Athletes can thank Marvin Miller for their millions

Marvin Miller talks to reporters at the Doral

Marvin Miller talks to reporters at the Doral Inn in New York. Miller, the union leader who created free agency for baseball players and revolutionized professional sports with multimillion dollar contracts, died Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2012 in New York. He was 95. (July 31, 1985) (Credit: AP)

The only reason to feel sorry for today's fabulously paid professional athletes is that too many of them don't understand what allowed them, financially, to be born on third base.

Their skills and training aside, it was Marvin Miller, who died early Tuesday at 95, who made them rich beyond reason.

When Miller, a trained economist, was hired as executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association in 1966, the minimum player salary was $6,000 and the average $19,000. By the time he left in 1982, the average was up to $241,000 -- more than a 12-fold increase.

Now, of course, top players are paid up to $32 million, the average salary is more than $3 million and the minimum is $480,000.

That makes Miller, as arbitrator Peter Seitz called him after ruling in 1975 for the free agency Miller sought, "the Moses who had led Baseball's Children of Israel out of the land of bondage."

Before Miller became head of the union, players were drafted at 17 or 18 and never had any input into where they worked throughout their careers. Now, after a brief proving period, the most accomplished of them enjoy a lucrative seller's market.

By convincing players that, while they had no power individually but enormous strength collectively, Miller (and his general counsel, Dick Moss) got the ball rolling toward confronting owners. In 1972, Miller led the first strike in professional sports history -- it lasted 13 days -- followed by a walkout during spring training in 1976 and a midseason work stoppage in 1981.

And, pretty soon, even the least of major league players were rolling in it.

That makes Miller not only more influential in baseball than Babe Ruth, but also in all of sports. Because of his work in baseball, player empowerment spread throughout the very serious business of fun and games. It's a record that never will be broken.

Whether all this present-day wealth, just for playing games, is an altogether healthy thing is open to discussion. Even Miller said, in recent years, that modern salaries had become absurd.

He told Newsday's Steve Jacobson in 2000, "If you believe in compensation based on social value of what you do, I'd buy that" pay often doesn't reflect worth to mankind. But "ballplayers," Miller said, "are low on that scale."

More to the point is that Miller more than earned his paychecks by freeing players from being, in his words, "among the most exploited workers in America" when he took the job.

Hardly the "dese, dem and dose" guy many players expected, Miller was distinguished, articulate, soft-spoken. He sported silver hair and the mustache he had cultivated since before earning his economics degree at NYU.

Plus, the former owner Bill Veeck once said of Miller's rapid acceptance by the rank and file, "A lot of players figured that anyone the owners disliked that much couldn't be all bad."

More twisted is the logic that somehow has prevented the inclusion of Miller, such a central character in baseball history, in the sport's Hall of Fame.

"I and the union of players," he said after falling a single vote short of Cooperstown enshrinement in 2010, "have received far more support, publicity and appreciation from countless fans, former players, writers, scholars, experts in labor management relations, than if the Hall had not embarked on its futile and fraudulent attempt to rewrite history.

"It is an amusing anomaly that the Hall of Fame has made me famous by keeping me out."

Not amusing, really. Rather, a reason to feel sorry for baseball.