Why MLB Players Owe Every Dime of Their Bloated Salaries to Marvin Miller

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterNovember 27, 2012

Photo Credit: Associated Press, via ESPN.com
Photo Credit: Associated Press, via ESPN.com

A few winters ago, Alex Rodriguez signed a contract with the New York Yankees worth $275 million. Last winter, Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder both signed contracts worth over $200 million. This winter, Josh Hamilton and Zack Greinke are likely to land deals worth $25 million per year.

A lot of fans look at these bloated contracts with frowns on their faces. But like it or not, this is how it is, and it's totally fair. There's a lot of money to go around in baseball, and players are free to seek out the best contracts they can possibly get when their time comes.

For that, they have Marvin Miller to thank. He made Major League Baseball much, much kinder to its players with his efforts as the head of the MLB Players Association from 1966 to 1982. His greatest achievement was bringing free agency to the game, thus paving the way for baseball players to join the ranks of the richest athletes on earth.

As his daughter announced to the Associated Press, Miller passed away on Tuesday morning at his home in Manhattan. He was 95 years old. 

Today, his legacy is being honored. Some current players are even taking to Twitter to express their gratitude for all that Miller did, from Billy Butler to David Price to Shane Victorino to Andrew McCutchen and many, many more.

All of them get it. They understand that Miller is responsible for changing the way baseball players are compensated, much less treated, by their employers. They are treated as people, whereas before, they were treated as little more than property.

If you were to get in a time machine and go back to the year 1966, MLB's labor structure wouldn't look very familiar. Thanks to the reserve clause, players were basically bound to their teams for life. So long as owners wanted their players to play for them, they decided how much they played for. Phrases like "negotiating power" and "leverage" were alien concepts to the ballplayers of yesteryear.

According to The New York Times, the minimum salary in the mid-1960s was $6,000, a figure that wasn't necessarily on its way up from where it had been for the past two decades. The average salary was $19,000.

If a player didn't like his salary, he had to either hope that his boss was in a generous mood the day he decided to complain about it, or he could take it up with the commissioner. The commissioner, of course, worked for the owners.

When Miller came along in 1966, the players' union really wasn't much of a union. It had only been established 12 years prior and it had no full-time employees and nobody to collectively bargain with the league's owners. It certainly had nobody with the guts to challenge the reserve clause.

Miller came to baseball after establishing himself as an economist and an effective negotiator with the United Steelworkers Union. While the players were certainly pining for an experienced negotiator in 1966, he wasn't exactly warmly received when he went touring around spring training camps as part of an effort to garner support. Some managers and coaches even heckled and interrupted him while he was speaking.

But the players? They went for him. He was elected as the executive director of the MLBPA in April.

“A lot of players figured that anyone the owners disliked that much couldn’t be all bad,” said late Chicago White Sox owner Bill Veeck, via the AP.

Flash forward two years to 1968, and the MLB Players Association had negotiated its very first collective bargaining agreement. The minimum salary went up from $6,000 to $10,000.

Two years later, in 1970, players were granted the right to have grievances heard by an arbitrator rather than the commissioner. By 1973, salary demands were subject to go to arbitration as well.

The reserve clause, however, remained in place. All-Star outfielder Curt Flood challenged it after he refused to accept a trade from the St. Louis Cardinals to the Philadelphia Phillies in 1969, demanding, with Miller's support, that commissioner Bowie Kuhn declare him a free agent. 

Naturally, Flood's demand was denied, a lawsuit was filed and the case ultimately ended up in the hands of the Supreme Court. In 1972, it ruled in favor of Major League Baseball.

However, MLB's victory was short-lived. In 1974, Miller used the arbitration process to free Cy Young winner Catfish Hunter from his contract with the Oakland A's, thus making him a free agent. He went on to sign a landmark contract with the Yankees.

Hunter's case was a victory for Miller, but a minor one. Miller was only able to make Hunter a free agent because of a loophole in his contract that he noticed before A's owner Charlie Finley. The same trick wasn't going to work every time a player wanted to become a free agent.

