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November 16, 2010

Prospectus Hit and Run

Marvin Miller and Pat Gillick

by Jay Jaffe

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Last week, I took a swing at analyzing the eight players on the Expansion Era Hall of Fame ballot to be voted upon at next month's Winter Meetings, using JAWS to evaluate their fitness for Cooperstown. That tool's not available when tackling the four non-players on the ballot, namely Pat Gillick, Billy Martin, Marvin Miller, and George Steinbrenner, whose achievements must be evaluated more subjectively. Nonetheless, it's apparent that relative to their already-inducted peers, they certainly have strong arguments in their favor. Today I'll examine the cases of Miller and Gillick, saving those of the Yankees' odd couple, Steinbrenner and Martin, for a later installment.

The 12 individuals on the ballot will be voted upon by a 16-member panel reminiscent of the old Veterans Committee that was phased out with a radical expansion in 2001. The panel includes Hall of Fame members (Johnny Bench, Whitey Herzog, Eddie Murray, Jim Palmer, Tony Perez, Frank Robinson, Ryne Sandberg, and Ozzie Smith), major-league executives past and present (Bill Giles, David Glass, Andy MacPhail, and Jerry Reinsdorf), and media members (Bob Elliot, Tim Kurkjian, Ross Newhan, and Tom Verducci), none of whom stand out as fitting the bill as historians per the Hall's rules. To gain entry, candidates need to receive at least 75 percent of the vote. Unlike in years past, nowhere do the rules mention any limit on eligible candidates for whom an individual can vote.

At the head of the line is Miller, who served as the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association from 1966-82, overseeing baseball's biggest change since integration via the dismantling of the Reserve Clause and the dawn of free agency. In that capacity, he was instrumental in shifting the game's century-old balance of power from the owners to the players, creating an impact that induced former Dodger announcer Red Barber to number him as "one of the three most important men in baseball history," along with Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson. In addition to securing the right to free agency via the destruction of what was effectively a system of indentured servitude, Miller's leadership brought the players the rights to collective bargaining, to impartial arbitration of grievances, to representation by an agent to negotiate on their behalf, and to rejecting a trade after achieving enough experience. It also established a salary arbitration system and substantially increased pensions. On Miller's watch, the average annual salary of a major-league player rose from less than $20,000 to over $250,000, and the MLBPA became arguably the strongest labor union in the country.

There's room for debate as to whether opening this Pandora's box of players' rights was a uniformly good thing. Nobody likes a labor stoppage, and nobody likes to see a star player price his way out of town. Nonetheless, the talents of professional ballplayers don't provide grounds for deprivation of basic workplace rights, and their skyrocketing salaries have gone hand in hand with ever-increasing attendance levels and revenue growth.

There should be very little doubt that Miller deserves a place among the small handful of movers and shakers in Cooperstown. One simply cannot write a credible history of the game without making reference to his enormous impact, which exceeds even those of most of the commissioners in the Hall, including owner-friendly contemporary Bowie Kuhn, whom he beat like a rented mule at virtually every turn, including the 1972 and 1981 player strikes and the landmark Messersmith-McNally decision. Alas, the various Veterans Committees that evaluated Miller's case did a poor job of reaching this conclusion. From Miller's retirement in 1982 to the VC's 2001 expansion, which incorporated all living members of the Hall of Fame proper as well as the surviving Ford C. Frick Award and J.G. Taylor Spink Award recipients, he didn't appear on a single ballot; pre-union players often resented the high salaries and freedom of movement of those who followed in their wake, and even the most venerable members of the old committee such as sportswriters Leonard Koppett and Jerome Holtzman disagreed on his eligibility, bogging down in the fine print of rule 6(b) of the "Rules for Election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame."

To Miller's former constituents, the rule was clear. Said one former player on the committee: "The rule says 'baseball executive,' not 'executive employed by Major League Baseball.' Marvin Miller was the executive director for all the players in baseball, not just the players of one team. The players are baseball. If Marvin Miller isn't a real baseball executive, who is?" While many high-profile players agreed, the "new" VC which featured players who benefited from his efforts bypassed him on the 2003-07 ballots, among other things treating us to the absurdity of Reggie Jackson, one of the first stars to benefit from free agency, arguing against his election. Amid further rule changes, smaller panels bypassed Miller in 2008 and 2010; after the first of those two, a frustrated 91-year-old Miller, still sharp as a tack and full of piss and vinegar, took the unprecedented step of asking not to be considered for future ballots, in part because of "The anti-union bias of the powers who control the Hall."

