At age 94, Marvin Miller walks slowly, with the aid of a cane. But the man who transformed baseball as the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association from 1966 to 1983 is still sharp of mind and memory.
Miller has a memory that he wanted to share of another nonagenarian, retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, 91, who played an important role at a key moment in the development of players’ rights nearly 44 years ago.
“He was a very important cog in that wheel,” Miller said in a recent interview in New York City. “I never got a chance to tell him that.” Miller spoke with The National Law Journal to convey the story.
What brought Miller and Stevens together in September 1967 was Charles O. Finley, the abrasive owner of the Kansas City Athletics. Finley disliked many things and many people, including other owners, but he especially did not like the idea of baseball players unionizing.
So when Finley got in a tussle with the players’ association, the top lawyers for Major League Baseball urged Finley to hire Stevens, then a rising Chicago antitrust lawyer, to advise him. According to John Paul Stevens: An Independent Life, the 2010 biography of Stevens by Bill Barnhart and Gene Schlickman, the lawyers felt the amiable Stevens would provide “temperamental balance” to the hot-headed Finley.
That balance proved crucial when an episode erupted in August 1967 involving off-duty behavior by some Athletics players. Returning to Kansas City, Mo., on a commercial airline flight after playing the Boston Red Sox, team members allegedly got rowdy, prompting other passengers to complain.
“There were many different versions of what happened on the plane,” Miller said. “But the idea that the whole team was running amok was inaccurate.”
Whatever did happen, Finley’s reaction to the incident was over the top. He did not want bad publicity at a time when he was considering moving the team to Oakland, Calif. He fired manager Al Dark, fined pitcher Lew Krausse and suspended Jack Aker, the players’ union representative. When first baseman Ken Harrelson called Finley “a menace to baseball,” Finley released him, making Harrelson essentially a free agent before there was any such thing. Harrelson signed a lucrative deal with the Red Sox.
Miller called Finley to register his complaint about what Finley had done to the players. “At first he wouldn’t talk to me,” Miller said. When he finally got through, Miller said, “I informed him what we were going to do. The disciplinary actions were uncalled for.” When he told Finley he planned to file unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board, Miller said, “He sputtered something and hung up on me.”
With the situation spiraling out of control, Miller said, he got a call from then-baseball Commissioner William “Spike” Eckert. “He said Finley was frantic” about the NLRB complaint, and he and other owners worried that the dispute could threaten baseball’s long-standing exemption from antitrust laws. Other owners urged Finley to settle the matter quickly.
Eckert made his office in New York available for Miller and Finley to meet and work things out. “I took him up on the offer,” Miller said. Miller arrived with his general counsel, Richard Moss, and the Athletics’ alternate team rep, Jim “Catfish” Hunter. Finley came with Stevens, introduced as “my lawyer from Chicago.”
Not surprisingly, Finley was tense and argumentative, Miller said. “Stevens once in a while would put his hand on Charlie’s arm to hold the decibel level down. His role was to try to keep Finley on an even keel.”
Occasionally Finley would leave the room by himself or with Stevens, and he would come back “noticeably calmer,” Miller said. “Every time there was a more reasonable Finley to talk to. Somehow, the level of discourse improved.”
As the evening wore on, Stevens helped clarify and narrow the issues. For one thing, Miller was not representing Al Dark, the fired manager. And Harrelson, with his move to Boston, was also not part of the grievance anymore.
“Stevens played a bigger and bigger role,” Miller recalled. “He understood the dimensions of the situation.” One nonnegotiable demand for Miller was that the suspension of Aker, the players’ rep, had to be rescinded. “We couldn’t allow that,” he said.
Hours into the meeting, Stevens told Miller that, in the interest of settling the matter peacefully, Aker’s suspension would be lifted. “He was the spokesman by this point,” Miller said.
Miller raised one other issue: Aker should not suffer the loss of any pay stemming from the suspension. “Stevens looked at Finley,” Miller said. Finley nodded. Against all odds, the players’ union had won in a showdown with Finley, and Miller attributes much of the success to Stevens’ ability to talk sense into Finley.
The confrontation and its outcome were a “watershed event,” according to a biography of Finley on the Web site of the Society for American Baseball Research. The next year, Miller negotiated the first collective-bargaining agreement for the players with the owners. By 1970, he had helped increase the players’ minimum salary to $10,000.
Miller assisted in the Supreme Court challenge to the reserve clause mounted by player Curt Flood, who was represented by another former Supreme Court justice, Arthur Goldberg. Goldberg and Miller knew each other from their days at the United Steelworkers union. Flood lost in the 1971 case of Flood v. Kuhn.
A recent documentary on Flood took Goldberg to task for being unprepared for the Supreme Court argument. Miller, who saw the documentary, said he was not present for the argument, so “I don’t know what to believe” about Goldberg’s performance. “I’ve heard conflicting stories over the years.”
In 1975, the reserve clause, which had bound players to their team, was struck down in arbitration, allowing players to become free agents. Today, the average salary for players tops $3 million a year.
Miller was a candidate for the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2003, 2007 and 2010. But he fell short each time — the result, some say, of owners’ domination of the selection process. Around the time of the induction ceremony in Cooperstown, N.Y., in late July of this year, commentators noted Miller’s absence from the list of honorees. At a tribute Web site that campaigned for Miller to be honored, retired pitcher Bob Locker wrote on behalf of others who benefited from Miller’s work, “Marvin knows he is in our Hall of Fame.”
For his part, Miller is reconciled at this point to not being elected to the Hall of Fame, though he clearly thinks the owners made sure that would be the outcome. “There are some things that are just past their time.”
Very few of his friends and family members who would have enjoyed his ascension into the Hall of Fame, he said, are still alive. He shrugged, “That is part of the penalty of living to be 94.”
Tony Mauro can be contacted at email@example.com.