When the Baseball Hall of Fame holds its induction ceremony in Cooperstown, New York, July 27, three pillars of baseball’s corporate establishment will join the ranks. But the man who freed ballplayers from indentured servitude will not. This is not only a travesty, it’s the result of a coup engineered by the conservative cabal that controls the Hall of Fame.
Baseball owes a huge debt of gratitude to Marvin Miller, who, as director of the players union from 1966 to 1983, dramatically improved players’ pay and working conditions. It’s time for the union and players–Hall of Famers, veterans and current players alike–to speak out on behalf of this baseball and labor pioneer, now 91, before it’s too late.
Miller has been snubbed three times by the Hall of Fame–in 2003, 2007 and this year. The selection committee for executives (non-players who contributed to the game) isn’t scheduled to vote again until late 2009, but the movement to put Miller in the hall should begin now.
Miller, a Bronx native, worked as an economist for the Steelworkers Union before the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) hired him in 1966 as its first full-time director. Union leaders, led by star pitchers Robin Roberts and Jim Bunning (now a Republican US Senator from Kentucky) recruited him to help transform the sport’s outdated labor relations. The owners, and their hired commissioners, fought Miller at every turn. Most sportswriters at the time sided with the management, severely attacking Miller and the very idea of a players union. Even some players, glad just to be getting paid to put on a uniform, initially resisted the idea.
Before Miller, team owners ruled baseball with no pretense of giving players the same rights enjoyed by workers in other industries. Players were tethered to their teams through the reserve clause in every player’s contract. Under the reserve clause, contracts were limited to one season. The contract “reserved” the team’s right to “retain” the player for the next season. Other teams were not permitted to bid for the player and players were not permitted to negotiate with other teams. Teams offered players their contracts on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. Players had no insurance, no real pensions, and awful medical treatment.
With Miller’s guidance, the players association negotiated the first collective bargaining agreement in 1968, which established players’ rights to binding arbitration over salaries and grievances. Players also won the right to have agents to negotiate their contracts. In 1976, they gained the right to become free agents, allowing players to decide for themselves which employer they wanted to work for, to veto proposed trades and to bargain for the best contract. Under Miller, the union won increased per-diem allowances, improvements in travel conditions, better training facilities, locker room conditions and medical treatment.