Marvin Miller: How One Association Leader Changed Baseball Forever

Miller, the Major League Baseball Players Association's leader in the 1970s, died Tuesday. His influence helped popularize the concept of free agency.

You may not know who Marvin Miller is, but if you’ve seen Prince Fielder swing a bat for the Detroit Tigers, you’ve seen his work.

Some athletes will still go broke. But thanks to Marvin Miller, none will have to feel such mortification because their employers systematically robbed them of rightful fortunes, keeping the cash for themselves.

Fielder, who signed a nine-year, $214 million contract with the Tigers in early 2012, joined the team as a result of free agency—a concept that did not exist before Miller took the helm of the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA). The concept tipped the scales in favor of players, many of whom now earn millions more than their predecessors did 50 years ago.

And it wouldn’t exist in any form if not for Miller’s leadership. Here’s how Miller, who died Tuesday at 95, changed baseball forever:

A change in approach: When Miller took the helm of the MLBPA in 1966, he encouraged a new approach for the players, treating the group more like a union. At the time, players were paid a minimum salary of $6,000 (compared with $480,000 today). They were forced to re-sign with their current teams at the end of their contracts and had little recourse in cases of resolving disputes.

Miller’s biggest victory: Encouraging players to work together during labor disputes, Miller helped raise the standard for the industry—first by getting the league to agree to  higher salaries, then allowing for a salary arbitration process. But it was his 1975 deal with the league to allow for free agency—giving players the ability to sign a contract with another team after spending six years in the league—that is Miller’s calling card. It eventually benefited the sport as much as the players themselves. “I never before saw such a win-win situation in my life, where everybody involved in Major League Baseball, both sides of the equation, still continue to set records in terms of revenue and profits and salaries and benefits,” Miller said, according to the Wall Street Journal. By the time he left his post in 1982, the average salary had increased more than tenfold in the 16 years he led the group—from $19,000 to $240,000.

He changed the game … The Washington Post‘s Thomas Boswell calls Miller “the most important man in sports in the past 40 years,” in large part because he helped change the balance of power for professional players everywhere. “Some athletes will still go broke,” Boswell wrote. “But thanks to Marvin Miller, none will have to feel such mortification because their employers systematically robbed them of rightful fortunes, keeping the cash for themselves.”

… but isn’t in the Hall of Fame: Miller has yet to take a place in baseball’s Hall of Fame despite the changes he helped encourage. The moves that Miller made, which structurally changed the game as much if not more than any individual player, may have played a role, according to The New York Times: “With disdain and wit, Miller recognized that as long as his natural enemies—current and former baseball executives—were judging him, the odds of his election were slim,” Richard Sandomir wrote.

Miller’s work in the league helped baseball become something much more than it was in part because he stuck to his guns and pushed for meaningful long-term changes that helped the people in his organization.

How do you uphold similar values in your organization? Let us know in the comments.

(YouTube screenshot)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!