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MLB’s Hall of Fame Shame

2007 December 5
by Skip Sauer

Marvin Miller did more to reshape the economics of labor in American Sport than any man in history. He is currently 90 years old, and based on this account from ESPN’s John Helyar, as sharp and pugnacious as ever. Yet Miller’s nomination to baseball’s Hall of Fame failed once again to obtain the required number of votes. I have wondered how this could be.

As executive director the players union, Marvin Miller single-handedly (in the sense of being a uniquely strategic and effective leader) won freedom of contract for major league baseball players by obliterating the odious “for life” interpretation of baseball’s monopsonistic reserve clause. In doing so he erased much of the damage from one of the most bizarre and inexplicable Supreme Court Decisions in our country’s history (The Federal League Case of 1922), breaking a logjam that subsequent courts and congresses could not breach.

More than any person I can think of, Miller merits a place in the Hall of Fame. Why is he not there? Pettiness, it seems. Helyar provides the background to this year’s tally, along with commentary from Miller himself.

When I called Miller at his Upper West Side apartment in New York on Monday night, he wasn’t seething about the Hall of Fame vote. He was listening to the soundtrack of “Guys and Dolls” and letting his wife, Terry, handle the seething. But he, too, had a sense of deja vu.

“They seem to be the same kind of small-minded, vicious people as the owners were when I came in,” he told me, though, ever the cool, rational man, he wasn’t taking it personally.

“I’m only mad at myself,” he said. “After the first time on the ballot, I should have just withdrawn my name from consideration. My judgment of my chances was, ‘Never.’”

But Terry Miller and others talked him out of it. That first time, he drew 44 percent of the votes. And, indeed, he climbed to 63 percent the next time around, just 10 votes shy of what he needed for the 75 percent that would get him in.

Kuhn [MLB's commissioner and Miller's foil in the 1970s] made it onto only 17 percent of the ballots in the last round of voting conducted under the old process earlier this year.

Then the Hall of Fame changed the format. Instead of allowing all Hall of Famers to vote for “veterans” nominees, it created three new panels. Nominees in the “executive/pioneer” category were no longer being considered by 81 voters, but by 12, and that group is comprised primarily of former MLB executives.

Voila!Kuhn, a longtime Hall of Fame board member, got 10 votes. Miller got three.

Vladimir Putin couldn’t have done it better; Cooperstown couldn’t look worse.

Miller’s leadership reformed the reserve clause system. This led to a significant transfer of income to players from owners, who were ultimately forced to pay market prices. The owners responded with a twenty year long, Sisyphus-like ordeal of lockouts and strong-arm tactics in an attempt to turn back the clock in the labor market. Miller and the players were unfairly tarred by the media’s brush throughout this period. Yet the game did not suffer from free agency, as economics implies. Indeed, the commissioner himself now proclaims the financial state of the game to be better than ever.

If there were ever a time to make peace between MLB, former commissioner Kuhn, and Marvin Miller, the Hall of Fame vote is a fit and proper place to do it. But MLB’s executives have indeed succeeded in turning back the clock, once again cloaking their legacy in shame.

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