RIP: Marvin Miller

Marvin Miller died yesterday, at the age of ninety-five.  Sports Illustrated’s Jay Jaffe wrote a great obituary, arguing for Miller’s inclusion in the Baseball Hall of Fame.  SI on-line, in their Truth and Rumors column, also discussed free agent pitcher Zack Greinke, who is in demand from a number of teams despite asking for a contract paying something in the neighborhood of 150 million dollars, 25 million a year for 6 years. And on the news this morning, I saw protests outside Walmarts. These three stories are not unrelated.

The three most significant men in baseball history are, in my opinion, Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson and Marvin Miller.  This is not a controversial opinion; in fact the old Dodgers’ announcer Red Barber was the first to suggest it. In 1919, baseball was nearly destroyed by the Black Sox scandal, when eight members of the World Series losing team, the Chicago White Sox, were discovered to have thrown the series–played badly on purpose, paid off by gamblers.  The game’s popularity dropped–attendance collapsed.  That same year, Babe Ruth was sold to the New York Yankees.  Ruth transformed the game, changed it from a game where a good team might hit 35 home runs in a season, to a game where one player might hit 50.  Ruth’s charisma, his energy, his inspiring (if largely fictitious) personal narrative–poor kid from an orphanage makes it big, devotes his time to impoverished and ailing children–his oversized personality and appetites made him America’s greatest celebrity.  The biggest name in the biggest media center.  It saved the game–even a rotten team like the old St. Louis Browns would budget around the 8 home games a season where Ruth’s Yankees would sell out their stadium. As for Jackie Robinson, breaking the color barrier allowed baseball, however gingerly, to begin to move beyond racism, just as the country was poised to start to do the same. A color-blind America remains a work in progress, but Jackie’s courage remains at the heart of one of our greatest inspirational and aspirational narratives.

Marvin Miller’s role remains more equivocal.  He never played the game; he was a labor economist.  He was elected executive director of the Major League Baseball Player Association in 1966, and in his sixteen years at its helm, made it the most successful labor union in the country. Which brings me to Zack Greinke.

Greinke is a very good young pitcher.  He’s now a free agent–before Miller, baseball players were not accorded the right to free agency.  Any team that wants to sign him can do so, and several teams are rich enough to bid for his services.  The price will start at 25 million a year, and will likely go up from there.  If he wants to play, and live and raise his children, in New York, or Boston, or Philadelphia, or Chicago or Los Angeles or Arlington Texas (the most likely suitors), he will have the opportunity to do so.

Should a professional baseball player, a young man in his mid twenties, make that kind of money?  Shouldn’t our country value school teachers or firefighters or military personnel or librarians or playwrights more than we value athletes?  Doesn’t it suggest misplaced priorities, that Zack Greinke be compensated so well?  Shouldn’t we, as a nation, pay teachers more, and pay right handed starting pitchers less?

Well, what about small businessmen?  What if Greinke had devoted his energies and imagination to something other than baseball?  What if he’d invented a new cell phone app, or developed the code for a really nifty video game? Mark Zuckerberg was younger than Greinke when he developed Facebook–do we resent Zuckerberg’s remarkable youthful success?

And it’s helpful to remember what the world of professional baseball was like before Marvin Miller was named director of the MLBPA.  When I was a kid, I collected baseball cards.  You may not get the allure, but for a ten year old kid, there was incredible magic in a small cardboard card with a list of numbers on the back and a picture of Ted Kubiak on the front.  Or best of all, Oscar Gamble. And on the back of each card, in addition to player stats, they included some humanizing detail.  Usually it was their off-season job.  Generations of fans knew Richie Hebner not as a power-hitting third baseman, but as a guy who worked as a grave digger when he wasn’t playing ball. Couldn’t make ends meet otherwise.

One of my favorite baseball books ever is Jim Bouton’s Ball Four.  His salary negotiations, and his frustration and anger over asking for pay raises from employers who held all the cards and who had no interest in dealing fairly with him was one of the main themes of the book.  As fans, we thought our ballplaying heroes were as rich as they were talented, but it simply wasn’t true; a guy like Bouton, who blew his arm out as a youngster, kept pitching through terrible pain because he needed the money. I remember superstar players were part of the ‘$100,000 club,’ a salary stratosphere reached only by a Willie Mays or a Mickie Mantle.  Guys who now have to make a living signing baseballs at fan events.

