The impact of Marvin Miller

One of my colleagues in Cooperstown asked me on Tuesday: Does Marvin Miller deserve a place in the Hall? I answered without delay. Yes, I would vote for him. In considering all of the history, how could I not?

That is not to say that I am Miller’s biggest fan. He had an arrogant and condescending way of framing his arguments, to the point that I often threw sharp objects at the television during his press conferences throughout the 1970s and early ’80s. His manner of talking down to the media, and in turn to the fans, will forever grate at me.

I also didn’t appreciate the way he handled the issue of illegal drug abuse in the early 1980s; his attitude showed only concern for players’ rights. (That always brought to mind Clint Eastwood’s famous line regarding the deranged serial killer in Dirty Harry: “Well, I’m all broken up about that man’s rights.”) Miller showed little regard for the illegality of the drugs and the harm that the drug abusers brought to the on-field quality of the game.

In spite of Miller’s failure on morality and his preponderance of condescension, his effect on the sport has been undeniable. He didn’t create free agency, as some have said, but he negotiated the process after the decision of Peter Seitz that liberated Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally. Free agency, arbitration, the pension plan and other changes that baseball has seen over the past 40 years simply would not have happened without Miller.

When Miller, who passed away Tuesday at the age of 95, became the head of the Players’ Association in 1966, the owners had an unfair grip on the players. Salaries were ridiculously low, players had virtually no basic rights, and the pension plan was wholly inadequate. Those conditions are no longer in place. The process began to change with Miller’s support of Curt Flood during his noble fight for player rights and his battle to defeat the reserve clause. Although Flood lost the case, the written judgment from the Supreme Court stated clearly that baseball owners needed to take a second look at their relationship with players, forewarning that changes would have to be made.

Each strike that was voted upon by the players and enacted by Miller (or in the case of 1976, the owners’ lockout) was designed with a specific goal of improvement for the players, whether it was the pension, free agency, or free agent compensation. The union won almost every time, largely through the negotiating skills of Miller. As a result, the players’ union has become the most powerful union in America. It all started with Miller. If a Hall of Famer is to be measured based on his impact on the game, then no one can be more deserving of the Hall of Fame than Mr. Miller.

Although Miller’s mission was clearly geared to advancing the players’ cause, which he did brilliantly, he also helped bring about a change to baseball’s postseason. In negotiating the free agent system that basically remains in place today, Miller helped create baseball news throughout the winter. With every major free agent signing, baseball publicity was produced during the dead of winter. This served two purposes: giving diehards a steady supply of baseball news during a tough time of year and helping to keep baseball pertinent year round. In turn, these developments likely had the effect of creating further interest in the game and lifting attendance.

So yes, Miller helped the players, but he also created a different dynamic that promoted the game. Put simply, it’s more fun to be a fan in the wintertime now than it was back in the 1960s. Credit Miller.

On the whole, baseball is better off today than it was 40 years ago. The sport is in the news 12 months a year, the players are doing fabulously, and the owners are making gads of money. Miller didn’t create all of the improvement by himself, but he spearheaded the movement at a critical time in the game’s history. So yes, if I had a vote (and that is a scary thought), the eminent Marvin Miller would be enshrined in Cooperstown as soon as possible.

And I think someday he will be.

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  1. Bill Rubinstein said...

    Miller’s exclusion from the Hall of Fame is a shocking indictment of that institution. Many other aspects of the Hall as it currently operates
    are regrettable, especially the continued excludion of up to 20 nineteenth century players who should obviously be in, starting with Pete Browning. I often suspect that the directors of the Hall know zero about baseball history.

  2. dennis Bedard said...

    I cannot agree more about Miller’s significance in the business of baseball.  But he always had a chip on his shoulder.  I read his autobiography “A Whole Different Ball Game” and it had an air of dripping contempt for his adversaries, which is fine because that is who he was.  But he mentions a first encounter with Horace Stoneham, the Giants owner.  For no reason other than sheer spite, he goes into detail about the amount of alcohol on Stoneham’s breath and his reputation as an excessive drinker.  Why was this necessary?  It had no relevance to the subject matter other than gratuitous character assassination.  A real cheap shot.  I thought about that comment as soon as I heard about his death.

  3. Bruce Markusen said...

    Dennis, Miller’s attitude toward Stoneham is a bit disingenous considering how cavalier Miller was toward the use of cocaine by the members of his association in the late seventies and early eighties. If Stoneham was to be spited for his abuse of alcohol, then why was Miller so willing to ignore the abuse of cocaine by his players under the guise of their “rights” being threatened or violated?

    Good point, Dennis.

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