Published November 28, 2012
There are times when baseball is so grand, so worthy of awe.
Then there are times when it is so small, so petty.
Like the way it treated the legacy of Marvin Miller.
He died Tuesday at the age of 95, having lived not only a long life, but one filled with great purpose and accomplishment. He should be remembered as one of the three most influential figures in baseball history.
Yet Miller is not in the Hall of Fame at Cooperstown.
Why? Because the union chief was too good at his job, and at least some of the men who run the sport still resent the way he dragged them into a truly modern era, kickin' and screamin' all the way.
"RIP Marvin Miller," tweeted former Atlanta Braves outfielder Dale Murphy, a two-time National League MVP in the 1980s. "Never did thank him personally for what he did for me and the Murphy family and for all baseball players. Should have."
While many have contributed to baseball's long, impressive legacy, three really stand out:
— Babe Ruth, the boisterous slugger who essentially forged the game that is played today. Of course, he's in the Hall of Fame.
— Jackie Robinson, the brave man who crashed through the color barrier to make our pastime truly national. Naturally, he's in the Hall of Fame.
— Then there's Miller, who unshackled the players from a career of servitude to the owners.
He's NOT in the Hall of Fame.
What an injustice.
Before Miller came along, a player was expected to perform at whatever salary the owner deemed was fair. As you can imagine, the figure tended to be one that guaranteed the owner had a steady supply of Benjamins to light his cigars, while the player had just enough money to get by on until the season was over. Then, of course, he could find another job — maybe selling Benjamin Moore paint — to keep food on the table until spring training.
If the players didn't like this arrangement, well, tough. The owners had a most un-American ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court in their hip pocket, the 1922 decision upholding the "reserve clause," which essentially bound employee to employer for the length of his career, unless he was traded or released. There was no real power of negotiation, unless you were one of the biggest stars and could threaten a holdout. Even then, the owners essentially held all the cards.
Miller changed that.
After taking over as executive director of the Major League Players Association in 1966, he made it his mission to get rid of the reserve clause, to ensure that players had the freedom to sell their services to the highest bidder when their contract was up — essentially, like any employee who gets a better offer from another company.
That, of course, led to a remarkable boon in player salaries. In 1967, the average was $19,000 a year. By the time Miller retired in 1982, it had climbed to $241,497. This past season, it was around $3.4 million, and anyone who made a big league roster was guaranteed a minimum of $480,000. Also, largely because of the course he set, baseball remains the only major American sport without a salary cap, though players in every league have benefited from the hefty salaries he unleashed.
Anyone who fights powerful interests on behalf of a just cause is bound to cause resentment and anger.
Miller was no different.
The owners despised him for supposedly cutting into their profits (though that's not really the case, as we'll explain later). The fans grew increasingly impatient with his willingness to take the ultimate step — shutting down their beloved ballparks — to get what he wanted. During his 16½ years on the job, there were three strikes and two lockouts, most notably a seven-week stoppage in the middle of the 1981 season.
"What will resonate was his strong and continued determination to fight for what was right," said former big leaguer Tony Clark, now a union executive. "He was very principled."
Of course, there will always be critics who choose to portray Miller as the guy who turned a leisurely sport into a cutthroat business, who transformed its players from loyal employees with deep ties in their communities to soulless mercenaries whose only refrain is "show me the money." But those are the same sort of folks who talk longingly of returning to the good ol' days of rotary phones and Atari instead of iPhones and Xbox.
While not glossing over the long vitriol between players and owners, culminating in the loss of the 1994 World Series, both sides have benefited greatly from the largesse that Miller was instrumental in creating. Revenues have skyrocketed from $50 million in 1967 to $7.5 billion this year. So, while the players' slice of the pie is larger than it was before, the owners' chunk of change is off the charts.
As Miller himself said in April in one of his last public appearances, "I never before saw such a win-win situation in my life, where everybody involved in Major League Baseball, both sides of the equation, still continue to set records in terms of revenue and profits and salaries and benefits."
What about the fans? Sure, they've had to bear the brunt of increased ticket prices, and the cost of attending a game can be tough on a family of four. But baseball, with the benefit of far more games, remains a better deal than other sports. And there's no denying that it's far more popular than it was when Miller took over the union. Just look at attendance. The average per team in 1967 was just over 1.2 million. This season, it was nearly 2.5 million.
Finally, Miller's most significant legacy might be an era of unparalleled competitiveness — which is the exact opposite of what everyone expected at the beginning of free agency. Supposedly, the richest teams would gobble up all the best players, leaving only a handful of franchises with a legitimate shot at the World Series title.
Not even close.
Over the last three decades, 19 teams have won World Series titles. Only four out of 30 franchises have not made at least one Series appearance during that span (and one of those is the Chicago Cubs, whose demons run far deeper than even Miller's golden touch).
In other words, even the fans owe a debt to Miller.
"We are all grateful for his contributions," Detroit Tigers ace Justin Verlander wrote on Twitter. "His legacy will live on for generations."
It's long past time for that legacy to live on at the Hall of Fame.
Only now, it's too late for Miller himself to savor it.
This is one of those times when baseball seems so small, so petty.
Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.or or www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963