Bouton also described how unified team owners were against Marvin Miller’s election.  Miller was called ‘a communist.’  Players were pressured to vote against him.  Told he, Miller, would destroy baseball–would destroy their livelihood.  And Marvin Miller’s election was pretty close to unanimous. The players knew.  They knew that baseball’s reserve clause left them in something darn close to indentured servitude.  Well-compensated servitude, for some, perhaps, but servitude nonetheless.  Baseball players could also be traded without having any say in it.  Just told, that new house you just bought in LA?  Guess what, you’ve been traded to Atlanta.  Good luck with the move.  It was tough on marriages, tough on families.  Bobo Newsome, a pretty good old pitcher, was traded sixteen times in his fabled career. Sixteen times, forced to move from a city where he’d begun to set down roots, to a place where he knew no-one.

So what did Marvin Miller do, as head of the union?  He listened, mostly.  He met with players, and heard their stories. He answered their questions, asked a few of his own.  He empowered the players.  The strikes of ’72, ’80, ’81 (and the subsequent bruising work stoppage of ’94-95, after Miller’s tenure had ended) were not his idea–they were player initiated and player driven.  Marvin Miller helped them realize just how strong they really were, just how much power they actually had.  Free agency followed, salary arbitration, and, of course, much improved pay.

Baseball players–and other professional athletes, who formed their own unions after seeing what Miller was doing for baseball– are small businessmen; for each player, his talent is the commodity he offers for sale. What is a baseball player worth?  Well, whatever the market says he’s worth.  The baseball union isn’t communism, as so many owners, baffled to see their powers diminish, were fond of calling it.  It’s capitalism in action, and it’s altogether a good thing.  Do some professional athletes squander their money?  Sure.  It’s a free society, and the ability to hit a baseball does not automatically equate to a talent for money management.  Capitalism can get messy.  Aren’t we constantly reassured by the Right that messiness and inequality are to be expected?

Now Walmart is facing employee discontent, because Walmart pays poorly. So what do we make of Costco, Walmart’s biggest competitor.  Costco pays $17 dollars an hour.  Costco’s CEO makes $350,000 a year.  And Costco has the lowest employee turnover rate, and the lowest losses to employee theft, in all of retailing.

The greatest period of economic growth in our nation’s history came just after WWII; the Truman/Eisenhower/Kennedy years.  Those years were characterized by a very high marginal tax rate (the highest tax rate was 91%) and very strong unions.  And yes, perhaps a post-war period of economic expansion was inevitable, but that was a  post-war time; Europe was shattered, Asia weakened, which meant the US had fewer competitors than now, but also very few customers internationally.

Marvin Miller was a unique figure among labor leaders, heading a group of uniquely talented athletes who were almost preposterously underpaid.  But today, baseball player salaries are huge.  A star often makes hundreds of millions of dollars over his career–heck, a utility infielder can retire a multi-millionaire.  And baseball isn’t the most popular US sport–it’s at best third most popular, after the NFL and the NBA.  So those high salaries, union driven, are destroying the game, right?  Not in the least.  Major league baseball has, as a corporate entity, never been more profitable.  The Dodgers were just sold to a group of investors: purchase price, from Magic Johnson’s ownership group?  Two billion dollars plus.

It goes further.  Right now, in the off-season, baseball fans are glued to their favorite fan websites: who are we going to sign?  What will that portend? Talented young athletes, capable of careers in either baseball or football or basketball are increasingly choosing baseball–longer careers, better pay prospects.  Prosperous ballplayers are bringing their money home, revitalizing impoverished neighborhoods in the Dominican Republic and Mexico and Venezuela.

Baseball’s current prosperity is because of, not in spite of, its strong union. I suggest the same will become true of our overall economy.  We need more Costcos, fewer Walmarts.  There are still lessons we can learn from Marvin Miller.


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