Marvin Miller, the longtime head of the Major League Baseball Players Association who died Tuesday at 95, was no visionary. That was what made him a great man. As he described his own career, in his terrific autobiography A Whole Different Ball Game and in a series of cantankerous interviews in his later years, the revolution he led in American sports was premised on nothing more than an eye for detail, a willingness to let his enemies hang themselves, and a basic sense of right and wrong.
“There was nothing noble about what we did,” he told Yahoo’s Jeff Passan earlier this year. “We did what was right.”
The scope of Miller’s achievements mark him as one of the most significant figures in baseball history, right there with Alexander Cartwright—the closest thing there is to an identifiable inventor of the game—and Branch Rickey, who led the sport’s integration and created the farm system. As outsized as his greatest triumphs were, though—he was more or less directly responsible for the creation of free agency, led the only really successful strikes in the history of American sports, and built what is often described as the most powerful union in the country—his impact is in some ways best described by his smaller victories.
In 1966, when he was elected to run the players’ union, Miller was in some ways too big for the job. An economist and leader in the United Steelworkers union, he had met and directly negotiated with American presidents and been offered both a visiting professorship at Harvard and work directing a long-term study for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Baseball, by contrast, was a backwater. The players were so naïve that he had to explain to them at an early meeting that they were being screwed over because their pensions didn’t have any mechanisms to adjust for inflation. He also warned his soon-to-be constituency that Richard Nixon, a rival for the job, probably had political ambitions beyond heading their union. (Later, he was able to gloat. “I was glad to see he had managed to find work after losing out on the Players Association job,” he wrote of meeting President Nixon in 1969.) When he was finally elected to head the union, newspaper reports didn’t even refer to him as a labor leader; he was instead, according to the Miami Herald, “a liaison and coordinator with Commissioner William Eckert and club owners.”
Any notion that Miller would be a management-friendly patsy like his predecessors was quickly done away with. By the end of 1966, the players had the first real labor agreement in sports; though it only covered pensions and insurance, it marked a beginning. Two years later, he had not only secured an increase in the minimum salary from $6,000 to $10,000—a very big deal at the time, since as of 1967 a third of players were making $10,000 or less—but negotiated a full labor agreement. It codified such common-sense reforms as implementing a formal grievance procedure, so that clubs couldn't discipline players at will, and an understanding that baseball wouldn't make any major rules changes without running them by the players.
The two most notable points here were that Miller had made the owners collectively bargain, something they'd never had to do before, and that he'd held his powder. On reading baseball's infamous reserve clause, which allowed owners to renew player contracts ad infinitum and essentially pay them whatever management wanted, Miller was struck by the fact that its language plainly allowed an owner to renew a contract only once. A ballplayer who played for one year under such a deal and then declined to sign a new one would clearly be a free agent, able to sign with any team he'd like. Rather than pushing this obviously sound interpretation, though, Miller settled for a slower route that would allow the union to amass power and even tried to discourage Curt Flood from his eventually unsuccessful attempt to sue his way out of his blatantly illegal contract.
Where someone else might have put all his energies into demonstratively righting the great wrongs that underlay baseball's economy, Miller focused on the mechanisms of power. The 1968 accord, for instance, won players the right to appeal decisions their teams made to the commissioner. Building on that victory, Miller argued that the commissioner, an agent of management, was not an impartial arbiter and so won, in 1970, the right for players to appeal to a third-party mediator. In the broader context of labor negotiations, this was nothing radical, but the eventual abolition of the reserve clause in 1975, in the case of Andy Messersmith, a player who declined to sign a renewal of his contract, came as a result of a decision made by such a mediator, Peter Seitz. Miller’s great triumph was the direct result of the patient work of winning minor technical concessions.