A year later, though, Miller found another way to make free agency a reality. With Miller's guidance, Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Andy Messersmith and Montreal Expos pitcher Dave McNally refused to sign contracts with their teams, setting their sights on the clause in players' contracts that gave owners the right to renew a player's contract without his consent.

This led to the so-called "Seitz decision" in December 1975. Baseball arbitrator Peter Seitz ruled in favor of Messersmith and McNally, claiming that owners did not have the right to perpetually renew contracts. He agreed with the players that the renewal could only be a one-time thing and that players should be free to shop their talents to other teams if they refuse to re-sign.

Just like that, the reserve clause effectively became a thing of the past.

Seitz was fired, and the owners mounted a furious challenge to his ruling, but it was for naught. Instead, an agreement was put in place a few months later that allowed players with six years of major-league service to become free agents.

Sound familiar? That's because six years of major-league service is still the general guideline for free agency today. Not much has changed since Miller pushed for free agency in the 1970s.

Except for the salaries, of course. According to Ken Rosenthal of FOXSports.com, the minimum major-league salary is now nearly $500,000. Last year, the average salary increased to $3.1 million, per a report from the AP. Clearly, these are good times to be a baseball player.

The average salary is likely to just keep getting higher and higher as baseball moves forward into the future. Attendance was up in 2012, as MLB.com noted in early October that baseball drew nearly 75 million fans this year. You may have also heard that there's a lot of TV money being pumped into baseball these days, and more is on the way thanks to the new national-TV deals that MLB recently established with ESPN and with Turner Sports and FOX.

More money for the league, obviously, means more money for the players. Hence the reason players like Josh Hamilton and Zack Greinke can demand ridiculous contracts while keeping straight faces. Why should the owners be the only ones reaping the benefits of all the new money?

Fans tend to look down on players with big contracts, while players who take "less money" to sign somewhere are generally regarded as heroes. But no player should ever be faulted for getting as much money in a contract as he can possibly get.

Shoot, if any of us worked in an industry that allowed us to shop our services to the employer who is willing to give us the most money, we'd all make like baseball players and get ours.

Fans must appreciate the fact that the system in place now is much fairer than the system that was in place before Miller came along all those years ago. Some ballplayers were paid handsomely, but the ones that were being paid handsomely were few and far between. Generally speaking, owners didn't pay their players any more than they felt they had to.

Ballplayers were essentially glorified servants. Changes had to be made.

It wasn't easy for Miller to make the changes that he made, to be sure. He had to overcome initial skepticism among some players, and his slow destruction of the established order of things certainly didn't go over well with the league's owners.

In addition, there were work stoppages in 1972, 1976, 1980 and 1981. The strike in 1981 occurred in the middle of the season and lasted for almost two months. Free agency was at the heart of it.

However, it's fair to say that the ends justified the means. And by the time Miller retired as the head of the union in 1982, the MLBPA was something of a labor powerhouse. It's lost none of its influence in the years since Miller's retirement, as the MLBPA reigns supreme as the most powerful union in all of sports today.

That Miller is not in the Hall of Fame yet is shocking, but also not very surprising. For all the friends he made over the years, he also made his share of enemies. In 2008, he recognized that some of them were controlling who was getting into the Hall of Fame after he was denied entry to Cooperstown by the Veterans Committee.

"The anti-union bias of the powers who control the Hall has consistently prevented recognition of the historic significance of the changes to baseball brought about by collective bargaining," he wrote in a letter to the Baseball Writers' Association of America.

He asked to be removed from any future ballots, noting that he didn't want to have to deal with such a "farce" again at his age.

Miller probably will be enshrined in Cooperstown at some point down the road, but it's not an honor that is really needed for his legacy to be validated. 

His legacy is validated every time a ballplayer smiles and signs on the dotted line without having to consider any "or else" realities. 

Any player who does so knows that Marvin Miller made it possible.

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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