I was fortunate enough to be invited to the Marvin Miller memorial on January 21 and when I say fortunate, I really do mean that. Much of my professional attitude towards sports came from interviewing people like Marvin Miller, Peter Ueberroth, Pete Rozelle, Larry O’Brien, Larry Fleisher, John Ziegler, Don Fehr, Gene Orza, Harry Usher, Ed Garvey, Jack Donlan, Gene Upshaw, Russell Granik, Sonny Werblin, Gary Bettman, Tom Reich and many other power people.
Sports is a business, nothing more and nothing less. There is nothing scared about sports.
Marvin Miller was disliked by baseball owners and a great many baseball writers, housemen like Dick Young. He was going to destroy the great game of baseball and that made him a bad guy. My dealing with Marvin was rather limited because I was getting started and he was retiring. But by 1985, Marvin and I developed a nice professional relationship.
Marvin Miller entered baseball in 1966. He was not necessarily the first choice of the players as Robin Roberts explained many years later.
Miller came to the baseball industry almost by accident. Roberts, Harvey Kuenn and Jim Bunning were looking for an Executive Director of the Major League Baseball Players Association when Roberts decided to call George Taylor, an economics professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.
Roberts read that Taylor was a mediator who was called into the White House when a labor situation arose and needed to be discussed. And, the sitting President felt it was worth his time to invest a call into Taylor.
Ironically, Roberts never met Taylor face to face, but it was Roberts and Taylor who changed the game of baseball.
“We were talking about getting an Executive Director and we thought about different guys, but none of them really rung a bell with me,” said Roberts. “So I asked a professor at the Wharton School, and I called him on the phone and told him what we wanted and he said he’d call me back. He was going to a labor meeting out in California.
“He called me and said he had two guys in mind: Lane Kirkland and Marvin Miller. He said I haven’t talked to either one of them, but I will call you when I do.”
True to his word, Taylor called back Roberts and delivered mixed news.
“Lane Kirkland isn’t interested, but Marvin might be, he’d like to talk about it,” said Roberts.
Kirkland would eventually be the president of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) from 1979-1995. In 1960, he became executive assistant to George Meany, then president of the AFL-CIO and was performing that job when Taylor contacted him.
“When I called George Taylor, I told him who I was and he said, ‘I know who you are, I follow baseball’. That’s how Marvin Miller was initially contacted. For Marvin to have been chosen and everything, he had to go through all the clubs. He did that all on his own,” said Roberts.
“But I was probably his biggest backer, because I knew the importance of having him and I was basically concerned about the television contract because that was the player’s pension money. Also involved was the licensing thing that was staring to blossom.
“And Marvin didn’t really understand the licensing business, but he was smart enough to get somebody to help him and set it up right.”
The introduction of Marvin Miller, an economist and negotiator from the Steelworkers Union, on the baseball scene was not well received by the owners. But interestingly enough, players had some questions about bringing in someone to head the union who might have a poor relationship with the owners.
“I got out of baseball, Marvin was fully accredited in 1966, maybe 1967 but I got out of baseball nobody would sign me. I went to work in 1967. Jim Bunning was on the original committee that were talking about these directors. Jim, Harvey Kuenn and I met with Marvin in Cleveland with our initial contact.
“But Jim Bunning called me – I was in the investment business in Philadelphia – and said we are having a meeting in New York and some of the guys are after your boy.”
“I said well what do you want me to do Jim? He said would you come and attend the meeting, now I was out of baseball. So I rode the train over in the morning on a Saturday. The meeting was going to be at the Biltmore Hotel, so I went in and sat in the back.
“There was some conversation. I think there were a couple of clubs that were convincing their players that Marvin wasn’t going to be good for them. I was listening to the discussion and I was sitting next to Milt Pappas who had been a teammate with Baltimore and I asked Milt to introduce me to the group. He said Robin would like to talk to you.”
It was Roberts’ speech that convinced the players to stick with Robin, and Roberts’ pitch was simple. The pension and the licensing monies were too great and the players needed someone they could trust to manage the monies.
“I explained how the pension idea and the licensing thing were two big things for the ball players,” Roberts said. “There was no way this was going to interfere with anything as far as club owners were concerned; you can still have a relationship individually. What happened, a lot of guys had a good relationship with their club owners and they thought this was wrong because they were making nice money, but they were on friendly terms with club owners.
“A lot of club owners were that way. If a guy played well for them, they treated them nice.
“After I got up and spoke and I left and I went back to the train station to go back to Philly. Davey Johnson was Baltimore’s rep. He had come running into the train station, I had known him and I had played with Baltimore. He said, well that meeting is over, you ended that meeting.
“Evidently that was the only time there was an attempt by some players to get rid of Marvin. After that, he was in charge the rest of the way. His influence on baseball was fantastic.”
Jim Kaat was at that New York meeting.
“Actually, the central issue that Marvin went after was always the pension plan,” said Kaat. “Nowadays, you would not think that but the pension plan in the 1960s was much more important to the players than salary. Because in those days, if you projected to when you were 55 or 60 years old and you could draw $30,000 a year in a pension plan…a lot of players weren’t making that much money in salaries.
