Overdue for Immortality
Are you an Adrian Beltre fan? If you read this site, my guess is 95% of you answered yes. The other 5% must be high.
What about Ian Desmond? That one’s harder, but you can’t argue he brings the potential for a great deal of reward for little output.
How about Yu Darvish? I’m guessing again we’re up in the 90s, with a few of you holding out because you worry about durability. But is there any argument he’s the best ace the Rangers have ever had? Not really.
All three of these men are Rangers, in one way or another, thanks more to the efforts of one man than any other.
This man never played a professional game in his life. He was an economist. But his entry onto the scene, on this day in 1966, changed not just baseball but professional sports.
Fifty years ago, a seismic event took place. A man entered baseball and would change the game arguably more than any player outside of Jackie Robinson and Babe Ruth. That’s not me saying that; that’s Red Barber. He should know: he called almost every game of Jackie’s career for Brooklyn, including that world-altering first one.
The man that shook the foundation of sports to its core – with aftershocks occurring daily to this day – was Marvin Miller.
I can’t give you a full recounting of Miller’s contributions. That’s worthy of a book, and luckily, Miller himself wrote the story before passing away in 2012. Miller’s book is understandably defensive in places – he is vilified by some for the proliferation of millionaire players, but understand that wasn’t Miller’s goal in 1966. He wanted to do away with the reserve clause, which unilaterally bound a player to his team for the whole of his career.
As any union man would – and Miller came to head the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) from the ranks of the United Steelworkers of America – he wanted higher salaries for players. Could he, or anyone, have predicted the astronomical levels they’d reach? Not likely. But as a free market economist, Miller would argue – correctly, I’d say – that salary levels only reach what the market can bear. Unless there is collusion – and there has been before, a sin for which the owners are still literally and figuratively paying almost 30 years on – the market is set by those with the deepest pockets. There have been efforts to curtail this, and I suspect Miller would fight those efforts. For he was a fighter.
No one ever fought for the player’s rights to a strong union more than Marvin Miller. When he joined the union in 1966, it was weak enough that a dual holdout for a million dollars by Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale earlier that year had nearly seen them go without a team to play for. That’s Don Drysdale, with Bob Gibson arguably the most intimidating pitcher of his time, and Sandy Koufax, arguably the greatest lefthander before the advent of Randy Johnson, and still considered one of the best pitchers, in his prime, ever. They got roughly 1/10 of what they were asking for, and had to like it.
The real impact of Miller never would have come about without Curt Flood, who gave up his career to challenge the Reserve Clause after he refused a trade to the Phillies in 1970 and went to court – eventually the Supreme Court. The court upheld the reserve clause, but the crack in the dam was too big to plug. In 1974, Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally, two solid pitchers – McNally a multiple 20-game winner with Baltimore – played without contracts and were declared free agents at the end of the year. That winter, Catfish Hunter signed a multi-year, multi-million dollar contract with the Yankees. By the end of the decade, Nolan Ryan would leave California for Houston at a million dollars a year.
It wasn’t all roses – baseball would see multiple work stoppages throughout that decade and into the 1980s and 1990s – including the rupture of the season for 50+ games in 1981 and the cancellation of the 1994 season in August. But despite those tears, the fabric of the game became stronger. Players were free to move teams.
All thanks to Miller, who built the union into arguably the most powerful union – not sports union, but union, period – by the time he left office in 1982.
But he was, for such a hard driver, also a terribly good man. He was married faithfully to the same woman for 70 years, and was universally loved by players for his unwavering support of them. One of the reasons the union fights even for players suspended for a variety of ills, in fact, is the esprit de corps that Miller instilled.
One of the great tragedies of Miller’s life is he never saw election to Cooperstown. He has been up multiple times, most recently in 2014. Support has always been split, with former players in support, former executives against, and writers taking various positions. But few who look at the letter of the law – having an impact on the game – can argue that Miller’s was huge, and worthy of a plaque. One of the reasons baseball is the billion-dollar industry it is today is fluidity of player movement and proliferation of pay, which has kept some great players in the game, and brought many others who might have chosen other sports to choose baseball.
Even a man who saw Miller’s creation lead to his greatest blight – the cancellation of the 1994 World Series – could not argue with Miller’s impact. Here’s former Commissioner Bud Selig on Miller and the Hall of Fame:
“The criteria for non-playing personnel is the impact they made on the sport. Therefore Marvin Miller should be in the Hall of Fame on that basis. Maybe there are not a lot of my predecessors who would agree with that, but if you’re looking for people who make an impact on the sport, yes, you would have to say that.”
But the accolades that would mean the most to Miller are former players. Joe Torre – now a member of Baseball’s Commissioner’s Office –endorsed him unequivocally for all he to change the game for the good. Torre said, “”Marvin was a groundbreaker. Players of my era and the player of today should appreciate the benefits that resulted from Marvin’s leadership. He had a great way of communicating and relating the issues to us. I was proud to be one of the players that sat alongside him.”
Tom Seaver said, “Marvin’s exclusion from the Hall of Fame is a national disgrace.”
Joe Morgan added, “They should vote him in and then apologize for making him wait so long.”
And Bob Costas observed, “There is no non-player more deserving of the Hall of Fame.”
Sadly, like many a deserving former great whose contributions went far above and beyond the field – the great Negro League ambassador and baseball lifer Buck O’Neil is my personal “greatest slight” – will not be alive to see his induction. But if there is justice, when the roll is called in 2017’s election, the likes of Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines, and Trevor Hoffman will have Marvin Miller’s plaque next to theirs.
It would only be fitting. He made them millionaires, many times over, and gave the likes of Hoffman the chance – however fleeting – to extend his career as a Milwaukee Brewer, while Raines built on his All-Star career with powerful stops in Chicago and New York, cementing a legacy that might have went the way of his first team, the Montreal Expos.
Beyond any legacy or election to that hallowed Hall, Miller would see that as his greatest legacy. Of his own legacy, he said, “I’m proudest of the fact that I’ve been retired for almost 29 years at this point (2011), and there are knowledgeable observers who say that this might still be the strongest union in the country. I think that’s a great legacy.”
Indeed, it is. For all the wrongs you may find in it, baseball is better for a stronger union. It is better because fans like us get to experience the joy of Adrian Beltre up close, rather than once every few years when the Dodgers roll through or we host an All-Star game. He allowed teams that were also-rans to use free agency to build champions.
And he broke down a system that was compared by Flood to indentured servitude. While that’s a strong term, it has a historical precedent. In Nazi Germany, during the period before and during World War II, baseball was strongly seen as an example of American inferiority – it was a game of gypsies, not like the noble individual sports, or – if you must play a team sport – European football. Among the strong statements that Adolf Hitler insisted be placed in German textbooks: lessons about baseball’s reserve clause. He insisted that this clause was proof that slavery still existed in the United States.
Marvin Miller helped bring down a system that Hitler used to compare America to Nazi Germany. Just let that sink in when you think it was all about salaries.
The players thought enough of his impact and his humanity to honor him greatly: In 1997, the MLB Players Association created the Marvin Miller Man of the Year Award as one of its annual “Players Choice Awards”. Among the few players to win that award multiple times, for contributions to the game and the community, was one Michael Young.
Hank Aaron summed up my own feelings about Miller best: “Marvin Miller should be in the Hall of Fame if the players have to break down the doors to get him in.” To The Hammer, I add, “Here, here.”
So on this, the 50th anniversary of his taking the reins, look out at Adrian Beltre firing a ball across the diamond or blasting a line shot out to left in Ranger blue and thank Marvin Miller.
He’d consider that his greatest honor.