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Marvin Miller was finally elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, an incredibly overdue honor for the one of the single most-important figures in the history of the sport. On the other hand, it’s not what the first-ever executive director of the MLB Players Association wanted: before his death, he had asked to be removed from the ballot, but his request was ignored. Per Murray Chass, here’s what Miller wrote to Jack O’Connell, the secretary-treasurer of the Baseball Writers Association of America, in 2008:
“Paradoxically, I’m writing to thank you and your associates for your part in nominating me for Hall of Fame consideration, and, at the same time, to ask that you not do this again,” Miller wrote to Jack O’Connell, secretary-treasurer of the Baseball Writers Association of America.
Miller added: “The antiunion bias of the powers who control the Hall has consistently prevented recognition of the historic significance of the changes to baseball brought about by collective bargaining. As former executive director (retired since 1983) of the players’ union that negotiated these changes, I find myself unwilling to contemplate one more rigged veterans committee whose members are handpicked to reach a particular outcome while offering the pretense of a democratic vote. It is an insult to baseball fans, historians, sports writers 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.”
I wrote last week for The Nation that Miller being inducted or not isn’t what matters, but that the current MLBPA trying to live up to his considerable legacy would be the true honor. I stand by that, even as he’s been elected, and am even willing to go a bit further: Miller likely had more value as a symbol rejected by the establishment than he will as an accepted piece of baseball’s history by those who control it.
Miller was despised by MLB’s higher ups, who tried to get in his way as often as possible in whatever ways were possible, from Robert Cannon organizing players against him even though he had rejected the executive director job Miller was taking, just because it would make his buddies in ownership happy, to Bowie Kuhn pretending forever that he was some neutral observer and that MLB could handle its own business without Miller trying to destroy it. Not every owner hated him — that Chass piece features a letter from George Steinbrenner, who likely had more issues with the owners and their revenue-sharing plan than he ever did with Miller helping to open up free agency and the return of Yankees’ dominance to baseball, and the Dodgers’ Walter O’Malley seemed to have a respect for him even as the opposition — but those were exceptions.
Now, Miller is in the Hall. So, what’s next? Will we get an extremely sanitized version of Miller’s history told by the Hall? By MLB itself? Is he in now — and were the voters chosen the way they were, to be less opposed to his enshrinement than those of the past — because MLB wants to be able to better control his legacy? To tell the post-fight story of Miller and the labor movement on their own, without any players being able to point to him and tell other players that look, this guy is one of the most vital, necessary pieces in the history of this game, and The Man won’t give him the recognition he deserves, and it’s because they’re still terrified of what he symbolizes, what he can teach us?
These are all questions worth asking, to me, but it might be because this is the sort of thing that you see happen with political leaders and revolutionaries. It’s not just me thinking this, either, as Craig Calcaterra is tweeting about this as I write about it this morning:
It happened to civil rights leaders, it happens to political leaders, and it happens to sports and entertainment figures as well.
Until Miller died — and for some time after — there were people, many still in the game, who cursed his name and work. Now they'll praise him.
— Craig Calcaterra (@craigcalcaterra) December 9, 2019
You might think this is an extreme concern for Craig and I, but there’s a reason that you see a whole lot of white people misinterpreting Martin Luther King Jr. in the present-day, and even more not being aware that he was a socialist whose rhetoric about unifying people was meant to be in opposition to the ruling class that divided them, not just for the sake of smiles and holding hands and so brands could embarrass themselves once per year on social media. Those in power sanitize their enemies and use them for their own ends when they’re too significant to ignore and, more importantly, aren’t around anymore to combat it, and I do worry that this sort of thing will happen to Miller. And if you don’t think Miller remains an enemy of MLB’s, well, might I remind you that Rob Manfred is currently trying to tell the union that “maybe Marvin Miller’s financial system” no longer works?
Hell, even his son, Peter, wrote to Chass that enshrinement in the Hall of Fame is the wrong way to honor his father, and that instead, the National Gallery presenting his achievements makes much more sense given it’s a public institution.
I’m glad we at least have a record of what the labor legend was truly like to look back on and compare to whatever version of him that the Hall and MLB construct, because I imagine there is going to be a need for some record correcting between now and July, and then again and again thereafter.
The question for now, though, becomes: who inducts Miller? Will it be someone from the Players Association, because it won’t be anyone from Miller’s family. And if it’s someone from the PA, are they going to simply honor Miller in a basic way, or are they going to burn some bridges and talk about MLB’s feudalistic past, and how he’s been inducted against his wishes by an organization that never wanted to honor him, and how MLB hopes, as it has always hoped since he arrived, to erase his achievements and once again exploit its players without limit? Tony Clark’s a big guy, it’d be tough to escort him off the stage if he wanted to go off-script.
That might make Miller being inducted worth it. Those induction speeches are recorded in full, you know, made available online and such. It’d be pretty good radicalizing, educational material, if done well.
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