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June 5, 2006

The Ledger Domain

Walter O'Malley and Marvin Miller For the Hall of Fame

by Maury Brown

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Every year there are heated discussions about the players who are eligible for induction into the Hall of Fame. Many articles will talk of the merits of a player, or players, and where they fit in relationship to those who have been inducted before them.

Today, I'm making the case for two executives who have been passed over in years prior for the Hall. At the same time, I'd like to ask how these two individuals could be absent from Cooperstown in the first place. Both men altered MLB's landscape forever. Both changed the conventional thinking in MLB-both in terms of labor, and in terms of business. Both men directed their respective constituencies, either directly or indirectly. Both men are iconic.

Those two men are Walter O'Malley and Marvin Miller.

For those who may not have followed how these types of individuals get inducted into the Hall of Fame, let's look at the voting process. The Veterans Committee votes such individuals into the HOF. The last vote took place in 2003, and such votes occur every four years, so 2007 is the next time these two have a shot. If not then, it's another four years before executives, managers, and umpires are voted on again.

Here are the eligibility criteria for the "composite ballot" of which executives, such as Miller and O'Malley, fall under (listed in the Veterans Committee Rules:

B) Baseball Executives and/or Managers and/or Umpires who have been retired from organized Baseball as Baseball Executives and/or Managers and/or Umpires for at least five (5) years prior to the election. If the candidate is 65 years old at the time of retirement, the waiting period is reduced to six (6) months. If the candidate reaches the age of 65 during the five-year waiting period the candidate becomes eligible six months after the candidate's 65th birthday. (C) Those whose careers entailed involvement as both players and managers/executives/umpires will be considered for their overall contribution to the game of Baseball; however, the specific category in which such individuals shall be considered will be determined by the role in which they were most prominent. In those instances when a candidate is prominent as both a player and as a manager, executive or umpire, the BBWAA Screening Committee shall determine that individual's candidacy as either a player (Players Ballot), or as a manager, executive or umpire (Composite Ballot). Candidates may only appear on one ballot per election. Those designated as players must fulfill the requirements of 6 (A).

The Historical Overview Committee is an independent group disconnected from any employees, members or directors of the Hall of Fame, and they have selected 60 former managers, umpires and executives). This committee was appointed by the Baseball Writers' Association of America (BBWAA). The next step this summer will be for the group of 60 to be pared down to a list of 15 that the Veterans Committee will vote upon.

So, not only will Miller and O'Malley have to be selected into this group of 15 over the likes of Bowie Kuhn, Buzzie Bavasi, Charlie Finley, and John Fetzer, but managers and umpires such as Davey Johnson, Billy Martin, and Babe Pinelli. If they do make the cut, the Veterans Committee will vote on them on January 19, 2007.

The tough part? A candidate has to receive votes on at least 75% of ballots cast. This has been a key reason why, in some cases, no one has gained entry into the Hall in years past.

Walter O'Malley: Baseball's Patriarch

If you've gotten this far, I'm assuming that you didn't watch or follow "Dem Bums" with religious fervor. If you're from Brooklyn and followed the likes of Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider, or Jackie Robinson, you certainly may have different feelings for O'Malley. After all, shortly after the move to Los Angeles, O'Malley was mentioned in the same sentence as Stalin and Hitler by the New York press. My apologies to that crowd, but he's still a lock, and should be in the Hall, heart-wrenching relocation aside. The story was far more complex than just O'Malley pulling up stakes and heading West.

If anything, it's that relocation that sets O'Malley apart from others as a visionary. No, it's certainly not the only reason he should be inducted into the Hall (we'll get to the rest later), but O'Malley's leap from one coast to the other so dramatically altered MLB's course that it's hard to imagine how different it was before the Dodgers and Giants relocated. Not just the act of the move was remarkable. With the relocation came changes that would alter how ballpark design, marketing, and broadcasting would be done in Major League Baseball.

One of the reasons that O'Malley saw Los Angeles as a boon to him as a business was the large size of the market, coupled with lack of competition. There would be no competing with the Yankees and the Giants. The market was virgin MLB territory. In that "open territory," O'Malley had the space to change the dynamic of stadium construction for ballparks.

Up until the relocation West, ballparks had all been placed in urban settings, mostly as "neighborhood ballparks." When the Dodgers arrived in LA, there was no new ballpark to play in. The Los Angeles Coliseum was used while a stadium location was searched for.

At one point, O'Malley took a helicopter ride to survey the city in the hopes of finding a suitable new home. When he landed, O'Malley said, "Can I have that?" to Ken Hahn, an LA country supervisor along on the site expedition. Hahn answered, "Sure." He even said they'd throw in the infrastructure to get access to the location. The surprise "that" was a 300-acre site in Chavez Ravine, and it was far from urban. It was several miles from downtown Los Angeles, but O'Malley envisioned an expansive stadium that would eventually seat 56,000 and have parking for a staggering 16,000 cars. (By comparison, Ebbets Field seated 32,000 and had parking for 500 cars.)

