Nov 28

The House That Marvin Built: Reflections on the Legacy of Marvin Miller

A baseball card created for the April 24, 2012 event at NYU Law honoring Marvin Miller.

I was saddened yesterday afternoon to hear of the passing of Marvin Miller.  I had the pleasure of seeing Marvin speak at a reception in his honor at NYU Law this past April[1], and I was blown away by his poise, his intelligence, his humor, his grace, and his ability to command a room.  Asked after the event what it had been like to hear him speak, the description I used each time was that it had been like watching a “ninety-pound giant.”

Marvin took the reins of the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) in 1966[2] when it was little more than a company union[3] with coffers totaling $5,000[4].  Although it had been in existence since 1947[5], it was not until he took it over that the MLBPA became a traditional labor union[6].  From the beginning, Marvin used the experience he had gained during his career with the Steelworkers Union to demonstrate to the owners that their dealings with the players would no longer be business as usual.  Over the course of negotiating his first two collective bargaining agreements on behalf of the players, Marvin secured the right to have an impartial arbitrator decide grievances, a key right in the unionized environment[7].

Marvin also guided the players through the 1972 strike, the first that had occurred in baseball in sixty years[8].  Negotiations, which were centered on health benefits and pensions, began early that year and seemed to be proceeding positively until the owners suddenly changed their position and pulled their initial offers off the table[9].  Although at first Marvin supported the idea that the players should strike, when he stepped back to see the big picture it became clear that a strike at that point in time could hurt the players[10].  Despite the change in his recommendation the players voted overwhelmingly in favor of going on strike and ultimately were able to obtain the benefits they wanted[11].

If you pick up a newspaper, browse an online news source, or log on to Facebook or Twitter, you will eventually become aware that right now we are in the midst the time of year when free agents are almost exclusively the talk of the baseball world.  There are countless articles written by national and regional reporters about which players are free agents, how available free agents compare to players currently on the local team’s roster, which players teams are trying to sign to extensions to prevent impending free agency, and so on.  None of these articles would have come to be written without a few key individuals in baseball history, including Marvin Miller, Curt Flood, Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally.  In fact, without these individuals the free agency system would not exist.

Beginning in the late-1800s, owners utilized a reserve system, which prevented players from moving between teams unless sold by the team who held the player’s contract, in order to keep control over players[12].  The reserve system was unsuccessfully challenged by Flood through an antitrust action and later successfully challenged by Messersmith and McNally through arbitration[13].  Providing guidance and leadership through both challenges was Marvin, for whom the cornerstone of the MLBPA was obtaining freedom for players to have ownership of their careers[14].  Although there are players today who choose to play (or express a desire to play) for only one team during their career, notably Chipper Jones of the Atlanta Braves, Derek Jeter and Bernie Williams of the New York Yankees, David Wright of the New York Mets, Cal Ripken, Jr. of the Baltimore Orioles, and Evan Longoria of the Tampa Bay Rays, the point is that it is something they have chosen.  Without Marvin at the helm, willing to support and go to battle beside Flood, Messersmith and McNally, it is uncertain that the choice would exist.

Marvin’s legacy is certainly that of a labor leader who helped to change the way all professional athletes, not just baseball players, viewed their role and their profession.  His teachings and methods still influence labor leaders in professional sports.  Donald Fehr, former executive director of the MLBPA and current executive director of the National Hockey League Players Association, said today that there are moments when he asks himself “What would Marvin say or what would Marvin do?[15]”  But Marvin’s legacy has at least two other facets.

Part of Marvin’s legacy will also be as the catalyst for the modern face of baseball.  I am sure if you visited any major league ballpark in the United States and randomly asked fans if they know who Marvin Miller is, many would not be able to correctly answer.  And yet, for those who know what the name Marvin Miller means to baseball, he will forever be known as the man who helped create baseball as we know it today.  He is responsible for laying the groundwork for a more level playing field for a greater number of franchises through the fight for free agency.  Teams now have the ability to negotiate directly with a player who has entered free agency rather than having to negotiate with the team that previously held his contract.  This may prove beneficial to a team (and its fans) if the player has motivations other than the pure dollar amount of his contract for wanting to sign with the particular team (for example, it may be his hometown team that he dreamed as a kid of playing for, which might not have come into play under the reserve system).

The other part of Marvin’s legacy is as an example of the need to always keep the big picture in mind while working towards the goals of an organization.  As previously mentioned, Marvin wound up counseling the players not to strike in 1972[16] because he recognized that it may prove fatal for a union that was still in many ways building its foundation[17].  He was not giving up on achieving the union’s goals for health and pension benefits; rather, he was evaluating those goals within the larger picture of the ability of the union to continue negotiating these issues while the season continued to be played and to raise the issue again the following year during the negotiation of the full collective bargaining agreement[18].  He knew that viewing the situation through a narrow lens could irreparably damage the union’s ability to effectively represent its members in the future.  It is a lesson that is an important one for students of labor law to learn, even if it is taught through the actions of a non-lawyer.

But Marvin’s legacy will not live on without a little work on the part of each of us – players, owners, fans, students – who know his story and have been impacted by his work.  We have a duty to ensure that those we encounter, who may take for granted the way the system works today, understand the evolution that took place only decades ago, lest it be lost in the pages of history.

As a student of labor law and a fan of baseball, I am grateful I had the opportunity to thank Marvin in April for his contributions to both labor relations and the game.  I will forever be touched by the time he allowed for me to sit and talk with him after the event, and the patience with which he answered my questions.  It was a moment I will not forget with a man whose legacy we cannot allow to be forgotten.

[1] For a summary of the event, see http://www.law.nyu.edu/news/MILLER_MARVIN_BASEBALL_STRIKE.

[2] Jeff Passan, Marvin Miller, the union executive who changed sports forever, dead at 95, Yahoo! Sports, November 27, 2012, available at http://www.sports.yahoo.com/news/marvin-miller–the-man-who-changed-sports-forever–dead-at-95-203146437.html.

[3] Michael Weiner, Remarks, “An Evening Celebration of Marvin Miller and Baseball Unionism,” NYU Law School, April 24, 2012.

[4] Passan, supra note 2.

[5] Richard Moss, Remarks, “An Evening Celebration of Marvin Miller and Baseball Unionism,” NYU Law School, April 24, 2012.

[6] William B. Gould IV, Bargaining with Baseball (2011), p. 68.

[7] Id at p. 69.

[8] Id at p. 76.

[9] Marvin Miller, Remarks, “An Evening Celebration of Marvin Miller and Baseball Unionism,” NYU Law School, April 24, 2012.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Gould, supra note 6 at pp. 82-83.

[13] For a full description of the events leading up to and surrounding both the antitrust action and subsequent arbitrations, see Marvin Miller, A Whole Different Ball Game (1991), Chapters 10 & 13.

[14] Passan, supra note 4.

[15] Donald Fehr, Interview, Francesa on the FAN, WFAN 660AM, November 28, 2012.

[16] Miller, supra note 9.

[17] Miller, supra note 13 at pp. 210-211.

[18] Id.

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