Marvin Miller is often credited with revolutionizing Major League Baseball in particular and professional sports in general. This characterization works if you accept as revolutionary the idea that with regard to the determination of wages, the marketplace should be allowed to function without interference.
In 1966, when Marvin Miller began representing MLB players, he expressed dismay at the document known as the “Uniform Player Contract.” He said, “I had seen some documents in my life, but none like that.”
It took nearly a decade and significant sacrifice on the part of various players, most notably Curt Flood, for Miller to achieve the overthrow of the reserve clause, the part of the player’s contract that deprived pro baseball’s workers of the right to sell their labor for what the market would bear.
When Mr. Miller took over the leadership of the MLB Players’ Association, the owners announced that they would no longer contribute to the players’ pension fund. That wasn’t much of threat, since the previous largesse of the owners had resulted in a fund balance of $5,400, total. In 1966, the salary line on a major league player’s first contract read: $7,000. Miller’s first task was to convince the players that as the best in the world at what they did, they deserved more, especially as the owners were profiting magnificently from their labor under circumstances by which each owner could tell a player who didn’t want to accept the salary he was offered to go find a job in a mine or on a farm. The owners claimed that without the reserve clause, their business would be unsustainable. Miller taught his clients, the courts, and the public at large to see through that lie. Years later he said, “the best thing I had going for me was the owner propaganda.”
Marvin Miller’s efforts helped make numbers of today’s pro athletes wealthy, in part because the owners had to bid against each other for the workers they deemed most desirable. But his more significant contribution to pro athletes in particular and workers in general was to promote the value of organizing and the necessity of solidarity.
There are vast differences between the circumstances of those who play Major League Baseball and those who guide airplanes toward runways or work as cashiers in big box stores. But as the champion of a class of workers who’d been at the mercy of business owners operating a rigged game for almost a century, Miller’s legacy is the example he provided of the energy and determination necessary to—pardon the sports metaphor—level the playing field.