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Original Issue


Championing the causes of big-league ballplayers and little old ladies leaves Marvin Miller no time to sit down at the piano

Marvin J. Miller, the dapper, feisty executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, hereinafter referred to as the Players Association, flew to Miami Beach and the Fontainebleau Hotel last week. Miller didn't go to Miami to play a little gin in a cabaña but to start his annual tour of the spring-training camps, hear out the players' wants and evaluate the results of the novel player-owner salary arbitration sessions concluded the week before.

Baseball's arbitration plan is the brainchild of Miller, who was known as a creative thinker when he was assistant to the president of the United Steelworkers of America. According to a procedure arrived at late last year, a player and owner who are unable to reach a salary agreement can go to arbitration. The player submits his figure, the club its, and one of 14 arbitrators jointly selected by the Players Association and the owners listens to their arguments. The arbitrator can also consult a confidential list of all major league salaries to help him determine how much money a second baseman, say, with a .260 batting average after five years in the majors, should be making. The arbitrator cannot compromise on the salary. He must either accept the player's figure or the club's.

Fifty-four major-leaguers took their salary disputes to binding arbitration. In 25 cases the differences between the players' and owners' figures were so close that they were able to settle. In the remaining 29 cases, the arbitrator found in favor of the club 16 times. This edge is misleading, however, for apparently in only one instance did a team submit a figure lower than the one it had offered in prearbitration negotiation. As a rule, a player's recourse to arbitration led to the team making a higher offer than it had previously felt necessary and, as a result, salaries may increase by 14% this season, compared with an average rise of 10.9% for the past five years.

Arbitration will cost A's Owner Charles O. Finley alone at least $87,000. Nine Oakland players opted for arbitration, five of them getting what they wanted, Reggie Jackson leading the way with a $60,000 raise. In the National League, Darrell Evans of the Atlanta Braves was a big winner. Last season Evans hit .281, had 41 homers and drove in 104 runs. The Braves said he still had to prove himself. Evans did just that with the arbitrator. "We are not supposed to say how much we got," Evans said, "but on a percentage basis I'd say I got about a 75% raise. I think that is a fair decision."

"The box score of the cases in arbitration is only the tip of the iceberg," says Miller. "The most significant thing is that the owners and general managers are making a far more realistic appraisal of salaries. Arbitration is replacing a system in which the owners always determined what a player's salary was. A player either accepted an unfair offer or he learned a new way to make a living. When you replace that, you can't go wrong."

As far as the players are concerned, Miller can do little wrong. Rollie Fingers of the A's, who was awarded his figure of $65,000, says: "Marvin is worth his weight in gold." The fact that Miller only stands 5'8" and weighs 150 pounds does not diminish the compliment.

Team officials and hidebound reporters do not value Miller so highly. According to Atlanta Journal Columnist Furman Bisher, Miller is a "manipulator" who is as "smooth-as-grease" and has "spewed out" and "mouthed" what Bisher calls "typical labor rhetoric." Last year Bisher wrote that when Miller took charge of the Players Association in 1966 "he came in with the submissiveness of an Oriental," but now "to establish his own power image, he is willing to destroy an American tradition." In short, "the tactics he employs are so brazenly steelworkers, coal-miner, auto-worker labor union as to be embarrassing to an athlete of pride. His bearing, his approach, his terminology belong on a soapbox around the corner from a struck factory. Miller's effect on the game has caused an alarming spiritual erosion."

Several years ago, when Miller requested that the Players Association be polled on an exhibition the Mets were to play at West Point, on the grounds that there were contractual limitations on the number of exhibition games, Braves Vice-President Paul Richards fulminated, "Either Miller or baseball has to go, and right now I'm afraid baseball will go first." (Richards' prediction was off base; he went.) Last spring, when Miller was speaking to an assembly of Texas Rangers and Houston Astros in the outfield of a ball park in Pompano Beach, Fla., a meeting stipulated by an agreement with the owners, Astro Manager Leo Durocher ordered his players to leave and then had fungoes hit in Miller's direction. The St. Louis Globe-Democrat once editorialized that Miller "would do the game of baseball a great favor if he disappeared, got lost or found the nearest hole and jumped into it."

Miller himself has rarely been at a loss for strong words. He has called Commissioner Bowie Kuhn "a rank amateur," accused The Sporting News of "overwhelming bias" in favor of the owners and termed Durocher "a freeloader riding on the backs of his fellow-managers and players." Durocher, Miller is fond of noting, is the single biggest recipient of the pension plan, receiving almost $2,000 a month. Milwaukee Judge Robert Cannon, who was Miller's predecessor in the Players Association, also has attracted Miller's fire as a tool of the owners. Cannon drew up the executive director's contract for Miller, who was startled to find that he could be fired should he be accused of moral turpitude. Judge Cannon said, "You can always prove you're innocent." "Prove I'm innocent?" Miller expostulated. "Judge, have you ever heard of the Constitution of the United States?" The clause was stricken.

For all the controversy that swirls around him like the wind in Candlestick Park, Miller regards himself as a mild man. "If I were to engage in self-criticism," he says, "I would say there are times when I don't get angry enough fast enough. I have perhaps an exaggerated self-restraint."

