Marvin Miller’s exclusion a mark of shame for the Hall of Fame
He didn’t swing a bat, throw a pitch or write out a lineup, but Marvin Miller had a greater impact on major league baseball than just about any man who ever lived. In 1992, former Dodgers announcer Red Barber numbered him among the three most important figures in the game’s history, along with Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson. As executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association from 1966 to 1982, Miller revolutionized the game, overseeing its biggest change since integration via the dismantling of the reserve clause and the dawn of free agency. Yet petty politics prevented him from receiving proper recognition via enshrinement in the Hall of Fame, to the point that Miller, still feisty well into his 90s, took the unprecedented step of asking voters not to consider him.
While he may gain that honor eventually, he won’t live to see it. Miller died on Tuesday at the age of 95, ensuring a level of shame for the Hall far surpassing that regarding Ron Santo, the great Cubs third baseman. Santo, a nine-time All-Star and five-time Gold Glove winner, never got close to 50 percent of the baseball writers’ vote in 15 years on the ballot, and while he netted the highest vote percentage in three cycles of the Veterans Committee, it wasn’t until a year and two days after his death at age 70 that he finally won entry. As with Miller, personal grudges almost certainly played a part in his being deprived the honor while he was still alive.
As executive director of the MLBPA, Miller was instrumental in shifting the game’s century-old balance of power from the owners to the players via the abolition of the Reserve Clause, which bound players to teams indefinitely; effectively, it was a system of indentured servitude. In addition to securing the players the right to free agency, he brought them the rights to collective bargaining, impartial arbitration of grievances, representation by an agent to negotiate on their behalf and rejection of a trade after accruing enough major league service. Miller’s leadership also brought the players the system of salary arbitration and substantial increases in the pensions of retirees. During his tenure, the average salary of a major league player rose from $19,000 to $241,000, and the MLBPA became the strongest labor union in the country.
While there’s room for debate as to whether the opening of this Pandora’s Box of player rights was uniformly a good thing — nobody likes a work stoppage (which happened via 1972 and 1981 player strikes), and nobody likes to see star players leave town via free agency — the talents of professional baseball players should not exempt them from receiving basic workplace rights. Huge player salaries are a product of increasing attendance levels and revenue growth that continues to outpace the rest of the economy, evidence that the massive changes Miller wrought have yielded a healthier industry than before. If you need further evidence of his legacy, note that baseball is in the midst of a two-decade stretch without a lockout or a strike, having achieved a relatively peaceful and immensely profitable equilibrium thanks in part to the groundwork Miller laid, while the three other major North American sports have all had work stoppages in the past two years.
For all of those accomplishments, Miller deserves a place among the small handful of movers and shakers in Cooperstown, because one simply can’t write a credible history of the game without making reference to his enormous impact. Commissioners who have accomplished far less are already there, including owner-friendly contemporary Bowie Kuhn, whom Miller beat like a rented mule at virtually every turn, most notably in the landmark Seitz decision that created free agency in 1975.
As a non-player, Miller’s Hall of Fame candidacy hinged not on the Baseball Writers Association of America balloting but on the even less transparent Veterans Committee, which changed constitution several times in the past few decades. From his 1982 retirement to the 2001 VC expansion that granted the vote to every living Hall of Famer as well as the surviving Ford C. Frick Award and J.G Taylor Spink Award winners (the broadcasters and writers, respectively), Miller didn’t appear on a single ballot. Players who played in the pre-union days often resented the high salaries and freedom of movement that their successors enjoyed, and even the most historically-minded writers on the VC disagreed on Miller’s eligibility.
Influential players such as Hank Aaron, Brooks Robinson and Tom Seaver voiced their support for Miller, with Seaver calling his omission from the Hall “a national disgrace.” He finally got a spot on a composite ballot among executives, umpires and managers in 2003, but received just 43 percent of the vote (35 out of 81) in an election where 75 percent is needed for enshrinement. The bitter irony was that the players whose careers he helped the most wouldn’t return the favor. Reggie Jackson, one of the first high-profile free agents — he signed a five-year, $3 million deal with the Yankees in November 1976 and led them to back-to-back World Series titles in the next two years — struck out in as spectacular fashion as he did during his playing days, sending in a blank ballot while telling reporters, “I looked at those ballots, and there was no one to put in.” Jackson eventually realized the error of his ways, and his comments stirred awareness among the electorate. Miller rose to 63 percent (51 out of 84 votes) on the 2007 ballot.
