Lion of American labor: A final conversation with Marvin Miller

November 27, 2012: 1:59 PM ET

Marvin Miller, baseball legend and renowned labor organizer, died Tuesday. In his last in-depth interview, Miller spoke to Fortune last month about everything from steroids to Bud Selig to his legacy.

By David A. Kaplan

marvin-miller

Marvin Miller in 1968

FORTUNE -- For professional baseball players, Marvin Miller—who died Tuesday morning at 95—was Moses, the leader who brought them to the Promised Land and with it millions of dollars in fair-market wages for their preternatural skills. But in a larger sense, Miller was a lion of the American labor movement—an iconic figure of the 20th century, ranked in the pantheon with Cesar Chavez of the United Farm Workers. Studs Terkel called him "the most effective union organizer since John L. Lewis." In baseball itself, many have commented that Miller, along with Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson, was among the three most important men in the history of the game.

Miller loved baseball long before he revolutionized the business of it. He grew up during the Depression in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, not far from Ebbets Field, where the Dodgers played. After getting a degree in economics from NYU at 19, he was a young runner for a Wall Street firm, then a social worker for the New York City Welfare Department. After various jobs with the federal government, he began nearly 20 years with trade unions, chiefly as a highly regarded labor economist with the million-member United Steelworkers based in Pittsburgh. It was work he found to be especially satisfying politically.

In 1966, Miller, then 49, became the first executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association. His salary: $50,000. "Smart, tough, experienced," wrote New York Times columnist Leonard Koppett. "It is easy to see why the owners don't want him." Many players had to be won over as well: Egged on by owner-driven rumors about "labor bosses," they were terrified of retaliation if they fought baseball's long-established "Reserve Clause," which eliminated any market competition by binding players forever to the teams that initially signed them.

Miller's modest initial goal was to increase players' pension benefits. And he was able to get owners to raise minimum salaries raised for the first time in 20 years, from $6,000 to $10,000. In time, and through three strikes and two lockouts, he beat the owners mercilessly in negotiations. Players won limited free agency and their average pay during his 16-year tenure soared more than 12 times to $241,000. (Today the minimum is $480,000 and the average is $3.4 million. Major League Baseball's revenue now is roughly $7 billion; nearly 140 times when Miller took office.)

Miller retired in 1982. Though frail, and widowed several years ago, he continued until his death to live in an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. There—amidst books on history and baseball, and photographs of himself with such presidents as JFK and LBJ in his D.C. days—Miller spoke to Fortune's David A. Kaplan last month. In his last in-depth interview, Miller looked back on a life of unionism, activism, and contrariety. He talked about individual rights, antitrust law, steroids, strikes, the short-sightedness of owners, his five-time rejection by the National Baseball of Fame, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. Edited excerpts:

Growing Up With Baseball

FORTUNE: Did you see Babe Ruth play?

A: Oh yeah. In his prime. I was 8 or 9.

You did! Where?

Yankee Stadium. I had an affluent uncle in Ridgefield Park, N.J. He was a Yankee fan. He had two stepdaughters and no sons—and he liked me. So on weekends he'd drive from to where I lived in Brooklyn—19th Street in Canarsie—and then to the Bronx. He had box seats. I was treated royally. On a cold day the box seats were heated!

Heated seats?

Radiant heat. And people would bring me hot dogs and whatever I wanted. And then my uncle would drive me home. And so it got to be a routine most weekends.

Were you a Yankee fan?

I was a Dodger fan, but not anti-Yankee. I was anti-Giants [who still played at the Polo Grounds in upper Manhattan]. If you lived in Brooklyn, the Dodger-Giant rivalry was stronger than anything about the Yankees.

Were you infuriated with everybody else in Brooklyn when the Dodgers moved to L.A.?

No, I moved out before them.

 

The Road to Unionism

Had did you get into labor work?

I started out wanting to be a teacher. My mother was a full-time teacher in the New York City school system, and I admired her and the work she did. When I graduated from college, I took all the civil service exams and finished reasonably high on the high school teachers list—only to be told it wasn't going to happen.

Because?

Someone told me, "You finished well on the lists, but you have a birth injury [Erb's Palsy] to your right arm, and you carry it in a peculiar manner. And we don't think this is a good example in the classroom." So I was barred.

But you wrote with your left hand and did fine.

It didn't matter.

What would you have taught?

Probably social studies and economics.

So you turned in a different direction for work?

I was a runner on Wall Street, for Carl M. Loeb, Rhoades & Company. Then, after finishing high on a federal clerical exam in 1938, I got appointed to the Treasury Department in Washington. After you took off the pension contribution and Social Security, I got $57.90 a month.

You had a series of government and union jobs, before becoming a star with the Steelworkers. Why did you want to organize baseball players?

