History of Labor Struggles in MLB: The MLBPA and Marvin Miller

photo: Marvin Miller

The Cardinal Nation’s series highlighting the history of labor struggles in MLB continues with the creation of the MLB Players Association and eventual selection of Marvin Miller as its executive director, followed by his first victory. The author is Marilyn Green, a retired attorney with background in employment law. (free)

Part 4 of this series outlined the rise and fall of the fourth attempt to organize professional baseball players into a collective group capable of sustaining itself for the long term. That group, the American Baseball Guild, was the first group of baseball players formed after the passing of the Wagner Act in 1935. It was also the first group organized by a man who had no ties to baseball.

After the Guild failed to win its first certification election, it dissolved and became the fourth failure of sustained collective action among baseball players. Unlike the first three defeats, however, some progress was made toward getting baseball owners to negotiate with players over working conditions. It was a small but important step in getting the ball rolling toward a sea change in the lopsided relationship between labor and management in the world of Major League Baseball’s monopoly.

A committee of players and owners had formed during the struggle between the Guild and Major League Baseball. Though clearly a company union in violation of the Wagner Act, the committee nevertheless held negotiations that ultimately resulted in small gains for the players. These gains were easy for the owners to swallow, but these small baby steps were crucial in getting the players to a spot where they felt they finally had agency. It would lead to bigger things for the players later.

As a result of the Guild and its push for recognition, the committee that was formed negotiated and gained agreement to implement two items that the players had always wanted. A minimum salary of $5,000 and a pension for players was put into place in 1946. The pension was supposed to be funded by proceeds from the World Series and the All-Star Game, which included the television and radio rights to both, as well as a player contribution of $344 per year (withheld from each player’s salary). The pension was controlled by the Commissioner’s Office and the players were left in the dark as to how much money was in the fund and how it was maintained.

Ernie “Tiny” Bonham

In 1949, Ernie “Tiny” Bonham, a pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates, died following complications from an appendectomy at the age of 36. The death of Bonham and what followed gave the players enough uneasiness that they insisted on knowing more about how their pension was being run. When Bonham died, the Commissioner’s Office was faced with not having enough money in the pension fund to pay Bonham’s widow. To deal with the predicament, Commissioner Happy Chandler sold the television and radio rights to the World Series and the All-Star Game for $1 million over six years to the Gillette Safety Razor Company. Chandler made a bad deal as it turned out, because a year later Gillette sold the rights to NBC for $4 million per year.

The players smelled a rat and sought an accounting from Chandler of the state of the pension. Chandler ignored the players concerns and put off providing the requested accounting. Chandler’s contract as Commissioner was not renewed in 1951 and he was replaced by Ford C. Frick. Frick as well saw no reason to respond to the players’ request for an accounting. The players had no union and therefore no leverage to push the Commissioner’s office to comply with their request.

By 1953, the standoff came to a head. Two player representatives, Ralph Kiner of the Cubs and Allie Reynolds of the Yankees, asked to speak to the owners at their annual meeting before the All-Star Game. The owners agreed to listen to Kiner and Reynolds’ demands for an accounting of the pension, as well as other issues of concern. They listened but did nothing.

Fed up with having their reasonable concerns ignored and rejected, representatives of each team as well as Kiner and Reynolds agreed to take action. Their first step was to hire a lawyer to make their case, New Yorker Jonas Norman Lewis. It was a questionable choice considering Lewis’s background in Labor Law was on the management side. Lewis’ former law firm had represented the New York Giants, and he had publicly described himself as a labor lawyer who represented management. He had authored articles supporting the reserve clause and the antitrust exemption, so his choice as the spokesperson for the players was a head scratcher to say the least.

Lewis’ first step was to speak to the owners. He asked to address the Executive Council in August 1953 but was told he was not welcome at their meeting. Lewis then went public with the players’ demands, emphasizing that he had no choice since he had silenced by Frick and the Executive Council. He announced the players wanted an accounting of their pension and a raise of their minimum salary from $5,000 to $8,000. The minimum salary had remained stagnant since 1946 and the players felt they deserved cost of living adjustments.

The owners again did nothing. The Toolson case was pending before the Supreme Court at that time and Major League Baseball wanted to wait for the outcome. In November 1953 the Supreme Court, in a 7-2 decision, held not to change the ruling of Federal Baseball and instead blamed Congress for their inaction on the issue. Major League Baseball’s monopoly was free to continue, and the owners had no incentive to act on the complaints of the players.

The players nonetheless persisted in questioning the health of their pension. The players were invited to send representatives to the Winter Meetings in Atlanta in December but were forbidden from including their lawyer. The players decided instead to have a separate meeting in Atlanta where they voted to establish the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA).

Lewis filed the paperwork in New York to charter the organization in the spring of 1954. The players elected the first president of the MLBPA, Cleveland Indians pitcher and future Hall of Famer Bob Feller. Feller remained MLBPA president until 1959.

