Marvin Miller, The Man Who Beat Some Sense Into Baseball

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He was in the phone book. That's the thing that always got me about Marvin Miller, the former head of the MLB players association and the man who pulled baseball out of its crude prehistory. You expect your heroes to be unlisted. You don't expect to find one of them in the white pages, right there between a Marva and a Mary, willing to give 30 minutes to a callow stranger who wants to talk about Jim Bunning or David Stern or Sonia Sotomayor.

Miller died on Tuesday. He was 95. He was a giant of the American labor movement who changed everything about sports. He took a bunch of players who were helpless chattel and turned them into a force that could stand up to the government-abetted monopolists who owned the game. He was blamed for this. There were strikes and lawsuits. He was blackballed from the Hall of Fame. But because of him, baseball, freaking baseball, the oldest and most sclerotic of our sports, is the one that doesn't lose its mind over labor anymore.


Just look around. The day he died was the 73rd day of the second NHL lockout in a decade. Months earlier, Roger Goodell's NFL had locked out its refs, and a year before that, its players. This latter work stoppage came around the same time that David Stern's NBA was locking out its players; two years earlier, it had locked out its refs, too. Miller passed away at a time of galloping employer militancy, and the most amazing thing about it is that baseball, the sport he battled against for so long, was nowhere to be found.

The player lockouts of recent vintage have all been, at bottom, intramural conflicts between the owners—big markets vs. small markets, NFL teams with old stadiums vs. NFL teams with new ones—projected outward onto the help. Unwilling to slap each other around for money, owners chose to bully it out of the players instead. They did it because they could, and they could do it because they were going up against historically weak player unions. You've seen why this is terrible for sports. The inevitable faultlines created by league growth are mapped onto the workforce, and entire seasons get ground up in the tectonic movements that ensue.

But baseball? Consider what MLB did in its CBA year, while every other league was tying its sport to the railroad tracks. Rather than launch a destructive proxy war against the players, the owners quietly went about resolving their own internal differences. The result was an agreement in 2011 whose central achievements included a luxury tax on amateur draft spending and an ingenious new wild-card format. The former offered some protection to baseball's aggrieved small-market teams against the spending power of the big markets, while the latter gave strong incentive to those same small market teams—even the deciduous, salary-shedding A's—not to quit on their customers when July rolled around. Meanwhile, in return for a more open and unruly postseason, big spenders like the Yankees got significant luxury-tax relief.

Miller didn't negotiate these tradeoffs, of course. But the fact that the key concessions in the CBA flowed between big-market owners and small-market owners (and not between management and labor) is a result of the hard-won labor-relations détente that Miller brought about. Baseball accepts that you have to pay money for talent. The league is free to address the underlying problem of who has what money to spend, because Marvin Miller freed them of the fantasy that Prince Fielder could be had on the cheap.


That was why there was always something therapeutic about a conversation with Miller. He was a sharp interview even well into his 90s; there was something of a writer's touch in the way he could call up the telling detail—he remembered, for instance, Ronald Reagan yanking the rubber band off his 3-by-5 index cards during a "farce" of a meeting about drugs in sports. You got off the phone with him feeling centered, all your chakras aligned. In an era presided over by the huckstery likes of Selig and Stern and Goodell, people dedicated to obfuscating those pieces of Miller's legacy they weren't trying to roll back altogether, it was comforting to listen to someone like Miller, someone who looked back on the things he had done in sports, to sports, as settled doctrine. History seemed knowable, even if so much of it was still up for grabs. "Any system that has a salary cap is a disaster," he could say flatly. A few years later, the locked-out NFL players went to great lengths not to say this sort of thing out loud, lest they seem too radical. Miller, though, was free to be correct.