Tuesday, November 27, 2012

When Marvin Miller Almost Hired Richard Nixon

Marvin Miller, a labor economist, liberal Democrat, and former top United Steelworkers Union negotiator who revolutionized the economics of professional sports during his 1966-82 run as head of the Major League Players Association, died today at the ripe old age of 95.

Miller is as responsible as any other American for the concept of free agency in professional sports. As the New York Times obit puts it:

When Mr. Miller was named executive director of the association in 1966, club owners ruled much as they had since the 19th century. The reserve clause bound players to their teams for as long as the owners wanted them, leaving them with little bargaining power. Come contract time, a player could expect an ultimatum but not much more. The minimum salary was $6,000 and had barely budged for two decades. The average salary was $19,000. The pension plan was feeble, and player grievances could be heard only by the commissioner, who worked for the owners.

Through a series of hard-fought negotiating sessions, court decisions, arbitrations, press conferences, and strikes, Miller, in constant warfare with buffoonishly autocrat MLB Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, won the right for players of qualifying tenure to shop their services to the highest bidder in a (mostly) open labor market. Salaries boomed, but so did competition, quality, and overall industry revenue. By 2012, the minimum salary had grown to $480,000 (over 10 times the inflation-adjusted amount in 1966), and the average salary to $3.4 million (x25), while the number of pro teams had nearly doubled. 

But like any big change between 1966 and 1982, baseball's economic revolution wasn't just about money–it was also about race. Miller, a refined, thin-mustache type (and a very knowledgeable New York baseball fan), had a keen sensitivity of how vestigial racism among owners, the press, and various regions of the country poisoned the experience of black and Latino ballplayers. His great memoir, A Whole Different Ball Game: The Sport and Business of Baseball, is filled with poignant anecdotes about vilified black players such as Alex Johnson, Dick Allen, and Curt Flood, reminding us that with newfound economic liberty came the ability at long last to speak, act, and even dress like free men.

The result, I argued in a 2005 Reason piece titled "Locker-Room Liberty," was liberating (and hugely entertaining) for the country as a whole:

Operating in a subculture far more socially conservative than those surrounding the professional arts, athletes of the mid-to-late '60s and '70s forced their reluctant and occasionally hostile audiences to confront issues of race, war, and free expression, and we are all better for their efforts.

Muhammad Ali opposed Vietnam and the military draft years before it was cool, while encouraging a generation of kids to give themselves new names and manipulate the formerly all-powerful media.  Three decades before metrosexual was a word, New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath shocked male football fans by parading around in mink coats, posing as an "Olivetti Girl" in a sexually charged typewriter ad, and filming commercials for pantyhose.

Knuckleball pitcher Jim Bouton ripped the lid off of professional baseball's Ward Cleaver packaging with his pussy-and-pills 1970 memoir Ball Four; two years later Yankee pitchers Fritz Peterson and Mike Kekich became the most famous wife swappers in the country. Bill Walton convinced the notoriously square UCLA coach John Wooden that smoking dope and attending Grateful Dead shows could be every bit as crucial to the legendary motivator's "Pyramid of Success" as hard work and respecting your teammates (provided you could still shoot 21 for 22 in the NCAA finals). And just about every star of the time had to grapple on a daily basis, in full view of the newly national television audience, with America's combustible conflict between black and white

In a single generation--between John Kennedy's assassination and the fall of Saigon--the archetype for the pro athlete was transformed from lantern-jawed Midwesterners like Mickey Mantle to pot-gobbling longhairs like Bill "Spaceman" Lee. Earthbound sidemen like Bob Cousy found their game passed over by skywalking soloists like Dr. J. The era of Johnny Unitas buzz-cuts and Jackie Robinson no-comments was replaced by athletes who looked, played, and spoke however they damn well pleased, injecting creativity and innovation on the field while puncturing mythologies and ditching racist baggage outside the stadium walls.

So what does this all have to do with Richard Nixon?

In 1966, as he was consolidating his position as union chief, Marvin Miller got a call from influential player representative and soon-to-be Hall of Famer Robin Roberts. From A Whole Different Ball Game:

"Have you picked your general counsel yet?" he asked hesitantly.

"No," I said, though I planned to offer the job to Dick Moss as soon as our funding was in place.
"Well, try this suggestion on for size. Richard Nixon is still interested in the job. I know you're not a big fan of his," Roberts said, "but he's in New York. Will you at least go talk to him as a favor to me?"

True, I had never rooted for Dick Nixon, but I was a big Robin Roberts fan. I agreed to call Nixon and arrange an appointment after Robin assured me that this was not an attempt to limit my authority to name my general counsel. [...]

Drinks in hand, Nixon, his associate, and I amiably rambled on about the 1966 season. Thirty minutes passed. I didn't want to discuss politics, and I certainly was not going to bring up the matter of the next general counsel of the Players Association. Just before I was set to leave, Nixon's expression turned serious, or rather more serious. Here it comes, I thought. "Mr. Miller," he said, "you have a very difficult job in front of you. Let me know if I can do anything to help you. I am on very good terms with the owners." I thought to myself, "Yes, I bet you are." I expressed my thanks and headed home. He did not mention the appointment of a general counsel. And except for the gaffe about his closeness to the owners, I found him to be a lot brighter than I had guessed.

Three years later Nixon and I met again at a White House reception honoring baseball's All-Star teams and commemorating baseball's hundredth annniversary. When the crowd thinned, I approached President Richard M. Nixon. I was glad to see he had managed to find work after losing out on the Players Association job.