MLBPA origins under Marvin Miller

May 4, 2022

The players were upset with the way they were being treated by the owners, so in late 1965, they decided to try and unionize again.

Instead of having the union run by a player, like in previous attempts, they went out and got an economist from the United Steelworkers of America named Marvin Miller.

By March of 1966, the players announced they were nominating Marvin Miller for the position of Executive Director. In April, he was elected Executive Director by a vote of 489-136. Miller was not allowed to be funded by the hall clubs, and only had a bank balance of $5,700 and a single file cabinet. Before a new bargaining agreement could be negotiated, Miller improved the pension plan.

In 1968, Miller negotiated on behalf of the players and raised the minimum salary to $10,000. One of Miller’s crowning achievements was getting the league to allow players arbitration to resolve grievances.

In 1969 Curt Flood, a player for the Cardinals, was traded to the Phillies in the offseason. He challenged the trade, declaring ‘he wasn’t a piece of property’. At the time, free agency didn’t exist; the only way to leave a team was being traded or released.
Flood didn’t want to leave St. Louis after being there for 12 years, and at the time the Phillies weren’t a good team.

The commissioner didn’t intervene in the trade, forcing Flood to take the issue to MLBPA executive director Marvin Miller. Miller said he would fund Flood’s lawsuit and back him throughout the process.

The case was brought before the Supreme Court in 1972. Flood compared the reserve clause to slavery, but the Court decided in favor of the MLB 5-3. Flood was blackballed by baseball during and after the lawsuit, but his case paved the way for players getting to enter free agency.

Three years after the case, players Andy Messersmith and David McNally challenged the reserve clause. Instead of having the case heard in a court of law, it was heard by an independent arbitrator. Messersmith and McNally won their case, and players were granted the ability to enter free agency after a certain amount of years. During the case, attorney Donald Fehr assisted the players in their case.

He would develop a life long friendship with Miller and be an integral part in the MLBPA.  He served on the union’s general counsel until 1986, eventually becoming Executive Director.

When Fehr became Executive Director, the players’ median salary went from 413,000 to almost 3 million dollars when he retired in 2009.

The owners were still upset over the players’ right to free agency, so from 1985 through the 1987 offseason, the owners conspired to not sign any free agents. The MLBPA filed grievances in ‘86 and ‘87. Arbitrator Tom Roberts decided that the owners violated the Basic Agreement in the league’s first collusion case. In January 1988 10.5 million dollars was awarded to the players hurt by the collusion.

In 1989, another arbitrator, George Nicolau, ruled the owners violated the Basic Agreement in the league’s second collusion case, this time awarding the players 38 million dollars in damages. Another collusion grievance was filed by the MLBPA in Jan. 1988, claiming the owners created an “information bank” and attempted to restrain players’ salaries.

In November 1990, a settlement to all three cases was met, and 280 million dollars in total was awarded in damages.

Fehr led the union through a lockout in Spring Training in 1990, and famously through the 1994-1995 strike. Fehr retired in 2009, with the union as strong as ever.

Currently, Tony Clark is Executive Director and led the players through a 99 day lockout in which the owners tried to break the union up once again. The union is one of the strongest in the country, and it is a model example for unions everywhere.

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