Miller didn't just change baseball

Marvin Miller, perhaps the most significant figure across all of American sports, died Tuesday in a month dominated by news emblematic of his worldview. It was a month of labor in which the bakers' union was blamed for the demise of Twinkies, while Hostess executives brazenly asked bankruptcy court to approve $1.75 million in corporate bonuses, even as the 82-year old company closed its doors. It was a month in which Wal-Mart, historically hostile to labor, is now being stoutly fought by it, a month in which the president was re-elected partly on the strength of Ohio unions.

In the last month of Miller's life, the National Hockey League Players' Association, now led by his legendary protégé Donald Fehr, was locked out by team owners who have opted for the strategy of shutting down the game as a first option of negotiation instead of a last resort.

Workers uniting and challenging management, staking out their territory and remaining in the fight, even as unions inexplicably grow increasingly unpopular in America was an appropriate sunset. Miller's life ended with the tensions that shaped his professional career unresolved, the fights still fierce, still important, still going on.

The trouble with saturation is the loss of sensation. Sports is about superlatives, each game or catch or dunk, each championship team or great player unnecessarily anointed to be the greatest ever. There is no best if everything can be considered the best, but Marvin Miller was a peerless, unflinching icon. There is no one in the sporting landscape -- not only in baseball, but across sports -- who can rival Miller for his role in shaping the modern professional game and the modern professional athlete. With Miller, superlatives are appropriate.

In baseball, only four other people -- Babe Ruth, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson -- have had such a lasting impact on the history and direction of the sport, and to great extent, the American story. Time and change have weakened the historical significance of others, such as Ban Johnson, the first president of the American League. Not Miller, who is as immediate as ever.

Two threads of the narrative of his life will dominate the posthumous portrayal: his current exclusion from the Hall of Fame and the enormous sums of money he generated for the players. The subtext for both will undoubtedly be whether Miller was good or bad for the game or whether the rights of the players swung the balance too far.

Neither of these questions carries much lasting value, for the Hall of Fame has never been much more than a celebration of the establishment by the establishment. Should it choose to connect its element of history museum with its induction wing, Miller and Curt Flood should and will belong. If not, it is wholly appropriate that neither, in life or death, enters the building.

The money, meanwhile, is ever present in our society's conversations. It was before Miller and has been since 1975, when the reserve clause was abolished. The only change was how much of it the game would share, and if it could be compelled, if not through common sense and decency then through unity and force, to do so. Henry Aaron topped out at $240,000 per year when he retired in 1976, when Alex Rodriguez was a year old. Four years later, Rod Carew was earning $800,000. Rodriguez earns $30 million today, in the neighborhood of commissioner Bud Selig.

But for me, Miller's lasting gift wasn't in the money. It was in the approach to the challenge, the challenge of the owners, who had ruthlessly controlled both salaries and player movement. You could play baseball when the owners said, where the owners said at the rate the owners said, or you could be a plumbing salesman, which Vida Blue considered during one contract holdout. It was in the challenge to the fans, who never quite understood -- and in the big-money game today, understand even less -- who owns the true power in the game, making the players the single target in a sports industry full of them. Fans so often want players just to shut up and play, and be grateful they are paid to play a kid's game, a position that inherently favors management, even when it is acting at its most corrupt. It is a public attitude certainly not confined to sports, but endemic in the American attitude, where peer and corporate pressure against even taking a vacation -- time that has already been earned by sweat -- is enormous.

Most importantly, it was in the challenge to the players that Miller should always be remembered. Because of his efforts, baseball players separated themselves from their history and from football players, who have never truly united. Hockey and basketball players, too, have benefited from the baseball code that the stars control the union.

Miller taught the players to think for themselves, to recognize their rights, even if those rights represented a nuisance to those who simply wanted their pastime without complication. Miller was able to put an end to the salary exploitation detailed in countless famous stories of negotiations with Rickey or Buzzie Bavasi or Tom Yawkey. Gene Conley, the only man to win a World Series and an NBA title, once told me a story about a typical contract negotiation with John Quinn, the old GM of the Milwaukee Braves in the 1950s:

"I was making 10 grand one year and [Eddie] Mathews was holding out, [Johnny] Logan, too. Quinn was a good baseball man but tough with the negotiations. One day, he calls me over to his office right as my kids are having a birthday party. He's got a couple of cups on the table and a bottle of whiskey. He says to me, 'I'm not giving you what you want.' I tell him I'm not signing and if this is the offer, then I have no choice but to go back and play basketball. He pours a couple more cups and says, 'You're going to get it, but you're not worth it.' And then he starts asking me about my family. He knew the highest number I was asking for was low, but he wanted to make me fight for that. The next day, I saw him and he was all smiles and asked me about my family and the birthday party, like nothing ever happened."

Miller's gift was his ability to explain, to Joe Torre and Robin Roberts -- his two biggest supporters for the job he won in 1966 -- and the rest of the baseball players not to listen to him but to look at the facts. Carl Yastrzemski did not believe players should become free agents, nor did Willie Mays or Henry Aaron. All believed they were exploited, and yet could not envision how baseball could survive without total management control over player movement.

"You have to spend a lot of time with the players. You have to draw them out and you have to make them talk to one another," Fehr told me back in 2005. "It doesn't do any good to say, 'I'm with the Red Sox and you're with the Yankees, so I'm not going to talk to you.' That's not the game. The game is players against the owners. That's the game the law requires you to play.

"Marvin's genius, and I really think it was that, was to go to the players, and in a very soft-spoken, deliberate and thorough manner say, 'This is what's going on with you. This is what the owners have been doing. Here's how I can demonstrate that to you. Here's how you can see this out of your own experience. This is why it is or is not the way we ordinarily do things in this country. This is what I reasonably expect would happen if we had this difference, and we have to talk about what is important and what is not.' That's what he did."

The succeeding narratives have falsely focused too much on contracts ever since: Sure, the players saw their salaries soar, but no group made more money from Miller's pioneering than the owners. The Los Angeles Dodgers do not sell for $2 billion without Miller, nor without the explosions of revenue and interest of sports as an entertainment machine does ESPN have its power. The tide unleashed by Miller raised all boats, for you can't have billion-dollar television deals without hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue or million-dollar broadcasters and journalists without $10 million ballplayers. Scott Boras does not have his influence without Miller. Selig, who was once Miller's adversary, doesn't earn millions without Marvin Miller.

"I think back then we all realized how powerless we were," Aaron told me. "I didn't have any great strategy. Nobody taught me anything about how to negotiate a salary. You had to take what they gave you, and they never gave any of us what we were worth."

Miller was not perfect, which made him even more respectable, more human, even when it seemed time had passed him by. Nor were the forces he unleashed always positive. He was rightfully embittered that the modern players did not seem to appreciate him or the roots of the fight, but that is true of all movements. The beneficiaries forget the benefactors. Miller was governed not by baseball but by the principle that labor has rights and a voice. The alternative, a paternalistic system where control and power remained in the hands of the gentry, was clearly worse, all frothy nostalgia to the contrary.

To the end, he was deeply and vocally opposed to the union re-opening baseball's collective bargaining agreement under public and congressional pressure to strengthen baseball's drug policy. There is a relationship between management and labor, naturally adversarial, which cannot often be bridged. Negotiations are about leverage and Miller feared, even in today's supposedly greater spirit of cooperation, that relenting on basic privacy freedoms over performance-enhancing drugs was ceding control and creating precedent only from peer pressure. The world was changing and blood testing and PEDs are now part of it, but that does not mean Miller was completely wrong, or wrong at all, to be nervous that management might abuse its power in indirect, unforeseen ways.

He will not be defined by the Hall of Fame, for it has already long been on the wrong side of history. That's what pioneers do. They make their contemporaries look out of touch and out of date, and so wrong, so much so that succeeding generations wonder what all the fuss was about. Miller doesn't need the Hall of Fame. Tom Yawkey was a man with zero innovative significance over a half-century in baseball and yet was the first owner inducted into the Hall of Fame, chiefly because he wrote really big checks. Bowie Kuhn, who cost baseball billions by refusing to budge in the slightest on the reserve clause, which eventually forced a collapse of the entire system and a Miller mandate, is in the Hall of Fame. So is Landis, historically significant only because of his virulent racism and absolute control. None have a historical résumé that survived without being discredited. In assessing Marvin Miller, Hall of Fame induction is irrelevant. He was always bigger than the room.