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November 27, 2012

Former baseball players' union head dead at 95

(Continued)

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 to 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. In a 1982 letter to The New York Times, Seitz called Miller “the Moses who had led Baseball’s Children of Israel out of the land of bondage.”

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