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This post is part of a series concerning the 2020 Modern Baseball Era Committee ballot, covering executives and long-retired players whose candidacies will be voted upon at the Winter Meetings in San Diego on December 8. For an introduction to JAWS, see here. Several profiles in this series are adapted from work previously published at SI.com, Baseball Prospectus, and Futility Infielder. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.
He didn’t swing a bat, throw a pitch or write out a lineup card, but Marvin Miller had a greater impact on major league baseball than just about any man who ever lived. In 1992, former Dodgers announcer Red Barber numbered him among the three most important figures in the game’s history, along with Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson. As executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association from 1966 to ’82, Miller revolutionized the game, overseeing its biggest change since integration through the dismantling of the reserve clause and the dawn of free agency, thus shifting a century-old balance of power from the owners to the players. Miller helped the union secure a whole host of other important rights as well, from collective bargaining to salary arbitration to the use of agents in negotiations. During his tenure, the average salary of a major league player rose from $19,000 to over $240,000, and the MLBPA became the strongest labor union in the country. Yet both in his lifetime and since his death at the age of 95 in 2012, petty politics has prevented him from receiving proper recognition via enshrinement in the Hall of Fame — so much so that Miller, still feisty well into his 90s, took the unprecedented step of asking voters not to consider him.
Miller’s omission is particularly glaring in light of the extent to which the 21st century small-committee processes have honored nonplayers — executives, managers, and umpires — to a much greater degree than players. To some degree that’s understandable, given that the former group has have no other route into Cooperstown, unlike the post-1936 players under the purview of the BBWAA. Nonetheless, the contrast stands out; setting aside the 2006 Special Committee on the Negro Leagues, the count since 2001 is 15 execs, managers, and umps to seven players (four in the past two years). None of those people, from commissioners Bowie Kuhn and Bud Selig and owner Walter O’Malley on down, put their stamp on baseball to a greater degree than Miller. Somewhere within this mess is the galling reality that even the Hall of Fame players who benefited from the changes he wrought, who make up the largest portion of the committee process — and particularly who formed the vast majority of the electorate via the enlarged Veterans Committees from 2003-09 — have utterly failed in their capacity to honor him. Reggie Jackson, one of the earliest beneficiaries of free agency, never struck out in more embarrassing fashion than when he told reporters in 2003, “I looked at those ballots, and there was no one to put in.”
For as much sense as Miller’s inclusion in the Hall makes, the waters have muddied since his death. The reality is that a vote for him in this format will go against the wishes of his family, which has said repeatedly that they would boycott his induction. What’s more, as the only non-player on a ballot with limited space, a vote for him could prevent a deserving player from getting his due. His candidacy’s supporters must grapple with such considerations.
Bronx-born in 1917, Miller was raised in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn (inevitably, he became a Dodgers fan). He first walked picket lines with his parents; his father Alexander was a clothing salesman, active in the International Garment Workers Union, while his mother, Gertrude, was a member of the New York City teachers union. He graduated New York University in 1938 with a degree in economics, resolved labor-management disputes for the National Labor Board during World War II, and worked for the International Association of Machinists and the United Auto Workers before joining the staff of the United Steelworkers Union in 1950 and becoming its chief economist and negotiator.
Before Miller’s involvement with baseball, the players were barely organized. While attempts to unionize in opposition to a salary cap and the restrictions of the reserve clause, which bound players to teams indefinitely, dated as far back as 1885, early efforts came and went. The owners established a pension plan for players in 1947, and players established an informal union in ’54, but it had no full-time employees, did not engage in collective bargaining, and had just $5,400 in the bank as of ’66, that at a time when the minimum major league salary was just $6,000, $1,000 more than it had been in ’47. When the players sought an increase in pension benefits — anticipating a rise in television revenue, they were concerned about getting their fair share — a four-man committee led by future Hall of Famer Robin Roberts went looking for a professional negotiator to bargain with the united, well-organized, and all-powerful owners.
Miller was recommended to the panel, which had its reservations about union leaders given the stereotypes of the day and initially favored other candidates, including Judge Robert B. Cannon, who was already serving as the union’s legal counsel. Cozy with the owners, Cannon had already mounted an unsuccessful bid to become commissioner of baseball in 1965, though the job went to Spike Eckert, who lasted just three years. Cannon campaigned for the executive director job, and while he conceded in his application that he was not an expert when it came to pensions, he balked when he discovered how much less his pension would be if he switched jobs. Ultimately, the union withdrew its offer.
The panel turned to Miller, but the rank and file players, relatively uneducated, inexperienced with unions, and easily cowed by the owners telling them they should be grateful to be playing a boys’ game for money, had reservations about him. In the spring of 1966, Miller toured training camps in California, Arizona, and Florida, speaking with players before they voted on whether to hire him. With owners and their representatives — and even an embittered Cannon — speaking out against him, and managers able to further intimidate the players by conducting the votes, Miller lost up-or-down votes in front of the first four teams, but with Roberts, Jim Bunning, and the team player representatives pushing the remaining 16 teams harder, he won over the remaining camps. As Jim Bouton — who would later benefit from Miller’s defense when commissioner Bowie Kuhn called upon the pitcher to recant the more shocking details of his 1970 book Ball Four — recalled in John Helyar’s book, Lords of the Realm, “We were all expecting to see someone with a cigar out of the corner of his mouth, a real knuckle-dragging ‘deze and doze’ guy.” Miller, a “quiet, mild, exceedingly understated man,” impressed the players, gained their confidence and was ratified as the executive director.
