Scene4 Magazine - Patrick Walsh

Patrick Walsh

Homage to Marvin Miller

It is October. The air turns crisp, the leaves red and gold. And baseball reaches its autumnal crescendo, a six-network extravaganza which, thanks to the insatiable greed of its owners, lasts the entire month and, barring a four-game sweep in the World Series, stretches clear into November.


If gold is the measure, then baseball is in its golden age.


To be fair, the players share in the riches, something that was never the case until a seasoned labor lawyer from Brooklyn took on baseball’s robber barons and beat them at their own game.


We tend to think discrimination and injustice in baseball belong to a defunct era of sepia-toned photographs and grainy newsreel footage: the Color Ban, which excluded African-Americans from organized baseball for sixty years; the reserve clause, which permanently indentured white ballplayers (and later black players as well) to their clubs without recourse.


So if I told you that one of the three most important figures in baseball’s history–a man who, like Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson, literally transformed the game–died in 2012 without as yet being enshrined in the Hall of Fame, you’d probably find it hard to believe.


Well, it is hard to believe.  But it’s true.


Marvin Miller was that seasoned labor lawyer from Brooklyn and he died November 27, 2012 at the august age of 95. Despite sticking around that long, he was passed over by the Hall of Fame five times between 2003 and 2010.


In a scathing article in the Village Voice in 2007 appropriately titled “Hall of Shame,” Allen Barra upbraided Cooperstown for missing yet another opportunity to do right by Miller. Barra marshaled quotes from players, sportscasters, and historians on just how glaring an omission it was to exclude Marvin Miller:


    Hank Aaron: “Marvin Miller should be in the Hall of Fame if the players have to break down the doors to get him in.”


    Red Barber: “Marvin Miller, along with Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson, is one of the two or three most important men in baseball history.”


    Bob Costas: “There is no non-player more deserving of the Hall of Fame.”


    Bill James: “If baseball ever buys itself a mountain and starts carving faces in it, one of the first men to go up is sure to be Marvin Miller.”


    Joe Morgan: “They should vote him in and then apologize for making him wait so long.”


    Tom Seaver: “Marvin’s exclusion from the Hall of Fame is a national disgrace.”


    Arthur Ashe: “Marvin Miller has done more for the welfare of black athletes than anyone else.”


    Studs Terkel: “Marvin Miller, I suspect, is the most effective union organizer since John L. Lewis.”




Cooperstown, are you listening?


Undoubtedly they are, but there are still those who don’t want to hear. And while there’s no justification for denying Miller his well-deserved plaque, it’s easy to understand the Hall’s mean-spirited recalcitrance: Marvin Miller not only defeated the owners, he humiliated them, duping them with negotiation tactics a college freshman business major would have seen through.


First, he broke the century-old stranglehold the owners wielded over labor through a standard piece of contract verbiage known as “Paragraph 10A” or the reserve clause. The reserve clause bound a player to his team for one year beyond the terms of his existing contract. No matter how many new contracts a player might land, ownership reserved the right to decide the player’s future, hence the clause’s name. That, at least, was how the owners interpreted “one year.”


In effect, the owners’ interpretation of the reserve clause bound a player to his team for life, a clear violation of the 13th Amendment’s prohibition of involuntary servitude.


In 1973, Miller persuaded Major League Baseball (MLB) to agree to impartial binding arbitration of salary disputes. In 1975, Dave McNally of the Montreal Expos and Andy Messersmith of the Los Angeles Dodgers agreed to play one year without contracts, declared themselves free agents, then filed for a hearing before a newly created three-man arbitration panel. Miller represented the players, John Gaherin management. The third man was a professional arbitrator named Peter Seitz. 


Seitz felt that the players were right and tried to convince the owners to come up with a new, equitable contract. They refused. On Dec. 23, 1975, Seitz voted with the players.  As Seitz later concluded: “The owners were too stubborn and stupid. They were like the French barons of the 12th century. They had accumulated so much power they wouldn’t share it with anybody.” 


The owners fired Seitz the next day and went to court to have the decision overturned. They lost. The arbitration was binding; the reserve clause was dead.


