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Remembering Marvin Miller on Labor Day

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As I have noted several times over the past several years, Labor Day is the only major holiday Major League Baseball refuses to recognize. Oh, it knows it’s Labor Day — it happily schedules a bunch of Monday day games to take financial advantage of people who have the day off — but it doesn’t give a rip about the purpose of the holiday. Mostly because it doesn’t give a rip about labor in general. At every turn, Major League Baseball and its owners have sought to run roughshod over its workers, be they players, front office staff, stadium employees, you name it. 

But they haven’t always won. Indeed, for a long time, the owners got their butts handed to them by the Major League Baseball Players Association which, from 1966 until 1982, was led by Marvin Miller. 

A lot of people have asked me how Major League Baseball could, it it wanted to, recognize workers on Labor Day. That’s not an easy question to answer, as Labor Day is more of a reflective holiday than a celebratory one. But if the league did ever want to recognize the contributions of its workers — from the star center fielder all the way down to the peanut vendor — it could start, perhaps, by paying tribute to Marvin Miller in some fashion. 

Given that the league has never done that and likely never will, I’ll do so here, with a remembrance of Miller I first wrote at the time of his passing in November 2012

 

It is impossible to overstate Miller’s impact on Major League Baseball. While some — including Hall of Fame voters — have long given Miller short shrift (or piled on utter disdain), baseball today cannot be understood without understanding Marvin Miller’s contributions. He was a truly transformative figure who, after Jackie Robinson, did more to correct the excesses and injustices delivered onto players by baseball’s ruling class than anyone.

When Miller took over as the head of the MLBPA in 1966 there was no free agency. Players were told by ownership what they would make the following year and if they didn’t like it, tough. They couldn’t switch teams. They couldn’t do what any other worker can do and shop their services elsewhere. They were stuck thanks to baseball’s reserve clause and the ridiculous Supreme Court decision which exempted baseball and its owners from the antitrust laws.

Miller took all of that on and he won. He started small, negotiating the union’s first collective bargaining agreement with the team owners in 1968, which raised the game’s minimum salary from $6,000 to $10,000. In 1970 he got the owners to agree to arbitration for the first time. In 1970 Curt Flood, with Miller’s support and guidance, challenged baseball’s antitrust exemption — and the dreaded reserve clause, which kept players tied to one team against their wishes — in the courts. Flood ultimately lost that case in the landmark 1972 Supreme Court decision. The decision did not, however, blunt Miller’s resolve, and he took his fight to other forums.

In 1974 he exploited a loophole — and an oversight by Oakland Athletics owner Charlie O. Finley — to get Catfish Hunter free agency and baseball’s first $1 million contract.  Up next: the whole enchilada. In 1974, he got Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally to play out the season without contracts, placing them in cross-hairs of the reserve clause and giving them standing to fight the provision in arbitration. In 1975 they won, with the Seitz Decision ushering in the age of free agency. Baseball players’ indentured servitude was over.

In all Miller led the union through three work stoppages: two short ones — 1972 and in spring training 1980 — and then the long, season-altering strike in 1981.  In all three stoppages the union prevailed. Overall during his tenure the average players’ salary rose from $19,000 to $241,000 a year and their working conditions improved dramatically. It is no understatement to say that Miller turned the MLBPA into the most effective and successful labor union in the United States. Not just in sports: in the entire United States.

Miller, however, paid a cost for these victories, being snubbed repeatedly in Hall of Fame voting.  Baseball’s executives — who played a part in his voting — resented him. Some still do, even though he’s been dead for years. Some players on the Veteran’s Committee who came before the era of free agency did as well.  Miller never helped his own case, of course — he was at terms feisty, abrasive and mostly dismissive of the Hall of Fame and his own candidacy for it — but his exclusion is nonetheless a travesty. This is especially true given that so many executives and owners who did so much to harm players’ well-being through greed, racism and other vile impulses have been welcomed in to Cooperstown with open arms.

Whether or not Miller ever makes the Hall of Fame, baseball would not be what it is today, both as a business and a game, without Marvin Miller. Indeed, you can count the people who have made as great or greater a contribution than Miller to the context in which the game is played on one hand. In this regard his legacy is inviolate.

The game will never see his like again. Would that the powers that be in Major League Baseball acknowledge that and, in some way, big or small, make note of it somehow.

Pressure is on Phillies to finally spend “stupid money”

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For the Phillies, the term “stupid money” has defined their offseason. Coined in November when owner John Middleton said, “We’re going into this [offseason] expecting to spend money, and maybe even be a little bit stupid about it.” While Middleton caught himself, adding, “We just prefer not to be completely stupid,” it was a rare promise — especially these days — by a team owner appearing to actually commit to spending money. Austerity measures, it seems, have been implemented by most other front offices across the league.

One of two bombshells finally dropped on Tuesday: infielder Manny Machado reportedly signed a 10-year, $300 million contract with the Padres. The deal also apparently includes an opt-out clause after the fifth year. The other bombshell, of course, is free agent outfielder Bryce Harper.

While the Phillies have been more strongly linked to the superstar Harper, the club’s connection to Machado could not be overlooked. Several prominent members of the front office, including president Andy MacPhail and GM Matt Klentak, worked with Machado during his years in Baltimore. Upon learning today’s news, Klentak said (via Matt Gelb of The Athletic), “If the reports are true, this contract will exceed our valuation. Sometimes you have to walk away.”

The Phillies, mind you, spent the last five years actively and publicly rebuilding, which included a complete overhaul of the front office. All of that losing was designed to have the club be built up just in time for this offseason, featuring two mega-free agents in Machado and Harper. There are free agents every year. Few of them are of Machado and Harper’s caliber and at the age of 26. The free agent market has stagnated in recent years, in part, due to more analytics-focused front offices being hesitant to pay players lots of money beyond their prime years. Machado and Harper still have plenty of prime years left and, arguably, may not have even entered their primes yet. As far as free agency goes, there are no better bets than Machado or Harper.

So, the pressure is now on the Phillies to go get Harper and live up to Middleton’s “stupid money” proclamation. Despite adding J.T. Realmuto, Andrew McCutchen, David Robertson, and Jean Segura this offseason, PECOTA still projects the Phillies to finish tied for third place in the NL East at 85-77, just four games behind the projected first-place Nationals. The whole point of rebuilding is to avoid being an 85-win team, teetering on playoff contention. To these more analytically-oriented front offices, it’s either boom or bust. Failing to get Harper would not only make the spurt of activity over the last four months and the entire rebuilding scheme pointless, it would be a slap in the face to fans who endured the pitiful quality of play the club has shown over the last half-decade. Klentak, hired after the 2015 season, subjected fans to things like Jeanmar Gomez, closer; Rhys Hoskins, left fielder; and whatever the heck you call the last three editions of the starting rotation beyond Aaron Nola.

If the Phillies do fail to sign Harper, Klentak will likely say something similar to what he said today, that Harper’s ask didn’t match up with their internal valuations. There will be claims that the Phillies can still spend “stupid money” elsewhere in free agency, like going on a binge and signing Craig Kimbrel, Marwin González, and Dallas Keuchel. No one player left in free agency is a better bet than Harper and no group of players would impact the Phillies’ strength relative to their competitors more than Harper alone would. For the Phillies, it is now Harper-or-bust, and fans should revolt if the club opens the regular season not having signed a free agent superstar.