Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Review: Marvin Miller - Baseball Revolutionary (2015)

By Robert F. Burk

At one point in Robert F. Burk's on Marvin Miller, there's a comment from Red Barber about how the three most important people in the development of baseball have been Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson and Miller.

That's a rather high bar to pass, but Burk makes a rather good case for it in his biography, "Marvin Miller - Baseball Revolutionary."

Miller led the first professional sports union to have any clout. That may sound impossible in a day when owners and players are essentially partners in the operation, but that's a tribute to just how far the relationship has come. What's more, both sides have gained, and Miller was the catalyst.

If there's a theme here, it's that Miller was the right man at the right place at the right time. Oddly, though, this was hardly always the case for him.

After graduating from college, Miller fell into a variety of jobs that saw him bounce along the East Coast for several years. World War II played a role in that, although he didn't see military duty because of a shoulder issue. Eventually Miller landed with the Steelworkers Union in 1950, and moved up the executive ladder.

This section of the new book contains some information and insight into Miller that's not too common. Miller himself was told to downplay it in his own autobiography, with the publisher no doubt thinking that most people buying such a book wanted to read about the baseball years. Burk goes into Miller's family background at length, and covers Miller's personal political views - which were quite left of center. When you consider the times of the late 1940s and early 1950s, it wasn't exactly a career boost to be outspoken about such stances.

Miller spent more than 15 years with United Steelworkers. It's difficult to turn labor negotiations in that industry into riveting (sorry) material, and it's a little tough to get through this without some familiarity with the subject. Still, it's interesting to read what happened to the business in that era. Very short version - America was the king of steel after World War II, because the rest of the world's plants were in ruins. But as production in Europe and Japan started to ramp up, American business shrank - and conflicts grew on how best to handle that ever-changing situation.

By 1966, Miller was ready for a new challenge, and he found one when he was named the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association. It was a group that had virtually no rights in the workplace, starting with the freedom to choose an employer. As the book details, Miller slowly built up support within the union and took on management on a variety of issues. He was helped by the fact that he was good at this, and those on the other side were simply awful at it. Baseball owners were outflanked at virtually every opportunity during Miller's time on the job.

Along the way, owners predicted doom after every step, and they were proven spectacularly wrong. Arbitration arrived, the reserve clause died, free agency became a reality, and revenues, salaries and franchise values spiraled upward. Burk gives most of the credit to Miller for this, which matches what most sports historians say.

After Miller stepped down from a formal role with the MLBPA in 1982, he remained in the picture in one way or another. Miller did do some advising of the association at times for the next few years, formally and informally. After that, he was always willing to give his views on a labor situation to anyone who called. You could count on him to be consistent, a fact that led him to being an outsider when the steroid problem reared its head in the late 1990s and the 2000s. In fact, Burk unleashes some rare criticism of Miller in the book, pointing out that baseball had to do something about PEDs in order to maintain good will with its fan base. Miller died in 2012 at the age of 95, equal parts confident, articulate and defiant until the end.

Burk had several long interviews with Miller for the book, and he also did a few other interviews as well as mined print sources for information. There aren't too many fresh quotes from outsiders here that may have added some perspective, but this still is a substantial biography.

Books on the business side of sport can be a tough sell for many. They only want to know about what happens between the lines. Still, off-field developments in baseball over the half-century are interesting in their own light, and have influenced the game greatly. Those wishing a course in how we got to where we are now will find "Marvin Miller - Baseball Revolutionary" quite helpful in that sense.

Four stars

Learn more about this book.

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