Looking over the current panel, one can see where he may be doomed to frustration yet again, because the forces opposing his election are especially entrenched. Giles, Glass, and MacPhail were all part of the past two committees that voted him down. Both Giles and MacPhail are legacies whose fathers (and in MacPhail's case, grandfather) were on the management side during the Reserve Clause era, and both were part of management during baseball's disgraceful collusion saga. Reinsdorf, the owner of the White Sox, was one of the kingpins of collusion; additionally, he was an anti-union hardliner during the 1994-1995 players' strike. Glass, who owns the Royals, was a fellow hardliner; additionally, he's the former president and CEO of the notoriously anti-union Wal-Mart chain of stores. If all four vote against Miller, he'll have to run the table among the other 12 panelists in order to gain election. One can't blame him for asking to be excluded from consideration.

Where Miller is a ballot veteran, the rest of the non-players are making their first appearances. Gillick, the only other member of this odd quartet who's still alive, may have the most clear-cut case. A pitcher for the University of Southern California's 1958 national championship squad, and a minor-league hurler in the Orioles chain from 1959063, he joined the front office of the expansion Houston Colt .45's as soon as his playing career ended, serving as their assistant farm director in 1964 and 1965 (when they became the Astros). He spent several years scouting for them, and worked his way up to scouting director in 1974 before joining the front office of the Yankees in a similar capacity for 1975 and 1976. He left the Yankees to join the front office of the expansion Toronto Blue Jays in 1977, and after one year working under Peter Bavasi was promoted to general managerial duties. He would go on to spend 17 seasons in that post, presiding over all five of the team's post-season appearances to date.

The building was initially slow going in Toronto, as the team lost 413 games over its first four seasons. The Jays didn't post their first winning record until 1983, when homegrown players Dave Stieb, Lloyd Moseby, and Jesse Barfield—not to mention Willie Upshaw, a Yankees draft pick from Gillick's time—led the charge for a team managed by Bobby Cox, whom Gillick had hired the year before. In 1985, Cox's final year with Toronto, the Blue Jays won 99 games and their first AL East title, narrowly edging out a very strong Yankees team. The Jays would fumble away the 1987 AL East title by losing their final seven games, but they won again in 1989 after Gillick fired manager Jimy Williams in mid-season and handed the reins to Cito Gaston. Still under Gaston, they won again in 1991, then broke through and won consecutive world championships in 1992 and 1993.

Gillick had several master strokes in building those champions, from the drafting of John Olerud, who went straight from Washington State University to the majors in 1989, to the 1990 trade that sent Tony Fernandez and Fred McGriff to San Diego for Roberto Alomar and Joe Carter, to the free-agent additions of Jack Morris (who'd played a major role in the Twins' world championship the year before) and Dave Winfield, to the late-season addition of David Cone. The following year, he replaced Winfield with Paul Molitor, another future Hall of Famer, and added Rickey Henderson down the stretch; the Jays became the first team to repeat as champions since the 1977-1978 Yankees.

Gillick retired from the Blue Jays during the 1994-1995 strike, then re-emerged in Baltimore in the winter of 1995-1996. He only spent three seasons with the Orioles, but his first two were the franchise's only two post-season appearances since winning the World Series in 1983, not to mention their last two teams to finish above .500. Gillick hired former minor-league teammate Davey Johnson to manage the Orioles, and to a nucleus that already included an aging Cal Ripken, Rafael Palmeiro, Mike Mussina, Brady Anderson, and Bobby Bonilla, he added B.J. Surhoff, Randy Myers, and his old charge Alomar via free agency. The O's won the wild card in 1996 and the AL East in 1997, with the latter year's rotation much upgraded thanks to the free agency addition of former Blue Jay Jimmy Key. Conflict with owner Peter Angelos led Johnson to resign from the manager job on the same day he was named AL Manager of the Year. A year later, Gillick resigned as well after the Orioles slipped below .500 despite the game's highest payroll.

