The BASEBALL RELIQUARY Inc.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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