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50 years ago, Marvin Miller and the MLBPA changed sports forever

MLB’s owners were unopposed for decades, until the MLBPA finally rose up against them by organizing.

Marvin Miller

Fifty years ago, a landmark in sports was agreed upon. Before the 1968 season, the first-ever collective bargaining agreement was signed between the players of a professional sports league and that league’s owners when the Marvin Miller-led Major League Baseball Players Association achieved its first major goal in sharing power with MLB’s management.

Now, it’s rare for a major sports league to not be unionized: there are notable holdouts, like the WWE — despite being both sports and entertainment, two arenas with long-established unions, the world’s largest wrestling company remains unorganized — but generally speaking we think of sports leagues as being unionized. The NFLPA, the NBPA, the NHLPA, the WNBPA, the MLSPU, the PHPA, and so on: they’re all able to be where they are now because of what the MLBPA accomplished 50 years ago.

It almost didn’t happen. Sure, it likely would have happened eventually, but the pre-Miller experience was ownership doing their best to keep anything like a CBA from ever occurring by pretending to play ball, in the hopes it would pacify any rebellion before it got off the ground. MLB nearly succeeded, if only a love for one’s city hadn’t gotten in the way and opened the door up for one of the most important figures in the history of baseball — a figure the owners detested.

The players were leaderless against the lords

Major League Baseball’s ownership was never interested in labor peace in the time before the players’ union and free agency. Not real peace, anyway: the owners were fine with the system where they had all of the money and power and could do whatever they wanted without consequence, and were happy to pretend that was peaceful just like any other despot would. There’s a reason John Helyar titled his seminal work on the owners and the formation of the union Lords of the Realm.

When the players finally attempted to do something to change all that by forming a union in 1954, it still took another 14 years before the first collective bargaining agreement between Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association was signed. Fourteen! Johnny Bench, a rookie in 1968, was seven years old in the first of those 14. The United States had three different presidents in that stretch, who involved the country in nine different wars and military conflicts around the world. The entirety of Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights campaigns took place within those years! Fourteen years without any movement for the proto-MLBPA toward a CBA is incredibly long on all but a geologic or cosmic scale.

If you’re wondering how that was allowed to happen, for one, the “union” wasn’t so much a labor union as a loose confederation of the players who worked together to earn a pension, and one of the men advising this proto-MLBPA in this pre-Marvin Miller time was Robert Cannon, a Wisconsin judge who at one time fell a single vote shy of being elected MLB commissioner, whose mission statement as the part-time representative of the players was to “make no demands, no public statements.”

If that sounds to you like someone who was an ally of ownership, it’s because they were. From the Society for American Baseball Research’s biography of Cannon:

When Cannon started meeting the players as he toured spring training camps, his message was simple: work with the owners. He constantly reminded the men how good they had it. He wanted the players to make no waves. Above all, the players should foster a greater relationship with the benevolent owners. In essence Cannon was preaching to the players from the beginning, before he even met everyone and understood the demands and responsibilities entrusted to him. He never did grasp the industry from a player’s perspective.

When Cannon was briefly selected as the first-ever full-time executive director of the MLBPA after nearly a decade of getting nowhere new, the owners agreed to pay $150,000 toward his salary and expenses, knowing he was more on their side than the players. The same owners who hadn’t negotiated anything besides a pension with the players, who hadn’t begun collective bargaining talks in the decade-plus the union had existed, who hadn’t raised the minimum salary in nearly two decades, just tossed $150,000 in 1966 dollars toward “helping” the players out, definitely, for sure, man.

Cannon decided against moving to New York for this job, however — like future commissioner Bud Selig after him, Cannon had both a love for ownership and for Milwaukee — which saved the MLBPA a number of headaches many members weren’t even aware of in the organization’s infancy, and reopened the door for labor-rights veteran Marvin Miller to become the actual first full-time executive director of the MLBPA. The owners rescinded the $150,000 offer they had extended Cannon, because at this time in America actually being pro-union instead of whatever Cannon was doing was basically the same thing as being a communist, in that it made rich people very uncomfortable.

The owners were fine with this proto-players union, which under Cannon better resembled an illegal company or “yellow” union dominated by its employer, especially once the owners were helping to pay for him — they could control it both from above and, through Cannon and his ideology, from within. The players, too, were fine with the arrangement: they initially elected Cannon to the full-time position over Miller, remember? The true butting of heads between owners and players didn’t begin until the lie of labor peace could be shown for what it was, and Miller’s entire tenure as executive director of the MLBPA was about exposing that lie.

