Word of Todd: Miller’s Time
This week, the baseball community lost labor champion Marvin Miller at the age of 95. I do not consider myself a baseball scholar by any means, but I had long associated Miller’s name with baseball’s labor revolution in the 1960s. There have been calls for his enshrinement in the Hall of Fame for his contributions to the game, arguments that said contributions have done more for the game than those of many executives who populate Cooperstown. Marvin Miller undoubtedly changed the game. Forgive me if I am not so quick to see these changes as ultimately positive.
Miller was integral in establishing free agency and ending baseball’s reserve clause that essentially bound a player to their original club until which time they were released. He helped make the Major League Baseball Player’s Association a true union with bargaining rights, and in turn brought about things like arbitration, and sent player salaries skyrocketing. In essence, these principles he fought for were just, and what one would expect out of any employer/employee relationship. After all, any romantic notions of team loyalty in the early days of baseball are fallacies, the players had no say. However, are we now too far in the other direction?
Sportswriters in their obituaries of Marvin Miller often compare his achievements in a before and after sense. Jayson Stark of ESPN, for example, writes:
The average salary back then, in 1966, was $6,000. Alex Rodriguez collected $6,000 every THIRD of an inning this year.
We’re supposed to treat this as a good thing? Adjusted for inflation, $6,000 is worth a little over $41,000 in 2011 dollars. Player salaries have increased at a rate so far beyond that of the average worker that it is almost incalculable. It is hard to say baseball has just been keeping up with other sports, as in sports history the three other major leagues have followed baseball’s lead on just about everything, from playoffs to building new stadiums. Major League Baseball was the dominant league at the time.
So for me the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Going back to the average salary in 1966, I will allow that $41,000 is a little low for a Major League Baseball player. However the average salary today is $3.4 million, that is an increase in average salary (in inflation adjusted dollars) of over 7558%. So do players deserve that much more? I think not. Who suffers at the cost of these higher salaries? The fans do. Owners, of course, are not blameless, and are greedy themselves, but that is another issue.
I believe that these are unintended consequences of doing what was right back then. The money is out of control. Baseball has been thankfully free of a labor stoppage since 1995, but between then and the start of Miller’s tenure there were eight. Nobody had ever heard of a strike in professional sports before Miller came about. It is the right of a union to strike. But a player’s union is less a union than a club of rich guys.
A baseball team is not a business in the classic sense. The reason baseball teams are called clubs is because that’s what they originally were, a group of guys playing a game. Somewhere along the line that was co-opted for profit. For better or worse, the game would not be the same if not for Marvin Miller. The state of the game is strong. But by what metric do we measure that?