Thursday, December 9, 2010

Fraudulent History 101

So Marvin Miller got screwed again this week in the Hall of Fame balloting. Who didn't see that coming? Miller certainly saw it coming, undoubtedly the reason why he requested that his name be kept off future Veterans Committee ballots after being snubbed in 2008. That time around, the committee was heavily stacked against him, loaded with executives who had been bested by Miller in labor negotiations and exacted their revenge by shutting him out. This time, the new composition of the committee gave Miller a chance, but he still fell a tantalizing one vote short.

Miller issued a blistering statement that put a lot of things into focus. Here is part of what he said: "Many years ago those who control the Hall decided to rewrite history instead of recording it. The aim was to eradicate the history of the tremendous impact of the players' union on the progress and development of the game as a competitive sport, as entertainment, and as an industry. The union was the moving force in bringing Major League Baseball from the 19th century to the 21st century. . . .That is a difficult record to eradicate--and the Hall has failed to do it. A long time ago, it became apparent that the Hall sought to bury me long before my time, as a metaphor for burying the union and eradicating its real influence. Its failure is exemplified by the fact that I and the union of players have received far more support, publicity, and appreciation from countless fans, players, writers, scholars, experts in labor management relations, than if the Hall had not embarked on its futile and fraudent attempt to rewrite history."

There was more, but that's the gist of it. I'd like to bypass the personal issues here and focus on the history itself, starting with Miller's assertion about taking baseball from the 19th century to the 21st. I think he's understating it; I'd say he took baseball forward from the 17th century. That's when thousands of people moved to the United States as indentured servants, just a step or two above slavery. There was a time limit to the servitude of indentured servants, but the people who had contracted them could transfer their work obligation to someone else. It wasn't outright ownership like slavery, but the servant had no say in whom he would be working for from one day to the next.

That's what the reserve clause in baseball did. Created in 1879, by the mid-1880s the reserve clause was a tool the owners used to make money by selling players' services to other teams. The player had no choice but to report to his new team--or be blacklisted entirely from the professional sport. More than 80 years later, when Curt Flood challenged the reserve clause, he was blasted by owners (and sympathetic writers) for daring to defy an owner who was paying him $90,000 a year. Flood replied that "a well-paid slave is a slave nonetheless." Actually, he was an exception--by being well-paid. Most of his teammates and fellow major leaguers were poorly paid slaves.

When Marvin Miller was hired to run the players' union in 1966, the minimum salary was $6,000, roughly what it had been for decades. Miller was vilified by owners and the press as a Communist or, worse, the pawn of "The Mob". They raised the specter of Jimmy Hoffa coming into clubhouses to dictate policy and strategy. The players hired Miller primarily because they had doubts about management's ability to administer the players' pension plan. But he realized right away that the players had been brainwashed for decades to believe that the owners were benevolent sportsmen who must love baseball because they weren't making any money from it. It took another 40 years for owners to admit that they've been making a fortune all along and to stop stonewalling the players' union during negotiations by poor-mouthing themselves.

I had the good fortune to interview Marvin Miller in 1992. He and his wife graciously hosted me at their Manhattan apartment, where Miller and I talked for two hours. I got a first-hand lesson in why owners thought he brainwashed the players. A union rabble-rou ser is generally portrayed as some combination of agitated, strident, angry, bullying, fast-talking, and overbearing. Miller was none of these things. He was calm, soft-spoken, and patient. As the players' representative, he was outraged at the conditions he discovered, indignant about how badly the players were treated, and confident in taking the moral high ground on their behalf. Those were the qualities that enabled him to outlast the owners every time. He knew he was right and knew that the owners' self-interest would prevent them from remaining unified in the long run.

Of course, Miller is best-known for overturning the reserve clause, which existed for nearly one century and was considered the backbone of the baseball business. Here's where his statement about "eradicating" history applies. Unless you were around at the time, you have no idea of how tenaciously management clung to the notion of the reserve clause as essential. Time and again, the owners and Commissioner Bowie Kuhn declared that if the reserve clause disappeared, baseball would go out of business. It was that simple. A milder statement of this conviction appeared in Kuhn's book Hardball: "There was no doubt in my mind that the game's integrity and public confidence were at stake in the potential destruction of the reserve system." The key argument advanced was that if players became free agents and could sign wherever they wanted, the "rich" clubs would buy up all the best players and destroy the notion of competitive balance (that's what Kuhn meant by "the game's integrity").

In fact, there was only a myth of competitive balance. From 1921-1968, a 48-year span leading up to the "playoff era," the Yankees won 29 American League pennants (60%). In the National League, the Cardinals, Giants, and Dodgers combined to win 33 pennants (69%). What kind of competitive balance was that? In the last ten years, nine different franchises have won the World Series, and 14 franchises have made the World Series (with only the Yankees appearing more than twice). That is competitive balance, and it exists because there is no longer a reserve clause.

Miller's 15-year tenure as executive director of the MLBPA (and post-retirement advisor/guru status with subsequent union leaders) was not just about making the players rich or creating a lucrative pension plan well beyond the dreams of the men who hired him. No issue was too small for him when a principle or the welfare of players was involved. When I interviewed him, for instance, he told me that he continually had to remind the owners that "the players are your only assets". Take Royals Stadium, which opened in 1970 and was designated as the site for that year's All-Star Game. Miller learned that the "warning track" at the new park was not a cinder or dirt section but rather a part of the outfield Astroturf painted a different color! He brought this dangerous situation to the attention of Royals owner Ewing Kauffman, whose response was "well, outfielders pretty much know where the fences are." Miller had to point out that an outfielder chasing a long fly ball is looking up at the ball, not down to see where the Astroturf changes color. Kauffman refused to do anything about it--until Miller threatened to have the players boycott the All-Star Game. Only then did Kauffman put in a warning track that the players could feel as they ran toward the wall. Same thing with padded walls, an innovation he had to fight for. I would've thought that the first time Pete Reiser ran into a wall back in the 1940s and received last rites on the field, owners would've padded the walls. But no. It wasn't until Miller came along that players were protected from running into concrete walls and chain-link fences. It was the right thing to do, and he plugged away until it was done.

Let's cut to the chase: is it accurate to say that the Hall of Fame has embarked on a "futile and fraudulent attempt to rewrite history"? Yes. Has it done so by excluding Miller from the ranks of inductees? I don't think so. The first time Miller came up for election, the majority of voters were living Hall of Famers, and that was the most shocking failure of an electorate to enshrine Miller. If the players who benefited so greatly from his work didn't overwhelmingly elect him, that was strong evidence of Hall of Fame President Jeff Idelson's statement after this week's election that this is a reminder of just how tough it is to get elected. Yes, the Hall of Fame stacked the deck against Miller in 2008. I don't think that was the case this year. Miller needed 12 votes out of 16. There were eight players and four writers on the committee. There is no rational reason why he shouldn't have gotten all 12 of those votes. The one person who (no doubt) joined the four executives in refusing to vote for Miller is the asshole who should be strung up. I don't think you can pin this one on the Hall of Fame.

However, I don't think Miller was simply referring to his own non-election as this "fraudulent attempt to rewrite history". I think he was referring to the 2008 election of Bowie Kuhn to the Hall of Fame (by the same management-loaded voting body that gave Miller his lowest percentage of votes), an election viewed by a large portion of the Hall of Fame staff as the biggest joke since Morgan Bulkeley was elected back in 1937 because he was a one-year figurehead president of the National League.

One of my duties as a Hall of Fame library researcher was to copy-edit and critique proposed plaque text for newly elected Hall of Famers. I pointed out several inaccuracies in the proposed text for Kuhn, who was apparently being immortalized for things he didn't do. I am chagrined to report that my suggested changes were not adopted, and the inaccuracies remain on the plaque that is hanging in the main gallery of the Hall of Fame museum in Cooperstown.

When the person who wrote the original text described Kuhn's administration as "proactive and inventive," I wrote a note in the margin asking for some clarification of what those adjectives meant when applied to Kuhn, and requested some specific examples of what was meant. I'm still waiting for a response apart from the fact that those vague adjectives made it onto the final plaque. If you read a book like John Helyar's Lords of the Realm, you get a portrait of Kuhn as a man who fought progress and innovation on almost every front. He led the battle against the reserve clause and kept his head firmly planted in the sand on nearly every issue involving the balance of power between the owners and players. This was perfectly understandable: he was hired by the owners and owed his power to Walter O'Malley and the other owners who actually ran the game.

Let's look at some of the other statements on Kuhn's plaque. The one I fought the hardest to delete was the claim that Kuhn "extended postseason with creation of the league championship series." That simply is not so. Kuhn's tenure as commissioner began in February, 1969. The expansion from 20 to 24 teams occurred in 1969, as did the institution of divisional play and the second tier of playoffs, the LCS, which preceded the World Series. The Hall of Fame would like us to believe that Kuhn created all of this in the two months between the date when he took office and the start of the 1969. That's bullshit. Expansion was okayed two years before that, the expansion draft occurred in 1968, and the playoff system was solidly in place before the owners turned to Kuhn as a one-year compromise commissioner when they couldn't elect anyone else. Kuhn had nothing to do with the creation of the LCS.

Another statement of purported fact which I protested was the assertion that Kuhn "tripled major league attendance" during his tenure (1969-1984). That simply isn't true. In 1962, the first year when there were 20 major league teams, MLB attendance totaled 22,519,278. That's a little over 1.1 million per team. Attendance in the 1960s peaked at a little over 25 million in 1966, and in 1968, the last year before Kuhn became commissioner, it was 23,102,745. That was still less than 1.2 million per team.

The highest attendance during Kuhn's tenure was 45,540,302, in 1983. In his final year, 1984, attendance was 44,742,863. These figures are less than twice the figures from 1968, so how this translates into tripling attendance is beyond me. Moreover, by the 1980s the majors had expanded from 20 to 26 teams. The average attendance in 1984 was roughly 1.7 million per team. That's barely a 50% increase over 1968. That's way further from tripling attendance (or 300%, for those of you keeping score at home) than the total figure. But that's what his plaque in Cooperstown says he did. Huh?

In fact, it was Kuhn's poor business record which caused owners to oust him in 1984. As Expos owner Charles Bronfman put it (quoted in Helyar's book), "the economics of the industry were in bad shape and Bowie wouldn't do anything to help. As salaries started to escalate, you had to improve revenue streams." Gee, it sounds as though MLB needed a commissioner who was "proactive and inventive" to come in and save the day, because Kuhn was neither of those things. So they hired Peter Ueberroth, who proved to be proactive and inventive by instituting the collusion policy which later cost MLB some $280 million in lawsuits. But that's another story.

I'm far from the first observer to point out that Bowie Kuhn being in the Hall of Fame while Marvin Miller is not, is the biggest travesty of recent baseball history. It's that simple, and it definitely constitutes fraudulent history. Nobody has had a bigger influence on the past 40 years of baseball than Miller. What Branch Rickey did for African-American ballplayers, Miller did for all ballplayers. He freed them. He liberated them over the strident protests of Kuhn and the owners that he would kill baseball by doing so. Say what you want about the balance of power possibly tipping too far in the players' favor in recent years. Maybe it's 60-40% in favor of the players today, and that might or might not be a good thing. Before Miller took over, it was 100-0% in favor of the owners, an evil only he was patient and shrewd enough to overcome. For that, he should've been elected 20 years ago.


Perry Barber said...

"The one person who (no doubt) joined the four executives in refusing to vote for Miller is the asshole who should be strung up."

The HoF 2010 Veterans Committee: Johnny Bench, Whitey Herzog, Eddie Murray, Jim Palmer, Tony Perez, Frank Robinson, Ryne Sandberg and Ozzie Smith; executives Bill Giles (Phillies), David Glass (Royals), Andy MacPhail (Orioles,) Jerry Reinsdorf (White Sox); and media members Bob Elliott (Toronto Sun), Tim Kurkjian (ESPN), Ross Newhan (retired, LA Times) and Tom Verducci (Sports Illustrated).

So which Veterans Committee member voted with the four executives to keep Miller out? Is there any way for us to find out?

Anonymous said...

The Hall enforces a code of secrecy, but Verducci, Newhan, and Elliott have all hinted that they supported Miller.

Kurkjian conceivably could have found five players on the ballot who he felt were more deserving of his votes.

Robinson never got the benefit of Miller's efforts, and has worked as an MLB exec.

My money's on Whitey Herzog - a close friend of Gussie Busch, who absolutely hated Miller.

Thanks for setting the record straight on Kuhn. It's one thing to disagree about who is or isn't in the Hall, but to have blatant misinformation on a plaque is a whole new level of disturbing. Also, I believe Tropicana Field still has a painted warning track?

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