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Marvin Miller, former executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, poses at his apartment in New York, Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2003. (BEBETO MATTHEWS/AP)
Marvin Miller, former executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, poses at his apartment in New York, Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2003. (BEBETO MATTHEWS/AP)

Jeff Blair

Professional athletes everywhere ought to thank Marvin Miller Add to ...

Bob Locker was, in his words, “ownership partial” until Marvin Miller came along. But as a college-educated pitcher who didn’t break in to the majors until 27 – a rarity in the 1960s – he found himself thinking about the questions Miller had presented himself and his Chicago White Sox teammates.

Miller, the former United Steelworkers economist and founder of the Major League Baseball Players Association, passed away Tuesday in New York City after a two-year battle with cancer. He was 95.

His death came five days after he and Locker, 74, had one of their irregular chats. The day found Locker laid up on his back – he’d been moving boxes around at his place in the Bay area – and remembering the impact Miller had on his life and the life of every professional athlete since then.

“I was just absolutely amazed at this man who walked in front of us,” said Locker, who appeared in 576 games over 10 years with five different teams. “He had a very calm demeanour, but also, you could tell, a very strong will. Plus,” Locker added, “he had logic on his side.”

Miller’s legacy arrives in the mailboxes of former baseball players or is directly deposited into their bank accounts.

“We collect pension cheques that are better than the salaries we made playing,” Locker said, “so there’s a lot of us who bless him and thank him every time we open the mail, or should be, at least.”

But Miller’s reach goes much further. Free agency, collective bargaining rights and pensions might have become a fact of life in professional sports without Miller, because players were starting to grumble even before he came on the scene.

“But we never really had any horsepower to do anything about it,” Locker said. “Marvin provided the engine, the horse, if you will. Marvin put everything together.”

Miller’s passing comes at a time when his protégé and replacement as head of the baseball players, Donald Fehr, is leading the NHL Players’ Association during a lockout put into effect by NHL owners.

It is a mark of how effective Miller was that Fehr would be hand-picked not just to lead an association into a labour dispute, but to also give the NHLPA some real, sustaining governance. Baseball players had Marvin Miller back in the day when they were routinely screwed over by ownership. Hockey players had, well, they had Alan Eagleson. Enough said.

Not everybody loved Miller at first. Professional athletes were and are inherently conservative, and for some of them labour unions equated with Communism and bat-wielding skirmishes with police and Hoffa-esque intrigue. But with players such as Robin Roberts and Jim Bunning pressing his case, Miller eventually found a base.

He certainly found Bob Locker, who in 2010 started a website called thanksmarvin.com after Miller again failed to gain induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame through one of several committees charged with the responsibility of putting executives and builders into Cooperstown. It was a way for former players to thank Miller and also express contempt for what is now an indelible stain on the Hall of Fame.

It is gross historical negligence, a shame and hypocrisy of the first order. The people responsible for keeping Miller out all got fat in one way or another on his fortitude and foresight, because with franchises now going for $1-billion, it is clear Miller and Fehr and now Michael Weiner have known what they were talking about all along. Baseball has survived paying its players a fair share, just as Hollywood survived a culture of what Locker refers to as “a kind of servitude.”

Locker will update his website, once he’s up and about. He will do so remembering that last conversation with his friend. Even as he prepared to leave his mortal coil, Miller could still get angry.

“Marvin was frustrated by the fact the world wasn’t quite the way it should be,” Locker said, chuckling. “But that’s what it’s like when you get older. You tend to want things your own way. But Marvin was always right. It has to be a frustrating thing, when you’re right and nobody pays attention.”

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