The Marvin Millers over the world bear a name that could be called ordinary, or at least unimaginative. Not this one. He has distinguished it. He's 5 feet 8 and weighs maybe 150 pounds and is, at times, the biggest in baseball, including right now.
He is silver-haired with a thin, tidy mustache to match. He carries his right arm a bit shorter than his left, an accident at birth. He speaks softly, while offering the impression he is in awe of no man. Marvin Miller is 63 and has been the unsinkable adversary of baseball's major league club owners for the last 15 years.
Unless this man gives the nod, not a pitch will be thrown or a bat swung on May 23, the posted strike date of the 968 major league players. When that crunch comes, they will walk off the job or accept an improved contract with the club owners and let baseball abound in the land. In either case, it will be with Marvin Miller calling the shot.
He will deny this importance, saying the players must vote their own feelings. This is his modesty. They always wait on a signal from Marvin. It has been normal procedure with every threat of a baseball strike, or a sit-out at spring training, or a lockout by the club owners or other dispute. It always comes down to "what does Marvin advise?"
The existing gratitude toward him dates from 1966 when a frustrated Major League Players Association, in an inspired choice, hired Miller as its executive director (labor and contract negotiator). They were weary of being sweet-talked out of most of their demands by baseball's lawyers, brought six deep to the bargaining table by the club owners.
One example of the better working conditions since negotiated for them by Miller: their average wage when he took the job was $16,000 -- their average salary today, $121,000. And in the first five years he wangled an additional $10 million out of the owners for the players pension fund, which is much bigger now. Leo Durocher is grossing $23,000 a year from the plan.
The present hangup with the owners is about the players' free-agent status that has enabled such as Nolan Ryan to jump the Angels and get $1 million a year pay from another club. The owners want to limit that sort of thing by demanding an acquiring club to give up a player from its roster as compensation for a free-agent, instead of forfeiting an insignificant schoolboy draft choice, as is the requirement now.
Miller has calmly told the owners to back off on that kind of nonsense, pointing out they're trying to strip the players of a free agency right given them by the courts. For support he had a strike vote taken among the players of all 26 teams that shows a count of 967 for, one against.
Unless the owners haul in their horns on that one and also makes some important adjustments about all that television money they're getting, there will be no new three-year agreement with the players, Miller has told them.
Marvin Miller isn't even a lawyer. But he is an economist, out of Brooklyn and New York University. When the players association hired him for $50,000 in 1966 they weren't hiring any green pea. His labor background was impressive: Wage Stabilization Division of the War Labor Board as a dispute hearing officer. After that, a planner in modernizing the conciliation service. Then a post as vice president of the International Association of Machinists, with negotiating duties.
The United Steel Workers lured him away from the Machinists in 1950 for a 15-year stint in high labor counsels. Later, when Arthur Goldberg left that union and was later to be named to the Supreme Court of the U.S., Marvin Miller was the choice to take over his duties in industry bargaining. He later was appointed by President Kennedy, and reappointed by President Johnson to the 12-man National Labor-Management Committee, an offshoot of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, to advise on collective bargaining and to avoid crisis situations in contract talks.
Precisely the kind of chap the ballplayer innocents needed after being walked over for years by the club owners and their attorneys. And this goes double in the current crisis situation rife with talk of a certain baseball strike.
Before Miller, the players did have a representative of a sort in their talks with the owners. He was a nice, kindly chap -- Milwaukee City Judge Robert Cannon, who works without pay. He was no vigorous type, got no significant gains for the athletes, and eventually he asked out.
"What I found when I came into the job," Miller said, "was a small office, an old battered file case, no records of anything much except some comical minutes from some previous meetings that told me the owners were having a carnival in bluffing the athletes out of even their small demands. There was not a paid employe and nothing professional about the place."
Before the coming of Miller with his professional negotiating experience, the athletes had been meeting with the owners, not as equals at the bargaining table, but as humble petitioners, seeking handouts from the lords of baseball.
"Each club owner met his particular team representative into the room and sat beside him," said Miller. "There was no bargaining across the table. It was pure con, with the owners giving the poor athletes that good old boy stuff . . . 'We think a lot of you'."
The minutes showed that the atheletes were voicing mostly minor complaints, Miller said. "Things like they'd like a drinking fountain in the bullpen in St. Louis, and those splinters on the bench in Boston which needed sanding, and that bad drainpipe in center field in Chicago -- that kind of trivia stuff which the owners took under advisement and sometimes granted."
There was little pension fund talk then and the salary minimums asked at the start went for $3,500 for a player. The patronizing owners picked up all the hotel, travel and meal expenses of the players, who thereby instantly forfeited their independence in the early bargaining period.
No wonder that in a later year the club owners and their attorneys did some unhappy flips at the prospect of a pro like Marvin Miller coming into the bargaining scene and sitting across the table from them.
