Through the years, I was lucky enough to talk with Marvin Miller on several occasions. Here, in the moments after hearing that he died at age 95, I think of one long conversation in particular. This was 10 years ago. It was 2002. It was when many people believed that baseball would, once again, be ravaged by a strike.
There was, to me, always something surreal about being able to pick up a telephone and just call Marvin Miller and talk baseball. It was, in some odd way, like picking up the phone and calling Copernicus to talk about the universe or calling James Madison to talk about the Constitution or calling J.K. Rowling to ask a few Harry Potter questions. Miller is where it all began. Miller was the sun and the moon of one of the great sports fights of the last 100 years -- the fight for players' rights and players’ salaries.
This was a difficult fight for many reasons -- but perhaps most of all it was difficult because people just didn't think players were being treated too badly in the old days. Hey, they were getting paid for playing baseball (and football and basketball and so on). The lot of them were paid better than the working man, and the best of them were getting paid more than the President of the United States. Yes, they were bought and sold and traded like cattle, and, yes, they simply had to rely on the benevolence of baseball owners when negotiating contracts, and, yes, they had no freedom of movement and could be discarded the instant they had run out of use. But, they got to play a children's game for a living -- it was hard for most people to get beyond that.
Even many players themselves sheepishly accepted the table scraps for the right to play the game they loved. After all, the best thing anyone could say about a player was simply this: "He would play the game for free."
Marvin Miller saw through all of that. He was a hardened union man, through and through, and in a slow and methodical way, he reshaped sports. The timeline is extraordinary.
1966: Elected head of Major League Baseball Players Association. Worked at first on a few basic rights, such as padding walls for player safety. But he always had his eye on bigger things.
1968: Negotiated first collective bargaining agreement ever between players and a league -- won a few rights, such as the first raise of the minimum salary since the 1940s.
1970: The next collective bargaining agreement won the players the right to arbitration -- a way to settle disputes through an impartial third party rather than just allowing the owners the last word.
1975: The reserve clause -- which gave the owners the rights to a player in perpetuity -- was finally knocked down, which led to free agency, which led to an entire shift in the way sports leagues (not just baseball) operated.
In less than 10 years, the system had been turned upside down. Miller had been threatened and insulted, torn apart in the media and targeted by angry owners, but he pulled the union through it all. Of course, the fight was not over, not even close to over -- the union has been running as a powerful entity for the almost 30 years since Miller stepped down.
But the fight had been turned. Players had won the basic right to have their talents valued by the open market rather than by the altruism and goodwill of a single baseball owner. And Miller was the leader. It is astonishing that the man leading the owners during this time, Bowie Kuhn, was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame but Marvin Miller was not. But, in some ways, that's just a remnant of the old fight and the old bitterness.
Even when you list the extraordinary ways in which Marvin Miller helped change baseball, it does not capture the difficulties of the task or the willfulness that was required. Miller had to fight at every turn. He had to fight the owners, of course. He had to fight the fans, many of whom were not with him. He had the fight the media, many of whom were not with him, especially the powerful columnist Dick Young, who wrote about Miller as if he were a cult leader (he would call Miller “Svengali” in his column).
Miller had to fight the players themselves, many who were not with him. He had to be the truest of true believers -- he had to cling to the basic notion that baseball players deserve precisely the same rights as auto workers, even though they were already making so much more money and working under infinitely better conditions than auto workers. He had to believe that what the owners were doing -- stifling opportunity, trampling individual rights, artificially suppressing salaries -- wasn't just unfair, it was un-American.
In this, Marvin Miller was the right man at the right time. He was, no matter what else, a true believer.
* * *
And this is why that 2002 conversation with Miller was so amazing. Because, by 2002, many people believed that the tide had turned, that it was now the players who were too powerful and the owners who were having their rights trampled. There was talk of teams being too poor to meet payroll. There was talk of the players being responsible for the steroid era by refusing to submit to drug testing. There was talk that salaries had gone so out of control that the average fan was being priced out of tickets and many teams in smaller markets simply did not have the money to compete.
It's probably not hard to imagine any of that, since those very conversations go on now, too.
In 2002, there was a potential strike looming. And I called Marvin Miller for a column that would run in The Kansas City Star. He was 85 then. But it’s worth reprinting some of those quotes, because they so clearly show: He was still every bit of the true believer.
"Fans," he told me right off the bat, "have absolutely no right to have any say in the terms and conditions of players."
It was an open challenge in what would be, like all exchanges with Marvin Miller, a frank and pointed conversation. Miller was not giving an inch. He was not giving one-tenth of an inch. As a sportswriter, you are used to dealing with some of the most competitive people on earth. I don't know that I've ever spoken with anyone more competitive than Marvin Miller.
"It's a different world," I suggested.
"No," he said bluntly. "It's the same fight."
"Many fans seem to think the players have become the bad guys," I told him.
"When people tell me that fans are against the players now, I say, 'Who cares?' “They have never given a damn about the players. As is their right. But they didn't care when the players were getting paid peanuts. They didn't care when the players were pieces of property the owners could throw around. Nor was there any fan movement whatsoever when baseball, for I don't know how long, wouldn't hire non-white players, no matter their ability. Where was the fan anger then?"
