Eulogizing Marvin Miller

Originally posted on The Third City December 1, sildenafil viagra 2012\n\nA great man passed away this week.  As executive director of the Major League Players Association from ’66 to ‘82, Marvin Miller helped bring pensions, bigger paychecks, and some autonomy to major league ballplayers.  In an equally unlikely turn, with his handsome features, pencil mustache, and stylish threads, Marvin made it ok for labor reps to be sexy.\n\nThe story of free agency in Major League Baseball, in a nutshell, goes like this: Before Marvin Miller came along, players had to play for whichever team owner signed them originally, for an amount of money and length of time solely determined by that owner.  If players were unhappy, they were not allowed to switch teams; their only recourse was to quit professional baseball.\n\nWielding tactics he learned as a UAW and USW negotiator, Marvin Miller leveraged assets that players brought to the sport (they represented, after all, the labor and the product that owners were peddling), and after more than a decade of bitter struggle—with the help of some courageous pioneering players including Curt Flood, Catfish Hunter, Andy Messersmith, and Dave McNally—Miller and the players’ union won labor rights previously thought of as untenable and unattainable.\n\nIt would be hard to dispute that Miller did more for professional athletes than any other union executive, in any sport, before or since.  Despite this, he’s been a largely unheralded figure in popular sports circles (partly because baseball’s rueful despots won’t elect him into the Hall of Fame), so it’s been refreshing to see the man praised in the mainstream media.\n\nEven Yahoo!, a rather expansive web entity with which I maintain an email address, had a Marvin Miller obit headline on my portal page.\n\n“Well that’s a welcome diversion from the normal corporate-media fare,” I thought.  Because Yahoo! clickable headlines usually try to tempt me with embattled celebrity news or home video of a wild animal attack.  Anyways . . . click.\n\nIt’s an AP story by someone named Ronald Blum.  \”Marvin Miller . . . transformed the national pastime as surely as Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, television and night games,\” it reads.  Fair enough.\n\nBut then the author makes the claim that Miller was responsible for \”ushering in an era of multimillion-dollar contracts and athletes who switch teams at the drop of a batting helmet.”  Hold up there Ronnie.  I’m willing to overlook a little hyperbole and a bad pun or two when a writer is playing up a man’s accomplishments posthumously, but that statement is flat-out irresponsible.\n\nAn American-born baseball player can sign only with one team, the team that selects him in baseball’s yearly “amateur draft.”  The player is the property of that team until he has spent six seasons as a player on its major league roster.  This means that baseball players don’t become eligible for free agency (i.e. free to go to the highest bidder) often until they are well into or past their peak performance years.\n\nBlum was not alone.  The Chicago Tribune’s Phil Rosenthal echoed the sentiment when he wrote that, after Miller’s time with the union, “No longer would development of a talent marketplace be thwarted by ballclubs’ tight control of where players could play…”\n\nReuters concurred in its obit published in the Tribune: “Through [Marvin Miller’s] efforts baseball players gained the freedom to sell their services in a virtually unrestricted market after satisfying an initial term of service.”\n\n“Satisfying an initial term of service”…ha!  How ‘bout a little cheese with that euphemism?  I think this is how indentured servitude is generally described in legally binding documents.\n\nAlright, I don’t want to devolve into hyperbole myself.  And I’m not asking anyone to sympathize with the players’ plight.  Major leaguers are well (though somewhat inequitably) compensated.\n\nMy point here folks is that Marvin Miller’s legacy is not the freeing up of markets to do their thing.  Baseball is absolutely not a free market, when it comes to labor or anything else.  It’s a highly regulated one, geared to benefit owners.  Even now, owners control the cost of labor, keeping it depressed through “service time,” with the exception of a minority number of players who can negotiate with any team, and a handful of superstars who will command exorbitant compensation.\n\nMLB owners are able to collude like this as a result of a nearly-century-old U.S. Supreme Court decision, ruling that baseball was not beholden to federal anti-trust laws because it is a sport and not a business.  Yeah, and I’m a Chinese jet pilot.