Not only did he replace the little lambs who had attempted to do their own bargaining, but in the business of labor negotiations, he was confronting them with an expert who could give the owners and their briefcase brigade cards and spades and trounce them at almost every point.
Baseball's corporate people would have liked to get rid of Miller quickly, somehow. One day in the St. Louis airport after the 1966 All-Star game, General Manager Joe Cronin of the Red Sox approached Miller and suggested he pick better clients. "Young man, let me give you a piece of advise," Cronin said. "Ballplayers come and go but the owners go on forever."
It was faulty advice in Miller's case. By his own count, Miller now relates, "I have outlasted two National League presidents, two American League presidents, two baseball commissioners, two labor relations directors, three American League counsel, three National League counsels and 20 or 21 of the club owners who were here when I came in are not here today."
When there are some sticky legal points, Millers calls on the services of an old friend and comrade, New York attorney Richard Moss, who has long been at his side. It was Moss who argued successfully for Andy Messersmith in the celebrated case that became a baseball landmark.
Miller is aware of all the bargaining ploys. When Ray Grebey, the owners' new negotiator, earlier this year proposed a preposterous restructuring of the wage scales that would rule out the biggest players' salaries and then retracted that proposal later in the bargaining, Miller demolished him with a quip.
"Now they say they want a concession from us," Miller said. "Grebey makes an outrageous proposal and then calls it off, and wants a medal for it."
Miller put the owners on uneasy notice in mid-March following reports that he would order a strike at the start of the season unless the owners quit their efforts to limit free agents. Miller announced the players had voted to strike "on or after April 1" and by setting no specific date he kept all the options for himself and left the owners to sweat it out.
It was supreme upsmanship when Miller finally announced a strike date of May 23. Now the players would have more than a month of paydays as a cushion, a kind of strike fund, and it must be remembered that because baseball operates on a six-month pay basis, all paydays are double.
The owners remember that Miller can play hardball. The strike he called at the start of the 1972 season, which lasted 15 days, had cost them 85 games and $5 million in lost revenue, against a salary saving of $600,000. They finally settled that one by upping their pension fund contribution from $400,000 to $500,000 a year, although the players had demanded $850,000.
Miller learned from that strike that a walkout at the opening of the season was not good for the players who suffered from public rancor. But a strike in late May -- ah, that would be different, as Miller could calculate it. The psychology then would be for the public to blame the owners, not the players who had showed a willingness to open the season.
On Miller's advice, the players sat out the first week of spring training in 1969, until the pension fund was bettered and in 1972 he created a fuss by telling the owners the players wanted the benefits of some of that accumulated pension fund surplus the owners were hoarding. Miller said it should be put out at 6 percent interest and added to the pensions.
In Oakland, club owner Charles Finley said it was the first time he ever heard of a pension fund surplus, so secretive had it been. But Miller knew about it. Back in 1970, Miller also scored big when he got an agreement that Commissioner Bowie Kuhn no longer would be the final authority on "grievance" cases brought by the players. "I reject," said Miller in his best bargaining voice, "the concept that a man paid by one side be the final authority in any grievance matter."
The owners tried Miller's own tactics in 1976 by delaying the start of spring training until they could get more rights on the now-disputed reserve clause. There would be no renewal of the three-year basic agreement with the players that had expired, the owners were saying, not one more penny of tribute to Marvin Miller.
Miller met this action with the wit that is his trademark, saying, "This is comical. An industry not threatened by strike action shutting down of its own volition, and leading the public to believe the players are at fault for an action stripping them of their past rights."
Miller also now wants more money from the owners' TV revenues than the $8.3 million they have been getting for the last four years. The argument is ongoing but Miller has told the owners, "Let's not have this fight again. You just doubled your contract with the networks from $95 million to $185 million for the next four years and we want ours." He's asking $16.5 million yearly for the pension fund.
Miller keeps score. He is aware of the owners' vision that not many years distant 50 million homes will be wired for baseball on pay-TV. The players association would also take that into account. Miller says he may retire in another year and concentrate on the tennis he likes to play, but his successor undoubtedly will be alerted to all the probabilities.
As a career economist, Miller also has an interesting fix on the financial affairs of baseball's most famous operation, the New York Yankees.
A Miller associate said recently, "The same Yankees, who in the last five years have won three pennants and two World Series and have set all kinds of attendance and TV revenue records, have, according to their bookkeeping, lost money in four of those five years."
For the club owners who still claim complete immunity from antitrust laws, Miller had commented a couple of years ago in his own style. "I have learned," he said, "that the baseball owners, with certain exceptions, have a decided tendency to look backward, seldom forward."
When he does retire, Miller will be walking out on a contract far in excess of the $50,000 a year the players association paid him originally. When asked Miller's salary figure now, one of Miller's associates in turn asked how much Commissioner Bowie Kuhn was paid. When he heard an estimate of $150,000 as Kuhn's salary, he said that in that case, Miller is paid more.