By Steve Silverman
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Hank Aaron once said that Marvin Miller meant nearly as much to baseball as Jackie Robinson.
That assessment is neither overstated nor understated. Aaron was right on the money with his analysis of the former Major League Baseball Players Association executive director. Miller died today after battling cancer at the age of 95.
Miller’s reach in sports went far beyond baseball.
He was able to help major league baseball players win free agency and the ability for major league baseball players to move from one team to another will be the biggest part of his legacy.
If not for the work that Miller and former major league baseball player Curt Flood did, it seems likely that athletes in all sports would continue to be under the thumb of management and unable to move to a new team after finishing a contract.
It was a tough battle for Miller every step of the way. When he was hired by the Major League Baseball Players Association in 1966, he was viewed with a jaundiced eye by many of the players who had hired him. Miller had been a union lawyer in the steel industry.
The players had been informed by owners that Miller’s work in the steel industry had put him in contact with “mob goons” who would infiltrate major league baseball to help players get the message.
Nothing could have been further from the truth. Miller was a highly articulate man of integrity and strength. He realized right from the beginning that he could not do his job well because of the reserve clause that was a part of all major league contracts.
The reserve clause basically tied a player to a major league team for life. If a player’s contract ran out, his team could renew the contract based on the reserve clause. If a team wanted to trade a player, it could do it without asking the player for permission.
Miller knew this was wrong and he knew it was worth fighting. So did former Cardinal outfielder Curt Flood, who was traded by his employer against his will to the Philadelphia Phillies in 1969.
Miller and Flood would challenge this action and their fight went to the Supreme Court. They would eventually lose, but it set the stage for Andy Messersmith-Dave McNally case that turned free agency into reality in baseball.
NHL Players’ Association executive director Donald Fehr eventually replaced Miller as the union head of the MLBPA. He said that Miller’s intellectual strength and character set the stage for players making huge gains against oppressive owners.
“Marvin possessed a combination of integrity, intelligence, eloquence, courage and grace that is simply unmatched in my experience,” Fehr said.
“Without question, Marvin had more positive influence on Major League Baseball than any other person in the last half of the 20th century.”
When Miller took over as the MLBPA chief, the minimum salary in baseball was $6,000 per year. That figure is now $480,000.
All sports now have some form of free agency and it couldn’t have been done without the diligence, strength, intelligence and integrity of Miller.
He set the standard for sports union representation and his work allows all who follow in his footsteps the opportunity to try to reach the goals that he set for representing his constituency.
It seems unlikely that any other sports union leader will do as much for his sport as Miller did for baseball.
He deserves recognition in Baseball’s Hall of Fame, an honor that inexplicably never came his way while he was alive.
Should Miller make the Hall of Fame? Let us know…