This article is free for anyone to read, but please consider becoming a Patreon subscriber to allow me to keep writing posts like this one.
March 5 is a pretty nifty day in baseball history — really, sports history — if you’re into labor at all. And you’re here reading this newsletter, so unless you’re one of those sad people who hate reads in between posting comments where the cringiest part always comes after the “however,” you’re probably into the labor aspect of things. Anyway, March 5, 1966: that’s when Marvin Miller was elected to be the first official Executive Director of the Major League Baseball Players Association.
Miller wasn’t the first choice of the players: that would be Judge Robert Cannon, who, despite his desire to be the commissioner of MLB and his willingness to do what the owners wanted, despite his advice to the players being to “make no demands, no public statements,” remained popular with the players. As his SABR bio points out, Cannon never even broached the subject of raising the minimum salary for players during his time as their legal advisor. He did not care about what the players wanted, nor did he ask. Cannon thought the players were lucky to work in the industry they did, and that what the owners gave them was what was right, so, from his point of view, his advice was to not blow that situation.
The players, who lived in fear of being cut, blacklisted, and so on, who had no power to themselves that they were aware of, didn’t dislike Cannon’s advice, because they didn’t know any better. Miller helped change all of that, and as the New York Times told it over half-a-century ago, Miller’s very first goal was to listen to the players and find out what it was he was going to be advocating for in his new role:
“I’m very anxious to get the views of the players and find out what they would like this association to become,” Miller said. “I’ll have to feel my way and I’ll be dependent on what they think.” Miller said it would be premature for him to outline a course for the association because he had yet to talk to the players. “This all remains to be done in the future,” he said.
Miller listened to the players, yes, but he also made a point of steering them in the right direction. What the players wanted was important, but there were also things they weren’t even aware they should want, and Miller made sure they became aware. Miller didn’t force the players to fight for or in specific ways, necessarily: he listened, he spoke, and he convinced, and the players learned about how they were being treated, how they were being exploited, and how they could reverse that damage and course with collective action. When Miller took over, players were afraid that being in a real union would mean they were communists. Leaving aside how cool that would have been to have an entire league of communists charting a new world of sports labor relations, that’s the kind of attitude Miller, a longtime union man, was dealing with in his early conversations and listening sessions with the players.
When the players don’t know what it is they should be fighting for, they need a guiding voice to remind them that the battle is never actually over. There is a reason that Donald Fehr, who worked with Miller and then eventually became Executive Director himself, brought Miller back to speak to the players during the 1990 lockout. The veterans were feuding internally with younger players, as they, already having been paid well, didn’t understand why they were being held back from continuing to make good money just so the arbitration earnings of younger players could be protected. Miller came out of retirement to deliver a powerful and convincing speech on how it wasn’t just a battle for arbitration, but for the future and power of the union itself that they fought: the message was clear, the players convinced, the crisis averted.
This kind of pushing in the direction players should care about was not always present in a post-Miller world: Fehr’s time as Executive Director came with many, many victories, but it was also the start of the union’s subtle string of losses in collective bargaining, too. Once the players had forgotten the history of their union, once they were not aware of the threat of being satisfied with their lot instead of fighting to maintain and improve their standing, MLB’s owners began to win back gains. And it’s why everything is so troublesome now in the present, when the union has seemingly run low on things to bargain on in exchange for the many, many improvements they need to see in return for them.
It’s important to recount Miller’s ascendance to Executive Director and what came after for the union — and again, sports in general — not just to honor the work he and his associates and those players all did to better their own situation and that of future players, but also so that a reminder exists of what the point of all of this fighting is. There was no collective bargaining agreement in sports until the Miller-led MLBPA negotiated and signed the first before the 1968 season. There was no large-scale successful strike action in MLB, or sports in general, until 1972, when the players Miller had listened and spoke to for years now went from fearing being labeled communists to convincing Miller that they were ready to fight for what they deserved, and they were ready right now. The union under Miller won arbitration, it won free agency, it won a world for players so good that the owners have been trying to dismantle it piece by piece ever since.
There is so much to be learned from what Miller’s MLBPA accomplished, thanks to buy-in from the players and a leadership unit that ensured there would be buy-in in the first place. The current version of the MLBPA is seeing improvements on this front, vast improvements from where they were just a few years ago, even, but more is needed, and holding the line is necessary. It’s what Miller always did, not just because of who he was, but because of who he helped the players he worked for become. That’s part of the job, and the current leadership of the MLBPA would benefit from remembering all of this in the coming months and years.