On Tuesday, one of the most important and influential figures in the history of sports passed away.
To some, Marvin Miller was a man who destroyed the world of professional sports by helping turn it into a major economical giant. To others, he was the sports world’s version of Moses, the man who led athletes to financial freedom by advocating for their rights on and off the field.
Whether you love him or hate him, Miller is undoubtedly one of the most important figures in the history of professional sports.
Miller started turning the wheels of change in Major League Baseball in 1966. Before he was hired as the president of the Major League Baseball Players Association, athletes in baseball and other professional sports weren’t the multi-millionaire, societal icons they are today.
There was a time when team owners and executives ruled baseball with an iron fist. The reserve clause allowed them to keep players tied to their team for as long as they deemed necessary. There was no free agency. A player just couldn’t stampede into executives’ offices and demand to play for another team.
Before Miller came along, the minimum salary was $6,000; the average salary $19,000. Now, according to CBSSports.com, the average salary is $3,440,000.
The pension plans that existed at the time for the players were a joke, and if a player wanted to voice his displeasure, he had to file a grievance with the commissioner, who worked for – you guessed it – the owners!
When Miller took over the fight on behalf of the players, he wasn’t trying to be a revolutionary – he was trying to change things for the better. The players wanted to play where they wanted, make more money and have greater freedom in their profession.
It took a while, but Miller was finally able to accomplish all of this.
By the time Miller stepped down from his position with the MLBPA in 1982, players were allowed to leave teams via free agency. Salaries started to escalate and from then on, the entire landscape of professional sports changed.
Miller’s theories not only changed the way players are paid, but they also paved the way for sports to expand as a major entertainment behemoth.
Off to the side, he negotiated numerous marketing and licensing deals that added millions of dollars in the MLBPA’s pockets. And if it weren’t for Miller, sports shows such as “Monday Night Football” would not have been successful if they couldn’t capitalize on the marketability of the athletes.
Just like any major trailblazer, Miller made his share of enemies along the way. And to some extent, he still has them. Former Major League Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, who was a well-publicized critic of Miller, once called him, “the fox in the henhouse.”
Through the good and bad, the thick and thin, Miller stood for the players, even if he didn’t want to. And now, some 56 years later, his influence on baseball, and all professional sports, still reverberates.
Eventually, the NBAPA, NHLPA and NFLPA caught on to his influence, and soon after, followed the MLBPA’s way of conducting business.
During the last several years, a great debate has taken place about whether or not he belongs in the Hall of Fame. His detractors have worked hard to deny him entrance into the greatest sports fraternity there is. His supporters are working harder for his admittance.
If and when Miller ends up in the Hall of Fame posthumously, it will be recognition long overdue. Regardless of the damage he purportedly caused the owners, he allowed sports to be conducted like a business that could benefit everyone – not just a select few.
Sometime, I hope that Miller’s plaque will be hanging with the other greats of the game. It deserves to. After all, Miller wasn’t merely a trailblazer – he was an innovator who took a chance.