Marvin Miller served as the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association from 1966 to 1982, and in doing so changed the game irrevocably by leading the challenge against the Reserve Clause and ushering in the era of free agency. Despite his considerable impact on the game, he has yet to be elected to the Hall of Fame thanks to confusion over his eligibility amid an ever-shifting vote process, and recently, the 91-year-old Miller announced his desire to be taken out of consideration. Jay Jaffe interviewed Miller to discuss his announcement in preparation for this feature article.
Jay Jaffe: Why did you make the announcement now? The Hall of Fame isn’t going to hold another election for about 18 months at least.
Marvin Miller: You’re making it sound like it’s premature, when actually you have to remember that, unlike players who are not eligible until they’ve been retired for five years, executives under their rules are eligible when they turn 65. In other words, back in 1982, I first became eligible and for the next 20 years I was never even on the ballot for the Hall of Fame Veterans Committee. Two decades, 20 years.
Then they abolished that Veterans Committee which had kind of been scandal-ridden in the sense that the only way they could elect anybody was to engage in vote trading. You support my guy and I’ll support your guy, and out the window went merit. So they abolished that committee and that was understandable. Then they created a new one, this time composed of all of the living members of the Hall of Fame. For the first time I was put on a ballot in 2003, and my vote was far short of the 75 percent needed, and that was OK. Then they decided that they wouldn’t hold another one for four years without explaining why.
JJ: I believe they’d already stated ahead of time that they were doing the composite ballot every four years, and the players every two years.
MM: OK. And the next one was not until 2007, early 2007. I did not get a vote of 75 percent, but it was 63 percent. It had really climbed to within reach. And so the next thing, they abolished that Veterans Committee. The Hall of Fame was no longer good enough to vote. And they created the so-called “Select Committee” of 12 people. Now I took one look at that committee, and I didn’t have to have any help; all you had to do was look at it. I couldn’t possibly get nine votes out of that committee. Nine out of 12 people were management people and what few if any people have commented about is that among the nine people…
JJ: Three legacies? [Bill DeWitt Jr., Andy MacPhail, Bill Giles]
MM: No, three who were among the leaders of the collusion movement against players [DeWitt, MacPhail, and John Harrington]. Let’s remember that I was the negotiator of the anti-collusion language, and let’s also remember that I was the lead witness in the collusion case against the owners. As you may know, there were two separate cases, and both impartial arbitrators rejected the sworn testimony of these now-former general managers that there was no such thing as collusion. In other words, without even using the word “perjury,” in effect that’s what two impartial arbitrators found, that the testimony before them represented. And these were to be my judges. The whole thing is absurd.
JJ: I agree with you. It’s totally absurd.
MM: One of the reasons I haven’t done this before is that I kept getting talked out of withdrawing my name. People who meant well kept saying, “They’ll come around,” when I knew that was never gonna happen. And I blame myself in a sense for not having withdrawn my name a long time ago, because one thing a trade union leader learns to do is how to count votes in advance. Whenever I took one look at what I was faced with, it was obvious to me it was not gonna happen.
Besides which, 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. I was struck by the fact, for example, that when Reggie Jackson four years ago, with nobody asking him, publicly announced that he had voted for nobody.
My first thought was, look, that’s his privilege, that’s OK. But what he doesn’t seem to understand when he says the Hall should be just for players is that it’s not. The first commissioner, Judge Landis, is in the Hall of Fame, and if he [Landis] 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. As a matter of fact, when one of the owners at the time, Bill Veeck, insisted he was going to sign African-Americans, Landis threatened him with outright suspension. In addition, as you may know, some of the early people inducted in the Hall were members of the Ku Klux Klan.
JJ: Tris Speaker…
MM: 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. The former president, who just quit or just fired, Dale Petroskey, worked in the Reagan White House, the White House of union busters. I think that there are a lot of good people in the Hall. I’m not trying to put a blot on all of them. I think that by and large, the players, and certainly the ones I knew, are good people. But the Hall is full of villains, and the whole thing becomes less and less desirable the more you learn about it.
JJ: Right, but the majority of the players who were on the 2003 and 2007 Veterans Committee were players who played in a post-Reserve Clause era, and you’ve got some vocal supporters there. I’m still a little bit mystified, particularly after what Reggie said raised some consciousness, how [despite] vocal supporters like Tom Seaver and Brooks Robinson, this didn’t get done in the manner that it should have been.
MM: Well, 63 percent of all of those voting when you’re including the following categories–you named one, the pre-union players, second, the management people, and third, the former players who became management people, the number of people who began to work for Wrigley and Yawkey and so on.
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?
JJ: That’s a good point. I know that he was on the recent 12-man committee and I’m struck by the fact that there wasn’t a single player on there who played a single game in the post-Messesmith era.
MM: [Harmon] Killebrew was.
JJ: He retired in 1975, so he wouldn’t have played after the decision came down.
MM: You mean he didn’t play after ’75? [Laughing] All right, they were more careful I thought.
JJ: It’s almost surgical precision there. I read a report in the MLB.com article that printed most of what you had to say, most of your statement, Barry Bloom also mentioned that guys like Tom Seaver and Brooks Robinson and Robin Roberts, who was involved in selecting you in the first place for the players’ union, were actually offered seats on that committee and declined. There was an opening there for them. I don’t understand it. How do you account for that?
MM: Well, I don’t account for it. I just don’t know. 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.
JJ: Do you expect the Hall of Fame to honor your wishes at this point? I know that Jeff Idelson, the new president, said that just as nobody could dictate who’s going to be in the Hall of Fame, nobody can dictate who they’re going to consider.
MM: [Laughing]. Well, this is not an attempt to dictate, this is a request, and if they don’t honor it, they don’t honor it. Look, I don’t want to exaggerate my importance.
JJ: I think it’s tough to exaggerate your importance. People have put you among the top two or three most important figures in baseball history…
MM: What I meant is, I’m about to say that my feeling is like someone who… I’m gonna mention his name but I don’t consider myself in his class, but the sentiments expressed were mine. General William Tecumseh Sherman was a noted Civil War general on the Union side, and after the death of Lincoln and the problems with Lincoln’s vice president, there was a strong movement for Sherman to run for president. He didn’t want to, and he finally issued a statement which was called Shermaneque, in which he 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.
JJ: You’ve got the Groucho Marx attitude…
MM: Right. I’m down to the point of considering two great men, one a great humorist who your readers may not know. 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.
JJ: Idelson said that he actually planned for the Hall of Fame to reach out to you to discuss this. Have any overtures been made in that regard?
MM: [Laughing] No. You mentioned Idelson, and you saw his quoted remarks in the Times that I’m “emotional”. In the twenty-plus years that I was never even on the ballot I uttered not one word, I made no public criticism, no private criticism. Nothing orally, nothing written. At no time did I ever campaign for being a part of the Hall of Fame or lobby anybody, or ask anybody to do it for me. If he calls this an emotional response, I don’t think he knows the meaning of the word. I’m going to send him a dictionary.