J. D. Thorne, speaker and author of the new book Baseball’s Winning Ways  (Available on Amazon Books).

Baseball Labor Developments Today and Lessons from the Past: Marvin Miller’s Relationship with MLB Commissioner Bowie Kuhn


Often in Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations, and in all labor relations matters for that matter, the personal relationship between the parties often can make a difference in getting to “Yes” for an agreement.

One of the achievements of MLB Emeritus Commissioner Bud Selig’s term was the restoration of “labor peace” in Major League Baseball, but it was costly. Acting Commissioner Selig and ownership were soundly criticized for the handling of the 1994 players’ strike that cancelled much of the season along with the World Series. The owner’s actions led to unfair labor practices ruling by the National Labor Relations Board with confirmation by a Federal Judge Sonia Sotomayor in the Southern District of Manhattan (Sotomayor subsequently became a U. S. Supreme Court Justice).  The damage from the strike carried on long after the 1994 season with fans angry at both sides, but baseball eventually recovered. The owners made Selig permanent Commissioner in 1998 and he never again was party to a decision important to baseball without being inclusive by listening to union concerns.   It takes two to Tango.

The current state of affairs between the Commissioner of Baseball Rob Manfred and the union leadership brings to mind the relationship between the first real union side lawyer Marvin Miller and the Major League Baseball Commissioner, Bowie Kuhn.  To say their relationship was “rocky” is an understatement.  Kuhn and Miller often argued for extended periods in telephone conversations on a regular basis.

Bowie Kuhn was baseball’s Commissioner from 1969 to 1984.  By 1980, baseball had expanded and was affluent during his leadership.  Attendance in 1980 was more than triple what it had been in 1968 and television revenue had increased by more than $10 million.  Kuhn like Manfred grew into the job of MLB Commissioner. Kuhn served as a corporate lawyer for the National League owners first, being a particular favorite of Dodger’s owner Walter O’Malley.  He assumed to the position after it had been vacant following the forced resignation of General “Spike” Eckert, the previous MLB Commissioner in December of 1968. Kuhn was a real Wall Street Law professional who found himself in the whirling chaos of the business of baseball.  Kuhn loved the game and its history, but was often criticized for not being in step with the times and impending changes. Kuhn would be criticized for his conservative ways, but at the same time, blamed for changes to the game.

Kuhn was generally perceived over his career as an executive who generally placated the owners and then gave in to all the Player’s Association’s demands.  For example, in 1976 he forced the owners to abandon a pre-season lock-out following a pro-player decision by an independent arbitrator in the Messersmith – McNally “free agency” challenge to the player contract “reserve clause.”  It is the expansion of that decision stipulation which is said to be at the heart of the collective bargaining contract issues today.  Kuhn was criticized by “Red” Smith, a leading sportswriter of the day, who wrote during a player strike in 1981: “This strike would not have happened if Bowie Kuhn were alive today” and “an empty car pulled up and Bowie Kuhn got out.”

Marvin Miller himself never played baseball.  Miller was a trained union lawyer of the Steel Workers Union after serving as an Attorney with the National Labor Relations Board.   Miller knew the law, and how to use it.  Before Miller, the owners never appreciated the power of the Labor Board – nor that of a responsible union for that matter.  Many believe Miller’s experience, knowledge, organizational ability, and resolve completely overmatched the owners and their representatives.  He was hired by the players in 1966.  He retired in 1984.

Miller’s tough tactics finally got for the players not only a “bigger slice of the pie,” but also a grudging respect for their interests.  He led two unpopular player strikes in 1972 and 1981, but he always compromised with owners in some way.  Yet for the players, he achieved a form of the first free agency, and the result of his advocacy was a hundredfold increase in the highest salaries, arbitration in salary disputes for eligible players, the right for some veteran players to veto trades, and a vastly improved pension system.

So just where will Commissioner Rob Manfred fit in?  Will he be remembered as the “woke” Commissioner who pulled the 2021 All-Star Game out of Atlanta, and the Commissioner who let the Houston Astro players guilty of cheating in their scheme to steal pitching signs off by granting them immunity for their testimony?  Or will Manfred’s legacy to baseball be defined as the “tough” negotiator or something else altogether!

As the old advertisement said, “Only your hairdresser knows for sure?”

Sporting Chance Press includes books on sports including baseball. Our baseball books:

The 10 Commandments of Baseball: An Affectionate Look at Joe McCarthy’s Principles for Baseball (and Life)  also by J. D. Thorne

Public Bonehead, Private Hero: The Real Legacy of Baseball’s Fred Merkle

Baseball’s Winning Ways