Some of the players sought me out—Robin Roberts, Jim Bunning [later a U.S. senator]. When the offer was made, I knew a lot of it as a fan, but much I didn't know. As my wife and I studied the history of the game, I realized it would be a tough row to hoe because of the "Reserve Clause." Players and fans had accepted it for 100 years.

Did you come aboard thinking "I'm going to change this"?

Yes.

Is that why they sought you out?

No. Mostly they'd heard I was a tough negotiator who knew all about pension plans, which they regarded as their pride-and-joy.

That's what they thought their highest interests were?

Right. At my first meeting with their search committee, all they talked about what their "benefit plan." I did my damndest to get some feeling about how they viewed their work conditions.

Nothing about the Reserve Clause?

It got so I began mentioning it myself. You couldn't have a legitimate union if the members were treated like pieces of property. There was an unwritten black list: If you don't do what [teams] wanted, you couldn't play organized baseball.

The players accepted the Reserve Clause based on fear alone?

Their was an entrenched view that baseball would collapse without it—that one club would win all the World Series… Jim Bouton was one of the brightest of the players [who would go on to write the celebrated "Ball Four"] gave me the argument that one club would buy all the stars. And I said, "Jim, what you just described is the Yankees." He stopped arguing.

Did you retain your love for the game once you started to work in it?

I realized it wasn't proper for me to root for any team. So I began rooting for individual player representatives who were elected by their teammates—like Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell, who I saw in Pittsburgh. Clemente was the first non-white elected player representative, a historic individual.

Are there other players you particularly remember?

When I was first met with player reps, during spring training in 1966, Bunning [of the Philadelphia Phillies] asked if he could bring along Bill White, a first baseman who had been traded over by the [St. Louis] Cardinals [who went on to become president of the National League from 1989 to 1994]. We discussed everything, the state of the world. Bill of course was black. As we walked out together, he said to me: "As you may know, I have substantially different views about race relations than most people. "I've got to tell you, you're the first white man whose views on race relations are to the left of mine." [Laughter]

 

The Supreme Court, Antitrust and Curt Flood

Why didn't the cause of the baseball players get more political support?

It's called "the national pastime," but it's even more than that—it's a religion. Presidents and politicians want to be a part of it and not challenge it. When they talk "national pastime," their minds turn to mush.

The Reserve Clause was legal only because the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1922 that baseball was exempt from antitrust laws. So how important was outfielder Curt Flood's lawsuit in 1970 against commissioner Bowie Kuhn challenging the Reserve Clause?

It was Flood's idea. When he was traded from St. Louis to Philadelphia, he came to New York with his lawyer to talk to me. He wanted to file an antitrust lawsuit. I felt it was a loser from the beginning, and I told him so. I knew the history of the cases, beginning with Oliver Wendell Holmes' decision in Federal Baseball Club v. National League—a more stupid opinion you wouldn't find anywhere.

But Flood disagreed with you?

He was a bright man. He did not want to go to Philadelphia. He felt it was the most anti-black town in the whole National League. And he was going to fight this case no matter what I said. I wanted him to know what the obstacles were and that I wouldn't neglect him. [Flood got his case up to the Supreme Court in 1972—and lost, in Flood v. Kuhn.]

If you weren't going to get rid of the Reserve Clause in court, what was your plan?

Accomplishing the same end through arbitration. That was the plan all the way. But first baseball had to have an impartial arbitrator in place. At the time, the commissioner [was supposed to hear] all grievances from players, which was absurd.

So, getting the owners to agree to an independent arbitrator was essential?

Yes, but it took time…When the Flood case was about to come to trial [in 1970], Kuhn and I had a chance meeting on the street. And he asked, "Why are you so adamant impartial arbitration?" And I said, "You're talking like an amateur. You're employed by the owners—you're the most impossible person to be the arbitrator of a collective bargaining agreement." And he said, "But we've had it a long time."

Not a bad point, right?

And I said, "Bowie, I know the history. Every time in court, you've argued the antitrust laws aren't necessary because baseball is a self-regulated industry, and you're the proof. And you got away with it because there's been no union to contradict you. But I'm here and I'm going to contradict the hell out of you. The fact is, you've never had a grievance to decide because the players know you're a fraud." He said, "You're ready to expose it?" I said, "I'm champing at the bit…I'm going to pile on so many grievances won't have time to blow your nose. And the minute you ever rule for a player, you'll be fired." So he said, "Suppose I concede it's not the proper way to go. What is?" I told him a professional arbitrator appointed and paid for by both sides.

The owners agreed to it that year. Why didn't you get it sooner?

We did things piece by piece. Even the recognition that we were the players' sole collective bargaining agent came grudgingly.

When they agreed to the arbitrator, did you say to yourself, "My goodness, this is the magic moment to be able to get rid of the Reserve Clause? Did they know it was a Trojan Horse?

