Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 9, 2021

The Captain, Two Worthies, And The Man Who Changed The Game

In the little village on the south shore of upstate New York’s Otsego Lake, Wednesday of course belonged to Derek Jeter.  That much has been certain since February 12, 2014, when Jeter announced just prior to the start of Spring Training that the season to come would be his final one in pinstripes.  The popular tale, so widely shared that its accuracy quickly became almost irrelevant, is that in response to word of their hero’s pending retirement some Yankees fans immediately made hotel reservations in the Cooperstown area for late July 2020. 

If such accounts are true, one hopes the bookings did not involve nonrefundable deposits.  For while it was a safe bet that the Yankees’ longtime captain would be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame on the first ballot and headline his class of inductees, enterprising New York fans could not have guessed that travel plans made more than five years in advance would be upended by a global pandemic.  The ceremony welcoming the four newest members of the Hall was ultimately delayed by more than thirteen months, and in that time wound up coming full circle. 

The grounds of the Clark Sports Center, a short distance down Susquehanna Avenue from the Hall, serve as the traditional site for the celebration, which normally caps off a long weekend of festivities.  That location is used because it’s the largest open-air site in the area, and the ceremony is open to all.  But when COVID-19 ran rampant, the original July 2020 date was cancelled, with the intent of combining it with the 2021 ceremony.  Then the voting members of the Baseball Writers Association failed to elect any new Hall of Famers last December, which at least eliminated the prospect of an overcrowded stage or unpleasantly long proceeding.  But as July approached and the pandemic wore on, the Hall moved the date for the induction yet again while also scrubbing all the attendant events.  That plan had the ceremony taking place indoors in front of a small number of invited guests.  Not until fairly recently, as New York relaxed statewide COVID restrictions, was the Hall able to change plans one more time.  In the end, Wednesday’s event was back at its usual site and free to all comers, although the choice of a midweek date along with ongoing concerns about the virus eliminated the prospect of record-breaking attendance.

Still, the 20,000 who made their way to Cooperstown, and by so doing swelled the village’s population to more than ten times its normal number, looked and felt like a far larger crowd after so many months of sharply curtailed public gatherings.  When Jeter took the stage, they welcomed their hero with the familiar singsong chant that he heard countless times while standing on the Stadium’s infield at the start of games in the Bronx, when the customary roll call by the Bleacher Creatures greeted each member of the Yankees’ defense – “De-rek Je-ter! De-rek Je-ter!”  When it was his turn to speak, Jeter began by acknowledging the importance of the fans, saying “I forgot how good that feels.  It’s humbling.  It’s a special feeling, and you tend to miss it when you don’t hear it anymore.” 

The first sentence on Jeter’s Hall of Fame plaque is “Heartbeat of a Yankees dynasty.”  With 3,465 hits, a .310 career batting average, most of the franchise batting records not held by Babe Ruth, fourteen All-Star appearances, five Golf Glove Awards to irritate the haters who lacking anything else to complain about regularly decried Jeter’s defense, and, most of all, five championships, he was indeed heart and soul of the franchise for two decades.  As a consummate professional who always played hard and who wore just one team’s uniform as a major leaguer, he became a symbol of his sport that even fans who hated the Yankees respected and admired.

But there is another number that is just as important, a figure not cited on any plaque or included on lists of Jeter’s career achievements.  That number is $266.3 million.  The figure for Larry Walker, Jeter’s fellow inductee from the regular BBWAA ballot is $110.6 million.  As one would likely guess, those are their career earnings for playing the Great Game.  Ted Simmons, the third player on the stage in Cooperstown, began his career more than two decades before Jeter and Walker, and had retired before either of them first wore a major league uniform, so his total is tiny in comparison.  The vast difference is not merely a matter of time and inflation, as Simmons well knows, for he played most of the 1972 season for the St. Louis Cardinals without a contract as he contemplated challenging baseball’s reserve clause.  By the time of Simmons’ months-long holdout, Curt Flood’s lawsuit seeking to dismantle the provision that granted a franchise exclusive lifelong contract rights to a player, was before the Supreme Court.  While that case was narrowly decided in MLB’s favor, further challenges followed and in 1975, the Seitz decision brought an end to the reserve clause and opened the door to free agency.

The guiding force behind arbitrator Peter Seitz’s ruling was Marvin Miller, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, who had also advised Simmons.  Miller, who died in 2012, was the fourth person inducted on Wednesday.  Like Simmons, he was elected by the Hall’s Veterans Committee, voting on so-called Modern Era candidates.  Were he still alive, Miller probably would not have been in Cooperstown on Wednesday, for in 2008 he had asked the Hall to stop considering his candidacy after falling short multiple times.  Respecting those wishes, his survivors declined to attend, so Miller was represented by Donald Fehr, his successor as head of the players’ union.

Despite his personal wishes, a Hall that recognizes individuals based on their contributions to the Great Game has been utterly incomplete without Miller.  The sin is not in ignoring his request, but in taking so egregiously long to acknowledge his foundational role in the modern game.  Miller’s tireless advocacy for the members of his union, his ability to maintain unity among a diverse group of athletes scattered across the country, and his legal and tactical skills remade the business of baseball, and the Great Game in turn led the way in elevating the power of players in professional sports.  During his decade and a half at the helm of the Players Association, the average ballplayer’s salary went from $19,000 to $326,000.  Four decades after he retired, because of Miller’s breakthroughs, for the best in the Great Game there are numbers like those associated with Jeter and Walker.

When told of Miller’s passing in 2012, former commissioner Fay Vincent said “I think he’s the most important baseball figure of the last 50 years. 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.”  A dozen years earlier, when asked about Miller’s Hall of Fame candidacy, 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.”  In the end it did not come to that, though the wait was inexcusably long. 

Now, about the candidacy of Curt Flood….

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