After taking the 1999 season off, Gillick landed with the Seattle Mariners, where he inherited a team coming off back-to-back sub-.500 seasons and a situation in which both Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez were in the final seasons of their contracts. He traded Griffey to the Reds for a package centered around Mike Cameron, who became a Mariner mainstay, signed Olerud as a free agent, and brought in a few other blasts from the past, including Henderson and former Orioles reliever Arthur Rhodes; he also brought reliever Kazuhiro Sasaki from Japan. The Mariners improved from 79 wins to 91, winning the AL wild card in the process. After letting Rodriguez depart as a free agent following the season, Gillick signed free agent Bret Boone as well as another Japanese import, Ichiro Suzuki. The resultant team, which had shed not only Griffey and Rodriguez but also Randy Johnson over its past three seasons, went on to break the single-season AL record for wins with 116. Alas, the Mariners couldn't get past the Yankees in either year's playoffs, meeting a similar fate as Gillick's 1996 Orioles.

Gillick's 2002 and 2003 Mariners clubs both won 93 games but missed the postseason, and after the latter year, the 66-year-old stepped aside in favor of Bill Bavasi, remaining in the front office as a special assistant as the team plummeted into the AL West basement, where it's since spent five of the past seven seasons. By November 2005, Gillick had taken over the Phillies' GM job. Reaping the benefit of the fine draft work of scouting director Mike Arbuckle, who drafted Jimmy Rollins, Pat Burrell, Brett Myers, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, Gillick immediately created space for the latter by trading Jim Thome to the White Sox for Aaron Rowand. Late in the 2006 season, he traded two minor leaguers for the 43-year-old Moyer. He made a couple of blunders that winter in trading for Mariners mainstay Freddy Garcia, who got hurt, and in signing Adam Eaton, who turned into a free-agent bust, but he also picked up Jayson Werth—the 1997 Orioles' first-round draft pick—off the scrap heap, and promoted 27-year-old minor-league catcher Carlos Ruiz to the majors to replace the departed Mike Lieberthal. In 2007, the Phillies reached the postseason for the first time since 1993, and in the following year, with the addition of Brad Lidge via trade from Houston, they won their first world championship since 1980. Gillick retired to an advisory position at the end of that season, though the team he helped shape returned to the World Series the following year under the direction of Ruben Amaro Jr.

The ranks of general manager are more than a little underrepresented in the Hall of Fame, in part because the position didn't really come into focus until the second half of the 20th century. Of the 21 non-Negro League executives in the Hall, only Ed Barrow, Larry MacPhail, Branch Rickey, and George Weiss are there primarily for what they did while fulfilling the duties of a GM (sometimes while holding fancier titles). Hall of Fame managers and owners ranging from Connie Mack to John McGraw to Bill Veeck Jr. also fulfilled that role at times during their careers, as did the aforementioned Lee MacPhail and Warren Giles, both of whom would achieve greater stature as league presidents. Such underrepresentation isn't unlike the state of relievers in the Hall circa a decade ago, in that outside the Hall's ranks are a handful of worthies awaiting proper recognition. Among the numerous architects of multiple winning teams—Buzzie Bavasi, Joe Brown, Joe Burke, Al Campanis, Jim Campbell, Harry Dalton, Bing Devine, Bob Howsam, Dick O'Connell, Gabe Paul, John Quinn, John Schuerholz, and Cedric Tallis, to name some who come to mind—are certainly men worthy of enshrinement for their accomplishments.

Some of the men on that list might have accomplishments that outweigh those of Gillick, but they're not on this ballot, while Gillick is. His teams reached the postseason 11 times and won three World Series in his 27 years as GM, spread out over four different stops. One can argue that at his later stops, his reliance on free agents hampered his teams after he departed, because they didn't always age well and because they cost draft picks. But as a man brought in to turn a team around or take it to the next level, he was a very good choice, and as with Miller, he belongs in the Hall of Fame. 

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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