Book Review - A Whole Different Ballgame by Marvin Miller

It is hard to think of another person in sports history who never played, coached, refereed, managed or owned a professional team and is as controversial as Marvin Miller. A labour economist from Brooklyn who made his name during the heydays of the Steelworkers Union, Marvin Miller would make an indelible mark on the game of baseball. In his book ‘A Whole Different Ballgame’, Miller outlines the unlikely path to the head of the ineffectual Players Association, the challenges against ownership, and the process that changed baseball players from club properties to wealthy free agents.

“It would destroy baseball if fans were exposed to the spectacle of someone like Stan Musial picketing a ballpark.” – Bob Friend, Sporting News

Marvin Miller constructs the book along the lines of a biography, quickly illustrating his childhood in the Flatbush region of Brooklyn. His upbringing included days at Ebbett’s field with his uncle, watching the great Dodgers teams of Will Robinson and their heated rivalry with the New York Giants. Miller graduated in the midst of the Depression to a job with the State, County and Municipal Workers of America and later the War Labour Board during the Second World War. He quickly established himself as a top labour relations negotiator which led to sixteen years as the Steelworkers Union’s top economist. During the post war era, union strength was at its peak, and labour disputes in vital industries like US Steel were often conducted at the highest levels, giving Miller a level of familiarity negotiating in the White House with top officials. It was in 1965, following a major reshuffle of union leadership that Miller decided to seek a new opportunity, looking at offers to teach at Harvard or join several major economic research panels. Robin Roberts, wrapping up his career with Baltimore, asked Miller to meet with him and several other player representatives about the position of executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association.

“In 1966, major league baseball was as lawless, in its own way, as Dodge City in 1876. Antitrust laws, laws against discrimination, health and safety laws simply didn’t apply, because they weren’t enforced by the courts or by federal, state, or local authorities. Was it any wonder that the buttoned-down baseball establishment was arrogant?” – Marvin Miller

Much of the book focuses on the first five years of Miller’s tenure and the struggles to set up a proper union. Prior to his arrival, the players had been represented by Judge Robert Cannon, who had been quick to parrot the line of the owners that the players were lucky to be paid at all to play a game. The association was also directly (and illegally) funded by the owners; a majority labour law violation which compromised association officials. Finally, the association had no grievance process, no staff, and very little union mentality to support it. The opportunity wasn’t to take over as executive director as much as it was to virtually build a new structure from the ground up. To top it off, the players had already struck a deal with the owners that the chief counsel for the association would be Richard M. Nixon. Nixon, whom Miller had known well as Vice President, was an intractable foe of organized labour. The situation bordered on the ridiculous and yet, Miller decided to take the plunge.

Both Cannon and baseball ownership moved to try and block Miller’s appointment, which he had demanded be ratified by majority vote from the existing major league players. Coaches and managers were instructed to inform players that Miller would bring in Teamster style goons and the union would be able to demand how and when they were able to play. As a result, Miller first swing through the western baseball teams was less than successful, with 102 players, coaches and trainers out of 119 votes going against Miller. Unfortunately for ownership, they didn’t have decades of experience with the much savvier anti-union forces at GM, GE and US Steel. Miller rallied the player representatives and quickly learned of ownership’s influence on the vote. Teams were sent to neutral grounds to meet Miller and vote, and he was confirmed by a final vote of 489-136.

“Will managers be forced to seek Mr. Miller’s permission to yank a pitcher or send a utility man back to the minors?” – The Sporting News

During Miller’s first meetings with the players, he outlines that at the time, the core focus on the union was the player’s pension plan. It had been agreed on in 1954 and funded by the proceeds of the All-Star Game. Too many players had seen former greats reduced to scrounging work once they were no longer able to play, and the pension plan was one of the few areas in which they were willing to go to war with management to preserve. Miller articulates carefully that many of the elements that the union would later revolutionize were never on the original agenda when he came on board.

The first order of business involved the proper funding of the union and the pension. The owners had tried to omit the television profits from the All-Star from the pension plan, leading them into their first showdown with Miller. While the owners blustered, it was their own original contract wording that trapped them into providing the players a percentage of the television revenue, defusing the most trenchant opposition from the owners. It was also the beginning of the end for the current Commissioner, Spike Eckert, as the owners prepared to bring the union to heel before it could develop further.

“To paraphrase Voltaire on God, If Bowie Kuhn had never existed, we would have had to invent him.” – Marvin Miller

The first Uniform Players Agreement was developed between the 1967-68 offseason, which included threats by ownership to dismantle the pension altogether. However, compared to the following year, it was a mild negotiation. As Miller explains, there was such a dearth of fundamental legal structure, with so many teams operating as independent fiefdoms that much of his early work involved basic education and drafting of contract and labour language which would eventually become the bedrock of the each continuing agreement. Following 1968, ownership was adamant that no further concessions would be given to the MLBPA. Their initial position demanded several roll-backs from the players, claiming that baseball’s financial situation was precarious. They also eliminated Eckert, seeing him as not be sufficiently motivated to defend the status quo, replacing him with Bowie Kuhn.