Before all that could transpire, though, MLB and the MLBPA would have to collectively bargain their first agreement.

Marvin Miller and the MLBPA’s first real labor battle

Not to take away from the pension that the MLBPA negotiated with MLB owners over a decade before — the players liked their pension very much, which is part of why they followed Cannon’s advice about not rocking the boat that the owners were, out of the goodness of their altruistic hearts, letting them use — but Marvin Miller as executive director was the union’s true beginning as a force for baseball’s ruling class to reckon with.

Miller didn’t just waltz in and have all the players behind him: according to his memoir, there was work to be done in 1966 to convince the players they even wanted a true union:

Players were not only ignorant of unions, they were positively hostile to the idea: They didn’t know what a union was, but they knew they didn’t want one. There was a reason for this attitude. From time immemorial, the baseball powers-that-be force-fed the players propaganda: The commissioner (although appointed and paid by the owners) represented the players; players were privileged to be paid to play a kid’s game; and (the biggest fairy tale of all) baseball was not a business, and, in any case, was unprofitable to the owners.

By meeting with the players in person to change their minds, and eventually finding enough of them sympathetic to true organizing, Miller would end up with the support needed to take on the owners in negotiations. There were two years between his ascension in the MLBPA and the signing of the first CBA: getting to that point was not easy, and it came with its share of management interference. With Miller willing to take things public in a way Cannon refused to, however, he and the MLBPA eventually got to where they needed to be to meet ownership face-to-face across the table.

Compared to the complicated collective bargaining agreements of MLB today, which have decades and decades of problem-solving and fight-ending language and practical experience in the market turned into labor protections, the 1968-69 agreement is simple. It was anything but simple at the time, though: it was the first collective bargaining agreement between a league and its players, ever, and even in its relatively simplicity today carries a tremendous legacy for what was to come in the labor battles of sports.

The first collective bargaining agreement between MLB and the MLBPA, signed on Feb. 28, 1968, guaranteed a uniform contract across the league as well as a minimum salary, and bumped that figure from $6,000 — where it had sat for, again, two decades — to $10,000. Not only did players see a pay increase, but pay cuts were reduced, too: from season to season, a player could only see their contract cut by 20 percent instead of the previous 25 percent. Severance, too, entered the equation, with 30 days’ pay guaranteed to any released player.

Players were able to expense more and were given more allowances: their daily meal money jumped from $12 to $15, their weekly spring training stipend increased from $25 to $40, and playing on the road suddenly wasn’t so bad with players guaranteed first-class travel and hotel accommodations.

This first CBA also formally introduced a way for players to file grievances — players would be able to state their case in front of the commissioner, which meant this system was still very pro-owner, but it was better than the previous system, which today could be succinctly explained using a “deal with it” meme.

Maybe most important of all is that this collective bargaining agreement put a stop to the owners being able to unilaterally implement whatever changes they saw fit to Major League Baseball. Most — not all — changes to Major League Baseball’s rules and structures now needed to be collectively bargained between the owners and the players from this point forward. It was baseball’s working class uniting to stand up for themselves against their rulers, the first real damage done against a feudalistic arrangement benefitting the game’s lords for decades beforehand, and the predecessor for the labor arrangements we know today, not just in baseball, but across professional sports. See? Not so simple after all.

All of this happened because, unlike Cannon, Miller demanded more from the owners for the players he was representing. Even within the lifetime of this first CBA, Miller had demands: he encouraged players to not sign contracts and avoid reporting to spring training in 1969 in order to get MLB’s owners to increase the pension fund, following the increase in television revenues and addition of four teams to the league that would both make the pie larger. The plan worked, and the owners’ pension contribution went from $4.1 million per year to $5.45 million, with the time needed to qualify to receive the pension dropping from five years in the league to four.

In 1970, for the second collective bargaining agreement, Miller demanded even more, resulting in an improved and fairer grievance system with independent arbitrators who would hear disputes instead of the commissioner. An arbitration panel would eventually be what gave players their free agency, which the owners vehemently opposed before, during, and after its implementation, forever changing both Baseball and the relationship between player and owner, with shockwaves from this tectonic shift still felt today.

And to think, it all started because Marvin Miller dared to make demands of MLB’s ownership 50 years ago.