Miller educated the players about their rights and the importance of solidarity, and gradually began chalking up substantial victories. He implemented a dues structure and further beefed up the union’s finances by securing group licensing deals with Coca-Cola (1966) and Topps (’68), with the players flexing their collective muscle by refusing to sign renewal deals or pose for new photographs until they received higher fees and royalties. In the spring of 1967, Miller conducted an anonymous salary survey so that players could be armed with that information (at the time, the average was $22,000, the median was $17,000, and 6% made the minimum $7,000). In 1968, he and the union negotiated the first collective bargaining agreement in all of sports, which secured a raise in the minimum salary to $10,000, standardized contracts, increased meal money, and put in place a formalized structure for grievances and new scheduling rules. In the 1970 CBA, the players gained the right to have grievances heard by an independent, impartial arbitrator, which paved the way for the landmark Messersmith-McNally decision that created free agency in 1975.
In the spring of 1972, with the first CBA expiring, Miller led the game’s first work stoppage, a 14-day strike that centered around the owners’ increase in pension contributions. The owners didn’t believe the players would stay united, but they did; 86 games were cancelled before the owners finally acquiesced. In the next CBA, which went into effect in 1973, the players gained a limited right to salary arbitration, and “10-and-5” rights allowing them to veto trades if they had at least 10 years in the majors and five with their current club, and a reduction in the amount of service time necessary to reject an assignment to the minors from eight years to five.
Just before the strike, the US Supreme Court took up former outfielder Curt Flood’s suit against Kuhn and the owners, a challenge to the Reserve Clause stemming from his 1969 refusal to accept a trade from the Cardinals to the Phillies. Flood argued that the reserve clause, which appeared to give teams the right to unilaterally renew player contracts on an annual basis, constituted indentured servitude, violating both the 13th Amendment and antitrust laws. In a 5-3 decision against Flood, the Court ruled that only an act of Congress could remove baseball’s antitrust exemption, and that while Flood should have the right to free agency, it needed to be obtained through collective bargaining.
In the wake of the Flood decision, Miller engineered another challenge to the reserve clause when Dodgers pitcher Andy Messersmith and Expos pitcher Dave McNally played the entire 1975 season without signing contracts (several players, including Modern Baseball candidate Ted Simmons, had gone deep into seasons before signing). After the season, they filed grievances, claiming the right to free agency, because there was no contract for the team to renew. In December, arbitrator Peter Seitz ruled for the players, and after the owners’ appeals to overturn the ruling ran out, Miller negotiated a new CBA creating a framework for free agency once players reached six years of service time. In the winter of 1976-77, the first wave of free agents began striking it rich, with Jackson becoming the game’s highest-paid player via a five-year, $3 million deal with the Yankees. By November 1979, Nolan Ryan had become the game’s first player with an average salary above $1 million. From 1976 to ’80, the average salary nearly tripled, from $51,501 to $143,756.
After averting a strike in the spring of 1980 — centered around teams wanting compensation for having lost players to free agency — Miller led a seven-week strike in ’81, resulting in the cancellation of 713 games (38% of the schedule) and requiring the creation of a one-time split-season format with first- and second-half division leaders meeting in an extra tier of playoffs. The resulting CBA created a tiered free agent system whereby teams losing premium free agents would receive compensation.
The 65-year-old Miller retired as the executive director at the end of 1982, by which point the minimum salary had grown to $33,500 and the average was $241,497. He remained active as a consultant, member of the union’s negotiating team, and, briefly, interim director when his initial successor, Ken Moffett, was forced out due to the belief among players that he was too conciliatory towards the owners.
Miller firmly established that the talents of major league players did not exempt them from basic workplace protections, and ensured that they get their fair compensation as attendance and revenues ballooned, far outpacing the growth of the rest of the economy. But despite — or because — of his revolutionary work, he was shamefully bypassed even from consideration by the Veterans Committee until 2003, by which point the vote had been extended to every living Hall of Famer as well as the surviving Ford C. Frick Award and J.G Taylor Spink Award winners (the broadcasters and writers). Once he finally got a spot on a composite ballot alongside other executives, umpires, and managers, he received just 44% of the vote (35 out of 79). Jackson, whom Miller’s work turned into a millionaire several times over, shamed himself by sending in a blank ballot and making his “no one to put in” comment. Mike Schmidt, who became the game’s highest-paid player in the mid-1980s thanks to the leverage of free agency, similarly voted for nobody.
