Was Marvin Miller bad for players? #Slatepitch

On Wednesday, Hippeaux linked to this piece written by Dan Rosenheck at The Economist that purports to counter the “hagiography” that has followed the death of MLBPA pioneer Marvin Miller. The basis of the charges: that Miller didn’t care about the rank and file baseball players, be it union members with less service time or non-union minor leaguers and even amateurs. The supposed proof for this is that today’s salaries are largely concentrated amongst the “elite” players, with a far smaller share of the pie concentrated amongst the masses. The raw data is interesting, I guess, but I don’t really agree with the conclusions drawn. Furthermore, I’m going to respectfully but forcefully disagree with my colleague and say that not only is Rosenheck’s premise not “compelling,” but rather obvious hogwash.

First of all, let’s take what is supposed to be the damning accusation here, that the free agent pricing mechanism is irrational because it unevenly distributes salary dollars, and note that this simply isn’t true. Instead, as commenter RandyH notes, a rationally functioning market should funnel more money to the top, since limits on the number of players you can have on your active roster means that one 6 WAR player is quite a bit more value than the combined worth of three 2 win players. Granted, Hippeaux is right to note that this isn’t exactly how the market is pricing talent (we’ll get to that in a minute), but if we’re working on the theoretical plain without any messy complications, this is more or less how it should happen. Now, on to Rosenheck.

As a first order of business, I will note that it’s never a good sign for an argument when straight from the outset it leads me to wonder whether the author is deliberately misleading his audience or simply has no idea what the heck they’re talking about, and yet I’m not sure there’s any other way to react to Rosenheck’s gross misreading of Miller’s infamous fear that ownership would push yearly free agency. Rosenheck frames this as the best possible outcome for players as a whole and characterizes Miller’s opposition as being driven by a desire to enrich veterans at the expense of younger players, but he leaves out the very relevant fact that what Miller was really worried about was universal free agency with no multi-year contracts at all. The reason for that is pretty obvious: if all baseball players were tossed onto the market every season, you’d be left with a perpetual surplus of talent to available roster spots, and most of the players would have no negotiating leverage. Most damning; this wouldn’t do anything at all to ameliorate the supposed problem of salary inequality, save perhaps changing the individual players who were getting the higher salaries. The top players would get their money, but the more run of the mill players would be incredibly interchangeable and would have to accept more modest salaries, with overall compensation for players lower than it is under the current system.

Now, would a system that allows players to get multiple year contracts and make any player not under contract a free agent able to sell his talents anywhere he pleased be better for players than what we have? Of course it would, but at no point in the history of baseball has that been on the table, a fact that Rosenchek deftly glides over with this remarkable bit of framing:

Reduced competition among free agents is great for veterans. But it’s not great at all for young players, who are effectively still bound by the old reserve clause.

Emphasis added, for reasons that ought to be obvious to everyone. Players who haven’t tallied at least six years of service time aren’t “effectively” bound by the reserve clause, they simply are bound by the reserve clause, albeit with some limits on how much their salaries can be cut year to year and the right to salary arbitration for the most tenured of the group. I have little doubt that Miller, as well as today’s MLBPA, would be delighted to eliminate the reserve clause altogether, but the owners (you know, the other party who has some amount of say in the agreement reached) would never agree to it. For one thing, they want to retain at least some amount of control over their players, and for another, they want the chance to recoup the cost of developing their own minor leaguers. And to be fair, there’s actually something of an argument that without such an arrangement small market teams wouldn’t be able to compete at all, and that no team would have an incentive to invest in player development. If you buy into that you’ve already got a huge problem with Rosenheck’s piece, which goes on to argue that the overall health and growth of the sport should be of utmost concern to union, as any threat to the popularity of the game at large would represent a “mortal threat to players’ paychecks.”

