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Thanking Marvin Miller

It was the voice that I remember. Very steady. No high or low pitches. A hint of New York and exceptionally clear, reasonable and amazingly friendly. It was as though Marvin Miller was seated in my living room, chatting about the labor issues that required the ballplayers' and owners' attention.

Of course, Miller, who died at 95 this week, wasn't in my home. The year was 1971, and the White Sox's flagship radio station was none other than WEAW-AM in Evanston. I was the post-game host because my pal Tom thought it would be a good idea to buy the time at the cost of a dollar per minute.

Let's say this was not the wisest of business decisions, but we had fun.

I can't recall how I got to Marvin Miller, but those were the days when people were not so inaccessible. He answered the phone when I called to set up the live interview one evening after the ballgame. To say he couldn't have been nicer is like saying Gandhi had patience.

The cassette tape of that interview, which lasted 15 or 20 minutes, is tucked away in some long-forgotten drawer. While the specifics of the conversation have been lost with time, the accommodation with which Mr. Miller accorded to a no-name like myself has survived in my memory for the ensuing decades.

Therefore, it was with great interest and more than a touch of nostalgia that I read the obituaries, columns and accolades that flowed freely upon Miller's death. One called his influence on baseball as great as that of Babe Ruth. Most credited Miller with opening doors for professional athletes of all sports. I doubt none of it, yet my most poignant recollection is one of a man who answered the phone when I called.

Please understand that as a kid - if anyone had foolishly asked me - I would have given full-throated support for the reserve clause. I never had to consider whether Aparicio and Fox would return in the spring to comprise the best double-play combination in the American League. No, I never had to yearn for the return of someone like A.J. Pierzynski. The Sox catcher from 1952 to 1963 was Sherman Lollar, a fixture on a solid ballclub who, despite being overshadowed by Yogi Berra, was elected to seven All-Star teams.

While A.J. no doubt will hold out for a couple of years at, say, $5 million per, the Comiskeys paid Lollar somewhere in the neighborhood of $25,000. You can credit A.J.'s talent, but Marvin Miller played a role in this scenario.

Like most ballplayers, Lollar needed to keep a winter job to supplement his salary. As I recall, Sherm had a bowling alley. So did Nellie Fox. Other athletes sold insurance or cars. Roy Campanella, the National League MVP in 1951, '53 and '55 and one of the greatest catchers ever, worked in his liquor store in Brooklyn in the off-season.

Hmmm. Wonder what Buster Posey is doing these days?

I don't profess to be a labor expert, but I know enough to understand that unions were not created to celebrate the bosses' generosity, compassion and empathy. I did read Upton Sinclair. Before the Marvin Miller Era, players would negotiate a yearly contract directly with the owners and/or general manager. Pay cuts were common even if a guy hit .300 after a season where his average was .325.

Consider an icon like Mickey Mantle. The Mick made $72,000 in 1959, not a great season for him or the Yankees as the Sox won the pennant. Mickey hit .285 that year with 31 home runs, and 75 RBI. The Yankees offered him $57,000 for 1960.

When injury, age and declining ability began to take their toll, the owners offered next to nothing - no contract, a meager pension, not even a watch. The player simply was released. There was no marketplace for free agents. The only agent in those days was the guy behind the window selling tickets for the train.

Yet many of the old-time ballplayers felt lucky. They were playing a kid's game, one that they loved, getting paid for it, and most considered themselves fortunate. Sox great Minnie Minoso is celebrating his 90th birthday this week, and his "baseball has been very, very good to me" was the mantra for lots of ballplayers.

Until they understood that they were being screwed by the owners.

Marvin Miller, in his unassuming manner, helped educate the pro baseball populace, who weren't exactly the shining light of a liberal, pro-union, protesting group. Even today one place the Republicans do quite well is within the ranks of pro athletes.

However, the tepid union hired Miller as its first full-time executive in 1966, and the landscape changed rapidly. A few months after I interviewed him, the union staged its first strike, canceling the first two weeks of the 1972 season.

In 1969 Curt Flood had challenged the reserve clause - he didn't win - and by 1975 players no longer were bound to their teams as free agency burst onto the scene.

Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, the owners' pawn from 1969 to 1984, hated Miller, as well he should have. His employers shared his disdain. All except for Bill Veeck, whose second tenure with the Sox, 1975-81, witnessed these huge changes in player-management labor relations.

Veeck respected and liked Miller and thoroughly understood why changes were occurring. Being under-financed at the time, Bill couldn't compete with the rich teams like the Yankees when it came to signing top talent, but he didn't begrudge the high salaries paid to stars like Reggie Jackson and Catfish Hunter. "I don't mind the huge money paid to the best players," he once commented (or something thereabouts). "What I object to is the high price of mediocrity."

Bill was correct. The average salary in 1967 was $18,000, jumping to $44,000 by 1975, and $185,000 by 1981. And today? Let's not go there.

Critics claimed that people like Marvin Miller would ruin baseball. They cringe at the amount of money the athletes are making today. The idea that the Dodgers were sold last year for more than $2 billion is repugnant to the folks who long for the old days. The price of a box seat ticket is enough to send some fans into a dither.

Yet attendance - with the exception of the South Side of Chicago - has never been higher. Radio and TV contracts continue to rise. And the game still captures the mystique and beauty that many of our great writers have described over the years.

So rest peacefully, Marvin Miller. Your legacy is fixed forever. And thanks for answering the phone.


Roger Wallenstein is our man on the Sox. He welcomes your comments.


1. From Jerry Pritikin:

The problem with baseball that came with the Miller touch is $$$! The everyday fan is as soundless as the Brooklyn Synphony these days. We been priced out of the park at the face value of a ticket.

My dad used to tell me no matter how bad the Depression was, he was able to see big league games or go to a movie house. Today, you almost have to file for bankruptcy just to buy a beer and hot dog. Who would have thought the 5-cent bag of peanuts would be replaced by a $3.50 container of water?

The owners' and the players' cash cow has priced the little guy right out of the park. To add insult to injury, the price on the ticket is the same for either an adult or a kid.

So Marvin's success and players' and owners' greed has left the average fan going to minor league games - and now some of the minor league teams are building skyboxes!

My respects to Marvin, but now maybe I can think of a way to organize a union for fans!

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