“That’s how he kept everyone together. If you talk to Marvin, he will reiterate that. It was a big issue.”
Kaat came up to the major leagues with the Washington Senators in 1959 and was with the Twins when Miller entered the picture in 1966.
In 1966, the players were tied to their teams because of the reserve clause. The maximum salary was about $100,000, and that was doled out to the Mickey Mantle-, Willie Mays-type players. There was no salary arbitration, and there was no free agency.
The owners controlled the game, and the players had little say in their careers. Today, the players have free agency as well as arbitration, and the rise in salaries has been astronomical. But in 1966, getting all of those benefits seemed as likely as man reaching the moon by the end of the sixties.
“It was a combination of getting organized as a players association with all the television revenue that came into the game,” said Kaat. “It gave the players an awful lot of strength. The owners didn’t have a lot of foresight in what this was going to be.”
Kaat said one of the best things that happened to Major League Baseball players was having A. B. (Happy) Chandler, the Commissioner in the late 1940s and early 1950s, lobbying to get the players a pension. Chandler was elected to the Hall of Fame by the Veteran’s Committee in 1982.
“He said the players should have a percentage of the television revenues from the All Star Game receipts. He didn’t last too long, and the owners burned him out in a hurry. He was one of the few commissioners who stuck up for the players,” Kaat laughed.
Kaat went on strike in 1972 with his major league association members over the percentage of television revenues that went into the pension plan. That strike lasted nine days, and the players got their percentage guaranteed.
“Marvin used the pension plan as the cornerstone. He got all the stars with a few exceptions. The Cubs had a very good owner in Mr. Wrigley, a player friendly owner. And so did the Red Sox in Mr. Yawkey. They were a little tougher sell.
“But we had a big rally in New York City in the late 1960s with Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell. You had all of these stars saying we won’t give in. They stayed together and that encouraged all of the players to stay together.
That generation gave away to Bill Madlock and the players of the 1970s and 1980s.
“We started off with the Andy Messersmith decision,” said Madlock of his introduction to Miller.
Messersmith and Dave McNally were granted free agency by an arbitrator and that opened the floodgates in the mid-1970s for player freedom.
“It just got better and better. I think the owners got intimidated by him. They knew very few guys could get these millionaire players together as one. There was no hesitation; what he said we did.”
Madlock said Miller explained all the options to the players that were available to them and let the players decide.
“He did not try to make the decision for us,” Madlock said. “He would put out all the information and what affect it would have, not only then but five or 10 years down the road. He made it very simple.”
Marvin Miller came into baseball about 20 years after players began seeking some basic rights.
When Bob Feller came to the major leagues in 1936 as an 18-year-old pitcher for the Cleveland Indians, players had no freedom. Maybe a Babe Ruth could command a huge salary, but the Babe was bigger than the game. Feller had a choice of 16 teams when he signed, but once the signature went on the contract, he was an Indians employee for life or until a General Manager decided he could not use his services anymore.
“Before the war, the Reserve Clause kept the players on the same ball club. Unless you had clout maybe like Hank Greenberg, Babe Ruth or Lou Gehrig and many other players of consequences on teams. They had some leverage in their salaries and it made a big difference at that time,” said Feller. “After the war we started the pension plan.”
In Mexico, Jorge Pasquel was making plans after the war to boost Mexican baseball and bring the best players in the world to play baseball in Mexico. Pasquel bought the Club Azules de Vera Cruz baseball team in the Mexican League. Pasquel signed Satchel Paige in 1938. Pasquel also added three players who would eventually be enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, Josh Gibson, Ray Dandridge and Monte Irvin. Pasquel took many of the Negro Leagues best players and by 1946; he was raiding Major League Baseball.
The Mexican signings of major league players included Junior Stephens, Sal Maglie, Hal Lanier, Mickey Owen and others. Pasquel brothers made a run at Phil Rizzuto, Ted Williams, Feller and Stan Musial but their plan ultimately collapsed.
“They wanted to get the players who jumped to Mexico back here,” Feller said. “Pasquel down there. He was a dictator. He and his four brothers (Bernardo, Mario, Gerardo and Alfonso) ran the country. George Pasquel, I knew him quite well. I played ball for him in 1947 in October against teams in Mexico. So Happy Chandler and Larry McPhail figured out they had to give the players a pension plan and get the players back. They gave them (the players who jumped to Mexico) amnesty.
“At that time, Johnny Murphy of the American League, a relief pitcher with the Yankees and a very good one and Dixie Walker of the Dodgers was the National League representative. It was the first time the players were allowed to have their own representatives. They had to be active players and one a roster. That started the pension plan and they had $800,000 on the pension plan. Television made the baseball players pension plan.”
World War II was a turning point for the American and National Leagues. Returning players put their life on the line in Europe and in the Pacific and they were no longer afraid of owners who controlled every aspect of their professional athletic life.
The Pittsburgh Pirates nearly became the first team in the 20th Century to strike over working conditions. In 1946, a Boston attorney named Robert Murphy tried to organize Major League Baseball Players.
