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The Quest of Marvin Miller: A Briefcase for a Lance

By Lawrence Richards, November 22, 2016
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On November 27, 2012, a New York Times article was headed, “Marvin Miller, Union Leader Who Changed Baseball, Dies at 95.” A respectful, notable headline by all means, but considering Miller’s transcending influence, not only on baseball, but on all professional sports, it was somewhat tepid. A few other views:

“Marvin Miller is as important in the history of baseball as Jackie Robinson.” —Hank Aaron

“(After Babe Ruth) the second most influential man in the history of baseball.” —Red Barber

“No man in our time had more impact on the business of baseball than Marvin Miller.” —Tom Seaver

“The most important baseball figure in the last 50 years. He truly emancipated the players.” —Fay Vincent

With the reader’s permission, one more quote, definitely self-serving.

“The fact of so many knowing so little about Marvin Miller’s accomplishments is astounding.” —Lawrence Richards

The viselike grip owners maintained over their players in 1966 hadn’t changed much since the 1890s. The reserve clause allowed them to keep players indefinitely, a blatantly unconstitutional state of affairs. Negotiating power? Take the owner’s contract offer or don’t play. Want to be released, traded, or sold to another team? Only if the club allows. A problem with your team? Go see the commissioner—realistically, an employee of the owners.

In 1966, the minimum annual salary for ballplayers was $6,000, a $1,000 increase from 1946. The uber-rich owners exemplified the Golden Rule. They had the gold; they made the rules. Challenge or complain and face the consequences.

The Players’ Union resources were meager. Established in 1954, the union had less than $5,400 in the bank and no full-time employee. Their primary goal was a modest increase in pension benefits. Players had been told by owners for years that they were lucky to be compensated for playing “a boy’s game.” Collective bargaining? Huh? What were their alternatives? Return to the farm, the factory, the mine? Risk being fired? They had no negotiating power because the vast consensus was that they had no cards to play. One recalls the lyric of an old Tennessee Ernie Ford tune, “Sixteen Tons,” about the plight of coal miners—“I owe my soul to the company store.”

In 1966, a committee headed by Robin Roberts was given the task by the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) to screen candidates for the position of executive director. Roberts knew they needed a bargaining pro; the opposition across the table was entrenched, united, connected—very, very wealthy powerbrokers. To make matters worse, MLBPA members were largely apathetic; generally not well educated, lacking experience with unions, and somewhat suspicious of them in general. Not exactly an easy group to mobilize. Then along came Marvin Miller.

The committee kept hearing recommendations that Miller should be interviewed. His credentials and experience were lauded by many—for good reason. He worked for the National War Labor Board during World War II, negotiated contracts for the International Association of Machinists and United Auto Workers, and served as chief economist and lead negotiator for the United Steelworkers. However, even with these credentials, Roberts had trepidations. Most shared the perception that labor leaders and their minions and union officials in general didn’t exactly exemplify model citizens.

Let’s remember that this was the heyday of John L. Lewis, United Mine Workers; George Meany, AFL-CIO; Mike Quill, NYC Transport Workers; Walter Reuther, United Automobile Workers; and—gulp—Jimmy Hoffa, International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Fiery, high-profile, bombastic men, whose reputations included nefarious methods to “get their way.” Their range of bargaining chips was extremely varied—and persuasive. Some committee members objected: “Anyone from that ilk? C’mon, how is this gonna play from a private and public relations standpoint?” Notwithstanding these concerns, a meeting was arranged.

Miller’s demeanor and appearance defied expectations. He was a slightly built man of average height with silver hair and a well-groomed mustache—conservatively dressed. He was quiet, mild-mannered, soft-spoken, and listened carefully to all that was said. He seemed more suited to academia than the arena of no-holds-barred street fighters. The committee didn’t know that Miller had been in training all his life.

