Notes from the Shadows of Cooperstown: December 17, 2007
Snubbed Again: The Doors of the Hall Remain Closed to Marvin Miller
I wrote the following back in July 1996, but it seems appropriate to take another look at Marvin Miller, in the wake of his recent snub by the Veterans Committee. That group instead voted to induct Bowie Kuhn into Cooperstown next summer. This has stirred up a controversy about Miller, Kuhn, and what Baseball's Hall of Fame really is -- or is supposed to be.
A MILLER'S TALE
By coincidence, I finished reading A Whole Different Ball Game: The Sport and Business of Baseball (Birchland Press, 1991), by Marvin Miller, on Independence Day 1996, three days after the 30th anniversary of the founding of the MLBPA union, which went largely unnoticed and uncelebrated.
I was somewhat familiar with the main events that Miller details, but this book is a must for any fan who wishes a better insight into the basic issues that have divided players from owners -- and owners from owners -- since baseball entered the brave new world of labor relations. I plan to follow up Miller with Hardball -- it's only fair to Bowie Kuhn to hear his side.
Marvin Miller was not the first choice of the Players Association, and becoming a union was not in their original plan, either. Red Barber once credited Miller with being one of the two men who most changed baseball -- Babe Ruth being the other. Red is probably on the money (no pun intended) about that. But you wonder some, after hearing Miller's version of things, if it was more a case of his being present when baseball came to a series of crossroads, and then letting the skills he developed in the steel industry -- including simple logic -- do their thing.
Miller writing about the period 1966-1990 (Fay Vincent is still Commish when the tale ends), is a lot like the winners writing the history books. He tries hard not to chortle. His style is extremely readable, with candor, humor, irony, and insight woven together with either marvelous recollections or damn good notes. This is a fascinating book to read in 1996, because so many of the folks in it -- Steinbrenner, Reinsdorf, Selig, Fehr, Molitor -- are still making history. There are portraits of Kuhn, Giamatti, Charlie O. Finley, and many of the players (even Mantle and Mays), too.
While I continue to believe the owners are much more responsible for the problems of MLB than the players -- I have a better feel now for the thinking and working of the union. Miller, and now Fehr, must realize that they can catalyze MLB's self-destruction ... the Strike of 1994 gave us a glimpse of how the sport/business can collapse. It is not clear at all that the owners have yet accepted the union as something that won't just go away, or break under pressure. As fans, we can only hope that the owners read Miller's book and learn from it. (You can bet Don Fehr has a copy in every rookie's locker -- or should.) Learn, and study war no more.
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"Both Topps [trading card company] and the [MLB] owners gave lip service to free enterprise, but both have shown a decided preference for lack of competition. I have little doubt that if organized baseball were opened to competitors, as was the case with Topps, the results would be similar: The brand of baseball shown to the fans would be superior, it would be promoted more effectively (probably on a worldwide basis), the competition would be more intense, there would be more leagues, franchises, and players, and fans would benefit by paying less at the box office." -- Marvin Miller, AWDBG, p 52.
Maybe someone who has collected cards for more than the last five years can tell me how the end of the Topps monopoly really affected the baseball card industry. Did prices ever drop? From the distance of a father with a collecting son, I noticed that different kinds of cards appeared, and the competition inspired a wild variety of sets. I noticed that .220 hitters never looked better on cardboard, thanks to lasers and a whole new technology. But the proliferation seemed to hit a peak (the market saturated?), and after the $trike, the card industry seems to have shrunk considerably. Would the end of MLB's monopoly follow that pattern? New leagues spawning wars to sign the top names, a "top" franchise in every city that's now Triple-A, and then a crash, followed by the survival of -- two 8-team major leagues?
November 1970. Curt Flood meets with Senators' owner Bob Short, a gaggle of attorneys, and Marvin Miller, to see if Curt could/would play for the D.C. franchise in 1971. According to Miller, Bob Short remarks, "We're going to do everything possible to make sure that the boy is comfortable." Miller glances at Flood for his reaction to the remark. "Curt saw me looking at him; he gave me a straight look back and winked. The gesture told me: 'Stay cool. It's par for the course. The insensitivity of an owner is nothing to get excited about.'" [Emphasis mine] -- Miller, AWDBG, page 201 (hardcover edition).
Fifteen years later, and Short's remark would be on the national news at six, and have Short in baseball Siberia by eleven. That is, if the media (a) had a slow news day; (b) had an axe to grind with Short; or (c) was more or less put up to it by the other owners. A vulnerable, maverick owner (like Veeck, Finley, Steinbrenner, Turner, and most recently Schott) will not be supported by the pack, or its voice, the Commish.
Fans complain most, I think, about the salary structure of MLB being out of whack. Miller writes that any adverse criticism when Babe Ruth's salary peaked at $80,000 a year, was "buried beneath the favorable publicity he received. In fact, when the Yankees signed Babe to ever-higher contracts, they staged press conferences to publicize them, feeling that this helped make the Yankees the biggest draw in baseball." -- Miller, AWDBG, page 308.
Part of this fan has always complained that player salaries are routinely made public: our rooting is warped when we see dollar signs instead of numbers on the backs of uniforms. But another part understands. Players have always been entertainers, the product, but have only been paid as such a few decades.
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On the final day of the 1996 Cooperstown Symposium, I attended back-to-back sessions on labor relations.