\n\nBut much of the mainstream media doesn’t focus on the employer/ownership part of baseball’s labor system.  Overwhelmingly, it focuses on the players and their salaries.\n\n“Nowadays, baseball’s biggest stars make up to $32 million a season, the average salary is more than $3 million and the major league minimum is $480,000,” reads the AP Marvin Miller obit.\n\nThose are shockingly large numbers to readers like me who rinse out and air dry plastic Ziploc bags to save a few bucks at Dominics (I know I spelled it wrong; I refuse to anglicize the name).  But they’re not so outrageous when you consider that, according to Forbes magazine, the New York Yankees brought in $439 million in 2011, that the average major league team averaged $212 million in revenue that season, or that the average value of a MLB team in 2011 was $605 million and rising.*\n\nAnd sure, baseball players are millionaires, but baseball owners have net worths in the many hundreds of millions and billions of dollars.\n\n“So, players are rich, and owners are richer.  Who cares?  Why is it important that we put it all in context?”\n\nGreat question hypothetical, rhetorical me!\n\nThere are a few reasons, but the best one is: it’s the owners with their hands in our pockets.\n\nDespite overwhelming evidence from academic economists finding that sports teams and stadiums do not stimulate but actually are a drain on state and city economies, sports team owners’ powerful propaganda machine keeps chugging along, and politicians keep stuffing its caboose with taxpayer dollars.\n\nOwners know the power of public perception, especially when they’re positioning for public subsidies.  Focusing on players’ salaries helps owners to make the often implicit, sometimes explicit argument that team payrolls are making them poor, and require them to raise the price of your tickets, your cable bill, even your gaudy lawn-ornament with the team logo!  When owners paint themselves as victims—of the players’ union, of “small-markets,” or low attendance—it makes it easier for (with all due respect) sleazy, self-serving politicians to provide them with handouts!\n\nAhhh that felt good… Anyways, how the hell did I start this post?  Er, Marvin Miller, oh yeah!\n\nSo, since Miller’s time as head of the union, owners have led a longstanding public propaganda campaign attempting to vilify “greedy” ballplayers, “getting paid to play a boys game,” in an effort to improve owner bottom lines through grievances with the labor union aired in the media, stadium subsidies, tax breaks, etc .  Why, just a few months ago, White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf—who has taxpayers to thank for his ballpark and cushy stadium deal—was at Elmhurst College Hammerschmidt Memorial Chapel, spreading the word:\n\n“As a business, a baseball team is really a horrible economic investment,” Reinsdorf told a crowd of aspiring young business folk.\n\nAnd why is that, Chair-Jair?\n\n“Any incremental revenue increase goes to the players. We’re basically croupiers. We take in the money from people who buy the tickets and push it out to the players.”\n\n“We pay 25 guys to play catch,” Reinsdorf joked.  What a cutup.\n\nAs ridiculous as the economic premise of this argument is, I have to admire the brilliance of its cultural appeal.  Reinsdorf insinuates to a machismo-infused, sports-entertainment consuming public that it is he, the businessman, who does the real work, the hard work; that is, man’s work.  He emasculates ballplayers, who do nothing but “play.”  Yet he is the croupier, and they get all the dough!  What an injustice! (Incidentally, no one is better at playing the martyred sports team owner than our guy Jerry Reinsdorf.)\n\nBut Reinsdorf has an excuse; he’s trying to maximize profit.\n\nBut where do journalists get off?  By portraying baseball players as wildly rich in an unencumbered labor market, without at least tempering player salary statistics with more on increasing MLB team revenues and values, media sources do a disservice to taxpayers who are constantly being prodded by owners for subsidies and tax breaks.  They help to create a cultural environment in which Jerry Reinsdorf can stand up in front of a crowd of people, tell them that baseball players are taking all of his money, and not get pelted with refuse.\n\nAnd all this crap about the free market?  Marvin Miller was a labor representative, not a neoliberal ideologue.  The mere suggestion is anachronistic, contradictory, and silly; and a detriment to Miller’s legacy.\n\nRIP, my man.\n\n* Because hard numbers on team operations are very difficult to come by (teams make player contracts public but not their own financials), the Forbes valuations represent a well-informed estimate.

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