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Once-MLBPA Head Marvin Miller Changed the Landscape of Professional Sports

Photo courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

Imagine a time when a professional baseball player was technically "owned" for life by his team and couldn't play for any other team unless the change was approved by his owner. Professional athletes had few rights beyond whatever their owners granted them—low pay, weak pensions, no real compensation for the wear-and-tear on their bodies, no freedom of movement or ability to determine where they lived or for what team they played. The system made team owners very wealthy off the hard work of the players without allowing the players to share in the revenue their efforts produced.

Think of when teams held players for life and rosters changed very little from year to year. If you were bad one year, you were going to be bad for a long time to come. Teams had little chance of improving themselves by acquiring better players, no matter how much money they had. Professional sports were less competitive and cities all around the country had little hope that their sports heroes would become champions.

This is what the sports world—Major League Baseball, in particular—was like before Marvin Miller came on the scene in 1966. Miller took over the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) that year and developed it into the most powerful union in sports. During that time—and in the years after—Miller's efforts also led to a total overhaul in the way that sports teams treated players and thus led to a revolution in professional sports.

In 1968, Miller was there when baseball players won the first collectively bargained contract in sports history. He was there in 1972 when the first major strike in professional sports history was launched. He was also there in 1972 when former St. Louis Cardinals player Curt Flood unsuccessfully challenged Major League Baseball's reserve clause, which effectively gave teams ownership of players for their professional life. Miller was there in 1975 when the reserve clause was finally eliminated. 

When Miller took over the MLBPA, the average player salary was $14,000. By the time he left, star players were making millions of dollars and the players pension program had become a real pension plan. The average professional baseball player now makes $2.3 million, still a fraction of the money their efforts bring in, but light years ahead of where it was before Miller. 

Miller brought professional baseball players together to fight for their rights and demand a fair share of the fruits of their labor. He ushered in the modern era of free agency that gives players freedom, allows them to choose to work for the team that offers them the best compensation, makes sports more competitive and provides hope and economic benefits to the fans and cities that love the teams. And the effects of his career are felt well beyond baseball—as other professional sports leagues followed in the steps of the Miller-influenced Major League Baseball.

“All players—past, present and future—owe a debt of gratitude to Marvin, and his influence transcends baseball,” MLBPA Executive Director Michael Weiner said in a statement. “Marvin, without question, is largely responsible for ushering in the modern era of sports, which has resulted in tremendous benefits to players, owners and fans of all sports.”

Miller died on Tuesday. He was 95.

Here's the statement by Association of Minor League Umpires (AMLU)/OPEIU Guild 322 President Shaun Francis on the passing of Marvin Miller:

With the passing of Marvin Miller, Minor League Umpires have lost a friend and a labor advocate. Through many years representing Major League players, Miller was an influential and successful union head who lead players in a series of strikes and legal battles. Though he will largely be remembered as an advocate for professional athletes and for his impact on professional sports, his long career in the labor movement makes him a role model for all working people and the organizations that represent them in collective bargaining. He was a mentor and a friend to AMLU and we will always remember his words and advice to our leadership during our 2006 contract fight and his public support for us as professional sports employees that toil out of the limelight. Miller educated us on the importance of solidarity. His legacy will never be forgotten.

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