One of the enduring strengths of the baseball players’ union is the intangible that Marvin Miller instilled in the players he began representing nearly 50 years ago. Miller laid such a strong foundation that players have passed on his legacy from one set of major leaguers to the next.
Thus it was that when Tony Clark, one of the most articulate spokesmen the union has ever had, began speaking Monday evening at an event celebrating Miller’s life and unparalleled achievements he asked five young players to step to the front of New York University’s Tishman Auditorium: Craig Breslow, Andrew Bailey, Bill Bray, Micah Owings and Adam Ottavino.
Throughout the hall were retired players, including Reggie Jackson, Chris Chambliss, David Cone, Keith Hernandez, Jim Kaat and Jim Beattie. Seated in the front row were the evening’s speakers: Dave Winfield, Joe Morgan, Phil Garner, Steve Rogers, Rusty Staub, Steve Renko, Buck Martinez and Jim Bouton.
One group of players was missing: the active players whom Miller made baseball’s wealthiest millionaires, players like Derek Jeter, CC Sabathia, Vernon Wells, Joe Mauer, Prince Fielder, Cliff Lee, Ryan Howard, Mark Teixeira. The presence of such players would have served as a silent thank you and recognition of what Miller created.
“In 1994,” Clark related, “I had an opportunity in spring training to spend some time with Mr. Kaline. I asked Mr. Kaline tell me about the time you played, knowing he played from ‘53-‘54 on through ‘74. What was it like?”
Kaline, Clark said he told him, batted .340, hit 27 home runs and drove in 102 runs. The next season he batted .314, had the same number of home runs, had more doubles (32 after 24) and drove in 26 more runs “and he was docked $500 in pay. The reason he was was because his batting average was less than the year before.”
“I was playing in a world that was completely different from what it is now,” Clark said.
Not that Clark had experienced earlier labor negotiations, but by the time he did they had changed, too.
Relating an incident from the 2011 talks for a new labor agreement, he said, “We had a situation maybe two-thirds of the way through bargaining,” he recalled, “where we had a number of the guys there. Things were a little warm in the room. It was warm but not heated.
“One of the players said in response to one of the owners, ‘‘We’re not going to go down that path. There are a certain set of principles that we abide by that have been part of our association from the time Marvin ever started.’ The response back was ‘Why can’t you guys be like other professional athletes and not have principles?’ And the response back was thank you.”
Rusty Staub talked of individual contract negotiations and the way players have benefited from Miller’s efforts.
“I think every time somebody signs one of these wonderful contracts, and there are so many of them out there,” Staub said, “before they get the first check they should have to write an essay on Marvin Miller.”
Joe Morgan was one of the early members of the union. He was a young player and not involved in the search for a labor leader, but he said, “We could have searched for a hundred years and wouldn’t have found a more perfect person for our situation,” the former second baseman said.
Morgan addressed one of the favorite accusations of Miller’s critics. “Everyone felt he just wanted to take more and more for the players,” Morgan said, “but that wasn’t true. What Marvin wanted was for us to know our worth. Know your value, know your worth.”
Speaking on a similar theme, Steve Renko said, “Marvin never let us forget what we were there for. It wasn’t his association; it was our association.
Everybody you talked to thought that all the arguments and all the things the players were after were Marvin’s ideas, but they came from the players. He was there to let you know what you could get, how long it would take us to get what we wanted and eventually get it.”
Miller, who was 95 when he died, had a brilliant mind and was remarkable in his ability to communicate with the players.
“He had a rare ability to talk to a diverse group of people and explain complicated matters in a way that everyone understood,” said Richard Moss, Miller’s general counsel for the first 10 years. “He would do it without talking down to anyone. There are some people who do the opposite, make the simple complicated to show how smart they are, but Marvin never had to do that.”
Steve Rogers, a former pitcher, who is a special assistant with the union, echoed Moss’ view. “He never talked down to you,” Rogers said, “but he made sure you understood.”
What might have been even more impressive was Miller’s ability to know what the opposition was thinking and planning.
Charles Korr, a college professor, who has written a book on the history of the union, spoke at the Miller event and quoted John Gaherin, who was the first management negotiator who faced Miller.
“Marvin’s real talent,” Korr quoted Gaherin, “was he had a better idea of what my guys were going to do to foul me up than I did. I would be surprised at how badly the owners would misunderstand everything, how badly they would hamstring me. As soon as it happened Marvin would look at me and then we’d go out for a drink and Marvin said ‘I would’ve told you so. I knew what they were going to do.’”
Buck Martinez was on hand for all five work stoppages (three strikes, two lockouts) during Miller’s tenure. He paid tribute to Miller but also related what his wife Arlene said about Miller’s wife Terry, who died three years earlier.
Speaking of the 50-day 1981 striker, the former catcher said, “Players worried about playing. Wives worried about groceries, diapers and taking care of the kids.”
But Martinez quoted his wife as saying, “We had the confidence and we had the trust in Terry, whom we had gotten to know, to trust her like a mother. And we also knew that if Marvin Miller was leading us down this path we would make sacrifices so that no player in the future would have to sacrifice as much for themselves and their families.”
Dave Winfield and Phil Garner related telephone conversations they had with Miller shortly before he died Nov. 27. From the comments they and other players made, many apparently called their benefactor once he let out word that he was dying of liver cancer.
“We had a good 20-minute conversation, starting off saying thank you very much on behalf of all the other players,” Winfield said he told Miller. “You’ve made a difference, a great difference not only in my life but the life of thousands of other people. You’ve made a difference while you were here.
“And then we talked about family and everything else, kids going to school. A normal conversation. He was in pain and he knew that the end was near. But we had a very, very good conversation. I’ll always remember it. He was a friend and he was just an incredible human being.”
Winfield, who like the others who spoke was a staunch union member, then addressed the players in the audience, saying, “Anything you do in life know where you come from, where you are and where you’re going. Marvin was able to share that with us. Know the history of the players association, know how you got to where you are today.”
Of his final conversation with Miller, Garner said, “He was at peace with himself. He said, ‘Life has been good to me and I’m happy.’ The conversation went about that long on Marvin and we spent the next 15, 20 minutes talking about me, talking about my family, some things that happened in baseball.
“I said, ‘Marvin, you’re the only guy on the planet where I call you to cheer you up and you make me feel good about myself.’ What a wonderful man he was and we’re going to miss him tremendously.”
About two hours earlier, Jim Bouton injected some levity into the moving event. He told about the St. Louis Cardinals’ voting in spring training 1966 when players were asked to vote yes or no on Miller as the union’s executive director.
Just before the Cardinals voted, related Bouton, who was then with the Yankees, Augie Busch, the St. Louis owner, addressed the players.
According to the former pitcher, Busch said, “You men, you better get rid of this Marvin Miller. He’s a bad guy. He’s bad for baseball. It’s going to be bicycle chains and goons and baseball bats. This would be the worst thing that happened in the history of baseball.”
“At that moment,” Bouton said, “he stormed out of the clubhouse and a few moments later they took a vote and it was unanimous in favor of Marvin.”