Marvin Miller changed major league baseball and the business of sports. Drawing on research and interviews with Miller and others, Marvin Miller, Baseball Revolutionary offers the first biography covering the pivotal labor leader's entire life and career. Baseball historian Robert F. Burk follows Miller's formative encounters with Depression-era hard times, racial and religious bigotry, and bare-knuckle Washington politics to a successful career in labor that prepared Miller for his biggest professional challenge--running the moribund Major League Baseball Players Association.
Educating and uniting the players as a workforce, Miller embarked on a long campaign to win the concessions that defined his legacy: decent workplace conditions, a pension system, outside mediation of player grievances and salary disputes, a system of profit sharing, and the long-sought dismantling of the reserve clause that opened the door to free agency. Through it all, allies and adversaries alike praised Miller's hardnosed attitude, work ethic, and honesty.
Comprehensive and illuminating, Marvin Miller, Baseball Revolutionary tells the inside story of a time of change in sports and labor relations, and of the contentious process that gave athletes in baseball and across the sporting world a powerful voice in their own games.
About the Author
Robert F. Burk is an emeritus professor of history at Muskingum University and the author of Never Just a Game: Players, Owners, and American Baseball to 1920 and Much More than a Game: Players, Owners, and American Baseball since 1921.
Read an Excerpt
By Robert F. Burk
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESSCopyright © 2015 Board of Trustees
All rights reserved.
A Brooklyn Boyhood
Marvin Miller—the man working-class chronicler Studs Terkel would later label "the most effective union organizer since John L. Lewis"— entered the world through a small apartment on Beck Street in the Bronx on April 14, 1917. For the newborn's parents, thirty-four-year-old Alexander ("Alex") Miller and twenty-seven-year-old Gertrude Wald Miller, the arrival of their first child marked a new beginning after a series of wrenching trials. Although many of the details evaporated with the passage of time, family descendants would later recall suggestions that the couple had encountered difficulties in conceiving, and possibly a miscarriage as well. Additionally, illness had led to Gertrude's losing both her parents early in her own marriage, at first draining her energies in time-consuming, yet ultimately futile, caregiving and then sinking her in grief that had further postponed childbearing.
Determined to honor her deceased father, Morris, while also giving her firstborn a less Old World–sounding name, Gertrude chose to call her new son Marvin. The middle name she and Alex picked—Julian—represented a tribute to Gertrude's deceased mother, Julia. The couple's apartment was situated in an apartment house nestled within a Middle Bronx district populated mainly by Jewish manual laborers and modest entrepreneurs. The neighborhood's residents also reflected a pattern common at the time in New York of young newlyweds escaping the congestion of lower Manhattan. The location also placed Gertrude closer to her most recent elementary school posting in Harlem. Now with the onset of spring and with the pain of the Millers' past tribulations easing, the pall that had loomed over them seemed finally to be lifting with the start of a new cycle of familial regeneration.
Looking back at prior generations, neither the Millers nor the Walds were strangers to hardship. Alex's father, a tailor by trade, had endured first his wife's death and then a vicious surge of anti-Semitic persecution in Russia more than three decades earlier. The loss of his spouse had left him the sole support of five children—three girls and two boys—none of whom had yet reached their tenth birthday. Alex, the youngest offspring, was less than a year old at the time of his mother's passing. While still dealing with this personal crisis, Alex's father, like other Russian Jews, had been confronted with the choice of either enduring or fleeing a fresh wave of czarist repression triggered by the assassination of Alexander II. The ruler's murder had led to the imposition of the infamous May Laws, triggering a new round of pogroms and state-aggravated famines. From the start of this new round of troubles in 1881 through the next three decades and more, two-and-a-half million Jews would eventually abandon their traditional homelands for America. The widower Miller and his young children emigrated at an early stage of this exodus, embarking on their leap of faith in 1883. Even with the impetus of the events in Russia, the Millers' decision to leave for the New World still demanded considerable courage, for unlike many other immigrants, Alex's father knew no one in the United States, spoke no English, and possessed no prior knowledge of his new home—the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
Although technically an immigrant rather than an American-born citizen, son Alex had been so young at his arrival that he would retain no memory of Russia and would grow up speaking unaccented English. His three older sisters assumed the responsibility for the family's maternal duties, while their father eked out a modest living as a tailor. Years later, Marvin would marvel at his grandfather—by then more than nine decades old—dressed entirely in black and topped by a hat or yarmulke, sporting a long white beard and threading his needle without ever having to look at it despite carrying on an animated Yiddish conversation. While having rapidly adopted his new country's language, Alex had followed his father's example in other ways, likewise embracing the garment trade—albeit as a salesman—and adopting the rituals and responsibilities of Orthodox Judaism. His form of reconciling the Old and New Worlds mirrored that of millions of other southern and eastern European offspring sharing the same environment in turn-of-the-century New York. Not just Russians but also Italians, Romanians, Hungarians, Slovaks, Greeks, Poles, and Turks swelled the Lower East Side to forge the single largest Jewish urban community in the world. Out of choice or necessity, like Alex most of them gradually incorporated not just the language but also the alien work rhythms of their new homeland as necessary concessions for material success and social acceptance.
