Remembering a Baseball Icon
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Remembering a Baseball Icon

Marvin Miller changed professional sports by helping build baseball’s player union. Rich Sandomir is here from our sports desk. Good morning, Rich.

Hi Peter, how are you?

So, there’s a lot of coverage about Marvin Miller this morning. There’s an obit, you have a nice story about whether he should be in the hall of fame or not, and then Fay Vincent, the former commissioner, has a wonderful remembrance of his old friend. But there’s another article in The Times about Andy Pettitte’s contract, the Yankees pitcher, and that even though he went 5 and 4 last year, he’s going to sign a $10 million contract for next season. And, based on everything I read this morning, it seems like he has Marvin Miller to thank for that.

Oh, virtually every player has Marvin Miller to thank for their contracts. You know, average salary was so small in 1966, and now it’s so big—over $3 million a year. You know, one year, $10 million, well, that’s a great…it’s one of the legacies of Marvin Miller that players are paid maybe more than they’re worth. Back when he took over, they were under paid and they were bound by the reserve clause, which basically meant that owners could keep them in renewable one year deals and there was no freedom.

Right, you hear the phrase Indentured Servants, was effectively what they were.
And take us back to the late 60s, early 70s and what did Marvin Miller do to really change the way in which professional athletes were paid?

Well, first he brought his skills as a trade unionist from the United Steel Workers union to baseball. And players weren’t used to this, players were really wary of this. They were told for so many years that they should be happy to be payed for playing a little boy’s game. But he won their trust. And by doing that, he got them united in three strikes—none of them as big as one that killed the 1994 World Series— but he won arbitration, grievance arbitration, salary arbitration and then, ultimately, probably the piece de resistance, winning free agency through arbitration. So, you know, by 1975-76, everything had changed and within 10 years, everything had changed. And, you know, there will always be some owners who didn’t join the free agency, but that became one way that players were acquired and baseball did not get economically ruined as _ and the commissioner at the time declared, as many owners declared. Marvin Miller changed everything and he was, in effect, the real commissioner.

Yeah. And one of the most powerful people in all of professional sports. Here we are in 2012, and there’s, you know, a hockey lock out and it looks like there might not even be a hockey season and we were talking before, that this is directly attributable to a lot of the changes that Marvin Miller brought on.

And certainly, the Hockey union is led by Donald Feiger, who was one of Marvin’s successors and was, I believe, his general counsel for a brief period of time. Don learned the lessons of Marvin Miller which was to earn the trust of your players, and certainly, by the time fear came to the hockey union, they understood union but they had not been as effectively represented as they probably are now. Marvin Miller set that template and he did it a kind of urbane, sophisticated, very wary and cautious way. He wasn’t a blustering union guy. He didn’t sit there with a cigar in his mouth. He had a carefully manicured mustache. He was a very classy guy who became, probably a darling for the press because he was available, he was immensely quotable, and he had a case to make that seemed so much more modern than the ancient case of the owners who wanted to keep players stuck in the reserve clause.

Yeah, it sounds like you and others had a really nice both professional and personal relationship with him. And before we came on, you were telling me a fun story involving Richard Nixon.

Well, in 1966, Robin Roberts, one of the leaders of the players union who had helped bring Marvin Miller into the fold said, “you know, we know you don’t like his politics, but would you know, Nixon is interested in the General Counsel job, would you go to meet him?” And Marvin Miller probably had no intention of hiring Richard Nixon, who was a republican, Marvin was a democrat. And so he goes to Nixon’s apartment, they have a lovely conversation, Nixon never brings up the job. But he said “Marvin, if you ever need my help, I know the owners very well.” And Marvin thought to himself, Yeah, I bet you do. So they met three years later, after Nixon was president, and Marvin wrote in his book “I’m glad to see he got gainful employment by that time”.

It’s a great story. Thanks so much for coming on this morning, Rich.

My pleasure.

That’s all for now, but please join my colleague David Gillen at 1pm for a look at media and technology. Stay with us at for more. I’m Peter Lattman and you’re watching the New York Times. Goodbye.


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