NEW YORK -- Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan remembered the first time he saw Marvin Miller, shortly after Miller was elected as the founding director of the Major League Baseball Players Association in 1966.
“I looked at this little guy and I said, 'Is he going to be tough enough to do this job?'" the diminutive Morgan said with a smile at NYU’s Vanderbilt Hall during Monday night’s memorial celebration for the late labor leader, who used a keen intellect and a steely resolve during his 17-year tenure to change the economics of baseball forever.
“Can you imagine me questioning somebody’s toughness because of their stature?” Morgan added. “And I really believe the toughest job Marvin had ... was for him to get us to become an association. When Marvin came we had all been a group of individuals, and to make us all join and become an association was very difficult.
“We could have searched 100 years and we wouldn’t have found a more perfect person.”
Miller, who passed away on Nov. 27 at the age of 95, was plenty tough. Along the way, salaries soared -- but so did baseball’s revenues and franchise values.
Buck Martinez, whose resume includes managing in the Major Leagues and the World Baseball Classic and who is currently a broadcaster for the Blue Jays, broke in as a 20-year-old in 1969. He vividly recalls when only one game a week was televised, playing in front of 7,500 fans at Fenway Park, with the Yankees' average attendance approximately 16,000.
In one of five video clips of Miller recorded in October 2010, he remembered that when he started, the budget for the entire MLBPA -- salaries, travel, office space, staff, supplies -- was $150,000, and that the union had less than $6,000 in the bank.
But many of the dozen-plus speakers who eulogized Miller noted that his toughness was almost unfailingly masked by a mild-mannered approach. When he briefed the players, the more serious the subject, the softer he’d speak. That had them leaning in, listening intently to make sure they didn’t miss a word.
“It was a quiet leadership,” said former Expos, Tigers, Mets and Rangers standout Rusty Staub. “He helped me immeasurably in my life -- in the restaurants I ran, in the charity things I’ve been fortunate to do. He was always calm. There are a lot of times when players aren’t calm, and he would always try to smooth it out. He taught me patience, which none of us is particularly blessed with in this little group, by the way.”
Former big league player and manager Phil Garner talked about the time when, upset at the Minor League contract the Oakland A’s had offered him, he called Miller to vent, insisting that he would never sign the contract. After Garner ran out of steam, Miller weighed in.
“He said, 'Fight the good fight, young man,'" Garner said. "'In the end, you’re probably going to have to sign the contract. Just play as hard as you can. And by the way, we don’t represent Minor League players. It’s not part of the Basic Agreement.'"
Miller also counseled Expos pitcher Steve Renko against trying to become a free agent years before that became part of the collective bargaining agreement, when the team did not offer him a contract by the specified deadline.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea right now,” Renko recalled Miller advising him.
Behind the scenes, said former MLBPA executive director Donald Fehr, Miller wasn’t always as poker-faced.
"There was this view that Marvin was always in control. That was the public persona,” Fehr said. “It wasn’t always the private one.
“He never showed it to the press, very rarely showed it to the players and certainly never showed it to the people he was negotiating with."
Miller's sole allegiance was to the players, and they responded with fierce loyalty.
Dave Winfield was one of the highest-paid players in baseball at the time of the strike in 1981.
“I benefited greatly, but I always knew where it came from,” Winfield said. “When we struck, I walked like everybody else. The newspapers were on me. ‘What are you going to do? You’re not making any money.’ And I said, 'It’s not about me. It’s about the people before me and the people after me.' And that’s the way it was.”
Winfield also noted that during the strike, Miller declined to take a paycheck as well.
All of which helps explain why hundreds of people came out to honor Miller three decades after he stepped aside. In the audience were some three dozen current and former players, including Reggie Jackson, Steve Garvey, Al Leiter, Keith Hernandez, Cookie Rojas, Jim Kaat, Art Howe, Cleon Jones, Ron Darling and Andrew Bailey. Also in attendance were representatives from the Commissioner’s office, such high-powered agents as Scott Boras and Seth and Sam Levinson, representatives from the NBA and NHL players associations, and even members of the Japanese Baseball Players Association.
Said Staub: “I’ll leave you with one thought. ... I think every time somebody signs one of these wonderful contracts, and there are so many of them out there, before they get the first check, they should have to write an essay on Marvin Miller."
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.