If there’s one thing that baseball players of all generations can agree upon, it is Marvin Miller’s place in the history of the game.
Dozens of current and former players attended a memorial service for Miller, the former head of the players union who passed away last November at 95. Under Miller’s leadership, the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) transformed into one of the most powerful labor unions in the country, winning numerous concessions that have led to the widespread popularity enjoyed by the players and owners of today’s game.
Despite these accomplishments, Marvin Miller has been passed over for induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame on five different occasions – a fact that has outraged current and former players alike.
The Power of Labor
Originally formed in 1953, the MLBPA was a very disorganized organization that had very little impact when it came to negotiating for the rights of players in its first 13 years of existence. But everything changed when Miller, a former lead negotiator for the United Steelworkers, took over as Executive Director in 1966. Within two years, Miller had negotiated the MLBPA’s first-ever collective bargaining agreement, which notably increased the game’s minimum salary for the first time in two decades.
Miller would successfully negotiate more rights for the players during his entire 17-year tenure as head of the union, organizing five different work stoppages and uniting the players like never before.
His greatest accomplishment, however, was the abolition of the hated reserve clause, a system in which players were signed to one-year contracts that could be renewed by an organization as long as they saw fit, effectively making the player the property of the team until the team did not want them anymore. This system would be abolished following the 1975 season in favor of free agency, resulting in unprecedented player movement and a dramatic increase in salary for the players across baseball.
Miller’s work as head of the MLBPA inspired similar movements and negotiations, and by 1989 free agency was the norm in every professional sport. Essentially, Marvin Miller played a major role in ushering in the modern era of athletics.
Critics of Miller claim that free agency has ruined the game by driving up salaries that price out fans while creating an uneven playing field in which the rich franchises always win championship. He has also been accused of killing player loyalty to a team, as so few players ever spend their entire careers with one organization.
This overlooks the fact that staying with the team was not the choice of the player to begin with, as the old reserve clause essentially made that player the property of the team for as long as the team saw fit. Players stayed with a team not out of loyalty, but because they had no other option.
Besides, one-team careers were never that common to begin with; of the 237 players in the Baseball Hall of Fame, only 47 spent their entire MLB careers with a single franchise.
And while player salaries have certainly gone up, the idea that Miller’s actions resulted in fans being priced out of baseball games is demonstrably false, as evidenced by the fact that the last nine seasons have resulted in the nine highest attendance numbers in the history of the game.
Free agency also brought about more parity in the game, not less; 27 of the 30 MLB franchises have reached the World Series at least once since the reserve clause was abolished following the 1975 season, with 20 teams winning at least one championship. By comparison, the NFL has had 26 different Super Bowl participants and 14 champions during that same time period, while the NBA is at 20 and 12. This is true despite the fact that the NFL and NBA have always allowed more teams in their playoffs than MLB.
The Baseball Hall of Fame is a museum dedicated to preserving the history of the game while honoring the players and executives who have had the greatest impact on and off the field.
And with the possible exception of Branch Rickey, no other executive has had a greater impact on baseball – or professional sports, for that matter – than Marvin Miller. Current and former players are united in supporting his case; even Miller’s former foes (Bud Selig among them) acknowledge his impact on the game as a whole.
This December, Marvin Miller will once again be on the Hall of Fame ballot. There is simply no excuse for the Veterans Committee not to induct him.