NYU Law honors Marvin Miller on 40th anniversary of the first strike in sports history

On April 25, NYU Law's Center for Labor and Employment Law sponsored a celebration of Marvin Miller, whose ground-breaking leadership of the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) forever shaped the game of baseball and provides a shining example of how a union can be central to the economic growth of an industry. The date of the event was quite befitting of the occasion; it was the 40th anniversary of the first strike in sports history—not the at-bat kind—kindled by Marvin Miller.

Professor Ross Davies of George Mason University School of Law opened the event by unveiling a portrait of Miller that was commissioned for the Supreme Court collection, where it will hang in the hallowed halls of our Nation’s highest court. Miller’s is the only portrait of a non-Justice to be so honored.  Miller was also honored with his portrait on a “Supreme Court Slugger” baseball card, where he is paired with former Justice Arthur Goldberg, who argued the landmark case of Flood v. Kuhn, a challenge to baseball’s Reserve Clause that ultimately led to the creation of “free agency” in sports. 

Richard Moss, former general counsel of the MLBPA, introduced his longtime colleague, particularly emphasizing Miller's rapport with the players he represented. "In the early days, he functioned very much as a teacher for the players," Moss said. "Under Marvin's leadership, players acquired dignity and understood their worth."

But when Marvin Miller himself spoke, he opened with a tone of humility. Miller confessed that he did not feel comfortable celebrating a strike, noting, “I draw a sharp distinction between celebrating a strike and celebrating the results of a strike.” Miller was very candid and nostalgic as he shared many of what he called the “untold stories” of the union’s history leading to the 1972 strike, a watershed moment in sports history. 

Among the untold stories was what, in Miller’s view, constitutes the single greatest blemish on the fabric of baseball’s history—namely, the League’s collusion to resist racial integration. This collusion, Miller argued, was like throwing every championship game for decades by refusing to admit some of the greatest talents ever to take the field.

Miller also argued that the union has been vital to the steady growth of the League over the years. Miller challenged conventional wisdom that minimum wage standards stifle job growth. He pointed to the hard-fought rise of player salaries and pensions, and the monumental growth that it also helped generate for management—a 50 percent expansion in the number of Clubs in Major League Baseball, and annual League revenues now approximating $8 billion. Noting Commissioner Bud Selig’s recent report of this figure “with an air of shock,” Miller asked, “Where does he think that came from?” Miller defended the rise in player salaries, and said, “The players are the labor, but they are also the product.”

Finally, Miller spoke warmly and with keen recollection about the behind-the-scenes plays that led to the historic 1972 strike. His admiration and appreciation for the players was obvious as he recounted visits to spring training meetings and of astonishing unanimous votes to take the unprecedented step of striking, not knowing what might happen. It was ultimately a story of unmitigated triumph over management. “They folded. And when I say they folded, I mean they folded,” Miller said with a grin of satisfaction. "It was a monumental misjudgment on the part of the owners as to who the players were and what their resolve was... and they have paid for it ever since."

After regaling the audience of students, faculty, press, friends, and former colleagues, Marvin Miller received a standing ovation. Professor Arthur R. Miller then opened the event up for a question-and-answer style panel discussion.  During the panel discussion, Michael Weiner, current executive director of the MLBPA, spoke reverentially about the influence that Marvin Miller’s contributions have had on Weiner’s own experience; and Professor Robert Boland of NYU’s Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism, and Sports Management spoke about the union’s role in the growth of baseball. 

Attendees were treated to a limited batch of “Supreme Court Slugger” baseball cards of Marvin Miller, an apt memento celebrating a man whose union leadership shaped the underlying business structure of America's favorite pasttime, and who remains perhaps the most beloved and influential figure in the history of baseball.

Posted April 27, 2012