The importance of Marvin Miller

John Brattain, the longtime Hardball Times writer who died in 2009, could never be accused of waffling. He knew baseball, he knew his mind, and he let his readers know what he knew, forcefully. With the death of Marvin Miller this week, we thought this example of John’s insight about Miller’s place in history would be timely and appropriate. It originally appeared March 23, 2007, under the title “Mirror Mirror.”

The death of former commissioner Bowie Kuhn caused a lot of reflection in baseball circles about his contributions (or lack thereof) to the sport. Kuhn will always be linked in the minds of many to his foil—Marvin Miller, former executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association.

There has been only one other link between management and labor in MLB that has endured as long as Kuhn-Miller, and that’s Bud Selig and Don Fehr.

After giving it some rare thought, it hit me: It appears that the roles played by Kuhn-Miller have been reversed by Selig-Fehr.

How so?

When Kuhn was elected commissioner pro-tem in the late 1960s, the commissioner’s office was the final authority in MLB. The position was backed by court decisions, congressional inaction regarding those decisions, and the inevitable situation when the way things have been done over time is given the unofficial coronation as “the status quo.”

When backed by the clubs, the commissioner was judge, jury and executioner and this situation was accepted by all within the game regardless of the illogic and lack of fairness that it produced. When Kuhn became commissioner, he felt he now possessed the big stick—to be used mostly against erring players and sometimes against management. This big stick was called “the best interests of baseball.”

When Miller was elected executive director of the MLBPA, the players’ rights were whatever the clubs said they were. There was no free agency, there was no salary arbitration, there was no collective bargaining, and if a player had a grievance against management, he had to appeal to management’s handpicked leader to hope for justice. Since baseball was exempt from anti-trust laws, it could blacklist players at will and impose any penalties it saw fit. The player could accept that or find a different line of work.

How could Miller help the players become empowered in that environment? He had only one option: Forge a rock-solid, united bloc among the players. He needed to get all the players—scrub and superstar alike—on the same page and form a consensus. Miller knew that absent the players there was no game. He needed all the players to realize that and develop positions that all felt they could be 100 percent committed on.

While Miller went through the painstaking process of educating the players and forming a consensus, the owners, led by Kuhn, simply relied on the “big stick” they had wielded for so long. However, with a united MLBPA and labor law being brought into the game for the first time, players made progress. First, they got a formal grievance procedure installed (albeit a flawed one—the commissioner was the ultimate arbiter) followed by a legitimate one with real neutral arbitrators.

Aided by men like Curt Flood, who helped show the public how unfair MLB’s system was, Miller made genuine progress. Finally, arbitrator Peter Seitz decided that the option rule (known as 10A) was good for one year only, rather than perpetually), and free agency came to the game in 1976.

The strike of 1981 cemented player free agent rights and now the players had arbitration decisions supported by the courts. They had, through consensus, become fully empowered.

Through this period, led mostly by Kuhn, owners simply tried to swing “the big stick” as they had, feeling that it would be enough to push the tide back. Their inflexibility and devotion to the status quo, coupled by a lack of consensus among themselves (due to differing economic interests) made management about as mobile and maneuverable as Benjie Molina with a pulled hamstring. Their approach and structure was no match for the forces of consensus forged by Miller among the players. The big stick had been broken.

Over time, through the strike of 1985, the lockout of 1990 and the strike of 1994-95, the power of the union became unquestioned and assumed. It had become the status quo. Baseball would be played only on the MLBPA’s terms. It had been the other way around in the days when Ford Frick, Spike Eckert and Kuhn were commissioners. There was a new big stick—the power of the MLBPA.

Since then, Miller had retired and Don Fehr came to head the MLBPA. Fehr was there through the tenures of commissioners Peter Ueberroth, Bart Giamatti and Fay Vincent as well as the final days of Kuhn. Commissioners came and went while Don Fehr and the big stick remained.

Owners wanted testing for recreational drugs. Fehr swung the stick.
Owners attempted to collude. Fehr swung the stick.
Owners attempted to do away with salary arbitration. Fehr swung the stick.
Owners tried to implement a salary cap. Fehr swung the stick.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

The stick, like the one called “the best interests of baseball” used by commissioners, became an assumed power. It became a security blanket for the players much the same way it had served as one for the owners. Management no longer needed to see the possible logic in the players’ proposals. Fehr and Gene Orza wanted to see how high the salary bar could be pushed and if an obstacle got in the way, the stick was swung.

The owners, who certainly deserve little sympathy, had some legitimate points. After all, how could a small market team assemble a contending roster when its best arbitration-eligible talent cost what comparable talent cost in big markets, even though it didn’t have big-market revenues? Wasn’t the system designed to give a team six years of service from talent it developed? Yet some teams had to deal their best talent to their very competitors because they had the same expenses as large market teams but not the same revenues.

Nobody would ever suggest that if somebody bought a piece of property for $10 million in downtown Manhattan, a comparable piece of property in Kansas City now costs $10 million.

However that was baseball. Fehr didn’t see want to see the logic; he just wanted the salary bar pushed higher so he swung the stick. Fehr suggested if places like Montreal or Pittsburgh couldn’t afford New York prices then they should be moved or sold to somebody willing to pay New York money for Pittsburgh property.

The players never worried about their position. They had the stick.

Then the players and their union, like the owners pre-Miller, became complacent.

Now enters a character who, in the place and time, seemed unlikely to amount to much in the current environment. Marvin Miller didn’t seem like much of a threat—he was a middle-aged man who mostly worked as an economist in various labor organizations. Who was he to become anything significant in the realm of major league baseball? In the same way, another man once sold used cars. He bought a bankrupt team and moved it to his home town. His team never won a World Series and only had a single pennant to his credit.

Bud Selig. Or Bud Lite as he was known in certain circles.

When he became temporary acting commissioner after the firing of Fay Vincent, he seemed hardly a threat to the monolith of the MLBPA—no more a threat than Miller had seemed in the late 1960s. Indeed, it seemed little more than a joke. After a disaster in Kohler where ownership first attempted to forge a revenue sharing agreement, it appeared that Selig would be impotent in the role of commissioner.

Selig, however, shared two qualities of Marvin Miller: He was patient and he saw the power of consensus. He knew that power could defeat the big stick; he had seen it happen in his own time in MLB.

Slowly, gradually, he got the owners together. He increased revenues and made sure they were shared. He got the fractious ownership group to share more traditional revenue. He showed them the power of consensus. He settled for small gains here and there. Selig gained the other owners’ confidence. Even though 1994-95 was nothing short of a disaster, he proved to owners that they could stick together—much the same way the players learned the same lesson during the mass holdout of 1969 and the strike of 1972.

Selig tinkered with the game: three divisions, a wild card, inter-league play. He strong-armed communities into building luxurious ballparks for his cabal. The owners were learning the lesson Miller had taught the players: If they listened, and learned, this guy could make them some serious coin if they got with the program.

Fehr and Orza yawned. They had the big stick. They had something else. They had become complacent. They had become so fixated on pushing up the salary bar that they ignored issues important to a large segment of their membership—on their wants and needs.

While Selig was building, players were signing $20+ million-a-year contracts. Some players were earning $25 million, others $300,000. Fehr ignored the rumblings of players who didn’t understand the issues in 1994-95 and why they were on strike. They were on strike because they were told that’s what they had to do; nobody explained to them why they should risk their careers where they were making $115,000 year and had to compete in every spring training for a major league job just so a handful of guys could make $7 million a year rather than $6 million.

Fehr didn’t have to explain. When you have the big stick, explanations become unnecessary. The MLBPA was the most powerful labor union on earth. The MLBPA had turned indentured servants into multi-millionaires. That’s all the explanation you need, son—now do your part. While this was going on, Selig was patiently bringing the owners together.

Marvin Miller predicted that when one side becomes complacent, the other side grows bolder, and that holding your place, marking time, attempting to maintain the status quo was an invitation to be shoved backwards. He also felt that the reason the MLBPA usually kicked ownership’s butts was because the owners didn’t learn from history.

Fehr has done both. He let the union become complacent. He also forgot what gave the union victory over ownership: consensus and the fact that money splintered ownership interests. Alex Rodriguez might make $27 million next year while a number of rookies and journeymen will earn $380,000. Fehr didn’t feel that salary stratification would create problems, despite history demonstrating conclusively that it was a big hinderance to unity. Fehr was so focused on the salary bar that he had no idea how his membership felt on the steroid issue.

Think about that: The use of performance-enhancing drugs was a huge issue to players, yet Fehr and Orza had no idea what the real members of the MLBPA—the players themselves—thought about it. What are the chances they’ve spoken to players about “lesser” issues players face?

There. Is. No. Consensus. In. The. MLBPA.

A large number of players have never been part of a work stoppage. Only a handful were affected by collusion. More and more players are coming in from around the world. How many of them have been educated about the importance of the union and its history? How many know how the current system came to be and the sacrifices made? What does the modern player know about his sport? They’re taught: Get a good agent, get teams bidding and watch the money roll in.

Now things are starting to swing back the other way. There are restrictions on salaries. There is revenue sharing. There is significant drug testing. To be sure, some came from outside pressures but make no mistake: Don Fehr knows that his big stick is starting to splinter. Selig has discovered the power of consensus and the MLBPA isn’t as powerful.

As much as it shocks me to type this, it appears the roles played by Marvin Miller and Bowie Kuhn have been reversed. The man with the big stick is Don Fehr. The man gaining power over a seemingly overwhelmingly powerful opponent by patiently teaching his employers the power of consensus and unity is Bud Selig.


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