Born in 1917, Miller was raised in the Bronx, and later, the Flatbush area of Brooklyn, New York. His father, Alexander, was a clothing salesman, active in the International Garment Workers Union; his mother, Gertrude, was a member of the New York City teachers union. As a kid, he walked picket lines with both. The struggles to protect and further the rights of working people in all types of business enterprises, their right to work in a decent, healthy environment and be treated with respect and fairness became part of Miller’s DNA. In 1938, he graduated from New York University with a degree in economics. He always looked forward, but never forgot to look back.

During spring training ’66, Miller conducted a minitour of camps in Florida and Arizona. The Roberts committee wanted him to meet the players before they voted to hire or pass. Miller thought it was an excellent idea as well; he had his own reservations. Yankee Jim Bouton remembers the visit vividly. “We were all expecting to see someone with a cigar out of the corner of his mouth, a real knuckle-dragging ‘deze and doze’ guy. To say we were surprised would be a great understatement! We all liked him.”

Miller was hired, and he and general counsel Richard Moss began sorting out priorities. Player expectations were low; maybe a few bucks in the future for the pension fund—if that. The owners (Goliath) and Miller (David) prepared to square off—this time, no Messiah in sight. No line. ‘Cause nobody put a bet on Miller—Don Quixote jousting with a briefcase. Game on!

Miller’s tenure as executive director of the MLBPA (1966–1982) is notable for precedent-setting achievements—most with profound ramifications still shaping the landscape today. The reader is encouraged to pick up a copy of Miller’s autobiography, A Whole Different Ballgame, to fully appreciate the machinations, personalities, and clash of vested interests embedded in literal game-changing negotiations. Caveat emptor. As one would expect, there is a lot of “legalese” and much layered detail in a book written by an economist/labor negotiator. But try to get past it. There’s enough drama—heroes and villains, comedy and tragedy, twists and turns—to rival the best of Elizabethan theater.

Source: The Trading Card Database

So how did “Man of La Mancha” fare? For our purposes, an abbreviated Marvin Miller highlight reel:

• Negotiates the first collective bargaining agreement in all professional sports.

• Independent, impartial arbitration becomes the mechanism for resolving disputes. Greg Bouris, director of communications for the MLBPA, with whom I spoke, said: “If Marvin were here, I believe he’d say this was his biggest achievement. Most everything flowed from there. Differences and issues became settled and monitored by outside parties.” More of my conversation with Greg shortly.

• Adds salary grievances to the arbitration process.

• The MLBPA demonstrates solidarity by striking (1972) to increase owner pension contributions—the first major sports strike in North America. After an 86-game cancellation, the players prevail.

• Curt Flood challenges the reserve clause. Miller counsels and advises Flood, discusses the broad ramifications with union members, brings in Flood for intense question-and- answer sessions involving members. He arranges for noted labor attorney Arthur Goldberg to take the case pro bono—just expenses. The Supreme Court rules against Flood. However, this opening salvo by the courageous Flood, strongly backed by the union, sets the stage for coming free agency. (If the reader hasn’t read A Well-Paid Slave: Curt Flood’s Fight for Free Agency in Professional Sports, by Brad Snyder, Viking, 2006, secure a copy immediately. You can wait until you finish this essay.)

• Leads the union through three strikes, two lockouts—fighting and clawing to establish a fair and level playing field. These gains were akin to hand-to-hand combat. If you believe the changes were due to owner benevolence, well . . .

• Major League Baseball becomes the only U.S. pro sport without a salary cap.

• Perhaps most significantly, though amorphous, Miller’s efforts result in players obtaining dignity and respect—a voice in their fate. Joe Morgan summed it up this way: “We could have searched 100 years and wouldn’t have found a more perfect person for our situation.” Referencing policy dispute results, Bouton being Bouton said, “I think Bowie Kuhn was 0 for 67.”

Pitcher Bob Gibson and Center Fielder Curt Flood. 

It needs to be stated that Miller was aided greatly by a number of events that enabled him to maximize various negotiating positions. Seminal developments such as expansion to the West Coast and South, attendance growth, television revenue, and increasing marketing and licensing fees, shifted the economic balance—moving the needle in the players’ favor. But, in my view, this in no way diminishes what Miller achieved.

