Blackballed players’ union founder makes baseball hall of fame—at last

Marvin Miller founding director of the Major League Baseball Players Association

MARVIN MILLER FINALLY GOT HIS HOME RUN. The man who brought unions into baseball was elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame on December 9. No thanks to the powers that be inside baseball, or the baseball union Miller founded.

Miller retired in 1982, but the Hall of Fame refused to put him on the ballot until 2003. Once it did, it rigged seven elections to guarantee that he couldn’t win.

Born a union man

Miller grew up in Brooklyn, walked picket lines with his parents, traveled in left-wing circles, and worked as an economist for the United Steelworkers union before the Major League Baseball Players Association hired him in 1966 as its first full-time director.

Before Miller’s arrival, players were tethered to their teams. Contracts were limited to one season. Each year, team owners told players: take it or leave it. Even superstars had no leverage to negotiate better deals. Players had no insurance, no real pensions, and awful medical treatment.

“We had to get players to understand that they were a union,” Miller recalled in a 2008 interview. “We did a lot of internal education to talk to players about broader issues.”

Miller instructed ballplayers in the ABCs of unionism: Fight for your rights to be treated as more than property; don’t allow owners to divide you by race, income, or your place in the celebrity pecking order; work on behalf of players who came before you and who would come after you; and prepare yourself for life after your baseball career is over.

Under Miller, the union won better pay, pensions, travel conditions, training and locker room facilities, and medical treatment. When Miller retired in 1982, the average player salary had increased to $240,000. Today, the minimum salary is $555,000, the median salary is $1.5 million, and the average salary is $4.5 million, inflated by superstars’ lucrative contracts.


Marvin Miller addressing members of the Phillies and Red Sox during spring training in 1977.

‘I can do without farce.’

In 2008, Miller wrote a letter to the Baseball Writers Association of America, observing, “The anti-union bias of the powers who control the Baseball Hall of Fame has consistently prevented recognition of the historic significance of the changes to baseball brought about by collective bargaining.”

He criticized the “rigged veterans committee whose members are handpicked to reach a particular outcome while offering the pretense of a democratic vote.”

He added: “It is an insult to baseball fans, historians, sports writers and especially to those baseball players who sacrificed and brought the game into the twenty-first century. At the age of 91, I can do without farce.”

But, the Hall of Fame kept Miller on the ballot—perhaps just to teach a strong union man a lesson by rejecting him over and over—which they did until December 8—seven years after he died.

Over the years, many Hall of Fame players—including Hank Aaron, Tom Seaver, Joe Morgan, Brooks Robinson, Dave Winfield, Joe Torre, and Nolan Ryan—spoke out individually on Miller’s behalf.

Bob Tufts, a former major league pitcher, deserves much of the credit for Miller’s election to the Hall. Tufts went to bat for Miller for years and even taught a course at New York University about Miller’s role in American trade unionism.

Union strikes out

However, the Players Association failed to campaign for Miller.  The union could have mobilized living Hall of Fame players (there are now 71 of them) to issue a statement, call a press conference, or even boycott the annual induction ceremonies. They didn’t.

But this year, even without such an effort, the Hall of Fame relented. On the eighth try, Miller finally got enough votes.

The Hall’s ballot is secret. But it is known for certain the only way he could win was to have at least two owners and executives vote for him.

The union no longer does much to educate players about the labor movement or even about MLBPA’s own history.

The union did not object last year while the Yankees and Dodgers crossed a union picket line at Boston hotels where workers were on strike. The players’ contract requires teams to stay in union hotels and boycott hotels where workers are in the midst of labor disputes.

The Players Association’s collective-bargaining contract expires next year. Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred is already talking tough—almost daring the union to strike. He told union leaders that there is “not going to be a deal where we pay you to get labor peace”.

Manfred clearly believes that the players don’t have the confidence or solidarity to challenge the owners’ insistence on givebacks and walk out.

One sports writer has suggested that the union should distribute armbands for players to wear on their uniforms next season with the slogan: “WWMD”—What would Marvin do?


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