Here's a complete list of 20thcentury baseball men who were clearly more important than Marvin Miller: Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson.
Miller, the head of the Major League Baseball Players Association from 1966 to 1982, was not the only person responsible for turning what had been for decades an impotent company union into what is regarded as, pound-for-pound, the most powerful union in the country, but he was the most important. He saw that the reserve clause that allowed teams unlimited control over where ballplayers worked and how much money they made was wrong and illegal. He conceived a complex strategy to right this wrong, he convinced hundreds of the most individualistic people in the world of the rightness of his strategy and of the power of unity. And he succeeded in all his most important goals, not least building a union that was dependent on a strong and informed membership, rather than the leadership of one man.
Strikes, binding arbitration, and a system that limits free agency to elite players and restricts the number of them that reach the market in a given year to a tiny proportion, thus driving player salaries ever higher, are just a few of his legacies. These changes inspired radical innovations in the way franchises are built and managed that led the game to unimaginable popularity and success.
Miller didn't just help players become incomprehensibly rich; as he knew all along, the fight over the balance of power between labor and management is never a zero-sum game. It's one that everyone can win. His assault on baseball's feudal structure led to a vastly improved and much more competitive game, which led to more fans being willing to spend money on it, which led to owners making greater profits and baseball becoming an ever more integral part of the culture. Great as the legacies of men like Josh Gibson, Hank Aaron, and Christy Mathewson are, no one save Ruth and Robinson was more responsible for and representative of such fundamental changes in the game. (Arguments for Kennesaw Mountain Landis and Branch Rickey, though, will be duly noted.) If the Hall of Fame only could have 20 members, Miller would deserve to be counted among them.
All of this being true, yesterday's announcement that the Hall of Fame Veterans Committee — which comprises living Hall of Famers and winners of awards for distinguished careers in writing and broadcasting — has once again elected no one was downright infuriating. This august body, created in 2001, is charged with giving a second chance to players unfairly overlooked by the baseball writers who vote players into the Hall of Fame and with passing judgment on umpires and executives. It has now met three times and has elected no one — not Marvin Miller, not Ron Santo, and not Joe Torre. It has become even more irrelevant than the body it replaced, a Veterans Committee that served for many years simply as a means of inducting Frankie Frisch's cronies and, as legend had it, elected the wrong player on two different occasions. One suspects that Ted Williams wouldn't pass muster with this bunch.
The problem is obvious — Hall of Famers aren't really more or less qualified to decide who gets into the Hall of Fame. They should certainly have their say, and anyone who wouldn't want to hear what Willie Mays or Bob Gibson thought of Santo or Torre is a fool. In the end, though, letting players control who gets to join their club has never been a good idea. They tend to give a free pass to their teammates and buddies and hold everyone else under the level of Ruth to be deficient in some manner. That's understandable; ballplayers are no likelier to have a detailed grasp of the scope of the game's history and where various personalities fit within it, which is something of a specialist's field, than any other group of passionate and knowledgeable fans. The fault doesn't lie with the players, it lies with the Hall of Fame, which chose to give them power for public relations purposes, and because they rely to some extent on the goodwill of the living Hall of Famers to keep the museum in Cooperstown a going concern.
There probably isn't any reform coming in the near future for these very reasons. The present system is new, and to alter it would require the Hall not only to admit a mistake, but also to offend the living Hall of Famers, who understandably think themselves uniquely qualified for the job. Certainly, no one wants to have to tell Tom Seaver, Joe Morgan, Bob Feller, and Mike Schmidt that they and their peers have no idea what they're doing. Any voting body that can't find a place beside Chick Hafey and Lloyd Waner for Marvin Miller, though, is set to go the way of the three-man rotation and the polyester jersey.