Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 29, 2012

The Man Who Changed Our Games

While it was but a coincidence of random timing, the confluence of Marvin Miller’s passing on Tuesday with the release of this year’s Hall of Fame ballot one day later is oddly fitting. Among the first-timers on this year’s ballot are several players whose career numbers are first-ballot election worthy but who are widely perceived (not always fairly) as the poster boys of the Steroid Era. Their fitness for the Hall is likely to be the subject of heated debate for years to come, with the only certainty being that no one named Bonds, Clemens or Sosa need prepare an acceptance speech for next summer’s induction ceremony. As the votes so far for Mark McGwire, who has admitted steroid use, and even for Jeff Bagwell, who has adamantly denied it show, most of the voting members of the BBWAA are not yet inclined to welcome to Cooperstown anyone who was by either admission or rumor a steroid user.

But from what has been written in the last couple of days it is clear that most of the same writers who are prepared to block the tainted stars of the Steroids Era from the Hall strongly believe that Miller, the executive director of the MLB Players Association from 1966 to 1982, absolutely deserves a spot on the wall in Cooperstown. Yet despite that support there is no plaque of Miller in any of the halls of the Hall, a fact that has been the subject of heated debate for almost a decade.

That’s because as a non-player Miller’s candidacy was never considered by the electorate of writers who vote each year on the annual list of former players at least five years past retirement. Instead first in 2003 and then again in 2007 the Veterans Committee which voted on non-players as well as former players whose fifteen years of eligibility on the writers’ ballot had elapsed was made up mostly of all living members of the Hall. In three elections for former players and two for non-players that committee failed to reward a single person with the required 75% of the vote. While among executives Miller was second to Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley in 2003 and led the balloting in 2007, it was apparent that too many of those already in the Hall didn’t want to diminish their own stature by welcoming anyone else.

As a result the makeup of the Veterans committee was changed; but in a way that crippled Miller’s candidacy. The next committee to vote on a ballot that included his name had just twelve members, but seven of them were current or former members of management. In every vote since the Veterans Committee, now composed of a mix of writers, former players, and current and former executives, has had more than enough representatives of the forces that Miller fought to deny him election to the Hall.
In April 2010 as Miller celebrated his 93rd birthday a group of former major leaguers launched the website ThanksMarvin.com to express their appreciation for all that Miller had done as leader of their union and to advocate for his election to the Hall. Over the years high-profile stars spoke out in favor of Miller, including Hank Aaron, Joe Morgan, Tom Seaver, Joe Torre, and broadcaster Bob Costas. Almost two decades earlier Red Barber had said that “Marvin Miller, along with Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson, is one of the two or three most important men in baseball history.” Even Commissioner Bud Selig recognized where Miller belonged, saying after his 2007 rejection that “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. Maybe there are not a lot of my predecessors who would agree with that, but if you’re looking for people who make an impact on the sport, yes, you would have to say that.” But for all that old grudges die hard, and in the 2010 vote Miller came up one ballot shy of the necessary twelve votes.

But if those who still begrudged the old battles thought that keeping him out of the Hall of Fame would mean that fans would somehow forget his accomplishments they were delusional. When Miller took over as executive director of the players association the game was ruled by the owners and managed in a style reminiscent of Middle Ages feudalism. The minimum salary of $6,000 had barely budged in twenty years, and the average ballplayer’s salary was all of $19,000. The reserve clause bound every player to his team for as long as its paternalistic owner wanted him.

The first collective bargaining agreement that Miller negotiated raised the minimum salary by 67%. The second gave players the right to have disputes settled through arbitration, rather than by the owner-appointed commissioner. In 1974 Miller used arbitration to win Catfish Hunter’s release from the Oakland Athletics. Hunter then signed a five-year $3.5 million contract with the New York Yankees, giving all players a glimpse of what could happen if they were truly free. The following year arbitrator Peter Seitz gave them that freedom when he issued his ruling that all players were free agents after going one year without a contract, effectively ending the reserve clause. By the time Miller retired the average salary had risen to more than $325,000. Today it exceeds $3 million.

There was no shortage of bitter combat during Miller’s tenure. There were three strikes and two lockouts. But today the MLBPA is the strongest union in sports, and the players and owners have enjoyed an unprecedented run of labor peace as owners came to recognize that with concepts like revenue sharing the new economic order that Miller wrought could benefit management and union alike. Weaker players unions in the NFL, NBA, and especially the woeful NHL have not matched in their sports the essentially equal role that the MLBPA plays with Selig and thirty owners in setting the direction of the Great Game. Yet with free agency now the long-settled rule in every sport players in those leagues owe a debt to Miller as well.

Now Marvin Miller is gone, denied in life an honor that he was manifestly due. He will be on the ballot again next year for the first time since 2010, as the Veterans Committee considers candidates from one of three distinct eras each election. Perhaps this time he will finally be elected. But if this man who transformed the Great Game and whose impact on all team sports and the athletes we as fans cheer on was as profound as any single person is again denied, it will be a sad result that will diminish not Marvin Miller, but the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Advertisements

Responses

  1. I’m in complete agreement with you here. What exactly do these anti-Miller reactionaries think? That they’d be even more rich if only Miller hadn’t come along? There doesn’t seem to ever be a shortage of potential buyers for MLB teams when the time arises. Only now, lots more people are rich, including the players. Isn’t that simply the free market at work? Or is the free market only legit in their eyes when it is rigged in favor of their group at the expense of another?
    Great post,
    Bill


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Categories

%d bloggers like this: