Remembering Marvin Miller on Labor Day

Getty Images
26 Comments

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.

Biden praises Braves’ ‘unstoppable, joyful run’ to 2021 win

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
2 Comments

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden said the Atlanta Braves will be “forever known as the upset kings of October” for their improbable 2021 World Series win, as he welcomed the team to the White House for a victory celebration.

Biden called the Braves’ drive an “unstoppable, joyful run.” The team got its White House visit in with just over a week left before the 2022 regular season wraps up and the Major League Baseball playoffs begin again. The Braves trail the New York Mets by 1.5 games in the National League East but have clinched a wildcard spot for the MLB playoffs that begin Oct. 7. Chief Executive Officer Terry McGuirk said he hoped they’d be back to the White House again soon.

In August 2021, the Braves were a mess, playing barely at .500. But then they started winning. And they kept it up, taking the World Series in six games over the Houston Astros.

Biden called their performance of “history’s greatest turnarounds.”

“This team has literally been part of American history for over 150 years,” said Biden. “But none of it came easy … people counting you out. Heck, I know something about being counted out.”

Players lined up on risers behind Biden, grinning and waving to the crowd, but the player most discussed was one who hasn’t been on the team in nearly 50 years and who died last year: Hall of Famer Hank Aaron.

Hammerin’ Hank was the home run king for 33 years, dethroning Babe Ruth with a shot to left field on April 8, 1974. He was one of the most famous players for Atlanta and in baseball history, a clear-eyed chronicler of the hardships thrown his way – from the poverty and segregation of his Alabama youth to the racist threats he faced during his pursuit of one of America’s most hallowed records. He died in January at 86.

“This is team is defined by the courage of Hank Aaron,” Biden said.

McGuirk said Aaron, who held front office positions with the team and was one of Major League Baseball’s few Black executives, was watching over them.

“He’d have been there every step of the way with us if he was here,” McGuirk added.

The president often honors major league and some college sports champions with a White House ceremony, typically a nonpartisan affair in which the commander in chief pays tribute to the champs’ prowess, poses for photos and comes away with a team jersey.

Those visits were highly charged in the previous administration. Many athletes took issue with President Donald Trump’s policies and rhetoric on policing, immigration and more. Trump, for his part, didn’t take kindly to criticism from athletes or their on-field expressions of political opinions.

Under Biden, the tradition appears to be back. He’s hosted the NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks and Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the White House. On Monday he joked about first lady Jill Biden’s Philadelphia allegiances.

“Like every Philly fan, she’s convinced she knows more about everything in sports than anybody else,” he said. He added that he couldn’t be too nice to the Atlanta team because it had just beaten the Phillies the previous night in extra innings.

Press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre was later questioned about the team’s name, particularly as other professional sports teams have moved away from names – like the Cleveland Indians, now the Guardians, and the Washington Redskins, now the Commanders – following years of complaints from Native American groups over the images and symbols.

She said it was important for the country to have the conversation. “And Native American and Indigenous voices – they should be at the center of this conversation,” she said.

Biden supported MLB’s decision to pull the 2021 All-Star Game from Atlanta to protest Georgia’s sweeping new voting law, which critics contend is too restrictive.