O'Malley dreamed of a stadium and fan experience that would be a radical departure from what he had seen as shortcomings with Ebbets Field, and jotted down notes of what that future would entail. He envisioned a tram system, restaurants, fountains, an "outdoor cathedral of trees," and even such radical ideas as controlling air drafts in the stadium. As his personal notes reveal:

Prevailing wind is from the West (check exact compass direction). How to control this and get it to the stands and playing field--by movable louvered design? Do not want this to be a hot box. April, May and June evenings are a cool 60 degrees. Should we take the edge off this by radiant directed heat (infra red)?

While none of these took shape in the final design, several design elements that did have become standard fare in all ballpark designs since. O'Malley worked with architect Emil Praeger to design a stadium that was different from all existing ballparks. Where Ebbets and other ballparks had obstructed-view seating, O'Malley and Praeger worked to provide unobstructed views and improved sightlines. He also incorporated the design of "Dugout Seats" into Dodger Stadium, a design aspect he had seen during a Dodger tour of Japan at Korakuen Stadium.

When the referendum measure was finally passed by voters on June 3, 1958 to complete funding for O'Malley's dream of Dodger Stadium--voting close enough that it went right down to the wire--he set off to design something that defined baseball in California. When O'Malley first made a trip to Disneyland, he marveled at how clean and groomed the amusement park was. He applied this to Dodger Stadium when it was built. He understood that California was not going to have fans like those in Brooklyn. They would not live and die by the Dodgers.

To help get his new fanbase into the stands, O'Malley promoted Dodger Stadium relentlessly. He kept ticket prices low: from 1958 to 1975, the Dodger organization never raised ticket prices, which in turn brought families by the station wagon-load. He also shifted the revenue model by increasing the amount of season ticket holders, starting with a base of 12,500 and working up from there. When Reds executive Dick Wagner asked Dodger ticket manager Walter Nash how they did it, Nash replied, "We kiss the ass of our season ticket holder."

It should be noted that before the relocation of the Dodgers to Los Angeles, O'Malley actually dreamed of the first fully domed baseball stadium/convention hall in Brooklyn, eight years before the Astrodome would open to the public.

O'Malley also had a vision for another first for baseball: paid television. He began working with a gentleman named Matty Fox while still in Brooklyn. Fox's company, Skiatron, was going to be one of the first tests of the new technology. The plan was to put Dodgers games on for $1 a game. In fact, Skiatron was one of the key selling points that O'Malley used to lure Horace Stoneham into moving the Giants. Skiatron was scuttled, not by O'Malley's lack of faith, but rather by challenges by the movie-theater industry in California, who got pay-for-view television on the ballot as a referendum.

In a sense, O'Malley was the first to view baseball entirely as a business. He went where the populace was moving (West) and he created a stampede of expansion. By the end of the '60s there would be six West Coast clubs, expanding baseball's market and reach.

Perhaps predictably given his actions, Walter O'Malley saw sports business as something that could be taught. In 1957, O'Malley approached Dr. James G. Mason of Ohio University about the lack of formal education programs for those wishing to work in the business of professional baseball. In 1966, Dr. Mason established the first Master's degree program in sport management.

Lastly, O'Malley was viewed as baseball's patriarch for the vast majority of his tenure as an executive in Major League Baseball. He remains the longest standing member on the Executive Council, serving on it from 1951 till his death in 1979. It was his recommendation of Bowie Kuhn as replacement for "Spike" Eckert that pushed Kuhn to the front of the pack, and his eventual selection as the fifth Commissioner. It has been said by many that O'Malley, not Kuhn, was the real Commissioner of Baseball at the time.

Marvin Miller Creates the Most Powerful Union in America

Hopefully, you don't curse and spit when a player racks up another record setting multi-million dollar contract. And more importantly, here's hoping that when you think of Marvin Miller, you don't point to him as the man responsible for all that is "wrong" with baseball today.

If you do, remember that it's a supply and demand world in MLB. If you're a person who leans on principles, then click off the game, quit going to the ballpark, and realize that if the money wasn't there, players wouldn't get paid that much. Miller simply showed what the public wanted, and what they wanted was larger-than-life stars. The game has grown exponentially more popular since Miller became Executive Director of the Players Association in 1966.

Miller is arguably the most important person in the history of the business of baseball. He empowered the players, challenged the long-held position that the players were simply possessions of the owners, fought for the rights of the players to collectively bargain, pioneered the unionization of professional sports athletes, broke the reserve clause, and created what many view as the most powerful labor union in America.

It's hard to imagine what the Players Association would have been like if Miller had not accepted the offer from the likes of Robin Roberts--as is, it took two attempts before he accepted the position and left the Steelworkers Union. After all, there had been discussion of then-VP Richard Nixon as a likely choice for Executive Director.

Miller revolutionized labor relations in Major League Baseball. In 1966 he was instrumental in reaching an agreement with management that would raise ownership's annual funding of retirement benefits from $1.5 million a year $4.1 million annually. The agreement also doubled the previous monthly pension and disability payments. That was just the start. By '68 he had nearly doubled the players' minimum salary from $6,000 to $10,000.

