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Baseball’s shame: Miller and the Hall of Fame

Not even death and taxes rank a surer bet than the certainty that roughly a year from about this very hour the late Marvin Miller, who revolutionized baseball by making millionaires of its players, will at last be elected to its Hall of Fame.

That’s when, under the most recently revised process that rotates ballots every three years, Marvin will next be eligible to be considered by the special veterans panel that has the jurisdiction. He was not eligible this year, but had he been he would have been elected mere hours after his death, and wouldn’t that have been even more ludicrous.

But then they’ve long been waiting for him to die, knowing he deserved to be honored but determined not to let it happen while he could still enjoy it. It was, however, more than the mere pettiness of revenge that motivated them.

Dead men tell no tales, as they used to say in the old cowboy movies. They also don’t give brilliantly soaring and compelling acceptance speeches laced with irony and humor and just enough disdain bordering on derision to make every major league baseball mogul – dead or alive – squirm mightily, and that’s precisely what Marvin would have delivered at Cooperstown had he been elected while he was still with us. It would have been the most smashing valedictory in baseball history. Everyone knew it. But not everyone wanted to hear it.

So, it was the fear of Marvin that denied him in the end and it’s amazing that it persisted even after he was well into his nineties and long removed from the labor wars, with his successors – although they never stopped revering him – no longer listening to him. Like all living icons he had been rendered moot, which, richly urbane fellow that he was to the last did not offend him.

This fear thing is neither new nor confined to Marvin Miller. The policy of placing controversial candidates on hold until after they’ve cleared the mortal veil has been long held and firmly established by the keepers of the Cooperstown flame. It’s all about nullifying, or at least minimizing, controversy, you see, which the moguls loathe, for it tends to draw attention to their own inadequacies. It’s a policy that usually works.

Once Bill Veeck became harmless, they could even tolerate his ascension, although the baseball establishment never had a more implacable foe. In comparison, Tom Yawkey and Walter O’Malley were loyal lodge brothers but too hot to handle while still around. When they were safely in their graves, there was little interest in debating Yawkey’s racial hang-ups or O’Malley’s greed when they finally got elected.  A similar cynical “discretion” was even applied to the curious case of Bowie Kuhn, the very epitome of the establishment.

Of course, some argue that Cooperstown ought to be only about those who played the game, and that those mainly connected with its business, law, regulation, myth, finances, or promotion have no place there. But it’s an argument you hear only when those looking for an excuse find it convenient. It was favored by many who opposed the canonization of Miller because they didn’t have the guts to come right out and say they considered the guy a Bolshevik and utterly despised him.

On the other hand, there was a fair number of opponents – mainly owners and executives, but not entirely – more than willing to declare unequivocally that they couldn’t stand him. “Controversial” was Marvin’s middle name and to him a badge of honor to be worn with utmost pride and distinction.

Moreover, the enshrining of non-combatants has been accepted procedure at Cooperstown from nearly Day One. In the Hall’s second year (1937), league presidents Ban Johnson and Morgan Buckeley were picked. Chosen the next year were pioneers Alexander Cartwright and Henry Chadwick, and in the third, Al Spalding. Seven decades later, dozens of owners, executives, commissioners, power-brokers, and pathfinders have a berth plus there are all those broadcasters and writers in their own special niche as winners of the Ford Frick and J.G Taylor Spink awards.

Those who worry about such nonsense should fear not. There’s plenty of both precedent and room for the adding of a labor leader of historical stature to the pantheon’s honor roll. The true measure is “impact.” And how many had more of it than Marvin?

One finds the immense interest death has stirred in his cause both hardly surprising and vaguely aggravating. There’s no need to further expound on Marvin’s merits, certainly not in this space where that’s been done dozens of times in the quarter century since he stepped down as the iron-fisted boss, brilliant bargaining agent, and devoutly guiding spirit of the players association he essentially founded in the mid-’60’s. He’s had supporters of his cause in the national media all along but until recently it had been a small group.

You only wish all those leading opinion-makers and shakers who’ve come out of the closet these last few days showering his memory with lavish tribute had paid more attention when he was annually getting rooked, dissed, and outrageously bypassed. Suddenly, everyone agrees his exclusion from the Hall is a joke and the means by which it was done a scandal. But if more had protested when it was happening, it may not have happened.

Is this sorrow at work in all the hagiography now the rage, or is it guilt? Whatever the case, it can get rather weak.

You suspect all this would have amused Marvin, who had little time for farce, although that’s not to dare suggest it didn’t matter to him. By all accounts, the last needlessly curt rejection two years ago, when he lost by a single lousy vote, stung deeply. Talk of your unkindest cut! But he was above all very smart, profoundly wise to the world, and a true pro. Marvin fully understood his measure. He needed no one else to affirm it, least of all some veterans committee.

As it happens, in its latest incarnation the veterans panel has just given us three new “immortals.” Announced at the start of the winter meetings was the anointing of three worthy ancients selected from a list of 10 nominees which (we repeat) did not include the ineligible (this year) Marvin Miller.

The winners: 19th century bare-handed catcher Deacon White, bombastic umpire Hank O’Day, who has been dead 77 years, and the quaint immigrant beer brewer Jake Ruppert, who had the good fortune to own the Yankees when they were fully the glory of their times.

It was a slice of baseball at its best; wallowing sentimentally in its distant past and never happier than when it is so doing; the more distant, the better. Alas, the committee, although composed of 16 outstanding and seemingly highly qualified savants, got it wrong. As usual!

Ruppert was a reasonable pick although at the moment few will be in the mood for the elevating of another owner. One can also live with O’Day. But both Bill Dahlen, the raspy turn-of-the-century shortstop, and Wes Ferrell, the iron-man pitcher of the ‘30’s and a six-time 20-game winner, would have been much better picks. As for the selection of the deservedly long-forgotten White, it should be seen as simply silly, a case of the committee over-reaching. But that’s what committees tend to do.

We should despair about the Hall of Fame process ever becoming perfect. It is much too tricky, too elusive, too subjective. A further illustration will be offered next month when the baseball writers again engage the Gordian Knot of steroid abuse as they do their annual thing. But disagreement is usually reasonably. Only rarely, as in such cases as Marvin’s, does it actually get nasty.

Think of it this way: In the end, we have Jake Ruppert, Hank O’Day, and Deacon White waltzing into Cooperstown while Marvin Miller remains an outcast. There is only one word for that:
“Ridiculous!”