Marvin Miller and the Reserve Clause

by Alejandro Reuss | November 29, 2012

Marvin Miller died on November 27, at the age of 95. While Miller worked for several major unions, and rose to prominence as a United Steel Workers official, his main legacy is as the executive director (1966-1982) of the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA).

Miller was instrumental in bringing down baseball’s “reserve clause”—the standard clause in all player contracts declaring that, if a player and team could not arrive at a mutually agreeable contract, the team could extend the existing contract for an additional year (subject to limitations on changes in the terms of the contract). In practice, major league teams could extend player contracts, one year at a time, in perpetuity, effectively tying each player to a single team as long as the team’s management chose. That made major league baseball, in Miller’s words, a “plantation.”

The MLBPA was and remains, to be sure, the narrowest kind of craft union, exclusive to a handful of highly skilled and (now) highly remunerated employees. It has shown very little inclination to use its power for the benefit of other workers in the employ of professional baseball (minor-leaguers, umpires, administrative staff, or ushers, food-service workers, and maintenance staff). However, there was an important principle involved in the fight against the reserve clause, culminating with its effective abolition in 1975: No worker should have to accept the terms laid down by a single employer, as major league baseball players were made to do, or face being unable to practice their chosen profession.

Marvin Miller’s name is forever tied to the players who challenged the reserve clause—those who ultimately won, Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally, and those who had sacrificed along the way, most prominently Curt Flood.

Legendary broadcaster Red Barber called Miller “one of the three most important men in baseball history” (the others being Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson). Search as you may, however, you will not find a plaque bearing Miller’s name and likeness in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

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