Interviewed by David Davis, July 2003
As the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association from 1966 to 1983, Marvin Miller challenged the assumption that athletes are chattel and that labor unions have no place within sports. Going head-to-head with team owners and commissioners, he emerged with victory after victory that benefited the union. Free agency, arbitration, a decent pension: Miller gained baseball players the rights and salaries commensurate with their place in the game. By the time he retired, Miller had created one of the most powerful unions — sports or otherwise — in America.
Three years ago, The Sporting News ranked Miller fifth on its list of the “100 Most Powerful People in Sports for the 20th Century.”
Earlier this year, Miller was denied entree to Cooperstown, home of baseball’s Hall of Fame. The rejection was especially bitter because many of Miller’s friends (and enemies) expected the doors of the Hall to swing open for him after reforms to the voting structure of the Veterans Committee appeared to enhance his candidacy. He finished with just 35 votes, far short of the 60 votes necessary for election; Miller, now 86, must wait four years until the next election cycle.
Despite the Cooperstown snub, Miller has had a busy summer. He just donated his papers from his labor career to New York University, his alma mater. The cache of 400,000 documents includes correspondence, press clippings, and contracts from Miller’s work in such organizations as the International Association of Machinists, the United Automobile Workers, the United Steelworkers of America, and, of course, the MLBPA. The Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives at NYU is one of the nation’s leading research centers for labor.
On July 20, Miller will gain some revenge on Cooperstown when he is inducted into the Shrine of the Eternals. Administered by a Pasadena, California-based group called the Baseball Reliquary, the so-called “people’s Hall of Fame” annually salutes the game’s rebels, radicals, and reprobates. Besides Miller, the Reliquary will honor left-handed pitcher Jim Abbott and pioneer twirler Ila Borders.
Miller lives in New York City with his wife Terry. He still plays tennis “a couple of times a week,” but had to give up ice skating not long ago after hip-replacement surgery. I chatted with Miller via telephone.
DD: You were born in the Bronx and raised in Brooklyn: growing up, were you a Dodgers fan?
MM: Yes, I was a diehard fan. Ebbets Field was located not far from where my family lived. When I was a boy, bleacher seats were 55 cents. . . . [Pitcher] Dazzy Vance was probably my favorite player. They used to save his pitching assignments for the weekends. In those days, pitchers got three days’ rest. Dazzy got four because he was no longer in his prime. On a good day, he could still mow ‘em down. Fifteen strikeouts were nothing. He had his own personal catcher, a guy by the name of Hank DeBerry.
DD: How did you first get involved in labor?
MM: Indirectly it came through my father. He worked as a salesman in a retail place that sold expensive women’s coats on Division Street in lower Manhattan. I forgot how old I was — probably 10 or 11 — but the retail and wholesale employees started a campaign and organized all the salespeople. And an organizing strike was held. When my father walked the picket line, I went with him.
DD: How did your union work with the War Labor Board — and, later, the machinists and the steelworkers — prepare you for working in baseball?
MM: I was not a novice in baseball. I wasn’t just a fan. I knew all the statistics and batting stances and pitching motions of every player. With respect to what I was hired for: labor relations are labor relations, regardless of the product. What really was new and different [with baseball] was that I was coming into a situation where there was no union nor a history of union activism. The players had an organization, but it was completely dominated by the owners. They didn’t have an office of their own — no staff, no offices, no background. The players had no familiarity with labor relations.
DD: When you were approached for the job by pitcher Robin Roberts, he asked you if you would work with Richard Nixon as your general counsel. How difficult was it to persuade him not to go with Nixon?
MM: I met with Roberts, Jim Bunning, and Harvey Kuenn in December of 1965 in Cleveland. We were hours into the meeting before that bombshell was dropped. It wasn’t meant to be a bombshell. It was a good-faith effort on Roberts’ part. What concerned him was that I was going to have to be voted on by all the players, and his analysis was that many players had no experience with unions and some were fairly hostile to unions. Many of the players were conservative, many were from the south and rural places. Many were from Orange County, in California. . . . He figured that produced a negative unless he would balance the ticket by putting a conservative like Nixon on it. They let me know that Nixon had accepted the idea, that he and his law firm would serve as general counsel.