Miller wasn’t alone in his rejection, as the expanded VC failed to elect anyone on the ballots for 2003, 2005 or 2007 induction. The lowest blow took place in December 2007, for the 2008 ballot, after the process was reformed to place the candidacy for non-players back in the hands of a 12-player committee stacked with Miller’s historical adversaries. As player-turned-author Jim Bouton, whose Ball Four bestseller netted him a summons to Kuhn’s office in 1970 under Miller’s defense, succinctly summarized, “Marvin Miller kicked their butts and took power away from the baseball establishment — do you really think those people are going to vote him in? It’s a joke.”
Indeed, beyond the three writers from among the committee’s 12 members, none of the three ex-players — Monte Irvin, Bobby Brown and Harmon Killebrew — played a single major league game in the post-reserve clause era. Irvin spent 17 years working for the commissioner’s office under Kuhn, Brown was an executive with the Rangers and then the AL president after Kuhn stepped down. Of the six other owners and executives on the committee — John Harrington (Red Sox), Jerry Bell (Twins), Bill DeWitt Jr., (Cardinals), Bill Giles (Phillies), David Glass (Royals) and Andy MacPhail (Orioles) — DeWitt, Giles and MacPhail were legacies whose fathers (and the latter’s grandfather) were on the management side during the reserve clause era, while Giles, Harrington and MacPhail were part of management during baseball’s late-1980s collusion scandal, the trial of which featured Miller as the lead witness.
Even with commissioner Bud Selig, who owned the Brewers during Miller’s tenure and battled successor Donald Fehr during the 1994-1995 player strike, speaking up on his behalf (“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…”), the fix was in: Kuhn, who had received just 17.3 percent of the vote from the larger committee, won election with 10 of the 12 votes, while Miller received just three of the 12 votes.
Understandably, Miller had had enough. Six months later, with his candidacy not set to be reviewed for another 18 months but his own age advancing, he asked the Hall of Fame not to include him on another ballot. In a letter sent to the BBWAA (which had only partial input in the process via the inclusion of the Spink winners), he wrote:
“Paradoxically, I’m writing to thank you and your associates for your part in nominating me for Hall of Fame consideration, and, at the same time, to ask that you not do this again. The anti-union bias of the powers who control the Hall has consistently prevented recognition of the historic significance of the changes to baseball brought about by collective bargaining.
“As former executive director of the players’ union that negotiated these changes, I find myself unwilling to contemplate one more rigged Veterans Committee whose members are handpicked to reach a particular outcome while offering a pretense of a democratic vote. It is an insult to baseball fans, historians, sports writers and especially to those baseball players who sacrificed and brought the game into the 21st century. At the age of 91 I can do without a farce.”
Like any great labor leader, Miller knew how to count votes before an election was held, and he knew when he didn’t have them. When I interviewed him for Baseball Prospectus shortly after that release (a career highlight of mine), he vowed not to show up for induction if the Hall went against his wishes and the VC elected him, referencing both Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman (who refused to run for president: “If elected I will not serve…”) and comedian Groucho Marx (“I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member.”)
Despite his instructions, that wasn’t quite enough to let the matter rest. Miller received seven of 12 votes (58 percent) in December 2009, and then in 2010, the Veterans Committee reformed yet again via the creation of historical era committees, 16-member panels focused on the players and non-players from the Pre-Integration (1871–1946), Golden (1947–1972) and Expansion (1973 and later) eras. With the Golden Era first on the slate that winter, Miller came up for election once again, this time with White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, a collusion kingpin and anti-union hardliner joining Giles, Glass and MacPhail on the committee — a bloc that required Miller to run the table among the other 12 voters, assuming that quartet all passed on him. Miller got 68.8 percent via 11 votes, one vote shy of election.
That Miller is on the outside of Cooperstown while the likes of Kuhn, Commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis (who fought tooth and nail against integration during his 24-year tenure), and fellow integration foes ranging from Cap Anson to Tom Yawkey (whose Red Sox were the last team to integrate in 1959, 12 years after Robinson’s debut) to George Weiss (who as general manager of the Yankees vowed never to allow a black man to wear a Yankee uniform) are in is just another black mark against an institution with all too many undeserving honorees. It may take a year — the Golden Era committee is due for another round next December — or a generation, but he’ll get his bronze plaque posthumously, though the electorate can never make right the slight of failing to honor him in his lifetime.
The induction speech the sharp-tongued Miller never got to deliver would have been epic, which may explain his omission in and of itself. Even without it, his legacy will long outlive those of the small-minded men who stood in his way.