Review of Robert F. Burk's "Marvin Miller: Baseball Revolutionary"

tags: Marvin Miller, book review, Robert Burk

Ron Briley reviews books for the History News Network and is a history teacher and an assistant headmaster at Sandia Preparatory School, Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The 2015 induction class for the Baseball Hall of Fame was an impressive lot; including pitching greats Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, and John Smoltz along with catcher/infielder/outfielder Craig Biggio who played twenty seasons for the Houston Astros. Once again, however, Marvin Miller, the man who revolutionized the game as leader of the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA), was passed over for selection to the hall of immortals—even though club executives and baseball commissioners that he bested in contract negotiations are now enshrined in Cooperstown. Robert F. Burk, an emeritus professor of history at Muskingum University and the author of two respected histories on the business of baseball, seeks to address this discrepancy with a scholarly biography placing Miller’s life and career within the historical context of the post-World War II labor movement in the United States. Drawing upon archival sources as well as interviews with the labor leader and his family and associates, Burk provides a first-rate biography of Miller which is sympathetic but not uncritical in its approach. Burk concludes, “Marvin Miller had been the man who, more than any other individual, had wrenched the national pastime—for better and worse—into a modern industry with modern labor-management relations. On any Mount Rushmore of the sport, unquestionably he belonged” (x).

Burk makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of Miller by devoting the first third of the book to his life before baseball. Miller was the product of a Jewish upbringing in early twentieth-century New York City. His father was a salesman in the garment district and an observant Jew, while his mother abstained from religion and taught in the public schools. As a boy, Miller was a good student, but he found it difficult to pursue his passion for sport due to a serious birth injury to his right shoulder. Miller was a critic of business and capitalism which he believed responsible for the economic and social crisis of the 1930s. His wife Terry from a similar background shared Miller’s passion for leftist politics along with the theater and classical and Broadway music.

After obtaining a degree in economics from New York University, Miller went to work for the National War Labor Board (WLB) which provided essential experience for his later labor-management confrontations with baseball ownership. After his World War II service with the WLB, Miller served as an organizer for the International Association of Machinists. Burk points out that Miller, similar to many on the political left, assumed that the antifascist crusade of the Second World War would be extended domestically; addressing issues of racial discrimination and economic injustice on the home front. Disappointed with Harry Truman’s commitment to political reform following the death of Franklin Roosevelt, Miller advocated for the formation of a Labor Party and campaigned for the third-party Progressive candidacy of former Vice-President Henry Wallace. Following the Wallace defeat, emerging Cold War, and Second Red Scare which led to the purging of alleged communists and radicals in the labor movement, Miller’s leftist sympathies endangered his career as a union organizer. When he applied for an economist position with the United Steelworkers of America (USWA), Miller downplayed his more radical past and involvement with the Wallace campaign. In a successful career with the USWA, Miller’s goals were often more pragmatic than idealistic for the membership. Describing the USWA in the 1950s, Burk writes, “With the union’s early struggles for survival and labor’s postwar turmoil over political orthodoxy now both in the rearview mirror, the USWA focused upon continuing its pragmatic advances in the economic security of the membership; one increasingly middle class in outlook and material aspiration” (70).

By the mid-1960s, Miller’s further advancement in the USWA seemed blocked by the election of I. W. Abel to the union’s presidency, and Miller was ready for new challenges. Thus, he was open to the request of baseball players Robin Roberts and Jim Bunning to assume leadership of the fledgling MLBPA, although he was less interested in the suggestion that he recruit Richard Nixon as an assistant. Burk chronicles how Miller labored to earn the respect of the players who were wary of a union leader and reluctant to embrace labor tactics such as the strike. Essentially, the MLBPA was a company union, and baseball owners exhibited a patronizing attitude toward their employees. Before Miller could tackle such major issues as the reserve system, which bound a player to one team and prevented free agency from increasing wages, the executive director of the MLBPA attempted to embrace the basics of modern labor-management relations through a negotiated basic agreement or contract, the increase of the minimum wage which had only been increased twice in twenty years, an expansion of revenues and benefits through the pension plan, and establishing a grievance/arbitration system for addressing labor conditions in the baseball industry. Establishing this economic foundation while educating the players on the importance of labor solidarity, Miller and the MLBPA were finally able to overturn the reserve clause following the decision of arbitrator Peter Seitz in the 1975 Andy Messersmith decision. These gains for the players involved work stoppages in which baseball ownership was shocked by the degree of player solidarity which Miller was able to foster. Miller had some respect for the professional negotiators John Gaherin and Raymond Grebey hired by baseball ownership, but he had little patience overall for the owners whom he perceived as patronizing and fundamentally dishonest. Miller’s major nemesis was Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, whose assertion that he was motivated by the best interests of the sport obscured the fact that he was hired by the owners and represented them rather than the players or general public.

Miller’s turbulent career as executive director is covered by a number of other books, including Charles P. Korr’s excellent The End of Baseball as We Knew It (2002). What Burk adds to the discussion is an outstanding knowledge of the baseball business as well as placing the MLBPA within the larger historical context of the labor movement. For example, the antiestablishment mood of American society in the 1960s certainly contributed to the willingness of young ball players, especially African Americans, to question baseball leadership. By the late 1970s, however, labor was in retreat throughout the nation. Nevertheless, Miller was able to establish the MLBPA as one of the most powerful unions in the country in an environment where President Ronald Reagan fired members of the Professional Airplane Controllers Organization. Burk argues that with the MLBPA, Miller was able to reaffirm some of his young labor militancy, concluding, “But beneath the matter-of-fact surface, he carried the class-conscious intensity of a man molded by the ideological struggles of his younger days and by his longer history in the union movement” (119). Ironically, Miller’s achievements with the MLBPA reflect less the mass ideological approach of the Committee for Industrial Organization and the steelworkers than the American Federation of Labor craft union approach “representing top-line baseball performers and focused upon securing and protecting their jobs, wages, benefits, and due-process rights” (199).

Miller’s retirement from the MLBPA was not a smooth one as he was called back into the struggle when the players deposed his successor Kenneth Moffett, whose candidacy was not endorsed by Miller. He served as an adviser to his former lieutenant Donald Fehr during the 1985-1986 collusion by ownership to destroy free agency and the 1994 strike which led to cancellation of the World Series. Miller’s persistent defense of the players allowed the athletes by 1991 to earn forty-seven times the wages of an ordinary American worker. This level of success certainly earned the animosity of many in the baseball establishment, and Burk acknowledges that an element of revenge is involved in blocking Miller’s elevation to the pantheon in Cooperstown. Yet, Burk argues that there is considerable public opposition to Miller’s enshrinement. Some of this is due to the resentment over work stoppages and high wages, but Burk insists that Miller’s stubborn defense of the players during the era of steroids and performance-enhancing drugs has damaged his reputation. Questioning whether steroids really contributed to the enhanced performance of the players, Miller maintained that the baseball industry had no right to arbitrarily violate the privacy of athletes by mandatory drug testing. Thus, Miller has been caught up with the anti-steroids sentiment which has prevented Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, and Mark McGwire from entering the Hall of Fame. Burk, nevertheless, certainly believes that Miller’s impact on the game merits his inclusion, and the claim of Cooperstown as the home of baseball immortals remains false without the presence of labor leader Marvin Miller.  

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