Friday, 30 November 2012


My obit of Marvin Miller, the head of the Major League Baseball Players Association for 16 crucial years, in online now at You can link to it here, and it should appear in the paper paper soon (note: 'soon' in Guardian terms is a flexible term: the obit actually ran in print on 30 January 2013!).

I would place Miller among the five most influential people in sport in the second-half of the 20th century, along with Mark McCormack, Roone Arledge, Pete Rozelle, and Juan Antonio Samaranch or Billie Jean King, all of whom would certainly rank in the top ten overall. Miller's function was to begin the inevitable path of sportsmen into profit-sharing (if not equal) partners in the evolving entertainment business of sport. Many people have called him the most successful labor leader of the 20th century, but his lasting achievement was to get his disparate constituency to give up the sort of individualist dreams that let ownership play them against each other. Baseball is not a perfect business by any means, and players can take advantage of the system, and seem remarkably petty toward minor-league players, umpires, and others without whom the game could not progress. But the overwhelming source of most of the problems in the game is the owners' greed, not the players', and as I suggest in my obit the biggest ongoing problem is the owners' inabilty to share their profits equitably among themselves, something they try to make the players do for them.

The idea that Miller is not in the baseball Hall of Fame seems to me an insult to the players themselves--and it's interesting to see how often journalists instinctively take management's side (it was no different for me when I was shop steward at UPITN, and looked on wonderingly as my  ITN equivalent, who also happened to be their 'industrial correspondent' routine trashed trade unions. I had wanted to include Dick Young, the New York Daily News' reactionary (except in matters of race, where he was a brave stalwart of equality) sports reporter, who regularly called Miller 'Svengali', implying some sort of evil control over otherwise dumb but honest players. What's particularly galling is that Miller's nemesis, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, is in the Hall, despite any number of bonehead decisions, not just his dug-in heels as baseball's designated anti-Miller. It was partly in reaction to Kuhn that baseball went in the other direction to choose a commissioner who might be seen as something more than a tool of the owners. They chose Bart Giamatti, president of Yale, and when he died prematurely, his assistant, Fay Vincent, took over, and would be the 'last' commissioner.

Miller came from unions like the UAW and USWA where workers had had to fight, literally, for everything they'd got, and where the costs could be measured in bodies. MLB was never as vicious in that sense as the big industries, but it was if anything far more feudal, with the players positioned as serfs. The irony was that one could almost understand the owners' position when they were men who made their livings running ballclubs--but as baseball became more and more of an industry, and more and more of the owners were rich men indulging their egos, the sense of feudality and the serfdom became even more intrenched.

I never met Miller, but in the four years I worked for Major League Baseball International, I could see the evidence of that feudal system, and the effects of his work all around me. The most evident was the inability of the union and the owners to view each other without suspicion. Miller famously told his players that if he had good relations with the owners he wouldn't be doing his job, but I look at the relationship between Paul Tagliabue as commissioner of the NFL and Gene Upshaw of the NFL players as instructive. Miller's successor (with a slight delay) Donald Fehr, was adversarial in extremis, but when Vincent, who was commissioner when I worked there, approached the union in a relatively conciliatory manner, the owners fired him and made one of their own the boss.

This became apparent to me when we had the opportunity of arranging two events in Europe; one a two-game series (which turned into one thanks to rain) between two teams (which turned into minor leaguers from the Red Sox and Mets organisations) at Lords Cricket Ground (which turned into the Oval), and the other an exhibition between an MLB team (the Cardinals) and a select team of Japanese players, to be staged in Barcelona in the spring before the 1992 Olympic games at the new baseball stadium in L'Hospitalet. I was part of management, obviously, but my position involved trying to get everyone to compromise in order to get some kind of new event off the ground. I realised I would never get there when I sat in on discussion of another event, the All-Star tour of Japan, in which my boss was arguing over meal-money, on top of the appearance fee, for the players while they were there. The union wanted $700 a day, and provision of food in the locker rooms before and after then game, which seemed a somewhat contradictory position, but would not come down from the figure. 'Frank,' they said to my boss, 'the players have to eat!' I also knew there would be more trouble when I took one of the MLBPA lawyers to Lords, and she asked why she wouldn't be able to watch the proposed games from the Long Room, but I was on her side on that one. The Olympic event never did happen, though the players had agreed to it, while the Oval game was a limited success, but what I noticed most was the way the feudal system swung into effect once everyone from New York arrived in London.

As it happens I read Miller's excellent memoir, A Whole Different Ballgame (1991), while I was working for MLBI, and John Helyar's even better The Lords Of The Realm (1994) just after I'd left it. I'd had much of my instinctive sympathy with the union hammered flat while negotiating with them, although my sympathies usually swung back towards them, thanks to the institutional malaise that was MLB. But those books put the sport I loved, and sport in general, into perspective. That sort of perspective isn't enough to get Miller into the Hall Of Fame, but it shouldn't need to be.

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