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Marvin Miller’s Combative Legacy: Labor Peace

By Jonathan Mahler
November 27, 2012 1:58 PM EST
Jonathan Mahler
Photographer: Jonathan Ragle/Bloomberg
Jonathan Mahler

The National Hockey League is currently in the midst of a crippling owner lockout that’s threatening to wipe out its second season in fewer than 10 years. An owner lockout last year forced the National Basketball Association to shorten its schedule by 16 games. And then there’s the National Football League, which locked out its players before last season and its officials this season.

Only one of the U.S.’s four major professional sports leagues has been blissfully free of labor strife in recent years: Major League Baseball. In baseball, and baseball alone, the owners and players are content divvying up the soaring piles of money generated largely by TV revenues.

In fact, it’s been so long since baseball suffered a serious labor dispute -- nearly two decades, if you’re counting -- that it’s easy to forget that it wasn’t always thus. There was a time when the owners had all of the power, and with it all of the money. A provision in the standard labor contract known as the reserve clause allowed them to keep players for the duration of their careers -- and even cut their pay by as much as 20 percent.

And then along came Marvin Miller, who died today at the age of 95.

Miller arrived at the Major League Baseball Players Association in 1966 from the Steelworkers union, and he didn’t see any reason why ballplayers should be any less aggressive than steel workers about asserting their rights. It took some doing. At the time, most players saw it as a privilege to be getting paid to play a kids’ game. They considered baseball a sport, not a business.

Miller persuaded the players to trust him, and persuaded the courts that he was right -- that ballplayers were no different from any other U.S. workers. All of them deserved the right to seek the highest available price for their services.

When he locks down what will almost certainly be a $200- million plus deal this off-season, Josh Hamilton may want to thank not only the divine being whom he credits with saving him from drug addiction and poverty, but the earthly one who delivered him from baseball’s reserve clause.

(Jonathan Mahler is a sports columnist for Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter.)

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