Only 50 years ago in the South, there were “colored” water fountains, Negroes weren’t allowed in white hotels, unescorted females weren’t allowed to be seated in good restaurants, only handfuls of women were allowed admittance into medical, engineering and law schools because it was believed that we lacked the necessities (namely intelligence) to perform these jobs. Most of those admitted had a very powerful father employed in that field.
Of course, 50 years ago, there were no major league teams in the South, either, and in fact, there were only 16 teams in the entire United States. The minimum salary 50 years ago was $6,000, just as it had been at the end of the World War II. The owners didn’t completely own their ballplayers as slaveowners owned slaves, but a ballplayer who signed with any major league team forfeited his right thereafter to determine which team he could play for or to sell his services to the highest bidder.
Almost none of this seems believeable, does it? We stare at pictures of “whites only” signs and hardly can believe that our parents saw them every day. And times have changed so significantly that we can stare in disbelief. And it was only 50 years ago that baseball players had no pension, had no (working) union, had no rights, and were traded to other teams whether or not they wished to be traded and were paid such low salaries (except for the few stars) that they needed to obtain work in the offseason in order to support a family.
Marvin Miller changed all that. Or, perhaps I should say, he was the catalyst for that change.
I don’t know exactly why attitudes in general shift, but they do. Perhaps the ballplayers felt the winds of change swirling about civil rights and sexual liberation in the ’60s, and that awakened their sense of repression. The union had in fact been created in 1953, but was essentially dormant until Marvin Miller was hired as chief counsel in 1966.
Things began to change as soon as he took over. The owners had maintained supreme power since 1900 and were accustomed to looking at ballplayers with contempt, as slaveowners looked at slaves—unfortunately necessary, but lowlife just the same.
How interesting it is that every group of people seems to have a “those people,” a different group that is freely treated with contempt as a lower order of being. The baseball players were most certainly a “those people” to the rich owners. I was amused when I heard the story of why M. Donald Grant supposedly hated Tom Seaver (and his high salary), namely because the salary would grant (hahahaha) him access to M. Donald’s country club. The thought of one of “those people” in his inner sanctum of “proper people” was almost too much to bear.
Powerful people simply don’t take poor people, workers, low status beings, seriously. They are accustomed to ordering them around, dismissing them on whim. The problem of being the owner of a baseball team, as opposed to the owner of a factory, is that the baseball player is the finished product, and major league baseball players are actually rare because playing baseball at a professional level requires both talent (with which you have to be born) and great skill. You simply can’t throw any old 25 people on a baseball field and have major league quality baseball games.
The owners didn’t and wouldn’t, except for Charlie FInley, take the union seriously, because it was composed of “those people.” So they didn’t carefully and seriously plan fights against the union, believing that any concession whatsoever would grant something to “those people.” For years, the owners hyperfocused on their only strategy, breaking the union and forcing the players to accept as little money as possible, not because the owners were not making money, but for the principle of the thing, that “those people” should be kept down.
Marvin Miller did a great deal of good, ensuring that the ballplayers received their fair share of profits, ensuring a good pension system, ensuring that ballplayers, after six years of service in the minors or majors, could become free agents and sell their services to the highest bidder, as any working man or woman in any other industry in America could do. By the time Miller retired in 1983, the union had decisively won every single battle against the owners.
Revenge is a dish best tasted cold, so they say.
Although higher salaries and good medical care led to better ballplayers who could play longer, healthier careers, and finally to the incredibly lucrative business of MLB, in which even terrible baseball teams such as the Pirates earn their owners profits of at least $30-50 million a year, the owners and executives have never forgiven Miller. It isn’t just that they believe that workers should be paid minimum wage if possible and they should make all the profit from someone else’s work. It is that “those people” are the stars and it is all Miller’s fault.
Over the past five years, they have largely managed to turn public sentiment against “greedy” ballplayers instead of those “greedy” owners who milk the taxpayers by lying about the value of a publicly funded stadium to the area and keep 60% of the gross profits, as opposed to only 40% seven years ago. But they still harbor a resentment for Miller.
The new and not improved Veterans Committee appointed by the Hall of Fame, consisting mostly of old executives, decisively voted down 90-year-old Miller and voted in his first opponent, Bowie Kuhn. If he were a baseball player, Kuhn would be Baseball Prospectus’ infamous “replacement level player.”
Now. you might say that Miller wasn’t either an executive or an owner, which would be true. But the truth is that the owners actually owe him, because if he hadn’t organized the players and made it worth the while of great athletes to play baseball, those athletes would be playing some other sport and baseball today would have the popularity of your average A-ball team. Or even worse, the WNBA.
Truth is, as Barry Lamar Bonds once said, “Of course we should make it. We’re the ones doing the entertaining.” People aren’t going to pay big bucks to watch A-ball quality, networks aren’t going to pay big bucks to broadcast A-ball quality games, and Marvin Miller should be given the recognition he deserves.
But it won’t happen in his lifetime. The desire for petty revenge is too great.
Some things never change.