When the definitive history of sports in the 20th century is written, a mediocre recreational tennis player named Marvin Miller will be listed alongside Babe Ruth, Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan as the most transformational figures.
Each member of this foursome changed the face of sports and the role of sports, but no one did more for more professional athletes than Miller. From the moment when Hall of Fame pitcher Robin Roberts asked Miller to take over the fledgling baseball players' union, Miller led an effort that gave professional athletes most of what they now enjoy.
A brilliant economist and a trade unionist to his core, Miller was the first to understand and to articulate that the relationship between the team owner and the player was adversarial and would always be adversarial. You could call the Dodgers or the Yankees a "club," but they were profit-driven commercial organizations whose employees could improve their wages and working conditions only with collective action.
No one looked less like a stereotypical labor leader than Miller, but no one could project the message of the labor movement more persuasively or more eloquently. Standing in the outfield during spring training surrounded by players, Miller's explanations of the economics of the game formed the basis of what became the most powerful and most successful labor union on the planet.
A dues checkoff, huge increases in payments from trading card companies and a pension system were the kinds of things that most unions would have called a complete success. But for Miller, they were only the beginning.
He quickly understood the importance and the inequity of baseball's reserve clause and attacked it in court in the face of ownership and media critics who accused him of instigating a subversive plot against America. In the only major blunder of his career, Miller hired Arthur Goldberg, a former justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, to argue against the reserve clause in the high court. Goldberg's work was desultory, and the nine justices were busy at the same time writing their decision on Roe v. Wade. As the result of some trading of votes on the two cases (documented in Bob Woodward's "The Bretheren"), Miller lost the reserve clause case but managed to push the issue into the collective bargaining agreement between his players and the owners.
Miller then challenged the reserve clause in labor arbitrations for pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally and finally succeeded in establishing free agency for baseball players, a historic first in the sports industry.
He also managed to outsmart the hapless owners on the issues of collusion and arbitration. The owners objected vociferously when Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale bargained for new contracts from the Dodgers as a unit.
We want no such collusion, the owners demanded. That's fine, Miller replied with considerable nonchalance. Let's make it mutual, he added. The owners agreed to a mutual clause barring collusion, thereby giving up their right to compare salary offers as they bargained with free agents, a privilege they enjoyed because of their antitrust exemption. Because they were exempt from antitrust enforcement, they could have worked together to hold prices down on free agents, but they gave it away in response to Miller's suggestion.
Miller's collusion clause led to successful arbitrations after Miller's retirement in which the players collected $250 million in collusion damages when they caught the owners conspiring to hold down free-agent offers.
When the owners wanted salary arbitration to avoid spring training holdouts, Miller was ready with the idea of high-low arbitration awards. The arbitrator would not be permitted to split the difference and would be required to award either the team's lower salary or the player's higher salary. The owners agreed to Miller's proposal and found themselves in a system in which the player always won because the team's proposed salary was always higher than the previous year's salary.
Miller's brilliance on the issues of free agency, collusion and arbitration established a new paradigm for salaries and benefits for professional athletes. With the players enjoying better pay and better treatment, the game itself improved. Although many have contributed to the success of the game, Miller is the individual most responsible for the profits and the salaries that the owners and the players enjoy today.
He even managed to leave the players with solid leadership when he retired. Under Donald Fehr and Gene Orza, the players union continued its string of successes, and the sport has enjoyed labor peace for nearly 20 years.
A place in the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown would be a step down for Miller. There ought to be a special place somewhere for a guy who worked miracles for his players and who did it with uncommon style and grace.