I had high hopes this put us on the track, but I did worry there were all kinds of things that could happen in between. What was going to be machinery? Can one side fire the arbitrator?

You won in 1975, when arbitrator Peter Seitz declared Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally free agents after they played an entire year without contracts and thereby satisfied what Seitz concluded was the limited power of the Reserve Clause. Did the owners not realize the groundwork you were laying?

Never. They were too indoctrinated by their own practice….Except Charlie Finley [then owner of the Oakland Athletics]. After we beat baseball's last appeal in court, I was in Kuhn's office and Finley was there. Finley said, "Where have you been my whole life?" He understood free agency would give him the chance to get players he wouldn't otherwise be able to get.

Did the owners similarly not understand why you were willing to go along with them restrict free agency to veteran players—that is, artificially restricting supply would drive up demand?

Absolutely. I knew it from Day 1.

So if owners had said to you "free agency for everybody every year," as a matter of principle you couldn't have objected?

Right. I had nightmares about it. [Laughter]

Pretty funny that you had nightmares about freedom from slavery.

It is.

You and Kuhn retired within a few years of each other. Did you and he ever reminisce [before he died in 2007]?

Lots of times. At one point he and his wife Louisa invited my wife and I to dinner at his home in New Jersey. It was a very pleasant meeting. They had a tennis court, and Bowie and my wife played against Bowie's stepson and myself.

Who won?

We did.

 

Steroids, Public Trust, and Individual Liberty

You retired in 1982. Do you think you would've handled the whole steroid controversy differently?

I would never have agreed on a system other than the one [the union] agreed to originally, which was to have three doctors and a committee, and when an owner… felt an individual had violated baseball's rules, he could go to court and…have a hearing. And if two of three doctors agreed there was reason to believe the person was guilty, then they would have an investigation.

And a drug test only then, but not beforehand?

Right.

No across-the-board drug testing?

Right. What happened is Peter Ueberroth became commissioner [in 1984], and he wanted to make a name for himself. I'm the first to admit that the old procedure had shortcomings: What owner was going to bring up his own player and say, "I think there's reason to believe he's guilty. He's hitting too many home runs!"

So, that wasn't a workable solution?

It wasn't. When Ueberroth recognized it, he abolished it unilaterally…No company or industry could do that.

What's the great harm of the class of all ballplayers themselves voluntarily agreeing to prophylactic drug testing?

It ignores what the protections of individuals or union members should be. And the players' union knew it could stop it. But it agreed anyway. Not once, not twice, three times the union allowed the contract to be reopened when there were no provisions for this kind of procedure. I disagreed with it.

But if there's a greater good—like trying to rid the sport of performance-enhancing drugs that the public feels is affecting the integrity of the game—isn't that a legitimate basis?

No, it is not. Because steroids have a story behind them, which isn't science. There's never been a test showing steroids or any other makes a star out of an ordinary player.

You and I could take steroids and still not hit a knuckleball?

Exactly.

But wouldn't you agree that the public's view about home runs and records during the steroids era" was a real problem?

I was unimpressed. I didn't pretend I knew. I simply said, "We're dealing with a problem that deserves a scientific test…It's hard to do, but we can do it if you're really interested in what the facts are, rather than what the press is saying."…Take arguments like, "Can't you see the difference in the weight and the girth of the players?" I say, "Okay, I can see that, but there are now trainers who are better aware of what it takes produce muscles."

Is it truly possible that the proliferation of home runs during this period—be it overall, or Barry Bonds' 73 in 2001] or Mark McGwire's 70 [in 1998]— had no connection to performance-enhancing drugs?

Of course it's possible. All through history there are periods with more home runs. The height of the pitcher's mound changes. The distances down the left field line and right field line changes.

Is it a compliment to say you're a better lawyer than most lawyers?

I suppose.

I understand the argument, but even if there's not satisfactory "proof," can't those running the game factor in public perception?

I don't think so. And you also can't have government doing this, like with that House committee. What they did was patently illegal and they did it by scaring the baseball commissioner about the antitrust exemption and the tax rules under which teams depreciate the cost of a player's contract…The Fourth Amendment bars testing a whole class of people.

You were a labor leader. But I'm wondering if you would regard yourself as much as a civil libertarian.

It's hard to separate, it really is.

The distinction would be that a labor leader is agnostic, trying to represent the interests of the rank and file, whatever those interests may be. A civil libertarian has an overriding agenda based on the Bill of Rights.

They all intermingle after a while. But, you know, I got so sick of the stupid arguments telling me about how added weight to a player makes him a home run hitter. Babe Ruth turned from a slender individual to a rather fat man who ran pigeon-toed, and whose home runs went up and up and up on what was clearly a diet of beer and scotch and hot dogs.

