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Baseball's Error: No Marvin Miller in the Hall of Fame

Posted: 07/20/11 11:02 AM ET

Forget steroids. Forget Frank McCourt's mismanagement of the Dodgers. The biggest scandal in baseball at the moment is the Baseball Hall of Fame's failure -- for the fourth time -- to induct Marvin Miller, who freed players from indentured servitude. The 94-year-old Miller, who directed the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) from 1963 to 1983, should be standing on the dais at Cooperstown on Sunday, when the Hall of Fame honors its new inductees.

The great Hall of Fame broadcaster Red Barber observed that Miller was one of the three most important figures in baseball history, along with Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson. An eminent collection of Hall of Fame players, including Tom Seaver, Joe Morgan, Brooks Robinson, Hank Aaron, and Reggie Jackson, all want him included, as do the many everyday players who have expressed their gratitude to Miller on a "Thanks, Marvin" website, started last year by former big leaguer Bob Locker.

When he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1999, legendary pitcher Nolan Ryan devoted part of his speech to paying tribute to the union firebrand. Ryan reminded the audience that when he broke into the major leagues in 1966, he had to spend the winter months working at a gas station from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m., while his wife worked at a local bookstore, to make ends meet. Because of Miller's efforts, Ryan said "we brought that level up to where the players weren't put in that situation."

Even Bud Selig, the former Milwaukee Brewers owner who has been the Commissioner of Baseball since 1998, agrees that Miller belongs in the Hall of Fame.

As Ross Newhan, a member of this year's selection committee, told us, "Nobody has had a more profound impact on the economics of baseball or done more to give the players a voice than Marvin Miller." The retired baseball columnist for the Los Angeles Times, a member of the Hall of Fame himself, revealed his preference. "That's why I believe he should be in the Hall of Fame."

Every three years a committee of baseball writers, Hall of Fame former players, and baseball owners and executives decide on which, if any, non-players should have their plaques installed in the Cooperstown shrine. In the past, this committee was stacked with baseball management moguls -- including some whom Miller had tangled with as head of the players union -- which virtually assured his exclusion.

In 2007, for example, seven of the 12 selection committee members were current or former baseball executives and owners, while one of the two former players on the committee, Monte Irvin, had served for many years working in the commissioners' office. That year, the ballot they considered included ten people, eight of them former team owners or executives as well as Miller and Bowie Kuhn, baseball commissioner from 1969 to 1984. Miller only got three votes. Three people -- Walter O'Malley (who owned the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers from 1950 to 1979), Barney Dreyfuss (who owned the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1900 to 1932), and Kuhn -- received enough votes to gain entry into the exclusive club. Kuhn, a former corporate lawyer, is best known for being the owners' mouthpiece and for having been consistently outmaneuvered by his adversary Miller, who used his negotiating and organizing skills to wrest rights for the players

Last year, however, the committee's membership was revamped, with equal numbers of writers, executives, and ex-players, thereby improving the odds that Miller might get the 75% of votes -- at least 12 out of 16 -- needed to gain entry. But when the votes were counted last December, Miller received only 11.

Although the ballots are cast in secret, veteran Hall of Fame watchers consider it likely that the four sportswriters on the committee (Bob Elliott of the Toronto Sun, ESPN's Tim Kurkjian, Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci, and Newhan) gave Miller their votes, while the four baseball executives on the committee (Phillies owner Bill Giles, Royals owner (and former Wal-Mart CEO) David Glass, Orioles president Andy MacPhail, and White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf) probably didn't.

If that's the case, then at least one of the eight ex-players on the committee -- Whitey Herzog, Frank Robinson, Tony Perez, Jim Palmer, Johnny Bench, Eddie Murray, Ozzie Smith, and Ryne Sandberg -- gave a thumbs-down to Miller.

All of these former players moved into management -- as managers, coaches, broadcasters, or front-office executives. Some may identify with, or feel pressure from, baseball owners. Herzog's playing days predated the Miller era. Robinson, who began his major league career before the union hired Miller, voted against the players strike in 1972.