If anyone wears the mantle of villain in the book, it is Kuhn. Although in this case, his form of villain is that of a sad and tired jester, unctuous and servile in the face of his master. Miller’s contentions with Kuhn obviously colour his memory of Kuhn’s role, but history is on his side with the perception that Miller outpaced, outmaneuvered and outthought Kuhn in each stage of their relationship. Each time Kuhn tried to expand the powers of the Commissioner, Miller would use the pretext as a way to push another facet of standard labour relations practices into the agreement. These elements gave rise to the modern arbitration system, baseball’s grievance process, funding and licensing deals for related products like baseball cards, and most significantly, the end of the reserve clause. It’s unlikely that Kuhn was truly as buffoonish as Miller shows, but his office and ownership made major missteps from 1969 to 1980, during which each attempt to break the union would end in lost revenues for the owners and concessions to the players.

“Players come and players go, but the owners will be here forever.” – Bowie Kuhn.

Perhaps the strongest elements in Miller’s book are his remarkable sketches of the people around him at the time. Players, coaches and owners who loom large in baseball history are humanized in small asides and reminisces of his time amoungst them. Miller recalls speaking to Mantle on the eve of the players contract hold-out in November 1968. The Yankee great had decided to finally retire, but offered to delay the announcement several months to add his famous name to the hold-outs. Charles Finley, the snake-oil like owner of the Oakland A’s was occasionally an ally of Miller’s when their attempts to break the outdated modes of current baseball operation aligned, and he is described with the fondness of an old foe in a war long over. Three players weigh strongest in the book; Robin Roberts, Curt Flood, and Alex Johnson.

Robin Roberts had a remarkable career for unremarkable teams and was Miller’s first advocate. It is clear the two men were close, and much of Miller’s exploration of free agency and the end of the reserve clause focused on what it could have done for a great pitcher like Roberts, if he’d been able to move to a team with realistic playoff chances and be paid as the star pitcher he was.

Not surprisingly, Curt Flood plays a prominent part of the second half of the book. At the time of Flood’s challenge to the reserve clause, the union was still on tenuous ground despite their victory in 1969. That hesitation made is impossible to bring to bear the solidarity that Flood’s challenge needed from the rest of the players, and early mistakes with the legal team damaged their argument. Ultimately, Miller believed that the court had ruled against Flood before the trial had even begun and his frustration at being unable to use the normal legal tools other labour organizations had soaks through the pages.

Alex Johnson was a talented outfielder who had two strong seasons in Cincinnati before being traded to California in 1970. He didn’t disappoint, winning the batting title that year. But Johnson suffered from anxiety and depression issues and those issues in 1970 grew worse in the spring of the 1971 season. Johnson was placed on the suspended list by GM Dick Walsh and later moved to the restricted list by Commissioner Kuhn at their request. Miller met with Johnson and quickly filed a grievance. Through the use of several specialists before an arbitrator, both actions were rolled back and baseball was ordered to place him on the disabled list with backpay. He would set the modern prescient for handling non-physical disabilities in baseball. Miller notes that the union`s backing of Johnson did a tremendous amount to bring black and Latin players around to support and participate in the union, few having been player representatives before the 70s.

"I find myself unwilling to contemplate one more rigged Veterans Committee whose members are handpicked to reach a particular outcome while offering a pretense of a democratic vote. It is an insult to baseball fans, historians, sportswriters, and especially to those baseball players who sacrificed and brought the game into the 21st century. At the age of 91, I can do without farce." – Marvin Miller via Boston Globe

‘A Whole Different Ballgame’ was published in 1991 and ends with Miller discussing the collusion of the baseball owners in the 1980s and the change in American culture towards unions. There is a tinge of bitterness to his writing; the Reagan era was devastating to American union culture and the manufacturing industries they ran through. As many of the players who became the first free agents were now being inducted into the Hall of Fame, the MLBPA was rarely mentioned as a key part in their wealth – gratitude that would be saved for the owners. Still, if bitter, it is also balanced by the acknowledgement that the explosive popularity of the sport in the 70s and 80s was influenced by their success in free agency.

Miller left the MLBPA in 1981. He died 31 years later in 2012. As he mentions in his book, the defacto minimum salary for a player in the MLB at the time of his appointment as executive director of the Players Association was $6,000, about the national average household income at the time. In 2013, the minimum salary for a MLB player was $490,000. For those counting, the average household income for 2013 was $51,066. The value of a major league franchise has never been higher, even in relative terms.

To this day, Miller has not been named to the Hall of Fame. In 2008, he dismissed any chance as part of the animosity still held by ownership against him and requested his name be no longer considered. Following his death, there was a groundswell of support from the players and the sporting press regarding Miller’s place in baseball history. His candidacy fell short behind that of Bobby Cox, Joe Torre, and Tony La Russa. He will be next eligible in 2017, although his children have made it clear that their father’s legacy is the success of the union and not the notice of Cooperstown.

Regardless of the decisions of the Hall, Miller’s impact on baseball is as great as that of Ban Johnson or Branch Rickey. His stewardship of the MLBPA did for the players what 80 years of efforts could not; eliminate the reserve clause, free the players to benefit directly from the huge revenues they generated and own their labour in the same way as any other worker. Along the way, it helped professionalize baseball front offices and organizations, force them to recognize labour practices and standards, and brought proper medical and legal oversight to their businesses. In that time, baseball has flourished tremendously. Red Barber, the original Dodgers and later Yankees broadcaster, watched baseball evolve over six decades and singled out Miller’s contribution, opining that: “Marvin Miller, along with Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson, is one of the two or three most important men in baseball history." Cooperstown would be hard pressed to beat that.

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