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Marvin Miller Changed Baseball With Free Agency

Former baseball union leader Marvin Miller has died. He revolutionized sports with free agency, which gave athletes more power and vastly increased their compensation.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Now, we remember a man who helped transform Major League Baseball. And he did it not with a bat or a slider, but with two words: free agency. Marvin Miller died earlier today at the age of 95. He was the former executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, and he led the effort to end the rule that kept players on one team their entire career. NPR's Mike Pesca has his story.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Marvin Miller, a St. Louis newspaper once advised, would do the game of baseball a great favor if he disappeared, got lost or found the nearest hole and jumped into it. But the post-Democrat relied on advertising dollars of the Busch family, which also owned the Cardinals, so it's easy to see why they'd be hostile to Mr. Miller. He was the adversary of owners. Well, in the same way that a skewer can be said to be the adversary to the kebab. In the mid-1990s, Miller, an economist and negotiator for the United Steelworkers, came over to the world of baseball, where players were happy just to be playing the game they loved. John Helyar, author of "Lords of the Realm," an economic history of baseball, says Miller had to teach ballplayers to think like steelworkers.

JOHN HELYAR: He was a great educator before he became a great emancipator.

PESCA: Miller once told the young Bobby Bonds that his son, already showing baseball promise as a child, would go on to make more money in one season than the great Willie Mays made in his entire career. Bobby Bonds laughed. But Barry Bonds would indeed prove Miller correct. Jim Bouton, then a pitcher with the Yankees, remembers his first meeting with Miller. He expected a dragon; instead, he encountered a thoughtful, dapper gentleman. But Bouton says back then, players suffered from an aspiration deficit.

JIM BOUTON: Free agency was, you know, was out of the question. I don't think - nobody even talked about that. We didn't know what was possible.

PESCA: Miller convinced them that the reserve clause made players chattel. In place since 1879, it meant there was no competition for players. A player could accept his team's offer or he could not play baseball. Miller changed all that. He won court fights, he won negotiations, he won strikes, and he structured free agency to the players' benefit. Bouton and countless others say of Miller.

BOUTON: He might be the most powerful figure in the history of baseball.

PESCA: Marvin Miller won just about every negotiation he engaged in but never could win entry into baseball's Hall of Fame. As for why, realize that owners exert control over who gets into the Hall, and remember that Miller treated them like the 27 Yankees treated hanging curveballs. Marvin Miller died at his Manhattan apartment this morning. He was 95 years old. Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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