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Legacy Of Controversial Baseball Figure Marvin Miller

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

One of the most important and most controversial figures in baseball history died earlier today. Marvin Miller became the first executive director of Major League Baseball Players Association in 1966, and proceeded to transform both the union and the game. By extension, his example revolutionized professional sports. Marvin Miller died today in his home in Manhattan at the age of 95. If you have questions about Marvin Miller's legacy, our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Author and former New York Times sports columnist Robert Lipsyte joins us now on the phone from New York. His most recent book is the memoir "An Accidental Sportswriter." Bob, nice to have you back with us.

ROBERT LIPSYTE: Nice to be here, Neal.

CONAN: And remind us, what was baseball like for the players before Marvin Miller?

LIPSYTE: Well, they were locked into a - what would they even then considered a plantation system. I mean, the phrase - which seems absurd - that Curt Flood talked about was being a $90,000-a-year slave. But the point was there was something called the reserve clause, which meant that the baseball player was fixed forever with the team that originally signed him, and that was sustained constitutionally by the Supreme Court. And it was Marvin Miller who came and created a union.

When he arrived on the scene in 1966, I think there was great fear that he would turn baseball players into Teamsters, which was, you know, faintly hilarious because although I think that many of them did come from working-class backgrounds - even, you know, union backgrounds, steelworkers, coalminers - they really were so fixed in their exceptionalism that there was, you know, no way that they would ever think of themselves as union guys.

They were artists. They were stars. And he came, a low-key man with a shriveled right arm and a very professorial manner, and he explained to them very carefully that they were getting screwed. And, of course, it was the numbers that absolutely bore him out. When he arrived, the minimum salary in baseball was $6,000. It had been that for years. And the average salary was $19,000.

(LAUGHTER)

LIPSYTE: Now, the minimum is $480,000, and the average salary is $3 million. So I would call that progress.

CONAN: There's been a bit of inflation between now and then, but a dollar is still a dollar.

(LAUGHTER)

LIPSYTE: Well, it's still, I think, numbers that mean something. But, you know, at the same time, baseball has gone from, you know, profits of something like - or revenues, something like 15 million to seven-and-a-half billion. So whatever inflation might have been, I mean, the numbers are there. He improved the game.

CONAN: That is something that the owners - well, it's interesting. The owners at the time portrayed him - you talked about him as mild-mannered and professorial. They basically described him as Mike Quill, the combative head of the New York subway workers' union.

LIPSYTE: Or Jimmy Hoffa. I mean, he was going to come in with a cigar clamped in his mouth, and he was going to turn these ballplayers into raging union members, which he did. You know, soon afterwards, there was a strike, and there were several work stoppages after that. You had to prove to the owners that these guys were serious, and they were. But what it also gave was a kind of professional to sports. I mean, the great conceit, you know, was the great baseball players of that time, the Willie Mays. Oh, they're really children. They would play this game for free.

(LAUGHTER)

LIPSYTE: Sure, they would because there were not a lot of other places to go. There were not a lot of other choices. And I think that Marvin Miller came just in time for baseball because remember, football was now becoming slowly the real national pastime. Basketball was making its way. There were all kinds of amateur sports that were slowly becoming professionalized through the Olympics, and baseball was lagging behind.

CONAN: How did Marvin Miller convince this group of individualists that a union - to think like a steel worker?

LIPSYTE: Well, I think that, you know, they weren't really thinking like steel workers. I mean, I think that that's - I think that they were - he convinced them to think like teammates, like baseball players, like athletes working together to win a game. And the game now was against the people who owned their contracts. And I think that he did it by being not at all what they had expected. You know, with the owner's propaganda, as you said, you know, Mike Quill, Jimmy Hoffa was going to come down.

Dese, dem, dose guys with a cigar in his mouth, you know, growling at them to get out on the picket line, which would have been, you know, at that point, humiliating for, you know, these heroes. But he was very low key. He would say that the $6,000 minimum salary was, hmm, that seems inappropriately low...

(LAUGHTER)

LIPSYTE: ...something like that, instead of raging, you know, you fools taking, you know, short money, you know, chump change. We got to change the system. What he would say was that, you know, we can do better. And he just very quietly - he was trained as an economist. He would just go from team to team to team and just kind of lay out how, in a sense, they were being cheated vis-a-vis the profits that the owners were making and how they could do so much better and, in a sense, how much more manly they could be if they stood up for their rights. And, you know, he said this in kind of a low key kind of way.

But I think that, you know, it finally dawned on them. And it's interesting because the guys that he convinced, you know, the board of directors of the players association were a range that included one of the most virulently right-wing senators of our time, Jim Bunning of the perfect game, who went on to become a very imperfect legislator. But I think that the idea that he was, you know, a left-wing demagogue, you know, certainly would've sent Bunning up. But Bunning saw immediately that this was a man who could make them all more professional and more money.

CONAN: Robert Lipsyte, former columnist for The New York Times, author most recently of "An Accidental Sportswriter." We're talking about the legacy of Marvin Miller. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And let's turn to Bob. Bob is on the line with us from Cleveland.

