It has been suggested to me that having written a book about Major League Baseball, I ought to offer some thoughts on the passing of one of the game’s pioneers, former Major League Baseball Players Association Executive Director Marvin Miller. Miller was the MLBPA’s first full-time leader, holding the job from 1966 to 1982.
Advocating for Miller’s induction into the Hall of Fame in the wake of his death, Peter Schmuck of the Baltimore Sun writes, “Miller changed baseball for the better and made a sport full of enemies during the 1960s and ’70s. He redistributed the wealth of a generation of stingy baseball owners, who were not forward-thinking enough to see the avalanche of money that would bury everyone in the game after the reserve clause was overturned”
It certainly is interesting for a political scientist to wonder about the legacy of someone heralded as a great “redistributor of wealth” in the wake of the 2012 elections. Miller’s place in the pantheon of labor’s storied heroes is actually a bit complicated by the rather “special” nature or “niche” of the labor movement in which Miller toiled. Even amidst an historic players strike in 1994, The New York Times’ Murray Chass wrote of the union Miller built: “As more traditional unions scramble to retain some vestige of power and influence against inroads made by union-busting law firms and replacement-worker tactics, the Major League Baseball Players Association and its cousins in the other three major professional sports have gained a recognition and a power reminiscent of the once-mighty steelworkers, mine workers and auto workers.”
No one questions the pioneering role played by Miller in elevating professional athletes’ unions to a position of considerable power vis-a-vis team owners and league officials. Tim Marchman’s piece at Slate is an excellent read on this score. But today, in 2012, when we are presently without NHL hockey due to a work stoppage, and when the power of labor unions in America is anemic compared to that of management and owners in virtually every other industry in America, what if anything can be gleaned from the life and work of Marvin Miller? How does Miller’s life and career help us make sense of a country where striking NFL referees get widespread public support and sympathy, while striking Chicago school teachers are treated with considerably less sympathy in the popular press?
Miller has no doubt earned the many tributes he has and will receive in the wake of his death, and the brewing controversy about his case for enshrinement in Cooperstown could potentially bring important issues and questions to the fore. I’ll keep my eye on that debate among baseball fanatics and let you know if it helps shed light on larger issues of significance to the fate of organized labor in 21st Century America.