But that’s all just a set up for Rosenheck’s biggest laugher: accusing Miller of having “callous disregard” for minor league and amateur players simply because they weren’t MLBPA members. Rosenheck argues that fair representation laws mean that the MLBPA should keep their interests in mind, but that is entirely beside the point. The real problem with this claim is the way Rosenheck views labor negotiations as apparently devoid of the ownership side of the equation, to say nothing of an ownership collective that was reflexively and viciously hostile to nearly every demand the union made. In this telling, radical change to the economic structure of baseball is simply a matter of the union asking, so the absence of any such change must mean that Miller necessarily didn’t want it. In reality, even fairly minor changes required drastic and radical action by the players to force the owners’ agreement, and yet, remarkably, the word “strike” doesn’t appear a single time in Rosenheck’s entire piece.

Nevertheless, that’s a very important fact here, as it’s exactly what it would take for the players to force ownership to agree to radical changes in the pay structure of minor league players. And no matter how effective Miller was or how much he sympathized with the plight of minor leauge ballplayers, it would have been nearly impossible to organize the MLBPA into a prolonged work stoppage in the name of helping non-union minor leaguers, and the public ramifications of such an action would have been disastrous. I can get behind a critique of the modern MLBPA (though Miller has nothing to do with this) for enriching themselves at the actual expense of amateur signing bonuses, but to excoriate them for not taking radical action to gain non-members benefits they never had to begin with is a stretch. Doubly so coming from a writer who goes on to also savage Miller for, of all the dramatic things, telling the players that they shouldn’t submit to drug testing without getting something from the owners in return, which is at least the second time Rosenchek finds himself making contradicting arguments in this single article.

Why, it’s almost as though Rosenheck doesn’t have a coherent view of how the union should behave, beyond what allows him to claim that Miller was wrong at any given point. Well, if you’re being generous anyway. If you’re feeling less charitable, you may suspect that the whole point of the article is to paint a wildly inaccurate portrait of baseball’s labor history for the purpose of smearing the man who did more than anyone to enrich and empower professional baseball players.

About Brien Jackson

Born in Southwestern Ohio and currently residing on the Chesapeake Bay, Brien is a former editor-in-chief of IIATMS who now spends most of his time sitting on his deck watching his tomatoes ripen and consuming far more MLB Network programming than is safe for one's health or sanity.

6 thoughts on “Was Marvin Miller bad for players? #Slatepitch

  1. Exactly. I read the economist although I am securely a member of the blue collar working poor. this piece almost reads like apologia for poor management. but then one realizes that, in fact, there isn't even a rational pro management argument in there. What you have is basically a very lazy second guess of 50 year old labor negotiations viewed through the prism of modern day labor relations. its rather detestable actually and glosses over the previous 8 decades of indentured servitude that ownership fought. tooth and nail to preserve. probably the moat poorly reasoned piece I have ever read in the economist. It also fails to mention the nearly universally accepted fact that the mlbpa. is the most effective union in modern America, perhaps in history, all due respect to the teamsters. and UAW. very disappointing. Excellent rebuttal and for the record though I rarely comment I truly love and appreciate the work I read here. I never come across a piece I feel was posted just for the sake of getting new links up. kudos

  2. The bottom line is much more simple. Putting aside the pathos component, we have two parties, each trying to act in their own best interest. In the past, both have shown that they were willing to be extremely insensitive to the consequences being experienced by the other party. It could be argued that improvement has been made. The opposite could also be argued. The question shouldn't be limited to whether Miller was bad or good for players, but whether he was bad or good for baseball, and not merely the business aspect of baseball either.

    • And where do you come down. I don't think that is a question we can answer. baseball experienced explosive unprecedented revenue growth in the free agent era and the reserve clause era was pretty clearly immoral. the best we can say is thi system is fairer than the old system. And since we can't say anything about whether it was good or bad for the game its in awful taste to write that article at this time..

