Marvin Miller Dies, but His Labor Legacy Lives On
When Miller took the job in 1966, almost all the power in baseball was the sole purview of the owners. The minimum salary was a mere $6000, and the average salary wasn't much higher. That was decent money back then, but players still had offseason jobs. Negotiating for a raise was made incredibly difficult. Anyone who has read Ball Four saw examples of such hardball negotiations.
Even worse though was the Reserve Clause, located in every single player's contract. The Reserve Clause allowed teams to renew a player's contract every year without the players consent. The player was stuck under contract with one team in perpetuity until that player was traded or released. There was no freedom whatsoever. Many fans don't equate playing baseball with a job, but it is their job, and I can't imagine anyone would like not having the freedom to shop your services around to other employers.
Marvin Miller, who had extensive experience negotiating for steelworkers, knew this labor arrangement was heavily one sided. Before he could tackle the big things though, he first had to convince the players that acting as one was a good idea, as they had been brainwashed for decades that the Reserve Clause was good for baseball and getting rid of it would ruin the game. Miller started small, first negotiating pension plan improvements, an increase in the minimum salary, working condition improvements, and the use of independent arbiters to decide grievances.
In the 1970s though, Miller has gained enough clout through collective bargaining wins (and even getting the owners to bargain in the first place) to start going after the Reverse Clause. Miller first assisted Curt Flood's challenge of the Clause in 1970, which failed in the Supreme Court. In 1975 though, Miller, through pitchers Dave McNally and Andy Messersmith and arbiter Peter Seitz, succeeded. The Reserve Clause was dead, and the players were free. Miller then negotiated the six years of service a player must accrue to earn free agency, the standard that exists to this day.
With the ability to change teams and have their salaries dictated by the market, player salary exploded, as we all know. Many don't think this has helped the game, but that's not really the case. Yes, players are making more money than ever, but so are the teams. Free agency didn't ruin baseball. In fact, it's thrived since. Attendance and revenues are up. Most importantly, despite a contentious past, baseball is the only one of the major sports that has had long term labor peace. The newest CBA was negotiated out of the public eye and agreed to without any of the acrimony seen everywhere else. In an era where management all over try to steamroll labor, in baseball labor and management work together as well as they ever have. Miller did the hard and necessary work to make that happen.
Even so, the complaints are numerous against Miller. Player salaries are blamed for ticket prices, which conveniently forgets that even if salaries dropped, there would be no incentive for teams to lower prices. There are claims that free agency has ended loyalty, which forgets that we can never be sure if players were truly loyal, since they had no way of leaving.
Marvin Miller was far from perfect (he was never for drug testing for one), but his contributions to the game were important and long lasting. Whatever ills in sports now that could be traced back to Miller, real or alleged, the Reserve Clause was far, far worse. Marvin Miller gave the players a voice and a much more equitable say in things, something that to some extent has spread to other sports. His legacy is shown both in every big dollar contract signed by a player and by every new TV deal that puts more money in baseball's coffers. It wasn't easy, and he was demonized for it, but Marvin Miller brought the game of baseball, and sports as whole, into a new era. That is how he should be remembered.