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Marvin Miller’s Overdue Honor

At 91, Marvin Miller belongs in not one, but two halls of fame. But the gatekeepers of the National Baseball Hall of Fame seem determined not to honor Miller while he still lives, and the Labor Hall of Fame only confers posthumous awards.

We are taught that Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves. In baseball, however, indentured servitude survived Lincoln by more than a century until Miller, an economist and union leader, outmaneuvered team owners to help ballplayers win the right to choose their own employers.

Now the corporate descendants of those same team owners are exacting their petty revenge by keeping Miller out of baseball’s shrine to itself in Cooperstown, N.Y.

The U.S. Department of Labor could provide a measure of solace by at least putting Miller in the Labor Hall of Fame that it runs (though few of us have heard of it) in Washington, D.C. However, the government-run Hall of Fame, established in 1988, has a policy against honoring living individuals. This policy may have prevented some awkwardness when George W. Bush, formerly a part-owner of baseball’s Texas Rangers, was in the White House.

Baseball’s Hall of Fame says its mission is to foster “an appreciation of the historical development of baseball and its impact on our culture,” while honoring “those who have made outstanding contributions to our national pastime.” Umpire Doug Harvey and manager Whitey Herzog were both elected to the Hall this year.

Miller served as the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association from 1966 to 1982. When he entered the baseball world, the sport was ruled by the reserve clause. The clause, contained in all standard contracts with players, stated that players could not play for another team for a year after the contract’s expiration. Since few players could afford to forego employment for a year, this essentially meant that players were bound to a single team for life unless the team’s management decided to trade or release them.

In 1969, the St. Louis Cardinals traded centerfielder Curt Flood to the Philadelphia Phillies. Flood, however, refused to go, citing the team's poor record, dilapidated stadium and belligerent fans. With Miller’s support, Flood wrote to Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, demanding that he be allowed to consider offers from other teams.

“After twelve years in the major leagues,” Flood wrote, “I do not feel I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes. I believe that any system which produces that result violates my basic rights as a citizen and is inconsistent with the laws of the United States and of the several States.”

The commissioner denied Flood’s request and the resulting lawsuit, Flood v. Kuhn, eventually reached the Supreme Court. The justices, however, refused to overturn the 1922 ruling in Federal Baseball Club v. National League that exempted baseball from antitrust laws.

Despite the defeat, in 1975 Miller supported two other players, pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally, as they fought their own battle against the reserve clause. Under Miller’s guidance, the two players played for a year without contracts and then declared that they had no further obligations to their teams, launching a new confrontation with baseball’s executives.

In 1970, Miller had reached a groundbreaking agreement with management allowing disputes to be settled through arbitration, rather than by the commissioner, who was hired by owners and generally ruled in favor of them.

So, when Messermith and McNally challenged the reserve clause, they took their case in front of an impartial arbitrator, rather than suing the commissioner as Flood was forced to do. The arbitrator, Peter Seitz, ruled in favor of the players, finally putting an end to the reserve clause’s dominance. The owners fired Seitz the next day.

Miller did not allow himself to be blinded by the victory. He realized that if too many players suddenly entered the market as free agents, salaries might actually fall. Therefore, he agreed to allow only players who had been in the major leagues for at least six years to shop around for the best offers.

The strategy worked. In addition to gaining the fundamental right to choose their employers, baseball players saw their salaries increase dramatically. The average annual salary for players rose from $19,000 to $241,000 during the time Miller led the MLBPA Today the average salary is just under $3 million, according to the Players Association. The minimum salary for a player when Miller started in 1966 was $6,000. In 1968, he negotiated the first collective bargaining agreement in the history of professional sports, boosting the minimum to $10,000. Now it is $400,000.

Miller’s contributions to the sport led Hall of Fame broadcaster Red Barber to say in 1992, “Marvin Miller, along with Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson, is one of the two or three most important men in baseball history.”

But, while Miller worked to ensure that a neutral arbitrator, and not a proxy for management, would decide labor-related disputes, his own fate as a potential Hall of Famer remains in the hands of the team owners he fought so skillfully.

Separate committees vote on Hall of Fame nominees in different categories. Miller was considered by the Executives and Pioneers Committee, consisting of 12 members. Two of the members are former players, three are writers, and the remaining seven are current or former team executives. To make it into the Hall of Fame, a nominee must receive 75 percent of the vote, or nine votes. Miller this year received seven. While Miller apparently had unanimous support from the players and writers on the committee, he would also have needed to win over four of the seven executives to earn his place in the Hall of Fame. Elections will not be held again until 2011, when Miller would be 93.

I began following baseball in 1967. I remember Flood as a graceful and talented outfielder, who himself probably would be in the Hall of Fame but for the confrontation with Kuhn that essentially ended his career. I saw Messersmith and McNally as tough, durable pitchers in their prime. They could hold their own on the field, but they needed Miller to help them get their due in the workplace.

I have been meaning to go back to Cooperstown. After this year’s vote, I made a promise to myself: As long as Marvin Miller is kept out of the Hall of Fame, I’m staying away, too. It is my small gesture in honor of a man who made a big difference.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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