With the founding of the MLBPA, the owners finally relented and agreed to meet with Lewis. A committee of owners worked out a deal regarding the pension, agreeing to fund it with 60% of the revenue from the television and radio rights to the World Series and the All-Star Game. They also agreed to raise in the minimum salary from $5,000 to $6,000, substantially less than the players had requested. Players would get their yearly contract two weeks earlier in January 15 rather than February 1, and the owners agreed to a “study” for a formula that would give players a percentage of the sale of their contracts. Once again, the reserve clause was not addressed.

When pressed by the players, Lewis lobbied hard for their interests, but he was only on retainer for the MLBPA, and his heart was not really in the work. In February 1959, Lewis was fired. Feller left his post as president of the MLBPA later in that year and Frank Scott was hired as part-time Executive Director. Scott set up a central office for the MLBPA in New York where he operated an agent business as well. Scott told the players they needed to hire a new lawyer and after several candidates were interviewed, the man chosen was Judge Robert C. Cannon. Cannon was the son of Raymond J. Cannon, a former member of Congress from Wisconsin and the lawyer for banned Shoeless Joe Jackson in his suit for back pay.

Judge Robert Cannon

The hiring of Cannon ultimately proved to be a mistake, but it took the players until 1966 to realize it. Cannon, a huge baseball fan, secretly coveted the position of Commissioner of Baseball. His work for the union consisted primarily of seeking to stay on the good side of the owners. The players made only incremental gains throughout the 1960s but baseball itself was changing. The league was expanded to 10 teams in 1962 but the pension benefits did not increase. The season schedule was increased from 154 games to 162. In 1965, the owners added the amateur draft and new players were no longer able to join the team of their choosing. Major League Baseball coffers were overflowing with new revenue from expansion and television rights, but none of this revenue came the players’ way.

By the fall of 1965, the players knew they needed full time representation. Two players in particular, pitchers Robin Roberts and Jim Bunning, knew that their core issues, pension and salaries, would never be addressed adequately without someone at the helm of the MLBPA on a full-time basis. The two, along with two others, Bob Friend and Harvey Kuehn, formed a search committee. Roberts sought advice from a professor at the Wharton School of Finance in Philadelphia, the city where Roberts resided in the off-season. The professor gave him a name, Marvin Miller. Miller was at that time with the United Steelworkers, based in Pittsburgh.

Baseball players as a group had long held unfavorable opinions of organized labor, often harking to images of the “mob boss” when thinking of union officials. The “outsider” had for decades been shunned by players seeking leadership. They always settled instead for current or former players, or worse, individuals with ties to the owners. Nevertheless, the committee was willing to consider Miller, along with several others who were more in line with their past practices.

After interviewing all the candidates, the committee recommended Judge Cannon for the position. He was absolutely the worst candidate for the job, seeing as he long been in the pockets of the owners. Had it not been for Cannon’s obstinacy in demanding a large salary and refusing to relocate to New York, he would likely have ended up with the position. Turned off by Cannon’s demands, the players turned to Miller.

All that was left now for Miller to ascend to the position was a vote of the players. Miller met with players in Arizona and Florida spring training camps. He began in Arizona, but the meetings did not go well. Many players were openly hostile to Miller, pummeling the labor official with questions about his possible ties to Communists and their fear of aggressive labor tactics, most particularly the strike. When the vote was tallied, the players overwhelmingly voted against Miller, 102-17.

It went much better for Miller in Florida. The eastern player reps had softened things a bit for the candidate before his arrival, and the players there were more receptive. The results of the vote tally there were the opposite of what they had been in Arizona. Miller won over the Florida players by a count of 472-34 in favor. Miller was now the new Executive Director of the MLBPA.

The start of Miller’s tenure had bumps in the road. Judge Cannon, the rejected candidate, was still MLBPA’s legal counsel, and he attempted some shenanigans with Miller’s contract. In addition, the owners, in anticipation of Cannon getting the job, had arranged to pay the salary and expenses of the new Executive Director. The problem was this was a violation of federal law, and the owners were in a bind. Cannon would have ignored the obvious violation, but Miller was a different animal.

It was also later discovered that the owners had illegally withdrawn money from the pension fund. Miller used these revelations of wrongdoing on the part of the owners to negotiate a new pension deal. Instead of the players contributing $344 annually to the pension, their contributions would be converted to a union dues check-off. The pension would instead be funded by a straight cash contribution by the owners of $4 million per year rather than the previous 60/40 split of World Series and All-Star Game revenue. To further help with the funding for the union, Miller negotiated several licensing agreements with Coca-Cola and others that brought cash into the union’s coffers.

The players overwhelmingly agreed to the dues check-off and the $4 million pension funding plan. They also agreed to Miller’s choice for new legal counsel, Dick Moss, a colleague of Miller’s from the Steelworkers Union. Miller’s tenure was off and running.

Miller had successfully put the players’ fledgling MLBPA on solid footing for the first time since its inception in 1953. He would do much more in the years to come.

To be continued…

Prior articles in this series

History of Labor Struggles in Major League Baseball: The Early Years

History of Labor Struggles in MLB: The Rise of the AL and Road to Antitrust Exemption

History of Labor Struggles in MLB: The Supreme Court and Baseball’s Antitrust Exemption

History of Labor Struggles in MLB: Post World War II

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