Next, Miller took advantage of the owners’ panic at the prospect of an entirely new system in which every player was a free agent, suckering them into accepting what seemed like a benevolent concession. He told the owners that free agency shouldn’t be automatic but ought to be earned, suggesting six years of service in the Majors as a kind of apprenticeship. The owners happily agreed.


It was straight out of Economics 101: when a commodity floods the market, the commodity’s price goes down; create a scarcity and the commodity’s price rises. Astonishingly, it seemed that the owners had never taken the course or forgotten it entirely. Either way, Miller flunked them.


Though he was born in The Bronx–Yankees country–in 1917, Miller grew up in Flatbush, a fly ball away from Ebbets Field, home of his beloved Brooklyn Dodgers. By the time he was appointed executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) in March 1966, his teeth had been cut razor sharp as a labor lawyer. Miller helped resolve disputes during World War II. He represented the International Association of Machinists and the United Auto Workers before joining the United Steelworkers in 1950, a powerful post he held for sixteen years.


Then, in 1966, he was elected to the role that awaited him like a destiny. As St. Louis Cardinals centerfielder Curt Flood quipped, “the moment that we found out that the owners didn’t want Marvin Miller, he was our guy!”


Very quickly, Miller began securing rights for the players that workers in other fields had enjoyed for decades, eventually ending their exploitation by the owners with the establishment of free agency. As Miller put it, before free agency, baseball was a plantation system; call it what you will, it’s no longer a plantation system.


The owners seethed after Marvin Miller broke their monopoly on profits. A decade after the death of the reserve clause, the owners tried to reestablish it by guile: collusion.  As Miller summed it up in Ken Burns’ Baseball documentary:


    The owners got together in 1985 and decided to form a conspiracy under which they would break the free agent market by agreeing that no team would ever make an offer to a free agent. It was in violation of their contractual commitment. All 26 owners had signed a contract
    which said, ‘no club shall act in concert with any other club with respect to free agents.’ And they formed a conspiracy and it included all 26 owners, general managers, club officials, three league presidents, several commissioners–all had to be involved and were involved in violating their contractual commitment. And it worked. Over a period of three years–1985, 6 and 7 and possibly into 1988–they managed to have an airtight conspiracy.


Beginning in 1985, when the game’s best players–Carlton Fisk, Jack Morris, Andre Dawson, Jack Clark, Tom Seaver, Tim Raines–became free agents, no one seemed to be interested in their services.  It was a mystery . . . and it didn’t take Sherlock Holmes to figure it out.


Yet again, Miller and the MLBPA shamed the owners in court. The owners (some of whom, such as Bud Selig, are still alive) were found guilty of collusion and had to pay the players $280 million in lost wages. But as Miller astutely pointed out, collusion was a whole lot more than just parsimony, it was a massive, sinister fix:


    Most people have not fully understood what that collusive effort meant, that it was an agreement not to improve your team. It was an agreement that no matter how important these free agents are–superstars available to improve your team, to fill in holes on a team that could otherwise be a pennant contender–it was an agreement you will not under any circumstances make an offer to a free agent no matter how good he is. And that is really a conspiracy to fix the pennant race. And I think that, in terms of scandalous proportions, that collusive conspiracy really was far worse than what is generally conceded to be the worst scandal, the “Black Sox” scandal involving eight players. This involved all 26 owners and all their officials and not for one period but for three consecutive, possibly four years.


Sounds like a tale of fiduciary skullduggery from the era of the coal, oil, and railroad tycoons, doesn’t it? But collusion happened in 1988, not 1888. And it’s one more reason why MLB would like to brush Marvin Miller under the carpet. But while the owners have kept Miller out of the Hall of Fame, they can’t get him out of their craw . . . or their overflowing coffers.


Jacques Barzun famously counseled: “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.”


Absolutely right. And whoever wants to know baseball had better learn about Marvin Miller.

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Patrick Walsh’s articles and poetry have appeared in numerous journals and newspapers both here and abroad.
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He is a columnist and Senior Writer for Scene4.
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©2015 Patrick Walsh
©2015 Publication Scene4 Magazine




October 2015

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