Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 12, 2019

The Hall Of Fame Becomes A Better Place

Four years and $73 million for catcher Yasmani Grandal, the biggest free agent deal in Chicago White Sox history. From the Philadelphia Phillies, five years and $118 million for Zack Wheeler, a 29-year-old righthander who lost all of 2015 and 2016 to injury and who has never topped 200 innings of work. Then the record breaker, the Washington Nationals agreeing to seven years and $245 million to retain the services of World Series MVP Stephen Strasburg. On Monday that was the richest deal ever for a pitcher, both in terms of total dollars and average annual value. By Tuesday it was a former record, as after a few seasons of relative frugality the Yankees returned to being the Evil Empire, inking the top free agent of this offseason, righthander Gerrit Cole, to a nine-year contract worth $324 million. Suddenly, the Great Game’s economic balance, tilted so heavily in favor of management for the past few years, appears to be swinging back in the direction of the players.

If that is true – and while the news so far is promising, rendering a final judgment at this point in the offseason is a little like declaring division winners based on the standings on the Fourth of July – then while still grossly overdue, the timing of the vote by the Hall of Fame veterans committee will ultimately be seen as altogether appropriate. For amid these and other announcements of rich free agent contracts came the news that many fans had resigned themselves to never hearing. With exactly the requisite seventy-five percent of the committee’s support, Marvin Miller has been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

The mission statement of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, to use its full name, sets the institution’s first job as preserving the sport’s history. In addition to preserving a permanent record of baseball’s story through its collections and building appreciation for the Great Game with exhibits and educational programs, the Hall honors individuals who had exceptional careers and non-players with significant achievements off the field. In the long history of the sport, no other individual who never once stood in a batter’s box or stepped onto a pitcher’s mound had an impact on the game like Miller’s.

Fans too young to remember the time can find it hard to grasp the economic realities of the sport in the late winter of 1966 when Miller, then an economist and negotiator for the United Steelworkers union, toured spring training camps seeking to be elected executive director of the Players Association. The players who voted Miller into a position he would hold until 1982 were tied to their clubs by baseball’s reserve clause. Aside from a small handful of stars, they had no ability to negotiate their salaries and their feeble association had no collective bargaining agreement. The major league minimum salary was $6,000, a number that had increased just once in two decades. Arbitration and free agency were, at most, mere concepts in Miller’s mind.

Marvin Miller changed all that, and in retrospect did so with astonishing speed. He won recognition of the MLBPA as a union and secured its first agreement with the owners. That two-year contract increased the minimum salary by more than forty percent, raised players’ expense allowance, and introduced arbitration for certain grievances. Every CBA that followed, and Miller negotiated the first five, expanded the rights of players. After Curt Flood’s lonely effort to fight the reserve clause through the courts, Miller followed the path laid out by the St. Louis Cardinals’ star and won the 1975 Seitz decision that finally eradicated the reserve clause and made free agency permanent. He wasn’t hesitant to use the ultimate union cudgel of job actions, which brought him plenty of public opprobrium but ultimately won further concessions from management. In time the economic rebalancing between players and owners that Miller was shaping in baseball spread to our other major sports.

Coverage of the contract announcements from the Owners’ Meetings in San Diego this week focused on the numbers – the millions in total value, the average annual salary and the length of each deal. But that there were any announcements to make was because of Miller’s leadership in the Players Association’s formative years. Fans in Washington were surely happy that Strasburg opted to continue to wear the only major league uniform he’s ever known. But that he had a choice whether to do so was because of Miller.

That legacy put Miller’s claim to a plaque in the Hall beyond dispute. It also made his election nearly impossible. Because of the Hall’s seventy-five percent threshold for election and the mixed membership of the various veterans committees that voted on his candidacy over the years, there was always going to be a bloc of voters with ties to the sport’s management side determined to deny Miller a spot in Cooperstown. Beginning in 2003 he was regularly on the veterans committee ballot and just as regularly fell short of election. In 2008, at the age of 92, Miller wrote to the Hall asking that he no longer be considered. But while he could never be ignored as the leader of the Players Association, the Hall chose not to honor his request. Seven times in all Miller was denied, even after his passing in 2012.

The pattern had repeated so many times that it became easy to assume it was permanent; that an institution dedicated to preserving the history of the Great Game would forever ignore someone with seminal influence on that story. But perhaps justice delayed is not always justice denied. Almost twenty years ago Hank Aaron said “Marvin Miller should be in the Hall of Fame if the players have to break down the doors to get him in.” Now at last those doors have been battered down. In keeping with his stated wishes, his family has made it clear they will not participate in his induction ceremony next summer. But then it has always been the case that Marvin Miller didn’t need the Hall of Fame. Rather it is the Hall, if it is to be true to its mission, that has needed Marvin Miller.

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