NEW YORK — Of all the kind words expressed Tuesday on Marvin Miller's death at the age of 95, two stood out.
The debt of gratitude owed to Mr. Miller, whose game-changing tenure as executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association forever altered the business of professional sports, is impossible to calculate.
But in fighting — and winning — the battle for free agency in baseball, Mr. Miller helped grant players the right to eventually choose their workplace and earn as much as a competitive market would bear. That, in turn, transformed athletes into multimillionaires, a process Mr. Miller began when he helped to form the players union in 1966.
Mr. Miller died of liver cancer early Tuesday morning in his Manhattan home.
"I think he's the most important baseball figure of the last 50 years," former commissioner Fay Vincent said. "He changed not just the sport but the business of the sport permanently, and he truly emancipated the baseball player — and in the process all professional athletes. Prior to his time, they had few rights. At the moment, they control the games."
"Sad to hear about the passing of Mr. Miller," Mets pitcher R.A. Dickey said Tuesday on his Twitter account. "He will be missed. A true pioneer. Thank you, Marvin."
Players attending the union's annual executive board meeting in New York said their professional lives are Mr. Miller's legacy.
"Anyone who's ever played modern professional sports owes a debt of gratitude to Mr. Miller," Dodgers pitcher Chris Capuano said. "He empowered us as players. He gave us ownership of the game we play. Anyone who steps on a field in any sport, they have a voice because of him."
If not for Mr. Miller's revolutionary efforts, players such as Dickey would be in much different situations, not to mention radically different tax brackets. When Mr. Miller was hired, and MLB teams still employed the reserve clause to control their players, the minimum salary was $6,000, with an average of $19,000.
"Nobody realized how gargantuan the task was," Mr. Miller said years later. "Major-league players were, at the time, truly brainwashed."
When Mr. Miller left in 1982, the average salary was $241,000, and it has skyrocketed since, with a present-day average of more than $3 million and $480,000 minimum.
It didn't come without a price.
Mr. Miller's hard-nosed tactics resulted in three work stoppages for baseball, including the first strike in professional sports history in 1972. The endgame, of course, was an unqualified victory that the players enjoy now more than ever.
"His influence transcends baseball," current MLBPA executive director Michael Weiner said. "Marvin, without question, is largely responsible for ushering in the modern era of sports, which has resulted in tremendous benefits to players, owners and fans of all sports.
"It was an honor and a privilege to have known Marvin. The industry has never witnessed a more honorable man, and his passion for helping others and his principled resolve serve as the foundation for the MLBPA to this day. Marvin was a champion among champions, and his legacy will live on forever."
That legacy had relatively humble beginnings. Initially, there was opposition to Mr. Miller — a labor economist for the United Steelworkers of America — as players and owners shared concern about bringing in someone with a strong union background. Mostly, it came from the owners, who had obvious reasons to fear Mr. Miller. He seemed to revel in the confrontation between the two sides, just as his successors in that role have done.
"Marvin possessed a combination of integrity, intelligence, eloquence, courage and grace that is simply unmatched in my experience," said former MLBPA executive director Don Fehr, who worked under Mr. Miller as general counsel from 1977-82.
"Without question, Marvin had more positive influence on Major League Baseball than any other person in the last half of the 20th century. It was a rare privilege for me to be able to work for him and with him. All of us who knew him will miss him enormously."
Mr. Miller's part in two landmark cases against MLB ultimately paved the way for free agency. First was Cardinals outfielder Curt Flood, who refused to report after he was traded to the Phillies in 1969. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the reserve clause in that case, but the foundation had been shaken, and Mr. Miller's later backing of two pitchers who didn't sign their contract renewals — Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally — finally broke it in 1975.
The sporting world has never been the same.
"Mr. Miller forged wings for modern-day baseball, the 'Wright' of baseball's soaring flight," agent Scott Boras said on Twitter. "Thank you."
Despite his tremendous influence on the game, Mr. Miller has been kept out of Cooperstown (he received 43 percent of the required 75 percent of votes in 2003, and 63 percent in 2007), showing that his reign generated plenty of animosity among baseball's power brokers, many of whom were angered by his goals and the methods he used to get there.
With baseball's extended period of labor peace, maybe time will heal those wounds and the Hall of Fame will open its doors to Mr. Miller.
"Mr. Miller was a highly accomplished executive and a very influential figure in baseball history," commissioner Bud Selig said in a statement. "He made a distinct impact on this sport, which is reflected in the state of the game today, and surely the major-league players of the last half-century have greatly benefited from his contributions."