Put Marvin Miller in the Hall of Fame

published November 11, 2010

The Baseball Hall of Fame veterans committee will meet in a few weeks to elect candidates from the Expansion Era, with results to be announced on December 6.

The two most important off-field figures in modern baseball history will be on the ballot.  Is it too much to ask that the one who’s still alive be inducted while he can enjoy it?

George Steinbrenner passed away in July.  He’s on the ballot, and the definition of the expansion era (1973-present) coincides perfectly with his time as owner of the Yankees.  For better or worse, he was a dominant personality whose aggressive tactics built the perfect big-market empire.  Win or lose, he and his team were impossible to ignore.

There’s no question he belongs in the Hall, and will get there eventually.  I would withhold my vote on his first time up, in recognition of his Nixon-era felony plea (later pardoned by Reagan) and his suspension for paying a sleazeball for dirt on one of his own players.

There are no such stains on the record of Marvin Miller.  It is a travesty that he has not yet been voted into the Hall of Fame, one that the committee of eight Hall of Fame players and managers, four executives, and four writers should undo at last.

As executive director of the players’ union, Miller ushered major-league baseball into its golden modern age.  (“Golden” is the official word used by the Hall of Fame to describe the era from 1947-1972 for veterans committee voting purposes.  I think they’ve read too much Roger Kahn.)  Baseball resisted, kicking and screaming, at every turn.

From the moment he took the baseball job, Miller believed that free agency was not just right but inevitable.  The reserve clause that owners took to bind a player for life required an extraordinary legal sleight of hand: The clause stated that if a player did not sign a contract, his team could renew his contract for one year without his agreement.  Miller argued that the words “one year” meant one year; owners argued that the renewed contract contained a renewed version of the reserve clause, and would continue on into the infinite future.

Miller never asked any player to forego a contract, recognizing how brief the earnings window is for an athletic career.  He knew that the Supreme Court had granted baseball an antitrust exemption in the 1920s, an anomaly it affirmed when Curt Flood’s case for liberation arrived in 1972.  With the courts unlikely to help, Miller set about negotiating a structure within baseball that could undo the contractual absurdity.

That structure was arbitration.

The owners agreed to arbitration to settle contract disputes, and it became the vehicle for solving player-management grievances.  In 1975, Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally decided not to sign their contracts, and to challenge the reserve clause directly.  McNally retired early in the season, but Messersmith played all year without signing.  Miller, concerned that the Dodgers might make Messersmith an irresistible offer to avoid an arbitration decision, asked McNally to add his name to the case.  McNally did so, and remained steadfast even when Montreal general manager John McHale made a trip to Montana to offer McNally a guaranteed $25,000 just to sign and come to spring training the next year.  (This was a lot of money in 1975 baseball, an indication of how much things have changed.)

Arbitrator Peter Seitz ruled for Miller’s common-sense interpretation of the reserve clause, and not the owners’ through-the-looking-glass version, and free agency came to baseball.   The owners swore it would lead to calamity; instead, the year-round publicity and increased player mobility brought baseball unimaginable prosperity and far greater competitive balance than it had known in the previous half-century.

Free agency itself was Miller’s biggest victory, and it was only possible because of his ability to hold together a union made up of well-off stars, struggling rookies, and a middle class that needed offseason jobs to make ends meet.  In 1970, the major-league minimum salary was $12,000, and if a player didn’t like the wage offered him his only choice was to risk his career by holding out.  The average major-league salary was $29,300 in 1970; in 2009, the minimum was $400,000, and the average was $2,996,000.

The former players on the voting committee are Johnny Bench, Eddie Murray, Jim Palmer, Tony Perez, Frank Robinson, Ryne Sandberg, and Ozzie Smith; Whitey Herzog played, but is in the Hall as a manager.  They all know what the conditions were when Marvin Miller came into the game, and how much they and all players benefitted from his efforts.  The media members of the panel  are Bob Elliott from the Toronto Sun, ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian, Ross Newhan of the Los Angeles Times, and Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci.  The four major league executives with votes are Bill Giles, David Glass, Andy MacPhail, and Jerry Reinsdorf.

The four most important people in 20th century baseball were Kenesaw Mountain Landis, Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson (in tandem with Branch Rickey, but it was Robinson who had to suffer the abuse), and Marvin Miller.  He is 93 years old; if not elected this year, he will not be considered again until the next Expansion Era vote in 2013.

His absence diminishes the seriousness of the Hall of Fame.  It’s long past time for the veterans committee to correct this historical oversight.

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