On Tuesday,November 26.2012, a great Bronx-born but Brooklyn-bred American Jewish hero, Marvin Miller died. The Malach Hamoves (Angel of Death) claimed him at age 95. His daughter Susan cited liver cancer as the cause but, denied elevation to Baseball’s Hall of Fame, Miller, an outstanding economist and labor leader, may have succumbed to a broken heart.
Several years prior, at the Workmen’s Circle building, I shared a podium with this protean figure. Deeply honored and almost speechless, I greeted him in Yiddish. Why? According to my late mother, at the Workmen’s Circle — home of mame loshen (mother tongue) –one must speak Yiddish. Moreover, I pointed out that baseball’s peerless union leader, Marvin Miller owes his success to the Golden rule, that is to say the Harry Golden rule. Dress British. Think Yiddish.
To this paradigm, add a social conscience, rooted in trade union culture, grounded in prophetic tradition, and leavened with core values — and you have an unbeatable force. Marvin Miller recalled that his father worked in lower Manhattan dispensing tsadaka (charity) and wisdom in Chinese, English, and Yiddish.
As I informed veteran labor leader Henry Foner, who helped to organize the Miller tribute, I, a Yankee fan, did not deserve this koved, high honor to sit among these giants. Then again, neither do I deserve arthritis, asthma, diverticulitis, allergies, and a host of other tsores (woes). Enough of this breast beating and teeth gnashing, however; let us now praise famous men.
The Sporting News listed Miller as #5 among the top 100 most powerful people in 20th century American sports. In 1994, Sports Illustrated ranked Miller as #7 in the top 40 most influential figures in sports, placing him ahead of Wayne Gretsky, Arnold Palmer, Larry Bird, and Pete Rozelle. Walter Lanier “Red” (a reference to hair pigmentation, not political persuasion) Barber identified Marvin Miller, along with Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson, as one of the three most important men in baseball. Of this trinity, only Miller is excluded from the Hall of Fame. That’s where he belongs! His leadership of the Major League Baseball Players Association from 1966 to 1982 and in 1984 brought the “diamond workers” to full dignity, contractual freedom, monetary rewards, and occupational safety.
I will spare you the Disraeli (and later Churchillian) bête noir: that triad of “lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Let’s look at the record. Born in the Bronx, Miller grew up in Brooklyn. Mother Gertrude taught public school while father, Abraham, peddled his wares in Manhattan. Marvin graduated from Brooklyn’s James Madison High School, where he will be inducted into the school’s hall of fame this October, and from which he graduated in 1932, Marvin attended college in Ohio (Why-oh, Why-oh did you ever leave for Miami of Ohio?), but finished at NYU in 1936, the same year he met his future wife, Theresa Morgenstern. Married for almost 70 years, The Millers had two children: son Peter born in 1945 and daughter Susan who arrived in 1949. Peter lives in Japan and is married to a Japanese woman. They have one son. Marvin’s work resume included a stint of government service during World War II, and work with the Machinists’ Union, the UAW, and the Steelworkers Union from 1950 to 1964 as staff economist, chief economist, advisor, and assistant to union president David McDonald. In 1966, ace pitchers as well as energetic player-union leaders, Robin Roberts and Jim Bunning urged Marvin Miller to head their fledgling union after Judge Cannon (a management shill) spurned their offer. Through careful planning coupled with labor savvy, Miller won over dissidents and crafted a united front resulting in a progression of victories including raises in both minimum wage and average salary, improvements in safety standards, better fringe benefits, and increased pension allotments.
As Miller recounted in an illuminating memoir, his first major decision was to nix Nixon as the union’s legal counsel. Then he took on the Topps Chewing Gum Co., which was paying only $125 per player for highly valuable memorabilia, namely, baseball cards. Applying muscle, Miller managed to wrest huge residuals for the hitherto exploited players. By the end of 1966, the increasingly confident Miller had secured an agreement which brought 4.1 million in annual funds (up from 1.5 million) for the players’ retirement plan. This Basic Agreement also doubled prior monthly disability and pension payments. Miller accepted a flat sum, rather than a percentage, from All-Star and World Series proceeds. Through it all, Miller listened, learned, and educated. Slowly, he convinced the players of their importance in the baseball scene.
