Book review: Marvin Miller, Baseball Revolutionary, by Robert F. Burk

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Robert F Burk, Marvin Miller: Baseball Revolutionary, Urbana, Chicago and Springfield: University of Illinois Press, 2015, pp. xii + 332, US $35.00, cloth, ISBN 978-0-252-03875-4.


What is it about?

This is a biography of Marvin Miller (1917 to 2012), who was the Executive Director of the Major League Baseball Players’ Association from 1966 to 1982.

It documents how it took ‘Miller less than two…decades … to usher in a fundamental transformation of American baseball’s labor economics’, and how ‘…he revolutionised not merely the “national pastime” but also the broader universe of professional sports’ (p. viii).


Who will it interest?

This book will be of particular interest to baseball enthusiasts, players, player associations, league and club officials of professional team sports, lawyers (labour and employment in particular), and academics.


Background and synopsis

To appreciate Miller’s baseball legacy it is necessary to understand that Major League Baseball, like all sporting leagues, is a cartel, and historical developments concerning the operation of the market for players. Competing teams need to combine with each other to work out where and when to play and make decisions about the distribution of income to those who provide their services in the production of games and/or league championships. Economic theory abhors cartels. They are viewed as being inefficient/waste resources and provide rents to insiders. Politicians enact antitrust or pro competition legislation to overcome their harmful effects. MLB, however, has enjoyed an exemption from such legislation following a series of Supreme Court decisions.1

In 1879, owners introduced the reserve system whereby they maintained control over players. It morphed into an arrangement where players signed a contract, which granted the owner/club an option to renew the player’s services for a further year. By signing a new contract, players found themselves bound to the club in perpetuity. The reserve system/option clause reduced the economic freedom of players and their income earning potential as they were denied the ability to offer their services to other clubs prepared to employ them. An alternative reading of the option clause was that a player, in effect, signed a two year contract; and if he played out the second year of his contract he would then be a free agent, able to negotiate with all clubs in MLB.

When Miller became its leader the MLBPA was moribund, little more than a company union. He was appointed following concern by leading players over their pension/retirement payments. Such payments were linked to broadcasting income and those players, who anticipated that broadcasting income would increase substantially in the future, decided that they needed a seasoned union negotiator to further their cause in dealings with MLB. Miller had been a fact finder and mediator/arbitrator during World War II, had worked for several unions and had spent the previous decade and a half as a negotiator with the Steelworkers Union of America.

MLB, ensconced in its lazy cartel had no idea what it was in for when Miller sat down from them across the bargaining table. Burk quotes a contemporary who described Miller, who had spent more than two decades immersed in the intricacies of American labor law, as ‘turned loose on an industry that was, in terms of labor relations, naïve and illiterate’ (p. 124).

There are two major keys to Miller’s success. First, was his ability to communicate with members. Players described him as a teacher who clearly explained to them their rights, the economic underpinnings of MLB and outlined the likely consequences of different lines of action. Second, was his competitiveness. Players who attended meetings with him marvelled at his ability to take on who ever represented the owners in negotiations. They saw in him someone who was as competitive off the field as they were on the field.

Miller’s approach was to move cautiously. Despite his belief that the option clause was a two year contract, he believed it would be a waste of time to test it with such a ‘grievance’ being subject to a decision by MLB’s Commissioner, under the then rules governing the operation of MLB. He first needed to get baseball into the mainstream of American labor law. He achieved baseball’s first collective bargaining agreement in 1968, which contained some important concessions for players. A second deal, in 1970, contained an independent grievance procedure.

In 1975, he found two players, Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally, who were prepared to play out their option year. They both claimed they were free agents. The owners disagreed. An independent arbitrator ruled they were.2 In 1976, a new collective bargaining agreement granted players free agency after six years. Having been educated as an economist, Miller wanted to restrict that supply of free agents to drive up wages. And up they went. In 1976, the average wage of players was $51,000; by 1985 it had increased to $372,000 (in 2015 it was $4.25 million).3

In his final chapters Burk points to controversy surrounding the non-election of Miller to Baseball’s Hall of Fame. While Miller feigned nonchalance about not being so elected, a not so close reading between the lines of Burk’s account indicates that Miller felt slighted by his non-inclusion. In 2003 he was asked, if he found his way into Baseball’s Hall of Fame what wording would he like the plaque, honouring his election, to contain. He replied (p. 285):

"He was the leader of the first true union in the history of the game, and working closely with the players he helped form the structure of what had been termed one of the strongest and best unions in the country. And contrary to certain beliefs, the arrival of the players union coincided with, and was instrumental in, the greatest prosperity and expansion the game has ever seen."



Robert F. Burk has published two excellent studies on the conduct of industrial relations in MLB. The first dealt with the period 1860 to 1920, the second 1921 to 2000.4

In this biography, he draws on Papers of Miller and his wife Theresa (Terry) deposited at New York University, sixteen interviews conducted with Miller in the period November 2005 to September 2006, a book published by Miller in 19915 and a multitude of other sources.6

Burk provides a detailed, clear, and accessible account of the various stages and developments in Miller’s life. He is at much at home with the details of life in New York of the latter part of the Nineteenth Century and the early decades of the Twentieth Century as he explains the circumstances of his Jewish émigré family adapting to the new world; the development of his social awareness and concern for the plight of the needy during the depression of the 1930s; his secondary and college education and attaining an economics degree; his war time jobs and interest in left wing social democratic politics; his movement into the labor area - first as a mediator/arbitrator and then a union official; his involvement in negotiations of sophisticated profit sharing schemes in the steel industry in the 1960s; and the numerous twists and turns of his years in baseball.

In all, the biography provides readers with a highly developed sense of who Marvin Miller was, his beliefs and what motivated him. Burk has produced what will be regarded as the definitive work on Marvin Miller, baseball’s revolutionary.


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