Marvin Miller: Modern day Lincoln? I don’t think so.

Marvin Miller, the great labor leader, died this week, and it has caused a ripple of hyperbole among sports journalists. This morning I was listening to MLB Radio while Peter Gammons, a journalist I very much admire and respect, refered to pre-Millerian baseball as a “plantation.” That is, the players were slaves, and Marvin Miller is a modern day Lincoln emancipating them from the suppression of their owners. Utter nonsense, of course. Baseball players prior to 1976 (when they finally got free agency) made a reasonable living playing a game. If they didn’t like their situation, they were always free to, you know, get a real job like the rest of us.

The minimum salary for players in 1966, the year Miller became the head of the players union, was $6,000. The average was $19,000. That’s for a job that consumed only two-thirds of the year. The average annual salary for Americans in 1966 was $6,900. So the average ballplayer was making nearly triple what he could expect to make in the real world. Not too bad, really.

I’m not trying to make Miller a villain. I believe ball players deserve the right to choose who to play for and for what amount. Just don’t try to convince me the players had it so bad before.

And don’t expect me to jump for joy about creating a new class of millionaire. Let’s face it, someone is footing the bill for those huge salaries and it isn’t the owners. Still, as anyone would argue, no one is forcing the fans to support the sport. It’s a market-driven business like any other. And that’s fine.

Ballplayers are rich, thanks to Mr. Miller. But why should I care? It’s not as if these powerful unions for various sports have done one ounce of good for the cause of unions in general. While the athletes’ unions got stronger, the union movement in America was crushed.

The current average salary of even the team with the lowest payroll is almost $2 million (and for the Yankees the average salary is over $6 million), but let’s ask ourselves how often we see baseball players or any other professional athletes standing on the picket line with the auto workers or any other union? Jim Bunning, one of the ballplayers who brought Miller to baseball, has actively worked against the interests of working people as a conservative U.S. Senator. I’d like to know what his stance was when Ronald Reagan busted the Air Traffic Controllers Union in the early ’80s. My guess is he supported Reagan or kept his mouth shut; otherwise he wouldn’t have had the support of the Republican Party all these years.

So, yeah, it’s nice for the players that they have a strong union that gets them lots of money on the backs of the fans who support the teams. This is right. It’s the American way. Especially the part where they become millionaires and turn their backs on the labor movement in general.

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