Inviting a list of grievances (cahiers), Miller heard about the lack of safety in Crosley Field, the fleabag hotels on the road, the doubleheaders after night games, and the need for more outlets for hair-dryers. Advising the “angries” to “cool” it, Miller morphed into a Great Educator as well as Great Emancipator. He demanded — and received — data on salaries. Then he acted in concert with union members who started their movement with a $344 annual dues payment. Dodger owner Walter O’Malley (according to writer Pete Hamill, the third most evil man in the last century following in the wake of Hitler and Stalin) bellowed: “Tell that Jewish boy to get back to Brooklyn.”
The first comprehensive agreement, signed in February, 1968, raised minimum salaries from 6,000 to 10,000 dollars and directed the arbitration of grievances to the Commissioner. When the latter, William “Spike” Eckert, sided with the players on one issue, he was promptly fired: paving the way for Bowie Kuhn to take charge. Kuhn persuaded the owners to compromise and a strike was averted in 1969. That same year, an irate Curt Flood refused to be bartered from the Cardinals to the Phillies. Kuhn sat on his status quo. And so, with the full support of Miller and the MLPA, Flood sued. Initiated in 1970, Flood’s litigation culminated in a wrongful 1972 decision in which the Supreme Court ruled against him, 5 to 3.
Nevertheless, the artful Miller secured a second Basic Agreement from baseball’s “Lords” which raised minimum salaries in graduated steps: to $12,000 in ’72 and $15,000 in ’75. It also reduced the maximum pay cut in a single year to from 30% to 20%. Finally the Basic Agreement provided for impartial arbitration of grievances, thereby bypassing the Commissioner’s office. When the owners attempted to block additional union progress, the players called a general strike, their first ever, on 1 April 1972. They were not fooling. The strike lasted for 13 days and cost 86 games. Once more, the owners capitulated. The pension payments were pegged to inflation and rose accordingly.
March 1973 produced another Basic Agreement containing impressive gains. Minimum salaries rose to $16,000. The “Flood Rule” led to a 10-year option (five with the same club) that empowered the veteran players to reject trades. Of equal importance, the Agreement provided for impartial salary arbitration. In 1975, Miller chalked up additional victories by freeing Jim “Catfish” Hunter from the clutches of Charlie Finley because the Oakland owner had failed to comply with contractual obligations. Realizing that clause 10B of the Uniform Players Contract provided a paving block toward free agency, Miller launched an assault on the reserve clause with Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally as frontline litigants. Free agency was upheld initially by a three-person arbitration panel and subsequently, the Supreme Court. The players, to echo Dr. King, were “free at last.” Since 1922, baseball players had been yoked to a team for life via a “reserve clause” because of a horrendous judicial decision handed down by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, no less. In a 7-2 verdict, Holmes spoke for the majority when he ruled that baseball was a sport, not a business thereby “starting”– in Miller’s trenchant words—“a whitewash of the baseball monopoly.” Finally, the infamous Holmes decision of 1922 was dead in judicial waters as well.
The “Lords of Baseball”– in John Helyard’s descriptive phrase — tried to turn back the clock by manufacturing a lockout in 1976 and seeking compensation for free agents in 1981, only to be defeated again by player solidarity that culminated in a strike on June 12, 1981. It lasted 50 days with a loss of 713 games. A compromise settlement permitted teams to protect 24 players and a gain of one player in the amateur draft for a player lost to another club. Miller had ample cause to take pride in these achievements. All that remains is for him to gain entry into Baseball’s Valhalla: here in Cooperstown. The “Lords” evidently underestimated Marvin Miller whose calm demeanor “belied a ferociously tenacious personality.” Economist Andrew Goodman correctly observed that Miller’s other contributions, less familiar to baseball aficionados, led to greater safety. These largely ignored innovations included “improved scheduling and padded outfield walls, better-defined warning tracks, and safer locker rooms.” Moreover, Arthur Ashe asserted that Marvin Miller had contributed “more for the welfare of black athletes than anyone else.”
As educator as well as liberator, Marvin Miller has much to teach us if we would only listen and learn. I conclude, as I began, with a confessional cast in mame loshen (mother tongue):
Man fun arbeit oifgevacht
Un darken dein groyse macht
Ven dein shtarker hant nor vil
Bleiben alle raider shtil
As translated by actor, singer, and activist Theodore Bikel:
Now awake, the end’s in sight
See your power, feel your might
Were it not for your strong hand
Not a wheel would turn in the all the land.
Thank you, Marvin J. Miller. You brought baseball and its workmen out of the wilderness into full dignity as well as ample compensation: freedom from indentured servitude to realization of the American dream.