While Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson were the most transformative figures in baseball during the first half of 20th century, Marvin Miller, a labor economist who never had an at-bat in the Major Leagues, ranks as perhaps the most influential figure during the game's past 50 years.
Beginning in 1966, Miller led the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) for a quarter century. A native New Yorker, he spent his life as a labor negotiator, first at the National Labor Relations Board and later with the auto workers' and the steelworkers' unions.
In 1968, Miller negotiated baseball's first collective bargaining agreement with the team owners that increased the minimum salary from $6,000 to $10,000. In 1970, he pushed for arbitration of player salaries. Prior to that, disputes went to the Commissioner.
After an independent arbitrator ruled that Charlie Finley failed to make a payment stipulated in Catfish Hunter's contract with the Oakland A's, the 1974 AL Cy Young Award was able to sign with another team. The Yankees offered him a 5-year, $3.5 million deal in 1975. During the years Miller led the union, the average annual baseball salaries skyrocketed. Just this week, David Wright of the Mets became the newest member of the "$100 Million Club," and the average player salary is now more than $3 million annually. Players today owe Marvin Miller a debt of gratitude.
Miller's most important contribution was bringing an end to baseball's reserve clause, which essentially required players to stay with the teams that signed them. In 1975, pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally were granted free agency by an independent arbitrator who said they had fulfilled their deals. Messersmith made $90,000 with the Dodgers in 1974, his best year, when he finished second in the Cy Young voting. Upon signing a free agent contract with the Atlanta Braves, his earning jumped to $333,000 per year, according to Baseball-Reference.com. The economics of baseball had changed forever.
Even Commissioner Bud Selig, whose predecessor, Bowie Kuhn, dealt Miller during player strikes in 1972, '80 and '81, acknowledged in a statement this week that the union leader "made a distinct impact on this sport... surely the Major League players of the last half-century have greatly benefited from his contributions."
Marvin Miller was a Hall of Fame candidate in both 2003 and 2007, but did not receive enough votes. Several years later, he was one of 12 candidates from the so-called "Expansion Era" (from 1973 onward) considered for 2011 induction. A Veterans Committee -- comprised of Hall of Fame players and a manager, members of the media, and baseball executives -- failed to give the union leader the required number of ballots. Miller can again be considered for the Hall of Fame in 2014, and many players and baseball experts believe his induction is long overdue on the basis of his long-lasting financial impact on the game.
Marvin Miller's influence on modern baseball history is immeasurable. The changes he initiated enabled players to offer their services on the open market and negotiate the most lucrative deal possible -- just as any worker can do when applying for a better paying job.
A native of Newark, Jed Hughes is Vice Chair of Korn/Ferry and the leader of the executive search firm's Global Sports Practice. Among his high profile placements are Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott, Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby, Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon and head coach Brady Hoke. Green Bay Packers CEO Mark Murphy, and New York Jets President Neil Glat. Earlier in his career, Jed coached for two decades in professional and intercollegiate football where he served under five Hall of Fame coaches: Bo Schembechler (Michigan), Chuck Noll (Pittsburgh Steelers), Bud Grant (Minnesota Vikings), John Ralston (Stanford) and Terry Donahue (UCLA). Follow him on Facebook, Twitter @jedhughesKF.