|Marvin Miller spent years blazing the trail that would eventually lead to the advent of free agency. (Getty Images)|
Marvin Miller was equal parts economist, union man, agitator, conscientious objector, revolutionary and pit bull.
He was all parts for the ages.
It is no stretch to place Miller alongside Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson as middle-of-the-lineup hitters in baseball's history of transformative figures. That he was never elected to the Hall of Fame is a blatant injustice.
Ruth single-handedly dragged the game out of the Dead Ball Era. Robinson literally changed its face forever with his first steps into Ebbets Field in April 1947.
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And Miller, the old players-union boss who passed away at 95 on Tuesday, is the godfather of free agency and creator of the modern business model that still guides today's players.
How appropriate that he leaves the bargaining table now, and for good, at the dawn of another winter of the free agency that he engineered.
Look around. Miller's fingerprints are everywhere. He was the original Fantasy Baseball player … only he transformed what in the 1960s most thought were heretical ideas into lasting reality.
As he did, while running the Major League Baseball Players Association from 1966 through 1983, the owners never were quite sure what was hitting them. And they damn sure couldn't figure out how to stop it.
Miller's first glimpse into the primitive way in which the union did “business” resulted in something between stunned disbelief and the giddy idea that this industry was ripe for dramatic change.
Viewing the “modern” player contract in the 1960s, Miller likened it to modern-day slavery. Yes, there is a reason why he came to be known, and quickly, as The Great Emancipator.
But first, as author John Helyar writes in his definitive book on the game's economic history, Lords of the Realm, he became The Great Educator.
As Miller first was consulting with the union and then lobbying to lead it into what became one of the most successful organized labor movements in United States history, Helyar writes:
“He gave them a guided tour of the outmoded standard player contract, pointing out some of its more laughable features. There was, for instance, the provision that called for first-class travel but specified trains. It hadn't been changed since 1945, despite the fact that team train travel had disappeared in the 1950s.”
For the better part of a century, owners had ruled the game with an iron fist and a loose relationship with ethics.
Miller spent years blazing the trail that eventually would lead to the advent of free agency, when pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally refused to sign contracts in 1975 and were backed by arbiter Peter Seitz. His ruling rocked the game … and validated both Miller's belief and strategy.
For years, he had collected salary data. Worked toward a minimum. Negotiated the first collectively bargained Basic Agreement.
Owners refused to share salary information and, long before the digital age, talk about primitive. Miller started the game's revolution by asking players to write down their salaries, anonymously, on scraps of paper so he could at least get a basic idea of what the rough average salary even was.
That only fueled the growing sense of righteous indignation and outrage.
At the time, Ron Fairly was the Dodgers' player representative. And his heretofore chummy relationship with then-Dodgers general manager Buzzie Bavasi was indicative of that between most owners and players.
Bavasi kept up the appearances of open communication, and Fairly gobbled it up. Until Miller's arrival.
“Buzzie Bavasi told me that after Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale and Maury Wills, I was the highest-paid Dodger,” Helyar quotes Fairly in Lords of the Realm. “He said if I got paid more, I would throw the team's salary scale out of whack. Do you know where I rank? Eighth!”
Slowly, painstakingly -- but, most importantly, determinedly -- Miller collected his information and educated the players.
Then, when he started negotiating Basic Agreements, he did so with what he viewed as both the law and the moral high ground on his side.
Baseball's first players strike, in 1972, was called by Miller. So were the strikes in 1980 and 1981. He also provoked owners into calling lockouts in 1973 and 1976.
John Gaherin, a former president of the Publishers' Association of New York City who helped lead that organization through bruising union fights in the 1960s, was recruited by the bewildered owners to aid them in the counter-attack on Miller in the 1970s.
“Miller understood, from a trade-union perspective, that you had to have a contract that applied to the least and the most,” Gaherin says in Helyar's book. “Of course, Marvin always wanted the most, plus a nickel.”
In mowing through the owners during the 1970s and early 1980s, he usually got that … plus a dime.
“All players -- past, present and future -- owe a debt of gratitude to Marvin, and his influence transcends baseball,” current union chief Michael Weiner said in a statement on Tuesday. “The industry has never witnessed a more honorable man, and his passion for helping others and his principled resolve serve as the foundation of the MLBPA to this day.”
Don Fehr, who succeeded Miller as players-union boss in 1983, said Miller “possessed a combination of integrity, intelligence, eloquence, courage and grace that is simply unmatched in my experience.” He added that “without question, Marvin had more positive influence on Major League Baseball than any other person in the last half of the 20th century.”
That, of course, is both accurate … and debatable, depending upon which side of the labor divide you stand. With Miller in charge, baseball player salaries increased by nearly 500 percent, more than three times the rate increase of manufacturing workers' wages.
His positive influence from the players' perspective is categorically true. From management's side, and that of some fans who never came to terms with players coming and going, blowing into town with the breeze and then back out again … “positive influence” is in the eye of the beholder.
In the end, even as Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder are playing under $200 million contracts and, at the other end of the spectrum, rookies get a minimum wage of $480,000, the game still never quite came to terms with a man who always was far ahead of his time.
Even Commissioner Bud Selig came to back Miller as deserving of a place in baseball's Hall of Fame. But Miller was rejected in Veterans' Committee votes in both 2003 and 2007.
Selig rightly said that “the criteria for non-playing personnel is the impact they made on the sport. Therefore, Marvin should be in the Hall of Fame on that basis.” Hall of Famer Hank Aaron strongly agrees, and Hall of Fame Tom Seaver has called Miller's Cooperstown exclusion a “national disgrace.”
Miller? He remained irascible right up until the end. He grumbled that the Veterans' Committee changed its voting rules so it could “rig” the election against him. He blasted corporate pay as recently as April during a speech at New York University School of Law.
When he left us Tuesday, the outsized legacy of this lightning rod of a man was still growing.
And this winter, when Josh Hamilton or Zack Greinke sign the game's next outrageously fat contract, feel free to raise a toast to the ol' union boss … or to shout a curse word in his direction. Throughout an amazingly full life, he fielded each with equal aplomb.