Well, I swallowed twice and said it would not work, and went on to explain why. That, among other things, this was a small organization. I said, you can’t hire two incompatible people as the only two professionals in the organization. If you had a staff of hundreds, fine, you find a way to work it out. I went on to say that I understood that the pension plan was the most important issue to the players. So, you have to have people familiar with pensions. I said, Nixon wouldn’t know a pension plan from the Empire State Building. Finally, I said that this could be only a short run for Nixon — everyone knew he was running for president of the United States again. He was traveling around the country raising money for Republican candidates. There was a long silence. And I decided the meeting was at an end. I started to leave, then came back and said I’m going to offer you some advice. Whoever gets elected executive director, let him pick the general counsel. It’s got to be someone he’s totally compatible with. Otherwise you’re going to create chaos and undermine your situation.
I went back to Pittsburgh and told my wife and children that I blew it. I said, ‘We’re not going to New York.’ Two weeks, they thought it over. Then they called me and offered me the job.
DD: What was the biggest challenge you faced in organizing the players?
MM: Major league players, if you don’t know them, you tend to think of them as older than they are. They’re very young. And when you think about it, they have almost no work experience beyond baseball. They’re scouted when they’re in high school, they’re drafted and given a contract, and assigned to the minors. So, it was their lack of experience [about workers’ rights and safety issues]. When you’re young and come into a well-established institution, you’re brainwashed that this is the way it’s done. This is the way it is.
Now, it was pretty clear from my initial meeting that the number-one item on their agenda was the pension, almost to the exclusion of everything else. Every time I would interrupt to ask about other problems — the terrible schedule, with day games following night games, the heavy travel — it was like pulling teeth.
DD: Do you consider the ‘72 strike — when the players walked out of spring training — to be the turning point in the development of the union?
MM: It was one of them. I think that their voting for me was the first one. When the owners reneged on a commitment they had made to the players about how the organization was going to be financed [in May 1966] — that was a slap in the face. Another turning point came in 1968, with the renewal of the pension plan. The owners had taken a stand: they were going to expand Major League Baseball by four teams, but not put any more money into the pension plan. Over the course of time, we developed a policy to deal with that.
Then, the ‘72 strike. The importance was the players sticking together. They were so determined, they surprised me. We had been negotiating all winter and into the spring, and I was meeting with the players and the owners all during spring training.
On March 31, in Dallas, I gave the players a full up-to-date report. At that meeting, I felt that a strike would be an error. I didn’t know how so many inexperienced ballplayers would hold together with so little notice. I don’t think they understood what a strike really meant. I told them this: as a fledgling group, you don’t recover from a loss. You could just be terminating this whole thing. I said that we had to consider what we would do: continue playing and negotiating, or call off negotiations at that point and let the pension plan idle for a year and build the necessary might and attitudes for ‘73.
To my surprise, the players said: We strike now. We will weather this, and we will outlast them. It was like no meeting I had ever attended.
DD: You’ve said that the ‘81 strike was the Players Association’s finest hour: how so?
MM: Because that time they knew what it was all about. And they still said, we’re not going to stand for this. Unlike in ‘72, almost all of the players had nothing to gain. They were striking for free agency rights for players to come. The ‘72 strike in part was an enthusiasm and determination of people who didn’t quite know what might happen. The ‘81 strike — they knew.
DD: How would you judge Bowie Kuhn as commissioner?
MM: I was never at odds with him as much as the press would have you believe. Most of the time, we had a fairly affable relationship. Like all commissioners, without exception, Bowie Kuhn had what I call “commissioner-itis.” That is to say, he had this belief that the commissioner rules from on high, that he is the only real neutral party, and that as such he represents the interests of everybody — owners, league officials, umpires, players, minor leaguers, scouts. That’s just not true. He represents one narrow interest: the owners and their profits. He’s an employee of the owners — they pick him, they pay him, they tell him their bidding, and when they’re unhappy they fire him.
DD: How about Peter Ueberroth?
MM: I think Ueberroth was far more practical than Bowie Kuhn, perhaps because his background was not baseball. Whether in his own business or in his stint as head of the Olympic Games, he had to deal with real practicalities and not a lot of mythology.