By birth, background, education, experience and drive, Miller brings a finely honed mind to the fray. A voracious reader, he devours such journals as the Monthly Labor Review while some of his adversaries in front offices are assumed to be thinking deeply if they cast a somnolent eye over Class A earned run averages. This is not to exalt Miller or to denigrate owners but the fact is that he is disciplined, informed and organized while his opponents have often been slipshod. To a disinterested observer, Miller comes on like a David with an ICBM in his sling while the owners stumble around like so many befuddled Goliaths.

Miller is consumed by his job and rues the fact he does not have a hobby. "This is of concern to me as I get older," says the 56-year-old Miller. "I love to play tennis, but I'm only too well aware that this is not a retirement activity. I play the piano, not well and not frequently, but I like to go back to it. More often than not, I'll play popular songs, Jerome Kern, Gershwin. I played a couple of weeks ago, and my fingers felt as if I had been typing for hours."

Miller was born in the Bronx, but his family moved to Brooklyn when he was a year old. His father was a women's coat salesman, and his mother, who now lives with Miller's younger sister in Florida, was an elementary school teacher. As a youngster, Miller haunted the bleachers in Ebbets Field to root for Brooklyn. To his amusement, shortly after he became executive director of the Players Association he was sharply asked by Garry Schumacher, the publicity man for the Giants, to name some oldtime Brooklyn players. Miller began with the battery of Dazzy Vance and Hank DeBerry, went on to cite Babe Herman, who hit .393 in 1930 only to lose the batting title to Bill Terry of the Giants who hit .401, then Lefty Clark, Glenn Wright ("the best shortstop Brooklyn had in years"), Del Bissonette ("he had a golfer's swing") and Rube Bressler ("the only player who would consistently throw balls to the kids in the bleachers"). Defeated, Schumacher interrupted the recital with shouts of "All right! All right!"

When he wasn't in the bleachers, Miller was reading obsessively. He ran through the Frank Merriwell and Tarzan series and was enormously taken with Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. He was enrolled in school at 5½ and graduated from James Madison High at 15, having skipped three grades. He would have skipped more, but "it would have been ridiculous." Upon graduation, Miller discovered that he "was not old enough to be serious about college, yet I felt old enough to go to work." He clerked in stores, and to hedge his bets began taking night courses at Brooklyn College. At 18 he enrolled at Miami University in Ohio because he had found from researching college catalogues that its school of education had an excellent reputation, and he was thinking of going into teaching. Moreover, it was a land-grant school with low tuition for an out-of-stater. Miller spent two years at Miami before transferring to NYU where he majored in economics and received a B.S. in 1938.

After NYU, he had a series of minor jobs, including one as a runner on Wall Street, until he passed a Federal Civil Service exam and moved in late 1939 to Washington as a clerk in the Treasury Department at an annual salary of $1,440. Emboldened by his success, he married Theresa Morgenstern, whom he had met when she got him a blind date. Mrs. Miller, known as Terry, is a clinical psychologist and teaches at Kingsborough (N.Y.) Community College. The Millers have two children, Peter, who is finishing his doctorate in sociology at Berkeley, and Susan, who works at a home for disturbed children in Wisconsin. When they were married, the Millers agreed that whoever did the cooking would not have to wash the dishes. Miller did most of the cooking at first, recently returning to the stove when the family boycotted meat. "He made a very good spaghetti-and-clam dish," Mrs. Miller says, "and he's very good with scrambled eggs."

Evaluating her husband, she says, "He's a perfectionist. He believes in a perfect world and perfect people, and he's striving to make them live up to his expectations. He believes in justice. He's a good husband for a feminist wife. He's not a sexist." Four years ago, when the landlord of the Millers' Manhattan apartment house decided to make the building co-op, a move that Miller denounced as a "rip-off," the Millers joined the subsequent battle, and though it would have been easy for them to move to another apartment, they have stayed to fight it out. "We can't leave because of Marvin's commitment," Mrs. Miller says. "He's a very moral man. He has a commitment to the other people in the building. It's like the captain staying with the ship. Marvin is absolutely adored by the little old ladies in this building. Many of them are widows with fixed incomes who were panicked by the landlord's move to make them buy or leave. They just adore Marvin. It's very old-fashioned, I suppose. It's idealism. We never get gas on odd days when we're even."

In 1940 the Millers had moved back to New York, where he was one of 2,500 successful applicants (out of 18,000) for jobs as municipal social investigators. "In some ways, this was the greatest education I ever had," Miller says. "As a youngster from a middle-class family, you really couldn't get a picture of what unemployment means in a depression. I mean men disintegrating, families falling apart. It wasn't just the want, it was what it did to people. Where the wage earner is no longer the wage earner, poppa isn't poppa anymore. The father retreats into himself, blames himself, thinks he has done something wrong. There was a pervading atmosphere of 'I have failed.' No modern civilization ought to tolerate a situation where people who want to work or ought to work can't work."