There are those who feel strongly that the changes Miller wrought are not positive at all. Quite the contrary, actually—detrimental to the game. Consider players with averages close to the “Mendoza Line” (.200), players with bloated ERAs, relief pitchers and closers working sporadically, throwing 15 to 30 pitches or less a week. They make millions now. Rosters change annually—during the season. It’s hard to root for a particular team without continuity of personnel. Team loyalty? Fan appreciation? Players are tantamount to mercenaries, thanks to Miller. I get it.

But I would ask those who harbor such understandable feelings to view the terrain from a wider lens. There are those within any system who are the recipients of benefits accrued due to their membership. Not all are equally worthy in any profession. For every bloated salary, there are far more whose careers will be short-lived with far less compensation. Should we feel sorry for them? Of course not. But we must remember that the freedom to choose whom you work for, for how long, and where is a cornerstone of democracy—an enlightened system. No, professional ballplayers are not the same as garment workers, factory workers, farm workers. But they are responsible for bringing in vast sums of money for their employers. Their rewards are commensurate with that reality. That’s what Marvin Miller was about.

Greg Bouris and I further discussed Miller’s legacy. He assured me that all current MLBPA employees celebrate and are well aware of Miller’s groundbreaking contributions—his role in “the birth of a union.” Greg heartily agreed that advances achieved by the MLBPA affected all U.S. professional sports in profound ways in varying degrees germane to each sport.

I think I might have caught Greg a bit off balance when I asked, “Why do you think Miller hasn’t been voted into the Hall of Fame? He’s been on the Veterans Committee voting list five separate times. What’s the union’s position?”

As expected, Greg acknowledged this long-term injustice. He stated, somewhat poetically I thought, “The Hall is emptier without him.” I pressed a bit. “So, why is this still the case? Any lobbying planned on behalf of Miller?” Smart, smooth, savvy, and undoubtedly politically aware, Greg responded, “I don’t want to go down that road.” We left it there.

My next stop was Cooperstown. Craig Muder, Hall of Fame director of communications, was extremely helpful in providing background. He pointed out that there’s a lot of material about Miller at the HOF, but election is determined by the Veterans Committee. He kindly referred me to Jon Shestakofsky, vice president of communications and education. Jon sent a long email referencing Miller as a “polarizing figure” but mentioned that Miller never reached the requisite 75 percent of total votes cast for enshrinement.

Okay. So what’s the criteria? They are: record, ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and—drum roll, please—contributions to the game. If someone can make a case out there that Miller’s rejections by five separate Veterans Committees, are fair and thoughtful, I’d like to hear it.

No doubt, Miller was hurt, bitter, and felt discriminated against. In 2008, he told the Boston Globe, “I find myself unwilling to contemplate one more rigged Veterans Committee whose members are handpicked to reach a particular outcome while offering a pretense of a democratic vote. At the age of 91, I can do without farce.” He laughed. “I’ve never prepared an acceptance speech.”

So, what can we do? We can shake our heads in dismay, cluck sympathetically, or adopt the old Brooklyn Dodgers bromide—“wait ’til next year.” I say we take action. The next group of Veterans Committee members will be announced during the Winter Meetings, voting later in the year. Craig Muder and Jon Shestakofsky assured me all letters of support for Miller will be distributed. Please send them to:

Eras Committee
National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum
25 Main Street
Cooperstown, NY 13326

My good friend and history professor Joe Dorinson shared this anecdote with me. Many years ago, he attended a rally in the South preparing for a civil rights march. He stood up and told those assembled, “I teach history. Now, I’d like to make history.” Standing ovation. We at TNPM write about history; let’s make some as well; right the wrong! In the words of Marvin Miller: “Organize!”

"The criteria for non-playing personnel is the impact they made on the sport. Therefore Marvin Miller should be in the Hall of Fame on that basis. Maybe there are not a lot of my predecessors who would agree with that, but if you're looking for people who make an impact on the sport, yes, you would have to say that." 

                                                    ~Former MLB Commissioner Bud Selig




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