Marvin Miller and the Baseball Hall of Fame

Marvin Miller

Marvin Miller and Baseball’s Hall of Fame

There was never really a question about whether Marvin Miller, the labor leader for major league baseball during the tumultuous period from 1966-1982, belonged in baseball’s Hall of Fame. He belonged. Easily. Overwhelmingly. One can make a good argument he belongs on baseball’s Mt. Rushmore as one of the game’s four most important figures. The Hall of Fame needed Marvin Miller far more than Miller needed the recognition.

Of course, the story is not so simple. Nearly four decades after Miller left the main stage, he was, at long last, voted into Cooperstown, finally garnering enough votes in December 2019. Whether his family will be on hand to accept the honor is an open question. They’ve indicated they won’t. I don’t blame them for feeling slighted, not even a little bit.

Baseball’s Societal Backstory

Baseball’s long history has often dealt with important social issues. The most prominent are the civil rights issues. Jackie Robinson is the focal point of baseball’s civil rights story and his legacy is among the most meaningful in the entire struggle. The second most prominent social issues are around labor rights. The often contentious battles between owners and players have played out since the inception of professional baseball. Indeed, the reserve clause (the cornerstone of owner’s rights over labor) dates back to 1879.

The stories of race and labor are often intertwined. It is true with sports more broadly, baseball more specifically and American history. At times, these threads were hard to separate and for good reason. At the core, both issues are about basic rights and freedoms. Even today, sports still intertwines these issues (just ask Colin Kaepernick).

The Way We Were

Just where was major league baseball when Miller took over as head of the players union? He took the reigns in 1966, what I’ll cover next occurred 12 years AFTER Miller began his run.

Former Minnesota Twins owner Calvin Griffith linked labor and race in a horrifying meeting with a community organization in 1978. That Griffith thought he was within socially acceptable bounds is shocking. After the press reported on the meeting, Twins legend Rod Carew said of Griffith, “I’m not going to be another nxxxxx on his plantation.” Labor and race intertwined.

Whether Marge Schott (Cincinnati Reds) or Tom Yawkey (Boston Red Sox) or others, baseball has had too many owners comfortable with their sordid morality. And since owners hire the commissioner, there was little incentive for baseball’s leadership to lead.

Institutions often change slowly, but few people this side of Jackie Robinson did more to move baseball’s moral compass in the right direction than Marvin Miller. It took enormous force to create change. Marvin Miller was an enormous force.

The Role of Curt Flood

In a recent piece that complemented Miller’s election, Kevin Blackistone argued for the Hall of Fame induction of the late Curt Flood. Curt Flood was the player who first challenged baseball’s reserve clause. He took on the league’s legal lockbox which gave owners tremendous control over players. Ultimately, Flood lost his case in the Supreme Court and the defeat came with a tremendous personal cost. For the baseball establishment, it was a pyrrhic win. The Court’s narrow ruling helped set the table for the labor wins which followed. Miller understood the importance of Flood’s selfless act and wished for the two to be honored together in the Hall of Fame. If they are honored together at some point, it will be left to their descendants to decide if they want to celebrate.

Abe Lincoln, Wile E. Coyote and Marvin Miller

Back in the mid-1980’s, I spoke with a friend who was starting up a company. He’d left a large company, taking several members of his staff along with their deep understanding of a key technology. I asked him if he felt funny about leaving the prior company and taking the staff with him. His response is one I’ve often used since, “Lincoln freed the slaves in the 1860’s.”

The remark resonates. No employer owns anyone. Nor do they have the right to determine how you wish to live your life. Marvin Miller understood this, lived this and ultimately won this right for major league baseball players.

I’m always leery of citing Abraham Lincoln in any comparison. But former baseball commissioner Fay Vincent showed no such restraint, using a term closely associated with Lincoln in praising Miller “I think he’s (Miller) the most important baseball figure of the last 50 years. He changed not just the sport but the business of the sport permanently, and he truly emancipated the baseball player – and in the process all professional athletes.”

Few things are more American than freedom and Vincent’s comment went to that precise spot.

In the big picture, Miller dominated baseball’s backward owners and most notably, commissioner Bowie Kuhn. In the process, he raised baseball. Not only did Miller win repeatedly, but he did so from the moral high ground. He beat an old boy network which deserved every beating it took. Depressingly, it was Kuhn, the foil who Miller bested at every turn, who was elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame ahead of Miller. Pitcher turned author Jim Bouton accurately and artfully described this stupidity as “putting Wile E. Coyote in the Hall of Fame instead of the Road Runner.”

Higher Ground and Petty People

Some people associated with the game of baseball have had their work impact things far beyond the game itself. Here too, Miller qualifies. His work influenced other professional sports, sports law and labor law. For decades, the NCAA tried to restrict collegiate athletes from earning money from their athletic work and related activities. This is being challenged, and it is yet another offshoot of Miller’s work.

Baseball’s leadership fought Miller at every step and they despised Miller for doing the right thing. Most of all, he was despised for doing the one thing every team wants to do each season: win big. As punishment for his successes, Miller was kept out of baseball’s hallowed halls during his lifetime, mostly by the wealthy but petty people he repeatedly defeated.

Miller’s case for the Hall of Fame was never in question. His influence on the game is massive and he did this while moving all of baseball to a higher moral plane. Baseball’s owners, and the lackeys they hired to represent their interests, fought Miller every step of the way. The great irony is this. History says the owners are among the major beneficiaries of Miller’s work, with every major concern debunked.

Righting a Wrong

Some say a wrong will be (partially) righted this summer in Cooperstown. There is a smallness to all this. Righting this wrong is trivial compared to the wrongs Miller righted during his career. If there is a pang of sorrow, it is that Miller himself seemed to want the Hall of Fame recognition. Ultimately, he asked to have his name dropped from consideration, suggesting he paid attention to the voters’ decisions and rather than suffer foolishly, he wished to simply end the charade.

Some say Miller will, posthumously, get his due in receiving what many consider baseball’s highest honor. But the Hall of Fame could do nothing to either enhance or diminish Miller’s enormous legacy.

The vote on Miller was always about the Hall of Fame as an institution, it was never about Miller himself. Year after year, vote after vote, the institution grew smaller, due to the pettiness of its own electors. A few weeks ago, it officially ended decades of stupidity. I have a hard time finding much to celebrate in that.

The simple truth is this. Marvin Miller never needed baseball’s Hall of Fame to ratify his importance to the game. He transcended the institution. Baseball needed Babe Ruth. It needed Jackie Robinson. And it needed Marvin Miller.