Marvin Miller's absence is Cooperstown's shame   

Updated: December 4, 2007, 12:38 PM ET

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The Lords of Baseball never could defeat Marvin Miller; they've had to settle for snubbing him.

The longtime leader of the Major League Baseball Players Association wasn't just denied entry to the baseball Hall of Fame for the third time Sunday. He was subjected to a level of irony and cruelty no 90-year-old man should have to endure.

Among the three purportedly more worthy candidates elected in the "executive/pioneer" category was . . . Bowie Kuhn.


Marvin Miller

AP Photo

In 1972, Marvin Miller announced the end of baseball's first strike. Recognize that ex-player standing behind him?

The late commissioner compiled a lifetime batting average of .000 against Miller in baseball's pivotal labor battles of the 1970s and '80s. As the intrepid head of the players union, Miller reshaped the sport's economics. As the inept figurehead of the owners, Kuhn tried to preserve the status quo.

And lost every time.

Now, the Hall of Fame veterans committee has done the seemingly impossible. It has made the BCS bowl process seem, by contrast, a wholly rational and transparent undertaking.

There's an argument against Miller as a builder of the game. That's exactly what the enshrinement category he was up for -- along with Kuhn, the late Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley and the late Pirates owner Barney Dreyfuss, who were also elected by the committee -- was supposed to designate.

Some would call Miller a destroyer of the game. His MLBPA and his ownership foes have engaged in more labor wars (seven work stoppages) than any other sport. Fans' goodwill has been sorely tested over and over again. All that is true.

But the critics are still wrong. For my money, there are only three revolutionary figures in baseball history. Babe Ruth changed the playing of the game. Jackie Robinson changed the racial composition of the game. And Miller changed the economics of the game.

What Miller destroyed was the old way of running baseball, and not a moment too soon. He transformed MLB from a feudal state into a real business. Without the concessions he wrought at the bargaining table, MLB would have ambled along in its fine old traditions and never become the $6 billion industry it is now.

Consider what happened when he freed baseball players from the shackles of the reserve clause. In the first decade alone after winning free-agency rights in 1976, the players' average pay jumped sevenfold, from $52,300 to $369,000.

To generate enough revenues to keep pace, owners had to run their teams smarter and market the game harder. If they hadn't done so, baseball would have eventually dwindled toward irrelevance. Instead, it drew a record 79.5 million fans in 2007.

Yet the Lords of Baseball moaned and groaned about Miller and what he'd wrought, all the way to the bank. The dirty secret was that moneyball was great for business. From Reggie Jackson to Alex Rodriguez, highly paid, highly mobile superstars stimulated huge fan interest in the game. The system enhanced competitive balance, not decade-long dynasties like the old Yankees.

Bowie Kuhn

AP Photo

Bowie Kuhn, shown here in 1977, is a Hall of Famer with a .000 career batting average against the union.

The reason the Lords really and enduringly hated Miller was that he changed the balance of power. He took away their once-absolute control of the business. They continued to hate him long after his 1982 retirement, feeling he remained hugely and poisonously influential on his successor and protégé, Donald Fehr.

The continuing animus was still this close to the surface in the early 1990s, when I was interviewing owners and executives for a book on the baseball business. But more recently, I'd been thinking, naively: Well, everyone's moved on.

It's been 13 years since the last strike. It's been so peaceful that the latest collective bargaining agreement, announced during the 2006 World Series, was settled long before the usual deadline brinksmanship of MLB labor negotiations.

Now this Hall of Fame vote. It was as if a time machine had set down in Cooperstown, N.Y., and transported the veterans committee back to the 1960s, when Miller was first organizing the union and encountering owners like that new Hall of Famer O'Malley.

"Tell that Jewish boy," he once told the owners' labor negotiator, referring to Miller, "to go on back to Brooklyn."

When I called Miller at his Upper West Side apartment in New York on Monday night, he wasn't seething about the Hall of Fame vote. He was listening to the soundtrack of "Guys and Dolls" and letting his wife, Terry, handle the seething. But he, too, had a sense of deja vu.

"They seem to be the same kind of small-minded, vicious people as the owners were when I came in," he told me, though, ever the cool, rational man, he wasn't taking it personally.

"I'm only mad at myself," he said. "After the first time on the ballot, I should have just withdrawn my name from consideration. My judgment of my chances was, 'Never.'"

But Terry Miller and others talked him out of it. That first time, he drew 44 percent of the votes. And, indeed, he climbed to 63 percent the next time around, just 10 votes shy of what he needed for the 75 percent that would get him in.

Kuhn made it onto only 17 percent of the ballots in the last round of voting conducted under the old process earlier this year.

Then the Hall of Fame changed the format. Instead of allowing all Hall of Famers to vote for "veterans" nominees, it created three new panels. Nominees in the "executive/pioneer" category were no longer being considered by 81 voters, but by 12, and that group is comprised primarily of former MLB executives.

Voila!Kuhn, a longtime Hall of Fame board member, got 10 votes. Miller got three.

Vladimir Putin couldn't have done it better; Cooperstown couldn't look worse.

Miller puts it best.

"The whole thing is degrading," he said, "but not so much to me as to the rest of the Hall of Fame and the people in it."

John Helyar is a senior writer for and ESPN The Magazine. He previously covered the business of sports for The Wall Street Journal and Fortune magazine and is the author of "Lords of the Realm: The Real History of Baseball."


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