Miller’s time was one of shared wealth for big league baseball

November 28, 2012 

In the prime of his Hall of Fame career with the New York Yankees, Mickey Mantle was offered a contract for 1960 that cut his salary from $72,000 to $60,000. The Yankees were docking the superstar because they determined his 1959 season — he’d hit .285, with 31 homers — was a bust.

Some bust. Mantle finished among the American League’s top five in slugging percentage, on-base percentage, total bases, extra-base hits, walks, home runs and stolen bases. Based on modern metrics that measure fielding proficiency and adjust for home-ballpark dimensions, the 27-year-old ranked as the No. 1 position player in the league.

Mantle didn’t know this, of course, and had no agent to argue his case. All he knew is that a $12,000 pay cut seemed unfair. He refused to report to spring training.

Yankees general manager George Weiss, who was prepared to replace Mantle in center field with the immortal platoon duo of Ken Hunt and Jack Reed, saw the holdout as an act of baseball treason.

“This is the year Mantle must learn the facts of life,” Weiss said. “He must learn he can’t bulldoze us into meeting his terms. He must come in and talk over everything reasonably.”

The holdout lasted eight days. Absent any leverage, Mantle settled for $65,000 – a $7,000 pay cut.

This was how your friends in the diamond business operated before March 5, 1966, the day Marvin Miller became executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association and ushered the sport out of the 19th Century.

Miller, a shrewd economist who had bargained on behalf of the steelworkers, did not exude charisma. His first victory — and there would be several — was winning over his own constituents. Despite enduring the sort of hardball negotiating tactics used by the Yankees, many players were wary of the union boss, who grew up more a scholar than an athlete.

Former Yankees (and Seattle Pilots) pitcher Jim Bouton once recalled the first time he and his teammates met with Miller.

“We were all expecting to see someone with a cigar out of the corner of his mouth, a real knuckle-dragging, ‘dem and dose’ guy,” Bouton told author John Helyar. “In walks this quiet, mild, exceedingly understated man.”

Quiet and Mild combined to produce hurricane-force winds of change. When Miller took charge of the MLBPA, the average major league salary was $19,000. When he retired, in 1983, the average salary was $240,000.

If this exceedingly understated man, who died Tuesday at 95, had done nothing more during his tenure than ensure wealth for those who already enjoyed fame, he’d be remembered as a trailblazer.

But Miller did more. He implemented a pension plan that became the model for every pro sports league. He paved a way for veteran players to put their talents up for bid in an open market: free agency. Baseball owners decried the concept. If contracts aren’t permanently controlled, they warned, the grand old game will never be the same.

The owners weren’t right about much during their bouts with Miller, but they were right about that: The grand old game never was the same once veterans gained the right to compete for the team of their choice.

It got better. Attendance spiked. Local and national TV deals spiked. Players have reaped the benefits — the average salary in 2012 was $3.4 million — but so have the owners. A typical MLB franchise is worth more than $600 million these days, or about $500 million more than it cost to buy the Seattle Mariners from former owner Jeff Smulyan in 1992.

Meanwhile, that feeble players association Miller inherited 46 years ago remains the sports-industry standard. Contracts are guaranteed. Team payrolls are put together without a salary cap. Arbitration disputes are heard by impartial judges.

It was another judge, Peter Seitz, whose 1975 decision allowing pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally to declare themselves as free agents ended the owners’ ability to control contracts into perpetuity.

Seitz once referred to Miller as “the Moses who led baseball’s Children of Israel out of the land of bondage.”

A bit overstated — well, OK, a lot overstated — but the premise is accurate. Marvin Miller gave journeymen players a freedom that in 1960 was denied one of the greatest players of all.

By the way, on the day baseball’s Moses died, outfielder Ichiro Suzuki signed a $5 million contract to play one more season with the Yankees.

The same team that told Mickey Mantle he needed to take a pay cut, and to learn the facts of life.

john.mcgrath@ thenewstribune.com

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