Hank Aaron, the true home run king, said Marvin Miller’s role in the history of baseball was as important as Jackie Robinson’s. But you don’t have to care about baseball to care about the story of Miller because it’s a story about unions and economics and free agency and the triumph of free market capitalism.
Miller died this week at 95 and since he changed the history of sports, it’s a good time to tell his story. See, once upon a time, back in the 1960s, baseball had an evil thing called the reserve clause which bound players to their teams as long as owners wanted them–which often meant forever. Owners could renew contracts without players’ consent and players had no control over where they played. They had the rights of indentured servants.
Meanwhile Marvin Miller, a garmento’s son from Brooklyn was working his way up through the Machinists Union and the United Auto Workers and the United Steelworkers where he became the lead advocate. He knew the power of a strong union and that if all the players walked, they could not be replaced.
Over time as the head of baseball’s union he led them to strike three times and eventually negotiated the end of the reserve clause. Despite losing when his challenge to free agency went to the Supreme Court, he won free agency for the players in 1975. When he joined the players’ union the minimum salary was $6,000 and the average was $52,000.
He unleashed the players’ earning potential by creating the free market we have today. As a shrewd economist he knew a finite free agent pool would drive up players value, so he guided the league toward players becoming free agents only after six years of service. Now the minimum salary is about half a million and the average is over $3 million. That may seem a lot to play a game–and it is–but these men are almost all working-class guys who hit the life lottery and have their lifetime earning potential max out in their early 30s.
Many athletes go broke for any number of reasons and while owners can will their spot to their kids, players can’t. I’m always rooting for athletes to make as much as possible while they can and Marvin Miller is responsible for the modern economic landscape.
That said, the union Miller built and ran for 16 years would be too strong for its own good in the steroid era. It helped block necessary reform for years, damaging lives and the integrity of the game. Before the ‘roid problem was really known, players were getting huge, hitting towering home runs, drawing fans, getting big contracts and thus further strengthening the union which had no short term incentive to push back against ‘roids. Miller was merely a consultant to the union then, but he was against testing: a bizarre failure of vision from a visionary.
This year Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa look unlikely to make it into the Hall of fame despite their gaudy numbers. The bill for the ‘roid era has come due. For them the price will be cheap compared to those who will lose their lives because of years of steroid abuse.
This is part of the world Miller created but it doesn’t diminish his revolutionary impact on all of American sports. Every athlete who’s gone from poor to a one-percenter owes Marvin Miller a thank you.