New York • Marvin Miller, the soft-spoken union head who led baseball players in a series of strikes and legal battles that won free agency, revolutionized sports and turned athletes into multimillionaires, died Tuesday. He was 95.
Miller died at his home in Manhattan at 5:30 a.m., said his daughter Susan Miller. He had been diagnosed with liver cancer in August.
In his 16 years as executive director of the Major League Players Association, starting in 1966, Miller fought owners on many fronts, winning free agency for players in December 1975. He may best be remembered, however, as the man who made the word "strike" stand for something other than a pitched ball.
"All players — past, present and future — owe a debt of gratitude to Marvin, and his influence transcends baseball," current union head Michael Weiner said. "Marvin, without question, is largely responsible for ushering in the modern era of sports, which has resulted in tremendous benefits to players, owners and fans of all sports."
Miller, who retired and became a consultant to the union in 1982, led the first walkout in the game’s history 10 years earlier. On April 5, 1972, signs posted at major league parks simply said: "No Game Today." The strike, which lasted 13 days, was followed by a walkout during spring training in 1976 and a midseason job action that darkened the stadiums for seven weeks in 1981.
Miller’s ascension to the top echelon among sports labor leaders was by no means free from controversy among those he represented. Players from the Los Angeles Dodgers, Atlanta Braves, California Angels and San Francisco Giants opposed his appointment as successor to Milwaukee Circuit Court Judge Robert Cannon, who had counseled them on a part-time but unpaid basis.
Miller overcame the opposition, however, due in part to his personality.
"Some of the player representatives were leery about picking a union man," Hall of Fame pitcher and former U.S. Senator Jim Bunning, a member of the screening committee that recommended Miller, recalled in a 1974 interview. "But he was very articulate ... not the cigar-chewing type some of the guys expected."
Miller recalled that owners "passed the word that if I were selected, goon squads would take over the game. They suggested racketeers and gangsters would swallow baseball. The players expected a ‘dese, dem and dose’ guy. The best thing I had going for me was owner propaganda."
When Miller made a tour of spring training camps in 1966, seeking support from the players, some coaches and managers who were members of the association at that time heckled him and disrupted his sessions.
"A lot of players figured that anyone the owners disliked that much couldn’t be all bad," former club owner Bill Veeck said.
Miller was elected by a vote of 489-136 on April 15, 1966. Baseball had entered a new era, one in which its owners would have to bargain with a union professional.
The owners made it clear that Miller’s election would bring an end to their financial contributions to the association, which had been formed in 1954 because players were disenchanted with the way their pension plan was being administered. Miller insisted he would have asked for the change in any event.
"I told them that if they wanted to make any real headway, they’d have to adopt an independent stance," Miller said.
The players’ association consisted of a $5,400 kitty and battered file cabinet when Miller took the reins shortly after calling baseball’s minimum salary of $7,000 "unreasonably low."
Today the biggest stars earn up to $32 million a season, the average salary is more than $3 million and the major league minimum is $480,000
Baseball salaries increased by nearly 500 percent under Miller’s leadership, more than three times the rate at which manufacturing workers’ wages rose.
Yet baseball’s Hall of Fame repeatedly refused to vote him in.
"I and the union of players have received far more support, publicity, and appreciation from countless fans, former players, writers, scholars, experts in labor management relations, than if the Hall had not embarked on its futile and fraudulent attempt to rewrite history," Miller said after falling one vote shy in December 2010. "It is an amusing anomaly that the Hall of Fame has made me famous by keeping me out."
Miller’s legacy — free agency — represented the most significant off-the-field change in the game’s history. He viewed the reserve clause that bound a player to the team holding his contract as little more than 20th century slavery.
"I had seen some documents in my life, but none like that," Miller said in 1966 after reading a Uniform Player’s Contract.Next Page >
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