The Hall of Fame Case for Marvin Miller
On Sunday, December 8, the Modern Baseball Era committee of the Baseball Hall of Fame, which includes candidates whose primary contributions to baseball came between 1970-87, will vote on candidates for the 2020 induction class. Between now and then we will take a look at the ten candidates, one-by-one, to assess their Hall worthiness.
Next up: Marvin Miller
The case for his induction:
It is impossible to overstate Miller’s impact on Major League Baseball. While some — including Hall of Fame voters — have long given Miller short shrift (or piled on utter disdain), baseball today cannot be understood without understanding Marvin Miller’s contributions. He was a truly transformative figure who, after Jackie Robinson, did more to correct the excesses and injustices delivered onto players by baseball’s ruling class than anyone.
When Miller took over as the head of the MLBPA in 1966 there was no free agency. Players were told by ownership what they would make the following year and if they didn’t like it, tough. They couldn’t switch teams. They couldn’t do what any other worker can do and shop their services elsewhere. They were stuck thanks to baseball’s reserve clause and the ridiculous Supreme Court decision which exempted baseball and its owners from the antitrust laws.
Miller took all of that on and he won. He started small, negotiating the union’s first collective bargaining agreement with the team owners in 1968, which raised the game’s minimum salary from $6,000 to $10,000. In 1970 he got the owners to agree to arbitration for the first time. In 1970 Curt Flood, with Miller’s support and guidance, challenged baseball’s antitrust exemption — and the dreaded reserve clause, which kept players tied to one team against their wishes — in the courts. Flood ultimately lost that case in the landmark 1972 Supreme Court decision. The decision did not, however, blunt Miller’s resolve, and he took his fight to other forums.
In 1974 he exploited a loophole — and an oversight by Oakland Athletics owner Charlie O. Finley — to get Catfish Hunter free agency and baseball’s first $1 million contract. Up next: the whole enchilada. In 1974, he got Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally to play out the season without contracts, placing them in cross-hairs of the reserve clause and giving them standing to fight the provision in arbitration. In 1975 they won, with the Seitz Decision ushering in the age of free agency. Baseball players’ indentured servitude was over.
In all Miller led the union through three work stoppages: two short ones — 1972 and in spring training 1980 — and then the long, season-altering strike in 1981. In all three stoppages the union prevailed. Overall during his tenure the average players’ salary rose from $19,000 to $241,000 a year and their working conditions improved dramatically. It is no understatement to say that Miller turned the MLBPA into the most effective and successful labor union in the United States. Not just in sports: in the entire United States.
The sum total of all of that may not have driven in a single run or struck out a single batter, but neither did any of the many executives, owners, or commissioners who have already been inducted into the Hall of Fame. If you’re going to honor those guys for their impact on the game, however you measure it, do you not have to honor Miller too? Because his impact on the game was gigantic, affecting the decisions teams and players make about who plays where, how teams are built and nearly every off-the-field thing we as fans talk about in the game.
The case against his induction:
Miller is different than everyone else on this ballot in that there’s really not much to argue about as far as his credentials are concerned. It’s not a matter of “did he pass a certain threshold? Does he fall short?” Because it’s impossible to argue that Miller did not excel in the job he was hired to do. Rather, the case against him is a question of “should a labor executive be in the Hall of Fame in the first place?”
If your answer to that is “yes,” then of course he belongs. He was the Babe Ruth of that gig.
If your answer is “no,” I suspect that no amount of arguing will persuade you. Mostly because almost every case against Miller I’ve ever heard comes with either an implicit or explicit assertion that Miller specifically and labor progress for players in general was, somehow, bad for baseball.
That position comes with a lot of baggage. Most of that baggage has to do with assuming that baseball was better before the late 60s or whatever and, again, I no longer try to waste my time arguing with people who think that players should shut up and play ball and be happy with whatever they get from the owners.
One could make a consistent anti-Miller case for the Hall if one also opposes owners, executives and commissioners, but you tend not to see that position very often. I suppose I’m open to that on some level, but I think that the non-players who shaped the game in a major way should be honored.
Would I vote for him?
Is the Pope Catholic?
Will the Committee vote for him?
I seriously, seriously doubt it. Miller has been up for election several times, both before and after his death, and hasn’t made it. A lot of this is because the Veterans Committee -- or whatever it’s been called at any given time -- has been controlled by a lot of management side folks who consider the Players Union the enemy and Miller as the reason why their enemy exists. Indeed, the Hall of Fame in general is so closely aligned with Major League Baseball and its top executives that it may as well be an adjunct of the Commissioner’s Office. Rob Manfred and Bud Selig are on the Hall’s board. Selig, as an owner, did personal battle with Miller. Manfred, who spent years as the league’s top labor negotiator, has made it his business to beat back the gains Miller obtained for players. Miller is dead, but those who oppose what he stands for are not and have a lot of power when it comes to how the Hall of Fame does its business. Which is to say, I’d be shocked beyond all belief if Miller was elected. I’d drop my teeth. And I still have my real teeth.
The only bright side to this is that, when I interviewed Miller about a year before he died, he told me he didn’t give a crap about the Hall of Fame. And he did not use the word “crap.” He said it would make no difference to him one way or the other if he got in, but I got the strong sense that he’d prefer not to be in. Whether they mean to do it or not, the Hall of Fame is likely to continue to make Miller happy this year.