But Wednesday, the uniquely collegial collision of commissioner and union head was a long-awaited reality: The first man to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement in American professional sports, the late former MLBPA head Miller, joined New York Yankees legend Derek Jeter, former Colorado Rockies great Larry Walker and stalwart Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals catcher Ted Simmons as the latest inductees to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Jeter, who is now part-owner and chief executive of the Miami Marlins, made a name for himself as the captain of the prolific Yankees of the late 1990s, a group that won four World Series titles in five years. He was elected to Cooperstown in his first year on the Baseball Writers’ Association of America ballot, and he was greeted by thousands of Yankees fans wearing No. 2 in pinstripes and chanting his name.
Walker was elected in his 10th and final year on the writers’ ballot. Simmons was elected after his 10 years had passed, a correction made by the Modern Baseball Committee, an assembly of his peers. That group also elected Miller, whose arrival in the hall four decades after his retirement illustrates the complicated history between those who craft the sport’s narratives and those who try to change them.
Miller’s enshrinement has long been considered overdue. Such Hall of Famers as Hank Aaron, Joe Morgan and Tom Seaver railed against his exclusion as early as two decades ago. Even then-MLB commissioner Bud Selig, used to negotiating against Miller’s legacy with the players’ union, has admitted more than once that Miller, who died in 2012, would be more qualified for Cooperstown than almost any other non-player in terms of his impact on the sport. Selig was one of the three dozen Hall of Famers sitting onstage behind Manfred as Miller was honored Wednesday.
“I think it took a long time for people to come around to the notion that this was the appropriate thing to do. Having been there, I have no doubt it was the appropriate thing to do,” said Don Fehr, who succeeded Miller as head of the players’ union and spoke on his behalf during the induction ceremony.
“Sometimes in organizations, the immediate writers of history are not the ones you look to down the road when perspective sets in.”
According to the players he represented, Miller was one of the most important figures in baseball history. He left the United Steelworkers of America to take over the fledgling Major League Baseball Players Association in 1966 and was able to consolidate players behind the idea that they should think of themselves more like blue-collar workers — and use similar tactics to negotiate for similar rights.
He negotiated the first collective bargaining agreement in MLB history in 1968. He helped secure the pensions that remain the prize for every player who makes his way to the majors.
He also oversaw the undermining of the reserve clause, which allowed teams to control players in perpetuity — a process that wasn’t always linear. He advised St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Curt Flood that he would probably be pushed out of the game if he brought a legal challenge against the reserve clause but that even a futile suit would help improve things for generations of players to follow.
He was there to help Oakland Athletics star Catfish Hunter argue breach of contract and obtain free agency. In 1975, he advised Dave McNally and Andy Messersmith not to sign the one-year contracts their teams automatically renewed, then helped them bring a grievance in front of an arbiter who eventually ruled both were free to negotiate with other teams.
In other words, many current and former players say, Miller helped the players remember their power and remember the strength that a union can provide — a strength the union maintains to this day. When Miller’s tenure began in 1966, the average player salary was $19,000. When he stepped down in 1982, it was $245,000, according to the MLBPA. Not two decades later, Jeter would sign a 10-year deal worth $189 million. In his speech on Miller’s behalf, Fehr said Miller would have used this opportunity to remind Jeter that he was once on the players’ side of the table, but that he would do so with a wink.
Because while Miller’s tactics endeared him to generations of players and turned the MLBPA into one of the country’s most powerful unions, they also made him a long-standing adversary of baseball owners and executives. In 2007, Miller received 63 percent of the vote from a committee of former players; he would have needed 75 percent to make it in the Hall of Fame.
The rules and makeup of committee later changed, leaving Miller’s chances in the hands of a 12-person panel that suddenly included mostly team owners and executives — the very people Miller built his legacy fighting. A year later, Miller wrote a letter to the BBWAA asking the writers not to nominate him for the Hall of Fame again.
“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,” Miller wrote in that letter, according to the New York Times.
He continued, “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.”
As he memorialized Miller’s greatest strengths as a leader, Fehr told the crowd that Miller always trusted the players. He recalled Miller saying only “consider,” then presenting rooms of players with the facts about an issue, then taking the time to listen.
Fehr also recalled that, in 1972, Miller advised players not to strike, but they felt the time was right and did so anyway. Miller supported them and maintained their trust through the next decade in his position, one of the few times the union head and his players respectfully disagreed.
Miller said he didn’t want to be in the Hall of Fame. The players, the ones who felt and continue to feel Miller’s influence more than anyone, disagreed with him on that little detail, too.