Players Association marks 50th year as a labor union

It went relatively unnoticed 50 years ago when Marvin J. Miller was hired by the Major League Baseball Players Association's executive board and set out for meetings with players in every Spring Training camp.

In retrospect, it was a seminal moment in an era of athlete empowerment that has reshaped the landscape of professional sports around the globe and spurred enormous economic growth for players and ownership alike.

So this year, while performing its primary duties, including negotiating a collective bargaining agreement, the Players Association will celebrate its rebirth as a labor union 50 years ago. Over the course of the year, we will take time to honor the generations of ballplayers who have built their union as well as the achievements and milestones players have accomplished collectively along the way.

The MLBPA's story is one in which generations of players have bonded to form an exclusive and principled fraternity dedicated to the game of baseball and each other, with each succeeding generation willing to make personal sacrifices to ensure they leave the game in a better place for the young players who will someday use their lockers.

Although the MLBPA had been around since 1954, its transformation into a labor union didn't begin until a group of players spearheaded by Jim Bunning, Robin Roberts and Harvey Keunn formed a committee to find a new full-time executive director. Their search, initiated at a December 1964 meeting of player leaders, ultimately led them to Miller, an economist with the United Steelworkers union.

It was a time when a new house cost $14,200, the average income was $6,900 and gas was 32 cents a gallon. In 1966, the Vietnam War was escalating, mini-skirts were getting shorter, the Beatles came to New York, NASA sent three Gemini spacecraft into orbit and Star Trek first appeared on television.

It was also an era of heightened awareness. The Civil Rights and women's rights movements required people to ask difficult questions. Workers of all types were asserting their employment rights and achieving great gains by forming labor unions to collectively represent their interests.

Athletes were taking notice, too. Baseball players, in particular, were beginning to question whether they were being appropriately compensated for the wealth they were creating for club owners. They were becoming increasingly dissatisfied with their meager pay and especially their pension.

That spring Sandy Koufax -- who in 1965 had won 26 games and struck out 382 in 335.2 innings to lead the Dodgers to a World Series victory and won his second Cy Young -- and his Dodgers teammate and Army reserve buddy Don Dysdale -- who had won 23 games with a 2.77 earned-run average -- decided to hold out together to gain leverage for a substantial raise.

Koufax, who had received $85,000 in 1965, and Drysdale, who was paid $80,000, told the Dodgers they wanted $1 million over three years and that they wouldn't report to Spring Training in Vero Beach, Florida until they had a deal. By the end of March, however, the pair had agreed to terms -- $125,000 for Koufax and $110,000 for Drysdale.

It was against that backdrop that Miller, whom the MLBPA's executive board had named executive director on March 5 subject to a vote by players, was going from camp to camp educating players as to just how short-changed they had been and what a union-management relationship might look like.

"I want you to understand that this is going to be an adversarial relationship," Miller recalled telling the Angels players in their meeting. "A union is not a social club. A union is a restraint on what an employer can otherwise do. If you expect the owners to like me, praise me, to compliment me, you'll be disappointed."

Miller, who was formally elected as the union's first executive director by a 489-136 vote that was announced that April, was right. The owners didn't like him, but he helped the players achieve their goals. By the end of that first year, the players had negotiated what amounted to a 100 percent increase in pension benefits for all players, coaches, managers and trainers active since 1957. The players also negotiated increased life insurance, health insurance and widow's benefits that first year.

In 1968, Miller helped players negotiate baseball's first-ever collective bargaining agreement. It raised the minimum salary in baseball from $6,000 -- the level at which it had been stuck for two decades -- to $10,000 and set the tone for future advances.

In 1970, the players negotiated the right to neutral arbitration to resolve grievances -- an achievement Miller considered the most significant of the union's early years because the process paved the way for future gains.

In fact, it was a decision by independent arbitrator Peter Seitz five years later that overturned the owners' interpretation of the reserve clause and gave players free agency.

The achievements -- and challenges -- have been many since Miller first traveled from Spring Training camp to Spring Training camp to meet players for the first time in 1966.

The common thread is that players through their Players Association have approached all of the challenges with solidarity and unprecedented dedication to the game of baseball and each other.