How the greatest union man in sports history shaped the games we watch today.
His greatest legacy wasn’t the introduction of free agency, though, but building its structure. By his account, the one thing he genuinely feared was that owners would realize that basic laws of supply and demand applied to their industry. As he wrote:
In the wake of the Messersmith decision it dawned on me, as a terrifying possibility, that the owners might suddenly wake up one day and realize that yearly free agency was the best possible thing for them; that is, if all players became free agents at the end of the year, the market would be flooded, and salaries would be held down. It wouldn’t so much be a matter of the teams bidding against one another for one player as of players competing against each other. … What would we do, I wondered, if just one of the owners was smart enough to figure out the money they would save if all players became free agents every year?
There was such an operator, as it turned out: the iconoclastic Charlie Finley, owner of the Oakland A’s. But no one listened to him.
“All I can imagine,” Miller wrote, “is that they had such a fixation on power, such an abhorrence of the idea of the players winning any kind of freedom, that they refused even to consider an idea that clearly was in their own economic interest.”
Miller was able to negotiate a framework that limited the supply of players coming onto the market every year and so created the mechanism that now allows perfectly average players to earn eight-figure salaries. In this, you see everything that allowed Miller to have such an exceptional impact. He understood that the letter of contracts, and not grandstanding, was what would earn power for his union. He also knew that since he was up against idiots who were more concerned with their own egos than serving their own interests, all he had to do was stand aside and let them destroy their own position.
In his autobiography, there is a scene in which Bowie Kuhn, the commissioner at the time, invites him for a drink at a fancy club and begs for him to take a dive in a coming round of bargaining.
“It’s important for you to understand,” Kuhn says, “you’ve had so many victories. Now the owners need a victory.”
“At this point,” Miller writes, “I was ready for a second drink.”
Miller’s legacy is the destruction of the lordly, feudalist mindset summed up in Kuhn’s pitiful plea and the consequent enrichment of the players. When Miller took over the union in 1966, San Francisco outfielder Bobby Bonds made $6,000, and the team’s top player, Willie Mays, made $100,000, which was the game’s unofficial top salary as it had been for a quarter-century. Before another 25 years had passed, Bonds’ son Barry was on his way to making millions, and playing in a game in which $100,000 was the minimum salary. As Miller liked to point out, these were developments that enriched everyone. Reluctant as some are to admit it even to this day, free agency, which allowed every team a shot at the services of great players, put an end to the days when rich teams like the Yankees could develop dynasties that ran for decades at a time.
This legacy was never officially recognized in Miller’s lifetime. Kuhn, the Wile E. Coyote to Miller’s Road Runner, was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2008; Miller never was. As Miller clearly understood, this reflected poorly on that pitiful institution and “its futile and fraudulent attempt to rewrite history,” not him. Even so, nearly 50 years after he was elected to run the union, Miller’s legacy is still growing. Whenever the unpaid professionals of the NCAA finally find someone to slowly and methodically build the legal mechanisms that will allow them to reap the rewards of their labor, they will, whether they know it or not, be furthering the work of a man who wanted nothing more than for athletes to enjoy their due.