How Marvin Miller Turned Shortstops Into Sheiks

Major League Baseball Players Association Director Marvin Miller (left) is greeted by San Diego Padres player rep Randy Jones in 1980 after a joint meeting in Scottsdale, Ariz., at which the Padres and Oakland A's voted unanimously to support a strike Photograph by AP Photo

When Marvin Miller became director of the Major League Baseball Players Association in 1966, players earned, on average, $19,000. By the time he retired in 1982, the average player’s salary had grown to $241,000 and Miller had won for players the critical right of free agency: the ability to negotiate their own salaries and contract terms. Miller died Tuesday at age 95, having lived long enough to see the average baseball salary hit $3.4 million. Bloomberg Businessweek asked Bill James, the godfather of modern baseball statistics and currently a senior advisor on baseball operations for the Boston Red Sox, to reflect on Miller’s career.

There are basically three reasons why Marvin Miller was able to transform major league baseball players from moderately well-paid young men into athletic Vanderbilts being paid, in some cases, about $30,000 per at-bat, or $100,000 an inning.

First, Miller spent several years building solidarity in his work force, setting small objectives, winning small battles, and thus further solidifying his cadre. Second, Miller—having worked for unions for decades before he came to baseball—had a deep understanding of the intricacies of labor law. Third, for more than a decade, Miller was matched against baseball executives who had little understanding of labor law and even less interest. As far as they could tell, labor law was written in Swahili, and so they learned the hard way: They were told repeatedly by the courts that what they were trying to do was illegal.

After more than a decade, the baseball executives realized that they had to hire a professional labor negotiator, and they did what businesses often do in that situation: They hired a silver-haired lawyer who looked really good in a suit. He understood labor law, which, in some ways, made it worse for the baseball establishment. Once MLB had a labor lawyer, they started trying to push the legal limits. What they could get away with was never quite as much as they had hoped for, and awkward chicanery annoyed the courts more than naïve indifference to the law. The costs to baseball—and the payouts to the players—mounted.

Miller’s success came occasionally at the expense of a few missed games. The first MLB strike in 1972 wiped out a week and a half of play; the next one to cost games, in 1981, lasted for a month and a half. There was a third work stoppage in 1994-95, long after Miller had retired. By then, the union he had made tough and strong had become tough, strong, and rich.

The work stoppages gave fodder to baseball executives who were perpetually painting Miller as a Svengali interfering in the play of children—yet, in truth, Miller won his battles in the press by a margin almost as large as his victories in the courts. The real miracle of Marvin Miller’s career is not merely that he added strings of zeroes to the salary schedule but that he was able to convince most ordinary Americans that paying baseball players like sheiks was simple fairness.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.