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New York - Marvin Miller was a labor economist who never played a day of organized baseball. He preferred tennis. Yet he transformed the national pastime as surely as Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, television and night games.
Miller, the union boss who won free agency for baseball players in 1975, ushering in an era of multimillion-dollar contracts and athletes who switch teams at the drop of a batting helmet, died Tuesday at 95. He had been diagnosed with liver cancer in August.
"I think he's the most important baseball figure of the last 50 years," former baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent said. "He changed not just the sport but the business of the sport permanently, and he truly emancipated the baseball player - and in the process all professional athletes. Prior to his time, they had few rights. At the moment, they control the games."
In his 16 1/2 years as executive director of the Major League Players Association, starting in 1966, Miller fought owners on many fronts, not only achieving free agency but making the word "strike" stand for something other than a pitched ball.
Over the years, his influence on the game was widely acknowledged if not always honored. Baseball fans argue over whether he made the game fairer or more nakedly mercenary, and the Hall of Fame repeatedly rejected him in what was attributed to lingering resentment among team owners.
Players attending the union's annual executive board meeting in New York said their professional lives are Miller's legacy.
"Anyone who's ever played modern professional sports owes a debt of gratitude to Marvin Miller," Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Chris Capuano said. "He empowered us as players. He gave us ownership of the game we play. Anyone who steps on a field in any sport, they have a voice because of him."
Major League Baseball's revenue has grown from $50 million in 1967 to $7.5 billion this year. At his last public speaking engagement, a discussion at New York University School of Law in April marking the 40th anniversary of the first baseball strike, Miller said free agency and resulting fan interest contributed to the increase. And both management and labor benefited, he said.
"I never before saw such a win-win situation in my life, where everybody involved in Major League Baseball, both sides of the equation, still continue to set records in terms of revenue and profits and salaries and benefits," Miller said. He called it "an amazing story."
Miller, who retired in 1982, led the first walkout in the game's history 10 years earlier, a fight over pension benefits. On April 5, 1972, signs posted at major league parks simply said: "No Game Today." The strike, which lasted 13 days, was followed by a walkout during spring training in 1976 and a midseason job action that darkened the stadiums for seven weeks in 1981.
Miller led players through three strikes and two lockouts, and baseball has had eight work stoppages in all.
Slightly built and silver-haired with a thick, dark mustache, Miller operated with an eloquence and a soft-spoken manner that belied his toughness. He clashed repeatedly with Commissioner Bowie Kuhn.
Before Miller took over the union, some players actually opposed his appointment as successor to Milwaukee Judge Robert Cannon, who had counseled them on a part-time but unpaid basis.
"Some of the player representatives were leery about picking a union man," Hall of Fame pitcher and former U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning said in 1974. "But he was very articulate ... not the cigar-chewing type some of the guys expected."
Miller recalled that owners "passed the word that if I were selected, goon squads would take over the game. They suggested racketeers and gangsters would swallow baseball. The players expected a "dese, dem and dose' guy. The best thing I had going for me was owner propaganda."
He was elected by the players by a vote of 489-136. Baseball had entered a new era, one in which its owners would have to bargain with a union professional.
When he took over, the union consisted of a $5,400 kitty and a battered file cabinet, and baseball's minimum salary was $6,000. By 1968, Miller had negotiated baseball's first collective bargaining agreement. By 1970, players obtained the right to take disputes before an arbitrator.
Nowadays, baseball's biggest stars make up to $32 million a season, the average salary is more than $3 million and the major league minimum is $480,000. While the NFL, NBA and NHL have salary caps, baseball does not.
Miller's biggest legacy - free agency - represented one of the most significant off-the-field changes in the game's history. The reserve clause that had been in place since 1878 bound a player to the team holding his contract. Miller viewed it as little more than 20th-century slavery.
"Before Marvin, there were no such things as the negotiations. It was take it or leave it," Hall of Famer Joe Morgan said. "What was your recourse, to quit?"
Acting with union backing, outfielder Curt Flood finally challenged the reserve clause when he refused to report to his new team when he was traded in 1969 from the St. Louis Cardinals to the Philadelphia Phillies. Three years later, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the reserve clause by a 5-3 vote, keeping intact baseball's antitrust exemption.
In 1975, however, the union found a new test case, when pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally refused to re-sign with the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Montreal Expos, respectively. Arbitrator Peter Seitz sided with the players.
The owners went to court, saying the reserve system was not subject to arbitration. Two months later, U.S. District Judge John Watkins Oliver upheld Seitz, and a federal appeals court did the same.
In 1976, management and labor agreed to a contract that allowed players with six years of major league service to become free agents and sell their services to any team willing to pay.