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 12:50 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT