- Marvin Miller: Baseball Revolutionary by Robert F. Burke
A strong case could be made that a person who never played professional baseball was one of the most influential individuals in the history of that sport. Marvin Miller, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLPBA) from 1966 to 1982, transformed not only the business and economics of baseball but the very nature of how players, owners, management, and fans perceive and relate to one another. Robert F. Burke’s ground-breaking and thoroughly researched study Marvin Miller: A Baseball Revolutionary is the first full-length biography of the man who once stated that baseball players were “the most exploited group of workers I had ever seen—more exploited than the grape pickers of Cesar Chavez” (100). According to Burke, Miller’s objective as head of the player’s union was “to peacefully compel employers to accept a modern system of profit sharing with their workers” (viii). The result was that players’ salaries escalated radically over the next two highly contentious and litigious decades during which Miller negotiated the first collective bargaining agreement between players and team owners, instituted both a grievance panel and arbitration system for players’ concerns, challenged the reserve clause, initiated two players’ strikes, and ushered in the era of free agency.
Despite all his accomplishments on behalf of players, Miller was and remains one of the most misunderstood and indeed polarizing figures in baseball history. To flesh out how and why Miller took on the monumental task of forging a modern baseball union, Burke begins his study with an insightful history of Miller’s life from a middle-class, Jewish kid growing up in Brooklyn and graduating from New York University in 1938 with a degree in economics to becoming a labor activist and, ultimately, the leading economic advisor to the president of the United Steelworkers Union. Drawing on hours of interviews with his subject, Burke weaves a narrative exploring how Miller developed life-long leftist convictions during the Great Depression and an overwhelming desire to combat what he considered capitalism’s exploitation of the voiceless and powerless worker. In fascinating detail and engaging prose, Burke portrays Miller as a genuinely concerned idealist and intellectual who grappled with the realities of economic, class, and ethnic oppression and how organized labor could lead to equality. After publically supporting the failed presidential campaign of Henry Wallace of the communist-influenced Progressive Party in 1948, Miller joined the United Steelworkers of America in 1950 as an economic advisor and developed a reputation as a skilled contract negotiator.
Upon leaving the steelworkers’ union at the height of his labor career, Miller was ideally suited to lead the MLBPA, which was so weak that it could scarcely be called a union when he was elected in 1966. “[B]aseball was a respite of the tension everywhere,” said Miller. [The owners] could control everything” (100). Although players lacked basic economic rights afforded to members of other unions, many players were wary of Miller and his background and of a potentially confrontational union that they feared could jeopardize their careers. With a nuanced understanding of the epoch, baseball history, economics, and [End Page 409] the legal context, Burke describes Miller’s unrelenting work ethic and efforts to gain the players’ confidence while owners portrayed him as a “Svengali who duped and manipulated his ignorant wards into thinking militancy” (123). From Miller’s perspective, the reader learns about all the major milestones the Players Association accomplished under Miller’s shrewd guidance. Along the way, baseball and many of its owners are revealed as arrogant, ignorant, and excessively greedy. Deserving particular attention is the chapter “Emancipation” in which Burke discusses how the visionary Miller successfully challenged the reserve clause to bring about free agency and forged a new basic agreement in which collusion by players or owners was banned. When Miller retired in 1982, the average player’s salary was $326,000, up from $19,000 in 1966.
The third, final, and shortest section of the biography deals with...