Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

The man who changed baseball forever

By John Avlon, CNN Contributor
November 28, 2012 -- Updated 1500 GMT (2300 HKT)
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
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1842 GMT (0242 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1410 GMT (2210 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2152 GMT (0552 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2121 GMT (0521 HKT)
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
ADVERTISEMENT