Marvin Miller’s legacy and Japan

Labor organizer Marvin Miller, who energized major league baseball players into seizing a huge amount of control over their labor from the owners, was voted into National Baseball Hall of Fame on Sunday. According to his son Peter, it wasn’t something he aspired to or wished to acknowledge.

His election has sparked some thoughts about how Japan’s baseball labor situation differs from that in the majors and why the two games are so different. Typically, we talk about the differences in how the game is played, but labor relations, too, are somewhat different.

In MLB, Miller’s acumen and leadership skills galvanized the players into taking action that eventually revealed the owners’ flawed basis for dictatorial control over players’ rights. His actions brought arbitration and then free agency. Because these changes removed the ability of owners to pay pennies on the dollar for labor, baseball executives at the time predicted they usher in the destruction of Major League Baseball.

They meant that like destroying Major League Baseball was a bad thing. Of course, it didn’t. Instead of destroying baseball, it forced teams to revolutionize their business models in order to be able to afford to buy players on a more free market. That change revitalized the business of baseball.

Before Miller MLB was not plantation slavery but a form of wage slavery. Players were bound to serve their owners or find other employment that did not reward their most marketable skills. After Miller, the MLB labor market became a kind of indentured servitude, where players handed owners control over their work for a fixed period of time.

Whenever MLB wants to defend itself, it talks about the owners as caretakers of American tradition. Talk like that has zero connection with the truth when owners defend their heinous policies as “normal business practices.” In that sense, MLB is a caretaker of American tradition, the 19th-century kind, when business owners relied on detectives and police to help “settle” labor disputes, by busting heads and breaking bones.

Japan’s “model” society

The best thing about Japanese baseball is that while the game is influenced by developments in the majors, it is ordered by different beliefs about how and why it is played. Japanese teams and owners can be just as stupid or innovative or ignorant as their MLB counterparts, but their behavior is modified by Japan’s social norms.

Just as in MLB, Japan’s owners have long assumed they deserved the power to exercise total over the game and the players. Japan’s version has rarely been so harsh as the bitter anti-labor ownership in America. Not because baseball team owners in Japan are kinder, but because society expects them to occasionally demonstrate ritual acts of kindness.

A Japanese company will work its laborers to death but is expected to organize a free employees trip every year,

Thus while MLB teams routinely manipulate players’ service time to maximize control over prospects at the cost of wins in the short term, Most Japanese teams will listen to requests of players wishing to leave and go to the majors and many of those requests are granted — at great cost to the team giving up the player.

Japanese teams aren’t pro-labor and do in fact exploit their players, but they also observe social expectations about pay raises. Rookies who have outstanding seasons can earn salaries many times the minimum. Japan’s owners are under no real obligation to reward the players — other than the social one.

Any analogy of pre-arbitration MLB as slavery is clearly wrong — because players could opt-out at great personal cost and not be pursued as runaway athletes. But for the sake of comparison, let’s assume MLB was a form of slavery. If so, MLB was the slavery exposed by Uncle Tom’s Cabin, where the mere existence of pernicious abuse was a threat to its apologists and proponents — who claimed human beings were better off in benevolent bondage.

If that light, the Japanese form of baseball labor relations has always been a little closer to apologists’ romanticized view of slavery. But simply being less onerous than MLB’s version doesn’t make it right.

According to Peter Miller, his father’s ultimate goal was freedom for the players to choose, something even the most benevolent of baseball autocracies cannot accept.

Jim Allen

sports editor for a wire service in Tokyo

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