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

As head of the Major League Baseball Players Assn., Miller freed baseball players from indentured servitude.

July 20, 2011|By Peter Dreier and Kelly Candaele

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, the man who freed players from indentured servitude.

The great Hall of Fame broadcaster Red Barber observed that Miller, who directed the Major League Baseball Players Assn. from 1966 to 1983, 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, want him included in the Hall of Fame, 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 Miller. 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 non-players, if any, should have their plaques installed in the Cooperstown shrine. In the past, this committee was stacked with owners and executives, including some whom Miller had tangled with as head of the players union, which virtually assured his exclusion.

But last year, the committee's membership was revamped, cutting the number of management moguls and thereby improving the odds that Miller might get the 75% of votes — at least 12 out of 16 — needed to gain entry. When the votes were counted last December, however, 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 gave Miller their votes, while the four baseball executives probably didn't.

If that's the case, then at least one of the eight ex-players on the committee gave a thumbs-down to Miller, thus keeping him from standing on the dais at Cooperstown on Sunday, when the Hall of Fame honors its new inductees.

The only nonplayer 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.

In 1966, pitchers Robin Roberts and Jim Bunning (later a GOP senator from Kentucky) recruited Miller, an economist for the steelworkers union, to serve as the players association's first full-time director. He had to overcome the skepticism of some players (who were glad just to be able to wear a big league uniform), the hostility of most sportswriters (who sided with management) and the virulent opposition of team owners and their hired baseball commissions, who warned that a players union would destroy baseball's economic foundation.

Before Miller, players had no rights to determine the conditions of their employment. They were tethered to their teams through the "reserve clause" in every player's contract; those contracts were limited to one season. The contracts "reserved" the team's right to "retain" the player for the next season. Each year, the team owners told players: Take it or leave it. The players had no leverage to negotiate better deals. Even superstars went hat-in-hand to owners at the end of the season, begging for a raise.

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