 

 "Rigging" the Hall of Fame?

Does Bud Selig [the current commissioner] want you in the Hall of Fame or doesn't he?

There are machinations in the whole thing. Reporters asked him, "What the hell is going on here?" And Bud's answer was, "Oh, well, no question on the impact he's had—he ought to be in the Hall of Fame."

So, what happened?

It's a hypocritical answer. Look at the last election [in 2010]. Frank Robinson [a Hall of Fame player from 1956 to 1976] was on the 16-member voting committee—one of many former players who are now working for management. So it's hardly an impartial group. And so of course Robinson, who could have provided the 12th and necessary vote—you needed three-quarters—wouldn't vote for me. [Editor's note: It's a secret ballot. Fortune asked Robinson for comment. A spokesman for Major League Baseball, where Robinson works as an advisor to Selig, said Robinson "will honor the directions that are given to Hall of Fame voters and not comment on who he does and does not vote for."]

Did Frank ever acknowledge that he didn't vote for you?

No. It's not really personal. He has a lawyer in Baltimore I know, and the lawyer called me and said, "Look, I'm worried." This was before the vote was announced. "I'm worried. I talked to Frank, and Frank said to me, 'Look, he's a good man, but…'" He never explained the "but." And I said, "That's easy. The 'but' is he works for Bud."

What's in it for Bud, other than spite? He's is a student of history and the Hall of Fame is a shrine to history. Anybody knows that in terms of your legacy in baseball, you belong there.

Behind the scenes he's just two-faced.

You've lost out on the Hall of Fame five times, going back a decade. I always thought it was particularly honest on your part to say, "I'd like to be in." Someone else might have said with false bravado it didn't matter.

That was before I realized how they were rigging the elections. But I've asked those doing the nominating never to do so again because I'm too old for farce. They'll always make sure that there are enough voting "players" who are still employed in the industry to make sure I don't get 75% of the vote.

The next vote is in December 2013. If you were finally chosen, would you go to the induction ceremony the following summer?

No.

Too much history?

It's not just that. I learned from my mother, you don't go where you're not welcome.

But the players would welcome you.

You've got to understand, David. There are many players in the Hall of Fame, but many weren't part of the union and never really understood how badly exploited they were. Most of them currently have a job with baseball…. You expect them to throw all that away to vote for me?

Did you cost the owners a lot of money?

When Bud takes a look at baseball revenue of over $7 billion, he takes all the credit. But anybody knows what the union did is to make this a bigger industry—30 teams instead of 20, greater competition, new markets, new stadiums, the first licensing program. It's a win-win for everybody, which I exult in. As spectacular as the change in salaries and benefits have been, it's less spectacular than what the owners have achieved over the same period.

 

Legacy and Memory

What should your legacy be?

I think I've gotten hundreds of telephone calls since I got sick a few years ago. Sandy Koufax, Dave Winfield, Jim Bouton, Brooks Robinson, Jim Palmer, Reggie Jackson. They are so complimentary about how I have changed their lives and how grateful they are…I still gets calls from labor leaders in other sports and from people like the president of the AFL-CIO. That's enough of a legacy, you know?

If you had stayed with the Steelworkers, would baseball's economic revolution have happened anyway—that is, do you believe great men make history or do make great men?

The players say how lucky they were that I came along, and I say this wasn't luck. It was an amalgam of who they were and who I was. It was such a pleasure to watch them come of age. And they grew into a cadre of activists who understood the operation of the industry more than the team owners.

 

Whither Unions?

Do you lament the political outcry these days against union?

I'm worried about it. We live in an economy where we're taught that jobs are created by industry and commerce. But the fact of the matter is they don't always create jobs. When the face tough times, they cut jobs.

So who in your view produces the jobs?

The corollary to this you can't keep believing that government over-regulates industry and commerce. They under-regulate it because when times are tough, it must be government that produces the incentive for jobs. We need more firemen, more teachers, and people to repair the Brooklyn Bridge. No company will do this.

Do you consider yourself a socialist, as some of the great labor leaders have been?

I would not. Industry does many things the government won't and shouldn't.

Why does the public begrudge the millions made by third basemen who fail to hit, but not mediocre Hollywood stars?

Exactly right. And in baseball you have more internal controls over salaries than in any other business.

In looking back, what surprises you most?

How rapidly union members with no background learned things and how they became part of the power structure.

Is there anyone in the corporate world you've particularly admired?

Steve Jobs. Warren Buffett. And I'm surprised to say, Bill Gates—he wasn't just greedy for profits, but in his later work had real concerns for the public good and I respect that.

You wanted to be a teacher early on. Did you turn out, after all, as a teacher?

When the players call me, that's how they describe me.

Not a bad way to be remembered.

Not bad at all.

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