NEW YORK - When it comes to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, former players' union leader Marvin Miller agrees with the old Groucho Marx line. "I don't care to belong to any club that will have me as a member."
But he's not joking.
After getting overlooked in 2003 and 2007 for election and getting passed by on three Veterans Committee votes, Miller recently wrote a letter to the Baseball Writers Association of America asking them to keep his name off subsequent ballots. Even when he's dead.
"I don't believe in an afterlife," says the 91-year-old Miller, who changed baseball forever as the first executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association from 1966-82. "But I've asked my wife and children - my likely survivors - to do whatever they could to prevent it. I'm just saying, 'Leave me alone.' "
He calls the institution "a crock."
He wrote recently, "I find myself unwilling to contemplate one more rigged Veterans Committee whose members are handpicked to reach a particular outcome while offering a 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."
In 1975, Miller defeated the reserve clause, which had bound a player to a team, and paved the way for free agency. He ushered in salary arbitration, collective bargaining, and stronger pensions. Owners hated him.
Pulitzer Prize-winning sportswriter Red Smith called him "the second most influential man in the history of baseball" behind Babe Ruth. In a poll of people who changed sports, Sports Illustrated once ranked him eighth, just ahead of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Jim Bouton, who wrote "Ball Four," calls him "the greatest figure in sports history." Hank Aaron said the Hall of Fame doors should be broken down to get Miller in. Three-time Cy Young Award winner Tom Seaver, who holds the highest plurality in Hall of Fame history, called Miller's exclusion "a national disgrace."
Every current player owes him thanks. With Miller at the helm, the average player salary increased from $19,000 in 1967 to $241,000 when he retired in 1982. In 2003, he was placed on the Veterans Committee ballot (for managers, umpires, and executives) and received 44 percent of the vote, well short of the necessary 75 percent for induction. All Hall of Fame players were eligible to vote. Some old-timers resented the money Miller got for modern-day players when they earned much less. Others, such as Reggie Jackson, believe only players should be in the Hall of Fame. The Veterans Committee did not elect anybody in '03.
In 2007, Miller garnered 63 percent of the votes. His nemesis, former commissioner Bowie Kuhn, got only 17 percent. Again, nobody was elected. Last December, the Veterans Committee switched to a 12-man panel, including seven former executives, three writers, and two Hall of Fame players. They selected Kuhn, former Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley, and former Pirates owner Barney Dreyfuss. Miller received just three votes.
A rigged election, Miller says, loaded with owners.
"The very act of rigging the committee, what I call voting the cemetery - they were all dead - the very act of getting these people in made the very act of getting me in impossible," says Miller. "This is now an organization that I don't respect."
Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson disputed those allegations.
"There's no reason to believe it's rigged; that's ridiculous," he says. "We have complete confidence in the process we put together of those who elect."
The next Veterans Committee election is in 2010. It's too early to say whether Miller's name will be on the ballot. "We'll cross that bridge when we get there," says Idelson. "Marvin's eligible in perpetuity for the Hall of Fame and whether he ever earns election will do nothing to diminish the impressive impact he had on the game. Nothing will ever take away from that. It's something Marvin can be proud of."
Fighting spiritSitting in his East Side Manhattan apartment recently, a smile on his face, a glint in his eyes, and venom on his tongue, Miller fires some high heat at Cooperstown. In a 90-minute interview, he questions the lack of media coverage of the resignation of Hall of Fame president Dale Petroskey for failure to exercise proper fiduciary responsibility (mismanagement, not money stealing, says Idelson). And he laughs out loud at the switch to a Veterans Committee in which 10 of the 12 members weren't players, which effectively quashed his chances of induction.
"They did things even a two-bit dictator doesn't do anymore," he says with a shrug. "They abolished the entire electorate. They said you no longer can vote. We will name a small committee. So a lot of people started calling it the Hall of Shame."
Miller says he never pushed to get into Cooperstown. "In that whole 21-year period, I complained to nobody. I did no campaigning. I did not complain publicly or privately."
But now some of the Veterans Committee members are owners Miller testified against in collusion hearings.
"So now they end up as my judges, " he says.
One is former Red Sox CEO John Harrington, who, along with Haywood Sullivan, lost Hall of Fame catcher Carlton Fisk to the Chicago White Sox via free agency in 1981 when they didn't tender him a contract in time.
A call to Harrington, now chairman of the Yawkey Foundations, seeking comment on Miller's antipathy for the Hall of Fame was not returned.
Besides the owners, Miller has many enemies. There is no middle ground - people love him or hate him. Some believe he ruined baseball, recalling the strikes of 1972 and '81. And some believe Miller brought about skyrocketing ticket costs that priced out the average fan.
Miller nods his head. He's heard this before.
"Prices have gone through the roof and not just in baseball," he acknowledges. "A play on Broadway will cost you a couple hundred dollars a ticket. It costs you a whole week's salary to fill up your auto tank. These are strange times. The real answer is something that people don't understand. When I began and the union was formed in 1966, there were 20 major league franchises and they had a combined revenue the year before of under $50 million for the whole year. The last year, the revenue exceeded $6 billion. That's the industry we've ruined with higher salaries."
Miller also denies free agency ruined the national pastime, that small-market teams such as the Kansas City Royals and Pittsburgh Pirates can't compete in payroll with the major television markets.
"In the old days before free agency, if you weren't the Yankees, Giants, Dodgers, or Cardinals, you were [upset]; everybody forgets that. The Yankees won every year. Every single year from 1949-58 either the Yankees, Dodgers, or Giants were in the World Series. You think everyone enjoyed that?"
Staying togetherMiller was born in the Bronx in 1917 and learned the power of togetherness during the Great Depression.
He worked for the National War Labor Relations Board, the United Auto Workers Union, and the United Steelworkers union before being named executive director of the MLBPA in 1966. In 1968, Miller secured the union's first collective bargaining agreement, raising the minimum wage from $6,000 to $10,000, the first raise for players in 20 years. Then he got independent arbitration included in the agreement, a landmark move because prior to that, the commissioner ruled on such issues.
"[Kuhn] had this same erroneous idea that the commissioner is an all-powerful czar with unlimited powers, that he represented everybody," Miller says. "The owners, the players, the umps, the fans. That he was an impartial person.
"I said, 'Who pays the commissioner? The owners do. Who appoints him? Who gave him the authority, and when they want to get rid of him, who tells him to go? The owners. So what do you mean the commissioner is impartial?' "
Kuhn will be inducted posthumously July 27.
Miller says he will never set foot in the Hall again.
Stan Grossfeld can be reached at email@example.com.