Marvin Miller: Fondly Remembering the Man Who Ended Slavery in Major League Baseball
Marvin Miller (April 14, 1917 – November 27, 2012) passed away a week ago. I intentionally waited a few days for this post so as to not be lumped into the discussion of his (non) selection (thus far) into the Baseball Hall of Fame despite his massive influence on the history and development of Major League Baseball. Also, if I get on a rant about economists getting into the baseball hall of fame I may never stop.
Prior to the late 1960s professional baseball players were not represented by a union. There had been numerous attempts (I believe dating back to the late 1800s) to unionize. The first time the players were successful in a unionization attempt was with the formation of the Major League Baseball Player's Association, that according to their website negotiated the first successful collective bargaining agreement in professional sports in 1968.
Marvin Miller headed the MLBPA from 1966 until the early 1980's. Prior to running the player's union Miller worked with The United Steel Workers of America. It was shortly after the beginning of his tenure in baseball that Miller won contract arbitration and free agency for players. This matters because prior to this victory baseball players were essentially operating under a class structure of slavery, owned and exploited by the owners of the team that they played for.
I am not meaning to conflate baseball with the social aspects of some of the the other slave systems in human history, the US slave trade, modern sexual slave trades, the East African Slave Trade, and lots of other examples of people being horribly mistreated. However, in terms of class analysis baseball players were essentially slaves. Once under contract a player had no ability to "jump" their contract to play for another team (even if a higher money offer was made). Players in the early era of baseball were paid their salary (just as a slave is typically given room, board, medicine, etc.) but were not free to leave the employment of the club/team that they played for.
Generally speaking any baseballer who violated a contract could not legally play professional baseball again. Also, once signed a baseball player remained the property of the team that signed him for the duration of his career. Like other pieces of property (bats, balls, cars, houses, etc.), the owners could legally sell and trade their players and the player would have no choice in this other than to pick up and move their family and go play for their new team.
Finally, it was illegal for baseball players to prematurely end their contract with the owner of their team. There are documented cases of players being forced to return wages, and even going into debt to owners after suffering injuries, or being involved in other life events that left them unable to play baseball any longer under the terms of their contract.
In terms of the Marxian language of class structures prior to collective bargaining baseball players were slaves. They were pieces of property (capital) that were employed by their owners in order to realize surplus (generally speaking, in the form of tickets and concession sales in the early years of the sport. Players could be bought, sold, traded, with no say in the matter, and were forced to work when and where their owners told them to. (Not to mention that in this era salaries of players were quite low).
Returning to Marvin Miller: Arguably, Miller did more to change the game of professional baseball than any single player / manager, etc. has ever done. He ended the existence of the class structure of slavery for baseball players. Players today, (overpaid or not,) function essentially as capitalist workers. Team owners pay the player a salary, after the player signs a contract. After the expiration of the contract the player becomes a free agent and is able to sign with another organization. Through collective bargaining the MLBPA has won the rights to contract arbitration, no trade clauses, and numerous other rights for their member players. All of these cornerstones of worker's rights in baseball were enacted under Miller's tenure as the head of the MLBPA.
Today, it is true that baseball players are very well paid at the major league level (this is not so for the far greater number of players in the minor leagues). In the Marxian theory modern players are still exploited by the owners. The form is capitalist exploitation, not slavery. Modern players are paid for their necessary labor. The owners of the teams are the first appropriators of the surplus generated by the players (through tickets, merchandise sales, television, etc) My guess would be that a good sized portion of this surplus is then transferred back to the few players with top contracts by the owners, but that does not change that the class structure of Capitalism exists between owners and players today in Major League Baseball.
It seems fitting that "America's Game" should be dominated by America's favorite class structure (capitalism) and Marvin Miller was a big part of why that transition took place. May athletes, in all the major sports, baseball was the first to unionize; (and non-athletic union members as well), in fact, the whole American labor movement owes a debt of gratitude to Marvin Miller.
If there is a heaven, I am sure there is baseball being played. Perhaps Marvin can help Jesus renegotiate his contract.