The Hall of Fame was in the headlines last week, and not just because the retirement of Mike Piazza kindled the inevitable debate over the catcher’s Cooperstown credentials. No, an even more deserving honoree made waves via what was almost certainly a first: a request to the voters not to be elected.
The unusual appeal came from Marvin Miller, who served as the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association from 1966 to 1982, overseeing baseball’s biggest change since integration via the dismantling of the Reserve Clause and the dawn of free agency. Snubbed by an ever-changing electoral process three times in the past five years, the 91-year-old Miller is not only tired of his hopes being dashed, but disillusioned with the institution itself.
“As I began to do more research on the Hall, it seemed a lot less desirable a place to be than a lot of people think,” said Miller in a recent interview with Baseball Prospectus. “Some of the early people inducted in the Hall were members of the Ku Klux Klan: Tris Speaker, Cap Anson, and some people suspect Ty Cobb as well. When I look at that, and I looked at the more current Hall, it was about as anti-union as anything could be,” he continues, citing recently ousted Hall president Dale Petroskey‘s past service in the union-busting Reagan White House. “I think that by and large, the players, and certainly the ones I knew, are good people. But the Hall is full of villains.”
Thus Miller’s sharp and unprecedented statement, which was sent in a letter to the Baseball Writers Association of America, a body that actually bears only a small share of the responsibility when it comes to the VC:
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.
Miller’s odd request isn’t exactly timely. The 2008 induction ceremony is two months away, and the VC isn’t due to vote on the next slate of non-playing candidates for another 18 months. But at his age, there’s little reason to wait, and when asked about the curious timing, Miller deflects the question, emphasizing the two decades between his retirement and ballot debut.
Miller 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 place him alongside Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson as “one of the three most important men in baseball history.” 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 average annual salary of a major league player up from less than $20,000 to over $250,000, while establishing a salary arbitration system, substantially increased pensions, the right to impartial arbitration of grievances, the right to hire an agent negotiate on the player’s behalf, and the right to veto a trade after achieving enough experience. There’s room for debate as to whether opening this Pandora’s box was a uniformly good thing; nobody likes a labor stoppage, or to see a star player price his way out of town, but the talents of professional ballplayers don’t mean that they should be deprived of basic workplace rights, and their skyrocketing salaries have gone hand in hand with ever-increasing attendance levels and revenue growth.
There should little doubt that Miller deserves a place among the small handful of movers and shakers honored with a bronze plaque in Cooperstown, however. The various Veterans Committees charged with overseeing such elections have done a shoddy job in failing to reach this conclusion. From his retirement in 1982 to the VC’s reconstitution in 2001, Miller never even appeared on ballot, as 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 just one team. The players are baseball. If Marvin Miller isn’t a real baseball executive, who is?”
Heavy hitters concurred. Hank Aaron wrote, “Miller should be in the Hall of Fame if the players have to break down the doors to get him in.” Tom Seaver called Miller’s exclusion from the Hall “a national disgrace.” Brooks Robinson, a member of the Hall’s Board of Directors, promised, “This year, we’re going to ask the right questions and find the right answer to get it done.”
That was eight years ago. Since then, the reconstituted VC at least has solved the issue of Miller’s eligibility, but they bypassed him on the 2003, 2007, and 2008 ballots. In the first two votes, the electorate consisted of all living Hall of Fame players, plus the Frick and Spink award winners (broadcasters and writers), plus members of the old VC. Each voter could list 10 candidates on his ballot, with a 75 percent threshold required for election. On the composite ballot with executives, umpires, and managers, Miller got just 43 percent of the vote (35 out of 81 votes) in 2003, as even the players whose careers he helped the most couldn’t be bothered to return the favor. Reggie Jackson, one of the first big beneficiaries of free agency, struck out in spectacular fashion, failing to connect the dots between his own wealth and privilege and Miller’s tireless work on baseball’s labor front: Reggie sent in a blank ballot while telling reporters of the entire slate, “I looked at those ballots, and there was no one to put in.”
