Marvin Miller, R.I.P.

by Nicholas Frankovich

About three years ago I was editing The Baseball Research Journal and putting together a section on baseball and law. Several articles involving the history of free agency in MLB were in the mix. The subject cried out for a photo or two of Marvin Miller, the man who served as executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) from 1966 to 1982 and built it up into what it is today, arguably the most effective labor union in American history.

My go-to source for photos was the Hall of Fame, which is well stocked, ready to send you dozens of jpegs of Ted Williams or Branch Rickey if that’s what you’re looking for, but they were short on images of Miller. I never knew whether that signified some unofficial chill between him and MLB. My own beef against what he wrought is that, while free agency has obviously been a boon to players, it’s magnified the disadvantage of small-town clubs in the labor market, where they find it increasingly hard to compete against their bigger-town co-franchisees. Miller was not on your side if you were an Indians fan.

The Hall had a photo of Miller, but AP owned the rights, and the price on it was too high for the nonprofit that published BRJ. So I checked with the MLBPA, but they were no help either. I asked a baseball friend if he had any ideas. He gave me Miller’s home phone number (area code 212), which I dialed warily. This friend, a historian whose center-left politics easily aligned with all that the leading figure in the history of sports labor stood for, was predisposed to admire Miller but didn’t. He had described for me on several occasions his dealings with a Marvin Miller who in person proved to be as arrogant and disagreeable as the Marvin Miller of legend. My friend had no use for him, personally.

Miller answered the phone. I introduced myself, but he couldn’t hear, so with a brisk “I’m sorry, hold on,” he interrupted to turn down the volume on the TV, which was blaring, as is the way with old people. He resurfaced after a good 15 seconds, our line of communication now clear, and chuckled when I told him that evidently no image of him existed that cost less than a thousand dollars. He had no idea.

He offered to poke through his personal effects for something that might work, though he doubted he’d find anything suitable. “And if you did,” I thought to myself, “how would you send it?” From our minute of conversation so far, I just assumed he’d have no patience for scanners, PDFs, or e-mail attachments and no inclination to trouble the proverbial son-in-law who’s good with computers. He would do due diligence in any case, or so he promised, and so I trusted. Did I follow up with another phone call? An e-mail? I forget how it ended. Bottom line: No photos, but also no guff or drama. Prepared for an encounter with Darth Vader, I was grateful enough for common decency. Fox News is right: He really was soft-spoken. I had no idea.

The Father of Free Agency gave me five unrushed minutes of his time on a weekday evening near the end of his life. He was warmer than I had been led to expect. Would he have been a few degrees cooler if he knew that this stranger presuming to call him up at home during prime time usually voted R and was all for salary caps and increased revenue sharing? I like to think the answer is no.

In April, Miller spoke at an event at NYU. He was 95 and still in the game. He died yesterday morning at his home on the Upper West Side. Requiescat in pace.

Right Field

Brief chronicles of our sporting times.