Marvin Miller, a labor leader whose 16-year tenure as executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association led to the introduction of free agency and a revolution in professional sports, died of liver cancer Tuesday at the age of 95. Former United States Senator Jim Bunning was among the players who recruited Miller to run their union in 1966. The Hall of Fame pitcher went on to serve six terms in the House and two in theSenate as a Republican from Kentucky. Now retired, Bunning spoke to TIME from his home Tuesday about Miller’s negotiating tactics, his enduring legacy and a lasting insult.
In the mid-1960’s, the Major League Baseball Player’s association was in shambles, with no full time employees and just over $5,000 in its checking account. The league’s minimum salary was $6,000 – a figure that had increased little in 20 years – and the average salary was $19,000. And players were all but tethered to their teams by thereserve clause, which gave owners the power to issue take it-or-leave-it contracts.
Seeking a leader who could improve their lot, Bunning, then a star pitcher for the Philadelphia Phillies, and future Hall of Fame pitcher Robin Roberts approached Richard Nixon. “We interviewed Nixon for the same job as Miller,” Bunning said, “but Nixon said to us that he had other plans.” Two years later, of course, Nixon was elected president. Miller, then a labor economist with the United Steelworkers’ union, accepted the offer. “He was smarter than everybody on the other side,” Bunning said. “There wasn’t a labor law that Marvin Miller did not know and know better than the owners. Therefore, we were at a great advantage in negotiations with management having Marvin on our side.”
Miller’s first negotiation was a collective bargaining agreement that raised the minimum salary $4,000, to $10,000. “One of the things Marvin got early on was the fact that you could have representation when you were negotiating your contract,” Bunning said. Miller also negotiated for outside arbitration of contract disputes (they were previously settled by the league commissioner, an ally of the owners) and won huge gains in health care, pensions and playing conditions. But the defining achievement of Miller’s tenure was fighting to end the reserve clause, which ushered in the big-money free agency era that has redefined the major sports leagues (and earned Miller the title of baseball’s “Moses”). To Miller, a lifelong union man, it was a simple matter of giving players some control over their own labor. “We wanted to be free agents and negotiate with anybody,” Bunning said. “We didn’t want to be tied to one team.”
Bunning attributes some of Miller’s success to his patient, cerebral approach. “I can remember going to meetings with Marvin. He spoke very rarely, but he was constantly writing little notes down. It drove me crazy that he didn’t jump down the other guys’ throats all the time. But he was writing down what they were saying so that he could, in the next meeting, quote themselves to them–what they had said in the meetings past. I never in my life saw that happen in any meeting.” Miller, Bunning said, “was not a tough guy; he was a tough-minded person. He was very quiet and very unassuming, until you got down to the nitty-gritty of what you were trying to negotiate [then] he wasunbending.”
Despite his impact on baseball, Miller has never been elected to the Hall of Fame, which Bunning sees as a glaring omission. “He’s done more for the players and the player’s association than any other person since baseball started,” Bunning said.