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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Time: Jim Bunning Remembers Marvin Miller, Baseball’s ‘Moses’

Jim Bunning conked 160 in his career…this ain’t one of them.

Seeking a leader who could improve their lot, Bunning, then a star pitcher for the Philadelphia Phillies, and future Hall of Fame pitcher Robin Roberts approached Richard Nixon. “We interviewed Nixon for the same job as Miller,” Bunning said, “but Nixon said to us that he had other plans.” Two years later, of course, Nixon was elected president. Miller, then a labor economist with the United Steelworkers’ union, accepted the offer. “He was smarter than everybody on the other side,” Bunning said. “There wasn’t a labor law that Marvin Miller did not know and know better than the owners. Therefore, we were at a great advantage in negotiations with management having Marvin on our side.”

Miller’s first negotiation was a collective bargaining agreement that raised the minimum salary $4,000, to $10,000. “One of the things Marvin got early on was the fact that you could have representation when you were negotiating your contract,” Bunning said. Miller also negotiated for outside arbitration of contract disputes (they were previously settled by the league commissioner, an ally of the owners) and won huge gains in health care, pensions and playing conditions. But the defining achievement of Miller’s tenure was fighting to end the reserve clause, which ushered in the big-money free agency era that has redefined the major sports leagues (and earned Miller the title of baseball’s “Moses”). To Miller, a lifelong union man, it was a simple matter of giving players some control over their own labor. “We wanted to be free agents and negotiate with anybody,” Bunning said. “We didn’t want to be tied to one team.”

Bunning attributes some of Miller’s success to his patient, cerebral approach. “I can remember going to meetings with Marvin. He spoke very rarely, but he was constantly writing little notes down. It drove me crazy that he didn’t jump down the other guys’ throats all the time. But he was writing down what they were saying so that he could, in the next meeting, quote themselves to them–what they had said in the meetings past. I never in my life saw that happen in any meeting.” Miller, Bunning said, “was not a tough guy; he was a tough-minded person. He was very quiet and very unassuming, until you got down to the nitty-gritty of what you were trying to negotiate [then] he wasunbending.”

Despite his impact on baseball, Miller has never been elected to the Hall of Fame, which Bunning sees as a glaring omission. “He’s done more for the players and the player’s association than any other person since baseball started,” Bunning said.

Repoz Posted: November 28, 2012 at 05:55 AM | 6 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
  Tags: history

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   1. bjhanke Posted: November 28, 2012 at 11:33 AM (#4311400)
I only have two nits to pick. First, the commissioner of baseball is not an "ally" of the owners; he is their EMPLOYEE. A much stronger control that they would have over a mere ally. And second, Miller did not bring about an end to the reserve clause, which still exists in the standard player contract. Peter Seitz, the arbitrator in the Messersmith case, ruled that the clause only applies to one year, and not to a succession of one year after another, but he did not put an end to the clause. If you read Miller's biography, the last thing he wanted was an end to the reserve clause, because that would have meant unleashing the entire worker pool into free agency at once. Miller knew that if that happened, the players would lose the war, because they would all end up bidding against themselves for salaries. What Miller did do was work out with the owners the current staggered system where a team has control for some years, subject to minimum salaries, then arbitration but control except for that, and then, after a few years, free agency. This worked out MUCH better than deleting the reserve clause would have done. Miller is also one of the few whose lack of presence in the Hall of Fame shames the Hall much more than it shames Marvin. Marvin lived to be 95, was apparently not suffering during his last days, and knows damn well what he did. He knows that he'll be in the Hall of Fame someday. I imagine he died happy. - Brock Hanke
   2. Tim D Posted: November 28, 2012 at 02:00 PM (#4311606)
Yes, quite right, the "end of the reserve clause" is a misnomer for today's hybrid free agent system that has worked brilliantly for the players. Charlie Finley wanted to make them all free agents and refuse salary arbitration. He understood that would limit the players leverage and keep salaries for all but a few stars low. The rest of the owners thought he was crazy, that having all the players out demanding high salaries would be a nightmare. Charlie O was the only free market economist of the bunch. It was the arbitration system that Finley dreaded that became the players best friend, first in setting Messersmith free after playing the requisite one year without a contract and then, after the new CBA was signed, in tying arbitration-eligible player's salaries to free agent contract signings. Miller had the foresight to see that this system of keeping a limited amount of "free" talent on the market year after year would be very lucrative for the players.
   3. Ron J2 Posted: November 28, 2012 at 02:17 PM (#4311631)
#1 and #2 I've heard the Finley proposal and Miller's reaction to it. Moderately few things I disagree with Miller about, but this is one of them. I see no reason that having "everybody" on the market would change ownership behavior.

I've tried gaming the situation. Best I can tell, it just complicates management's life. Maybe some players sign "early/low" out of fear of being the last man standing, but it also works the other way.

   4. McCoy Posted: November 28, 2012 at 02:21 PM (#4311638)
Jim Bunning Remembers Marvin Miller, Baseball’s ‘Moses’. Only vaguely and as a mouse with a moses beard riding atop a cat.
   5. McCoy Posted: November 28, 2012 at 02:26 PM (#4311645)
#1 and #2 I've heard the Finley proposal and Miller's reaction to it. Moderately few things I disagree with Miller about, but this is one of them. I see no reason that having "everybody" on the market would change ownership behavior.

I've tried gaming the situation. Best I can tell, it just complicates management's life. Maybe some players sign "early/low" out of fear of being the last man standing, but it also works the other way.

Long term, salaries would rise and the market would not be free due to players getting locked up into long term contracts. Short term, it would have produced a drag on a good chunk of salaries as a few star players would get the lionshare of pay and the rest would be viewed as interchangeable.

The risk, from Miller's POV, would be that the ensuing chaos of everybody being a free agent would scare/piss the players off enough that it would turn them away from Miller and his guidance. If the vast majority of players felt they were getting screwed while the 1% were getting rich it would cause a schism between the players that create the power and the players that form the core of the union. Not good at all for Miller.
   6. Walt Davis Posted: November 28, 2012 at 02:42 PM (#4311672)
McCoy makes a good point about the social dynamic.

But the bit about the Miller/Finley debate is that I fail to see how you enforce 1-year contracts only. Sure, it could go into the CBA but why would the players agree to such silliness? And if it wasn't part of the CBA but only 1-year contracts were on offer, the collusion case is easy.

You're the Devil Rays and you've gotten the rights to Evan Longoria ... are you really only going to offer him a 1-year contract at 22 then let him become FA? Of course not, you're going to do essentially what the Rays did under the current system. And it's probably going to cost the Rays more.

What the system does is shift money from young to old but I'm not at all convinced that the overall money would be substantially different. The thornier question in my opinion is the distribution of young talent. Do you go back to amateur free-for-all or do you still have a draft? If you have a draft, what are the incentives for the Rays to develop Longoria to begin with if they aren't guaranteed to be able to keep him. If you don't have a draft, you have substantial competitive imbalance.

Anyway, think of the money that Kerry Wood and Mark Prior would have gotten if the Cubs might have lost them after their rookie years. The Cubs would have backed the money truck up to their doors ... and regretted it. :-) Bryce Harper or Mike Trout might right now be the highest paid players in the game.

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