Jackson eventually realized the error of his ways, and his comments stirred awareness among the electorate. In Miller’s next appearance, on the 2007 ballot, his share of the vote rose to 63% (51 out of 84 votes). By that point, he was already braced for disappointment, saying, “When you’re my age, 89 going on 90, questions of mortality have a greater priority than a promised immortality.” Later that year, Bouton succinctly summarized Miller’s chances on the 2008 ballot, by which point the process had reverted to a 12-member panel. “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.”
Indeed, that Miller received just three votes on a panel that elected Kuhn (who had received just 17.3% from the larger group the year before) was a sick and twisted joke given that the labor leader beat the commissioner like a rented mule at every turn, most notably when it came to the Seitz ruling. Said Bouton, “It’s like having a cartoon Hall of Fame which admitted Wile E. Coyote and kept out the Roadrunner.”
One look at the composition of the panel explained the result. Beyond the three writers on the committee, none of the three ex-players (Monte Irvin, Bobby Brown, and Harmon Killebrew) played a single major league game in the post-Reserve Clause era. What’s more, Irvin spent 17 years working for the commissioner’s office under Kuhn, while Brown was an executive with the Rangers and then AL president after Kuhn stepped down. Of the six other owners and executives on the committee, Bill DeWitt Jr. (Cardinals), Bill Giles (Phillies) ,and Andy MacPhail (Orioles) were legacies whose fathers (and the latter’s grandfather) were on the management side during the Reserve Clause era, while Giles, MacPhail and John Harrington (Red Sox) were part of management during baseball’s late-1980s collusion scandal,, the trial of which featured Miller as the lead witness.
So frustrated was the 91-year-old Miller that six months later, with his candidacy not set to be reviewed for another 18 months, he took the unprecedented step of asking the Hall not to include him on another ballot, saying in a letter to the BBWAA (whose Historical Overview Committee constructs the ballots):
“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.”
Like any good labor leader, Miller knew how to count votes before an election was held, and he knew when he didn’t have them. When I interviewed him for Baseball Prospectus shortly after that release, I found him still sharp as a tack at his age. He reiterated his stance with regards to the Hall, vowing not to show up for induction if the the VC elected him, referencing both Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman, who refused to run for president (“If elected I will not serve…”), and comedian Groucho Marx (“I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member”).
Against his wishes, Miller was included again on the 2010 VC ballot (58%) and the ’11 Expansion Era ballot. While he received 11 out of 16 votes in the latter, one short of election, the presence of MacPhail, Giles, Royals owner David Glass (an anti-union hardliner in the 1994 strike), and White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf (a collusion kingpin and strike hardliner) meant that Miller had to run the table among the other 12 voters to gain entry. That he came so close no doubt owed to the fact that of the six Hall of Fame players on the panel, five (Rod Carew, Andre Dawson, Carlton Fisk, Paul Molitor, and Phil Niekro) benefitted from free agency.
Before Miller passed away in 2012, his son Peter ruled out the family’s participation in any posthumous honor by the Hall: “No one in our family will attend or speak at any HOF ceremony regardless of the outcome of the HOF vote. It’s important for union members and the media to understand why, so that the story does not get misrepresented as ‘sour grapes,’ personal pique, or anything of the sort.”
When Miller was included on the 2014 Expansion Era ballot, his children repeated their stance, with daughter Susan calling the committee “cowards [for] doing it after he died.” In the ensuing vote, managers Bobby Cox, Tony La Russa, and Joe Torre were elected unanimously, while Miller and the other eight candidates were consigned to “six votes or fewer” territory. In 2018, he received seven of 16 votes while Jack Morris and Alan Trammell were elected, and Simmons fell one vote short.
As he’s on yet another ballot, voters (and Miller’s supporters) again face a paradox: is it more important to honor the man’s wishes or to rightfully recognize his place in baseball history, even in belated fashion? I’ve wrestled with this question for years, and I’m hardly alone. While I don’t begrudge the family its permanent boycott of the institution, I come down on the side of preferring that he’s elected. One can’t credibly tell the story of Major League Baseball without Marvin Miller, who revolutionized the game and its business practices. When he’s honored, both his accomplishments and the stain of the institution’s failure to honor him during his lifetime will be part of that story. His plaque will be the same size as all the others, but its presence will stand as a towering middle finger aimed at the small men who conspired against him during his lifetime and after, and who colluded against the players in efforts to break the union. The induction speech that Miller never got to give would have been epic, but even without it, his legacy will long outlive those of his foes.
With that, I’ve completed my review of the 10 candidates on the Modern Baseball ballot. I don’t have a vote, but if I did, three of my four spots would go Miller, Simmons, and Lou Whitaker, the two players whose cases are best supported by WAR, JAWS, and other considerations. That leaves me to choose between Thurman Munson and Dwight Evans for the fourth spot. I won’t rehash their cases here, but in the end, Munson’s above-standard peak, role in multiple championships, and numerous accolades give him the nod over Evans, who was so underappreciated in his day and who deserves better. I hope I get a chance to consider the latter again, but for now, I think this is an exceptional quartet, any of whom would improve the Hall’s rolls with his addition. We’ll find out who, if anyone, is elected on December 8.