Baseball as a metaphor for the American experience can be a tired theme for sure, but the reason it gets trotted out as often as it does is because, well, much about the national pastime really has been a microcosm of life in these United States over the past century plus.
Racial inequality? Check.
Bending the rules? Check.
Labor vs. management? Check.
Rags to riches? Check.
It’s those last two areas mainly, though not exclusively, that distinguished the career of the late Marvin Miller, the lawyer and economist who headed the major league baseball players’ union from 1966 to 1982.
Miller, who died Tuesday at age 95, is the man responsible for free agency — the notion that a ballplayer should, after fulfilling his contractual obligations with one team, be able to seek employment with another club if he felt like doing so. Kind of like how if a plumber or teacher or gas station attendant wants to try to go to work somewhere else, he or she can.
Prior to the Miller era, when a team signed a player, it owned his rights in perpetuity until he was traded or waived. That’s because the standard one-year player contract — every guy, from the biggest star to the most little-used bench jockey, was on a one-year deal — included something called the reserve clause that basically allowed the team to renew the contract each year for as long as it wanted, for whatever amount it wanted.
At least that’s what everyone had always believed. Then Miller came along, reviewed the contract and figured the reserve clause gave the owners the right to renew for one additional year, not forever.
So in 1974, after having gotten the owners to agree to binding arbitration — prior to that, disputes were resolved by the baseball commissioner, an employee of the owners — he launched a test case. Miller persuaded two pitchers to play out a season without signing a contract, then declared them free agents after the year. The owners balked, but the arbitrator agreed with Miller; the players had won the right to shop themselves in a marketplace — one shrewdly controlled by Miller’s acumen to maximize demand and allow for the growth of salaries.
Prior to free agency, baseball was a “plantation,” Miller said, in which players were denied any sort of freedom of movement and exploited not by being paid a low wage, but by being paid a wage substantially less than what they deserved based on the wealth they helped create. Thanks to Miller’s savvy, the plantation model was dismantled.
Folks often like to complain about how much money athletes make, but they shouldn’t. In a free country, economically speaking a person — whether a ballplayer, actor or news reporter — is worth whatever he can get someone else to pay him. If that’s a lot, there’s nothing wrong with that.
Freedom to pursue employment options and earn a good or great living is definitely an American ideal, and everyone owes a thank you to Marvin Miller for advancing that cause in our national game.
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