Miller spent World War II mainly in Philadelphia with the National War Labor Board. "The AFL and the CIO had a no-strike pledge, but there had to be machinery for resolving disputes," he says. "First I was an economist in the wages division, then I was a hearing officer in the disputes division." When the war ended, he shifted to the Conciliation Service in the Department of Labor, where he trained mediators. The chief lesson he taught was that "the most important thing to know is as much or more about the issues than the parties themselves." Afterwards he worked briefly in New York for the machinists union and the Federal Housing Expeditor; in 1950 he accepted the post of associate director of research for the United Steelworkers in Pittsburgh. Hired by Philip Murray, then union president, Miller was elevated in 1960 to assistant to President Dave McDonald. "It was a team around McDonald, with Arthur Goldberg, the legal counsel, as majordomo," Miller says. As a brain truster with the Steelworkers, Miller was singled out for praise by FORTUNE and The Wall Street Journal. He was also named to presidential commissions by Kennedy and Johnson.

With the union, Miller helped devise the Human Relations Committee in Basic Steel, whose function was to settle problems before contracts expired. He was primarily responsible for the heralded plan with Kaiser Steel, under which a self-adjusting agreement permitted workers to receive equitable benefits without the threat of strike.

When McDonald lost the Steelworkers election to I.W. Abel in 1965, there were demands within the union from some of Abel's political allies that Miller should be replaced. "In the 1965 steel negotiations, Abel's political supporters were conspicuous by their absence," Miller says with satisfaction. "This business of Abel's attitude has been exaggerated. When I spoke to Abe about the offer from the baseball players, he said, 'Look, if you want to go, I wish you well, but I wish you wouldn't.' "

The Players Association got onto Miller after Robin Roberts of the Phillies asked the late Professor George Taylor of the University of Pennsylvania to recommend "a strong man of established character." Professor Taylor suggested Miller, who became one of six candidates the association submitted for approval to then Commissioner William Eckert. After checking, Eckert announced they were all fine men. Although Miller was offered the job, he still had to win a vote of approval from the players, and as he toured the spring-training camps in 1966 he found himself under attack. National League President Warren Giles told the players that Miller, whom he had not met, wasn't the best man for the job. Angel First Baseman Joe Adcock also denounced him. Abel was so outraged that he advised Miller to stay with the Steelworkers and tell baseball to "shove it." Miller recalls, "The pre-publicity was that I was a labor boss, a dese, dems and dose guy with gangsters in the background. I was a 6'8" goon with a big black cigar who was about to take over baseball." The contrast between the description and Miller turned out to be quite an asset in winning the approval of the players.

Upon taking over as executive director, Miller discovered that although the Players Association had been founded in 1954 it existed principally on paper. "The task initially was to make it an effective operating organization in the interest of the players," he says. "I am neither the smartest, most skilled nor ablest person alive, but if I were it would cut no ice if I had no support from the players. The owners would pay no attention unless they were convinced there was a unified group. I had to have everyone understand what was involved. Number one, no matter what you called the Major League Players Association, it was a labor organization under the law. Under the Taft-Hartley Act, any organization that exists wholly or in part for improving salaries, hours, pensions, working conditions is a labor organization. That's a fact. You have certain obligations, responsibilities and rights. Under obligations, you must report to the government on finances, elections, constitution and bylaws, something Judge Cannon was unaware of. This we rectified immediately. But it had a larger meaning. It became essential to put the relationship between the Players Association and the owners on a proper basis, a contractual basis. The terms and conditions were to be negotiated through collective bargaining and the results formalized through a contractual arrangement. There had been informal agreements, but these were never formalized and were too often honored in the breach. One startling thing was that if you looked back over the minutes, you found discussion of trivial things—whether there was a water fountain in the bullpen—and the second was that if you went through the minutes year by year, you found the water fountain being taken up as if it had never been discussed before. Even the pension plan was not a contractual agreement."

Miller's suspicions of owners and what they are likely to do to their employees has stood him in good stead—and, on occasion, in good humor. With relish, he tells of the time Buzzie Bavasi, then general manager of the Dodgers, went to Walter O'Malley for a raise. O'Malley said the club had lost $2 million the previous year. Bavasi was reluctant to press his case until he discovered what O'Malley meant by losing $2 million: the Dodgers had made $3 million the previous year and $5 million the year before that.

Under Miller, the players have fared extremely well. Pensions have more than tripled, and other benefits have grown, some gained as a result of a 13-day strike in 1972 that alienated fans who couldn't care less who was right or wrong. "It was forced on the players by the owners' miscalculations," Miller says. "The players demonstrated their unity, and I would hope that kind of a demonstration would not be required again." The present Basic Agreement, a paperback booklet of 44 pages, runs through 1975, and looking toward its expiration, Miller says, "I think it's fair to say the players are still concerned about the overly restrictive reserve system. They are also concerned with the overlong season, in terms of the good of baseball, the quality of play as shown to the fans and the impact on their own careers."

Nonetheless, according to Miller, binding salary arbitration best exemplifies the progress of the Players Association. "The most important thing is the dignified status the players now have with the clubs," he says. "The essential dignity of equals sitting down together just can't be overemphasized."