Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

The man who changed baseball forever

By John Avlon, CNN Contributor
updated 10:00 AM EST, Wed November 28, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • John Avlon: Marvin Miller, who died Tuesday, brought free market competition to baseball
  • Avlon: When Miller became head of players' union, the average player's salary was $7,000
  • Avlon: Players couldn't leave teams, which Miller fought, calling it a form of slavery
  • Avlon: He made it possible for players to be free agents, but he never got in the Hall of Fame

Editor's note: John Avlon is a CNN contributor and senior political columnist for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He is co-editor of the book "Deadline Artists: America's Greatest Newspaper Columns." He is a regular contributor to "Erin Burnett OutFront" and is a member of the OutFront Political Strike Team. For more political analysis, tune in to "Erin Burnett OutFront" at 7 ET weeknights.

(CNN) -- Marvin Miller died Tuesday at the age of 95.  And here's why you should know his name: Miller transformed the game of baseball even though he never put on a uniform.

This slight union lawyer was considered the enemy of owners, and yet he might have done more than anyone else to bring free market competition to the national pastime and make it a modern big business.

He was lionized and vilified and is sadly still denied entry into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Baseball combines sports and statistics, so consider these numbers when assessing the career of Marvin Miller. When the Brooklyn-born mustachioed man was named executive director of the Major League Baseball Player's Association in 1966, the average player's salary was just $7,000 a year. Many professional players had to work a second job just to provide for their families. In 1984, when Miller left the position, the average players' salary was $329,000. Today it is $3.4 million.

Marvin Miller appears on a CNN show in 1997
Marvin Miller appears on a CNN show in 1997

The reason is free agency. And that was the innovation that Miller brought to the game, against the bitter opposition of team owners.

Bizarre as it might sound today, 40 years ago baseball was exempt from antitrust legislation. One of the impacts was that players could be contractually obligated to work for one team in perpetuity through what was called the reserve clause. They were effectively denied the ability to test their value in the open market, something Miller saw as akin to slavery.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



In 1969, he and a courageous St. Cardinals' player named Curt Flood, later christened "Dred Scott in Spikes" by columnist George Will, took their challenge to the reserve clause all the way to the Supreme Court, where they lost by a 5 to 3 decision in 1972.

But Miller persevered and pursued the players' liberation of their capital through free agency in 1975. This survived a series of court challenges and became the norm today.

Yes, players are now paid sometimes absurd salaries, but fans come to see players, not owners, and they deserve their share of the profits as a result. Yes, fans are too often denied their game by selfish strikes perpetrated by players and owners alike. These are unwelcome side effects of Miller's legacy.

But the free agency era of increased competition has actually chipped away at monopolies in every sense. Dynasties are less frequent and more teams have climbed from the cellar to the World Series. Competition works.

The fact that Miller was denied entry into the Hall of Fame as recently as 2010 speaks to the influence of owners and their deep dislike of Miller's intrusions and innovations.

But there is irony that the trust-buster actually helped grow the economic pie of baseball, making more players and owners wealthy. It was ultimately a win-win, though the owners would always have a hard time seeing it.

The most eloquent tribute to Miller might have been his extended inclusion in the documentary "Baseball" by Ken Burns, one of my favorite movies. But the real tribute is all around us; in countless ways the national pastime has been transformed through the efforts of a man whose name you might not have heard before Tuesday night: Marvin Miller, R.I.P.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of John Avlon.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
updated 5:52 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
updated 5:21 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
updated 9:10 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
updated 1:38 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
updated 1:34 PM EDT, Sat August 16, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Sun August 17, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
updated 5:46 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
updated 6:26 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
updated 11:05 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
updated 4:24 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
updated 6:56 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
updated 4:35 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
updated 7:08 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
updated 11:25 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT