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Marvin Miller had unique impact on baseball

The longtime head of the players union passed away on Tuesday at age 95.

Patrick McDermott

Marvin Miller, who spearheaded the players union during a time of unprecedented growth in salaries and benefits in baseball, passed away on Tuesday at age 95.

"All players – past, present and future – owe a debt of gratitude to Marvin, and his influence transcends baseball. Marvin, without question, is largely responsible for ushering in the modern era of sports, which has resulted in tremendous benefits to players, owners and fans of all sports," said Michael Weiner, current executive director of the players association, in a statement. "It was an honor and a privilege to have known Marvin. The industry has
never witnessed a more honorable man, and his passion for helping others and his principled resolve serve as the foundation of the MLBPA to this day."

Miller served as executive director of the players union from 1966-1982, and during his tenure baseball endured three player strikes (1972, 1980, 1981) and two owner lockouts (1973, 1976).

Miller started in the same year that Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale famously held out during spring training in hopes of earning new multi-year contracts, unheard of at the time. Koufax ended up signing for $125,000 and Drysdale $110,000 for 1966. Then general manager Buzzie Bavasi wrote about the dual holdout one year later in Sports Illustrated:

Well, they had a gimmick and it worked; I'm not denying it. They said that one wouldn't sign unless the other signed. Since one of the two was the greatest pitcher I've ever seen (and possibly the greatest anybody has ever seen), the gimmick worked. But be sure to stick around for the fun the next time somebody tries that gimmick. I don't care if the whole infield comes in as a package; the next year the whole infield will be wondering what it is doing playing for the Nankai Hawks.

Koufax and Drysdale wanted to negotiate using Bill Hayes, who was Koufax's lawyer. But Bavasi wanted none of that, as he wrote about in SI:

If I gave in and began negotiating baseball contracts through an agent, then I set a precedent that's going to bring awful pain to general managers for years to come, because every salary negotiation with every humpty-dumpty fourth-string catcher is going to run into months of dickering.

An example of the information gap between owners and players before Miller was best described in an article by Jim Kaplan in Sports Illustrated in 1981:

Before salary figures were published, a player had to take an owner's word that his income measured up well with that of his teammates. In the mid-'60s Dodger player representative Ron Fairly was a satisfied customer. The Dodgers had assured him that among his teammates only Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale made more than he. But when the Players Association asked Fairly to poll the players, he discovered he was in 12th place. Fairly had been had.

Miller also bargained for salary arbitration, which began in 1974. Robert Boyle of SI wrote of Miller's impact on the game during spring training of that season:

"The box score of the cases in arbitration is only the tip of the iceberg," says Miller. "The most significant thing is that the owners and general managers are making a far more realistic appraisal of salaries. Arbitration is replacing a system in which the owners always determined what a player's salary was. A player either accepted an unfair offer or he learned a new way to make a living. When you replace that, you can't go wrong."

As far as the players are concerned, Miller can do little wrong. Rollie Fingers of the A's, who was awarded his figure of $65,000, says: "Marvin is worth his weight in gold." The fact that Miller only stands 5'8" and weighs 150 pounds does not diminish the compliment.

The birth of free agency had ties to the Dodgers as well. First came Catfish Hunter, who helped the A's beat the Dodgers in the 1974 World Series, then because of an annuity payment not made by Oakland owner Charlie Finley, Hunter became a free agent in December and ultimately signed a five-year contract with the Yankees.

The next season, Miller convinced pitchers Andy Messersmith of the Dodgers and Dave McNally of the Expos to play without signing a contract to test the reserve clause, which bound players to teams in perpetuity. But that ended with arbitrator Peter Seitz ruling in favor of Messersmith and McNally, making them free agents and ushering in the free agency era.

The average salary of a major league baseball player in 1966 was $17,664. By 1982, the average had risen to $245,000. In 2011, the average salary was $3,095,183.

Brandon League, who signed a three-year, $22.5 million contract with the Dodgers on Oct. 30, tweeted, "Thoughts and prayers to the family of Marvin Miller, a leader, pioneer, and renaissance man who changed the course of baseball. Thank you."

Agent Scott Boras chimed in as well with a rare tweet: "Marvin Miller forged wings for modern day baseball, the 'Wright' of baseball's soaring flight. Thank you."

"Marvin Miller was a highly accomplished executive and a very influential figure in baseball history. He made a distinct impact on this sport, which is reflected in the state of the game today, and surely the Major League players of the last half-century have greatly benefited from his contributions," said commissioner Bud Selig in a statement. "On behalf of Major League Baseball and the 30 Clubs, I extend my deepest condolences to Marvin’s family, friends and colleagues."