In 1973, he and Dick Moss obtained the rights for arbitration to resolve grievances for the players. From January 1970 through June of 1972, Miller and the Players Association backed Curt Flood's attempt to challenge the reserve clause through the District and Supreme Court systems. Although the Supreme Court ruled against Flood--based on baseball's exemption from antitrust statutes--it set the stage for the reserve clause to eventually be overturned.

In 1974, Miller and the Players Association argued via arbitration that Catfish Hunter was eligible for free agency after Charlie Finley defaulted on Hunter's contract. Finley had failed to meet a provision requiring that one-half of Hunter's salary was to be paid to an insurance company, named by Hunter, for the purchase of an annuity. The money was to be paid during the season, and Finley never made the payments into the annuity. Eventually, arbitrator Peter Seitz ruled in favor of Hunter, opening the way up to the first free agency bidding wars between the owners for the rights to Hunter. When Hunter finally signed a $3.5 million deal with the Yankees, it showed how much money the players could make should the reserve clause be broken.

In 1975, Miller finally got his chance to challenge the reserve clause by having Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally go unsigned during their option year. At the end of the year, the players argued that they were free to sign with other teams. Management thought otherwise.

The case made its way into arbitration. Miller argued before Peter Seitz that the interpretation of the phrase in Paragraph 10(a) of the Uniform Players Contract had been incorrect for years. It read, "The Club shall have the right to renew this contract for a period of one year." To Miller, this sentence's meaning was clear: the owners did not control the perpetual right to renew after that one year. On December 23, 1975, Peter Seitz ruled in favor of Messersmith and McNally. Although there were legal challenges by MLB on the ruling, it set up free agency as an issue within the collective bargaining process.

With the advent of free agency through the Messersmith-McNally rulings, Miller had the foresight to see that allowing all players to become free agents at the end of the 1976 season would create a glut, and therefore lower the value of the players via free agency. Miller worked to have players enter free agency through a staggered process based on service time in MLB. By controlling the flow of the number of free agents each year, it increased the value of the players, and salaries subsequently skyrocketed. In 1976, Miller and the Players Association negotiated free agency for players after six years of service time.

To place the change in perspective, in 1976, the average salary was roughly $51,000. The following year it rose to $77,000, and by 1978, nearly $100,000. As Miller said, "I haven't researched this, but qualified people have told me that decision and the labor agreement which was signed the following summer resulted in more money changing hands from an owner's group to an employee's group than any decision or negotiation in history."

Some will say that I have conveniently left out the various strikes and lockouts, some of which have been said to have damaged the game irreparably. Guilty as charged--I haven't mentioned them. This isn't to minimize those events as a terrible blemish on the game, but Miller's shadow is so long and wide over the game in terms of the betterment of conditions for the players, and in retrospect, the popularity of the game, that his induction into the Hall is probably something that is long overdue.

O'Malley and Miller's Crossing Paths

These two iconic figures had overlapping tenures in MLB. Given their positions of leadership, they crossed paths on more than one occasion. Certainly the Messersmith-McNally case is the best example given the fact that Messersmith was playing for the Dodgers at the time. Yet, not all instances were unpleasant, as outlined in the following picture.

millerpic

The picture shows Miller, with his wife Terry and Dick Moss, who was general council for the Players Association for more than ten years, at a St. Patrick's Day party with Walter O'Malley in 1972. What isn't conveyed well in the picture is that while the Millers and Moss had been invited as a social gathering, Miller had just received word that the player reps had voted 21-4 in favor of a strike--the first in professional sports history--and decided that informing O'Malley at the party might be the best time to talk to O'Malley about the matter. In Miller's biography, A Whole Different Ballgame, O'Malley replied of the vote by the players, "A baseball team is only as good as its unity," he said. "I don't want the players to cast themselves as management tools on my team." He explained, "Don't get me wrong. I'd prefer the players vote unanimously not to strike, but if the majority decides to walk out, I don't want dissenters on my club opposing their teammates. A winning ball club is unified, not split."

What did Miller think of O'Malley? Here's what he had to say:

At the time I began as executive director of the Players Association in 1966, Walter O'Malley was really running the game. His fellow owners relied on him in terms of direction and major policy decisions to an extent you wouldn't believe until you looked into it. There's no question that whatever O'Malley wanted, (Commissioner Bowie) Kuhn did it. First, he was brighter than most of them, if not all of them. Secondly, when I asked an owner why that great influence, he said, 'The owners come to a meeting and they typically don't even know what's on the agenda. They just don't even pay attention to it, or any of the literature that was sent them. In contrast, O'Malley comes not only knowing what's on the agenda, but prepared to speak on every point.

These historical recountings barely scratch the surface of all the achievements O'Malley and Miller have made to the business of baseball. What's clear is that both of them deserve to be in the Hall of Fame. Walter O'Malley died in 1979, so he would have to be inducted posthumously. Miller should not see such a fate.

For more on Marvin Miller and Walter O'Malley, read my interviews with Marvin Miller and former Dodger executives, Buzzie Bavasi and Fred Claire.

Maury Brown is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Maury's other articles. You can contact Maury by clicking here

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