Miller sees additional irony in Jackson’s actions. “What he doesn’t seem to understand when he says the Hall should be just for players is that it’s not,” he notes. “The first commissioner, Judge Landis, is in the Hall of Fame, and if he had lived long enough, not only would Reggie Jackson not be in the Hall of Fame, he never would have had even one at-bat in the major leagues, because Landis campaigned far and wide among the owners against breaking the color line.”
Jackson’s remarks helped stir some awareness among the Hall of Fame’s rank and file. The slugger realized the error of his ways, and Miller fared somewhat better in 2007, when he received 63 percent of the vote (51 out of 84 votes) on the composite ballot, higher than any other candidate except umpire Doug Harvey. The increased support was of little consolation; indeed, Miller was already braced for the bad news, telling the New York Times‘ Murray Chass (a Spink honoree who made his mark by pioneering the coverage of the business side of the game), “It would be nice, but when you’re my age, 89 going on 90, questions of mortality have a greater priority than a promised immortality.”
Miller’s candidacy wasn’t due for reevaluation until the 2011 ballot, but the VC’s string of oh-fers prompted another yet another reconstitution and a vote conducted at last December’s Winter Meetings. Prior to the vote, even commissioner Bud Selig, a man who waged war against Miller’s successor Donald Fehr, went to bat for him, stating that 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… Maybe there are not a lot of my predecessors who would agree with that, but if you’re looking for people who make an impact on the sport, yes, you would have to say that.”
For the 2008 election, a pair of small, separate committees considered the managers and umpires on one ballot, and the executives and pioneers on another. A 12-member electorate which could vote for no more than four candidates gave Miller just three votes while electing former owners Barney Dreyfuss and Walter O’Malley, as well as Miller’s bitter adversary, former commissioner Bowie Kuhn.
That last result is a travesty. “They might as well have elected Marge Schott,” says Alex Belth, a student of baseball’s labor history who authored Stepping Up: the Story of Curt Flood and his Fight for Baseball Players’ Rights, a biography of the man whose challenge to the Reserve Clause was overseen by Miller. Kuhn served as commissioner during the bulk of Miller’s tenure, and his propensity for playing chicken with the union led the owners to a series of high-profile defeats, including labor stoppages in 1972 and 1981 as well as the landmark Messersmith-McNally ruling by independent arbitrator Peter Seitz. Belth points out that while those victories over the owners are easily recognized, Miller’s success in using collective bargaining to secure from management such rights as the impartial arbitration of grievances (the mechanism for the Messersmith-McNally case) and salary arbitration played a key part in reshaping baseball’s landscape.
In the 2007 election, Kuhn had garnered just 14 out of 84 votes, well behind not only Miller but six other candidates. In fact, of the elected, only O’Malley had received significant support beforehand:
2007 2008 Barney Dreyfuss ---- 83.3%* Bowie Kuhn 17.3% 83.3%* Walter O'Malley 44.4% 75.0%* Ewing Kauffman ---- 41.7% John Fetzer ---- 33.3% Marvin Miller 63.0% 25.0% Bob Howsam ---- 25.0% Buzzie Bavasi 37.0% <25.0% Gabe Paul 12.3% <25.0% John McHale ---- <25.0% Bill White 29.6% ---- August Busch Jr. 16.0% ---- Charley O. Finley 12.3% ---- Phil Wrigley 11.1% ----
The stunning reversal came about via a deck stacked significantly in favor of Kuhn and against Miller. Of the committee’s 12 members, only Monte Irvin, Bobby Brown, and Harmon Killebrew ever played in the majors, and none played a single game in the post-Reserve Clause era. Along with three writers–Paul Hagen (Philadelphia Daily News), Rick Hummel (St. Louis Post-Dispatch) and Hal McCoy (Dayton Daily News)–the committee contained no less than seven owners or executives: Brown (American League president), John Harrington (Red Sox), Jerry Bell (Twins), Bill DeWitt Jr., (Cardinals), Bill Giles (Phillies), David Glass (Royals), and Andy MacPhail (Orioles). If anyone needed further evidence of the vote’s reliance on the old boy network, it’s worth noting that DeWitt, Giles, and MacPhail are legacies whose fathers (and in MacPhail’s case, a grandfather) were on the management side during the Reserve Clause era. Worse, Giles, Harrington, and MacPhail were part of management during baseball’s disgraceful collusion saga in the ’87.