The only non-player who garnered the necessary votes this year was former minor league pitcher and longtime baseball executive Pat Gillick. Gillick had an admirable career as general manager for four Major League teams, two of which (the Blue Jays and the Phillies) won World Series titles. But his accomplishments, and his impact on the game, pale in comparison to Miller's. If the committee members were required to explain their votes publicly, any attempt to defend a vote for Gillick over Miller in terms of who made the most "significant contributions to the game of baseball" -- the alleged criteria -- would be laughable.

Miller, a Bronx native, worked as an economist for the Steelworkers Union before the MLBPA hired him in 1966 as its first full-time director. Union leaders, led by star pitchers Robin Roberts and Jim Bunning (now a Republican US Senator from Kentucky) recruited him to help transform the sport's outdated labor relations. The owners, and their hired commissioners, fought Miller at every turn. Most sportswriters at the time sided with the management, severely attacking Miller and the very idea of a players union. Even some players, glad just to be getting paid to put on a uniform, initially resisted the idea.

Before Miller, team owners ruled baseball with no pretense of giving players the same rights enjoyed by employees in other industries. Players were tethered to their teams through the "reserve clause" in every player's contract, which were limited to one season. The contract "reserved" the team's right to "retain" the player for the next season. Then came Miller.

With Miller's guidance, the players association negotiated its first collective bargaining agreement in 1968, which established players' rights to binding arbitration over salaries and grievances. Players also won the right to have agents to negotiate their contracts. In 1976, they gained the right to become free agents, allowing players to decide for themselves which employer they wanted to work for, to veto proposed trades, and to bargain for the best contract. Under Miller, the union won increased per-diem allowances, improvements in travel conditions, better training facilities, locker room conditions and medical treatment.

In 1967, the minimum salary was $6,000 and the average salary was $19,000. The first collective bargaining agreement the next year raised the minimum to $10,000. When Miller retired in 1982, the average player salary had increased to $240,000. Today, the minimum salary is $414,000 and the average salary is over $3 million.

It's easy to see that kind of salary as bloated. But the vast majority of players spend less than five years in the big leagues. And, like it or not, Major League Baseball is hugely profitable -- last year it took in a record $7-plus billion in revenues from lucrative television deals, merchandise, and ticket sales, parking, and concessions at the ballparks. Rather than stifle baseball's prosperity, the union simply gave players the power to win a greater share of their employers' growing revenues.

We spoke with Marvin Miller last week, and he was clearly disgusted with the vote. "I'm too old for farce," he said, "and this whole process is clearly a farce." But he hopes the issue will prompt discussion. "Educating people, including players, about the union is important," he said, "and if this debate does that it's positive, I guess."

Indeed, every player owes Miller a huge debt. Perhaps the million dollar checks they get for playing ball should have an imprint of Miller's face stamped on the front. Let's hope that Bert Blyleven or Roberto Alomar, the two retired players who are being inducted on Sunday, will remind listeners about Miller's contribution in their thank-you speeches.

It would be a travesty if the vote that kept Miller out of the Hall this year was caste by an ex-player. But it is unlikely that any former player would vote against Miller if the votes were made public.

In December 2013, when Miller will be 96, the selection committee will vote again on which non-players deserve admission to the shrine of baseball immortals. Before that vote takes place, the Hall of Fame should change the rules to make the committee members' ballots public, so that the writers, ex-players, and executives will be held accountable for their selections. If any of them want to continue the farce of keeping Miller out of the Hall of Fame, they should at least be forced to do so out in the open.

Peter Dreier teaches Politics at Occidental College and writes frequently about sports and politics. His next book, "The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century," will be published by Nation Books next year. Kelly Candaele produced the documentary film, "A League of Their Own," about his mother's years in the All American Girl's Professional Baseball League. His brother Casey played in the major leagues for nine seasons and served as the players' union representative for the Houston Astros. A shorter version of this article appeared as an op-ed column in the Los Angeles Times.