Time for Miller's call from the Hall
Former union chief's absence from Cooperstown is a shame -- and correctable
Editor's note: This story was originally published in December 2009, but we are linking to it again today in light of Marvin Miller's passing. Miller fell two votes short of election to the Hall of Fame that month and one vote short in December 2010.
Marvin Miller was blessed with longevity, but he's missing the gene that makes a man more diplomatic with age. Here he is, at 92, talking about writing another letter to the Baseball Hall of Fame asking not to be considered for election to the class of 2010.
A lot has happened since Miller urged the Veterans Committee to remove his name from the ballot two years ago. His wife, Terry, died in October at age 90, two months before the couple's 70th wedding anniversary. Now Miller is dealing with the emotional fallout and the frailties of age. He suffered a mild stroke in April, bringing an end to his days as a singles tennis player. Since Terry's death, he's been inundated with medical bills and insurance forms at a stage of life when small print gets more infinitesimal by the day.
But Miller isn't going to be anyone's sympathy vote for Cooperstown, and he would rather not be party to a process that he considers a sham.
"I'm kind of amused by it," Miller said by phone last week. "I asked not be included on any ballots and gave them notice in writing, and they got their backs up and said, 'Nobody can tell us what to do.' It was a reasonable request in light of the circumstances. Why would they keep putting me on a list and, at the same time, rigging the election so I can't be elected?"
The farce has dragged on so long, there's only one reasonable solution: The Hall of Fame should elect Miller regardless of his personal feelings on the subject. And then it can issue an apology for taking so long.
Nearly three decades after Miller handed over leadership of the Players Association to Donald Fehr, Cooperstown is still diminished by his absence. It's mind-boggling -- not to mention petty, vindictive and demeaning to the Hall of Fame -- that a man so universally regarded as a "transformational" figure is so routinely dismissed by the institution.
Another round of voting will take place Sunday, and the 12-man committee entrusted with deciding Miller's fate should consider the array of voices lined up on his behalf. Miller has been praised through the years by a roster of admirers that includes Red Barber, Arthur Ashe, Studs Terkel, Bob Costas, Bill James, Jim Bouton and Jim Bunning. Now the list of supporters is expanding to include some longtime adversaries.
Ray Grebey, the owners' chief labor negotiator during the 1981 strike, recently told longtime baseball writer Murray Chass that Miller belongs in Cooperstown. Commissioner Bud Selig has also embraced that point of view.
"Marvin Miller belongs in the Hall of Fame, if the criteria is what impact you had on the sport, whatever way one wants to value that impact," Selig said in an interview with the Major League Baseball Network. "Yes, Marvin Miller should be in the Hall."
Miller pronounced himself "floored" by Grebey's endorsement and called Selig's show of support "refreshing." That's about as gushy as you'll get from a trained economist who made his mark with rational discourse at the expense of white-hot emotion.
Of course, we realize that a column pushing Marvin Miller's Hall of Fame candidacy is destined to be a losing proposition. Because of his role with the Players Association, Miller is a convenient scapegoat for fans who like to complain about high ticket prices, the Yankees winning too many championships and rich, Porsche-driving players flaunting their sense of entitlement.
That argument makes sense only if you think that Montgomery Burns, owner of the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant on "The Simpsons," is a paragon of upper-management benevolence.
When Miller helped found the union in 1966, players were tied to their original teams in perpetuity, the minimum salary was $6,000, and the pension plan was a work in progress. He needed help from Curt Flood, Dave McNally, Andy Messersmith and others to change the system, but their efforts continue to resonate decades later.
Has the pendulum swung too far the opposite way? Perhaps, if you use the $3 million average player salary as your sole barometer. But here are some other facts to ponder: Major League Baseball generated a record $6.5 billion in revenues in 2008 and set four straight attendance records from 2004 through 2007, prompting Selig to christen this a new "golden age" for the game. Target Field in Minnesota will become the 23rd new ballpark to open since 1990, and the game's global reach continues to expand.
So what exactly did Marvin Miller destroy?
True, the Yankees have won seven World Series since the first collective bargaining agreement in 1968. They also won 20 titles in a 40-year span from Babe Ruth to Mickey Mantle, before Miller helped do away with baseball's reserve clause. Even the perception that higher salaries lead to rising ticket prices is a fallacy. Any responsible economist will tell you that rising ticket prices are a function of supply and demand, and that greater profits lead to increased spending on talent (unless you happen to be the Pirates).
If a single event helped put Miller's situation into focus, it was the election of the late commissioner Bowie Kuhn by the Veterans Committee in 2007. Given Miller's mastery over Kuhn in labor-related matters, this was the equivalent of keeping Muhammad Ali out of the Boxing Hall of Fame and electing Chuck Wepner because his face was such a great punching bag.
Former commissioner Fay Vincent made an impassioned plea for Miller in a New York Times editorial after Kuhn's election, and he hasn't softened his stance since.