  3. He should change his name to RosenhAck.

    Miller was good for the players and good for baseball. Sure, there were abominations in '81 and '94 (by which time Miller was no longer running the union), but the owners were equally or more so to blame. There has been explosive growth in revenue for everyone concerned, and that's because of Miller, not despite him. As for him shorting amateur, minor league and marginal major league players, the argument is moronic. First, how does one go about unionizing amateur players? Who makes up the membership? With whom do they bargain? Second, no one is stopping minor leaguers from organizing. But Miller's job was the MLBPA, not the minors, and the fact that the union didn't expand to include them is a nit pick. If unionization was so important to minor league players, THEY'D BE UNIONIZED ALREADY. Finally, as for marginal major leaguers, I have a simple, rhetorical question: What was the major league minimum salary when Miller took over? What was it when he left? What is it today? Case closed, Rosen-HACK.

  4. Brien,

    Thanks very much for taking the time to read my piece and share your thoughts. I’ll try to respond to these arguments in the spirit of civil debate.

    1.You argue that a system of perpetual one-year deals would have reduced overall compensation. This is counterfactual, so there’s no way to prove it one way or the other. I know Miller thought this, but I’m not convinced that it’s true. On one hand, you wouldn’t have 7-year albatross deals. On the other, however, if teams didn’t have to worry about paying for decline years, peak Pujols or A-Rod might have been able to sign for $40 million or more a season. I do think such a system would have been worse for the players overall, because as individuals they are more averse to risk than teams are, and want to lock in a first long-term deal to make sure they’re set for life. But that’s different than saying that the players’ share of revenues would necessarily be lower in this scenario than it is under the current system.
    2.Baseball’s current economic system was hammered out in negotiations between Miller and the owners following the Seitz decision. Again, there’s no way to know what the owners would and wouldn’t have been willing to accept. Miller could have made concessions in any number of other areas in order to secure a better deal for young players. Or he could have called a strike (earlier than 1981) to strengthen the players’ hand. I’m perfectly aware that negotiations entail tradeoffs, and that the nefarious owners were viscerally opposed to granting the players any rights whatsoever. I just don’t happen to think that Miller made the optimal tradeoffs.
    3.In a “true” free market system, teams most certainly would have an incentive to invest in player development—if you sign a player out of high school or college to a $30 million contract, you better damn well do everything you can to make sure you turn him into a good major leaguer.
    4.Yes, the draft is good for competitive balance, but at a huge cost to draftees. As I’ve argued elsewhere, an expanded revenue sharing system based on market size would be an even better means of leveling the playing field among clubs, without the pernicious side effects on the game’s most economically vulnerable players.
    5.I agree that MLB players would not have been willing to strike on behalf of their minor league counterparts. But I’m not at all sure that such a drastic step would have been required to improve their lot. Minor leaguers are *so* cheap that even doubling all their salaries would barely register on a major league team’s balance sheet. There are plenty of things Miller could have offered the owners in exchange for a big improvement in conditions for minor leaguers. But he chose instead to prioritize veteran stars’ right to extract every last million.
    6.Where exactly are you suggesting I contradict myself in the article? Please elaborate.
    7.“Smearing” Miller is a bit strong. I agree completely that Miller “did more than anyone to enrich and empower professional baseball players,” and think his exclusion from the Hall of Fame is a travesty. The entire first paragraph of the piece rehashes why he deserves much of the praise he has received—he single-handedly ended athletic pseudo-slavery, and every professional athlete today owes him a debt of gratitude for that landmark achievement. But just because he got the single biggest thing (free agency) right doesn’t mean that he didn’t make other mistakes along the way. And given how he was being canonized in most of the sports media, I thought an article highlighting his errors would be a useful corrective.

    I look forward to continuing our discussion.

    Dan Rosenheck
    Sports editor, The Economist

    • FWIW, I meant to give this a full length response today, but sort of lost interest in the subject given the horrible developments (which actually impacted us here, as some really cool dude apparently decided to call in a fake threat to the local school system, resulting in my kids' school being locked down all day). I'll get to it on Monday.