02/25/2003 9:25 AM ET
Wednesday could be 'Labor Day'
Union founder Miller a HOF favorite
PEORIA, Ariz. -- No one can ignore this strange bit of irony: Marvin Miller, baseball's first labor leader, could be elected to the Hall of Fame this week by the Veterans Committee.
By Barry M. Bloom / MLB.com
Miller, the executive director and virtual founder of the Major League Baseball Players Association, was once an adversary of baseball owners and executives alike. He took the job in 1966 when the average salary was $19,000, the pension plan was a mess and players were bound to one team for perpetuity by the reserve clause.
By the time he faded away after the short strike of 1985, during which he served the union as a consultant, the players association was considered one of the strongest unions in the U.S.
"It was a house union when I started. But I'm most proud that the organization is still a tight knit, effective group," said Miller, nearing his 86th birthday, in a telephone interview from his home in New York. "That was true then and it's still true 20 years after I left it."
Miller's voice sounded a bit scratchy on the telephone, but his points were strong and true.
Miller said though earning a spot in the Hall would be "an honor," he's not sitting anxiously by the phone. His time is taken up these days sifting through his personal papers, which he is donating to the New York University law library. Those mounds of documents also include his tenure with the Machinists, the United Autoworkers and United Steelworkers unions over a 35-year period. A second book is in the offing, but it won't be about baseball like his first one, "A Whole New Ballgame," an autobiography which was published 12 years ago. It'll be a collection of political essays.
He plays tennis, travels with his wife, including a trip to Japan last November when the MLB All-Stars played a team of All-Stars from the Japan leagues, and remembers his days battling the established baseball powers fondly.
"When I came on board, the baseball players knew nothing about what it was like to form a union," he said. "But they were the quickest learners of any group of people I ever represented. They had a real hunger for knowledge and wanted to act quickly upon it."
For that reason, the reformed Veterans Committee could be stacked in Miller's favor. It is made up of the 58 living HOFers, plus 25 writers and radio announcers who have been inducted into their wings of the Hall.
Among the 58 former players are a number who benefited from Miller's labor expertise, including Robin Roberts, the pitcher who was on the original steering committee that selected Miller as the union's first executive director. The list of players in the Hall from Miller's era, is long and glorious and includes Tom Seaver, Joe Morgan, Steve Carlton, Reggie Jackson, Jim Palmer, Robin Yount, Phil Niekro and Nolan Ryan.
Miller can be elected into the Hall in the "builders" category, which includes former commissioners, owners and executives. In another strange twist of irony, Bowie Kuhn, the commissioner during most of Miller's rein and an arch nemesis, is one of the other 14 names on this year's ballot.
Like the yearly vote of the baseball writers, a candidate needs to be named on 75 percent of the ballots to get in. Under the new rules, "builders" can only be selected every four years. So if Miller doesn't make it this time, he'll have to wait until he's almost 90.
At least one of the living HOFers feels Miller shouldn't have to wait.
"This is the greatest fraternity in the world, so you want the greatest people there," Morgan told Bloomberg News. "Forget what somebody did for you personally. What was his impact on the game?"
Miller's impact was exponential. The average salary was $241,000 when he left and had soared to $2.3 million last season. The reserve clause was wiped out by an arbitrator's decision and led the way to free agency, which began in 1977. The salary arbitration system was negotiated under Miller. The pension plan, his first project, was tied to television revenue and expanded under Miller into what is now a $100 million piece of the collective bargaining agreement. The perception of baseball's players changed as well.
"They earned their dignity," Miller said.
They also endured two strikes under Miller, in 1972 and 1981. The price of all the gains did not come cheaply in the last quarter of the 20th century.
"Among those people who did not wear a uniform, I don't know of anyone, at least in the last part of the last century, who had anything close to the positive influence Marvin had on the game," said Don Fehr, the union's current executive director. "He's absolutely amazing. He'll be 86 in April. He can't concentrate for 12 hours a day like he used to. He doesn't walk with the fluidity he once did. Short of that, mostly, I don't notice any difference."
Fehr is also part of Miller's legacy. It was in 1975 that Miller hired Fehr, then a young labor lawyer from Kansas City, to help win the Andy Messersmith case which ultimately eliminated the reserve clause through arbitration. Messersmith and Dave McNally were the two pitchers who finally challenged the reserve clause and won.
Miller tried to retire at first in 1982, but the union's short romance with Ken Moffett, a mediator during the strike which wiped out 55 days in the middle of the 1981 season, ended quickly and badly and Miller was forced back to work in an interim role.
Fehr succeeded Miller in 1984 and the aging labor warrior was ultimately able to disengage the following summer. His influence has diminished over the years -- he said he hardly heard from Fehr last summer when MLB and the union ended their first labor negotiations since the 1960s without a work stoppage.
Writers, though, never stopped calling, seeking his take on the negotiating process. Writers have been ringing him up at his New York abode the past weeks, as well, he said, seeking comment about his Hall of Fame prospects.
Miller said he has to laugh. His main contribution, he feels, is that he built an organization with continuity. From 1966 to the present, Miller and Fehr have been the main executive directors. Meanwhile, there have been six commissioners and only two ownership groups remain from the end of Miller's tenure -- George Steinbrenner's with the New York Yankees and Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn of the Chicago White Sox.
Commissioner Bud Selig, of course, was the principal owner of the Milwaukee Brewers back then.
"That's been our strength," Miller said. "Owners come and go, but the union remains strong."
Barry M. Bloom is a reporter for MLB.com and can be reached at email@example.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.