Alex Miller was inescapably molded by his new environment—the two square miles of the Lower East Side bounded by Division and Houston streets, the Bowery, and the East River. It was a neighborhood during his boyhood in which few organized play areas for children existed, where youths formed gangs and roamed the streets in search of amusement, mischief, or money, and where a few even ended up gangsters. Spurred by the calls for reform from Jacob Riis and likeminded voices, settlement houses had sprouted for the nurture and uplift of the poor, including the renowned Henry Street settlement of Lillian Wald (no relation to Gertrude's family). Various unions, including the United Hebrew Trades, had sunk roots as well, and in such fertile soil, working-class struggle and striving played out and a plethora of class-conscious ideologies dueled. While Tammany Hall's principles-free pragmatism ruled electoral politics, lunch hour at a Russian garment factory might find workers discussing Tolstoy or Kropotkin. Future politicians, professionals, writers, artists, musicians, entertainers—and also labor leaders—found their particular muses in the streets and meeting halls.
In contrast to his father, who remained a humble tailor, the young Alex had quickly advanced within the retail trade to the level of a Division Street women's coat salesman, one who as early as his upper teens had brought home $150 to $200 per week. But rather than embrace the Lower East Side's intellectual ferment, he had continued to follow the traditional patterns of family obligation, limited formal education, and Orthodox religion. Having dropped out of school at an early age for the world of work, he never returned to the classroom, even for vocational training. All his working life his daily setting remained that of the row of competing two-story women's coat shops, huddled between streets featuring larger shoe and clothing establishments, a world where young hustlers stood ready to drag customers into their stores and bearded elders similarly coaxed passers-by into a minyan. Dutiful toward the rituals of his faith, Alex donned the prayer shawl each morning, laid tefillen, performed davening, and delivered his devotions in the language of his ancestors. Although the demands of his sales job would permit no allowance for the Sabbath, and Gertrude stubbornly held to her rival convictions as a nonobservant wife, the adult Alex still always honored the High Holidays—although he was forced to attend shul less frequently than in his youth.
Despite his religious devotion, however, to those who knew him, Alex Miller was no pious recluse. His sisters adored him as their fun-loving, albeit protective, sibling. In a slight departure from tradition, as Alex had grown into adulthood, he had assumed the role of paternal guardian, both to his sisters and to his older, but frail, brother George. His outgoing persona—as much a part of him as his traditional value system—and the reliability that had been ingrained in him from youth had facilitated his rise in the retail trade. The mature Alex would in turn enjoy a special standing with his siblings' children as the favorite uncle.
He was uncommonly generous both to them and to hard-up strangers, often to the point of appearing a spendthrift. As a successful purveyor of fine women's coats in Lower Manhattan's cutthroat retail environment, he also insisted upon maintaining a snappy image. Each day of the week he would don a different suit to work. Many years later, Marvin Miller's sister Thelma would recall their father as a true-life Beau Brummell when it came to his personal appearance. On his infrequent days off from his job, Alex proved himself an avid consumer of Gotham's popular diversions as well, whether Madison Square Garden or Coney Island prizefights, Broadway or vaudeville shows, or afternoon baseball games.
Gertrude Wald Miller, in contrast with her hard-working, fun-loving, yet traditional husband, was seven years younger and displayed a more modern and secular mindset. Like the Millers, the Walds could point to a proud heritage of family daring and sacrifice. They had been but one small part of an even longer-term nineteenth-century migration, that of Hungarians and other central Europeans, spurred on by the failed national revolutions of 1848 and that had swelled after 1870 as the dissatisfied had fled the Hapsburg's reactionary Dual Monarchy. The earliest of them, some of peasant stock but also including a wider swath of social classes and professions, had initially settled in the Lower East Side, just as the later Russian immigrants would do. But over time, those central European migrants with sufficient means—which included Gertrude's parents—had relocated north to the Upper East Side's Yorkville section. There they had settled in windowless, narrow, yet deep multiroom apartments, dubbed "railroad flats," within crowded three- to five-story buildings.
Although Yorkville had previously been settled by Germans and Austrians, by the time Gertrude had been born there in 1890 as the youngest of six daughters (among ten children in total), the neighborhood had already been peacefully conquered by Czechs, Slovaks, and Hungarians. Little Bohemia, encompassing the lower Seventies blocks of the east-west streets, housed many of the Czechs and Slovaks, with each group maintaining its own sokols for cultural education. The Hungarians in turn established themselves farther north, on the upper Seventies streets. Farther north still, surrounding and above East 86th Street, resided the resettled descendants of the earlier Teutonic populace. Whether representing "old" or "new" arrivals, however, in all the various enclaves a cauldron of expatriate pride bubbled with fresh vigor.
