The longest introduction for a Hall of Fame inductee at Cooperstown last Wednesday was for the man few in the audience knew about. Several malcontents hooted at the speaker, former head of the Major League Baseball Players Association (and current head of the hockey players’ union) Don Fehr, wanting him to wrap it up. Apparently they were not aware of witnessing the induction of one of the most important figures in baseball history,
In 1990, while writing for the Village Voice, I was asked by Marvin Miller to assist him with his memoir, A Whole Different Ball Game: The Story of Baseball’s New Deal. The book, I’m proud to say, is still in print. If you want to know how the players’ union started, in 1966, how they came together to radically change the business of baseball, the battles with owners that resulted in lockouts and strikes, and finally, how the players were able to force the owners into granting free agency, it’s all there: Curt Flood taking his case to the Supreme Court in 1972, the heated negotiations in smoke-filled rooms, Miller’s personal relationships with Reggie Jackson, Dave Winfield, Jim Bouton, George Steinbrenner, Jackie Robinson, and every other important figure in the game for nearly four decades.
What you won’t read about in the book is the bitter behind-the-scenes politics that kept Marvin Miller out of the Hall of Fame for more than 20 years. The late great Dodgers announcer Red Barber, in a line that has been quoted many times since, told me, “Marvin Miller is one of the three most important people in the game’s history, along with Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson.”
How could a man who has had so much impact on the game be kept out of Cooperstown? And why was he kept out?
The second question is easy: No matter what you read or hear, the Hall of Fame is rigidly controlled by Major League Baseball and the commissioners and owners whose butts Miller and the union soundly whipped, and they didn’t want to honor him in any way. Bowie Kuhn, the stuffed shirt of a commissioner who played the Washington Generals to Miller’s Harlem Globetrotters from 1969 to ’84, was elected into the HOF in 2007. But every year as Miller’s name appeared on the ballot, there was some technicality or unspecified resistance; one year there were rumors that Miller was ineligible because as head of the union he wasn’t technically connected to Major League Baseball. This, of course, was nonsense, and after fierce criticism from sportswriters, former players, fans, and even from a few MLB executives, that argument was dropped. Another was that non-players could only be elected to the Hall by a unanimous vote, and after a careful review of the rules, this objection, too, evaporated. In 2007, Bowie Kuhn, whom Marvin had bested in every union-management conflict, and whom the owners had, in effect, fired by not renewing his contract after the 1984 season, was elected. The message couldn’t have been clearer, and Miller read it.
After Kuhn’s induction, he wrote a letter to Jack O’Connell, secretary of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, which read, in part:
Paradoxically, I’m writing to thank you and your associates for your part in nominating me for Hall of Fame consideration, and, at the same time, to ask that you not do this again. The anti-union bias of the powers who control the Hall has consistently prevented recognition of the historic significance of the changes to baseball brought about by collective bargaining … I find myself unwilling to contemplate one more rigged Veterans Committee whose members are handpicked to reach a particular outcome while offering pretense of a democratic vote. It is an insult to baseball fans, historians, sportswriters, and especially to those baseball players who sacrificed and brought the game into the 21st century. At the age of 91, I can do without farce.
Miller solemnly asked me not to cooperate or participate in any conciliatory ceremony if he was elected to the HOF after his death (as he knew he would be). I promised to honor his wishes.
Over the years, Miller’s achievement has been somewhat distorted and misunderstood. This is from a much-discussed piece by Malcolm Gladwell in 2010, in the New Yorker:
If one side so thoroughly dominates another in the marketplace, is it really market pricing any more? A negotiation in which a man can get paid twenty-two million dollars for hitting a baseball is not really a negotiation, it is a capitulation, and the lingering question left by Miller’s revolution is whether the scales ended up being tilted too far in the direction of Talent — whether what Talent did with its newfound power was simply create a new authority ranking, this time with itself at the top. A few years ago, a group of economists looked at more than a hundred Fortune 500 firms, trying to figure out what predicted how much money the C.E. made. Compensation, it turned out, was only weakly related to the size and profitability of the company. What really mattered was how much money the members of the compensation committee of the board of directors made in their jobs. Pay is not determined vertically, in other words, according to the characteristics of the organization an executive works for; it is determined horizontally, according to the characteristic of the executives’ peers. They decide, among themselves, what the right amount is. This is not a market.
Gladwell is wrong in so many ways it’s difficult to know where to begin. Let’s start here: Yes, executive pay is decided by other executives, and this is not a market. The salaries of baseball players (and other professional athletes) are decided by negotiations between the team, the player, and his representative. The bottom line is that no one puts a gun to a baseball executive’s head to force him to offer a player a contract.
In 2000, the Texas Rangers offered Alex Rodriguez a $250-plus million contract not out of generosity or because they were forced to or because Rodriguez demanded it but because it helped them bring in tons of revenue from new cable networks. In 2007, the Yankees paid him even more money, not because someone twisted their collective arm but because they had the money and believed he was worth it — in TV ratings and ticket and merchandise sales. (I can’t say that on paper A-Rod was worth the money, but he did win two MVP awards and helped them win their only World Series in the entire decade.)
The point is that in any negotiation, no one forces a baseball executive to do anything, let alone to show a modicum of common sense. No pro athlete gets together with their peers to decide how much the athlete’s salary would be — it’s determined, as it should be, by negotiation.
The larger point that many, including Gladwell, did not see — and still don’t — is that the Major League Baseball Players Association is a union, and achieved spectacular success because the players held together as a union.
Oddly, the prejudice against the MLBPA is as prevalent among lefties as it is among those on the right. Conservatives, at least some of them (George Will, for instance), grasp the concept that everyone deserves to be paid a fair share of the wealth their labor has helped generate. Liberals believe, or should believe, that negotiation between management and labor should be dictated by collective bargaining — which, by definition, means labor must be represented by unions. Still, there are a lot of libs who, when faced with a work stoppage in their favorite sport, say things like “Who cares which side wins the negotiation? They’re all just a bunch of multimillionaires.” They should understand that the players aren’t being paid for hitting baseballs. They’re being compensated for the revenue generated by fans who pay to see them hit the baseball.
This last point is one that needs to be made over and over, because each new generation of fans needs to be educated. The baseball players’ union may not seem to have much in common with, say, the steelworkers’ union (though Miller, who was chief economist for the steelworkers’ union for many years, would take issue with that) or Amazon workers desperately trying to form a union, but the example and the inspiration of the MLBPA is there, and it’s there at a time when we see a resurgence of unions. What Miller told baseball players when he became executive director of the union in 1966 can be true for any union member, “If you hold together, you can have things you want within reason.”
Which is why, reluctantly, I went back on my promise to Miller not to support his election to the HOF. His plaque needs to be there, with Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson. ❖