ironic that this great union man, famous for finagling owners out of their secured and exalted position as Lords of Baseball, should, in his autobiography, convince me that a third group, the fans, have been barred from the labor-management table.

His autobiography is almost a disservice to the man. He keeps taking cheap shots at Bowie Kuhn (”Bowie was in the clouds, all right, but it was cloud nine“) when the actions of the former commissioner speak, in petty, retarded fashion, for themselves. Every slight bothers Miller. At his Hall of Fame induction, Catfish Hunter thanked the owners without mentioning the Players Association. Mike Marshall, an iconoclast, was the only rep to vote against free agency in 1976 and he has yet to explain himself. Reggie Jackson's autobiography fails to mention the Union. Miller can't abide any of it.

There are some interesting and surprising takes on different baseball matters. He rails against agents and the players who are foolish enough to give them astronomical amounts of money for what Miller considers a few hours of phone work. He blames Don Fehr for letting players lose touch with their own labor history. He also admonishes current players, some of whom are making more by themselves than all professional baseball players were making when Miller took over in 1966, to periodically reflect on how it all came about. Ever the pragmatist, he admits, ”it's unlikely to happen.”

The book itself is structured poorly. A chapter on Bowie Kuhn takes us all the way up to 1984 when we haven't gotten out of the early days of the Union yet. Surely, a chronological approach would have been more effective.

But there are small moments. I enjoyed his report on the difference between two presidents of the United States: being impressed with John F. Kennedy's command of facts and intelligent, curious nature; and being dispappointed when Ronald Reagan read a general greeting “that a 10-year-old could have mouthed off the top of his head” on 3x5 index cards. He's good on owner arrogance, on the cheapness of Calvin Griffith, and how the media was often in lockstep with the owners, particularly in the early days. He writes: “I was mocked in print before I even had the job with facetious questions, such as 'Will managers be forced to seek Mr. Miller's permission to yank a pitcher or send a utility man back to the minors?'”

Then there's his takedown of Commissioner of Baseball Bowie Kuhn:

Kuhn must be singled out as the most important contributor to the successes of the Players Association. His moves consistently backfired; his attempts at leadership created divisions. His inability to distinguish between reality and his prejudices, his lack of concern for the rights of players, sections of the press, and even of the stray, unpopular owner—all combined to make Kuhn a vital ingredient in the growth and strength of the union.

In his book, Marvin Miller has made me realize what should have been obvious a long time ago: that the Commissioner of Baseball is selected and paid for by the owners, and thus looks out for owners' interests. It made me wonder how other industries are regulated (surely not by the owners of the industry). It also made me hope that someday Major League Baseball will get itself a real Commissioner: someone who will look after, not only owner and player interests, but fan interests as well.

--November 1, 1996

Marvin Miller and Curt Flood, testing the reserve clause

Marvin Miller and Curt Flood, testing the reserve clause.

Posted at 07:57 AM on Wednesday November 28, 2012 in category Baseball  
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