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
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1423 GMT (2223 HKT)
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1455 GMT (2255 HKT)
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 2303 GMT (0703 HKT)
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1419 GMT (2219 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1859 GMT (0259 HKT)
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
September 27, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1332 GMT (2132 HKT)
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1233 GMT (2033 HKT)
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 2137 GMT (0537 HKT)
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 0910 GMT (1710 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT