Commentary

Marvin Miller's impact undeniable

The late former union leader deserves to be in the Hall of Fame, but sadly is not

Originally Published: November 27, 2012
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

In a perfect world, in a just world, in a less small-minded world, we would all have this memory of Marvin Miller:

Standing on a podium in Cooperstown, N.Y., the warm August sun beaming down upon him.

[+] EnlargeMarvin Miller
AP Photo/KayaMarvin Miller was the leader of the players' union from 1966 to 1982, and won free agency for players in December 1975.

Surrounded by so many of the legendary baseball players whose lives he touched and whose checking accounts he enriched.

Spinning the spellbinding words that always seemed to come flowing out of him, right to the end of his life, as he delivered a speech he'd waited a lifetime to deliver.

In a perfect world, in a just world, in a less small-minded world, this is a man who would have been inducted into the Hall of Fame years ago, even decades ago.

So if we only lived in that world, not this one, we wouldn't be sitting here, on the day Marvin Miller died, lamenting the unforgivable crime that he never got to deliver that speech.

Instead, we would be doing what we ought to be doing on a day like this -- reflecting on what might have gone down as the most unforgettable Hall of Fame induction speech ever given. And reflecting, too, of course, on the man who gave it.

"His Hall of Fame speech would have been something special, something magical," longtime agent Tom Reich was saying Tuesday, the day Marvin Miller passed away at age 95. "I'm sure he would have had something very powerful to say about upholding the standards of propriety he fought so hard to uphold. But his greatest satisfaction of all would have been seeing, all these years later, how the sport was flourishing like never before."

There are still people in baseball, to this day, who believe their sport would have flourished without Marvin Miller. You understand that, right?

They don't see him as a visionary. They seem him as an enemy. Even now. Even nearly half a century after he was hired away from the steelworkers' union to head a "union" of baseball players that, at the time, barely had enough funds to pay the electric bill, let alone enough clout to abolish the reserve clause.

But no matter how you look at Marvin Miller today, this is a time to recognize that his impact was undeniable -- not just on his sport but on the entire sporting universe. And the omission of this game-altering figure from the Hall of Fame is nothing short of an embarrassment.

"It's an affront, frankly," said another longtime agent, Ron Shapiro, on Tuesday. "Marvin Miller had a tremendous impact on the game, and one that certainly equals or exceeds that of many of the executives who are already in the Hall of Fame."

Shapiro knows, obviously, exactly why the powers that be have never elected this man to the Hall after all these years, knows exactly why they hold the grudges they hold. But that's not the point, he says. That's not how we ought to be viewing this man and his powerful legacy.

"I see this as nothing more than a recognition that the game IS the players," Shapiro said. "They're the ones who bring the fans in. They deserved a stake. And Marvin helped give them that stake. The game is more prosperous now than it's ever been, so he certainly didn't push the game over the edge. He just pushed the players to that place on the mountaintop where they deserved to stand."

Ron Shapiro Marvin Miller had a tremendous impact on the game, and one that certainly equals or exceeds that of many of the executives who are already in the Hall of Fame.

-- Longtime agent Ron Shapiro

It's nearly incomprehensible now to look back upon the baseball landscape before Marvin Miller arrived. Incomprehensible.

The average salary back then, in 1966, was $6,000. Alex Rodriguez collected $6,000 every THIRD of an inning this year.

If a player stayed on the big league roster for the first 30 days of the season, he was guaranteed $7,000. Albert Pujols earned three times that amount for every AT-BAT this season.

And, according to John Helyar's brilliant book, "Lords of the Realm," approximately 40 percent of all players were making $12,000 or less back then. Justin Verlander made more money than that for every three PITCHES he threw this year.

Players were bound to their teams for life in those days. They were paid whatever their owners felt like paying them. The only form free agency took 50 years ago came via the words: "We just released you. Now get the hell out of here."

Now, Marvin Miller may not have changed all that single-handedly. But he was the leader who started rolling that boulder down the hillside. And now here we stand, beholding a sport that just negotiated national TV deals worth $1.5 billion a year.

A sport where the most revenue-deprived team in baseball (the Tampa Bay Rays) just bestowed a six-year, $100 million extension on a player (Evan Longoria) who was four years away from free agency.

A sport in which a pitcher (Zack Greinke) who once nearly quit baseball because of anxiety issues is trying to negotiate a free-agent deal worth more than 150 million bucks.

"And none of that would have been possible," said Reich, "without the roads that Marvin Miller carved in the wilderness."

"The word 'pioneer' is sometimes used loosely," Reich said. "But he was all that. He was a true pioneer. In the world of baseball, he was as close to a biblical figure as you'll find."

Granted, there were no strikes or lockouts in sports before Marvin Miller came along. So you won't find many fans or owners who will be celebrating that contribution to the land of fun and games.

There were also no grievances, no arbitration hearings, no trips to the Supreme Court. And in the annals of warm-and-fuzzy baseball moments, none of those things would exactly rank up there with Bobby Thomson's homer, either.

But Marvin Miller was never afraid to fight any battle, to take on any naysayer, to do what needed to be done. And if you were on the other side of any of those battles, whooh. Good luck to you.

"He wasn't looking to make friends," Reich said. "He was on a mission. And he went to the frigging moon with it."

In a perfect world, in a just world, in a less small-minded world, the scars would have healed years ago, and Marvin Miller would have been saluted for that remarkable mission long before his death.

But that's not the world Marvin Miller lived in, or the world he died in. So only now, after his passing, do the tributes come pouring out of every corner of the baseball cosmos. How sad. How tragic. On every level.

"The stuff you hear often gets platitudinous when somebody like this passes," said Tom Reich. "But there are no platitudes with this guy. He was the real deal. He was unforgettable. He was, truly, the Godfather."

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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