The man who changed baseball

The man who changed baseball

Given the reality of sports today, it's hard to imagine how much team owners dominated their games before players hired a professional to represent them.

Marvin Miller, the man who changed the landscape of professional sports and turned athletes into multimillionaires, died this week at 95.

Although he loved baseball, Miller was not an athlete himself. He was a professional negotiator who sat on the labor side of the table for the United Steelworkers before becoming executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association. He took over a loosely-run organization that operated on a shoestring and turned it into the most powerful of the professional sports unions.

He consistently out-negotiated baseball owners, eventually winning free agency for players and overseeing skyrocketing player salaries.

It's no insult to Miller's memory to argue that he wasn't solely responsible for the players' turn in fortune. The idea that owners could rule with an iron fist was fading and a changing legal environment foreshadowed a brand-new business environment.

It wasn't the demise of the reserve clause that resulted in owners bidding up player salaries to the stratosphere. The explosion of cable television and the demand for additional programming, particularly live sports, contributed greatly to the value of sports franchises and player salaries.

Nonetheless, Miller was the man who took over the players association in 1966, when the minimum major league salary was a paltry $6,000 a year and the average annual salary was $19,000, and proved himself to be both tough and visionary.

It was through his shrewd negotiations, his ability to hold players together in the face of the owners' wrath and his willingness to lead unpopular strikes that players were able to win substantial rewards for their athletic skills.

Miller retired as executive director in 1982. He wrote an interesting memoir describing how he pulverized owners at the negotiating table and continued to work as a consultant. Given the passage of time, many people today don't recognize his name, let alone know what he did to reshape the finances of professional sports. But he was a giant.

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