“Now I took one look at that committee and I didn’t have to have any help. I couldn’t possibly get nine votes out of that committee,” says Miller, noting not only the taint of collusion amid the voters but also more subtle links to management. “Just take Monte Irvin. Fine player, et cetera, but after he was a player, he worked for Bowie Kuhn for more than 10 years. Would you expect him to vote for me?”
Were this a jury, Miller could have demanded a mistrial due to the slate’s bias, but Hall candidates have no such recourse. Jim Bouton succinctly summarized the shafting: “Essentially, the decision for putting a union leader in the Hall of Fame was handed over to a bunch of executives and former executives. 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.”
Still, a one-shot committee larded with management flunkies isn’t solely responsible for Miller’s plight. “The players have f—ed this up time after time, year after year,” says Allen Barra, who helped Miller write A Whole Different Ballgame. He’s emphatic that the lion’s share of the responsibility for Miller’s plight lies with his former charges: “To a man they’ve all said that something needs to be done. Why didn’t they do something?” That’s a question Barra has been asking for at least the better part of the past decade. “If they were still part of the players union they might have gotten something done, but they’re afraid of not being asked back for a ceremony. The players are the Hall of Fame. It’s their bats, their balls, their memorabilia. All it really takes is leadership and the desire to buck the system.”
Such leadership is apparently in short supply. According to Barry Bloom’s MLB.com article, three players who were key members of the union during Miller’s heyday declined a spot on the voting committee: Seaver, Robinson, and Robin Roberts, the latter of whom served on the original committee that hired Miller in the first place. With friends like those, who needs enemies?
Asked how he accounts for this failure of support, Miller blames the process and the logistics of assembling the committee as much as the players. “I don’t account for it… I’ve talked with some of those players, who have called me from time to time, and at least one has said that that was a mistake on the part of the players. He confessed that. He said they all are relatively busy people, that many of them don’t like traveling to Cooperstown for meetings of committees and so on; including someone on the board of directors. It’s just not considered a high-priority item, that’s all.”
It’s unclear whether the Hall will honor Miller’s wishes. Hall President Jeff Idelson–who took over in late March after Petroskey resigned–believes the VC will again be reconstituted before the next vote. He says that the institution plans to discuss the matter with Miller, and that while his request will be communicated to the screening committee, there’s no guarantee his wish will be heeded; Miller will be nominated if the committee so decides. That reaction suggests Miller’s statement may work as a bit of reverse psychology–if he’s daring the electorate not to tab him, what better way to piss the man off?
Miller is hardly waiting for the Hall’s overtures. He sounds genuinely at peace with his own intractability on the matter, invoking an unlikely pair of historical figures, Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman and comedian Groucho Marx. “[Sherman] basically said, ‘I don’t want to be president. If I’m nominated I will not campaign for the presidency. If despite that I’m elected, I will not serve.’ Without comparing myself to General Sherman, that’s my feeling. If considered and elected, I will not appear for the induction if I’m alive. If they proceed to try to do this posthumously, my family is prepared to deal with that.”
The mention of Marx adds a final bit of levity to Miller’s request. “What [Marx] said was words to the effect of, ‘I don’t want to be part of any organization that would have me as a member.’ Between a great comedian and a great general, you have my sentiments.”