"It's preposterous that Marvin Miller isn't in the Hall of Fame," Vincent said. "It's an embarrassment. Some of it is bitterness against Marvin for having taken baseball to its knees over the years, and some of the people who are negative about him are just being small-minded. I don't think a fair-minded person can have any question."
And how does Vincent respond to those who demonize Miller for paving the way for unprecedented riches for players?
It's preposterous that Marvin Miller isn't in the Hall of Fame. It's an embarrassment.” -- Former commissioner Fay Vincent
"That's like blaming Thomas Edison for putting the candle industry out of business," Vincent said. "Marvin Miller brought players out of indentured servitude. They were basically slaves. How can you argue that it was anything other than a great thing? It meant that baseball became part of the modern world."
The distressing thing is that so many players seem to have short memories, or minimal appreciation for Miller's efforts. Sure, Joe Morgan, Hank Aaron and some other prominent names have spoken out on his behalf. But Bouton, one of Miller's staunchest advocates, says he thinks players and the media both have an obligation to state Miller's case more forcefully.
"If not for politics, so obvious to everyone, Marvin would have been voted in years ago," Bouton said in a recent e-mail. "Instead of pointing to the sky, today's players should be pointing to Marvin Miller."
But with the exception of a Nolan Ryan here and a Carlton Fisk there, players routinely overlook Miller in their Hall of Fame speeches. Other than paying tribute to Pete Rose, it's the most surefire mood killer on a pleasant summer day in Cooperstown.
The sorriest rationalization came from Reggie Jackson, who justified his failure to support Miller in a 2003 Veterans Committee vote with the explanation that the Hall of Fame is for "players only."
This is the same Reggie Jackson who tried to hire Miller to represent him in 1981, only to be told that Miller negotiated the labor agreement for the entire union membership and that individual talks were left to players and their agents. In other words, Miller was a hero when Jackson's economic self-interest was at stake, but Mr. October gets all pious and exclusionary when he risks upsetting the establishment. Jackson is a hypocrite on a tape-measure-caliber scale.
In February 2007, when the voting was open to Hall of Fame players, writers and broadcasters, Miller received 63 percent of the 75 percent necessary for election. But after the Veterans Committee failed to pick anyone in two straight elections and the threshold was deemed too high, the Hall of Fame changed the rules and overhauled the voting procedures.
The 12-person committee, scheduled to convene in Indianapolis next weekend, will vote on Miller, Gene Autry, Ewing Kauffman and seven other former owners or management people on an all-encompassing "executive" ballot. It will take nine votes, or 75 percent, for a candidate to be elected.
When Miller uses that word "rigged," he's referring to the makeup of the committee. It consists of three baseball writers (Hal McCoy, Rick Hummel and Phil Pepe), two Hall of Fame players (Tom Seaver and Robin Roberts) and seven members of the ownership-front office fraternity (Bill Giles, Bill DeWitt, Andy MacPhail, John Harrington, John Schuerholz, Jerry Bell and David Glass).
Miller's name appeared on a mere three of 12 ballots in the first election under the new system. The only reason to suspect a change this time is that Seaver and Roberts have replaced Harmon Killebrew and Monte Irvin on the committee. Roberts was nearing the end of his playing career in 1965 when he contacted Miller about representing baseball players. And Seaver, who has called Miller's absence from the Hall of Fame a "national disgrace," is a forceful, charismatic figure whose opinion carries a lot of weight in baseball circles. Maybe he can't sway the anti-Miller faction on the committee, but he'll make sure everybody listens.
At heart, Miller seems conflicted about being honored by an establishment body. The relationship between a sports union leader and team owners is naturally adversarial, and if the people you've been fighting for so many years choose to honor you, what does that say about how vigorously you represented your constituents? Miller understands the dilemma.
"A lot of people say, 'It's stupid. They're carrying a grudge against you,'" Miller said. "I don't even think it's personal. You're dealing with an anti-union group, and they'll be damned if want to honor the union."
That's typically feisty rhetoric from Miller, who still talks like the union leader who fought for the rights of steel and auto workers in the 1940s and '50s. He still believes, for example, that the Players Association erred when it agreed to steroid testing with no just cause. Try getting that sentiment to play in middle America.
When Miller talks about the Hall of Fame recognizing the Players Association, it's rooted more in a sense of pride in the union's achievements than a desire for personal aggrandizement.
"If they gave proper recognition to the union's accomplishments through collective bargaining, that would suit me just fine," Miller said. "The hell with mentioning me."
A lot of people who remember Marvin Miller's groundbreaking efforts believe that gesture falls short, and they're right. This isn't about sympathy, or an act of charity for an old man going through a difficult time. It's about embracing the big picture, casting politics and personal animosity aside, and recognizing the contributions of a trailblazer.
Red Barber, the esteemed broadcaster, once ranked Miller with Jackie Robinson and Babe Ruth as the three most influential people in baseball history. There will never be a baseball Mt. Rushmore for Miller, Robinson, Ruth and Branch Rickey, but it's never too late to right an injustice with a phone call. The time for recognition has come.