“There are people who blame the players for not cleaning up the game by submitting to steroid testing,” I challenged.
“Do you want someone searching your car without proper cause?” he asked back. “Your house? No. Of course not. But you think it's fair for people to search your bloodstream or bladder? That's absurd.”
For every question, there was an emphatic answer. For every proposition there was suspicion. For every search for middle ground, there was a powerful push back. But, through it all, I don’t think he raised his voice once. Through it all, I don’t believe he ever said one word that hinted at arrogance or dismissiveness. He was just explaining things, patiently, with some humor, without doubt. Steve Fehr, who has worked with his brother Don as special counsel for the MLBPA and now with the NHL, watched Marvin Miller talk with players many times, and that ability to simply talk with people was what struck him, too.
“He was just so eloquent,” Fehr says. “He could always calmly articulate the situation, whatever it was, and he could talk on the player’s level.”
When I told Miller that people seemed against the MLBPA, he shrugged -- same as it ever was. “People don’t know the issues,” he said. “They don’t understand. Even President Bush doesn’t understand. He said he would be ‘outraged’ if there was a strike. Ask the President if he’s in favor of a tax that would discourage companies from paying higher salaries. Ask him that. He’s as ignorant as the rest of them.”
“You mean the luxury tax.”
“Luxury tax. That’s a very clever name. Luxury tax. It sounds harmless. Of course, that doesn’t describe what it is. It is a penalty, and a large one, which is designed to prevent clubs from hiring people and prevent them from paying people what they should get on the opening market.”
Well, some people would say that the game needs a luxury tax or a soft salary cap to help competitive balance.
“For them to say this is about competitive balance is a lie. And I can prove it to you. They say some teams can’t afford to pay the good players, right? That’s the essence of the competitive balance argument. ... Well, if they cared about competitive balance, they would demand that revenue sharing money go to payroll, right? They would put something in place that ensures everybody that owners will spend that shared money on players. ... The owners share revenue now and almost none of that money goes to payroll. Their whole argument is a lie.”
Some players -- current and former -- seem to feel like the union has already won so many battles, it should be willing to meet the owners more in the middle.
“I remember when we were trying to do away with the reserve clause. I marveled at the fact that something like that could be in players’ contracts. ... But even more, I marveled at the fact that, when I brought it up to the players, they gave me a response which, in effect, said baseball couldn’t survive without it. They had been brainwashed to believe the reserve clause was good for baseball.”
Yes, maybe, but what about fans? They cannot even relate to the money these players make. How can you expect them to relate to the players’ plight?
“I don’t expect that. Fans never have related. Here’s what I would say to that. Fans don’t seem to understand that the largest pocketbook issue that faces them is the tax money being used for essentially free stadiums for wealthy owners. That’s hundreds of millions of dollars in cities where schools are crumbling and highways and bridges need repair.
“Players make what they deserve to make on the open market. That’s all. And let me say this again: Fans have their rights. But they should have nothing to say on what a player earns. I liken it to an automobile company. Somebody might buy six or seven Chevrolets in his life. Automobile companies ought to listen to the things he has to say about how a car looks, how it runs, how it stands up. All important things. But I don’t think a car buyer has any right to have any input whatsoever on the wages and benefits of automobile employees.”
At this point, he dismissed the gloom and doom of some owners -- “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that this or that is the end of baseball,” he said -- and he expressed some disdain for people who decided that the players and owners were equally culpable in their fight. I imagine that he would express that same disdain for people who look at the current hockey fiasco and blame the owners and players both.
“Yes, I hear people say, ‘A plague on both your houses.’ You know what that is? That’s lazy thinking. It’s intellectual dishonesty. That’s people saying, ‘I don’t care about the issues. I don’t care who’s right. It could be that what the owners are offering is terrible, it may be outrageous, but take it anyway because I don’t want a stoppage.’ How awful is that?’”
* * *
No, Marvin Miller never did reform, and never did relent. He lived the twilight years of his life on New York’s Upper East Side, his number still listed, still sharp and engaged. And he lived it believing what he always believed -- that players had to rely on each other, that management is always looking to take something away and that fans didn’t really understand what was at stake.
“Let me tell you a story,” he said that day in 2002. “Joe DiMaggio had two of the greatest back-to-back years ever (in 1936 and 1937). He tried for $40,000 a year. The Yankees, of course, would not give it to him. DiMaggio held out, as futile as that was at the time. Eventually, he had to come back, his tail between his legs. He took what they were offering in the first place.
“When he came back, the fans booed him. OK? You tell me what’s changed.”
Well, a lot has changed -- much of it because of Marvin Miller. You can see the numbers. You can see how much larger player salaries are than they ever were, how much more control players have over their own lives than they ever did.
But Miller never bought it. Some -- even some who greatly admired Miller, such as Bob Costas -- thought Miller could have acknowledged the advances, tempered some of his views, given just a little philosophical ground. But, looking back, no, I don’t think so. He could not have given ground and still been Marvin Miller. He was a true believer to the last. And it’s the true believers who change the world.