One, "Labor Relations in Baseball: Lessons Learned About Collective Bargaining," sums up Karen Koziara's notion that folks who are well-informed about baseball are "knowledgeable about collective bargaining -- not only in baseball, but in the United States generally." In other words, some of us fans have been unwilling students, the last three decades, and all of the work stoppages taught us lessons.
Karen is a professor at Temple's School of Business and Management, and a Phillies' fan -- she recalled how the threat of a strike in 1993 had that city somewhat panicky, as the Phils elbowed their way past the Braves and into the Series. Her presentation was clear and convincing, and sparked some lively discussion. We have indeed become educated about subjects that the first generations of fans learned only in their workplace.
Marvin Miller's book, as well as Helyar's Lords of the Realm, could be textbooks in business or law schools. Fans have learned a lot, which these additions to our vocabulary demonstrate: arbitration; collusion; agents; lockout. "Strike" was already there.
I suppose some fans have tried hard not to learn their lessons, refusing to do their homework (by reading the whole sports page, not just the box scores and averages), and not participating in the discussion. But any fan following a team these days really has to keep up on who is in the last year of their contract (and thus eligible to become a free agent) -- on both the home team and the visitors -- because their ace might be ours next time around.
Small-market teams' fans have it easier, I believe. We don't have to shop in the meat section, we can only afford cereal. Yankees' and Braves' fans, on the other hand, fret over payroll problems and drool over potential acquisitions all the time. Who knows if this will change much, with a luxury tax in place?
* * * * *
Eleven years later, the answer is no. As a Pirate fan, I can still relax in the off-season. The gap between Haves and Have-nots in MLB seems unchanged much, despite the luxury tax. The money in baseball is bigger than ever, but I think economics is still one of the game's least attractive features. Yet, the money affects everything -- especially who plays for each team.
I had not realized that there was still so much animosity out there toward Miller, until this recent vote. So many fans blame him for the bloated salaries and the high price of tickets.
But there is. Fans are divided these days over Barry Bonds and PES, and over Owners versus Players -- once symbolized by Kuhn vs Miller, now by Selig vs Fehr. NOTES readers know that I think baseball fans -- by definition -- disagree. We love to argue, especially about the Hall of Fame, the All Star voting, the manager's stupid decision last game.
But Owners vs Players is a little different. There was another item in today's baseball news, buried by the Mitchell Report. And that was the signing of A-Rod by the Yankees, a contract only slightly less obscene than his last few. I wish Selig would give more attention to that lingering problem of leveling the playing field. Only a few teams can afford A-Rod -- that's a problem. But so are those salaries in MLB today. They are a big reason why players will risk their health, their life, and yes, their careers, to get the edge in the competition to play ball. I don't like salary caps, but I'd love to see the teams agree to stick to budgets ... maybe the players would all agree that the best of the bunch can live comfortably on, say $10 million a year. Fine. Phase it in. The team income over budget goes to support the minors, or our schools, or to fund medical research, or to various charities, I don't care. But we need to draw some lines, not in the sand, but in the ledgers. And not just baseball.
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The following was posted to SABRís Deadball Era Committee, in a discussion about whether Marvin Miller should be honored by the Hall, just because heís had an impact on baseball.
For the record, Adolph Hitler was the TIME Man of the Year in 1938, followed by Stalin in 1939. (That list later added Nixon and the Ayatollah, not to mention many of US, if we were under 25 in 1966, or "You" in 2006.) I think the last time Hitler came up in baseball discussion, Marge Schott got into a lot of trouble, so I suggest we move on from him, to be safe.
What I wanted to suggest here is that sooner or later, the discussion about who should be IN or OUT of the Cooperstown Hall -- Miller? Kuhn? -- becomes a discussion about what we all think the Hall is, or should be. I'm not bothered by the inclusion of some real rascals, because I see it more like a family album, folks we want to remember, and honor by remembering, not because they were saints, but because, well, they did something worth remembering and honoring. Sometimes I feel that the Hall should have a plaque for everyone in the game -- then we can argue about who rates a bronze or gold, who gets a big one or a tiny one plaque.
The Hall of Fame has always been -- correct me if I'm wrong -- very much about baseball politics and image. Things not quite central to the average fan's rooting. Shoeless Joe Jackson is in a number of sports Hall of Fames, but not Cooperstown. I think Abe Attell is in even more boxing Hall of Fames, and his role in the 1919 Fix is much, much less controversial. I believe OJ Simpson is still in Canton's HOF, and if he had been convicted of murder, his continued presence there would not bother me. He's there because we want to remember him at his best. (I feel the same way about Jackson & Rose, but perhaps their plaques could be explicit about that: they are in bronze because of what they DID, between the lines.)
There are many fans who really want the Baseball Hall of Fame to be a genuine shrine, where heroes can be worshipped, their sins forgiven and forgotten, and ONLY the good stuff put on display. But Cooperstown is not that Hall, it is already more like a family album, complete with drunks and racists and assorted addicts and wife-beaters. (I'm guessing at that last bunch.) Ted Williams was bothered (wrongly, in my view) that right down from his own plaque was Charlie Comiskey's. He was also bothered that for a long time, no Negro Leaguers were honored there, and he helped change that. Ted also championed Joe Jackson (whose admission was also supported by Bob Feller, inexplicably -- maybe as a favor to Ted?) Halls change, maybe in a couple centuries, Cooperstown will be dominated by women. Anyway, Bowie Kuhn's induction doesn't bother me, and it seems to be better for Marvin Miller -- just like Buck O'Neil's omission earned him so much special attention. But don't look for Marvin to follow Buck in any back door.