Marvin Miller, the soft-spoken union head who led baseball players in a series of strikes and legal battles that won free agency, revolutionized sports and made athletes multimillionaires, died Tuesday. He was 95.
Miller died at his home in Manhattan at 5:30 a.m. local time, said his daughter Susan Miller. He had been diagnosed with liver cancer in August.
"All players — past, present and future — owe a debt of gratitude to Marvin, and his influence transcends baseball," current union head Michael Weiner said. "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."
In his 16 years as executive director of the Major League Players Association, starting in 1966, Miller fought owners on many fronts, winning free agency — the right to negotiate new contracts with any team — for players in December 1975. He may best be remembered, however, as the man who made the word "strike" stand for something other than a pitched ball.
"I think he's the most important baseball figure of the last 50 years," former Commissioner Fay Vincent said. "He changed not just the sport but the business of the sport permanently, and he truly emancipated the baseball player — and in the process all professional athletes. Prior to his time, they had few rights; at the moment, they control the games."
MLB's revenue has grown from $50 million in 1967 to $7.5 billion this year. At his last public speaking engagement, a discussion at New York University School of Law in April marking the 40th anniversary of the first baseball strike, Miller maintained free agency and resulting fan interest contributed to the revenue increase.
"I never before saw such a win-win situation my life, where everybody involved in Major League Baseball, both sides of the equation, still continue to set records in terms of revenue and profits and salaries and benefits," Miller said. "You would think that it was impossible to do that. But it is possible, and it is an amazing story how under those circumstances, there can be both management and labor really winning."
Miller, who retired and became a consultant to the union in 1982, led the first walkout in the game's history 10 years earlier. On April 5, 1972, signs posted at major league parks simply said: "No Game Today." The strike, which lasted 13 days, was followed by a walkout during spring training in 1976 and a midseason job action that darkened the stadiums for seven weeks in 1981.
Baseball had eight work stoppages through 1995 but has labor peace since then. Meanwhile, labor turmoil has engulfed the other major U.S. pro leagues.
"Marvin exemplified guts, tenacity and an undying love for the players he represented," NFL players' union head DeMaurice Smith said. "He was a mentor to me, and we spoke often and at length. His most powerful message was that players would remain unified during labor strife if they remembered the sacrifices made by previous generations."
Slightly built and silver-haired with a thick, dark mustache, Miller trained as an economist and was anything but passive in his dealings with baseball owners.
Miller was elected union president in 1966. Baseball had entered a new era, one in which its owners would have to bargain with a union professional.
The owners made it clear that Miller's election would bring an end to their financial contributions to the association, which had been formed in 1954 because players were disenchanted with the way their pension plan was being administered. Miller insisted he would have asked for the change in any event.
"I told them that if they wanted to make any real headway, they'd have to adopt an independent stance," Miller said.
The players' association consisted of a $5,400 fund and battered file cabinet when Miller took the reins shortly after calling baseball's minimum salary of $7,000 (about $50,000 adjusted for inflation) "unreasonably low."
Today the major league minimum is $480,000, the average salary is more than $3 million and the biggest stars earn up to $32 million a season. Baseball salaries increased by nearly 500 percent under Miller's leadership, more than three times the rate at which manufacturing workers' wages rose.
Yet baseball's Hall of Fame repeatedly refused to vote him in.
"I and the union of players have received far more support, publicity, and appreciation from countless fans, former players, writers, scholars, experts in labor management relations, than if the Hall had not embarked on its futile and fraudulent attempt to rewrite history," Miller said after falling one vote shy in December 2010. "It is an amusing anomaly that the Hall of Fame has made me famous by keeping me out."
Regardless of the Hall of Fame, Miller's legacy — free agency — represented the most significant off-the-field change in the game's history. He viewed the reserve clause that bound a player to the team holding his contract as little more than 20th century slavery.
In 1975, the owners and players agreed to a labor contract that allowed players with six years of major league service to become free agents. Free agency became a reality nearly 100 years after the first players were put under contract.