I think he did some good things. For instance, Bowie Kuhn had banned Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays from Major League Baseball because they were greeters [for a casino] in Atlantic City. That was foolishness to the extreme. Give Ueberroth credit: he overturned that.
With collusion, that was Ueberroth at his low point. That was worse than what the press said it was. I consider that collusion was easily the worst scandal baseball ever had, including the  Black Sox, in that they were rigging pennant races and World Series for four or five years.
DD: How about Fay Vincent?
MM: Fay Vincent is a bright man. He was one of the most practical of the commissioners. But he got “commissioner-itis,” too. He got to the point where he said the owners couldn’t fire him — and he was a lawyer! That was absurd to say when every single one of them but Judge Landis has been fired.
DD: How about Bud Selig? Is he good for baseball?
MM: No. The whole conflict of interest with an owner being commissioner is bad for baseball. And it’s not just the perception of conflict of interest. The leading issue since he became commissioner is that the small-market clubs are victims of the economic structure and can’t compete. As the owner of a small-market team, he has put the pressure on to take money from compatriots and give it to himself and other small-market clubs on the dubious claim that it’s good for business. Well, it’s been good for Bud Selig’s pockets.
DD: Donald Fehr, of course, is now the head of the Players Association. How do you think he’s doing in the job?
MM: I think he’s very capable and very bright. He’s one of the hardest working people I’ve ever known. I think that when people evaluate Don’s work and the recent settlement, they miss an important point. Starting about three-four years ago, we haven’t had a single member player who knew what it was like in baseball before the union. Think about that: not a single member with direct experience. So you have a problem. They think that the great conditions they have are due to. . . Santa Claus and the tooth fairy. They don’t understand the struggle, the necessity of resisting owners’ demands. You have no history to fortify them.
They’ve taken some backwards steps, which they’ve never done before. Whether you’re talking about revenue sharing or the payroll tax, those are backwards steps in that there’s never been a demonstration that they were necessary, and therefore the workers were joining with the employer to put obstacles in the way of payroll improvement. That’s not exactly progressive. But you’re not dealing with an educated membership. I think everything that Don does as a director has to be considered in that light.
DD: Are you still doing consulting work with the Players Association?
MM: Not on any official basis. Just on an informal basis.
DD: Why did you decide to donate your papers to NYU’s Tamiment Library?
MM: It was my wife’s idea. I’m an alumnus — I graduated in 1938. And it’s not just a university library; it’s a labor library and it has become the central collection zone for New York’s unions and national unions.
DD: Did you talk with the Baseball Hall of Fame about donating your papers to Cooperstown?
MM: No, I did not.
DD: The revamping of the Hall of Fame’s Veterans Committee was supposed to mean that a broader range of voices would get to vote. Were you disappointed that you weren’t selected?
MM: The short answer would be yes. But I never expected it. I took one look at the voters and I formed an immediate conclusion that it was not going to happen. Without commenting on the wisdom of that, I’m able to count votes.
First, there’s a whole group of players in the Hall who were pre-union. Worse, they include a fairly significant group who feel that modern players are overpaid. They don’t feel any kinship with the union or anyone connected to it.
Second, people make the mistake of mentioning the block of players [in the Hall who played] during my tenure.
Certainly, they have benefited. But they leave out the large number who currently work for management. These are management people. They were once players, but they are now management. No small matter. Someone like Monte Irvin. He’s a perfectly nice person, a good ballplayer. For 15 years, he worked for Bowie Kuhn. And you can go on and on: Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Stan Musial.
DD: Reggie Jackson said that only baseball players deserve to be in the Hall of Fame. Agree or disagree?
MM: If it were just that, as a concept, I’m not sure I would disagree. But Jackson doesn’t go far enough. You don’t see him saying we should remove Lee MacPhail. Or Judge Landis. Or Charles Comiskey. Or Vin Scully. Reggie Jackson thinks he has an original thought; it’s only a half-assed one.
DD: You are going to be inducted into the Baseball Reliquary’s Shrine of the Eternals on July 20. How does that feel?
MM: I’m enjoying it — it’s fun. I describe the Reliquary to people this way: they honor antiestablishment people. That’s me.