For ballplayers, Miller's union made in heaven


July 21, 1991|By MIKE LITTWIN

This is for anyone interested -- and many people will be -- but especially for everyone who plays major-league baseball:

Read "A Whole Different Ball Game." And right away.

Yes, it's a book. And it's kind of long -- 413 pages, with very few pictures. It'll run you $21.95. But for anyone who is paid to play baseball, this is a must read.

It's the autobiography of Marvin Miller, the founding executive director the Major League Baseball Players Association. He set baseball players free. He made them rich. He gave them self-respect. He taught them the honor -- and rewards -- of standing up for yourself. Did I mention he made them rich?

If you're a player, swimming in your pool, driving in your sports car, studying the financial pages, sitting back and wondering just how it got to be that a baseball player could have it so good, check out the book. Miller made all this possible. You don't have to send him a thank-you card -- although it couldn't hurt -- but do buy the book. How can you not? It's like being an American and not studying the Declaration of Independence.

This book is the modern history of major-league baseball, and Miller is the key player. Some would even say he's the most important single person in baseball history. He came to the game in 1966 when players were chained to one team for life and the average salary was $19,000. A rookie now makes a minimum of $100,000, and the average salary is in the range of $800,000. Miller did that. He challenged the reserve clause (look it up) and won. He got arbitration for the players. He got free agency. And, as the owners were insisting all the while that he was ruining the game, baseball grew ever healthier and wealthier, if no wiser.

And here's the amazing thing: In this post-Reagan era when unions are dying a slow and agonizing death, the Players Association thrives. Miller was in town the other day on a book tour, and the old Steelworkers Union man confessed some shock by this turn of events.

"I saw a story recently and the headline was 'The Last of the Great Unions,' and I looked down to see which one it was," he was saying. "It was our union. I never could have thought that 25 years ago. I'm still surprised that I even got hired by the baseball players, a very conservative group who were very wary of someone with a union background. You look back on it, and it's all very surprising."

Robin Roberts, the great pitcher, was the man who approached Miller in 1965, when Miller, then the chief economist for the Steelworkers, was looking for other work. All the players wanted then was someone who could help them negotiate a decent pension plan. It was Miller who would lead the players to places they never imagined. It would take strikes and lockouts and what has been an amazing show of solidarity in face of owner, fan and media antagonism, but look at what it has meant. Players now share in the huge profits made in the baseball industry, much to your typical owner's chagrin.

But, in the beginning, the players -- and you won't believe this -- wanted Richard Nixon to serve as Miller's counsel. I'm not kidding. He refused, of course. In 1966, Roberts asked Miller to shave his mustache because it might offend the owners. He refused, of course.

What he did instead was to create a real union.

Most owners never believed that could happen. Many owners still don't quite believe it, which is why the game's labor relations remain so rocky. Each time out, the owners are convinced the players will crumble.

"In the first strike [1972], the owners said the players couldn't afford a long strike," Miller said. "In '81, they said the players were too rich to strike. They never understood."

You can't really blame them. Baseball is an anomaly. The NFL players routinely crumble against the owners' might and still don't have the fundamental freedom of choice. Why shouldn't a player be able to move to a new job when his contract with his old employer has ended, just as you or I can? It's that simple really. The rest is owners paying players their market value, which is the purest form of capitalism.

You might think players are overpaid. I might think they're overpaid. But every dollar the players don't get goes into the pocket of some owner. Would you rather the price of your ticket go to Cal Ripken or Eli Jacobs?

"They used to say we'd be the ruination of the game," said Miller, 75, now safely retired, until he's called back to rescue the union as he is whenever there's real trouble. "They always said I was the outside agitator. Then one year I noticed that I had been around longer than 23 of the 26 owners. I had been there through three commissioners, two National League presidents and three American League presidents. I was just about the senior person in baseball, so how could I be on the outside?"

And now baseball management is infiltrated with former union men -- managers and even general managers. They've been there to see the remarkable growth of the game in the 25 years since Marvin Miller arrived on the scene. But that doesn't figure to change the equation much. In the next round of negotiations, the owners will somehow cry poverty and start looking for union givebacks at a time when an expansion franchise sells for $95 million and the Orioles may be sold for more than $120 million. And, probably, the players will once again hold firm, especially if they've read this book.

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