Before Miller fought it out with the baseball owners, the reserve clause was the dominant factor in baseball economics. Baseball had, and still has, an antitrust exemption and the reserve clause essentially bound players to their teams in perpetuity, making it difficult to gain any leverage in negotiations. Miller changed that. When the players struck in 1972, it was the beginning of a vast change that culminated in 1975, when Miller got the cases of major league pitchers Dave McNally and Andy Messersmith in front of a federal arbitrator named Peter Seitz:
But in December 1975, Mr. Seitz, the baseball arbitrator, ruling in a case brought by the pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally and argued by the union, invalidated the reserve clause in the standard player contract. Mr. Seitz found that this clause, allowing all contracts to be extended for one year at management’s option upon their expiration, did not mean that contracts could be extended in perpetuity. Once a player refused to re-sign after the expiration of that one-year extension, Mr. Seitz ruled, he could sell his pitching prowess or hitting skills to the highest bidder.And so they did. Eventually some of the biggest stars in the game, including Reggie Jackson and Catfish Hunter, signed huge contracts with the New York Yankees. While the Yankees have long been the biggest spenders, other teams were able to get players that helped them. The Milwaukee Brewers of my youth were a terrible team but were able to add Sal Bando, an aging but still valuable third baseman, to their team in 1977. Bando played for the Brewers and was later a team executive for nearly 20 years after that. And every player that followed these early free agents benefited immensely from the system that is now in place. Put it this way -- in 1966, the average salary for major league player was about $19,000, which works out to about $135,650 in current dollars. The average current salary for a major league player is $3.1 million.
I would argue that Miller and Pete Rozelle, the visionary commissioner of the National Football League, are the two men who made professional sport what it is today. Miller helped baseball players understand the economic power they actually wield, while Rozelle understood the power of television and of relentless marketing. We live in a world where sports are ubiquitous. Marvin Miller had a lot to do with that.