On this day in 1966, Marvin Miller is elected executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association. During his tenure, Miller made baseball the first sport to institute collective bargaining and salary arbitration agreements, and oversaw the advent of free agency after a century-long struggle by players to sell their services on a free market.
Marvin Miller began his career as a labor economist with the National War Labor Relations Board, where he made a reputation as a shrewd negotiator. While serving as the chief economist and lead negotiator for the Steelworkers Union, one of the largest unions in the world, two baseball players–future Hall of Fame pitcher and U.S. Congressman and Senator Jim Bunning and future Hall of Fame pitcher Robin Roberts—recruited him to go to work for the MLB players’ union. Both men had been active in representing players throughout the 1950s and 60s and knew that they needed a seasoned professional to help the players end the collusive practices of team owners.
To ensure his election, Miller toured spring training camps, schooling players on the need for collective bargaining. Miller pointed to the hot-button issue that spring—the joint holdout by star pitchers Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax of the Los Angeles Dodgers—as proof of the need for a strong union: “You can be the two best pitchers on the planet and still not get what’s coming to you if there’s only two of you.” Miller also used New York Yankee centerfielder Joe DiMaggio as an example. DiMaggio, the son of an Italian fisherman who worked San Francisco’s wharf, was known as a man of principle. “Joltin’ Joe” had staged holdouts prior to the 1937 and 1942 seasons to win a wage commensurate with his worth as a gate attraction, but was forced to surrender his salary demands when Yankee ownership wouldn’t budge. As Marvin Miller put it, “Even if you were the number one player in the game, playing for the number one organization, they could tell you to take their offer or go fishing in San Francisco.”
Jim Lefevbre, a teammate of Drysdale and Koufax on the Dodgers, later explained that the players ended up voting for Miller in part because they knew he scared MLB management. Drysdale recounted how Dodger General Manager Bill “Buzzie” Bavasi reacted after Miller visited the Dodgers in the spring of 1966. “Bavasi said, ‘We can’t have this guy. This means strike. Strike means no money, no food to feed your family.’ We all looked at each other and said ‘He’s in.’ Anybody Buzzie was that scared of had to be good for you.”
At the time of Marvin Miller’s election in 1966, the average salary for a baseball player was $19,000. By the time of his retirement in 1982, the average income of a major league baseball player had ballooned to $240,000.