Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 11, 2010

Sooner Or Later For Steinbrenner, But Miller Is Long Overdue

On Monday the Hall of Fame announced the names of 12 candidates who will appear on the annual ballot of the veterans’ committee, which meets in December during the annual winter meetings of owners and general managers. The veterans’ committee, which considers candidates not otherwise eligible for election to the Hall by the regular process, has been expanded this year from 12 to 16 members. The committee is now made up of 8 members of the Hall of Fame, 4 executives and 4 writers. As is always the case in votes for Hall induction, a candidate must receive 75% of the vote in order to be elected.

Based on new veterans’ committee procedures announced in July, this year’s list of candidates is limited to individuals from the so-called expansion era of the Great Game, beginning in 1973. The dozen names include 8 players, none of whom ever came close to Hall induction during their years on the regular ballot. This is not to say that they don’t make one impressive lineup: Vida Blue, Dave Concepcion, Steve Garvey, Ron Guidry, Tommy John, Al Oliver, Ted Simmons and Rusty Staub. Any highlight reel from the ‘70s and ‘80s would have plenty of shots of these eight at the peak of their careers.

The list also includes Billy Martin, not for his playing career in the 1950s but for his managerial accomplishments during the era being looked at by the committee. Also on the ballot is retired general manager Pat Gillick. While hardly a household name, Gillick guided the Blue Jays to championships in 1992 and 1993, and did the same with the Phillies just two years ago. But the two names on the ballot who are certain to draw the greatest attention and debate are George Steinbrenner and Marvin Miller.

Steinbrenner, who passed away in July, was principal owner of the Yankees almost literally from the very beginning of the expansion era until his death; the sale of the franchise from CBS to a Steinbrenner-led partnership having taken place on January 3, 1973. Steinbrenner resurrected and ultimately remade an historic team that had badly lost its way under the corporate ownership of CBS. During his 37-year reign the Yankees won 11 American League championships and 7 World Series.

Along the way, Steinbrenner was the very model of a meddling, impetuous owner. He fired, and in Martin’s case repeatedly rehired, managers on a whim. He was rude, boorish, and intimidating to employees high and low. Of greater significance to his Hall of Fame chances, Steinbrenner was suspended for fifteen months after being convicted of making illegal campaign contributions to Richard Nixon, and was later enmeshed in an ugly controversy over his clear attempts to dig up dirt on Dave Winfield.

Steinbrenner was manifestly no saint; but then sainthood does not appear to be a prerequisite for admission to the Hall, especially for owners. Charles Comiskey played a key role in establishing the American League more than 100 years ago. But his miserly treatment of White Sox players may well have contributed to the great World Series scandal of 1919. Tom Yawkey was much loved in New England for rebuilding Fenway Park and (unlike Comiskey) being willing to spend lavishly on players. Of course, that seemed to be true only so long as the players were white.

Even Yankee haters would have to acknowledge the enormous influence Steinbrenner had on the development of the game over nearly four decades. No doubt many fans of small market teams rue that development, but that does not diminish the role that Steinbrenner played. Having said that, I confess to feeling a bit nonplussed at the haste of his nomination. Players must wait until five years after retirement before being placed on the regular ballot. It hasn’t been even five months since Steinbrenner’s passing. I believe George Steinbrenner belongs in the Hall of Fame, and that it would be entirely appropriate for him to be the first owner from the expansion era to be inducted. But I wouldn’t be disappointed if the committee chose to let a little time pass, and perhaps vote him in three years from now, when the veterans’ committee will next consider candidates from this era of the game.

Still, I won’t be surprised if Steinbrenner receives the requisite 12 votes this December. But if he does, I truly hope that he is not the only candidate to do so. For if there is such a thing as justice, then Marvin Miller will finally win his well-deserved plaque at Cooperstown.

As Executive Director of the players’ union from 1966 to 1982, Miller fundamentally remade the relationship between players and owners. He negotiated the union’s very first collective bargaining agreement in 1968. At the time the minimum player salary was $6,000, which that initial agreement increased (for the first time in two decades) to $10,000.

As part of that first negotiation Miller won the right for disputes to be resolved through arbitration. Prior to that, disputes between players and teams were resolved by the commissioner, who of course is elected by the owners. Not surprisingly, most decisions went the owners’ way.

Six years later Miller won an arbitration case when he argued that Oakland owner Charles Finley had failed to honor the terms of Catfish Hunter’s contract. When the arbitrator agreed Hunter was free to sign with any team. Shortly thereafter the Yankees signed the great right hander to a five year contract worth $3.5 million.

One year later, Miller guided pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally through the most decisive arbitration case in the history of the game. The reserve clause yoked players to teams by allowing owners to automatically renew a contract for one year beyond its original term, even without the player’s consent. Miller persuaded the two pitchers to play that additional year without a contract. At the end of it, he asked arbitrator Peter Seitz to rule that Messersmith and McNally were free agents. Over the objections of the owners, who contended that the automatic one-year renewals could go on indefinitely, Seitz sided with the union and the reserve clause was broken.

Free agency has made millionaires of many players, and allowed fans of more teams to dream of future glory if a contract can be worked out with that one special hitter, fielder or pitcher who can make the crucial difference. This winter, as the Yankees and Rangers go after Cliff Lee and as the Red Sox and Angels compete to sign Carl Crawford; owners, players, and fans alike should remember that more than anyone else Marvin Miller shaped the modern game of large salaries and mobile players. It’s not at all unfair to say that Marvin Miller made George Steinbrenner possible.

The question is not whether one thinks this is a good thing; it’s a reality. It is the modern game. And yet Miller has so far been passed over in voting for the Hall, most recently in 2007. There’s no question that’s in part because a majority of the 2007 veterans’ committee came from management. But as commissioner and former owner Bud Selig said at the time, “The criteria for non-playing personnel is the impact they made on the sport. Therefore Marvin Miller should be in the Hall of Fame on that basis.” If the all too often obtuse Selig can get it, one can only hope that this time around the veterans’ committee will finally do the right thing.

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