Like her husband, Gertrude Miller had been raised by parents who had braved America without an awaiting safety net of relatives. Compared with the Millers, however, the Walds had claimed a more venturesome, entrepreneurial spirit. Gertrude's father had not only started a bar in his new neighborhood but even found the time to sell real estate on the side out of his personal roll-top desk. As a household numbering twelve in all, the Wald family was noteworthy for its size even by turn-of-the-century standards—a fact possibly suggesting a persistence of traditional Old World family values and sexual role definitions. But such was not the case. As adults, four of the six Wald sisters would assume the dual responsibilities of housewives and breadwinners. Two ran their own shops. Despite lingering popular resistance to female participation in sports, the adolescent Gertrude roller-skated, rode her own bicycle, played tennis in Central Park, and even took part in organized team basketball. Acknowledged by all in her family as their most intellectually gifted member, she was also the child actively pushed toward postsecondary education. After having attending two years of normal (teachers') school, she began what would eventually stretch into nearly a half-century's career as an elementary-school teacher in the New York City public school system.
Gertrude Wald Miller's modern sensibility similarly extended to matters of religion. Although she had inherited the traditional knowledge of certain ethnic recipes and homeopathic cures from her parents, many of her elders' Orthodox religious customs—including the sexual segregation of women within the synagogue—visibly irritated her. By the time she reached adulthood she had ceased attending religious services save for the High Holidays, and even in that case did so with diminishing frequency. Still more defiant for the spouse of an Orthodox husband, upon her marriage to Alex she refused to keep a kosher home for their children. Because of Gertrude's open nonobservance, Alex's father retaliated by refusing to set foot in his son's abode, even to see his grandchildren. Miller descendants could not recall even one family gathering in which Gertrude and her father-in-law had harmoniously coexisted, even momentarily, in the same room.
Given the stark differences between the Miller and Wald clans, it remained a family mystery how the young adults Alex and Gertrude had ever met, much less fallen in love. But somehow Alex had become acquainted with Tillie, one of Gertrude's older sisters. Had they met by chance at a concert or the theater, or during separate strolls in Central Park? Had they encountered each other on the El, which by that time traversed Manhattan's length along its north-south streets? Had they perhaps become acquainted at Alex's shop when Tillie had been shopping for a new coat? Whatever the particulars, what everyone did know was that upon meeting Gertrude, Alex had quickly shifted his attentions from Tillie to her vivacious little sister. Following a presumably awkward transition, Miller then had ardently pursued his future wife, with their courtship culminating in marriage in 1912.
Given the personal trials Alex and Gertrude had subsequently shared, they had earned the right to have the birth of their first child unfold as an occasion of unqualified joy. Unfortunately, it was not to be the case. The couple had opted to have the delivery occur in their home rather than in a hospital, apparently sharing an all-too-common superstitin that persons who checked into hospitals frequently failed to leave them. But the doctor summoned to the Millers' apartment for the in-home birth was overmatched and underprepared. The difficult delivery required the use of instruments, owing to Gertrude's narrow pelvis, and the physician's mishandling of forceps in the extraction managed to wrench the newborn's right shoulder and cause initially imperceptible but severe damage. As the parents discovered only when the infant started to attempt to crawl, only to be unable to employ his right arm for support, one or more primary nerves in Marvin Miller's shoulder region had been irreparably harmed. The malady, today known in medical parlance as "Erb's palsy" or "brachial plexus paralysis," meant that the newborn's right arm lacked the essential nerve stimulation to develop full motor control and would remain in an atrophied state with the limb positioned at an awkward angle for the rest of his life.
Over the next seven years, Alex and Gertrude Miller tried virtually everything to gain their son's complete use of his arm. Marvin's mother used up two years' worth of maternity leave to be with him, and for five more she regularly took her boy to a specialist in upper Manhattan for manipulation sessions. At that same physician's advice, the Millers even bought a mechanical rubbing machine for Marvin's home use. The electrical contraption required the patient—either solo or with the help of another person—to hold the unwieldy contraption against his damaged upper arm while the device vibrated upon the skin. While in operation the machine's motor gave off a sickening smell of burning lubricant and rubber. Not only would the device prove useless, but for the rest of Marvin Miller's life the mere memory of the acrid burnt-oil odor would trigger acute sensations of nausea.
Excerpted from Marvin Miller by Robert F. Burk. Copyright © 2015 Board of Trustees. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
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Table of Contents
Part I The Making of a Professional Unionist (1917-1966)
1 A Brooklyn Boyhood 3
2 Hard Times 20
3 Avenues of Discovery 33
4 Working for Victory 45
5 Issues of Loyalty 56
6 Technician 69
7 A House Divided 82
Part II Baseball Revolutionary (1966-1985)
8 A Fresh Start 99
9 Securing the Basics 117
10 Taking On the Plantation 134
11 Earning Respect 155
12 Emancipation 176
13 Holding the Line 196
14 Flunking Retirement 216
Part III Defender of the Faith (1986-2012)
15 Living Memory 233
16 Lightning Rod 250
17 Awaiting the Call 268
Selected Bibliography 315