• Marvin Miller, union leader who changed baseball, dies at 95
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     | November 28,2012
     

    Marvin Miller, an economist and labor leader who became one of the most influential figures in baseball history by building the major league players union into a force that revolutionized the game, died Tuesday at his home in New York. He was 95.

    His death was announced by the Major League Baseball Players Association. When Miller was named executive director of that group in 1966, club owners ruled much as they had since the 19th century. The reserve clause in players’ contracts bound them to their teams for as long as the owners wanted them, leaving them with little bargaining power. The minimum salary was $6,000 and had barely budged for two decades. The average salary was $19,000.

    By the time Miller retired at the end of 1982, he had forged one of the strongest unions in America, creating a model for unions in basketball, football and hockey. The average player salary had reached $241,000, the pension plan had become generous, and players had won free agency and were hiring agents to issue their own demands. If they had a grievance, they could turn to an arbitrator.

    And Miller had taken his place among the most important figures in baseball. Peter Seitz, the impartial arbitrator who invalidated the reserve clause and created free agency in 1975, called him “the Moses who had led Baseball’s Children of Israel out of the land of bondage.”

    Still, although his contributions to baseball were considered to be on a par with those of Babe Ruth and Branch Rickey, Miller has not been recognized by the Baseball Hall of Fame.

    In recalling his decision to take charge of the players association, Miller wrote in his memoir “A Whole Different Ball Game” (1991) that “I loved baseball, and I loved a good fight, and, in my mind, ballplayers were among the most exploited workers in America.”

    He had his share of fights. The players went on strike for 13 days in 1972; they were locked out of spring training for almost a month in 1976; they struck for the final eight days of the 1980 exhibition season; then staged a 50-day strike that began in the middle of the 1981 regular season.

    Marvin Julian Miller was born in New York on April 14, 1917, and grew up rooting for the Brooklyn Dodgers. As a youngster he joined his father, Alexander, a salesman for a women’s clothing company on the Lower East Side in Manhattan, in walking a picket line in a union organizing drive.

    Miller graduated from New York University in 1938 with a degree in economics. He resolved labor-management disputes for the National War Labor Board in World War II and later worked for the International Association of Machinists and the United Auto Workers. He joined the staff of the United Steelworkers Union in 1950.

    Late in 1965, there were stirrings within the major league ballplayers’ ranks about the need for improvements in a pension plan implemented by management in 1947. Baseball stars Jim Bunning (later a U.S. senator from Kentucky), Harvey Kuenn and Robin Roberts sought a professional bargainer who would get ballplayers better pensions.

    Miller educated the players to trade-union thinking. In 1968, the union negotiated the first collective bargaining agreement in professional sports. In 1970, players gained the right to have grievances heard by an impartial arbitrator. In 1973, they achieved a limited right to have salary demands subjected to arbitration.

    Miller advised the union as a consultant through his 80s. He spoke out against contractual givebacks and changes in baseball’s economic structure that might weaken the union.

    He is survived by his daughter, Susan Miller; his son, Peter, and a grandson. His wife, Terry, died in 2009.

    As players grew richer, and the baseball figures from his union days faded from the scene, Miller worried that pioneering battles were being forgotten.

    “I do feel a little irked and chagrined when I realize that the players have no idea that it was the union that changed everything,” he told The New York Times in 1999. “What’s taken for granted are the salaries, the perks, free agency rights, salary arbitration rights, all of which were tremendous struggles.”

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