BOB: Hi. I remember as a - when I was a young man when all of these strikes were taking place, when Marvin Miller first came out of scene, I used to argue that the, well, a lot of people used to say that the players were being un-American. I used to argue with all the members of my family. And I used to say, well, what's more un-American than a man being, you know, tied to one team where he can't go out and bargain, you know, for his, you know, for his services? And I was wondering, did you ever approach any of these owners, you know, for their opinion and how they were keeping these, you know, underpaying these men, how they weren't letting them, you know, participate in, you know, capitalist free market policies?

(LAUGHTER)

LIPSYTE: Yes, of course, we all did in those days. And the owners didn't really respond to that question as you have framed it, which is absolutely right, I think, you know, right on the money. They talked about the game, how the game would splinter and fall apart if there was this - not this kind of control. And they kind of envisioned a future in which there would be just kind of wild free agent thing and trading back and forth. In a sense, what did happen - but Marvin Miller, you know, really made an effort to control that. He limited the amount of free agency that there could be. You had to be six years with a team before you could declare. I mean, he was a visionary in every sense.

I think he loved baseball. He wanted baseball to prosper as it did, and he saw that the owners were not necessarily operating in the best interest of the game. They were acting in the best interest of the 1 percent.

BOB: Yeah, that's what I can never understand because after free agency, there seemed to be a whole new interest in baseball before after free agency because you had all these people, like Catfish Hunter, you know, going to teams. Well, a lot of players were stuck on teams where they never really had a chance to draw attention to themselves because the team was so bad. But right after free agency, it seemed like players could go find a team that needed them.

LIPSYTE: Absolutely. You're absolutely right. It kind of broke up the gridlock. I mean, if you had been hired early on by a team that already had a really good third baseman, you could languish for your whole career either in the minors or on the Major League bench just because there was no movement. And, of course, you know, what happened soon after free agency was, you know, on and on, there was expansion, and owners came in with big bucks that could buy players and move them around.

CONAN: John(ph), thanks very much for the call.

BOB: Bye.

CONAN: We're talking about Marvin Miller, the union head of the baseball association, who died earlier today. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's see if we can get Howard on the line. Howard's with us from Oakland.

HOWARD: Hi. Thank you. Yeah, I'm calling from A's territory here. I just want to ask - can you please talk about Curt Flood's role in all of this and his relationship with Miller.

LIPSYTE: Well, Curt Flood was very important. I think Curt Flood was the case that Marvin Miller was waiting for to test free agency. Curt Flood was the ballplayer who refused to go from the Cardinals to the Philadelphia Phillies when he was traded, saying that, you know, he was not a piece of chattel. And, of course, that was the case that was challenged and Curt Flood lost. But I think that was the beginning of ballplayers in general understanding the kind of contractual prison that they were in.

Curt Flood's, you know, a great ballplayer, an all-star, a man, whose career, more or less, spun out of control after that, both personally and professionally. But Flood was the great hero of free agency and changing the system. He didn't get the full benefit of it. A couple of years later, two other ballplayers, two pitchers, challenged it, and the arbitrator who came in awarded the decision to them. And, of course, immediately Major League Baseball fired the arbitrator. But the die by that time was cast.

What the whole thing hinged on, of course, was not justice or fairness but a technicality. The reserve clause basically said that the team that bought you would always have a one-year option on your contract. But the case turned on the fact that if you were willing to sit out a year and that option would then expire, you would then be free. And once that happened, free agency became a possibility.

CONAN: Two quick questions, Bob, one of which is the influence of the Baseball Players Association on other professional sports unions.

LIPSYTE: I think that was enormous, and that made the other associations possible. They - and many people feel that the Baseball Association is historically the most successful union in America. And certainly, it should be even more of a role model for unions throughout America, although, it's not. It's mostly been a role model for the other sports, particularly for football and basketball. Hockey, as we know, is embroiled in a work stoppage right now.

And I think that it gave athletes a sense of themselves, that they weren't slaves, that they weren't locked into contracts. And also, I think that they didn't have to be so grateful to the people who built them the stadiums, often with taxpayer money, and created the teams.

CONAN: The last question then is about the refusal of the Baseball Hall of Fame to enshrine one of the people who transformed the sport and, as you say, made it better.

LIPSYTE: Well, I think that, depending on which side you come on, the Baseball Hall of Fame, which I think is a kind of corrupted institution that exists basically - from the ballplayer's point of view basically because if you do get into the Hall of Fame, you know, your price skyrockets, particularly for your baseball card and for your speaking appearances. I think that the fact that Marvin Miller is not in the Hall of Fame, doesn't have his own wing in the Hall of Fame, is a kind of perversion of what we might think the Hall of Fame is all about: a glorification of the people who have really made the game strong and great.

I guess, it just tells you that the people that we want in the Hall of Fame are those kind of, you know, good-natured sluggers who haven't taken steroids or bet on the games or in any way taken away from the fantasy.

CONAN: Robert Lipsyte, thanks very much.

LIPSYTE: Thank you.

CONAN: Bob Lipsyte, an author and former New York Times sports columnist. His most recent book, the memoir "An Accidental Sportswriter." He joined us from his home on Shelter Island in New York. Tomorrow, Ken Rudin's here with another edition of the Political Junkie. Join us for that. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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