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Column: Why isn't Marvin Miller in Cooperstown?

Wednesday - 11/28/2012, 10:47am  ET

FILE - This Feb. 25, 2003, file photo shows Marvin Miller at his apartment in New York. Miller, the union leader who created free agency for baseball players and revolutionized professional sports with multimillion dollar contracts, died Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2012 in New York. He was 95. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File)

PAUL NEWBERRY
AP National Writer

There are times when baseball is so grand, so worthy of awe.

Then there are times when it is so small, so petty.

Like the way it treated the legacy of Marvin Miller.

He died Tuesday at the age of 95, having lived not only a long life, but one filled with great purpose and accomplishment. He should be remembered as one of the three most influential figures in baseball history.

Yet Miller is not in the Hall of Fame at Cooperstown.

Why? Because the union chief was too good at his job, and at least some of the men who run the sport still resent the way he dragged them into a truly modern era, kickin' and screamin' all the way.

"RIP Marvin Miller," tweeted former Atlanta Braves outfielder Dale Murphy, a two-time National League MVP in the 1980s. "Never did thank him personally for what he did for me and the Murphy family and for all baseball players. Should have."

While many have contributed to baseball's long, impressive legacy, three really stand out:

-- Babe Ruth, the boisterous slugger who essentially forged the game that is played today. Of course, he's in the Hall of Fame.

-- Jackie Robinson, the brave man who crashed through the color barrier to make our pastime truly national. Naturally, he's in the Hall of Fame.

-- Then there's Miller, who unshackled the players from a career of servitude to the owners.

He's NOT in the Hall of Fame.

What an injustice.

Before Miller came along, a player was expected to perform at whatever salary the owner deemed was fair. As you can imagine, the figure tended to be one that guaranteed the owner had a steady supply of Benjamins to light his cigars, while the player had just enough money to get by on until the season was over. Then, of course, he could find another job -- maybe selling Benjamin Moore paint -- to keep food on the table until spring training.

If the players didn't like this arrangement, well, tough. The owners had a most un-American ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court in their hip pocket, the 1922 decision upholding the "reserve clause," which essentially bound employee to employer for the length of his career, unless he was traded or released. There was no real power of negotiation, unless you were one of the biggest stars and could threaten a holdout. Even then, the owners essentially held all the cards.

Miller changed that.

After taking over as executive director of the Major League Players Association in 1966, he made it his mission to get rid of the reserve clause, to ensure that players had the freedom to sell their services to the highest bidder when their contract was up -- essentially, like any employee who gets a better offer from another company.

That, of course, led to a remarkable boon in player salaries. In 1967, the average was $19,000 a year. By the time Miller retired in 1982, it had climbed to $241,497. This past season, it was around $3.4 million, and anyone who made a big league roster was guaranteed a minimum of $480,000. Also, largely because of the course he set, baseball remains the only major American sport without a salary cap, though players in every league have benefited from the hefty salaries he unleashed.

Anyone who fights powerful interests on behalf of a just cause is bound to cause resentment and anger.

Miller was no different.

The owners despised him for supposedly cutting into their profits (though that's not really the case, as we'll explain later). The fans grew increasingly impatient with his willingness to take the ultimate step -- shutting down their beloved ballparks -- to get what he wanted. During his 16
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