NEW YORK - Longtime Dodgers broadcaster Red Barber once said that, along with Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson, Marvin Miller was one of the most important men in baseball history. It's possible that Barber wasn't reaching far enough with his statement. In terms of relations between players and owners, Marvin Miller is one of the most important figures in American sports history.
When Marvin Miller selected as the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players' Association on March 5, 1966, rumblings of dissent were starting to be heard among baseball players. The average Major League salary was $19,000, and the hated reserve clause, binding players to their teams for as long as the teams chose, was still on the books, despite many attempts to overturn it in courts. In short, the owners had all the power.
Upon his selection, Miller said he would take it slowly at first, trying to get a feel for what players wanted. In reality, he did no such thing. By 1968, he had already negotiated a collective bargaining agreement with owners, the first one in the sport's history, and had upped the minimum salary from $6,000 to $10,000 a year. Then in 1970, he got owners to agree to independent arbitration in salary disputes, a huge step for labor negotiations. Before, any salary disputes were settled by the Commissioner, who was hired by the owners. This meant the owners won virtually all arbitration cases. Now with a neutral arbiter in the mix, the players had a fighting chance.
With momentum on his side, Miller continued to make gains for player freedom. After the Oakland A's didn't honor a stipulation in Catfish Hunter's contract in 1974, Miller helped the fight to void the contract. An arbiter ruled in Hunter's favor, making him the first de facto free agent. Later that year, Miller made his biggest move yet, finally causing the reserve clause to disappear from Major League contracts.
The reserve clause, as enforced since the 1800s, stated that a team held exclusive rights to a player for one full year after their last contract, basically stating that players could not sign with any other teams without their original teams' consent. Miller found a way around that by convincing Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally to play the 1975 season without a contract. After the year was done, Miller presented the case to an arbiter that Messersmith and McNally were now free to sign with any team, as they had honored the reserve clause. The arbiter agreed, and free agency was born.
Miller served as executive director of the MLBPA from 1966 through 1982. During that time, the average Major League salary increased from $19,000 to $240,000 a year and the MLBPA became one of the strongest unions in America.
Miller has yet to be elected to the Hall of Fame, mostly because team executives, bitter at having been repeatedly crushed in the courtroom by Miller, have blocked his induction. Baseball players are almost unanimous in their belief that Miller belongs, as they should be. In fact, players from all American professional sports leagues should give thanks to Miller for what he did for American athletes.