“It all started in 1946 after World War II,” said Ralph Kiner who was a young player with the Pirates at the time. “There was a guy named Bob Murphy who organized a players union and he picked the Pittsburgh Pirates as a place to start because Pittsburgh was a highly unionized city at that time. I was involved as a player then and I later on became the National League representative.
“It was a matter of fact that the players got no money. It was in the aftermath of World War II, where black players were coming into the game and the minimum salary was nothing. Like two or three thousand dollars a year. They wanted to get more money and in 1947, the minimum went to $5,000 a year and the players wanted to have other benefits like better playing conditions, and better dugouts.”
But, Major League owners really did not react to Murphy’s threats. The biggest problem was coming from Mexico where the Mexican League was flexing its muscle.
“One thing that started the whole beginning of the pension plan was the Pasquel Brothers in Mexico who offered large amounts of money to some of the players to jump from the ranks of professional baseball in the states to Mexico. That didn’t work, but it started the beginning of unionized baseball.”
While Mexico was becoming a problem, it was just a matter of time before Major League Baseball was going to be desegregated. The Brooklyn Dodgers did sign Jackie Robinson to break the color barrier, but there was more to the story than just signing Robinson to right a social wrong. It came down to plain old dollars and cents.
It was economics that also crashed the color barrier.
“I don’t think Branch Rickey should get the credit,” said Kiner. “There was a movement at the time that they were going to bring black players into the game. He jumped the gun and got Jackie Robinson.
“But the reason for Branch Rickey obtaining and bringing black players in was economical. He didn’t have to pay the black players any money to sign them and they were bought from the Negro Leagues at that time and Robinson was the choice. Rickey was the man who picked Robinson and that was a brilliant choice.”
Teams could get black players on the cheap, because black players were just grateful to get the chance.
“It was just another part of the changeover of baseball. It had to happen sooner or later. It was really an aftermath of World War II where the black players, or as they were called in those days, the Negroes, fought for our side. They had to be recognized,” said Kiner.
Baseball was fighting on two fronts in 1946. There was the threat of Pasquel signing big names, and the players were no longer just happy to put on a big league baseball uniform. They wanted to share in the revenues.
Pittsburgh was the top target because it was a huge union city loaded with steelworkers. The very same steelworkers that Marvin Miller would join in 1950 as an associate director of research and in 1960 would become the Assistant to the President of the United Steelworkers of America.
“We had a vote, we were going to strike on the field and not play against the New York Giants. We had a vote whether or not we were going to unionize and the vote failed. We ended up playing that game. It took a long time to unionize.
In 1953, the pension plan became a hot topic again. Kiner and Allie Reynolds hired New York attorney J. Norman Lewis to represent the player’s interests and Lewis went to work on gaining increases in player’s pensions.
The players proposed increases from $50 to $80 a month for five year players and from $100 to $150 a month for 10 year players, and that pension payments begin at 45 instead of the age of 50. The players also wanted to make sure that the pension plan was funded by the Baseball’s Central Fund and that money from radio, Television, gate receipts from the All-Star Game and World Series TV and Radio rights fees were funneled into the Central Fund.
An agreement between the players and owners was struck on February 16, 1954, with the players getting 60 percent of the monies generated from radio, television, gate receipts from the All-Star Game and World Series TV and Radio rights fees were funneled into the Central Fund.
The players also asked for changes in winter ball regulations, the elimination of twi-night double headers, a hike in the minimum salary from $5,000 to $8,000 and that eight year players get the same benefits as 10 year veterans.
The owners upped the minimum salary to $6,000, gave the players $8 a day in meal money and provided moving expenses for traded players at other meetings.
Miller entered a business were the owners had all the power and the players were perpetually stuck to one team until the owner decided to get rid of the player. Miller was the biggest threat that baseball owners ever encountered because he knew baseball was a business and not a game, even if the Supreme Court ruled that baseball was a game and not an interstate business in 1922.
He changed working conditions that seemed to have been established in the 1870s, even though some players sought change later in the 19th century and failed.
Miller changed my attitude towards sports, and for me that was a good thing. He explained one day to me that it was a business just like any other and players should have the same rights as any other worker. Players are entitled to their worth because there was just a few who could work in the business of major league baseball. Today, maybe 900 people out of the billions who are alive can play major league baseball, a very small percentage of people skilled enough to be hired.
Players getting what they were worth?
That was a dangerous thought to baseball in the 1960s. The sixties are considered a time of cultural change in the United States, and Marvin Miller was part of that change. The “radical” union leader who to this day still earns of scorn of baseball owners and executives, old time fans and some others because of what he did. Miller changed baseball at the same time Billie Jean King was changing women’s tennis, black athletes were taking political stands and the National Football League owners were reaping benefits of lobbying on Capitol Hill to grow their business. The times were a changin’.
Evan Weiner can be reached at email@example.com His e-book, “The Business and Politics of Sports, Second Edition” is available at www.bickley.com and Amazon.com and another e-book, America’s Passion: How a Coal Miner’s Game Became the NFL in the 20th Century is available at www.smashwords.com